Sunday 27 September 2015

BBC SO/Oramo - Mahler, Symphony no.3, 24 September 2015

Barbican Hall

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Trinity Boys Choir (chorus master: David Swinson)
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)

No orchestra benefits from the dreadful acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall; given the frequency of its Proms performances, no orchestra therefore suffers so much from that acoustic as the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In a work of the scale of Mahler’s Third Symphony, the Barbican might seem to offer the opposite problem. There were times when the hall did feel a little on the small side, the acoustic becoming unduly congested, but for the most part, this performance from the BBC SO and Sakari Oramo convinced, both on its own terms and those of the hall.

There was certainly a good sense even at the very opening of the first movement of how Mahler prolongs, twists, transforms phrases to afford motivic and other development over its great span. (One can perhaps overemphasise the length of the work: great by symphonic standards, true, but hardly by those of Wagner, to whom Mahler perhaps owes most of all.) The dryness of the acoustic permitted us to hear a good deal of instrumental detail, not least the notes in downward glissandi, and in general militated against a soft-centred, generic ‘late Romanticism’ which tends to sentimentalise Mahler and assimilate him to quite the wrong sort of imagined Vienna. I could, for instance, imagine the sound having elicited an admiring nod from Boulez. Echoes of the Second Symphony and presentiments of what was to come (‘O Mensch!’ in particular) were readily apparent. What to make of them? Perhaps that was for us to decide. For the performance of the marching music was well judged in its ambiguity. ‘false optimism’ would be too pat; there was something here perhaps beyond conventional meaning, or at least verbal meaning. Later, of course, the material took a considerably darker turn and properly chilled, its roots in imagined village revelries and urban militarism notwithstanding. ‘Politics in a new key?’ Perhaps. Aspirant musical cinematography, its metaphysical underpinning, and provoked reflections did not, however, work against structure; one could certainly perceive the wood for the trees. That structure was rather infused with formal dynamism as well as local colour and flavour.

I had a few doubts concerning the second and third movements, which did not, I think, entirely avoid a sense of lingering a little too long, of sprawl. Otherwise, however, there was some beautiful moments – and not just those of wondrous hush. The second movement was unusually acerbic: no unduly cloying sweetness here, which is not, of course, to say no sweetness. There was more than a hint of the Totentanz. Perhaps detail slightly overwhelmed the whole, especially towards the end, but when compared to the mauling Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic gave this symphony a few years ago, this was a model of cohesion. The third movement opened as bracing in its – an inevitable metaphor, now – mountain air as Webern’s music. However, countervailing and/or differing forces ensured the multi-dimensionality of the drama – and of our response.

Karen Cargill brought the appealing nature and character of her voice to sound as one with the nature and character of the music in the fourth movement: not just colour, depth, and vibrato, but her use of the words, with respect to meaning and also to their musical quality. Orchestral stillness surrounded them and yet, as Galileo might have said, the music moved – in more sense than one. The fifth movement was appropriately child-like, although certainly not childish. Mahler’s alienated soul rarely permits the unmediated, however much it might long for it. . The Trinity boys offered not only very impressive diction but also a splendidly ‘Continental’ sound: more St John’s than King’s. Cargill was able here to show a more urgent side to her Lieder-singing, hers a dignified and illuminating performance.

Dignity was also the watchword of the final Adagio, especially its opening. The acoustic was not ideal for climaxes but did not too seriously detract either. Oramo offered a warm, rich account, the BBC strings and later other instruments giving a wonderful impression of chamber music writ large, almost as if this were the String Quartet Mahler never wrote. The music was chaste and yet suffused with longing, simple yet complex, private yet public: yes, one could certainly think of this and feel it as ‘what love tells me’. This truly sounded, and I can think of few greater compliments, as if it were Mahler’s voice speaking. But might not the audience have allowed us even a second or two of space for reflection before applause?

Tuesday 22 September 2015

The Royal Albert Hall, Cameron's Britain, and Franco's Spain

The Royal Albert Hall is one of London's most recognisable buildings, not least on account of its granting a home to the BBC Proms each summer. A monument to the Victorian age, though certainly not a model of good acoustics, its management now appears to have resolved to take Victorianism a little too far, indeed to go beyond a parody of Victorian industrial relations. Despite a majority vote (73% of the employees taking part) for union recognition, a vote which took place on terms agreed between management, the conciliation service, ACAS, and the union in question, BECTU, the RAH management has now reneged, refusing to recognise the union to enable collective bargaining. This truly appalling state of affairs coincides unhappily with new anti-trade union legislation from the government, parts of which David Davis MP, the Conservative MP for Howden and Haltemprice, has likened to something from Franco's Spain. The Royal Albert Hall needs to reconsider, lest its patrons consider, indeed more than consider, a boycott. Perhaps performers might think in such terms too?

(For more details on the dispute from BECTU, click here.)

Monday 21 September 2015

Ehnes/Armstrong - Bartók, 18 September 2015

Wigmore Hall

Rhapsody no.1, BB94a
Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, BB28
Hungarian Folk Tunes from For Children, BB53, arr. Szigeti and Bartók
Violin Sonata no.2 in C major, BB85

 James Ehnes (violin)
Andrew Armstrong (piano)

I doubt one can ever have too much Bartók; I have certainly never felt any such thing, and did not in this recital of music for violin and piano, two instruments which owe him so much, the piano, if anything, still more than the violin. Listeners often have very strong views about the ‘right’ way to perform his works; indeed, a friend of mine who was present, was less than keen on these performances, very much preferring what I might call a traditionally ‘Hungarian’ manner of playing, although that description clearly begs more questions than answers. I increasingly find myself intrigued by alternatives, not that I should wish to forsake the fire of acknowledged classic performances. Bartók, like any great composer, is for the world, and frankly, the last thing we need in any aspect of our lives is more nationalism. (As for the present political situation in Hungary…)

At any rate, I enjoyed this concert. I have very unhappy memories of playing the piano part in a performance of the first Rhapsody, my recital partner and I falling out of sync for a good few bars, as the music sped up, sounding out of control in quite the wrong way. (I had wanted to play Webern, but anyway…!) Needless to say, this was a far more satisfactory performance. James Ehnes has a classically golden tone, varied when necessary, with a wide range of dynamic contrast, all put to good use here. There were times when I found Andrew Armstrong’s pianism a little reticent, a little too much of an ‘accompaniment’, but given my disastrous showing, I am not inclined to be unduly harsh. During the second, ‘friss’ section, things gathered pace infectiously, Ehnes’s harmonics and crossing of strings especially impressive, the musicians’ partnership real and convincing.

The 1903 E minor Sonata is a fascinating piece. Very little sounds like the mature composer’s works, just as in many of his early piano pieces, some of which I have played with greater success – I think! – than the Rhapsody. One hears a little Strauss, certainly, doubtless a kinship, perhaps kinship rather than influence, with Ernst von Dohnányi, and there are certainly Brahmsian connections too, but to my ears, it is Liszt to whom Bartók often comes closest. Structure never quite becomes dynamic form, but this is an apprentice work, and there is much to delight and intrigue. Here, the harmonies in particular seemed relished, especially in the first movement, Romantically marked ‘Allegro moderato (molto rubato)’. Ehnes and Armstrong seemed keen to point out, or maybe this just emerged naturally, the closeness of some of Bartók’s writing in the slow movement to Brahms in ‘Hungarian’ mode, although even here, Liszt – whose contribution to ‘Hungarian’ music is still often misunderstood – shone through. And the finale danced nicely, if not quite convincingly. Perhaps another performance might have made something less sectional of it, but I think the problem lies more with the work than with how we heard it performed. This was an absorbing opportunity, nevertheless.

The ‘Hungarian Folk Tunes’ from For Children, as arranged by Szigeti and Bartók, made for a characterful introduction to the second half. There is a great deal of variety to be heard here, a variety which came across in winningly unforced fashion. The balance between folk tune and composition was finely achieved throughout. I should happily have listened to such music for much longer.

The principal dish, however, was the second numbered violin sonata, an unquestionable masterpiece – and that is how it sounded here, very much a kinsman to the string quartets. Although the work is ‘in’ C major, its extended tonality – or whatever one wants to call it, and the question is a real one – makes at many times the stronger impression. Ehnes and Armstrong strongly integrated what could readily sound as ‘efects’ into the trajectory of their musical performance. One heard the formal difference between a sonata born of old forms and happy to employ them and one which triumphantly recreated its own form before our ears. Sonata form? Yes, if one will, but one which takes Lisztian formal compression perhaps to an extreme beyond Schoenberg and yet which never makes that compression seem the point. Armstrong’s voicing of chords reminded me at times of the Piano Concertos – and of a fine performance of them at that. Ehnes’s line was equally impressive throughout, clearly projecting expression through the music rather than viewing it as something to be ‘added on’. As a touching encore, we heard the early A major Andante Bartók wrote for Adila d’Arányi, then the object of his affections, its late Romanticism providing just the right sort of contrast.

La grotta di Trofonio, Bampton Classical Opera, 15 September 2015

(sung in English, as Trofonio’s Cave)

St John’s, Smith Square

Aristone – James Harrison
Dori – Aoife O’Sullivan
Ofelia – Catherine Backhouse (sung)/Marieke Bernard-Berkel
Artemidoro – Christopher Turner
Plistene – Nicholas Merryweather
Trofonio – Matthew Stiff
Ladies’ Maid – Triona Adams

Jeremy Gray (director, set designs)
Triona Adams (movement)
Vikki Medhurst (costumes)

Paul Wingfield (conductor)

The best and most important production and performance I have seen yet from Bampton Classical Opera, on its annual visit to St John’s Smith Square! I cannot have been the only member of the audience seeing a complete Salieri opera for the first time; to say that it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. I had previously heard a few operatic excerpts, some of his sacred music (treated with all the respect it deserves by Riccardo Muti) and some instrumental music. La grotta di Trofonio emerged, with the usual caveats concerning a first hearing, not only as a work I should happily hear again, superior to many operas in the dread repertoire, but as a musical achievement not so far off the operas of Haydn. (Any regular readers will know that is no idle compliment from me.) The Gluckian side of Salieri, about which we hear more often, is considerably less in evidence, but this is a comedy, and Salieri marshals his resources accordingly.

Indeed, it is the symphonic Haydn who comes immediately to mind in the Overture, its slow, mysterious Introduction, swiftly put to side by high yet directed spirits, having, in a display of long-term musico-dramatic thinking, sown the seeds for the mysteries of Trofonio’s cave. Over the work’s two acts, a full Classical orchestra engages the mind and the senses to a degree I should never have imagined. Vocal writing is at the least accomplished throughout, and often rather more than that. Ensembles are perhaps a particular revelation, reminding or informing us that both the genesis of opera buffa and its musical modernity are a more complicated story than many would have us believe. What we lack, you may not be surprised to hear, is what we lack in Haydn: depth of characterisation and of emotion, a hint of those musico-dramatic epiphanies which change one’s life forever, etc. And, like many operas, it goes on longer than it need, especially in the second act. (You see how hard I am struggling not to mention someone else by name.)

The plot is easily dealt with. A father, Aristone, is – unusually! – happy with his two daughters’ choice of suitors. They enter Trofonio’s cave, emerge, following his incantations, with their personal qualities reversed: bookish to fun-loving and vice versa. The reversal is reversed, but then the daughters, tempted into the cave, suffer the same fate. After similar incomprehension, their reversal too is reversed. A wedding can be prepared. You might think there a similarity with a certain libretto of Lorenzo da Ponte (which Salieri actually began to set); I couldn’t possibly comment.

This revival, almost certainly the first British production, is the project of Gilly French (the English translation is also hers) and Jeremy Gray, who also directs and provides set designs. There is no attempt to offer the depths that the opera itself lacks. What might seem simply to be of the surface for a certain opera whose premiere came not so much as five years later, in 1790, also at Vienna’s Burgtheater, proves well suited to the different nature of Salieri’s collaboration with the far-from-unintellectual Giovanni Battista Casti (whom many of us will know both from Prima la musica e poi la parole and its role in the genesis of Strauss’s Capriccio). Action moves to 1910; I know, because I was the lucky recipient of a dated ‘Downton Abbey’ wedding invitation during the performance. That seems to be a favoured period of the company – attractive, doubtless, to the English country-house opera scene, and also easy to dress, but here, in its Importance of Being Earnest atmosphere, perhaps particularly appropriate. Trofonio’s cave is the TARDIS: make of the time-travelling what you will. It is decidedly unclear whether the Tom Baker-clad Trofonio himself should be a charlatan (a few years later, someone might have offered a Mesmerist slant) or someone who enables self-reflection. Does the one exclude the other? Such invitations and ambiguities are anything but heavy-handed interventions; indeed, they are present in the work, whether intentionally or otherwise. Most importantly, they offer one space to think beyond the bare bones of the plot. (You might be surprised how many people complain about misogyny and a lack of ‘realism’ in one Ferrarese entertainment, how many take it at its librettist’s apparent word.)

The playing of CHROMA under Paul Wingfield was nothing short of magnificent, aided by the excellent acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square. I cannot recall a single tempo choice that did not convince, and the array of musical colour, not least in the woodwind section, showed quite why a young composer from, say, Salzburg might have chosen to make his living in Vienna. The orchestral contribution was not the least, indeed was arguably the greatest, musical offering of all, given the scale and ambition of Salieri’s writing.

Moreover, the cast would have graced any house. As Aristone, James Harrison made much of the musical and verbal text, providing a crucial anchor of stability, but never dullness, as identities switched around him. Matthew Stiff proved an engaging, properly ambiguous agent of disruption as Trofonio; his invocation of the spirits, bolstered by an able chorus, had me thinking of Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor.  Nicholas Merryweather and Christopher Turner proved equally successful in both of their personalities, offering as much character, generally born of subtlety in vocal colouring, as such an opera permits. Likewise Aoife O’Sullivan as Dori, in her transformation from fun-loving daughter to would-be Platonist, her brightness of tone never wearing. We should have heard Anna Starushkevych as Ofelia, but visa problems – is this not a country to be proud of? – prevented the Ukrainian mezzo from travelling, so instead we were treated to a collaboration from the side-of-stage singer Catherine Backhouse and the centre-stage acting of Marieke Bernard-Berkel. It was no distraction at all; indeed, there was arguably an intriguing dramatic alienation – think of the subject matter, assumption of different personas – to be had from the situation. More to the point, perhaps, Backhouse’s short-notice performance showed her to be an excellent artist, rich of tone and admirably clear of diction, and Bernard-Berkel’s stage presence proved equally impressive.   

No, of course it is not an opera by you-know-who. It is an opera by Salieri. The action remains largely on the surface, but does not prevent one from thinking further for oneself, and arguably invites one to do so. There is none of the agony, indeed none of the greatness in any respect, of Così fan tutte – all right; I shall finally name it and him by name – but if we are to restrict ourselves to the level of Mozart, then survivors will be well-nigh non-existent.  Bampton Classical Opera has done La grotta di trofonio and Salieri proud. May our opera houses take note. Alas, I shall not hold my breath; after all, is not another revival of La triviata a more pressing artistic requirement?

Thursday 17 September 2015

R.I.P. Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015)

Dido and Aeneas and other works by Purcell, OSJ/Lubbock, 15 September 2015

St John’s, Smith Square
Chacony in G minor 
Arias and duets:
Music for a while; Sweeter than roses; My dearest, my fairest; If music be the food of love; Bonduca’s song; Sound the trumpet; Evening hymn; Hark the echoing air
Penelope Appleyard, Hannah Davey, Anna Shackleton (sopranos)                   
Ellie Edmonds (mezzo-soprano)
Johnny Herford (baritone)
John Heley (cello)
Howard Moody (organ) 
Dido and Aeneas
Dido – Francesca Saracino
Aeneas – Johnny Herford
Belinda – Hannah Davey
Sorceress – Charlotte Tetley
First Witch – Anna Shackleton
Second Witch – Ellie Edmonds
Second Woman – Penelope Appleyard
Spirit – Rachel Crisp
Sailor – Mitesh Khatri
OSJ Ashmolean Voices
Orchestra of St John’s
John Lubbock (conductor)
A delightful concert of music from the English Orpheus, the composer whom I unhesitatingly consider the greatest between Monteverdi and Bach. Indeed, I know of no greater piece of instrumental music before Bach than Purcell’s Chacony in G minor. Its searing dissonances and overwhelming marriage of formal dynamism and musico-dramatic development all spoke here with unexaggerated yet unquestionable power. Four players, one to a part, showed that larger forces are no absolute requirement. The excellent acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square, certainly assisted. (What a relief to be spared the Royal Albert Hall!) Inner parts, in particular, resounded with richness, but always directed richness. Shading was beautiful – and yes, goal-oriented too.
Following that splendid ‘overture’, we heard five young singers in arias and duets from various Purcellian sources. Johnny Herford’s Music for a while benefited, as did the other numbers, from organ continuo playing (Howard Moody) that was imaginative without exhibitionism. Herford’s vocal decoration was likewise; his rendition of ‘drop, drop, drop, …’ did everything it should. In Sweeter than roses and Bonduca’s song, Penelope Appleyard displayed a winning match of the plaintive and expertly-negotiated coloratura. Sound the trumpet, in which Appleyard was joined by Hannah Davey, had a swift, finely balanced performance, whilst Anna Shackleton displayed a ‘whiter’ voice in Evening hymn. Ellie Edmonds’s richer mezzo lacked nothing in flexibility in If music be the food of love.
Dido and Aeneas: well, if it is not the finest opera between Poppea and Idomeneo, then I should clearly resign my job forthwith. This ‘Tristan und Isolde in a pintpot’ (Raymond Leppard) rarely, if ever, ceases to amaze; it certainly did not here. Its inexorable musico-dramatic tragedy, its vocal and harmonic mastery, and not least a fine performance worked their magic once again. John Lubbock’s tempi were well suited to the work and each other; his orchestra, again one to a part, belied in richness and commitment such apparent ‘restriction’. The choir sang well, its off-stage echoes a particular highlight, but the closing chorus proved equally impressive. The simplest of stagings permitted Purcell’s drama to ‘speak for itself’.
Francesca Saracino had, in the first act, occasional instances of hesitancy, especially in the falling off of phrases, but she acted well – a highly expressive face a boon here – and grew in tragic stature. If she did not overwhelm the cast as some great Didos of the past have done, that was no loss; indeed, it permitted greater depth of characterisation. Hannah Davey’s Belinda had a couple of unfortunate fallings out of sync with the orchestra, but recovered well and continued to display the virtues we had heard before the interval. Aeneas is a tricky role, perhaps not entirely unlike Don Ottavio: how does one present a strong characterisation of a culpably weak character? One can, of course, but verbal and musical subtlety should come to the fore, as they did with Johnny Herford. Charlotte Tetley’s Sorceress was quite mesmerising, her stage presence splendidly allied to vocal resources. Special mention should go to Mitesh Khatri’s spirited, engagingly flirtatious Sailor. I hope – and am sure – that we shall hear more from many of these singers. And how wonderful, even if for one night only, to have Purcell rescued from the clutches of ‘authenticity’!


Monday 14 September 2015

Antonacci/Sulzen - Poulenc, 14 September 2015

Wigmore Hall

La Dame de Monte Carlo
La Voix humaine

Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)
Donald Sulzen (piano)

Quite an opening to my 2015-16 Wigmore Hall season! For this lunchtime concert, Anna Caterina Antonacci and Donald Sulzen performed the piano version of Poulenc’s La Voix humaine, preceded by his final, not dissimilar vocal work, La Dame de Monte Carlo. Both have texts by Cocteau; both are far less conventionally ‘melodic’ than one would expect from this most melodic of composers; both are monologues intended for Denise Duval, portraying women on the verge, at least, of breakdown.

La Dame de Monte Carlo is anything but an easy way in for a soprano. Antonacci was herself, or rather the woman whose persona she assumed, from the very outset, always very well supported – and more than that – by Sulzen. ‘C’est joli de dire: “je joue”. Cela vous met le feu aux joues et cela vous allume l’œil.’ It was a gamble indeed, and it paid off. Moreover, it did have our eyes light up, as she so seductively span out the end of the phrase. Likewise we saw her ‘feathers and veils’ (‘mes plumes et mes voiles’), or rather thought we did, as she raised her arm. There was no doubting the singing actress here. Pauses told as much as words, for instance after ‘Et ils m’accusent d’être sale, de porter malheur dans leurs salles, dans leurs sales salles en stuc.’ There were a sadness and a defiance here that spoke, in Cocteau’s words, of the ‘lamentable story of an old, abandoned, miserable floozy’, and yet went beyond what one fancied words alone might have accomplished. The final ‘Monte Carlo’, upon the woman’s resolution to throw herself into the sea there, was operatic in the very best sense, as was the dryness of the piano response. The French ‘sec’ inevitably sprang to mind.

The main course inevitably encompassed a wider variety of emotions. Initially seated next to a table, on which an orange telephone as stylish as her performance was placed, Antonacci was in character from the moment she sat down. The fascinating tonalities and almost Schoenbergian motivic development of the piano part set the scene, but there was no doubt whose show it was. ‘Tu me connais, je suis incapable de prendre sur moi’ had a splendid sense of irony, whether with respect to the character or the metatheatricality, all the more so since it was delivered with passion rather than irony. Ghosts from Poulenc’s past and present seemed to haunt the performance, although there was little of the carefree. Harmonies from Dialogues des Carmélites assumed new resonance, as did the common notion of fear: ‘Peur? Non, je n’aurai pas peur … c’est pire.’ It almost certainly was worse, since here there was no sign of Divine Grace. Again, the ‘Allô’ when Antonacci feared she had been cut off spoke of real fear, not something assumed. This was great acting as much as anything else. Even the downpour outside and consequent darkening of the light seemed perfectly timed for the ‘production’. And the speech-like writing proved beyond doubt, just as it would have done had she been singing Monteverdi, that recitative can be at least as expressive as aria. Audience reaction was as warm as one would have expected.

Saturday 12 September 2015

Prom 73: VPO/Bychkov - Brahms and Schmidt, 10 September 2015

Royal Albert Hall

Brahms – Symphony no.3 in F major, op.90
Franz Schmidt – Symphony no.2 in E-flat major

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

I should have been fascinated to hear the following evening’s Vienna Philharmonic Prom, with that orchestra performing The Dream of Gerontius under Sir Simon Rattle, not least since I am always interested to hear non-English orchestras in Elgar. One cannot do everything, however, and I was keen to hear Semyon Bychkov with the VPO in Brahms and intrigued to hear an early-twentieth-century for the first time, whether live or recorded.

Brahms’s Third Symphony opened in grand fashion, preparing the way – at least in retrospect – for considerable scaling down and subsiding in a serenade-like second group. Bychkov’s tempi were flexible. There was one point at which I wondered whether he were slowing too much, but otherwise I was convinced. The first movement’s development section had a real sense of new departure, and an urgent one at that. Reaffirmation in necessarily transformed circumstances was the hallmark of the recapitulation. On the whole, Bychkov emphasised the often-downplayed turbulence and darkness of this work. The opening material of the second movement sounded nicely ‘late’, even archaic, recalling Brahms’s profound study of early music, but Brahmsian method soon informed us in no uncertain terms who was in charge. And how gorgeous those Viennese violins sounded! I liked Bychkov’s questing way in the third movement. There were no easy answers in what is perhaps the most obviously ‘personal’ movement of all. Alas, as in between every movement, we suffered half-hearted applause from a strange few. Please, stop it! The finale also benefited from a notably dark reading, sounding ambivalent even by Brahms’s standards. (That is surely one of the respects in which he comes closest to Mozart.) The brass sounded wonderfully resigned. Immediate applause clearly frustrated Bychkov’s wishes – and most of the audience’s. If one were actually listening to the music, that is the last thing one would want without a moment of reflection.

I am afraid I found myself somewhat nonplussed by Franz Schmidt’s Second Symphony. I certainly do not begrudge it a first Proms performance, and, insofar as I could tell from a first hearing, Bychkov and the VPO gave an excellent account of it. However, for the most part, it seemed to me over-extended for the material, which in itself did not grab me as it clearly did many others. Perhaps the fault was mine; I shall give it another try, especially since many people whose judgement I respect, not least Bychkov, think very highly of it. (He describes it as ‘magnificent’.) I was a little at sea with respect to how the first movement hung together, not least with an odd intrusion from what sounded like the world of Eric Coates. There were some attractive Straussian sounds in the orchestra. Bychkov likened them to Daphne, which, independently, I had thought too; however, Schmidt’s symphony (1911-13) came first. To my ears, the orchestra veered between ravishing and slightly patchy, but I think that might have been an oddity of the acoustic. (It is so difficult to tell in the Albert Hall.) The strange ending: well, perhaps Schmidt fans can explain to me its peremptory nature. The second movement, a theme and variations, offered the VPO woodwind ample opportunity, definitely taken, to excel. It seemed to me more successful, if undeniably conservative, even reactionary. The strings too seemed quite at home in what sounded like often treacherous yet always idiomatic writing. (Schmidt was a cellist.) However, the movement went on – and on. Again, I was not sure that I always understood where the third and final movement was going. Sometimes, as indeed earlier, I was put in mind of a slight caricature of Max Reger. Conductor and orchestra clearly relished what they were playing, though. As I said, the problem may well have been mine and I shall try again.

As an encore, which, somehow I guessed, perhaps with the following night’s Prom at the back of my mind, we heard ‘Nimrod’. I am afraid it made me wish we had heard the Enigma Variations or an Elgar Symphony instead. Here the VPO sounded at its most golden; Bychkov directed its progress subtly, allowing the music, as the cliché has it, to ‘speak for itself’, which generally takes a great deal of understanding as well as self-control. Maybe I should have been better off with the Elgar Prom after all.

Friday 11 September 2015

Luke Styles, Macbeth, Royal Opera, 9 September 2015

Linbury Studio Theatre

Duncan, Second Murderer – John Mackenzie-Lavansch
Malcolm – Michael Wallace
Sergeant, First Murderer – David Shaw
Lennox, Third Murderer – James Geer
Ross – Benjamin Cahn
Macbeth – Ed Ballard
Banquo – Alessandro Fisher
Lady Macbeth – Aidan Coburn
Macduff – Richard Bignall
Fleance – Luke Saint
Lady Macduff, Porter – Andrew Davies
Macduff’s Son – Xavier Murtagh

Ted Huffman (director and librettist)
Kitty Callister (designs)
David Manion (lighting)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jeremy Bines (conductor)


I applauded the Royal Opera House – and still do – for presenting a new work as the first piece in its new season. It was not its first performance; that had been given at Glyndebourne. But that is beside the point. A commitment to contemporary opera has been growing at Covent Garden, and that is in every respect an excellent thing. An inevitable consequence of that, despite the safeguards of workshops and so on, is that not all the works presented will turn out to be imperishable, or even perishable, masterpieces. There is no problem with that; frankly, much of the bewildering operatic repertoire is of dubious æsthetic quality in any case.


If that sounds like a build-up to disappointment in this particular case, then I am afraid it is. There is no need to repeat the difficulties or indeed the opportunities concerning the transformation of Shakespeare into opera. Especially to an Anglophone audience, familiarity with the words as well as the story – Ted Huffman uses Shakespeare’s words, albeit ‘cut, occasionally re-ordered, and, in a few cases, … reappropriated from other characters – enables re-adaptation and the idea of readaptation to take a place closer to centre stage than might otherwise be the case, although there is no particular sense of this as a meta-opera. What we have is a concentration upon politics; the witches are nowhere to be seen. (One particularly celebrated composer has already treated them in ludicrous fashion; they may well be better off left alone.) And we have a surprising, intriguing foreshortening, ending with Macbeth’s coming to power, in almost Poppea-like triumph, although an ‘evening-length’ version of this seventy-five minute, single-act work is envisaged by composer and librettist. As it stands, there is ironic power in hearing what was Malcolm’s closing speech – to what I assume is intentionally banal music - in the voice of a victorious Macbeth, and I think there would be even if one did not know of the transformation. It seems odd, in an opera, to eschew the possibilities afforded by soliloquy, but there might well be an imperative to alienate, so there is no need to condemn on principle.


Alas, what has emerged proves – with the usual caveats concerning a single performance – more dull than anything else. This is not a disaster, during the performance of which one simply feels embarrassed. However, the lack of musical characterisation, vocal interest, probing of any of the possibilities an all-male cast might have offered, all seem a missed opportunities, given the richness of the source. The musical language often sounds close, in a generalised sense, to Britten, but without – well, you can complete the rest from those three lacking qualities alone. Differentiation of soundworld between internal reflection and external military – two percussionists certainly make their mark – is for me perhaps the strongest feature of the score.


Lady Macbeth, a character with, to put it mildly, operatic potential, is played by a tenor, but that seems to be it in gender terms. ‘Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,’ might have seemed a fruitful line to pursue sung by a man, but it is not present. She more or less disappears from dramatic view, and even before she does gives little impression of what it might be that has elevated her into the dramatic pantheon. Macbeth fares a little better, but more simply from his presence, from Shakespeare, and, in this case, from a highly engaging performance from Ed Ballard (real stage presence, both physically and musically!) than from the work itself.


Indeed, I had no problem with any elements of the performance. The cast performed creditably; if feats of characterisation were not achieved, that is hardly the singers’ fault. This remained in many ways an excellent opportunity, well taken, for members of the Glyndebourne Chorus and its Jerwood Young Artists Programme. I am sure we shall hear more from a good number of them. The LPO chamber ensemble under Jeremy Bines sounded committed and incisive throughout, as if this actually were The Rape of Lucretia. Moreover, Huffman’s production, in modern army dress, seemed well thought through and executed and suggested its own parallels with recent and contemporary politics and warfare.


Who knows? In the highly unlikely event that anyone reads this in a century’s time, mine might be one of those ridiculous views cited in descriptions of ‘initial audience failure for subsequently acclaimed masterpieces’. In a way, I hope it is, or at least, so as not to be too conceited, that a view like mine is, since I should much rather we have another masterpiece than not. Rightly or wrongly, I cannot imagine what, at least from this first version, might lead to such a transformation in judgement.


Tuesday 8 September 2015

Arnold Schönberg Symposium: 8-10 October 2015, Vienna

Next month, the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna will be holding its annual symposium. Taking place over two-and-a-half days, it covers a variety of Schoenbergian – or, if you prefer, Schönbergian – topics, ranging from the reception of Schoenberg in Japan to Herbert von Karajan’s recording of the Variations for Orchestra. False modesty only goes so far: I am delighted to be speaking on Moses und Aron and its staging. Below are the whole programme (copied from the website) and an abstract from my paper. Abstracts from the others should soon be available here, on the ASC website. Entrance is free, eliminating one possible excuse…


Staging Moses und Aron: Representing a Representation of the Unrepresentable

Moses und Aron questions the possibility of artistic representation. Schoenberg’s God is unimaginable: it is impossible to make Him into an image. Reformation controversy over iconoclasm informed the classical German concept of Bildung, the very word incorporating Bild, or ‘image’. Where does that leave musico-dramatic expression?

How does such extreme difficulty translate into staging? Schoenberg’s stage directions are notoriously unrealisable. Erwin Stein reported, apparently without irony, from the premiere: ‘there was not enough space for displaying the processions of camels, wagons and asses which are supposed to bring offerings to the idol. These tasks as well as the slaughter of cattle and the roasting of meat, which are part of the offerings, will tax the resources of any opera house.’ What of more theoretical concerns, in light of debates concerning Werktreue and Regietheater? What do particular stagings tell us about representation and its impossibility? What does the work’s confrontation with representation tell us about the possibilities of staging?


Donnerstag, 8. Oktober 2015, 15.00 Uhr

Werkverzeichnis/Registerband zur Arnold Schönberg Gesamtausgabe
Therese Muxeneder (Wien), Ulrich Krämer (Berlin), Hella Melkert (Berlin)

Donnerstag, 8. Oktober, 17.00 Uhr

Brief-Datenbank Universal Edition
Katharina Bleier (Wien)

Donnerstag, 8. Oktober 2015, 19.00 Uhr

Begrüßung & Eröffnung

Peter Fischer-Appelt (Hamburg)
Arnold Schönberg und Karl Barth
Die Konstellation zweier Gedankenwelten in der Suche nach gewaltfreier Gotteserkenntnis

Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Erwin Ortner Leitung
Max Reger: Nachtlied op. 138 Nr. 3
Arnold Schönberg: Friede auf Erden op. 13

Freitag, 9. Oktober 2015, 10.00 Uhr

Caroline A. Kita (St. Louis)
Schönberg’s Die Jakobsleiter and Modern Jewish Biblical Drama

Katrin Eggers (Basel)
»Quasi-Bilder« der Bewegung: Formgebärden im Musiktheater Arnold Schönbergs

Mark Berry (London)
Staging Moses und Aron: Representing a Representation of the Unrepresentable

Freitag, 9. Oktober 2015, 15.00 Uhr

Therese Muxeneder (Wien)
Der Herr ist hier!
The Enigma of Modern Music Arrives in America

Luca Antonucci (Boston / Wien)
Arnold Schönberg, Conductor: A Performance from Schönberg’s East Coast Year

J. Daniel Jenkins (Columbia)
From Verstehen to Fasslichkeit:
Schönberg, Recording Technology, Liner Notes, and Public Musicology

Fusako Hamao (Santa Monica)
The Reception of Arnold Schönberg in Japan

Samstag, 10. Oktober 2015, 10.00 Uhr

Alexander Gurdon (Dortmund)
»Wir paar Leute, muessen zusammenhalten!« – Oskar Fried und Arnold Schönberg

Elizabeth Keathley (Greensboro)
Schönberg’s French Connection: Marya Freund, Pierrot lunaire, and Schönberg in Paris

Dennis Gerlach (Berlin)
Die Macht des Maestro
Herbert von Karajans Aufnahme der Variationen für Orchester op. 31

Samstag, 10. Oktober 2015, 14.30 Uhr

Philip Stoecker (Hempstead, NY)
A »Theoretical Trifle« in Schönberg’s Serenade, op. 24

Charles Stratford (Boston)
»Die alten Formen in der neuen Musik«: Neoclassicism in Schönberg’s Serenade, Op. 24

Arnold Schönberg Center
Wissenschaftszentrum Arnold Schönberg am Institut für Musikalische Stilforschung der Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien

Eintritt frei


Sunday 6 September 2015

1.5 million page views!

I noticed entirely by accident, since I very rarely - honestly! - look at the statistics. It is a number I can scarcely credit, and is doubtless partly made up of accidents, robots, and the like. But above all, it is surely made up of readers like you (even if you dislike what I write!) People rarely sound humble when they claim to be 'deeply humbled'; however, if you will just this once take my word for it, I genuinely am. Thank you! And, it is a lovely birthday present for me.

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Aural Choreography and the Threshold: Boulez's Répons

Ensemble Intercontemporan and Matthias Pintscher after two performances of this work at the Salzburg Festival, 2015

(This essay was first published as a programme note for the Salzburg Festival, 2015)

In retrospect, and perhaps even at the time, Répons seems or seemed to mark a new phase in Pierre Boulez’s compositional activity. Long accused – unfairly and uncomprehendingly – of having taken refuge in his conducting activities, the composer, fresh from leading performances of the Ring in Bayreuth and the premiere of the three-act version of Berg’s Lulu in Paris, responded to a commission from South-West German Radio for the Donaueschingen Music Festival with this large-scale work for six soloists (cimbalom, first piano, xylophone/glockenspiel, harp, vibraphone, piano 2/synthesiser), sizeable chamber orchestra (two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, two violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass), and live electronics. (Not, of course, to forget the conductor!)

That first version, begun in 1980 and performed in 1981, was about seventeen minutes long; a version about twice the length was heard at the BBC Proms the following year; what we shall hear tonight (twice, in different seating arrangements, so as better to appreciate the work’s – and performance’s ‘aural choreography’) lasts almost three-quarters of an hour. It remains a work-in-progress, Boulez’s original ‘intention’, for whatever that might be worth, having been to create a work of full-concert length. The score as it stands, gives the date, tantalisingly as ‘1981/…’, and Boulez, in a 1988 interview Peter McCallum kept his counsel concerning ‘completion’: ‘Well, at one point, the work will be finished, but I don’t know when exactly.’ Ever one to seek literary parallels, he went on, ‘I compare it with Proust, whose novel just expanded and expanded. … I still have to add chapters, but at the same time, what is written is definitely written and will be part of the final work.’

Répons was also Boulez’s first work, arguably the first masterpiece by any composer, to be realised in the studios of IRCAM, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), which is itself far from the least of the composer-conductor-thinker-agitator’s achievements. Having been invited in 1970 by Georges Pompidou to create a centre for musical research and creation, that had been another of the urgent tasks triumphantly achieved during the 1970s, whilst Boulez’s detractors sniped at an alleged falling away from composition. 1981 marked, not coincidentally, both the Répons premiere and the full advent of the ‘4X System’, consisting of eight processor boards, each of which could independently be programmed to store, to manipulate, and to recall digitised sound waveforms, that is, as Boulez and his IRCAM collaborator, Andrew Gerzso explained, in a 1988 article on Répons, ‘sequences of numbers that correspond to the air-pressure fluctuations of a sound’. Also of crucial importance was the Matrix 32: ‘basically a programmable audio-signal traffic controller, routing audio signals from the soloists to the 4X and from the 4X to the speakers’.

It is worth quoting further from that article by Boulez and Gerzso, as a way in both to electronic music more generally, to this work in particular, and to this first, but not last, collaboration between the two (subsequent collaborations would be on Dialogue de l’ombre double,  explosante-fixe…, and Anthèmes 2):

Composers have had essentially one medium through which to express their musical ideas in a form an audience can appreciate: the sounds that musicians can elicit from traditional instruments. With the advent of computers and other equipment for processing digital signals an entirely new means of musical expression has become available. A composer who applies these electronic devices is bounded only by imagination in creating an ‘orchestra’ of sounds.

Music that seeks to integrate computer-generated sounds with traditional instruments presents a great challenge to a composer. Not only must the composer express musical ideas convincingly but also he or she must do so in a manner that is readily translatable into both mediums. Moreover, the ideas must be resilient enough to be passed back and forth between the two mediums during the course of a performance. Otherwise the listener might wonder what role the computer was meant to have in relation to the other instruments and be puzzled (and perhaps even repelled) by the lack of coherence.

Exploring possible musical relations between computers and traditional instruments requires much communication between composers and those who design computer hardware and software. Through such collaboration, electronic devices can be constructed that serve the composer's immediate purpose while preserving enough generality and flexibility for future musical exploration – a task complicated by the fact that the composition's musical complexity is usually not commensurate with the technical complexity needed for its realisation. What appears to be a simple musical problem often defies an easy technological solution. Perhaps for the first time in history a composer has to explain and formalise the way he or she develops and manipulates concepts, themes and relations in a musical context in order for technicians (who may have little musical training) to bring them into existence. These are the kinds of problems we confront at … IRCAM.

Problems and opportunities, then – as ever, with technological advances in the history of music. It certainly did no harm, though, that Gerzso was – and is – certainly not a technician with ‘little musical training’, but rather a musician with a thorough grounding in both composition and, as flautist, performance. At present, he directs teaching at IRCAM, as well as coordinating interaction between the institute’s artistic and scientific activities. Experience of Répons, and the musical challenges it presented, will have done no harm in preparation for those roles, for it is equally crucial to note the challenge that musical problems issue to technology, as well as vice versa. ‘Coordination’ is perhaps the crucial word in the institute’s title, and is equally crucial to our understanding of Répons.

Let us turn more strictly to the work itself. Répons refers to ‘responses’, in this case to responsorial Gregorian Chant, precentor and choir in alternation. That sets up two relationships to be explored within the work: one between soloists and the instrumental equivalent here to the choir, and also the spatial element brought about by physical separation – and movement in space of the sounds heard. Boulez disavowed in that 1988 interview the spectacular for its own sake – one hears this also in, say, his supremely musical performance of a work such as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – and said that what interested him was ‘this relationship between pitch, form, space, and time … which affects the very writing of the piece in every detail.’ And so, ‘the writing for the orchestra in the centre, for instance, is very different from the writing of [sic] the soloists at the perimeter, because – and this comes from my experience as a conductor – I know that when players are close to you they can follow your gestures immediately.’ 

One must have one’s wits about one to ‘follow’ the quasi-expository Introduction; yet, following everything in a single performance is no more possible than it is in Wagner. It is more advisable to inform oneself up to whatever point one wishes, and then to enjoy, to let the piece take one where it will. Entrance of electronics will inevitably direct aural – perhaps, visual – attention towards the periphery, the location of the soloists and speakers. (A ‘possible seating plan’ follows a compendious list of ‘Production equipment to be provided on site’ in the score.) Different instrumental attacks and decays in turn have different implications for sound transformation.

One example of maintenance of coherence between instrumental and electronic worlds, to which Gerzso draws attention in his booklet note for the CD release, is that of the soloists’ arpeggiated chords. As the soloists take their turns, so are the chords in turn transformed by electronics, ‘in such a way that the arpeggiated chords are themselves arpeggiated. The overall result of the soloists and the transformed sounds together is that of an arpeggio of an arpeggio of an arpeggio.’ Moreover, the pitches of the successive arpeggiated chords themsevles are all ultimately derived from a seven-note vibraphone chord, through familiar operations such as transposition and combination, each instrument taking from another and yet remaining in touch with the first. Oppositions multiply and, in a sense, attract. Meter returns, joining and indeed transforming his earlier works’ opposition between ‘smooth’ (chaotic and irregular) and ‘striated’ (regular, repeated notes) time; so does ‘symmetrical’ harmony. Ornamentation and proliferation – the SACHER hexachord ever in the background, not necessarily to be heard – abound.

Think again of that phrase ‘aural choreography’ – and there is surely ‘visual choreography’ in perusing the score alone. Though stereotype may still present Boulez in fierce, polemical, ‘Darmstadt’ mode, he has an exquisite sense of fantasy; indeed, he collaborated with the ‘equine choreographer’, Bartabas, on performance s of The Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms. More fundamentally, the spatial element is crucial, just as in Stockhausen’s Gruppen – another work now ‘traditionally’ performed twice – or in the Venetian works of Giovanni Gabrieli. Gerzso has rightly spoken of a ‘never ending mirror-effect’; electronic transformations respond to instrumental writing, and ‘a chain of answers crosses over to … [the domain] of electronic writing.’ It induces both anxiety and exhilaration that one will never quite hear the same performance, never quite hear the same ‘work’ twice; such is the essence of music as well as its history, in which Boulez more clearly than ever takes his rightful place.


That returns us to technology. Boulez largely kept his distance from earlier electronic music, suspicious of the inhibiting, even imprisoning, effect pre-recorded tapes had upon performance. We need not condescend toward, for instance, Luigi Nono’s  …sofferte onde serene…, nor indeed to Boulez’s own experiments of the 1950s; as we attain our distance from them, they too take their place in the mutable canon. However, the reassertion of performing contingency, enabled by the advent of ‘real-time’ transformation technology, heralds the late twentieth century’s most distinguished composer-conductor’s crucial first foray into this world. Selecting a single masterpiece from Boulez’s œuvre is as foolish as it would be for Mahler’s; Répons nevertheless looms over his subsequent work, just as Le Marteau sans maître had before. Répons has become, if not quite ‘the threshold’, as Boulez once said of Webern, then a crucially important staging-post in the history of modernist music.

'From the Heart': Beethoven's Missa solemnis

(This essay was first published as a programme note for the Salzburg Festival, 2015, for a performance given by Concentus musicus Wien and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Mass for Four Solo Voices, Choir and Orchestra in D major, Op. 123, ‘Missa solemnis’

If ever there were a musical work surrounded by an aura, it would be Beethoven’s Mass in D major, universally referred to as the Missa solemnis. Wilhelm Furtwängler considered it Beethoven’s greatest work, but gave his last performance in 1930, thereafter considering it to be beyond his, and perhaps humanity’s, capability to perform. Theodor Adorno, who devoted a good deal of attention to the work, argued that, ‘to speak seriously of it [the Mass] can be nothing other than, in Brecht’s phrase, to alienate it; to rupture the aura of unfocused veneration protectively surrounding it.’ It was, then, Adorno contended, an ‘alienated magnum opus’; it enjoyed ‘the highest fame, has its undisputed place in the repertoire, while remaining enigmatic and incomprehensible and, whatever it may conceal within itself, offering no support for the popular acclaim lavished upon it.’

As so often, Adorno proves both spot on and wrongheaded; such, one might almost argue, is the nature of his dialectical method. There is certainly a sense in which the Missa solemnis remains at least one of the ultimate musical challenges; it was such even for Beethoven himself. And yet, in performance worthy of the name, it overwhelms, especially so for an age that finds it at least as hard as Beethoven himself to take the claims of the Church, above all those adumbrated in the text and tradition of the Mass, simply ‘on faith’. Beethoven’s struggle may initially be perceived in the time it took him to compose his setting. It was intended, when he began composition in 1819, for the installation of his great patron, pupil, and friend, the Archduke Rudolph, as Archbishop of Olmütz. ‘The day on which a High Mass composed by me will be performed during the ceremonies solemnised for Your Imperial Highness will be the most glorious day of my life,’ Beethoven wrote to Rudolph. The deadline, 9 March 1820, came and went, however, and Beethoven was still making changes to the work when the presentation copy of the score was being prepared, in spring 1823. No complete performance took place in Vienna during Beethoven’s lifetime, although the first three movements were performed at the Kärntnertor Theatre on 7 May 1824, at the same concert in which the Ninth Symphony received its performance. (Imagine that!) The Mass, however, had been performed a month earlier, on 7 April, in St Petersburg, in a concert postponed several times, owing to musical, especially vocal, difficulties, as well as late delivery of the score. Performances remained sporadic, at best, until the 1860s; their posthumous reputation notwithstanding, the late quartets were performed with considerably greater frequency.

Adorno noted that, despite the ‘occasionally unusual demands on the singers’ voices,’ something of an understatement, the Mass ‘contains little which does not remain within the confines of traditional musical idiom.’ Certainly, harmonic progressions are not in themselves difficult to analyse, or indeed to perceive by the audience (or congregation). There are archaisms, harking back at least as far as Palestrina, to whom Beethoven had devoted a good deal of study, arguably also to the Flemish composers of the fifteenth century, but, whilst audible, they do not really stand out. Rather, to quote Adorno once more, ‘the difficulty is of a higher order – it concerns the content, the meaning of the music.’ The Frankfurt School sage pointed to ‘the aesthetically fractured quality of the Missa solemnis, its renunciation of clear structure in favour of a question, of almost Kantian severity, as to what is still possible at all.’ In a conversation book, we see Beethoven exclaim: ‘“The moral law within us and the starry heavens above us” – Kant!!!’ It is not unduly fanciful to see a parallel, whether it be a matter of influence or no, with elements of Kantian philosophy in this work. Kant had pointed to the inability of theoretical reason to ‘prove’ the truths of religion. One must look elsewhere, to the moral law – just as Beethoven does in the immense struggle he here not only depicts but also undergoes. It is not easy, especially as a fallen man, but it is unquestionably necessary.

What, then, is the nature of this struggle, encapsulated in Beethoven’s unique formulation, written above the Kyrie, ‘From the heart – may it return to the heart!’? It is, by the standards of the other movements – and we may consider this a symphonic work enough for ‘movement’ not to be an inappropriate term – relatively ‘normal’. Orchestral sonorities are, as William Drabkin has noted, related to the tonality of the movement. Horns generally conform to the constraints imposed upon them by the overtone series, far more so than in many of Beethoven symphonies, or indeed in later movements of this work. Kettledrums sound implacable throughout, as if intoning Holy Writ, or even trying to persuade us – and Beethoven – of it. As Sir Colin Davis commented in an interview given shortly before his final performance of the work in 2011, ‘You may not believe it immediately afterwards, but it [the work] doesn’t survive unless everybody is committed to it.’ There may already be a sense of grand(-ish) scale, but there is little of the superhuman strain we shall hear later on. An almost Classical movement offers, in Drabkin’s words, ‘reassurance early on,’ so that ‘the listener is better prepared for what is to come.’ It is indeed a twin inheritance from Bach, whose Mass in B minor had finally been published in 1818, and from Haydn which may be said to be dramatised here. The old, Baroque ‘cantata mass’ division of the threefold petition – ‘Kyrie eleison/Christe eleison/Kyrie eleison’ – is challenged by the sonata form example of Haydn’s late masses, and vice versa.

There is nothing remotely ‘normal’ about Beethoven’s setting of the Gloria, long a difficult text to set, if only for its length. (The same might be said of the Credo.) Again, Beethoven offers more than a nod to Classical practice, yet also, almost through force of will, or so it seems, blows the apparent tripartite division of the text if not quite to pieces than to somewhere beyond repair. It opens with a thunderbolt; we fancy that we hear not a description of the heavenly throng itself singing the Almighty’s praises, but that singing itself. Beethoven’s utterly personal solution to the problems of both Mass setting and belief is propelled by titanic, orchestrally- and harmonically-founded strength, such as heard with the chorus’s ‘Domine Deus, Rex cœlestis’. Hints of Mozartian Harmoniemusik upon ‘Domine Fili unigenite Jesu Christe’ are gratefully received, though we are never in doubt that Mozartian paradise has been lost for ever. An imploring ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis’ seems almost to signal Beethoven kneeling – at the name of the one person or force before whom or which Beethoven would ever kneel. The ‘Quoniam’ presents a precarious balance - or better, dialectic – between certainty and uncertainty or downright despair. At the close, there is reprise, if not repetition, of the electricity of the glorious cries of the opening, a final choral shout of ‘Gloria’ reinventing the recapitulatory principle.

Nowhere is Beethoven’s struggle with belief more manifest than in, appropriately enough, the setting of the Creed. Credo quia absurdum (a perennial misquotation of Tertullian)? The plainchant and Renaissance polyphony in which Beethoven had immersed himself come to resound as if through history, if not eternity. Echoes of what we now call early music sound especially clearly upon profession of the mystery of the Incarnation, human soloists and flautist differentiating beyond doubt the Second from the First Person of the Holy Trinity. One feels, as in a Bach Passion, the unbearable agony of Gethsemane and Golgotha upon the word of suffering, ‘Passus’. Beethoven’s compassion expressed for Christ as man seems to evoke Fidelio, and yet at the same time to extending beyond its earthbound confines, indeed to point to Kant’s ‘starry heavens’. Partly as a consequence of Beethoven’s notoriously difficult vocal writing, the question remains: does he, do we, believe? The uphill sense of struggle, almost a literal expression of ‘ascendit’ and yet of course meaning so much more than that, is valiantly, vigorously worked through in an ‘Allegro molto’ section, until a return to the oft-intoned ‘Credo’: in this case, belief in the Holy Ghost, but seemingly more a matter of belief as such. The final fugue dazzles, both as profession of (momentary?) conviction and as contrapuntal compendium, both reminiscence and intensification of the dialectical conflicts in the finale to the Hammerklavier Sonata. 

Beethoven marked the Sanctus, as he had the Kyrie, ‘Mit Andacht’ (‘with devotion’). Sung by the solo quartet, it is, in Donald Tovey’s words, ‘a short intensely devout movement, ending with a note of the kind of fear that would be cast out by perfect love’. Following a brief ‘Osanna’, there comes the purely instrumental evocation of the Elevation of the Host, and the descent of the Holy Ghost in the guise of solo violin: a masterstroke that in lesser hands might have sounded sentimental but here instantiates sublimity itself. It offers, moreover, musical transition to the ‘Benedictus’ section, which, for Adorno, touchingly called to mind ‘the custom attributed to late mediaeval artists, who included their own image,’ in this case related to a theme in the E-flat major String Quartet, op.127, ‘somewhere on their tabernacle so that they would not be forgotten.’

Finally comes the Agnus Dei, in dark B minor, permitting eventual, hard-won return to the tonic, its relative major. The sounds of war, trumpets and drums ablaze, heard before in Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli, but here let loose with modernistic fury, terrifyingly recall the recent experiences of Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe and look forward to our own unstable world, interior and exterior. We are taken to the abyss. Will the Lamb of God grant us ‘pacem’? Perhaps. An apparent reference, intentional or otherwise, to Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus – Beethoven once considered adding his reorchestration to Mozart’s – has suggested to some English listeners intervention from the Duke of Wellington; its scope is surely more universal. There is still no more modern setting of the Mass; it alienates itself in its fervent attempt to wrest reconciliation from the jaws of despair. And yet, that aura cannot entirely be disrupted; nor, perhaps, should it be.