Thursday 31 March 2016

Berlin Festtage (4) - Orfeo ed Euridice, Staatsoper Berlin, 27 March 2016

Images: Matthias Baus
Schiller Theater

Orfeo – Bejun Mehta
Euridice – Anna Prohaska
Amore – Nadine Sierra
Jupiter – Wolfgang Stiebritz

Jürgen Flimm (director)
Gehry Partners (set designs)
Florence von Gerkan (costumes)
Gail Skrela (choreography)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Roman Reeger (dramaturgy)

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

That Daniel Barenboim is not shying away from new challenges must now be abundantly clear. Last season, he conducted his first opera by Puccini (Tosca); in this, he has not only turned to his first by Gluck, but to his first pre-Mozart opera. It is perhaps not a coincidence that he chose Orfeo ed Euridice, so associated with Furtwängler’s magnificent live recording. Furtwänglerian tendencies became more evident during the third act; indeed, there were times when Barenboim perhaps (wonderfully) sounded a little more royaliste que le roi. Tempo variations always made sense, rubato supremely well judged and seemingly spontaneous. If the first two acts were more conventional, than there was no harm in that. It is a rare thing indeed to have Gluck performed not only on modern instruments, but by a great conductor. Whilst I might have longed for a larger orchestra, Barenboim’s relatively small band offered splendidly variegated, sensitive playing. We need to hear more, much more Gluck, from orchestras of this stature! If I did not feel that the interpretation were always quite so embedded as that of Riccardo Muti in Salzburg in 2010, then that is hardly surprising; Muti has championed Gluck throughout his career, most bravely at La Scala, whereas Barenboim is travelling where his apparently insatiable curiosity takes him. What both have in common is, rightly or wrongly, a preference for the Vienna ‘original’. There is no arguing with its dramatic integrity, although part of me would have been keen to hear, say, Berlioz’s edition.


Bejun Mehta – who would have predicted that Barenboim would opt for a countertenor rather than a mezzo? – gave a superlative performance in the title role (well, one of the title roles). Barenboim’s sensitive, never too-sensitive, conducting always permitted Mehta to be heard, and so varied were the sounds and their intensity, so perfectly matched were words and music, that one could readily believe this to be Orpheus himself. Being seated very close to the stage was perhaps not an unmixed blessing acoustically for me, but to see Mehta’s face, his agonies, the depth of his grief, and to hear that matched with his vocal artistry was more than enough compensation. His chemistry with Anna Prohaska as Euridice was unmistakeable. Hers was perhaps a more Mozartian performance, equally welcome, achieving the near-impossible of putting the two characters on an almost equal footing. Again, words and music sounded as an indissoluble whole; not for nothing was Wagner so ardent an admirer (of Gluck, that is, not that I have any reason to think he would not have admired Prohaska!) There was indeed an almost Elvira-like longing to Prohaska's performance. I find Amore a somewhat thankless role, at least vocally, but Nadine Sierra held the stage in her crucial interactions, interventions, and, perhaps most important of all, non-interventions. Choral singing suffered a little from the acoustic, but I have no reason to doubt its quality.

Jürgen Flimm’s staging is stylish and direct, certainly one of the best, perhaps the best, I have seen from him. I could not help but wonder whether he had been handed a difficult task of having to conform to Frank Gehry’s ‘headlining’ set designs rather than the other way round. If so, Flimm did a still more impressive job. Monochrome first-act obsequies allow plenty of space for Mehta’s outpouring, as heartbreaking in its way as Janet Baker’s in hers. The inhuman – in every sense – cruelty of the gods is underlined not only by Amore’s refusal to make life, or death, easier for the lovers, but also by the Wanderer-like Jupiter, apparently unseen, apparently unconcerned. How tempting it must have been to make him ‘do’ something; how wise it was to refrain. Nevertheless, brute force takes Orfeo where he must go. Whatever the multi-coloured apparatus of second-act Hades might ‘be’, Gehry’s design is undeniably arresting in visual terms. The boutique hotel room of the third act seems, alas, to be a failure, at least on its own terms. I learned afterwards that it was intended as the grottiest of accommodation; perhaps that says more about Gehry’s lifestyle than anything else. At any rate, the claustrophobia within which Flimm, Mehta, and Prohaska have to work offers results of high dramatic intensity. Frustration can boil over with nature and import that are subtle (Orfeo’s overwhelming need for a beer from the minibar) or catastrophic (the backward glance). Whether such psychological realism really always works with Gluck may be debated; Flimm made a fine attempt to have it do so.


The masterstroke, however, is the undoing of the wretched lieito fine, in which convention threatens to undo so much of Gluck’s – and Calzabigi’s – reforming work. After choral and balletic rejoicing, we hear the Parisian number we have missed most of all: the Dance of the Blessed Spirits. Not for Barenboim Muti’s purism; not for Flimm something in which I suspect he could not bring himself to believe. Euridice is vanished once again; indeed, Orfeo’s fevered, grieving imagination, rather than the gods’, whoever they may be, seems to have offered and now withdrawn hope. The beauty, aural as well as visual, of this final twist is the most devastating thing of all. Fire and its heat, emptiness, and loneliness return. Perhaps now only the Maenads or Jupiter await.



Berlin Festtage (3) - Barenboim/Argerich, et al.: Schumann, Debussy, and Bartók, 26 March 2016


Schumann, arr. Debussy – Six Studies in Canonic Form, op.56
Debussy – En blanc et noir
Bartók – Sonata for two pianos and percussion

Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich (pianos)
Torsten Schönfeld, Dominic Oelze (percussion)

Schumann’s op.56 Studies were written for the pedal-piano. It would be fascinating to hear them on such an instrument, which the Schumanns had hired in order to enable them to do some organ practice. It is always a joy, however, to hear them at least in performances as good as these, in Debussy’s two-piano arrangement. The first sounded, unsurprisingly, Bachian, with the added joy of the sound ‘in itself’, well almost, of two pianos. Was there perhaps a little hint of Dr Gradus ad Parnassum? At any rate, Schumann’s own voice asserted itself gradually, imperceptibly, not unlike the nineteenth-century rediscovery of Bach himself (at least as the myth has it). The second and third studies sounded instantly more Romantic, instantly more Schumannesque. The quiet musical delight Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich summoned up from intertwining of the parts could barely have sounded, in the Romantic sense, more ‘characteristic’. The second’s wistfulness was revisited in the fourth, canon proving a properly poetic starting-point rather than an end in itself. Then we heard a stormier impetus, speaking of Schumann’s Classical inheritance. The pianists judged to near perfection to the good humour and the sterne passages in the fifth study, which rightly remained enigmatic. Finally, the sixth flowed beautifully, as rich in performance as on the page, as rich in its inner parts as in the harmonies they helped create. And yes, Bach was reinstated, as if this were a late Chorale Prelude recomposed.

Debussy’s En blanc et noir followed. Whatever the historical facts, this sounded unambiguously here as music for Steinways. We heard in the first movement, and not only there, the composer’s Lisztian roots, but also something that was somehow both glassier and more aquatic. There was similar delight as in the Schumann to the interplay between the two instruments. How fresh, and yet how knowing, the scales sounded in context. The second movement, marked Lent, was dark, almost Gaspard-like. Debussy here seemed to look forward to Messiaen, even to Boulez. But he was rightly never to be pinned down, likewise any ‘meaning’ in the appearances of Ein’ feste Burg. Indeed, the strangeness of that chorale in context put me in mind of a Gallic Ives, if you can imagine such a thing. The finale was similarly yet differently enigmatic; it was sardonic, yet loved and lovable.

Torsten Schönfeld and Dominic Oelze joined Argerich and Barenboim for Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. Schönfeld and Oelze certainly had nothing to fear from comparisons in such exalted company; indeed, if anyone were at times a little heavy-handed, or at least less fleet, it was Barenboim. That should not be exaggerated, however. The menace of the first movement’s opening registered properly; this was musical menace, with nothing of the banally filmic to it. The shock of the first outburst registered with at least equal strength. Percussion and percussionists alike sounded – and this is surely Bartók’s plan – emancipated by the pianos’ crescendo. There was no doubting that these were equal musical partners rather than purveyors of mere ‘effect’. Progress was built slowly, surely, above all dramatically, in the second movement. Likewise regress – and all manner of other musical operations, sometimes rather less slowly. The finale opened more as a sonata for two percussionists with pianos offering support. Interchange and transformation were thereafter the name of the game.

If Barenboim were not always on top pianistic form in the Bartók, he certainly was, as was Argerich, in the first of no fewer than five (!) encores. I do not intend to discuss them all, ‘free gifts’ ranging from Mozart (twice), through Tchaikovsky-Pletnev (‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy) and Rachmaninov (hardly Barenboim territory, and he did sound a little stretched), to an Argentinian piece both pianists had apparently played for solo piano, newly arranged for two pianos. However, the first, the slow movement to the D major Sonata, KV 448/375a, was as profound as it was delectable: a model performance, well judged in every respect.


Wednesday 30 March 2016

Berlin Festtage (2) - Parsifal, Staatsoper Berlin, 25 March 2016

Images from 2015 premiere: Ruth Walz
Titurel (Matthias Hölle), Amfortas (Wolfgang Koch) and ensemble

Schiller Theater

Amfortas – Wolfgang Koch
Gurnemanz – René Pape
Parsifal – Andreas Schager
Klingsor – Tómas Tómasson
Kundry – Waltraud Meier
Titurel – Matthias Hölle
Squires – Sónia Grané, Natalia Skrycka, Michael Porter, Roman Payer
First Knight of the Grail – Paul O’Neill
Second Knight of the Grail – Dominic Barberi
Flowermaidens – Julia Novikova, Adriane Queiroz, Anja Schlosser, Sónia Gráne, Narine Yeghiyan, Natalia Skrycka
Voice from Above – Natalia Skrycka

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

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

This was, most likely, the best Parsifal I have ever heard. Perhaps it was not quite the best I have seen, but it was not so very far off. Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth production remains – well, its unanswerable self, or rather its self which permits of so many questions and answers that it continues to develop in the mind long after it was last seen in 2012. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging is a masterpiece, too: very different, of course, as it should be. Indeed, of the post-Herheim stagings I have seen, it is unquestionably the greatest. Returning to it, following its 2015 premiere, Tcherniakov has, in good Werkstatt Bayreuth fashion, made some changes. I am not convinced that they are all for the better, but then nor was I with Herheim. They nevertheless keep one on one’s toes, or keep one’s eyes on whatever they should be on, and forestall any disastrous lapse into ritualism.

Not, of course, that the audience by and large noticed. The preposterous prohibition on applause was still being enforced by those who may know some Wagner but understand nothing of him. Protecting a ritual which has long lost its justification, if ever it had one; mindless veneration of a sinister cult: yes, look around you and see our present-day guardians of the Grail. One does not even have to have a developmental view of an artwork to appreciate the utter folly of treating the first act as a Christian rite. One simply has to listen to the words. What Wagner presents is heretical in the extreme, as much a Feuerbachian inversion, even a black mass, as anything else. And it is a representation, a dramatisation, not the thing itself. Is that so difficult for someone sitting in a theatre to understand? Do people attending a performance of Don Giovanni think the singer playing the Commendatore has really just been murdered? Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren, this is not the St Matthew Passion, for which there are perfectly good reasons to behave quite differently; you are not part of a congregation. By all means, feel no need to applaud; that is your prerogative. However, you have no right to enforce your uncomprehending choice upon others; even Bayreuth has given up on that. If you doubt me, read The Master himself: his Religion und Kunst.

The great irony is, of course, that a few moments’ attention to Tcherniakov’s staging would have told them the same too. Here we have a religious community of a decidedly Russian nature: a community of Old Believers, possibly. Khovanschina certainly comes to mind. Yet it is clearly a sham. To us, to the leaders, perhaps to those participating; that latter point is unclear, productively so. But Titurel’s ritualistic staging of his own death in the first act and re-emergence from the coffin once ‘it’ is all over stands at the very heart of the drama. He is a sinister, charismatic dictator: the cult leader we all know and fear. Moreover, his sadism in insisting, for whatever reasons, that his son, Amfortas go through what he must time and time again, chills to the bone. The identification between Father and Son of the (un-)Holy Trinity is clear, not least through Amfortas’s Christ-like stance. Where Wagner’s Third Act makes the still extraordinary claim that it is necessary to prevent Christ from ascending to the Cross in the first place, here we see the consequences either of that failure to prevent – perhaps, or, as we shall find out, chez Tcherniakov, perhaps not, to be reversed – or of a descent into meaningless from something that perhaps once was achieved. The child, even when grown adult, is the victim. For Hegel and his followers, amongst whom we should certainly count Wagner, the agony of the god-man on the Cross was a paradigmatic case in every sense. As with most great productions, we find, dialectically, fidelity in infidelity: perhaps all the more so experiencing the work on Good Friday.

Parsifal (Andreas Schager) and Flowermaidens

Freud is, of course, never far away in Parsifal; nor is he here. That abuse is paralleled, echoed, even prefigured in the extraordinary Second Act. Where Tcherniakov’s sets had previously offered the backdrop for Gurnemanz’s slide-show of past Parsifal glories, Wagner’s own inspirations coming back to life (possibly deceptively, not unlike a visual game of Call my Bluff), now they seem literally to have been whitewashed, as the nightmare of child abuse is re-enacted and intensified. Kundry, who has a past not only with Amfortas, not only with the others mentioned when Klingsor summons her, but also, most intriguingly and frighteningly, with Gurnemanz too, brings Parsifal to the realisation that he had no choice but to kill his mother. In the show enacted before him and us, the girl we see – sister or girl-next-door? – arouses him, he touches her, and then Herzeleide walks in. The girl having been struck by his mother and banished, he tries it again with her. Does he know what he is doing when touching her breasts? Herzeleide certainly does, and so she must die. Orchestrating the show is, of course, Klingsor, whose paedophilia and exploitation of paedophilia are shockingly clear – perhaps shockingly too from our instant reaction to his stereotypical ‘weirdo from around the corner’ costume. Is our initial rush to judgement part of the problem? Perhaps; perhaps not. Flowermaidens with dolls, themselves dolls, initially having been the objects of potential rescue by our have-a-go hero, Parsifal, yet casually forgotten still more quickly, perhaps, than Herzeleide had been, Kundry was always going to have to take centre-stage with her bag of tricks, clutched close to her during the preceding act. I am not quite sure that the more conventional method of seduction on offer this time around was so successful, Kundry, as so often, shedding her outer layer; that coat having been left on all the time in 2015, it is now shed to reveal a blue dress. Startling yes, unlike everything else, but perhaps more of a tradition that Tcherniakov had initially seemed willing to resist.


Not to worry: much remains to provoke, not least the offstage kiss. What happened? We shall never know. It traumatises, though, damaging yet another human life, just as the panoply of events, ‘real’ and ‘remembered’ has been doing during both acts – and will continue to do so in the third. That, I think, might be the reason for the relative lack of ‘drama’ in that final act. What might be taken as running out steam is part of the point. It lulls us into a false sense of security, only to be cruelly woken up by Amfortas’s searching the coffin for the missing Titurel, and finally for Gurnemanz’s closing murder of Kundry. Whatever it is that has been going on has led, once again, to the most extreme of measures; Parsifal might be doing the right thing in carrying her away, but is he as clueless as he was before, whatever the claims of durch Mitleid wissend? Kundry now, unlike 2015, appears already to be dying, before Gurnemanz reaches her. Has she tricked him, tricked us; has she actually found agency through premature death? Or does that not just return us to Wagner’s highly problematic insistence upon female sacrifice? That I found an intriguing addition to the production; I was less clear why she does not take the doll out of her bag again in this act. I need to see it again, I think: just as well it is programmed for Holy Week, 2017.

None of that would make so searing an impact, of course, without outstanding performances from all concerned. Daniel Barenboim’s conducting of the superlative Staatskapelle Berlin confirmed that he is surely the greatest Wagner conductor alive, or at least at work. (I think we can sadly presume that we shall hear no more Wagner from Bernard Haitink, although we can hope to hear much else, in the concert hall.) Barenboim’s command of line was here beyond reproach, but never at the expense of drama, of ‘deeds of music made visible’ – or here, in a further dialectical twist, made once again audible. It is his near-Furtwänglerian ability to combine so many musico-dramatic imperatives that most impresses, or rather that one hardly notices, so ‘right’ does it seem. And so ‘right’ does this great orchestra sound, its dark German strings guardians, or better developers, of tradition. They know, and so do we, that Mahler, Schoenberg, Boulez, et al., have extended our ears; they know, and so do we, that Mahler, Schoenberg, Boulez, et al., could not have done so without Wagner. Wagner’s orchestral Greek Chorus deepens the deception onstage and its implications.

Klingsor (Tómas Tómasson) and the Flowermaidens
Once again, then, the dialectic between fidelity and infidelity thickened, yet also clarified, the plot. The actual chorus was magnificent too. Tcherniakov’s blocking is that of an Old Master – almost literally, in the not-quite-Biblical scenes we see painted onstage, especially at the horrifying close. They look outwards, frozen, perhaps in fear: what are we to make of it? Their singing was equally impressive; indeed, there was no distinction readily to be made between the visual and aural aspects of their work, which is just as it should be.

Andreas Schager’s Parsifal was truly a thing of wonder, without question the greatest I have ever heard. The beauty and strength of tone to be heard from this truest of Heldentenors, is joined by perhaps a greater variegation still than last year. His acting the gawky adolescent was again uncanny (unheimlich, one might better say). So too was the transformed man of peace (or of fanaticism?) of the third act. What did it mean, the way he was looking at, singing at, Kundry? There was much for us to ponder, those of us who cared to look and to listen. René Pape, despite the occasional verbal slip, made still more of his words than last year as Gurnemanz. (Again, I hasten to add, that is not a criticism of 2015, more a judgement that this was better still.) His beauty of tone is the stuff of legend, and so again it was here. He clearly benefited greatly from Tcherniakov’s direction, just as Tcherniakov greatly benefited from his artistry. Wolfgang Koch was, I think, certainly of healthier voice than last year; hearing a Wotan, who sometimes sounded just like a Wotan, in the role offered all manner of interesting critical possibilities. Moreover, one felt, almost literally, his agony. The nastiness, the sadism, in their different yet ultimately similar ways, of Tómas Tómasson’s Klingsor and Matthias Hölle’s Titurel were crucial elements of the unfolding drama; theirs were no ‘minor’ roles.

Waltraud Meier’s Kundry was always going to be special; I heard her penultimate performance, her last hurrah reserved for Easter Monday. As ever, there was no gainsaying her commitment, especially during the second act, in which she threw everything she had, and then some, into what seemed like the performance of a lifetime, however many performances of a lifetime she had actually given. Comparisons with Anja Kampe last year would be superfluous, even if Kampe had not been ill; both are great artists, but the occasion of bidding farewell to a role with which Meier has been for so long been so closely associated was something of which no one would have been unaware. No one who attended this Parsifal, who watched and listened, will forget the almost incredibly high standards of musical performance and dramatic intelligence from all concerned.

Tuesday 29 March 2016

Berlin Festtage (1) - Ma/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Dvořák and Elgar, 23 March 2016


Dvořák – Cello Concerto in B minor, op.104
Elgar – Symphony no.2 in E-flat major, op.63

 Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

My visit to this year’s Festtage was somewhat curtailed; given the earliness of Easter, I was unable to get away earlier. (Yes, I know that sympathy will be a little limited.) I was very sorry to miss a Mahler concert from Daniel Barenboim, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Jonas Kaufmann. In any case, this concert, my doubts concerning one of the works notwithstanding, offered ample compensation. Indeed, although I am no more convinced by Dvořák’s Cello Concerto as a work than I was before, the excellence of the performance from Yo-Yo Ma, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and Barenboim matched that of Elgar’s Second Symphony in the second half. I could not help but think it a pity they had not played Elgar’s Cello Concerto instead, or, for that matter, some Haydn, but never mind.

It was, of course, a pleasure in itself to hear Ma: believe it or not, my first opportunity in the flesh; it was an equal pleasure to hear the Staatskapelle’s fabled sound, to my ears preferable to that of the city’s still-more-celebrated orchestra, at least nowadays, in this music. In the introduction to the concerto’s first movement, the orchestra sounded darkly brooding, as if the instantiation of a dark German (or, insofar as it might be different, Bohemian) wood. Barenboim, Dvořák’s digressions (even here!) notwithstanding, gave us a sense that, with a pinch or two of salt, we might discern some roots in Beethoven. Hushed expectancy was combined with exultant lyricism. There could, moreover, be no doubting the extension of that lyricism with Ma’s entry, likewise no doubting that we were in the company of a great cellist. It was perhaps the moments of quiet ecstasy beautifully cushioned by the strings, sometimes duetting with equally outstanding woodwind, that were most touching, but Ma’s ardent Romanticism, always focused, never blowsy or grandstanding, was just as impressive. Gorgeous horn calls, straight out of Tannhäuser, were as great a pleasure as anything else. There was a splendid sense of give-and-take, at times almost as if Ma and Barenboim were making chamber music.

The second movement had a passionate songfulness about it that looked forward to Elgar, and yet retained, not least through the offices of the Staatskapelle’s woodwind, a truly vernal quality. Not that the grander moments were underchanged, of course; indeed, soloist and orchestra alike relished the interplay. And what a beautifully variegated palette it was from which Ma painted. Barenboim, meanwhile, clearly relished those occasional moments of Tristan-like chromaticism. (If only they had more meaning!) Brahms was an ever-present influence too, of course, still more so in the finale, even given Lisztian excess on the triangle. Barenboim seemed especially keen to draw out other Lisztian elements too, much to the work’s advantage, although even he could not really impart much coherence to this movement. The nobility of Ma’s solo line could not be gainsaid; I doubt anyone would have tried.

The performance of the Elgar Symphony was, I think, the greatest of any Elgar symphony, perhaps even any work by Elgar, I have heard. Forget the insularity of ‘English music’; this was music, and great music at that. From the outset, we not only heard ‘Edward Elgar, Modernist’ to quote the title of the study by my Royal Holloway colleague, J.P.E. Harper-Scott; Elgar, modernist, even radical, was thrust to the fore of our consciousness whether we liked it or no. (Perhaps that was why a significant number of the audience left; I should like to think so. Sadly, I suspect that it was spießig incomprehension of Elgar tout court.) Barenboim took the movement, at least to begin with, at an ‘authentically’ Elgarian lick: no sentimentality here, or indeed elsewhere. Even here, however, this was an Elgar with Straussian knowledge, harmonic as well as colouristic, insofar as the two may be separated. And then, how he – Barenboim, that is, but also, Elgar – yielded, the music sounding, despite its meter, as if it were something approaching a slow waltz. We all know about Edward Elgar, German; too few of us remember Edward Elgar, Tchaikovskian. There was flexibility aplenty then, but directed flexibility. Aspirant climaxes underlined that composer and conductor alike knew their Wagner. Dark moments of phantasmagorical mystery sounded far more enigmatic than anything in a certain set of Variations. Given Barenboim’s Brahmsian credentials, I was struck by how un-Brahmsian it all sounded. This sounded nothing like the Elgar of Adrian Boult? It perhaps sounded, if you can imagine such a thing, more like a Frau ohne Schatten Fantasy that actually worked. If Strauss were not so surprising a composer to come to mind, Szymanowski was – and sounded all the more welcome for it. (Has Barenboim conducted his music? If not, he should.)

The second movement offered a similar – yet different – holding together of the material, despite its sometimes extreme disintegrative tendencies, compositional and performative. In that sense, I thought of late Beethoven. There was certainly no taking an easy road here. Roots in German Romanticism needed no underlining; rather Elgar and such roots appeared to renew their vows in a vision that sounded well-nigh Schoenbergian. (If only Barenboim’s great friend, Pierre Boulez, could have heard this performance, maybe he would have given Elgar a second thought. Or maybe not.) And yet, that side, those sides, were of course not all; climaxes at which a melody could sing, even perhaps momentarily triumph, spoke of Brahms and Schumann, not Mahler or Schoenberg. Well, sort of anyway; they really spoke of Elgar. It was, nevertheless, the liminal passages, not entirely un-Mahlerian, that seemed to lie at the heart of this extraordinary interpretation (i.e., Barenboim) and performance (i.e., the Staatskapelle Berlin).

Elgar’s scherzo opened as if it were a darker, perhaps more complex (!), Till Eulenspiegel. Outwardly, that is, for Elgar is not a composer to share Strauss’s materialism. It soon, of course, developed into something quite different, and crucially, continued to develop: this was a symphony, no doubt about it, Mendelssohn perhaps, subjected to and liberated by a modernist nightmare. Militarism, if we can call it that, sounded as the indictment it surely is – I doubt any of us, thank God, possesses the troubled imagination to conjure up an ‘Edward Elgar, Blairite’ – but there was nothing programmatic about what we heard. The finale seemed to offer the prospect of something good-natured, even Haydn-like. But triumph was long denied; this was an arduous path, just as it must be. Harmony, as always with Barenboim’s greatest performances, drove what we heard, made it possible. I suspect that his detractors, whether in Beethoven or here, have little understanding of that. Who cares? One does not need to be able to name the chords and their progressions to feel their import. What one needs is a receptive ear and the willingness to listen.


Wednesday 23 March 2016

Berlin calls

Two upcoming visits: the first devoted to the Staatsoper's Festtage, the second to the Deutsche Oper. No insult intended to the Komische Oper and other organisations: I hope it will not be too long before I darken your doors again too. Herewith my plans:

24 March: Yo-Yo Ma/Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim: Dvořák Cello Concerto; Elgar Second Symphony
25 March: Parsifal; dir. Tcherniakov; Schager, Meier, Pape, Koch, et al./Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim

26 March: Argerich/Barenboim, et al.: works by Schumann, Debussy, and Bartók

27 March Orfeo ed Euridice; dir. Flimm (designs by Frank Gehry); Mehta, Prohaska, et al./Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim

6 April Salome; dir. Guth; Naglestad, Volle, et al.; cond. Altinoglu

7 April Elektra; dir. Kirsten Harms; Herlitzius, Soffel, Uhl, et al.; cond. Runnicles

8 April Die ägyptische Helena; dir. Marto Arturo Marelli; Merbeth, Aikin, Vinke, et al.; cond. Litton

9 April Die Liebe der Danae; Delavan, Uhl, et al.; dir. Harms; cond. Weigle

10 April Der Rosenkavalier; dir. Friedrich; Harteros, Sindram, et al.; cond. Schirmer

The eagle eyed amongst you might notice a certain theme to the works being performed at the Deutsche Oper.

Sunday 20 March 2016

George Benjamin Day: chamber works and Written on Skin, MCO/Benjamin, 19 March 2016

LSO St Luke’s and Barbican Hall

Purcell, arr. Benjamin – Fantasia 7 (1995)
Benjamin – Flight (1978-9)
Viola, Viola (1997)
Shadowlines (2001)
Bach, arr. Benjamin – Canon and Fugue from ‘The Art of Fugue’ (2007)

Members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra
George King (piano)
George Benjamin (conductor)

Written on Skin (2009-12)

The Protector – Christopher Purves
Agnès – Barbara Hannigan
Angel 1/The Boy – Tim Mead
Angel 2/Marie – Victoria Simmonds
Angel 3/John – Robert Murray

Benjamin Davis (director of semi-staged performance)

Mahler Chamber Orchestra 
George Benjamin (conductor)

George Benjamin’s Written on Skin could hardly have had superior reception. Wherever it has gone, it has triumphed. Bizarrely, an American opera house intendant, smarting at the acclaim accorded an opera that did not offer his favoured brand of neo-tonal pandering (Jennifer Higdon?!), lamented that Benjamin’s brilliant score was not something one would ‘sit down and play [a recording of] … at dinner’. All I can say to that is that Mr Gockley must host strange dinner parties – ‘honoured guests, meet your hostess, the lovely Lulu’ – and his preferred way of experiencing opera, eccentric for anyone, would seem in itself to disqualify him from running an opera house.  That, however, was not remotely consonant with the success witnessed on either side of the Atlantic, indeed on either side of the Channel.


I was a little suspicious first time around. Are not masterpieces supposed to fail before an initially uncomprehending public, incite a riot, or at least receive an insufficient performance? No, of course not, although such mythologies can be fun, not least in enabling us to feel superior to our predecessors. Surely, though, there must have been something wrong when critical and audience unanimity is so striking. (Yes, there will always be the odd exception, but who cares?) Nevertheless, when I saw the work at the end of its Covent Garden run, I had no option but to join the adoring throng. Happily, this Mahler Chamber Orchestra performance, again under the baton of the composer, confirmed me in my judgement that Written on Skin is an unalloyed masterpiece, although in some ways I find its predecessor, Into the Little Hill, the more provocative work and certainly a masterpiece too. I see no point in simply repeating a description of what has already become a repertory work; what I wrote in 2013 may, however be read here for those unfamiliar or in need of a reminder. (I was surprised, myself, about how much I had forgotten!) However, I shall make some remarks about what struck me on this particular occasion, and of course upon the performances themselves.

It seems almost obligatory for a serious new opera to reflect in some way upon the nature of opera; or is it that it is almost obligatory for a serious opera audience to do so? You see, the questions begin already. (Or is it that I am unhealthily obsessed with the operas of Richard Strauss…?) Here, at any rate, what struck me, perhaps still more so in what was close to a concert performance – not meant as disrespect to Benjamin Davis’s able direction – was how much the opera’s status is entwined with that of the Boy’s book, ‘written on skin’. That illuminates – in more than one sense – our experience of the work’s progress as drama and the complexity, somehow nevertheless simple, of the relationship between mediæval setting and contemporary reception. Martin Crimp’s libretto, of course, points the way in that respect, introducing anachronisms as well as well-nigh ritually identifying narration. Said the critic.

Had this been Birtwistle, say, there would surely have been a parallel, indeed questioning, ritual in the music. Despite the toing and froing of the Angels, I do not really hear that here. Benjamin’s way is different; I have no wish to ascribe ‘influence’ here; but in its length – perfect for but a few masterpieces by the likes of Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner, and a very few others – and in the assuredness of its narrative, I was put more in mind of Berg and Janáček. The division into three parts is perhaps a minor indication of that. The astounding musical climaxes of each part are perhaps more akin to the great operas of Janáček, although Wozzeck is surely not so very far away in some intangible, maybe even tangible, sense. The score presents other points of reference, always refracted, and did, I think, in performance too. Benjamin wrote the opera with the particular sound of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in mind. Here it’s relatively small numbers, at least when it came to strings, were utterly belied by their sound, especially at those climaxes, but also in cushioning the voices and speaking, almost Wagner-like, as our Greek Chorus. Although famously a Messiaen pupil – sometimes one is tempted to ask: who was not? – it is not so often that I have heard Messiaen in Benjamin; here, in certain chords, even progressions, I fancied that I did (just, actually as I did in one of the works in the earlier concert, on which more below). Boulez, perhaps inevitably, came to mind too: again certain matters of kinship rather than influence, I think: the exquisite alchemy of melody, harmony, and timbre, for instance, with roots in earlier music surely renewing their musico-dramatic vows, poignantly reminding us that Boulez himself never wrote the opera he always planned, and which we always longed for. There is, I think, no parallel for the use to which Benjamin puts some of the most ear-catching instrumental solos: bass viol, glass harmonica, and so on. They may be used elsewhere, but there is nothing evidently Mozartian about, say, the latter. Nor need there be. This is confident writing in skin from a composer entirely bien dans sa peau.

There was nothing, needless to say, to beware of in Benjamin’s conducting of the score. His quiet authority seemed to speak almost unmediated, although that is of course ever an illusion of performance. Likewise, the playing of the MCO, reaching the end of a European tour with the conductor-composer, seemed almost beyond praise. Three of the original, Aix-en-Provence cast returned (Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves, and Victoria Simmonds). It might on some occasion be reassuring to find something adversely to criticise in a performance by Hannigan. Now was not, however, the occasion to do so. Her musico-dramatic portrayal of Agnès judged to perfection, almost as if emerging from the divided (at one point, Paul Griffiths’s note tells us, fifteen-part) MCO strings themselves, the character’s journey to selfhood, erotic fulfilment, and ultimately (necessary) tragedy. If it were Hannigan’s voice that ultimately continued to resonate once we had left the hall, the dangerous allure of Tim Mead’s counter-tenor came close. The complete identification of Purves with the role of Protector seemed, if anything, to bring still more dramatic daring than at Covent Garden. He could edge towards speech were he wished, without one ever suspecting that to be a musical failing. His eyes said it all; except his voice said more. Simmonds and Robert Murray brought subtlety and dramatic energy, as well as musical security, to their ‘lesser’ roles, still crucial – as, indeed, was every part of this outstanding performance.

Earlier in the day, a few minutes’ walk away at LSO St Luke’s, we had heard ‘Lunchtime with George’, a splendid survey of some of the composer’s chamber works from members of the MCO and, in the case of the piano piece, Shadowlines, George King. First was Benjamin’s arrangement of a Purcell Fantasia (Jaan Bossier (clarinet), Sonja Starke (violin), Maximilian Hornung (cello), Alphonse Cemin (celesta)). In one of his wonderfully engaging introductory conversations with Sara Mohr-Pietsch, Benjamin described Purcell’s early viol consort works as some of the greatest music ever written on this island. Indeed they are – and would that we heard them as often as their stature demands, or even a little more often. Already an old, verging upon archaic, genre when Purcell wrote them, they seem almost made to encourage such dialogue between past and present, and were indeed written, alongside arrangements by Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews, as part of an Aldeburgh anniversary tribute to the English Orpheus. The second half in that concert was to be Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time; Benjamin switched Messiaen’s piano for celesta, imparting an unearthly feeling to the music which, in retrospect, might fancifully be heard as prefiguring that angelic glass harmonic in Written in Skin. Slow, steady progress of the first part and alternation with the quicker sections exchanged echt-Purcellian melancholy for something approaching high spirits, yet the suspicion of loss remained. Glassy, vibrato-less stringed instruments gained in vibrating allure, yet the journey was never one-way; this is thoughtful ‘authenticity’ rather than the fatwa of a period ayatollah. I thought at one point of Berio, although the sound and the sensibility are different. Music mediates, brings us together, perhaps especially when our way of listening – Pulcinella, anyone? – is called into question and enhanced.

Júlia Gállego was the solo flautist for one of Benjamin’s earliest-published pieces, Flight. Gállego worked with the composer seemingly as one, to convey, as well as melodic, Messiaenic profusion, a sense of harmonic ‘depth’, almost programmatically so, given the inspiration of ‘the sight of birds soaring and dipping over the peaks of the Swiss Alps’. Form was dynamically revealed; attack was endlessly varied. There was, ultimately, a splendid sense of numinous mystery: here, indeed, was a pupil of Messiaen.

Viola, Viola was written, at the invitation of Toru Takemitsu, for Yuri Bashmet and Nobuko Imai to perform at the 1997 opening of the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. If it managed to fill that hall, then it would scarcely have problems at St Luke’s. Nor did it under the violists’ worthy successors, Anna Puig Torné and Béatrice Muthelet. Confounding expectations seemed to me a theme, intentional or otherwise, of work and performance. Not only is this, as it were, an orchestral work for but two instrumentalists, but everything seems unpredictable, whilst making perfect sense after it has happened. (I have doubtless read too much Hegel to be thinking of him here, but such is the way of his dialectic, or indeed of theories of evolution.) Moments of éclat – Boulez on my mind here! – registered powerfully, unexpected yet anything but arbitrary. Harmonics, sometimes in tandem, sometimes not, could be understood at least in this sense to perform a similar role. Implied harmonies were again conveyed in masterly fashion, both as work and performance. (Apologies for any sexism there, but ‘mistressly’ really does not work!) Moments of Bartók seemed to echo, now strident, now tinged once again with Purcellian melancholy. Sometimes, if I closed my eyes, I could have sworn there were more than two players, whether ‘ancient’ consort or ‘modern’ quartet. A Mussorgskian bell, but no pealing? Maybe it was that I had recently heard Boris. Stravinskian games: almost certainly.

King’s performance of Shadowlines sounded to me equally authoritative. Benjamin’s compositional games, whatever he might have wished, perhaps came even more to the fore in the work’s canonical progress. We heard its six sections as a continuous whole, to be sure, but also very much with their own character. The first piece, marked ‘Cantabile’, proved the gentle curtain-raiser of the composer’s own description. I thought of a Boulez Notation, at least some of its harmonies. The hand-crossing of the second movement, ‘Wild’ with almost berceuse-like rocking beneath was captured as well as I imagine the work’s dedicatee, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, having done. Duetting in the ‘Scherzando’ movement – Benjamin suggested duetting bassoons – eventually broadened into a veritable chorus, putting me in mind, despite the modern piano, of the timbral possibilities of some nineteenth-century instruments. It was the fifth of the six movements that occupied the greatest time, and here it received a volcanic, perhaps again post-Messieanic performance, climax superbly judged. In the end, paradoxically or maybe dialectically, the composer’s stated wish that, as in the first movement of Webern’s Symphony, we lose perception of the canon was fulfilled partly in the mediated infidelity of our experience. Vertical and horizontal elements would dissolve and find themselves reinstated; or so I imagined. The epilogue truly sounded as such; I thought of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales.

Finally, Benjamin’s arrangement of the Canon in Hypodiapason and Contrapunctus VII from the Art of Fugue (Paco Varoch (flute), Stefán Jón Bernhardsson, Manuel Moya (horns), Jagdisch Mistry, Timothy Summers, Michiel Commandeur (violins), Delphine Tissot, Joel Hunter (violas), Martin Leo Schmidt (cello)). It was composed at Boulez’s request for a concert in which his own music would alternate with arrangements of Bach. (What a wonderful idea!) Benjamin’s piece takes the unique (I do not know whether it is empirically, but please humour me!) instrumentation of Mémoriale. In this, the only work requiring a conductor, Benjamin took the Canon fast, yet it never seemed remotely hurried; rather, it sounded juste. Counterpoint was ‘revealed’ in every sense, again presaging the evening’s opera. The fugue offered a change of pace and, so it seemed, of perspective, in an almost Birtwistle-like sense. (Again, I think that was just my own fancy, but so be it.) The composer’s desire to suggest an organ here was mesmerisingly fulfilled: here a sixteen-foot bourdon, there the strange alchemy – that word again – of a horn and viola duet, a miracle of ‘registration’. It made me think that it would be a very good thing, were Benjamin to write for the King of Instruments itself. Fastidious expressivity came close to Boulez; Bachian reinvention suggested the music of the spheres. This was a concert so engrossing that it too might have been written on skin.


Saturday 19 March 2016

It's All About Piano Festival - film about Alexandre Tharaud and recital by Joanna MacGregor, 18 March 2016

Images: Mariona Vilaros

Ciné Lumière, Institut Français

Ligeti – Musica ricercata, nos 1-6
Satie – Gnossiennes nos 1, 3, 5
Satie – Sports et divertissements
Liszt – Nuages gris, S 199
Liszt – La gondola lugubre, S 200/1
Wagner-Liszt – Isoldens Liebestod - Schlußszene aus Richard Wagners ‘Tristan und Isolde’, S 447
Piazzolla, arr. MacGregor – Four Tangos


The Institut Français ‘It’s All About Piano!’ festival has now become an established part of the London musical calendar. Any excuse to visit the institute is always welcome for me: one of the few places I know in London where I can drink decent wine at a reasonable price; I also get to practise a little of my French too. This weekend, though, is by any standards quite an undertaking; I wish my schedule had permitted me to attend more. As it was, I saw the opening film and opening concert, both of which gave me pleasure and food for thought.

First, I saw Raphaëlle Aellig Régnier’s 2013 film, Le Temps dérobé (translated, or perhaps better, very freely rendered, into English as Behind the Veil). The pianist Alexandre Tharaud talks about his travelling life and his concert routine, and we observe him on tour. There are a few snatches of music from Bach to Stravinsky but the performances are not in themselves the thing; there is no complete performance (although there is, apparently, on the DVD version: Mozart’s KV 488). We hear so much in general about the travails of a performing artist’s travelling life that we almost become inured to them; not here, for the pain as well as the pleasure readily comes through. Tharaud speaks frankly about the loneliness of touring, which might be fine for a twenty-year-old, but becomes more testing as an artists ages. (Not, of course, that he is old!) He speaks about his dislike of his body, his arms in particular, which perhaps surprises the viewer, since the pianist is certainly loved by the camera; Tharaud, however, tells us that he has learned to live with that and indeed to harness it. Collaborations with artists such as Jean-Guihen Queyras, Bernard Labadie, and the composer, Gérard Pesson are witnessed, as well as that ultimate musical-heroic achievement, the solo piano recital. (Yes, I know many will disagree, but you will not convince me otherwise.) The interest and delight Tharaud takes in the wizardry of his piano tuner is especially winning – and informative. Régnier’s film-making captures the pianist both as an object, willing or otherwise, and as an initiator.

The first recital of the weekend was given by Joanna MacGregor. She had been asked to include Satie, it being the composer’s 150th anniversary and clearly relished the opportunity to do so. If MacGregor is in her element with Satie, I admit that I am much less so. My problem with music that is primarily conceptual, indeed shouts itself to be so, even if that shout be a nonchalant one, remains. The Gnossiennes, three of them, sounded genuinely charming, mystical even, imbued with intriguing, even incongruous, hints of Eastern Europe. Sports et divertissements: well, the madcap, cinematic sketches were diverting, but I should not have wished to hear any more. MacGregor’s performance, as well as her engaging spoken introduction, could not be faulted. Perhaps the fault, such as it is, lies with me. I simply do not listen in the way Satie seems to want; or maybe the problem is that he does not want anything at all. Answers on a Parisian postcard, please.


We had heard, preceding the Satie pieces, the first six of Ligeti’s near-miraculous ‘opus one’, his Musica ricercata. How wonderfully inventive they are, even if they sound much more ‘like’ their influences than the ‘mature’ composer. This is process music to which I can relate, and indeed to which anyone, I think, can relate, intellectually and emotionally. MacGregor’s command of the keyboard, of Ligeti’s range of styles, of the humour of these pieces had me longing for more. I hope I shall have the opportunity to hear her play the whole set.

I was not entirely sure quite what the Liszt works were doing in the programme, not that I minded. Nuages gris sounded beautiful, all the more so for its lightly-worn depression. Liszt’s imagination in these late works: what can one say that has not been said before? They remain as extraordinary in their crafting, their bitterness, their radicalism as they ever were. So Nuages gris, which threatens to go beyond Debussy and Bartók avant la lettre, sounded here. The first Lugubre gondola was taken lighter, more swiftly than I can recall. It made me think I had perhaps made too much of a meal out of it myself. It is certainly not how I should always want to hear it, but the voice from the water spoke as alluringly as, if less Romantically than, I can recall. Liszt’s transcription of the so-called Liebestod – Liszt’s doing, I am afraid, that troublesome title for Isoldes Verklärung – from Tristan und Isolde was somewhat let down by some surprising technical slips. It was, though, perhaps the most radical of MacGregor’s performances: Wagner heard more as Satie than as Liszt, or so it sounded to me. Again, I should not always wish to hear it like this; in context, however, and without didactic fanfare, it intrigued.

MacGregor sounded much more at home, immediately, in her own transcriptions of Piazzolla Tangos. I am afraid I do not know which they were, since they were not listed in the programme, and I am anything but an expert in this repertoire. What I can say is that colour, harmony, and rhythm moved, now slinky, now more sexually aggressive, in her interpretations as if they were one. Indeed, the performances did not really sound like ‘interpretations’ at all, so faithful and yet so free did they sound. MacGregor added another as an encore, lapped up by an appreciative audience.


Friday 18 March 2016

For the Anniversary of the Paris Commune (18 March 1871): Women's Revolutionary Experience in Nono's Al gran sole carico d'amore

A male-dominated picture if ever there were one...

From my After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from 'Parsifal' to Nono:

Al gran sole [carico d’amore], composed between 1972 and 1974, and premiered in Milan in 1975, was first directed by Yuri Lyubimov, head of Moscow’s Taganka Theatre. Lyubimov was already a specialist from stagings of repertoire works in many of the techniques he and Nono, as joint librettists, drawing upon a vast assemblage of other writers, would employ in Al gran sole: montage: simultaneity, representation of one character – insofar as ‘character’ does not mislead – by several actors or singers. Those ‘laterna magika’ techniques familiar from Intolleranza [1960] may thereby be understood to have been rejuvenated and extended. The historical scenes presented in this azione scenica – Nono by now rejected entirely the term ‘opera’, though so of course had Wagner – are told from different perspectives, albeit with a privileged place, allotted to women and their often unspoken, let alone unsung, histories, inverting the ‘normal’ order of things. (In a sense, though not necessarily in the same sense, [Olga] Neuwirth would attempt something similar in American Lulu.) Differing perspectives all serve to focus attention back upon the present, always a construct rather than a given, a state of affairs dramatically heightened by the productive tension between Nono’s present and our own. Texts originate – in alphabetical order, so as not to imply priority – with Brecht, Tania Bunke (the Argentine-East German ‘Tania the Guerilla’, who fought in the Bolivian insurgency alongside Che Guevara), Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, the Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, Gorki, Gramsci, Lenin, Marx, the Paris Communard Louise Michel (herself a ‘character’ in the action), Cesare Pavese, Rimbaud, and the Cuban revolutionaries Celia Sánchez and Haydée Santamaria, as well as other popular sources, such as the Internationale and two Russian revolutionary songs. Those sources are in themselves indicative; one would hardly expect that gathering of writers to be transformed into a paean to American militarism and consumer capitalism.

By the same token, however, the specific nature of the assemblage, just as in Berio’s Sinfonia – or, for that matter, Bach’s music for the Mass in B minor – is the thing. Three European societies are visited in the throes of revolution or would-be revolution. We observe, construct, participate in the 1871 Paris Commune, the Russia of 1905, and the industrial travails of post-Second World War Turin (‘around 1950’). Nono’s and Italy’s own Cold War(s) find themselves situated both within that broader revolutionary context and within specific conflicts of Christian Democracy against Italian Communism, and – recalling Intolleranza – the problem of migration, in this case Italian workers from the south seeking work in the richer north, more specifically those car factories to which Nono took his music and to which friends such as [Maurizio] Pollini and [Claudio] Abbado took theirs.

European history is for Nono now understood through the prism of recent developments such as the Chilean coup that had overthrown Salvador Allende in 1973 – a setback that had sent shockwaves through the European Left, ensuring that Allende’s government and the succeeding terror under Augusto Pinochet would retain emblematic status for decades to come – and the American invasion of Vietnam. Nono’s collage-like vision also encompasses conflicts in the Third World, as it was still called: Cuba, Bolivia, and Vietnam.[1] Revolutionary situations are thus brought into contact with each other, workers of the world uniting, that dialectic of engagement standing at the very heart of Nono’s understanding. For instance, following a prelude in which we hear words from Guevara, Michel, and Marx, the first scene has Tania Bunke question – such questioning being crucial to Nono’s and indeed to our critical framework – Brecht on the Paris Communards. The expression and expressive form of that questioning is entrusted, as the score has it, to ‘chorus and orchestra’. As in Moses und Aron, only more so, we might understand, with the composer’s warrant, the principal protagonist to be the chorus; yet behind it, there lies, consciously or otherwise, another chorus: Wagner’s Greek Chorus of the orchestra.

The year 2009 marked something of a red-letter day for Al gran sole, Europe witnessing two major stagings. The first was at the Salzburg Festival, directed by Katie Mitchell. Peter Konwitschny brought his production, originally seen in Hamburg, to Leipzig later that year. Konwitschny’s short-lived appointment as director of productions at Oper Leipzig was an important factor in this case, enabling him to bring to his new house an already-existing production, which would nevertheless be modified in context, as Nono would have hoped. Likewise, in Salzburg, Jürgen Flimm’s artistic directorship was crucial. He had also produced the work before, for Frankfurt in 1978, his first opera production and the premiere of Nono’s revised version of the work. Although, on this occasion, Flimm ceded that role to Katie Mitchell, the role of individual champions should not be underestimated.

Despite the obvious attractions and relevance to the work of Mitchell’s overtly metatheatrical approach, Konwitschny’s attempt to elicit more of a conventional revolutionary narrative actually cohered better in practice. Mitchell’s framing of the artwork and its production – in the ordinary as well as the theatrical sense – seems often to work better when applied to a work that does not already contain so much of its metatheatrical apparatus to begin with. For instance, her 2009 After Dido, for the English National Opera at the Young Vic Theatre, ‘a live music and film performance inspired by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas’, at whose core stood a performance of Purcell’s opera, was able to go beyond the work to tell, in the words of the publicity material, ‘three contemporary urban stories of grief, lost love, departure, and death,’ which unfolded in self-contained locations on different sections of the stage. Yet After Dido was also to be found in ‘the making of’ these stories, unfolding before our eyes and ears. That ‘making of’ was not so much a story in itself, after the manner of the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos; nevertheless, it acquired a dramatic thrust of its own, not least since it was with those ‘workings’ that the piece opened, as the prologue to a radio broadcast, during which we heard recorded snatches of other theatre music by Purcell. (Dido’s own Prologue is, of course missing, the missing parts of the work having in the past offered a spur to composer-conductors such as Britten, as well as to directors such as Mitchell.[2]) Applying similar techniques to Al gran sole seemed less necessary and, for all the technical prowess involved, did not entirely silence suspicions that a ‘one size fits all’ metatheatricality was being imposed upon the work. Konwitschny’s more ‘operatic’ approach came across as the more radical, even the more interventionist, and also the more dramatically and politically fruitful.

It was both heartening and instructive to witness the warmth of the reception and the size of the house for the last night of Konwitschny’s Al gran sole. The immediacy of the almost ‘operatic’ experience came as quite a contrast after the familiar Mitchell onstage screening and re-screening of scenes – and not solely in terms of staging. For an interesting and commendable aspect of both productions was how closely integrated staging and musical performance seemed to be. Whereas Konwitschny, aided once again by Helmut Brade’s designs, took one very much into the heart of Nono’s revolutionary ‘provocations’ of which Nono spoke as being the origins of all his work, the Salzburg performance had tended to look back at such matters as more a thing of the past, presenting a more æstheticised experience.

Much doubtless depends upon how relevant today one considers the writings and experiences of the men and women involved; or, to put it another way, how ripe one considers the time for a more sober, historical, even distanced assessment of concerns, which, following the events of 1989, might no longer be considered to be our own. In addition, there is a strong ideological impetus to claim those concerns as of little relevance, not least from the standpoint of the apparent ‘victors’ of German unification, on either side of the erstwhile Iron Curtain. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, such an impetus seems at least as strong on the so-called Left as the Right; indeed, one of the more striking aspects of thoughtful right-wing commentary on the financial crisis has been its willingness to look to Marx.

In any case, more direct revolutionary experience, as opposed to the concerns of modern-day political economy, was granted heightened relevance by the location, Leipzig, where, as the production team pointed out, there was no need to ask whether the audience would understand the barrage of revolutionary texts presented, at least when it came to Marx, Lenin, Brecht, and Gorki.[3] Or perhaps there actually was every reason in 2009 to question that belief; old revolutionaries have a tendency to forget that the world has ‘moved on’. At any rate, the timing of the premiere on 8 October would have made its point to some at least in the specific audience: the eve of the twentieth anniversary of what was the largest protest to date in the GDR’s history, 75000 demonstrators attending the Leipzig Monday Peace Prayers, bravely defying a regime that had just congratulated its Chinese counterpart for its ‘success’ in dealing with demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.[4] In little more than a week, Erich Honecker would have resigned. The role assumed by the then Gewandhauskapellmeister, Kurt Masur, in the events of 1989 is well known. Many in the orchestra would have played under him; some of the audience would have heard him conduct at the Gewandhaus, just on the other side of the the Karl-Marx-Platz – now, once again, the Augustusplatz – from the Opera.

There were concrete settings: the Paris Commune for the first part and Turin for the second part’s industrial unrest, although that did not prevent additional voices – and faces – from participating. Lenin as chorus leader was a witty touch, likewise the Punch and Judy politicians’ act of Adolphe Thiers and Bismarck. The latter pair, even in the original ‘text’, if one can speak of such a thing, veered still more closely to the ‘operatic’ or even to the commedia dell’arte. But it was with the Gorki-Brecht tale of the Mother – did Nono here have an echo of the Prigioniero Mother in his mind? – and Pavese’s prostitute Deola, that Konwitschny went for the jugular, particularly with respect to the factory strike. Malevolence was brought to vivid theatrical life, not only on the part of the factory owner – though there was something splendidly agitprop about him and about the worker who betrayed his comrades – but also, more crucially, with respect to the entire mode of production upon which such structures were based. Nevertheless, an almost traditional evocation of theatrical or Parsifal-like compassion, true in spirit to Nono’s own responses, won out with respect to the workers hemmed in by the walls of Brade’s designs. There was anger, of course, but the human spirit came first, recalling Dallapiccola, especially in the defiance of the Mother’s son, Pavel, a martyr and true hero to the socialist cause.

Every member of the cast contributed wholeheartedly and it would be more than typically invidious to single out anyone in particular. Iris Vermillion’s mother provoked, however, perhaps the most powerful emotional response, through the human dignity of a lonely yet true contralto voice: quintessential Nono, one might say, in thought and in practice. Tuomas Pursio’s Pavel was just as impressive: an angry young man who could so easily have gone off the rails, he was in a sense saved by the desperation of the situation: his finest hour. Pursio exhibited a sense of dangerous attraction, which could finally be focused rather than dissipated. Perhaps though there was also a warning (from Konwitschny, if not from Nono), of how revolutionaries might go astray, the erstwhile GDR proffering an obvious example. Moreover, in the context of the relationships explored above of both Henze and Nono with their home and quasi-adoptive countries, the intervention of an Italian composer in a ‘German’ matter offers another standpoint from which one might consider such questions.

Neither librettist nor composer left any stage directions – an interesting case from our standpoint. Were the vigilantes of ‘fidelity’ to the work to come across this, who knows what they might make of it? It is unlikely, however, given that their energies appear concentrated more or less entirely upon ‘standard repertoire’, a telling point in itself.

And here, from La Scala, are Abbado and Lyubimov bringing Al gran sole into existence. (I am afraid I cannot embed it here, but the link should work.)

[1] Nono would most likely have rejected the term ‘collage’. He certainly spoke unfavourably of it in his 1959 Darmstadt lecture, ‘Geschichte und Gegenwart der Musik von Heute’, though it is not entirely clear whether he intended this as a general critique or in specific reference to Cage: ‘The collage-method has its origin in colonialist thought, and there is no functional difference between a hollow Indian incantation drum, which serves in a European household as a dustbin, and the orientalisms which are used by an occidental culture to make its aesthetical tinkering with material more attractive.’
[2] Britten did not go so far as to compose new music for Dido and Aeneas. However, in the edition he made with Imogen Holst – less far-reaching in its interventions than for the more problematical semi-opera, The Fairy Queen – he added at the end of the second act a trio for the Sorceress and witches, borrowing music from The Indian Queen, a chorus from the 1687 Welcome Song, Z.335, and a dance from the Overture to the play, Sir Anthony Love or, The Rambling Lady. He also went beyond additions of dynamic markings, phrasing, and articulation, to realise the harpsichord continuo part. The Britten version, conducted by the (new) composer, may be heard on in a 1959 BBC studio recording on CD (BBC Legends BBCB 8003-2).
[3] Alexander von Maravić, ‘Post scriptum Leipzig 2009,’ to ‘Die Liebe – vom Leben beladen . Zu Stück und Aufführung. Helmut Brade, Johannes Harneit und Peter Konwitschny im Gespräch mit Albrecht Puhlmann in Hannover 2004,’ in Oper Leipzig programme to Luigi Nono, Unter der großen Sonne von Liebe beladen/Al gran sole carico d’amore (2009), p.37.
[4] Dirk Philipsen, We Were the People: Voices from East Germany’s Revolutionary Autumn of 1989 (Duke University Press: Durham, NC, 1993), p.200.