Thursday 28 April 2016

Tannhäuser, Royal Opera, 26 April 2016

Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert) and dancers in the Venusberg ballet
Images: Clive Barda/ROH
Royal Opera House

Tannhäuser – Peter Seiffert
Elisabeth – Emma Bell
Venus – Sophie Koch
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christian Gerhaher
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Stephen Milling
Biterolf – Michael Kraus
Walther von der Vogelweide – Ed Lyon
Heinrich der Schreiber – Samuel Sakker
Reimar von Zweter – Jeremy White
Shepherd Boy – Raphael Janssens
Elisabeth’s Attendants – Kiera Lyness, Deborah Peake-Jones, Louise Armit, Kate McCarney

Tim Albery (director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Jon Morrell (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)
Jasmin Vardimon (choreography, Venusberg Scene)
Maxine Braham (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Hartmut Haenchen (conductor)

Wolfram (Christian Gerhaher)

London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO. True, Opera North will bring its concert Ring to the South Bank, but that is a somewhat different matter. Comparisons with serious houses, let alone serious cities, are not encouraging, especially if one widens the comparison to nineteenth-century Italian composers. Quite why is anyone’s guess; the composer is anything but unpopular. More to the point, Wagner and Mozart should stand at the heart of any opera house’s repertory. They can hardly do so if they are so rarely performed.

I mention that not only because it is very important in itself, but because it has serious implications for orchestras. What used to be Bernard Haitink’s orchestra has had a rougher time of things since his departure. Whilst a great conductor – Semyon Bychkov, for instance, in the first run of this production, or more recently, in Die Frau ohne Schatten – can still summon truly great things from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, its day-to-day experience of core German repertory is fading. Here, under Hartmut Haenchen, there were no particular upsets, but there were only hints at what the orchestra has been capable of, and still might be. Haenchen’s conducting had its moments, but it was the heavenly lengths, and how they might fit together, that were lacking. A penny-plain opening to the Overture suggested ‘authenticist’ tendencies, as if Haenchen would rather be conducting the Dresden Tannhäuser, albeit conducting it a little like ‘period’ Mendelssohn. When it came to the music written for Paris, he seemed to linger and to rush, somewhat arbitrarily. There is stylistic ‘incongruity’, yes, if we want to call it that, but should we not be making something of that, even making it into a virtue?

I suspect that Haenchen’s tempi were, on balance, considerably quicker than Bychkov’s; that was certainly not how it felt, especially in the Venusberg, whose pleasures seemed at times interminable (in the wrong sense). Indeed, the exchanges between Tannhäuser and Venus often sounded alarmingly perfunctory, robbed not only of orchestral ‘cushioning’, but of the direction that Wagner’s orchestra-as-Greek Chorus, even at this stage in his career, offers. Of Beethoven, at least as Wagner would have understood him, there was little: perhaps there was, however, of fashionable, ‘period’ Beethoven-cut-down-to-size. Compared to the most recent other Tannhäuser I had heard, superlatively conducted by Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, this was disappointing.
Venus (Sophie Koch)

Disappointing in that very important respect, anyway. There was much more to savour vocally. Peter Seiffert gave a strange performance in the title role: it came and went, seemingly without reason, sometimes, especially in the first act, alarmingly out of tune, at other times spot on, always tireless, even when, understandably, his voice acquired something of an edge in parts of the Rome Narration (movingly despatched). Emma Bell was a wonderful Elisabeth; I do not think I have heard anything finer from her. Sincere but certainly not bland, this Elisabeth’s vocal qualities were subtle yet, where necessary (and it often is!), powerful. Sophie Koch’s Venus was ravishingly sung, words and music in excellent, dramatically productive, balance. Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram is a known quantity to many of us, of course, but no less welcome was it for that. The startling, almost indecent, yet utterly sincere, beauty of Gerhaher’s delivery was once again something for all to remember. There was no need to force the performance; he could draw us in so as to hear a pin drop. Phrasing was just as exemplary. Ed Lyon’s sweetly-sung, dramatically-committed Walther was another pleasure; if only he had had more to sing. Thank goodness, at least, Walther’s solo, only cut from Paris because the tenor could not sing it, was restored. Stephen Milling's sonorous Landgrave was, quite rightly, especially acclaimed by the audience. Young Raphael Janssens acquitted himself well as the Shepherd Boy. So did the chorus (and extra chorus) of Renato Balsadonna, although I think there was greater precision, and perhaps greater weight, under Bychkov in 2010.
The ballet

Tim Albery’s production does not seem to have changed very much. The Venusberg scene is strongest, the ballet well (if more efficiently than probingly) choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon. It might have been raunchier – Wagner’s music here is, after all, the supreme musical manifestation of desperately trying and failing to achieve sexual climax – but it works well enough. Is a point being made about the unsatisfying nature of pornographic voyeurism? That was an assumption, given that our 'hero' only ever watches, but I am not entirely sure. In any case, the sense of the Royal Opera House being on stage is interesting in this opera. In a work whose central event is a song contest, who is performing, and why? Alas, nothing is really followed through, so that one cannot even really tell whether such metatheatrical possibilities are intended. We end up with little more than a mild compendium of clichés. One bizarre exception is the appearance of cowbells – there is, frankly, little to see – when Tannhäuser first returns to ‘normality’. Their lack of coordination would have been irritating in Mahler, but here, in Tannhäuser? If I had been Haenchen, or the house, I should have put a stop to it. This was not some interesting musical recomposition; it was just a bit of a mess.

The war-torn (Balkan?) setting of the second act I presume to have taken its cue from the Landgrave’s ‘Wenn unser Schwert in blutig ernstern Kämpfen stritt für des deutschen Reiches Majestät’. It would be a stretch, however, to say that post-war deprivation was what Tannhäuser might really be ‘about’, at least without some further work on the director’s part. Albery seems content to let Michael Levine’s set designs do the work for him, which of course they cannot. The third act carries on in much the same way. Very much worth hearing for most of the singing, then, but a restricted view would not penalise you unduly.


Sunday 24 April 2016

Aurora Orchestra/Levin - Reicha, Mozart, and Schubert, 23 April 2016

Hall One, Kings Place

Anton Reicha – Overture in D major
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.4 in G major, KV 41
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.3 in D major, KV 40
Schubert – Symphony no.2 in B-flat major, D 125

Aurora Orchestra
Robert Levin (piano/conductor)

Rehearsal picture (Nick Rutter)

Having greatly enjoyed the opening concert in the Aurora Orchestra’s five-year-long exploration of Mozart’s piano concertos, and having had to miss, alas, the second, I greatly looked forward to this, the third, in which the orchestra was joined by Robert Levin for the third and fourth concertos. Expectations were certainly met so far as the orchestra was concerned; likewise with respect to interesting programming. If I had some reservations, and I should not wish to exaggerate them, they related to Levin’s playing and conducting. His podium style, embodying a sort of gauche would-be razzamatazz, would certainly not have been for everyone; nor was it entirely clear to me what the punching in the air, the jumping and dancing actually contributed to the orchestral playing. That playing nevertheless remained at a high level throughout.

The concert opened with a rarity, Anton Reicha’s Overture in D major. Its slow introduction sounded promising indeed, reminiscent of other Bohemian Classical music, although certainly not without its Italianate qualities (Rossini?) Were those echoes of Weber too? It certainly all had the sense of a curtain-raiser, even though this is a concert work. Alas, the interminable main body of the work had little of interest beyond its bizarre quintuple meter; Tchaikovsky this was not. Like so much other ‘minor’ music of the Classical era – I suppose it should be counted as such, rather than ‘early Romantic’ – it chugged along, and it continued to chug, and it… The performance was fresh, alert, seemingly giving the work every chance it could. I doubt I shall be returning to Reicha’s piece, though; I feel no more tempted to do so than I ever have been by his wind quintets.

Reicha had long been settled in Paris when he composed his Overture. It was in Paris that Mozart’s two concertos – or, if you prefer, the music of other composers to which the boy added orchestral parts – were published, and it seems likely that much, at least, of the ‘original’ music became familiar to the Mozarts during their visit to the city in 1763-4. The order reversed for good programming reasons – variation in orchestral forces and key – we heard no.4, in G major, first. Its opening Allegro was lively, if somewhat driven (a hallmark of Levin’s direction, it seems). Levin was certainly unafraid to use a modern piano, but I was often left longing for rather more variation; it was often all rather dogged, indeed heavy-handed. The playing of the two flautists, Juliette Bausor and Emilia Zakrzewska, however, proved a joy. A little more string vibrato, especially from the first violins, would have been welcome in the Andante. The finale was lively, any problems lying with the original material, which perhaps might be characterised as vin ordinaire. Levin’s cadenza – improvised, as his wont – was convincing, well-proportioned, if again a little lacking in performative chiaroscuro.

The Third Piano Concerto returned us to D major, oboes, trumpets, and drums replacing flutes. This immediately sounded like D major in ‘effect’ as well as tonality. It was a vigorous performance that we heard; again, at times, I wished the piano would calm down a little, but the effort and reality of Levin’s cadenza was again much appreciated. Might another director/conductor have made the Andante less four-square? Perhaps. But there was no gainsaying the quality of the finale, originally the work of a decidedly superior composer, CPE Bach. Here, the ‘surprises’ all worked. Every musician in the orchestra was on excellent form; I especially relished contributions from the horn players, Nicolas Fleury and Richard Stroud.

Schubert’s Second Symphony had the second half to itself. Levin took the first movement very fast, perhaps too fast, but the playing was excellent: as fresh, as alert as anything on the programme. There was, moreover, no doubting the emergence of the second group from the first: often easier said than done. I am not sure that taking the exposition repeat was entirely justified, but anyway… Schubert’s stiffness of form was especially apparent in the development; whereas a Colin Davis or a Riccardo Muti can convince one otherwise, such was not to be the case from Levin. The Andante was taken, as is fashionable, at a swift tempo. All instruments, save for trumpets and drums, were given ample opportunity to shine – and took it. A vigorous, unambiguously one-to-a-bar minuet gave way nicely, necessarily to a significantly-relaxed trio. In the finale, I missed the coherence that a great conductor can impart to the music; it needs help. Nevertheless, the playing of the Aurora Orchestra musicians offered a great deal in compensation.


Saturday 23 April 2016

Park Lane Young Artists Spring Series, 19 and 21 April 2016

St John’s, Smith Square

Giles Swayne – Chansons dévotes and poissonneuses
Kurtág – Twelve Microludes, op.13
Blair Soler – Imaginings – Six pieces for string quartet
Josephine Stephenson – Tanka
Freya Waley-Cohen – Oyster
Kate Honey – Predator Fish
Stevie Wishart – Eurostar: A Journey in sound between cities (world premiere)
Brett Dean – String Quartet no.1, ‘Eclipse’

Aike String Quartet (Soh-Yon Kim, Emily Harper (violins), Benjamin Harrison (viola), Karen French (cello))
The Hermes Experiment (Héloïse Werner (soprano), Oliver Pashley (clarinet), Anne Denholm (harp), Marianne Schofield (double bass))

Robin Holloway – Killing Time
Joel Rust – Trio Trio Trio, for string trio (world premiere)
Holloway – String Trio
Othmar Schoeck – Wanderlieder, op.12
Lord Berners – Three English Songs
Morgan Hayes – Dictionary of London
Schoenberg – String Trio, op.45

Nardus Williams (soprano)
Peter Foggitt (piano)
Eblana String Trio (Jonathan Martindale (violin), Lucy Nolan (viola), Peggy Nolan (cello))

St John’s, Smith Square played host last week to no fewer than ten concerts in the Park Lane Group Young Artists Series. Each evening from Monday to Friday offered a short 6 p.m. concert, usually combined with an ‘in conversation’ event with a featured composer, followed by a 7.30 concert, in which that composer’s music would be programmed with that of other composers. I was only able to attend two 7.30 concerts, but was delighted to hear a wide range of music, from which only one work, Schoenberg’s String Trio, was familiar to me.

Tuesday’s concert began with a wonderful surprise: Giles Swayne’s witty Chansons dévotes and poissonneuses, a setting of verse by Georges Fourest. In French – although, somewhat oddly, we were only given English translations in the programme booklet – the songs also sounded very ‘French’ in style. In this performance by The Hermes Experiment, soprano, Héloïse Werner really used the words performatively: not just their meaning but their sound. Use of a clarinet (ravishingly played by Oliver Pashley) perhaps inevitably brought to mind Pierrot lunaire, but the vocal line had nothing to do with Schoenberg, or Sprechstimme. Indeed, there was something almost Ravelian to the vocal tapestry woven. This was tonal music that in no way sounded re-heated, ‘neo-tonal’. Following ‘The music-loving fish’, ‘The old saint’, at its opening, offered in its subtle archaism a splendid evocation of la vieille France; I loved the duetting of clarinet and double bass. Werner was not at all afraid to sound ugly when the text, literally, called for it: ‘Il est trop laid,’ if I remember correctly. The mock sadness of the final ‘Sardines in oil’ had us wondering, almost surreally, what was ‘real’ and what was not. A fine work I should be delighted to heart again, then, in equally fine performances.

Kurtág and Blair Soler followed, with works for string quartet (the Alke String Quartet). The opening cello note of Kurtág’s Microludes almost suggested Verklärte Nacht, but no, this was a very different path to be taken. Kurtág – and his performers, made us listen. Webern-like weighing of notes, in performance and work alike, gave us no other option. Integrity and importance of gesture were to the fore; harmonic turns always surprised and yet were always rendered meaningful. There was a harder-edged sound to Soler’s 2012 Imaginings. Bartók’s example loomed large, but not overwhelmingly: and is there a better example to follow? Intensity was the hallmark again of work and performance, whose furious manner proved compelling.

After the interval, there followed a series of short pieces – all, as it happens, by female composers, although nothing was made of that, and there was no reason why anything should. Josephine Stephenson’s 2016 Tanka (‘short poem’ in Japanese, apparently) proved a well-crafted scena. Freya Waley-Cohen’s Oyster made me think – perhaps irrelevantly – of Katie Mitchell’s Ophelias Zimmer, which ‘frees’ Ophelia from Hamlet. That ‘alchemy’ referred to in Octavia Bright’s text seemed musically to occur at just the same time. (I am afraid I cannot remember quite how, but there was certainly a welcome sense of the transformative.) Kate Honey’s Predator Fish was perhaps most striking to me for its moments of languor. Stevie Wishart’s Eurostar was far more experimental, apparently involving a considerable degree of improvisation. Werner was called upon to imitate the train as well as sing: all carried off with a splendid sense of performance art.

For the final work, we returned to the Alke Quartet. I cannot say I responded particularly fondly to Brett Dean’s First Quartet, but the fault may well have been mine. A slow, soft opening certainly captured attention. Sections were well demarcated. Otherwise, there seemed to be gestures which, by contrast with Kurtág, did not lead anywhere in particular. Forgettable, at least for me, I am afraid.

A movement from Robin Holloway’s Killing Time, for solo soprano, opened the second concert. (At least it seemed to be a single movement, for another text was provided in the booklet, but went unsung.) Nardus Williams proved a compelling performer in Holloway’s Auden setting, ‘As I walked out one evening’. Increasing yet never outrageous deviations from an initially folk-like setting intrigued, with telling, yet sparing, melismata particularly captivating in performance.   

Joel Rust’s Trio Trio Trio, commissioned by the Park Lane Group with funds from the RVW Trust, received its world premiere. I had a keen sense of figures sparking off each other, if that makes any sense. (I am not sure that it does!) Material sounded highly contrasted, especially rhythmically. Moments of melancholy reminded me of an older English tradition, going back to Purcell and beyond. Holloway’s own String Trio received a performance of especial richness from the excellent players of the Eblana String Trio. Early on, I was put somewhat in mind of the Prokofiev of the Second Violin Concerto: more a matter of certain intervals than anything structural, but perhaps that was just my own private concern. There was much overlapping, whether in respect of solos or duos; passages in which all three players were heard together were not exactly few and far between, but nor were they a given. An ecstatic, not entirely un-Schoenbergian climax grabbed my attention.


Two songs by Othmar Schoeck followed the interval: the second and then the first of his op.12 Wanderlieder. The former sounded strikingly post-Schubertian, in a highly likeable performance from Williams and pianist, Peter Foggitt. Schumann seemed more of a guiding presence in the latter, perhaps Brahms too. ‘English with French affinities’ was how I thought of the songs by Lord Berners: entertaining and never overstaying their welcome. Morgan Hayes’s Dictionary of London received a vividly theatrical performance, befitting a piece which, to me, seemed at least equally vivid in its theatricality. Its witty shifting of musical moods left me wanting more: always, I hope, a good sign.

Finally, we heard that towering masterpiece of the chamber repertory, Schoenberg’s String Trio. (Why, o why, do we not hear it more often?) Febrile, intense, this was a fine performance indeed. Every note seemed to matter just as much as it would have done in Webern. One makes connections, of course, with composers such as Brahms and Mozart, and indeed with earlier Schoenberg, but there was no doubting here the new wine for new bottles (to borrow from Liszt). The players’ instrumental singing of Schoenberg’s lines, flexible yet ever goal-directed, would have drawn in the most sceptical of listeners; twelve-note Schoenberg would have been revealed to be just as worthy of their attention as any of the composer’s ‘freely atonal’ works. There was no doubting in performance either the work’s beauty or its formal dynamism.  Developing variation was the thing – and how it unfolded here!


Jenůfa, Czech PO/Bělohlávek, 18 April 2016

Royal Festival Hall

(concert performance)

Jenůfa – Adriana Kohútková
Kostelnička Buryjovka – Karita Mattila
Števa Buryja – Jaroslav Březina
Laca Klemen – Aleš Briscein
Stárek – Svatopluk Sem
Stařenka Buryjovka – Yvona Škvárová
Karolka – Lucie Silkenová
Rychtář – Jana Hrochová
Jano – Marta Reichelová
Pastruchyňa, Barena – Kateriňa Keněžiková

Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno (chorus master: Petr Fiala)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor)

Images: Petr Kadlec
Adriana Kohútková (Jenůfa)

Some people, it seems, are never satisfied. (Is that a tu quoque which I hear before me? Surely not.) I heard a few people during one of the two intervals during this wonderful Jenůfa lament that this was not a staged performance and therefore could not do the work justice. Well, if you felt that strongly about it, you might perhaps have considered not going… I actually very much enjoy many concert performances: not as a substitute, nor indeed as the ‘same thing’. They have their own virtues, not least the greater ability to hear the orchestra – no negligible thing, when the orchestra in question is the Czech Philharmonic. At the risk of sounding unduly reactionary, I also like on occasion not to be distracted by an inadequate production; that, of course, is an argument against inadequate productions, rather than staging as such, but let us leave that now for another day.

For me, perhaps the greatest single virtue of this particular performance was the playing of the Czech Philharmonic. I think this might actually be the first time I have had opportunity to hear this great orchestra ‘in the flesh’; it is difficult to imagine that I could readily have forgotten a previous encounter. What surprised me somewhat was that it did not sound quite so much as I had expected from (largely old) recordings. Its golden sound actually sounded to me in many respects more Viennese than Czech (or at least Moravian, for this is of course a Bohemian band). The beauty of the strings had to be heard to be believed; this was not unlike the Vienna Philharmonic on a good day (perhaps in the celebrated Janáček recordings under Charles Mackerras), or even the nearby Staatskapelle Dresden. Horns, likewise, seemingly straight out of Tannhäuser, perhaps via Bamberg. And the delectable woodwind solos would have graced any orchestra in the world, whilst retaining a sense of that most contentious of ‘national’ or ‘regional’ claims: rootedness in place.

None of that, however, was ‘mere’ beauty. What struck me about what I heard from all sections and all instruments of the orchestra, as well as the ensemble as a whole, was how, under Jiří Bělohlávek’s wise, intelligent, loving direction, what little I know (mostly from Janáček’s music!) of Czech speech rhythms truly seemed to ‘speak’ in the orchestra as well as in the vocal line. Just as much as Mussorgsky, this was instrumental recitative and arioso brought to lyrical life. Bělohlávek’s tempi were varied, with plenty of time for relaxation as well as for pressing on; above all they sounded ‘natural’.
Karita Mattila and Jiří Bělohlávek

That bringing to lyrical life to which I referred was also much to be heard from a fine cast. The sheer goodness of Jenůfa’s soul – a Czech Hardy, I often think, in this work – was to be heard in Adriana Kohútková’s performance. The compassion this Jenůfa had in abundance was ultimately to be repaid. Jaroslav Březina’s initially swaggering Steva had its subtleties too. His was an admirably balanced portrayal, in which this listener at least felt no need of a staging. Likewise Aleš Briscein’s Laca, whose initial petulance was but the start of a development of character with which we could truly sympathise. What singing, ‘purely’ as singing too! The Puccinian element of the relationship between Laca and Jenůfa was apparent, but so was the difference of Janáček: no sadism here. Karita Mattila’s Kostelnička was earth-shattering, an extraordinary move from the title-role (she was my first Jenůfa, in Bernard Haitink’s magnificent Royal Opera performances). There is no denying Mattila’s ‘star quality’: when she stands, let alone when she sings, everyone in the hall will sit up. This, however, was a deeply felt performance, too, the richness of her voice again the quintessence of compassionate humanity. Yvona Škvárová's Stařenka seemed less a portrayal than an inhabition. Indeed, all of the roles, however ‘small’ or large, were very well taken: a lesson to opera houses of the incalculable blessings of a real sense of ‘company’. To round things off, the choral singing, from the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, was outstanding: here, perhaps was something a little rougher than what we had heard in the orchestra, even, dare I say it, more Moravian.


For St George's Day: 'migrant' and other suspect English music

I am, I hope, one of the least nationalistic people alive, but I could not help thinking, when seeing a Gramophone list of ‘Top 10 English Composers’ for St George’s Day, that we could do a great deal better than that. John Tavener (rather than John Taverner)? Delius, seriously? The ludicrously overrated Britten (who might make it in for The Turn of the Screw, but for little else)? Not that I expect members of the Campaign for Real Barnacles to agree, but I thought I should offer an alternative top ten, celebrating not only, in ‘nativist’ style, those born here, but those who lived and worked here.

John Taverner: composer of music of such complexity as to make most post-Schoenbergian music seem like ‘easy listening’. He saw the light, thank goodness; he seems to have become a proper Englishman and gave up on music.

William Byrd: a traitor in hock to un-English, Italianate Popery who composed for other such traitors (the politically correct might call them ‘recusants’ or even 'victims of state-sponsored religious persecution', the Muslims of their day).
Henry Purcell: the English Orpheus, whose music, alas, drew far too heavily upon Frenchified nonsense.

George Frideric Handel: a German ‘migrant’ in the service of German ‘migrant’ monarchs.

Franz Joseph Haydn: a shady ‘Croat’ who shamelessly took away ‘British jobs for British people’, even ‘sending home’ the money he purloined; Gordon Brown would have had none of that.

Felix Mendelssohn: Another temporary ‘migrant’, not only German, but shock horror, Jewish too. Still, he visited Birmingham.

Edward Elgar: composer of German music, masquerading as an Englishman.

Alexander Goehr: son of a German ‘migrant’ who, still worse, was a pupil of Schoenberg and had the temerity to introduced Monteverdi’s foreign 1610 Vespers to this scepter’d isle.

Harrison Birtwistle: composer of such cacophony that a group of common-sense Englishmen assumed their patriotic duty to ‘heckle’ performances of music closer to Stravinsky than to H Balfour Gardiner. From ‘The North’.

Rebecca Saunders: a woman, who moved to Germany. I can’t imagine why.
And I’ve still had to omit John Dowland and many others. Oh well: next year.


Tuesday 19 April 2016

LSO/Rattle - Haydn, Die Jahreszeiten, 17 April 2016

Barbican Hall
Monika Eder (soprano)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Florian Boesch (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

Talk about a hard act to follow: Sir Colin Davis’s final performance of The Seasons, available for all of us to hear on LSO Live (I had to miss the performance on account of a wedding), a clear first-choice recommendation on disc. Did Sir Colin’s knighted LSO successor-to-be have a chance? Of sounding like that, no? But then that is not what Simon Rattle was trying to do. Whilst I am more in sympathy, to put it mildly, with Davis’s approach, that should not preclude me, or indeed anyone else, from finding much of worth in Rattle’s Haydn. Whereas I have found his Mozart and Beethoven well-nigh unbearably mannered, he has long seemed closer to Haydn’s spirit and his advocacy of the composer – who, incredibly, still desperately needs such advocacy – is gratefully received. I enjoyed this performance greatly, and had the sense that my enjoyment was shared in the rest of the audience.

‘Spring’ opened in the anticipated low- yet certainly not no-vibrato fashion. Rattle seemed eager to draw from the LSO, and how, a keen sense of the sheer strangeness of Haydn’s orchestral colours, even suggesting a kinship – perhaps via Haydn’s experience of the Concert spirituel? – with Rameau. Split violins definitely helped the sense of back and forth between firsts and seconds, but there were times when a longer string line would have been, to my ears at least, desirable. The care over orchestral detail, which rarely descended into fussiness, persisted into Simon’s recitative, the orchestral crescendo following ‘Ihm folgt auf seinen Ruf’ beautifully handled, keenly dramatic. All three voices in this opening number, Florian Boesch, Andrew Staples, and Monika Eder, were shown to be well contrasted and their contributions well characterised. The London Symphony Chorus, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, was on magnificent form, offering verbal clarity and meaning, as well as great character, from its opening ‘Komm, holder Lenz!’ onwards. Dynamic contrasts and concern for phrasing were to the fore, without exaggeration; here, the LSO strings offered great polish. Simon’s aria, ‘Schon eilet froh der Ackermann’, offered smiles in both the vocal line and the orchestra. Rattle might not have sounded ‘like’ Beecham, but perhaps there was a little of his spirit here nevertheless? Staples’s Tamino-like tenor was welcome in the Farmer’s Prayer and much that we heard after too; the blend between his Lucas, Boesch’s Simon, and Eder’s Hannah, was here heard to near perfection. So was the sheer goodness of Haydn – as man and as composer. Hannah sounded nicely in ‘character’, or at least in ‘type’, in the ‘Song of Joy’, likewise ‘her’ Lucas; although the voices are different, there was more than a hint of Adam and Eve from The Creation, or Papageno and Papagena. Boesch’s reference to the breath of the Creator reminded us splendidly of the particular theology of this work.

Summer likewise opened with very little lower string vibrato: fair enough, for Lucas tells us of the morning light being veiled in grey mist. There was all the more contrast to be heard then with the lustig singing of Boesch in ‘Der munt’re Hirt’, and some lovely horn playing there too. The chorus did not disappoint in its hymn to the sun, although I was a little surprised by the Karajan-like metal Rattle imparted to ‘Die Segen, o wer zählet sie?’ He is certainly not predictable, which is mostly to the good. I greatly enjoyed the way the LSO and Staples (and Rattle) polished Lucas’s Cavatina, ‘Dem Druck erlieget der Natur’, a jewel, and here it sounded as such, of Webern-like quality. Olivier Stankiewicz’s oboe solos in Hannah’s recitative and aria were as delectable as anyone might ever dream of, perhaps more so, the LSO strings buzzing with properly insect-like quality in the former number. The calm before the storm was unnervingly apparent, not only in string pizzicato, but in Eder’s apprehension. When it came, choral and orchestral terror had nothing to fear from Beethovenian, even Wagnerian, comparisons. One could still hear, moreover, Haydn’s part-writing from the LSC; this was no mere ‘effect’. (For all that I love Karl Böhm’s VSO recording, the singing of the Wiener Singverein can be a bit of a trial.) Either one loves the animals in the Trio and Chorus, ‘Die düst’ren Wolken’, or one does not; even Haydn professed not to do so. Dare I suggest that he was wrong, or that he might have changed his mind about ‘frenchified trash’, had he heard the LSO players? And yes, the evening bell tolled surely, above all lovingly. The closing chorus could have made an avowed city-boy such as yours truly think twice about rejecting rural life out of hand.

The Introduction to ‘Autumn’ was not a high-point for me; I could not really understand why Rattle was so keen to play down the LSO strings. One can certainly have prominent woodwind without doing so; ask Davis, or Klemperer. Anyway, the Chorus in praise of industry benefited greatly from Boesch’s easy Austrian way with the text. It got the second half of the concert off to a rollicking start, rasping brass (clearly Rattle’s choice) notwithstanding. The Magic Flute came to mind once again in the Duet between Hannah and Lucas, although so did Schubert in one especially ‘special’ modulation. Rachel Gough’s bassoon solo was a delight in the neo-Handelian ‘Seht auf die breiten Wiesen hin!’ As for the Hunting Chorus, now as politically correct as Monostatos, the four horns and the men of the LSC performed it for all it was worth (a great deal!) The drunken chorus thereafter was despatched with due revelry: far more theatrical than with Davis, but none the worse for it.

The grave beauty of the Introduction to ‘Winter’ set it quite apart from anything we had heard previously; again, it was The Magic Flute, this time its trials, that seemed closest, although the sadness to be heard as the movement progressed was closer (and not just harmonically) to Tristan und Isolde. Boesch’s dignity here was greatly valued. Eder seemed to come into her own in the Spinning Chorus, presenting it as a cousin to its opposite number in The Flying Dutchman. The following solo song with chorus, quite rightly, sounded closer still to Weber, Der Freischütz in particular. Boesch’s way with that wonderful final aria, ‘Erblicke hier, betörter Mensch,’ presented an almost Sachs-like (Wahn monologue), psychoanalytical clearing of the mists. And finally, the great trio and double chorus, harking back not only to The Magic Flute but also to Israel in Egypt: what a joyous farewell, especially from the LSC, we heard to the eighteenth century!
The concert was recorded for broadcast in early May by Sky Arts.

Friday 15 April 2016

L'Oca del Cairo, London Mozart Players, 14 April 2016

St John’s, Smith Square

Don Pippo – Quirijn de Lang
Celidora – Fflur Wyn
Lavina – Soraya Mafi
Biondello – Robert Murray
Auretta – Ellie Laugharne
Donna Pantea – Victoria Simmonds
Calandrino – Christopher Diffey
Chichibio – Alexander Robin Baker

Oriana Choir
London Mozart Players
David Parry (conductor)

I wanted to like this; I really did. On the face of it, it seemed to offer so much of what I liked, so much of what I approved. Stephen Oliver’s 1990 completion of Mozart’s aborted opera buffa, L’Oca del Cairo is neither an exercise in pastiche nor in pasticcio. Instead, Oliver composes his own music and reworks the plot and libretto to create something theatrically viable, or so the claim goes. Alas, there remains too much and too little of Giovanni Battista Varesco. English translation probably does not help, but nor does the reordering, which renders a silly libretto more straightforwardly confusing. I am afraid to say I gave up trying to work out what was going on, excellent diction from an impressive cast notwithstanding.

The real problem, I think, is Oliver’s music. Reading the programme, one learns that this was someone who clearly meant a great deal to a number of friends, Jonathan Dove (who gave a brief, spoken introduction) and Jane Glover included. That does not, alas, translate for the rest of us into being an interesting composer. There is certainly competence, never to be disdained; someone could hardly have composed forty-four (!) operas without gaining a good deal of craftsmanship. By the sound of it – the programme tributes, rather than the other forty-three operas, which I doubt I shall be listening to – such craftsmanship was indeed there all along. I had previously encountered Oliver as provider of new secco recitatives (to replace the wretched efforts of Süssmayr) for La clemenza di Tito: an important job, very well done, to be found on a Glyndebourne DVD under Andrew Davis. There he writes ‘in style’, and indeed my sole complaint would be that there is nothing evidently of the new to them; in some moods, I have longed for a Berio, now for someone else, to do something more with and indeed to the work. Here, Oliver writes in what I must presume to be his own style and language, which emerges, a few more modernist moments aside, as rather drearily sub-Britten, even Shostakovich-like. A repeated slow waltz intrigued, but it was not entirely clear to me what it was doing where it was. For the most part, it all sounds a bit 1980s Channel 4, or maybe BBC 2. There is far more Oliver than there is Mozart; with one exception, in the final scene, in which the (new) composer interpolates himself, they follow each other in orderly fashion, with contrast of a sort, but one that served only to have me long for the return of Mozart.

That return would have been more welcome, had David Parry not harried Mozart so. His was a ruthlessly hard-driven, quite charmless account of Mozart’s contributions: Mackerras, and then some; or, if you prefer, Rossini without any smiles. The London Mozart Players themselves sounded splendid. At least they were not denied vibrato, although Mozart really needs a larger band (only four first violins), even in so warm an acoustic as that of St John’s Smith Square. Parry and the ensemble sounded more at home in Oliver; it is doubtless my problem that I was not. Peter Schreier’s CPE Bach Chamber Orchestra recording is a much better bet (along with Colin Davis, no less, in Lo sposo deluso).

That said, there was some good singing to enjoy. The young cast acted well, insofar as what was essentially a concert performance permitted, interacting with each other impressively in vocal terms too. I was especially pleased to hear Quirijn de Lang’s agile baritone; more than once, I thought I should like to hear him as Count Almaviva. Robert Murray’s tenor was more of a known quantity to me, but no less welcome for that; his performance was just as alert and lively. Likewise that of Christopher Diffey, both vocally and dramatically (insofar as the work permitted). Alexander Robin Baker showed a similar gift for comedy and style. At times, Ellie Laugharne’s performance was a little strident for my taste, but hers was a committed performance nevertheless. All of the vocal performances had something valuable to offer, soprano Soraya Mafi another welcome discovery for me.


Wednesday 13 April 2016

McCawley/RPO/Davan Wetton - Mozart and Haydn, 12 April 2016

Cadogan Hall

Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro, KV 492: Overture
Mozart – Vesperæ solennes de confessore, KV 339: ‘Laudate dominum’
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.21 in C major, KV 467
Haydn – Missa in tempore belli, Hob.XXII/9

Leon McCawley (piano)
Grace Davidson (soprano)
Anna Harvey (mezzo-soprano)
Mark Wilde (tenor)
Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
City of London Choir
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Hilary Davan Wetton (conductor)

A wonderful concert, quite the tonic (if you will forgive the Classical pun, initially unintended). Hilary Davan Wetton and the RPO began with the Figaro Overture. ‘Authenticists’, although not the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, would probably have described it as ‘sedate’, but it was not; there was life to it and real symphonic stature too (lack of a development section notwithstanding). Crisp, warm, with nothing exaggerated to the accents, nor to anything else, it sounded just right. There was some gorgeous horn-playing too.

My only complaint about the next item was that we did not get to hear the entire KV 339 Vespers. No matter: we heard a lovely account of the most celebrated ‘number’, ‘Laudate Dominum’. Grace Davidson offered a clean, honest, stylishly ornamented performance of the soprano part, her bell-like voice ideally suited. Warm playing and choral singing from the City of London Choir were equally appreciated.

Leon McCawley joined the orchestra for an excellent performance of the C major Piano Concerto, KV 467. Davan Wetton imparted a fine sense of the martial quasi-neo-Classicism (think La clemenza di Tito, but not quite) to the opening tutti. Sternness but also a willingness to yield were hallmarks of the performance as a whole. Lovely wind playing was answered by McCawley’s pearly tone, every note weighed for its colour, without a hint of pedantry. The music ‘flowed like oil’, as someone once said. Trills were an especial joy. The second group was, rightly, both related and contrasted to what had gone before, form assuming its own dynamism and balance. The piano writing looked forward at times to Beethoven, without ever sounding quite ‘like’ him. Nina Milkina’s cadenza here (and in the finale) offered a winning sense of fidelity through Romantic anachronism. The slow movement benefited from beautiful string playing, a perfect marriage of arco and pizzicato redolent of warm evening serenades. If that evoked Salzburg, McCawley’s piano evoked Vienna, and rightly so. Phrasing was inobtrusively ‘right’, a tribute to soloist, orchestra, and conductor alike. Above all, the music sang. The finale emerged as heir to both its predecessors, the RPO woodwind leading us into a veritable garden of delights. Chamber and orchestral tendencies were held in splendid balance throughout.

Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli received an equally fine performance. Its opening ‘Kyrie’ already seemed to speak both of the composer’s warm humanity and of his symphonic-developmental genius. Davidson’s soprano entry presented us with a change of tempo and mood, with all the virtues of her solo performance. Davan Wetton took the movement at quite a lick, yet without hurrying, let alone harrying, it. And how could one not fall in love, were one not already, with the composer of those responsorial (now soprano/alto to tenor/bass, now vice versa) eleisons? The ‘Gloria’ likewise had a proper sense of Haydn’s gloriously civilised eighteenth-century nature, with serious symphonic backbone lest one fall back on clichés of ‘Papa’. Davan Wetton’s choral experience was very clear – and welcome, as was the discipline of the singers themselves. The cello solo for the ‘Qui tollis’ section had its richness matched – sorry about another unintended pun – by that of the bass-baritone of Ashley Riches. Clarity and warmth were, again, shown to be anything but antithetical. There was a gloriously rich choral sound too on ‘suscipe’, followed by hushed by ‘deprecationem nostram’ premonitions of the Missa solemnis, also to be heard upon the imprecation ‘miserere nobis’. Highly convincingly, the ‘Quoniam’ section was taken at the tempo of a typical Haydn symphonic finale. Those ‘Amens’: again, how could one not adore them?

The opening of the ‘Credo’ was taken slower, the sturdiness of the Church as Rock of St Peter vividly communicated. Haydn’s neo-Baroque tendencies were here given their full due. The dark orchestral writing of the ‘Et incarnatus est’ section, not just its harmonies, but also its neo-Handelian writing for bassoon (I thought of the Witch of Endor), was splendidly conveyed. Mark Wilde’s Italianate manner and Anna Harvey’s richness of tone somehow both seemed to prepare the way for the firework-like ‘Et resurrexit’. The final fugue, quite rightly, returned to that opening sturdiness, again evoking Handel. Out of that, the ‘Amens’ sounded gorgeous: fruit that was almost Mozartian in its indecency.

Sweetness and vigour characterised the ‘Sanctus’, Wilde’s contribution finely balanced. The ‘Bendictus’ sounded both tragically imploring and imploringly tragic, prior to the balm of the major mode, properly post-Mozartian in its ambivalence. Musical values were never sacrificed to the merely ‘theatrical’ in the ‘Agnus Dei’, although the military music was played for everything it was worth. (Again, Haydn seemed to steal from the Beethovenian future.) Choral consolation was as real as it was lovable. We all need more Haydn in our lives; we all need more choral Haydn in our lives. Next stop: The Seasons on Sunday, from the LSO and Simon Rattle.