Thursday 30 June 2016

Die Walküre, Opera North, 29 June 2016

Brünnhilde (Kelly Cae Hogan)
Images: Clive Barda

Royal Festival Hall
Siegmund – Michael Weinius
Sieglinde – Lee Bisset
Hunding – James Creswell
Wotan – Robert Hayward
Brünnhilde – Kelly Cae Hogan
Fricka – Yvonne Howard
Gerhilde – Giselle Allen
Ortlinde – Kate Valentine
Waltraute – Heather Shipp
Schwertleite – Claudia Huckle
Helmwige – Katherine Broderick
Siegrune – Sarah Castle
Grimgerde – Fiona Kimm
Rossweisse – Madeleine Shaw

Peter Mumford (concert staging, design concept, lighting, projection)
Joe Austin (associate director)

Orchestra of Opera North
Richard Farnes (conductor)

A day is now a very long time indeed in politics; would that it were otherwise. It certainly is in the Ring, as we move forward a generation to Die Walküre. I had two principal reservations for the ‘first day’ proper of the trilogy ‘with preliminary evening’, the odd minor niggle, and otherwise nothing but praise. Opera North continues to put many starrier, yet in no sense superior, companies to shame.

Sieglinde (Lee Bisset)
Robert Hayward’s Wotan was for me the weakest link. It was not a bad performance, and his facial expressions conveyed a great deal (at least for someone as lucky as I to be seated towards the front of the Stalls, or indeed for those watching on the big screen in the Clore Ballroom, for which many thanks should go to the Southbank Centre). His vowels were often odd, though, and there was less of an expressive range than one might have hoped for. Otherwise, there was little to complain about in the cast, and, as I said, much to praise. I have heard more heroic Siegmunds than Michael Weinius, but his was a thoughtful, eminently musical performance throughout. Siegmund’s love for his sister-bride was palpable. And how could it not be, given so fine a performance as we heard from Lee Bisset? For me, she was the star of the show: no mere victim, but a woman with agency, however much circumstances – and bourgeois society –might have repressed her. I cannot instantly recall a more compleat Sieglinde ‘in the flesh’, perhaps because I have not heard one.

Hunding (James Creswell)
Yvonne Howard’s triumphant – though for how long? – Fricka was again pretty much everything it should have been. Her dialectical path to victory over her husband chilled as it must, not least since the orchestra (on which more soon) told so very different a story, a story of, in Wagner’s celebrated phrase, the ‘purely human’. Her vassal, Hunding, was in the excellent hands – and voice – of James Creswell. Brutal authoritarianism is the character’s stock-in-trade; so it was that of his interpreter.  Latent slavery in the family,’ we learn in both The German Ideology of Wagner’s contemporaries, Marx and Engels, and in Hunding’s treatment of Sieglinde, ‘is the first form of property. … Division of labour and private property are, after all, identical expressions.’ And Wagner never had any doubt that marriage was slavery; nor did we. Kelly Cae Hogan made for a wonderfully impressive Brünnhilde, her transformation as witness to the truest of love both plausible and highly moving. Hers, moreover, seemed to be a staged performance in all but name; this was certainly an artist who lived the role. All of the Valkyries were on excellent form. One might have taken dictation from them individually, and yet their ensemble was equally excellent. I doubt I have heard finer.

That other reservation was Richard Farnes’s conducting of the first act. It certainly was not anything to which anyone could reasonably object. However – and mine seems to be very much a minority report here – I did not really find that it caught fire until toward the end of the final scene, just, actually, as fire began to blaze as part of the (now somewhat irritating) projections above the stage. As soon as we returned after the first interval, there was, by contrast, no letting up. It is the mark of a great Wagner conductor that he can weld the second act of Die Walküre together as not only a convincing whole, but perhaps as the most profoundly moving act in the entire Ring (at least until one comes to the next, and the next!) Amongst conductors I have heard ‘live’ in this work, Bernard Haitink and Daniel Barenboim have proved themselves true masters in that respect. Farnes now joins their company. There was, both here and in the third act, an almost infinite variegation of tempo, without ever losing sight of the whole.

Orchestral balances were just as fine, likewise the often wondrous playing of the Orchestra of Opera North. If I found the strings a little subdued in the first act, they were, by the time of Wotan’s Farewell, not far off a match for a great Central European orchestra, with a sheen to match. The otherworldliness of what we heard during the Annunciation of Death could scarcely have been outdone, brass and timpani playing their roles as the characters-cum-commentators they are. As Ludwig Feuerbach wrote, in his Thoughts on Death and Immortality, a crucial, acknowledged influence upon Wagner: ‘Only when the human once again recognises that there exists not merely an appearance of death, but an actual and real death, a death that completely terminates the life of an individual, only when he returns to the awareness of his finitude will he gain the courage to begin a new life and to experience the pressing need for making … that which is actually infinite [death] into the theme and content of his entire spiritual activity.’ The orchestra was not the least of Wagner’s instruments on this evening in having us realise the full truth of that message. And so, Siegmund’s heroism proved to be as much that of the orchestra as his own – which is just as it should be.


Wednesday 29 June 2016

Das Rheingold, Opera North, 28 June 2016

Royal Festival Hall

Wotan – Michael Druiett
Donner – Andrew Foster-Williams
Froh – Marc Le Brocq
Loge – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Fricka – Yvonne Howard
Freia – Giselle Allen
Erda – Ceri Williams
Alberich – Jo Pohlheim
Mime – Richard Roberts
Fasolt – James Creswell
Fafner – Mats Almgren
Woglinde – Jeni Bern
Wellgunde – Madeleine Shaw
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle

Peter Mumford (concert staging, design concept, lighting and projection)
Joe Austin (associate director)

Orchestra of Opera North
Richard Farnes (conductor)

Rhinemaiden mechanics at the 1876 Ring

Das Rheingold is, of course, the reddest in tooth and claw of all Wagner’s dramas – which is saying something. The only path to denying its socialism would be never to have encountered it, or at least never to have listened to it. That, I can only assume, must have been the ‘non-expert’ path to enlightenment taken by Michael Gove, whose unpleasant presence I suffered in the row behind me at Bayreuth in 2014. Goodness knows what damage Frank Castorf’s post-dramatic theatre wrought to his 'back-to-basics' mentality; maybe that is why, Alberich-like, he elected to destroy this country, this continent, the world. It is certainly no easy thing to imagine a Rhinemaiden falling voluntarily into his clutches. But then even Wagner did not quite possess the venom to invent Mrs Gove, Sarah Vine. With typical not-quite-even-handedness, he wrote of Lohengrin’s Ortrud to Liszt, in 1852: ‘a male politician disgusts us; a female politician appals us.’ Ladies and gentlemen of the Festival Hall, take your pick: the Conservative Party leadership election awaits.

I could go on, and on, and on, as someone once almost drawled. Opera North, sadly, could hardly have found London in more electrically receptive – ‘electrical reception’ is perhaps a concept better left to the ‘experts’ – mode than today. The Ring can be made, in some senses might even be claimed to be, about everything. (I once even managed to bring in Norman Tebbit; the pleasure was doubtless mutual.) As Wagner wrote, also to Liszt, the following year: ‘Yes, I should like to perish in Valhalla’s flames! — Mark well my new poem — it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!’ It is, just as much as Marx’s Capital, to quote Maximilien Rubel, ‘a history of a world in the course of self-destruction, a pathology of an inhuman society’. And as we, like the gods in Valhalla, sit back in horror to watch the flames envelop us, we find ourselves, if anything, still more receptive than usual to an inquiry into where it all began, where it all went wrong.

A staging could help, of course, none more so than Patrice Chéreau’s legendary ‘Centenary Ring’. It is not necessary, though. Whilst every bone in my body resists both that conclusion and the admission that the two best Ring performances of my life have taken place in the concert hall, the desire to be a little bit more truthful than Gove, Johnson, et al., a little more scrupulous with my obligations than Wotan, means that I must. Strangely, both took place in the Royal Albert Hall, a less-than-ideal venue, to put it mildly. It mattered not a jot, though, whether under Bernard Haitink (Royal Opera, 1998: my first) or Daniel Barenboim (2013 Proms, see here, here, here, and here!) Nor has it here at the Festival Hall, at least so far. Direction from Peter Mumford and Joe Austin is clear, accomplishing a good deal with relatively little. Projections offer titles, a little atmosphere (the Rhine, clouds, etc.), and, for those who would benefit, a little additional background. Whilst we all await Stefan Herheim and Dmitri Tcherniakov’s stagings for different houses in Berlin, concert stagings continue to have much to offer.

A particular advantage of such concert stagings is the placing of the orchestra, literally, centre stage. It is, at least, an advantage with such excellent playing and conducting as we experienced here. One really had the sense of an orchestra that knew this music, an orchestra that had lived with it, an orchestra that was here reaching the climax of its involvement with it (although let us hope that there will be much more Wagner to come from Opera North). There was barely a blemish to be heard. More importantly, the ebb and flow, Wagner’s celebrated melos, was there to be heard, to be felt: nothing exaggerated, but flowing like – well, the mighty Rhine itself. Richard Farnes proved a sure guide indeed. If he is not Barenboim, then so what? Who is? Farnes’s evident knowledge and understanding of the score, of its twists and turns, of how to navigate them, and of how to maintain the musico-narrative thrust put the generally pitiful efforts of, say, Haitink’s successor at the Royal Opera to shame, likewise those fashion victims who have extolled those sorry attempts. If there were times when I felt the orchestra might have been encouraged to play out a little more, to sound still more as the Greek Chorus of Wagner’s æsthetic imagination, this was never mere ‘accompaniment’.

As Wotan, Michael Druiett looked eerily reminiscent of Donald McIntyre for Chéreau and Boulez. If he did not quite show that depth of familiarity with the work, there was little to complain about. Audibly struggling in the final scene, he lost his voice completely at one point towards the end, but that was clearly a throat problem rather than technical incapability. His was a thoughtful performance throughout. Jo Pohlheim was a properly malevolent Alberich; I look forward to hearing more from him in Siegfried. If a Loge does not steal the show, something will most likely have gone awry; Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke’s satirical edge, his vivid sense of theatre (even in the concert hall) certainly aided Wagner’s message to hit home. Mats Almgren made for a suitably dark Fafner, James Creswell lighter of tone than one often hears as his brother, Fasolt, but none the worse for that. Richard Roberts’s Mime was more than just wheedling. His words and their import registered strongly, likewise his character’s sheer misery in nostalgia for old Nibelheim. Yvonne Howard’s Fricka offered majesty but also vulnerability. The other gods and, especially, the Rhinemaidens made a good deal of their moments in the spotlight. If Ceri Williams’s intonation as Erda were not quite what it might have been to begin with, she soon made up for that in a dignified portrayal that did not lack mystery. As for the Nibelung scream, ‘recorded by the Opera North Children’s Chorus’: it ‘felt our pain’.

Tuesday 28 June 2016

Goerne/Bezuidenhout - Beethoven, 27 June 2016

Wigmore Hall

Resignation, WoO 149
An die Hoffnung, op.32
Lied aus der Ferne, WoO 137
Mailied, op.52 no.4
Der Liebende, WoO 139
Six Gellert-Lieder, op.48
An die Hoffnung, op.94
Adelaide, op.46
Wonne der Wehmut, op.83 no.1
Das Liedchen von der Ruhe, op.52 no.3
An die Geliebte, WoO 140 (1814 revision)
An die ferne Geliebte, op.98

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)

Any regular readers I might have might find themselves a little surprised to see me writing on a Beethoven recital with fortepiano. I confess that, when I first looked at the Wigmore Hall website, I saw ‘piano’ and assumed that Kristian Bezuidenhout would be playing on a modern instrument. Players do ‘switch’, after all. Then, having arranged to go, I told myself to be open-minded. I am glad that I did, since Bezuidenhout’s playing was often a joy; indeed, in many respects, rather to my surprise, I found him better suited than Matthias Goerne to these songs. If there were times when I missed the fuller tone of a modern Steinway, or even better, a Bösendorfer, my ears adjusted to the sound of the 1824 Graf instrument, and I listened for its virtues rather than making myself cross about what was not there. (We have all had enough exercises in futility for a while!) Goerne, by contrast, whilst offering committed, intelligent performances, did not seem to me quite in his element; he needs more gloom, more tragedy.

Resignation, then, was not a bad place to start. This late song (well, relatively late: 1817) certainly sounded resigned in a subtle performance from both artists. I am not quite sure what happened with An die Hoffnung, op.32; what Goerne sang was certainly not, in the first stanza, what was written in the programme. I do not have a score to hand to check. Anyway, the variation between stanzas was well handled, Bezuidenhout arguably first among equals in that respect. I missed greater depth in the 1809 Lied aus der Ferne, at least to start with. That said, the transformation of what initially struck me as mere prettiness into something more akin to the ‘namenlose Freude’ of Fidelio, and onward to good humour, was again skilfully handled. I was a little unsure about a certain motoric quality to some of the keyboard playing in the Goethe Mailied. It was clearly an interpretative decision, since Bezuidenhout would then quickly, pleasingly yield; I am just not quite sure why. A Schubertian tinge to Der Liebende was most welcome.

The Gellert Lieder suffer from dreadful words, the harking back of their theology to the eighteenth century almost, if not quite, the least of their problems. There is musical interest, though, even if it is not maintained consistently. The goodness, ‘Güte’, of the opening ‘Bitten’ came across strongly, hearteningly, and there was a nicely declamatory quality, not just in the vocal line, to ‘Die Liebe des Nächsten’. ‘Vom Tode’ is much closer to Goerne home territory, and so it sounded, looking forward not only to Winterreise but even to Brahms’s Four Serious Songs. The next two songs are much more backward-looking; for me, they underline above all that Beethoven was much less a song-composer, or much less consistently so, than Schubert. The closing Bußlied, however, is more ‘Romantic’, even if the words constrain Beethoven; at least if we take the Missa solemnis to be what his religious thought was really concerned with. Bezuidenhout navigated with ease the tricky twists and turns, a sure and often charming guide.

Another An die Hoffnung, op.94, opened the second half. The immediate note of contrasting desolation was promising; the subsequent turn to Fidelio-land also convinced. However, the tessitura did not always seem well-suited to Goerne’s voice, and the song is not without its passages of dullness. The lovely early Adelaide was much more of a pleasure, Bezuidenhout revelling in its quiet, post-Mozartian exultancy. Innigkeit was very much the order of the day, greatly welcome, in Wonne der Wehmut and Das Liedchen von der Ruhe. An die Geliebte offered a lighter interlude prior to the moment we had all been waiting for.

An die ferne Geliebte, one of the greatest and most underrated of song-cycles, did not disappoint. ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich, spähend…’ it begins, and so it sounded, as if Goerne were sitting, gazing. Bezuidenhout drew attention to the differentiation of ‘accompaniment’ in each stanza. Sometimes, again, I wished for something his instrument could not do, but not that often. His handling of the transitions between songs could hardly be faulted: vivid in its own narrative quality. The lightness of the opening stanza to the third song, ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’, offered welcome contrast; so, to that, did what came thereafter. When we reached May – ‘Es kehret der Maien’ – it really sounded like it, at least in the piano part. The desolation of its final line, ‘Und Tränen sind all ihr Gewinnen’, was very much Goerne’s, though. The noble simplicity of the closing ‘Nimm sie hin den, diese Lieder’ showed both artists at their best, the return of the opening theme in the piano part as heart-stopping as it should be.


Monday 27 June 2016

Letter to my MP, Jim Fitzpatrick

Dear Jim,

As I write to you, the country is descending further and further into chaos, that chaos including a level of racial violence few of us thought we should ever see again on our streets. (How foolish we were, or at least how foolish I was!) Not a word of condemnation is uttered by those who voted for us to leave the European Union, which tells us much of what we need to know about them. The country threatens to drag the rest of Europe with us, and who knows how much else of the world?

And for what, so that Boris Johnson could realise his dream to lead the Conservative Party? A supreme careerist, he now clearly does not even want to leave the European Union; whatever Johnson might be, and I fear I lack the vocabulary to describe him, he is not a man of principle. Perhaps, then, there might lie a chink of light in that unquenched ambition. I am more inclined to place my faith in the twin wisdom of Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Merkel. However, we should clearly accept help from wherever it comes at this point.  

It is for that reason that I write to ask you to do whatever you can as an MP to prevent further catastrophe. The advocates of ‘restoration’ of parliamentary sovereignty cannot have it both ways; if Parliament is sovereign, then the referendum cannot be anything other than advisory. Legal opinion, moreover, seems quite clear that the Prime Minister cannot issue a declaration under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty without an Act of Parliament. (See, for instance, here:

As an academic, I know only too well how catastrophic departure from the EU would be for our universities. The Principal of my own institution, Royal Holloway, University of London, has been doing a good job in trying to calm nerves a little, but that, sadly, is all he can do at the moment.

As a Londoner, I know how catastrophic departure would be for this city; moreover, I see the terrible damage already being done to our open, inclusive city. London’s response to the referendum could hardly have been clearer. I know only too well the fears of EU residents concerning the future. Many of them are my close friends; many of them are my colleagues; many of them are my students.

As a constituent of yours, I also know only too well the dangers further violence could hold for Tower Hamlets. We have built something of which we can and should be proud here; we must do whatever we can to safeguard that and to go further.

As a European, I am fiercely proud of our continent’s common heritage: not in an exclusive sense, but as a recognition of who we are, of what we have done well, of what we might continue to do well, and, most importantly, of what we might do better. That will, quite simply, not be possible, should we leave. I could go on, but I am sure that you know all of that and more already.

I implore you then to do whatever you can. Your constituency, your city, your country, your continent, your world, and, yes, history will thank you for it. For once, such apparent hyperbole is not, remotely indicative of exaggeration.

Thank you very much for all you did during the referendum campaign; I can assure you that it has not gone unnoticed by this grateful constituent.

With very best wishes,


LSO/Rattle - Davies and Berlioz, 26 June 2016

Barbican Hall

Peter Maxwell Davies – The Hogboon (world premiere, LSO commission)
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique, op.14

The Hogboon – Mark Stone
Magnus – Sebastian Exall
Mother – Katherine Broderick
Good Witch – Claudia Huckle
Earl of Orkney – Peter Auty
The Cat – Capucine Daumas
Princess – Lauren Lodge-Campbell
Bat – Lucas Pinto

Karen Gillingham (stage director)
Ruth Mariner (assistant stage director)
Rhiannon Newman-Brown (designer)
Sean Turner (associate designer)

LSO Discovery Choirs (chorus masters: David Lawrence and Lucy Griffiths)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus masters: Simon Halsey and Neil Ferris)
Guildhall School Singers
London Symphony Orchestra
Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

Peter Maxwell Davies’s last major work, a children’s opera, The Hogboon, here received its world premiere. It may not be a musical masterpiece on the level of a Birtwistle opera; I doubt that anyone would make such a claim. That, however, is not really the point. It seems to me the very model of a community opera, offering a good story and good music both to amateurs, indeed to children, and to professionals; this was an opportunity and an experience many of those taking part are unlikely ever to forget. We need to do much more of this sort of thing, and who could set a better example than the LSO and Simon Rattle? Something for royalists too: the work is dedicated to the Queen on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday.

Each house in Davies’s beloved Orkney is said to have its own Hogboon, a familiar spirit who, in return for food and drink left out every night, tends to its family’s wellbeing. In this case, the Hogboon helps Magnus, seventh child of a seventh child, mocked as useless by his Six Elder Brothers, to defeat the Nuckleavee sea-monster, averting the threat of that monster breakfasting on six golden-tressed maidens and the daughter of the Earl of Orkney. How is that accomplished? By music and dance. As a reward, Magnus is betrothed to the Earl’s daughter, and the boy’s brothers receive those golden-tressed maidens in marriage. There is a social and environmental message: care for each other and for the world around us. It is lightly worn, and perhaps the more convincing for that. Give or take the odd unfortunate updated Tippettism in the composer’s own libretto – ‘Have we shown disrespect to your otherness?’ does not appear to be intended ironically – the story works well over the course of a little under an hour.

So does the score. Davies, needless to say marshals his forces well, offering them apt, challenging, yet eminently performable music. (Performances were certainly eminent on this occasion.) There is bold, large-scale orchestral and choral writing, tuneful solo vocal writing, nothing outstaying its welcome, with a wide variety of expressive means and plenty of variation. For instance, following the opening ‘Nucklavee!’ chorus, a beautifully written (and here, beautifully played) flute interlude leads into Magnus’s song by the peat fire of the heroic deeds to which he believes he will one day be called (and, of course, will). The melody is in many respects quite conventionally operatic; the excellent treble, Sebastian Exall, here and elsewhere took well his opportunity to shine. I am sure we shall hear more from him. Brass from the back of the hall herald the Hogboon’s arrival; there is some splendid post-Mahlerian band music when the players are joined by onstage wind. The Good Witch’s Cat is undoubtedly – well, catlike, her feline vocal and stage presence adding much to the fun of proceedings. Singing and dancing were all very well coordinated. There is even a non-singing role for a Bat, flying through the auditorium, here taken by young Lucas Pinto. And the final farewell – ‘And so goodbye. God bless you all. Goodbye.’ – proves both rousing and moving. Many congratulations to all concerned!

Another splendid example of cooperation was offered by the combined forces of the LSO and students from the Guildhall School, next door. What a wonderful luxury it was to hear the Symphonie fantastique with such large (and excellent) forces, just what Berlioz – for whatever this is worth – always ‘intended’. I counted, for instance, no fewer than twelve double bass players and six harpists: not bad at all for the Barbican. I wonder also whether the circumstances led Rattle to be less idiosyncratic than he has often shown himself to be in recent years. Whatever the reason, this was a far more satisfying performance than I have heard from him in quite some time. The LSO, with its long Berlioz tradition, above all with Colin Davis, but stretching back much further than that, sounded in its element; so did its young guests. Indeed, had I not known, I cannot imagine that I should have guessed this was a ‘combined’ orchestra at all. The fabled attack and precision of the LSO was matched note for note by its partner musicians.

The opening bars of the first movement sounded fragile and intense; indeed, string vibrato considerably more intense than one generally hears, and all the better for it. The introduction was moulded, yes, but not unreasonably so. Indeed, its moulding struck me almost as a musical equivalent to the composer’s unquestionably ‘interventionist’ Memoirs. This was probably a more ‘Romantic’, less ‘Classical’, account than one would have heard from Davis: an exciting new chapter beginning, perhaps? Yet, by the same token, there were times when Rattle would stand back and simply let the orchestra play: another excellent sign for the future. Insanity shone through, but it was not arbitrary: this was disciplined madness. The second movement really danced, with grace and menace: sometimes in turn, sometimes in contest. We heard the cornet solo for once too. The music glittered and was gay; it had splendid swing. And the power of the whirling vortex towards the close was quite something indeed!

I was struck by the extent to which the opening duetting in the ‘Scène aux champs’ was heard musically: this was counterpoint as well as the instantiation of a programme, indeed arguably more the former than the latter. There was dramatic, quasi-operatic tension, although the theatre remained, of course, a theatre of the mind. Beethoven’s precedent was clear: not just the Sixth Symphony but also the Ninth. For music of the music sounded akin to accompagnato or arioso; I began to wonder also about possible Gluckian precedents here. The eloquence to the great melody on the cellos was certainly such that it might have been a vocal solo of its own. Timpani rolls sounded as much symphonically anticipatory as ‘atmospheric’.

That near-verbal – and yet, by the same token, resolutely non-verbal – eloquence continued in the ‘March to the Scaffold’. It was not, though, at the expense of any martial quality; the two tendencies incited one another. Brass were as resplendent as one might have expected, but there was menace in their muffled tones too. The finale proved both catchy and grotesque, and not only from the superlative woodwind. The Dies irae music, whatever the composer’s ‘intentions’, sounded both chilling and, I think, witty. ‘Rollicking’ is perhaps an adjective too readily attached to ‘finale’, but here it seems inescapable. Exhilarating!


Sunday 26 June 2016

Jackson/LaFollette/Melos Sinfonia/Zeffman - Dutilleux, Haydn, and Rimsky-Korsakov, 25 June 2016

Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s

Dutilleux – Sur le même accord
Haydn – Cello Concerto no.1 in C major, Hob.Viib:1
Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade, op.35

Martyn Jackson (violin)
Bartholomew LaFollette (cello)
Melos Sinfonia
Oliver Zeffman (conductor)

Culture, education, young people, London: as victims of the present chaos go, it would have been difficult to find a better example than those playing at and in the audience for, this concert. The response was the best possible: defiant excellence. Many thanks then, to the Melos Sinfonia and Oliver Zeffman, for a light in the darkness at this catastrophic time in our country’s – and Europe’s – history.

I have begun to warm to Dutilleux’s music in his centenary year. It had not properly ‘spoken’ to me before, but Sur le même accord certainly did on this occasion. So named on account of the six-not chord introduced at the opening, which provides the material for what comes thereafter, Sur le même accord benefited greatly from ardent advocacy from Martyn Jackson and the orchestra. Jackson’s declamatory pizzicato opening presented a storyteller: almost as if he were telling us ‘Once upon a time…’. Premonitions of Rimsky-Korsakov already – or should that be echoes? Thinking of Russian composers, Prokofiev often came to mind, although so too, to a lesser extent, did Berg; there were definite post-war episodes, though, not least an almost Messiaen-like marimba intervention. Jackson’s richly seductive line sounded as first among equals, for not only were there several other splendid solos to enjoy (for instance, from clarinet and cello), but the work’s dealing, in Dutilleux’s words, ‘with the abstract relations within the orchestral universe’ came strongly to the fore.

There has never, so far as I can recall, been a time when warming to Haydn’s music proved a problem for me. This performance of the C major Cello Concerto, with Bartholomew LaFollette the outstanding soloist, reminded one of so many of the virtues of that great European. (Only a fool would ascribe to him ‘nationality’; alas, there are many fools around.) The first movement opened warmly; it was stylishly, meaningfully articulated, properly dynamic in its conception of form. That was even before the solo entry. LaFollette’s playing showed much the same characteristics. And what a splendid sense of line there was to be heard: gorgeous yet never self-regarding in tone, clean and clear. Crucially in Haydn, this was a performance to have one love the music – and indeed its composer. Civilisation seemed still to be with us, or at least near, the elegance of LaFollette’s playing, not least in the cadenza, putting me in mind – and no, I am not exaggerating – of Tortelier. Wonder of wonders, we heard an Adagio that was an Adagio. It sang beautifully, honestly; I almost wished our Scheherazade would start again. A slightly subdued opening to the finale had me wonder to start with. It proved, however, to have been a subtle trick, much in the spirit of the composer, for suddenly, without vulgarity, there came full orchestral sound and vigour. There was much play like that – and in many other ways. It made me listen – and what a joy it was here to listen.

Rimsky’s Scheherazade was our work for the second half. Zeffman was clearly in his element – although he had been no less in the first half. I was intrigued by the way this symphonic suite proved as much a study of ‘relations within the orchestral universe’ as the Dutilleux piece had; both, of course, benefited greatly from the excellence of Martyn Jackson on violin (now as leader). Its opening was formidable, the Melos Sinfonia’s brass more than a little ‘Russian’ in their vibrato. The response, needless to say, was silky and seductive. Subtle dynamic gradations, not in the least pedantic, proved as expressive as harmony and orchestration, Sinbad and Prince Kalender coming vividly to life. Glorious string sheen, even from a relatively small band, helped no end; much the same might be said for perky woodwind. There was exoticism, of course, but it always felt – indeed, was – directed. A keen sense of narrative, whether or no it might actually be put into words, was always present. Transformation of themes proved both a pictorial and an intellectual delight. If Liszt inevitably came to mind, so too did the future, of both Strauss and Stravinsky. There were symphonic correspondences; quite rightly, however, this remained a suite rather than failing as an aspirant symphony. For all its supposed renown, this is not a work we hear very often in the concert hall; I am not sure that I have ever done so before. There is all the more reason, then, to applaud so fine a performance as this.

Walker/Esfahani - Couperin, Quantz, Benda, Duphly, Rameau, and Philidor, 24 June 2016

Wigmore Hall

Couperin – Concert royal no.4 in E minor
Quantz – Two Capriccii
Franz Benda – Flute Sonata in E minor
Rameau – Pièces de clavecin en concerts: ‘Le Forqueray’
Jacques Duphly – Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin: ‘Le Forqueray’
Pierre Danican Philidor – Suite in E minor, op.1 no.5

Adam Walker (flute)
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

This was my first visit to the Wigmore Hall’s series of late (10 p.m.) Friday evening concerts; I am sure that it will not be my last. It is a wonderfully civilised time to hear music, and these were wonderfully civilised performances of wonderfully civilised music. Adam Walker and Mahan Esfahani left one wanting more – which is just as it should be.

The fourth of Couperin’s Concert royaux made for an arresting and varied opening work. Its Prélude offered impetus and leisure; what could be more Versailles-like? Harmonies and melodies alike proved generative, but above all juste. The Allemande proved a playful response (even, I am attempted to suggest, quasi-liturgically and with an ear to the Boulezian future, a playful répons). Yet, as one listened, many of the same qualities as those heard in the preceding dance were revealed. The first Courante likewise presented continued affinity and difference: very much the trick in a Baroque Suite (so very different from the world of sonata form). In that ‘French’ dance, and in its ‘Italian’ counterpart, variegation was very much the thing. Character without exaggeration was to be heard and experienced; we were made, or perhaps better, gently yet firmly led, to listen. Dynamic contrasts, terraced and otherwise, were always meaningful, always tending towards musical explication. The Sarabande, graceful, but certainly not in a merely generic way, had me visualise knowing glances between dancing partners. A keen Rigaudon and a Forlane (opening with Esfahani tapping the rhythm on the case of the harpsichord) of impeccable rhythmic, and thus melodic, impetus proved both charming and exploratory.

Two Quantz Capriccii for solo flute followed. Walker truly transformed what can easily sound like mere studies – in a way, that is precisely what they are – into music, beautifully phrased and shaped. Esfahani joined him once again for Franz Benda’s E minor Sonata (published in 1756). Again, juste was the word that came to mind in the first movement, ‘Largo, mà un poco andante’: not just in mood, not just concerning tempo, but also with respect to its status as chamber music in the truest rather than just the default sense. The second movement, ‘Arioso, un poco allegro’ proved both quickened and quickening. It was absorbing to follow its twists and turns, our musicians the surest of guides. More than that, it was fun. Rhythm and harmony likewise worked together in the final ‘Presto’, goading each other to the conclusion.

Esfahani had the stage to himself for two ‘Le Forqueray’ pieces, the first by Rameau, the second by Jacques Duphly. In the former, rhetoric ‘spoke’, without the exaggeration sometimes marring performances of such music as music. Rather to my surprise, although I greatly enjoyed the busy quality of that piece, I found that Duphly’s perhaps went deeper. Or at least its mood was more thoughtful (the piece, that is, for both performances were excellent). Rubato was well judged: enhancing, enticing.

Pierre Danican Philidor’s E minor Suite concluded proceedings. The variety of flute colours summoned up by Walker from his instrument was not the least of the joys of the Prélude. Likewise the colours from Esfahani’s harpsichord. The players took their time, and the performance was all the better for it. Much the same might be said of the ensuing Allemande, although its mood and its mode of eloquence were, of course, quite different. The Sarabande took my mind back to that of Couperin, as much on account of subtle difference as kinship. The give and take between musicians ensured considerable variety, without sacrifice to a strong sense of the whole. The final Gigue did just what a Gigue should. Far less hard-driven than one too all often hears, this was a musical delight to conclude an evening of similar yet different delights.


Saturday 25 June 2016

Jenůfa, English National Opera, 23 June 2016

Images: Donald Cooper
Karolka (Soraya Mafi), Mayor's Wife (Natalie Herman), Jenůfa (Laura Wilde), Laca (Peter Hoare)


Grandmother Buryja – Valerie Reid
Kostelnička Buryja – Michaela Martens
Jenůfa – Laura Wilde
Laca Klemen – Peter Hoare
Števa Buryja – Nicky Spence
Foreman, Mayor – Graeme Danby
Jano – Sarah Labiner
Barena – Claire Mitcher
Mayor’s Wife – Natalie Herman
Karolka – Soraya Mafi
Neighbour – Morag Boyle
Villager – Claire Pendleton

David Alden (director)
Charles Edwards (set designer)
Jon Morrell (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Claire Gaskin (choreography, revived by Maxine Braham)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Stephen Harris)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

This now seems as though it took place in another world – because it did. I nearly did not make it, waiting more than half an hour to change trains at Tower Hill, before desperately trying to find a cab to take me to the Coliseum. Yes, that monsoon rainfall that hit London – and, well, you know the rest… In some ways, it was fitting, if heartbreaking, that this outstanding demonstration of European internationalism should have opened on the night it did: the night when the forces of bigotry, those who would have stoned Jenůfa, took us where they did. I might have preferred to hear Jenůfa in Czech, but who cares? Although the words – excellently translated, insofar as I am competent to judge, a considerable ‘insofar’, although compared to my countrymen and, to a lesser extent, countrywomen… - sometimes sound in themselves a little odd in English, they and their meaning were powerfully, indeed viscerally conveyed. (I know that ‘visceral’ is a much overused word in such contexts, but here it certainly was the mot juste, or whatever ‘decent’ English phrase that fascist Farage would have us use.) Moreover, hearing the words in English certainly had the advantage for a non-Czech speaker – my fault, I know – of underlining when words, especially but not only when repeated, took on not only vocal but orchestral life of their own as speech rhythms (even if the speech rhythms were thus a bit peculiar!) That cavil-which-is-not-a-cavil will be really my only attempt at finding one, for this was magnificent, a reproach not only to xenophobes but to all those who have wished ENO ill, and who, in certain case, continue to do so.

ENO Chorus

The (relatively few) reservations I had about David Alden’s production last time around in 2009 have either evaporated or, seemingly, been dealt with in revision. Perhaps it was as much a matter of the outstanding performances we saw on stage – although they were pretty good too in 2009. I am not entirely sure which, since it is always difficult, no impossible, to remember precisely what happened when, so shall not offer detailed comparisons. At any rate, the shift from Czech Hardy-land – I was put in mind of Boulez’s less-than-favourable description of earlier Janáček as ‘Dvořák in the country’, thereby exalting the late works to which he came to, well, late – to a more overtly, at least to us rootless cosmopolitans, vicious urban-ish setting, perhaps holding something in common with Christoph Marthaler’s Paris Katya Kabanova. The people are poor and they live in a small, ‘tight-knit’ community, with all the problems that brings: that is what is important, not whether we see lots of wheat sheaves or whatever. Indeed, a sense of the bucolic might be argued to distract from the tragedy at hand; that is certainly given no chance of happening here.

Grandmother Buryja (Valerie Reid), Jano (Sarah Labiner), Jenůfa

Charles Edwards’s brilliant designs, Jon Morrell’s costumes, Adam Silverman’s costumes, the choreography of Claire Gaskin, here revived by Maxine Braham: all these combine with Alden’s razor-sharp focus upon human tragedy to present something out of the normal (and that is before we even come to the music). Walls close in, the storm intervenes, worlds (visual) collide, often with the greatest physical menace. The Mayor’s Wife outfit and make-up are just as much part of the drama, as the terrifying rattling on the shutters of the Kostelnička’s house and the eventual smashing of the glass. Gesamtkunstwerk is a word so divested of meaning, historical or contemporary, that it is perhaps beyond salvation, but if salvation there might be – and there is precious little chance of that dramatically – this would offer unimpeachable witness. If I find some of the deviations from the naturalistic a little peculiar in themselves, they serve that greater purpose; indeed, when considering that, I recalled Alden’s brilliant ENO Peter Grimes. I was less troubled there by such matters, perhaps because I like the work ‘itself’ less; that, though, should not be the point, and the greater dramatic point of small-community, small-minded bigotry punches one in the gut just as it did in Britten’s opera. The advance of the chorus, the villagefolk gunning for their primitive, punitive, perverted ‘morality’ will long remain in the mind; so will the cowardly attempt at rescue of a broken Števa. Here, wall-hugging, often rightly derided, had justification, the desire both to escape and to self-incarcerate inescapably drawn to the fore.

Kostelnička (Michaela Martens)

I cannot recall hearing a finer performance from the ENO Orchestra. Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting – he must be brought back as Music Director, with a settlement for the company to match – was the most intense I can recall in this work, perhaps in any Janáček opera. It grabbed one by the throat, just like the work of a great conductor in Wozzeck, and never relinquished its grip. It was not all fierceness, though; the open, sympathetic, European humanity of Janáček’s score shone through all the more warmly in the context of such an agón. The pounding repeated chords at the second half registered all the more strongly for the turmoil both onstage and in the world outside; but they were the orchestra’s and Wigglesworth’s too. Biting, ferocious, generative: they were everything a musico-dramatic prelude should and must be. As the lights flickered in duet with the xylophone, a world internal and external shook. Wagner has no monopoly in operatic renewal of Attic tragedy: this was a communal and, yes, a political rite.

Jenůfa and Laca

That warm sympathy was equally apparent in Laura Wilde’s lovely account of the title role. This was no stock object of sympathy, of circumstance; we experienced her agonies, but as an agent too, albeit, like us, an agent constrained, (near-)destroyed by her ‘community’. Michaela Martens, almost the only returning member of the 2009 cast, again presented a woman of strength as well as goodness, that strength smashed to pieces – how broken she looked and behaved in the third act! – by what she had done. Vocally, she soared; dramatically, in the very best sense, she plummeted. Valerie Reid was similarly broken by that stage as Grandmother Buryja. She intrigued, as the finest performances of this curious role will: we knew that she and whatever mistakes she had made were fundamental to the tragedy unfolding, without ever quite knowing what they had been. We guessed, though, thus making us complicit with the chorus of terror. Its magnificent contribution throughout, beyond ‘visceral', if something can be so, was yet another standing rebuke to the encircling vultures: ironically so, given its members roles as just that.

Jenůfa and Števa (Nicky Spence)

Peter Hoare’s Laca took us on as moving a ‘journey’, with apologies for the cliché, as that of Jenůfa; youthful (in knowing excess?) silliness was transformed into diffident, difficult maturity. I was quite unprepared for the violence of Nicky Spence’s first-act Števa. Again, being rid of the bucolic doubtless helped, but what generally comes across as winning charm was here a brazen display of power from the start, somewhat tempered, eventually, by Jenůfa’s intervention towards the end of the act, but only somewhat. That rendered his ghost-like appearance and disappearance all the more terrifying in the final act. Sarah Labiner’s splendidly boyish Jano, Soraya Mafi’s spirited Karolka, Graeme Danby’s skilfully differentiated roles Natalie Herman’s nasty-piece-of-work Mayor’s Wife: they and all the rest contributed to a true company performance. Even in, particularly in, the direst of tragedy, we find our catharsis somehow.


Thursday 23 June 2016

Our day of reckoning


And so it is here. I doubt that these hasty scribblings will persuade, or even dissuade, anyone now; so, like much else over the past few weeks and months, consider it, if you will, a futile gesture or even an attempt at self-therapy. Today will be nerve-wracking; tonight will probably be worse still. We all remember the night of the last general election; having been out for dinner and somehow shielded myself from the results, I arrived at a party, to find instead a wake. The selfish, the bigoted, the merely provincial (nothing to do with where one lives: everything to do with a state of mind) triumphed then; ever since, we have suffered a wholesale assault upon what remains of the social fabric of this country, to make that of Margaret Thatcher, even that of the dread ‘Coalition’, seem almost social democratic in its qualities of reconciliation. This, however, is far more important still.
That vilest of selfishness has been on display again, not just from the outright xenophobes and racists, but from so-called socialists (people such as John Mann and, more sadly, Dennis Skinner) who, in their neo-Stalinist fantasy of ‘socialism in one country’, have shown how little they care for internationalism, and also of course from David Cameron’s unforgivable pursuit of ‘special status’. We do not want a ‘special status’; we hold no truck with philistine exceptionalism; we are European and that is all we want: no more, no less. There are good reasons, unanswerable reasons, to oppose what the European Union has become. They come almost entirely from the Left. The despicable treatment of Greece would have made anyone reconsider; yet, in that case, let us listen to Yanis Varoufakis, who considers it crucial for reform of the organisation that has treated us country so brutally that we participate. By ‘we’ I mean both this country and the Left. No one would deny the EU’s neo-liberalism; for us, however, it has long been almost the only brake we have upon still worse neo-liberalism at Westminster. The Social Chapter has long been almost the only protection – however weak – for British workers against the ever-increasing rightward drift of government (both Conservative and New Labour).
It was a grave mistake – born, of course, of NATO’s (the real enemy’s) attempts to weaken the EU, the UK as ever acting as US lapdog – to allow most of the Eastern European countries in so soon. That may yet prove fatal, but we must do what we can, not only to resist the outright fascism now prevailing in Poland and Hungary, not only to help the many good, civilised people within those countries (suffering still more quickly from the deadly embrace of neo-liberalism than we are), but also to rescue Europe from US imperialism, and to look towards an order that might one day also involve Russia. Russia, lest we forget, is European too; the antagonisms whipped up, not least by the EU as it stands, need to be dealt with – and it is difficult to see who can do that other than a reformed EU. NATO – the government will allow us no plebiscite on that membership – has persistently divided Europe; we need something to bring Europe and indeed the world together. As for the absurdity of wishing to be bound by the EU’s rules without having even the slightest say in making them: that is preposterous even by the standards of Michael ‘if you know something, you’re a Nazi’ Gove.
Yet above all, however naïve this might sound, however naïve this might be, the question is: do we wish to return to the 1950s, or rather 1930s, do we wish to start acting in a vaguely twenty-first-century fashion? Do we wish to banish war from Europe, by continuing to suppress nationalism, by continuing to cooperate, by continuing to build a common foreign policy (something that would, for instance, prevent the UK from ever again engaging in a murderous adventure such as Blair’s invasion of Iraq)? Do we wish to break down borders, to put a stop to this country’s embarrassing self-exclusion from the Schengen accords, to participate in a Europe in which travelling, whether in the shorter or longer term, from London to Paris is no greater a step than from Berlin to Munich, or indeed from Florence to Vienna? Do we value people because of who they are, what they do, what they might do in the event of our cooperation, or do we spit on them on account of their nationality, their gender, their sexual orientation, the colour of their skin? (Let us not forget that the Tory Right, let alone UKIP, wishes to do away with the ‘red tape’ that protects citizens against discrimination.) Do we welcome those who wish to make this country their home, who enrich our lives with their labour, their enthusiasm, their culture, or do we follow the lead of Gove, Mann, Nigel Farage, Frank Field, Boris Johnson, Paul Dacre, and the organs of Rupert Murdoch, in blaming ‘immigrants’ for our ills? Do we hold our ground against neo-liberalism, against the vicious far-Right press, or do we offer our final, abject capitulation? Do we want to be able to look our European friends in the eye? Or do we want to be the country that brought a deeply flawed project, which nevertheless offers our only realistic hope for something better, crashing to the ground?
Now, off to vote...