Tuesday 29 November 2016

For Aleppo

It is not enough, not nearly enough, but I do not know what to say. Other than: a world that allows such barbarism is quite beyond redemption. In his particular way, perhaps Strauss, deeply flawed human that he was, knew that too.

Friday 25 November 2016

Storm Large/Hudson Shad/BBC SO/Gaffigan - Korngold, Weill, et al., 23 November 2016

Barbican Hall

Korngold – Symphony in F-sharp
Walter Jurmann – Veronika, der Lenz ist da
Dimitri Tiomkin – High Noon: ‘Do not forsake me, O my darlin’’
Weill – A Touch of Venus: ‘Speak Low’
Weill – Klopslied
Jurmann/Bronisław Kaper – A Day at the Races: ‘All God’s Children Got Rhythm’
Weill – The Seven Deadly Sins

Storm Large (singer)
Hudson Shad
BBC Symphony Orchestra
James Gaffigan (conductor)

In the world’s present parlous state, Brecht (Weill too, perhaps) speaks to us more clearly, more sharply than most. Donald Trump could pretty much have sprung from the pages of Mahagonny, or indeed The Seven Deadly Sins. The fine performance of that masterly ballet chanté which was the necessary performance in this BBC Symphony Orchestra performance. The rest I could pretty much take or leave, although there were clearly admirers in the audience.

When first hearing Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp (in the BBC Philharmonic recording with Edward Downes), I rather liked it. It must have been years since I had last heard the piece; I cannot say that I had missed it greatly, and indeed found it something of a bore on this occasion. It was a well-enough upholstered bore, yet I did not find the material justified the length. In the first movement, it took a while for the orchestra to achieve a good balance, although the Barbican acoustic should probably take some blame for that. (Thanks to the Government, by the way, for scuppering the plan for a decent concert hall in London!) James Gaffigan went to considerable extremes of tempo, but held the movement together pretty well. A certain cinematic quality to its progress was not inappropriate, nor was a certain sonic similarity to the ‘heroic’ Prokofiev of the Fifth Symphony. Transitions were well handled in the scherzo, though ensemble was not always so precise as it might have been. I liked the languorous quality to its trio; Gaffigan’s tempo, however, sometimes brought the music to near-standstill. A Brucknerian quality was apparent in the slow movement, which received a warmly neo-Romantic reading, not lacking in necessary malice. The finale proved colourful, but a well-paced performance could not disguise its excess of repetitions.

The second half opened with a number of close-harmony pieces from the American group, Hudson Shad. I am not convinced that concert-hall listening is really quite right for such music: perhaps they would be better off in a bar, with drinks and chatter. (But then, I was never able to understand Cambridge choirs’ enthusiasm for them; I longed to hear more Byrd instead…) My patience for Kurt Jurmann’s hit Veronika, der Lenz its da was limited indeed, but others seemed to enjoy its ever-so-mild camp. Likewise the other Jurmann song, and the two contributions from Dimitri Tiomkin. ‘Speak Low’ from A Touch of Venus served to reinforce my prejudice that Weill’s music lost almost all interest upon emigration across the Atlantic. The short Klopslied, however, was recognisably the work of Busoni’s pupil, albeit with a healthy dose of surrealism thrown in. The gentlemen did not overplay it, thereby letting its anarchic wit speak for itself. It was a real find (for me, that is).


For The Seven Deadly Sins, Gaffigan and the orchestra returned, joined by Storm Large, a singer with real presence, indeed real star quality. For a performance in English (the translation by Auden and Kallman), one is better putting out of one’s mind the world of Lotte Lenya. That was surprisingly easy, for Large, ably accompanied, made the work very much her own, in a subtle, sharply observed, finely enunciated performance. She could act, but did not need to draw attention to the fact, just as she could sing and dance, again without any need for underlining. The shedding of her overcoat spoke volumes; so did the chill of those spoken Anna II statements: ‘Right, Anna’. With a wind-heavy band that sounded just right, with Gaffigan unfailingly adopting tempi that sounded equally right, and with just the proper sense, from time to time, of a little rhythmic drag, Weill permitted Brecht to speak. Dance rhythms pointed to Weill as ironic heir to Mahler. Much orchestral material reminded us that this was the composer of that magnificent Second Symphony. (What a pity we had not heard that in the first half instead! Or indeed the Violin Concerto.) Hudson Shad were on excellent form too, their ‘Family’ often sounding very much of a Neue Sachlichkeit world, the bite of Brecht’s text – ‘Shameless hoarders earn themselves a bad name’ – drawing blood. The exploration of sins had a properly cumulative effect as far as ‘Envy’, after which the Epilogue proved a further study in alienation. They were going home to Louisana, to that little home beside the Mississippi. ‘Right, Anna!’

Sunday 20 November 2016

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Royal Opera (cinema broadcast), 15 November 2016

Royal Opera House (viewed at Curzon Mayfair)

Hoffmann – Vittorio Grigòlo
Four Villains – Thomas Hampson
Olympia – Sofia Fomina
Giulietta – Christine Rice
Antonia – Sonya Yoncheva
Nicklausse – Kate Lindsey
Spalanzani – Christophe Montagne
Crespel – Eric Halfvarson
Four Servants – Vincent Ordonneau
Spirit of Antonia’s Mother – Catherine Carby
Nathanael – David Junghoon Kim
Hermann – Charles Rice
Schlemil – Yuriy Yurchuk
Luther – Jeremy White
Stella – Olga Sabadoch

John Schlesinger (director)
Daniel Dooner (revival director)
William Dudley (set designs)
David Hersey (lighting)
Maria Björnson (costumes)
Eleanor Fazan (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Evelino Pidò (conductor)

Oh dear! One might travel far before seeing so dramatically inert a production of anything. ‘Revived’ – hardly the mot juste here – by Daniel Dooner, pretty much the only saving grace accompanying this ancient staging by John Schlesinger was the news that it will be its last. In vain did one seek for irony. Offenbach’s taste and wit, it seemed, had been paid off, with a generous settlement. Indeed, one sensed that one Manhattan-based master of ‘settlements’ and theatrical criticism would have approved, together with his chums in the bizarre ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ group. As for the edition used, the less said the better, but imagine the outcry if Bruckner performances were still being given in the Schalk ‘versions’, perhaps with a few odds and ends thrown in for the hell of it. This, as Mahler would have put it, was tradition as Schlamperei.

For the designs – there is nothing more to the production, certainly no hint of a critical stance, let alone a Konzept – speak of vulgar ostentation. Although ostensibly set when it ‘should’ be, earlier in the nineteenth century, this looked more like a Second Empire recreation, albeit one that had seen better days. The Palais Garnier is a thing of wonder; if you are going to do ‘style of Napoleon III’, then go all out for it. This, however, is not; it is merely tedious. If the æsthetic aspired to Donald Trump, it ended up being more minor West End musical. If ‘lavish’, for some unfathomable reason, is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Offenbach, then I suppose you might have liked this, but surely anyone would have baulked at the bizarre, am-dram over-acting of some members of the chorus. Perhaps that was a matter of cinematic close-up, but it was at best an occasion, well-taken (unfortunately) for laughter. At any rate, for an evening that dragged so, I was grateful to be seated in the comfort of the Curzon Mayfair rather than squeezed into the Royal Opera House’s Amphitheatre.

That it dragged was also the fault of Evelino Pidò’s leaden conducting. There was no lightness, no air, no direction, just endless plodding through. Offenbach’s musical drama – and I am far from convinced he is at his most successful in this work – is a delicate flower. The score simply sounded suffocated.

At least the singing was better. Vittorio Grigòlo’s untiring commitment put me in mind of Roberto Alagna, although vocally, Grigòlo was certainly more secure than his mercurial counterpart can sometimes be. Stylistically, his voice and manner are perhaps not ideal, but there was much to be enjoy. (As you will have guessed, I took what I could.) Kate Lindsey impressed greatly as Nicklausse, in a stylish, equally committed performance. She can act too, and did. Christine Rice’s Giulietta brought a touch of vocal opulence. It was neither unwelcome nor inappropriate, tempered as it was with taste, quite unlike its scenic equivalent (For her act, Schlesinger seemed to have in mind, quite without irony, or indeed without eroticism, the world of ‘vintage’ soft porn. Again, laughter ensued.) Sofia Fomina handled the challenges of Olympia’s coloratura with ease, and portrayed the very particular acting challenges of her doll’s role convincingly. Sonya Yoncheva’s Antonia was sincere enough, but it sounded as if she would have been happier singing Verdi. Catherine Carby’s brief appearance as her mother brought much needed relief. Thomas Hampson’s performances suggested that his voice is now seriously beyond repair. Not only, as one might have suspected, did the lower notes lie awkwardly for him; so did many at the top too. Smaller roles were taken well; David Junghoon Kim’s Nathanael caught my ear.

As theatre, though, this was strictly for those who like to applaud scenery. And even they might have preferred to check into a certain Washington hotel for the real thing.

Thursday 17 November 2016

London Sinfonietta/Furrer - Furrer, FAMA, 11 November 2016

St John’s, Smith Square

Isabelle Munke (actress)
Eva Furrer (contrabass flute)
EXAUDI (chorus master: James Weeks)
Sophie Motley (staging advisor)
London Sinfonietta
Beat Furrer (conductor)

Premiered in 2005 at Donaueschingen – how reassuringly modernist that sounds! – Beat Furrer’s sound theatre piece has now, finally, reached London. First performed in a large ‘box’, in which about 300 audience members were seated, the musicians outside, the speaker/actress moving within and without, it must have sounded – and indeed looked – very different from its incarnation at St John’s, Smith Square. There was here, of course, no question of opening and closing the walls and celings, but instruments and choir still moved around the audience, making use of the balcony too. If a work is not to remain entirely site-specific – in any case, the box apparently no longer exists – then it will need to take on new life. That goes for Parsifal as much as for the Monteverdi Vespers, for FAMA as much as for Nono’s Promoteo.  

Besides, one can imagine; as Wagner, Nono, and doubtless Monteverdi would tell us, imaginary theatre is often most powerful of all, or at least differently powerful. A young woman, her roots in Arthur Schnitzler’s Fräulein Else, will adapt in the theatre of our imagination, but will and should remain a stranger to herself, looking in dramatically as well as physically. She will still find herself eventually in the house of Ovid’s Fama, ‘entirely of sounding ore, resonating ubiquitously it hurls back in imitation what it hears,’ but it will always be for us to construct that house, as well as to make it resonate, perhaps visually as well as aurally. Whether I quite managed to do so on first acquaintance, I am less than sure, but deepening acquaintance, in something worth acquainting oneself with, will always be a Beckettian case of failing better. I should certainly like the opportunity to do so again.

One of the most arresting, even fantastical, passages for me came with the opening Latin ensemble. The sense of fantasy – not in the debased, modern usage – was as much instrumental as it was vocal, and in any case the border, in the best music-theatre tradition, was far from clear. Highly rhythmical, colourful exuberance played intriguingly with this particular acoustic. The London Sinfonietta and EXAUDI, both on typically outstanding form, were certainly not especially large of number, the latter only eight, but the ‘scale’ of work and performance sounded much larger. At times, one might have been forgiven for hearing a full-scale orchestra rather than ensemble, even if one should accept that distinction. A sense of falling away, of dissolution, more than once put me in mind of Wozzeck; but that was perhaps just my finding my bearings.  Swimming against the tide as the instrumental music sometimes seemed to be, Isabelle Menke’s role as speaker took different routes, sometimes connecting, sometimes at odds. At any rate, and not only because it opens with ‘ich höre das Feuer,’ it proved equally incendiary, paving the way for further musico-dramatic development – if I may borrow so Classical a term – in the wordless second scene.

An intriguing reinvention of recitative as well as Sprechstimme was suggested in the third scene, a pulsating instrumental tapestry both backcloth and participant. Instruments came close to speech, and vice versa. A quite different sound-world and sensibility were experienced in the short fourth scene. I do not think it was just the Italian language that made me think of Nono and Sciarrino, although that doubtless did no harm. A whistling riot of sound seemed to encapsulate the concept both of scene and work. Oh! Vi doveva pur essere, sulla terra di tutti i dolori, un giardino profondo, lontano, silente… One found the silence of that garden in sound, in music, not in silence: a liminality, perhaps, one might compare to Fama’s house. That sense of the numinous could be traced, albeit in different form, into the fifth scene. It was almost pictorial, at times, but the ‘almost’ was as important as the ‘pictorial’. Post-Romantic? Doubtless; for we all are, are we not? The experience remained fresh, though.

In the sixth scene, interaction between actress and contrabass flute solo (the excellent Eva Furrer) stood on the boundary between an acting ‘two hander’ and a post-operatic duet. Are not such confrontations, reinventions, always at the heart of music theatre? Ominous, antiphonal trombones inevitably brought resonances from the past in the seventh, before the final, eighth scene for ensemble, in which the music, the drama seemed to subside, open-ended. It struck a note that came close to, without ever quite ‘being’, or being capable of reduction to, tragedy.

The performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for subsequent radio broadcast (date as yet unknown).

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Lulu, English National Opera, 9 November 2016


Lulu (Brenda Rae) and Dr Schön (James Morris)
Images: Catherine Ashmore
(sung in English)

Lulu – Brenda Rae
Countess Geschwitz – Sarah Connolly
Dresser, Schoolboy Waiter – Clare Presland
Painter, Second Client – Michael Colvin
Dr Schön, Jack the Ripper – James Morris
Alwa – Nicky Spence
Schigolch – Willard White
Animal Tamer, Athlete – David Soar
Prince, Manservant, Marquis – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Theatre Director, Banker – Graeme Danby
Fifteen-year old girl – Sarah Labiner
Girl’s Mother – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Artist – Sarah Champion
Journalist – Geoffrey Dolton
Dr Goll, Police Commissioner, First Client – Rolf Higgins
Servant – Paul Sheehan
Solo performers – Joanna Dudley, Andrea Fabi 

William Kentridge (director)
Luc de Wit (associate director)
Sabine Theunissen (set designs)
Greta Goiris (costumes)
Urs Schönebaum (lighting)
Catherine Meyburgh, Kim Gunning (video)


ENO’s new Lulu proved another triumph for the company: just what ENO should be doing; just, indeed, what ENO is for. Will the cabal of management consultants and the Arts Council – or, as it insists on calling itself, sans article, ‘Arts Council England’ – listen? No, of course not. Their priorities, as they have shown time and time again, and with increasing vindictiveness, are quite different. Whoever met a neo-liberal artist or, indeed a neo-liberal art lover? (How I wish the translation had not left ‘Jungfrau’, or ‘Virgin’, tactfully in the German original…) One might, I suppose, quibble, whether ENO needed a new production; Richard Jones’s excellent staging might well have received another outing. (It should certainly have been staged more regularly than it was, but that, I suspect is more a comment on opera audiences than on artistic design.) But ENO did not mount this by itself; it performed us ‘citizens of the world’ a signal service by granting us the opportunity to see this much-discussed William Kentridge production, already seen in New York and Amsterdam. To say we should only have one, is akin to saying that because we have heard Daniel Barenboim play Beethoven, we have no need to hear Maurizio Pollini. It is the language of enemies of art, of accountancy; worse still, it is the language of those journalists determined never to miss an opportunity to find fault.  

Joanna Dudley, Lulu, and Schigolch (Willard White)

I shall admit to having been puzzled by some of the discussion I overheard. More than once I heard people complaining about there having been too much going on, even ‘sensory overload’. Have such people, I wonder, ever seen a Stefan Herheim production? More to the point, did they not think of how visual layering, the interaction between layers, between the visual and the aural, might actually be the point, a point very much in keeping with the work? What I saw was actually a relatively conventional, but highly theatrical telling of the story, enhanced, questioned, developed by an extension of its painterly imagery both in expressionistic drawings and film – an exhibition of Kentridge’s art may be seen presently at Whitechapel – and in the alluring yet sometimes ironic commentary, still very much in allusive ‘period’ style, by the silent artists, Joanna Dudley and Andrea Fabi. It was not remotely too much; indeed, like Berg’s score, it left me wanting more. This blackest of comedies gained in darkness – this was the night following the US election, something readily observable on almost every face in the house – and in sophistication of comedic response. I began to think of Berg’s musico-dramatic roots in Mozart and Wagner, in particular, and also of what he had in common with Strauss, another heir to that exalted pair, yet one far too little thought of has having much in common with the more overtly ‘progressive’, yet perhaps equally ‘nostalgic’, Berg.

Lulu and Geschwitz (Sarah Connolly)

Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting of the score, superlatively played by the ENO Orchestra was, of course, crucial in that respect. As Boulez, at work on the three-act premiere, once observed, ‘It is not so much the use of symmetry as the exploiting of multiple musical forms that is one of the most complex and attractive features’ of the music. Rather it in the confrontation between what Boulez broadly considered to be characteristic Mozartian number opera and the continuous – to which, I might add, increasingly symphonic – forms of Wagner that Lulu, in a different, or at least more complicated, less overt, way than Wozzeck will best find its performative voice. For Boulez, ‘The great advance from Wozzeck to Lulu lies in the fact that, although the scenes are still separated by interludes, there is now no “passage” between them.’ He found himself, unsurprisingly, especially attracted by the ‘fusion between continuity and formal separateness’. That, I think, was very much what we heard, and perhaps also what we saw, or at least what was suggested by what we saw, here. An especially fine woodwind section could not help but bring Mozart to mind: not just the Mozart of Così fan tutte but the composer of the wind serenades too. It was not for nothing that, in one of his final recordings, Boulez returned to Berg’s Chamber Concerto, coupling it with the Gran partita, KV 361. Melodies, harmonies, audibly generated before our ears by Berg’s endlessly fascinating compositional processes, and yet audibly as ‘free’ as they were ‘determined’, tantalised, instructed, informed, criticised, rather as the drawings, films, words, actions did before our eyes. This was no mere mirroring; it was mutual enhancement and elucidation, a new path through the Bergian labyrinth.


An excellent cast was necessary too, of course, and an excellent cast we had. Brenda Rae, who so greatly impressed me in the Bavarian State Opera’s Schweigsame Frau – now there is an interesting Strauss-Berg comparison to consider – shone at least as brightly as Lulu. The canvas on which we more or less uneasily project our fantasies of Lulu was no more empty than the changing visual decoration of the set, but, amidst, or perhaps beneath, the despatch of the coloratura and the seduction of the more conventional melodic line, there was a fine balance struck between nihilism and defiant character. Sarah Connolly’s Geschwitz certainly had the latter in spades; if I have seen and heard a stronger, more compassionate performance from her, I cannot recall it (which seems unlikely). If James Morris’s Dr Schön was at times a little stiff, there was certainly authority to be felt there, and his way with the words was especially admirable. Nicky Spence’s Alva struck another fine balance, in this case between the ardent and the cowardly; again, an admirable way with words and music projected ambiguity without easy, or perhaps any, answers. Willard White’s Schigolch was less caricatured, less repellent than one often experiences; such ambiguity was also decidedly a gain. There were no weak links, and a host of splendid character performances, artists such as Michael Colvin and Sarah Labiner particularly catching my ear. At least as impressive, though, was the ensemble work. In the Paris Scene, one might almost have thought this a crack new music ensemble, such was the clarity and confidence with which the lines were projected and with which they were interacted. It might almost have been a rehearsal for, or a response to, Strauss’s homage to his adored Così in Capriccio.

Monday 14 November 2016

Samling 20th Anniversary Concert, 8 November 2016

Wigmore Hall

BrittenA Charm of Lullabies, op.41: ‘A Cradle Song’; ‘The Nurse’s Song’
WarlockMy Sweet Little Darling
SchubertWiegenlied, D 498
IvesThe Children’s Hour
SchumannLieder-Album für die Jugend, op.79: ‘Marienwürmchen’
PoulencLa Courte Paille; nos.4-7
SchubertLicht und Liebe, D 352
LisztTre sonetti di Petrarca, S 270/1: Sonnets nos 104, 47
Quilter Five Shakespeare Songs (set 2): ‘It was a lover and his lass’
BrittenThe Foggy, Foggy Dew; Soldier, won’t you marry me?
SchubertSchwanengesang, D 957: ‘Kriegers Ahnung’
SchumannDer Soldat, op.40 no.3
WolfDer Soldat I and II
FauréLes Berceaux, op.23 no.1
BarberI hear an army, op.10 no.3
Liza LehmannNonsense Songs from ‘Alice in Wonderland’: ‘Fury said to a Mouse’
BolcomTwelve Cabaret Songs: ‘Amor’
BrahmsO wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück, op.63 no.8; Alte Liebe, op.72 no.1
BarberThe Secrets of the Old, op.13 no.2
CoplandTwelve Poems of Emily Dickinson: ‘Going to Heaven!’
SchubertNachstück, D 672; Der Tages Weihe, D 763

Kiandra Howarth (soprano)
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
David Butt Philip (tenor)
Benjamin Appl (baritone)
Andrew Foster-Williams (baritone)
James Baillieu (piano)
Ian Tindale (piano)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
James Garnon (actor)

The Samling Artist Programme has nurtured the careers of many a young artist, both singers and pianists (or, if you will, accompanists), gathering them together (apparently, gathering, collective, even assembly are possible translations of the Norse ‘Samling’) with an array of senior artists. Part of that programme is an annual showcase at the Wigmore Hall. For its twentieth anniversary, Samling Artists from 2000 (Andrew Foster-Williams) to 2016 (Kiandra Howarth) took the stage, joined by Malcolm Martineau (one of those senior artists or ‘Leaders’) and the actor, James Garnon. Thomas Allen, Samling’s Patron was to have joined the assembled company, but flu put paid to that, and thus to an ensemble from Sullivan’s Trial by Jury. I cannot comment on every single song, but hope to give a flavour of what was on offer in this particular showcase.

The programme traced the ‘seven ages of man’, prefaced by Garnon’s engaging reading from As you like it’s ‘strange eventful history’. Two songs from Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies (Kathryn Rudge and James Baillieu) opened ‘Infancy’, Baillieu’s piano making much of the harmonic affinity of the Blake ‘Cradle Song’ with the world of The Rape of Lucretia, Rudge captivating in the a cappella opening of ‘The Nurse’s Song’. Her mezzo-soprano voice here and elsewhere proved both rich and variegated of tone. The post-Mozartian simplicity of Schubert’s Wiegenlied was well captured by Kiandra Howarth and Malcolm Martineau, paving the way for ‘Childhood’. Benjamin Appl seemed not to come truly into his own until later in the recital. Although Ives’s The Children’s Hour was beautifully sung, he missed a certain lightness of touch. Four songs from Poulenc’s La Courte paille were more successful. They were shared between Howarth and Rudge, the former seemingly relishing a more absurdist side, the latter more seductive.

When we reached the stage of ‘The Lover’, David Butt Philip joined Howarth and Ian Tindale for Schubert’s Licht und Liebe. Tindale proved equally alert rhythmically and harmonically. The ardent quality of Butt Philip’s singing carried into an unapologetically Italianate rendition of Liszt’s first Petrarch Sonnet. Vocal passion was matched in Baillieu’s piano playing of that and the second, for which Howarth returned, to give a similarly dramatic performance. I cannot claim to care much for the music of Roger Quilter, but Rudge and Appl gave a charming performance.

A welcome change of mood – Britten folksongs are really not for me – came after the interval with ‘The Soldier’. Following a reading from Henry IV, Part I, Andrew Foster-Williams was heard for the first time, with Baillieu, in Kriegers Ahnung. A greater depth was immediately announced, carried into an especially commanding performance (now with Tindale) of Schumann’s Der Soldat, sadness and anger in compelling balance. Appl seemed much more at home in two soldier songs from Wolf’s Eichendorff-Lieder, using the words to excellent effect. Another highlight, not just of this section, but of the concert as a whole, came with the Rudge-Martineau performance of Fauré’s Les Berceaux, its sadness deeply felt. Honesty and integrity of feeling were equally apparent in Butt Philip’s Poulenc Bieuet. Stylish, never mawkish, he impressed just as much as he had in the very different music of Liszt. Much the same might be said of Foster-Williams, in Samuel Barber’s Joyce setting, I hear an army.

‘The Justice’ was missing the aforementioned Sullivan number, so was confined to a charmingly despatched Liza Lehmann song (Butt Philip/Tindale) and a cabaret song by William Bolcom: not my thing, I am afraid, although Howarth was very much in her element. Lugubrious Teutonophile that I am, I responded more warmly to ‘Old Age’ and Brahms. Foster-Williams and Bailliue gave an unexaggerated, deceptively straightforward performance of O wüßt ich doch den Weg zurück, Rudge and Martineau displaying depth to match that of the Fauré song in Alte Liebe. Rudge’s Barber song, The Secrets of the Old, captured the idiom perfectly: an equally fine performance, again well supported by Martineau. Much the same might be said of Howarth and Tindale’s sincere, aware Going to Heaven!  

Our revels now were ended, as the final Shakespeare reading reminded us. ‘Oblivion/Second Infancy’ opened with a fine performance of Schubert’s Nachtstück from Appl and Martineau. With beautiful vocal shading, Appl offered ample consolation for the misery of dotage. A heartfelt consecration of the day (Des Tages Weihes) concluded proceedings, with a well-matched performance form Howarth, Rudge, Butt Philip, Foster-Williams, and Baillieu. It seemed fitting to leave to the echoing strains of a Schubertiade.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Igor Levit - Beethoven, 7 November 2016

Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata no.5 in C minor, op.10 no.1
Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor, op.49 no.1
Piano Sonata no.20 in G major, op.49 no.2
Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, op.54
Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, op.57, ‘Appassionata’

With this, the third instalment of his Beethoven series, Igor Levit showed no sign whatsoever of running out of steam. How could so thoughtful a musician, when such riches remain in store? Instead, the experience proves a cumulative privilege.

With the C minor Sonata, op.10 no.1, Levit – and Beethoven, or should that be the other way around? – immediately impressed in differentiating from the obvious Mozartian model (KV 457); likewise with the unity of melody, harmony, and rhythm (in no particular order, that being the point). As a Schoenberg scholar, I found my thoughts directed to this as an instantiation of what Schoenberg might have called the Idea; as a Wagner scholar, I thought of the melos; I thought, above all, though, of Beethoven. That concision which so often, although certainly not in the Third Piano Concerto, seems to accompany Beethoven in C minor was as striking as ever in this first movement exposition, and indeed in the movement as a whole. The ambiguous shock of the chord opening, or rather unleashing, the development seemed to ask, at so fraught a time for our world, whether Beethoven offered hope or damnation. (He will always ultimately offer the former, but we must listen, not always our strongest suit.) Mozart hovered more clearly over the return to the minor mode as the recapitulation drew to a close, but those final two chords could only have been Beethoven, richly, dramatically played as they were here.

It was that heart-rendingly post-Mozartian Beethoven who spoke first of all in the Adagio molto. Levit transformed what we might think of instrumental-turned-vocal-turned-instrumental rhetoric into something of rare magic indeed, ever founded upon harmony. The movement’s luxuriant, even ecstatic unfolding was perfectly voiced; one might have wished it would go on for ever, therein lying much of its poignancy. A will-o’-the-wisp quality to the finale almost suggested Schumann, but the goal orientation was clearly that of Beethoven, born of Haydn. It was furious, and yes, Prestissimo: rightly unsettling, and yet not without humour.

The first of the op.49 sonatas opened with a statement again post-Mozartian in character. Poised, dignified, this first movement put me in mind of Pamina. (Perhaps it was the key, that of ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’, but I do not think it was only that.) I even fancied I heard a nod or two to imaginary Bach Inventions. The second of the work’s two movements brought Beethoven as heir to Haydn once again to the fore, not least, within a few bars, the heir who simply would not wait his turn. There was an exquisite, loving boisterousness to Levit’s performance here, its ‘character’ spot on, gruff humour and all.

The G major successor piece, op.49 no.2, also opened in post-Mozartian mode, initial assumptions treated similarly here. This first movement’s particular character and affinities shone through without exaggeration, teasing rubato to the point, touch to die for. Repeated notes were merely one case in point. The second movement’s lilt, which both is and is not that of the Septet’s Minuet, was unerringly judged. Again, at least for me, it was the pain of both proximity to and distance from Mozart that sang most movingly of all, even when the method owed more to Haydn.

Tightness of rhythm struck me at the opening of the F major Sonata, op. 54. Not because it was exaggerated or even underlined, but because it is so often underplayed. Again, the movement’s very particular character came to the fore. It is perhaps too easy to call it ‘quirky’, although there is surely an element of that. Those syncopations, however, could not help but make me smile. Moreover, a tendency towards proliferation even suggested a touch of Boulez. I am not sure I have ever heard so clear a connection, as well as contrast, between the sonata’s two movements. It was almost as if tendencies within the first movement had received a shake of the kaleidoscope – and, voilà! Sui generis this extraordinary second movement rightly remained, a lance thrown far into the Schummanesque, even Lisztian future.

Finally, we heard the Appassionata. The expository function of the opening materials was clear, yet also generative. (Liszt’s B minor Sonata seemed not so very far away.) The welding together, or rather communication of a Beethovenian unity always present, is where artistry comes in; so it did here, as mysterious as it was undeniable. Progress through the first movement proved, rightly, both straightforward and complex, Levit’s variety of the tragic impulse reminiscent of the younger Pollini. The slow movement flowed almost unassumingly, although never without gravity. Profundity was revealed, so it seemed, through the material, not imposed upon it. Variation form made its own nature and impetus felt, the proliferating spirit of the first movement reinvented before our ears. Precision and tragic impulse were very clearly two sides to the same coin in the finale. Even here, the spirit of Mozart, the Mozart of the Fortieth Symphony, was far from vanquished. Command of line and projection of character proved equally remarkable, likewise voicing, limpidity, and depth of tone. Passagework, if one may use so apparently banal a term for this music, sounded as if it were both at the service of the work and yet also liberated by it, Beethoven’s genius bursting at the seams. This was a great performance of a great work.


Monday 7 November 2016

A Warning against Fascism: Henze's 'In memoriam: The White Rose'

As the xenophobic fascism of Theresa May, Nigel Farage, and the Daily Mail, amongst others, cements its icy, murderous grip upon the United Kingdom, as the world looks on in terror at the prospect of the United States electing Donald Trump as President, here is a moving, seven-minute musical tribute to earlier victims of fascism. 'Lest we forget' is now monstrously insufficient, for we forget daily in the very act of intoning a trite phrase that now means less than nothing. Let us stop forgetting right now; more to the point, let us act decisively against this drift further and further into barbarism. Herewith, Hans Werner Henze’s written introduction to this fascinating, moving piece, and his own recording with the London Sinfonietta:

Winter 1964-65, while at work with the composition of The Bassarids, I wrote this work as a contribution to the Congress of the European Antifascist Resistance, held in Bologna in March 1965. I chose the occasion to remind audiences of one of the groups who attempted open resistance to the Nazi regime inside Germany. This movement was called 'The White Rose' and the same name appeared on the numerous antifascist leaflets composed by their founders, the students Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willy Graf, and the Munich University Professor, Kurt Huber. The movement began its activities in 1942 in Munich, but quickly spread to other important cities and gained a membership number of more than a hundred. A year later the founders were arrested, tried, condemned, executed. They defended themselves with great courage and died proudly for their ideas.

My work in their honour is a double fugue, and obviously inspired by and composed in the sense of Bach's Musical Offering structures.

Friday 4 November 2016

Mavra and Iolanta, Guildhall, 2 November 2016

Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall

Ibn-Hakia (Joseph Padfield), Iolanta (Elizabeth Skinner), and King René (David Ireland)
Images: Clive Barda

Parasha – Anna Sideris
Vassili – Dominick Felix
Mother – Jade Moffat
Neighbour – Bianca Andrew

Iolanta – Elizabeth Skinner
King René – David Ireland
Marta – Jade Moffat
Brigitta – Marho Arsane
Laura – Chloë Treharne
Bertrand – Bertie Watson
Alméric – Eduard Mas Bacardit
Ibn-Hakia – Joseph Padfield
Vaudémont – John Findon
Robert – Daniel Shelvey

Kelly Robinson (director)
Bridget Kimak (designs)
Declan Randall (lighting)
K. Yoland (video designs)

Chorus and Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Dominic Wheeler (conductor)

The Guildhall has shown typical enterprise in programming: two very rarely staged one-act operas in an intriguing double-bill. As I never tire of pointing out, much of the best London opera is to be found in our conservatoires. This term, we have already had an outstanding Royal Academy Alcina; later this month, we shall hear La finta giardiniera at the Royal College.

Any mild disappointment here was occasioned only by Stravinsky’s Mavra itself. I do not begrudge, indeed I wholeheartedly welcome, its staging. Although the Philharmonia recently performed it, I was unable to attend, and I have never previously had the opportunity. If there is a weaker work by the composer in his maturity, I am delighted to say that I have forgotten it. (I might dislike Orpheus, but I recognise its craft. Even Jeu de cartes has a good deal more going for it.) Describing it, as a short buffa work at the cusp of his Ballet russes and neo-Classical tendencies, makes it sound more interesting than it is. It does not overstay its welcome, perhaps, being so short, but the motoric elements here really do sound as if the composer is on auto-pilot. At best, one might find a passing correspondence with L’Histoire du soldat, even Petrushka, but it is trivial stuff really, with a trivial story, concerning a pair of lovers who trick the girl’s mother into accepting her hussar into the house as a new domestic servant.

Parasha (Anna Sideris) and Vassili (Dominck Felix)

Here, it was given, as the composer preferred, in the vernacular. Vocal performances were all spirited, well attuned to the trickiness – here, somewhat pointless trickiness, I tend to think – of Stravinsky’s writing. Anna Sideris and Dominick Felix proved agile of voice and on their feet. Jade Moffat and Bianca Andrew offered fine ‘character’ support as Mother and Neighbour. Solo and ensemble demands were navigated readily, in lively combination to the considerable amount of stage action required of them by Kelly Robinson’s updated (1960s?), production. Bridget Kimak’s colourful designs engaged the eye, and if there was not a great deal to the staging beyond what one saw, it is not clear that there could have been. There were a few occasions on which orchestral rhythms and ensembles might have been tighter still, but under Dominic Wheeler, the uneasy marriage of clockwork and Russian colour in its last, equivocal hurrah generally came across well. I shall leave the final word with Stravinsky, writing to his publisher in 1969, imploring him to publish the work: ‘Of course the music is not and will never be a success and there may be no demand or justification for printing it; and if I say that worse music than Mavra is performed you may say that better music is also not performed. Still, I would like to see the work in print.’

Neighbour (Bianca Andrew) and Mother (Jade Moffat)

Iolanta, by contrast, has great music indeed, fully worthy, at its best, of the composer of Eugene Onegin. I noticed far less the run-of-the-mill quality of some exchanges than I had in such exalted surroundings as the Paris Opéra earlier this year, which is surely tribute to impressive performances indeed. There, in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s searching staging – somewhat slow-burn in Iolanta itself, but cleverly paving the way – the opera had been paired with The Nutcracker, as indeed had been the case at the latter’s premiere in 1892. In a programme note, Robinson noted that both plots are – I should, more cautiously say, might be considered – ‘variants of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale’. I wish, then, that the two stagings were more obviously connected, drawing out connections rather than leaving it at that. That said, there was much to admire in Iolanta in itself, updated to a modern hospital ward, the princess awaiting her awakening under the watchful – and not-so-watchful – eyes of her nurses and some impressive-looking medical equipment. As in the opera itself, it is not entirely clear to what extent, if any, the Moorish doctor, Ibn-Hakia, plies anything other than the psychological tools of his trade, although an operation certainly takes place here at the right time. Video projections and lighting work powerfully later on, both to illustrate, simply yet unforgettably, the blinding first light and the all-important presence of the eye. Iolanta’s? God’s? We seem free to choose.

Vaudémont (John Findon)

Most importantly, space is permitted for an excellent cast to work Tchaikovsky’s wonders. The central pair of lovers both proved impressive indeed. Elizabeth Skinner faltered on one occasion, yet otherwise proved moving and generous of spirit. Her portrayal of the princess’s blindness was unerring; no one could have failed to be on her side. John Findon, as Vaudémont, was, quite simply, outstanding. His ardent tenor was just the thing, rising thrillingly above the orchestra – remember how young these singers are! – and yet capable of considerable subtlety. Their Russian, like that of the rest of the cast, seemed to me excellent too: I certainly managed to follow its meaning (without, alas, any real knowledge of the language) when the surtitles failed. David Ireland’s King René was another generous, keenly observed portrayal; there was no doubting his love for his daughter and consequently his plight. All of the singers acted well as a company, listening to each other and responding in kind. Eduard Mas Bacardit, Bertie Watson, and Daniel Shelvey offered, to my ear, particularly fine performances, but there was not a weak link in the cast.

Robert (Daniel Shelvey)

I occasionally wondered whether the orchestra might be too small, but it rose to the occasion at the great climaxes, showing instead that Wheeler, ever attentive to the score’s ebb and flow, had been keeping it down, emphasising, perfectly reasonably, chamber tendencies, or at least possibilities, within.

Rusalka, Komische Oper, 30 October 2016

Komische Oper, Berlin
Images: Monika Rittershaus
Rusalka (Nadja Mchantaf), Ježibaba (Nadine Weissmann), and her son (Marcus Wagner)
(sung in German)

Rusalka – Nadja Mchantaf
Prince – Timothy Richards
Ježibaba – Nadine Weissmann
Vodník – Jens-Erik Aasbø
Foreign Princess – Karolina Gumos
Gamekeeper – Ivan Turšić
Kitchen Boy – Christiane Oertel
First Wood Nymph – Annika Gerhards
Second Wood Nymph – Maria Fiselier
Third Wood Nymph – Katarzyna Włodarczyk
Huntsman –Johannes Dunz
Ježibaba’s Son – Marcus Wagner

Barrie Kosky (director)
Anisha Bondy (revival director)
Klaus Grünberg (set designs, lighting)
Klaus Bruns (costumes)
Bettina Auer (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Komische Oper, Berlin (chorus master: David Cavelius)
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Henrik Nánási (conductor)
Prince (Timothy Richards), Rusalka, and Foreign Princess (Karolina Gumos)

I shall not beat about the bush: this was just what opera should be. It convinced this sceptic that a repertoire system can not only work, but work uncommonly well. Barrie Kosky’s intelligent, thoughtful production, Henrik Nánási’s similarly intelligent conducting of the excellent Komische Oper orchestra, and a splendid cast (with a true star, in the best rather than the ‘celebrity’ sense, in the title role) combined to enchant, to challenge, and to move. There is an openness to the production and performance typical of so much of the best opera at the moment

It is only a certain class of reactionary adults who will refer to something as ‘just’ being a fairy tale. Children and thoughtful adults know that the world of the fairy tale is dark indeed. (And yet, the number of anodyne productions of Hänsel und Gretel the world must suffer continues to grow! Thank goodness for bold exceptions, such as that of Liam Steel earlier this year, for the Royal College of Music.) Look closely, or even just permit yourself to be receptive, and you will find that it is all there: sex, violence, sorrow, tragedy. The Grimm Brothers and other collectors were not interested in an adult’s sentimental creation of ‘childhood’. Nor, however, were they out to shock. They did their collecting, their editing; they certainly were not passive. But they wanted to let the tales speak in some sense – however illusory this idea may be as an ‘absolute’ – ‘for themselves’. So, I think, does Kosky here, mediated, as it most likely must be, via the nineteenth century, in which the opera was (just!) written, and of course by what has happened since. Indeed, an interview with Kosky and Patrick Lange – the conductor, I presume, when the production was new, in 2012 – opens with Kosky declaring: ‘Rusalka muss ein Märchen sein!’ (‘Rusalka must be a fairy tale.’)


And so, without danger of prettification or ‘mere’ folklore or folklorism, the story is, with great strength, quite without varnish, placed centre stage, literally and figuratively. Klaus Grünberg’s set design unfussily suggests the Komische Oper’s interior itself; we are all staging, after all, not least those of us in the audience. The cold elegance, moreover, of the late Victorian wall and, crucially, door – that is where, even how, things change, the action moves on – is all the framing we really need. We concentrate on the wood nymph herself and her plight. Above all, her mermaid’s tail, with which she struggles in such heart-rending fashion, leaving her desperate to become ‘human’, only for matters to become worse when she does, sears itself into the memory, as does the fish skeleton that emerges from within following the shocking butchery of the witch, Ježibaba. A (Danse) macabre convention of skeletons, spirits of death, and so on we see in the third act (of the opera ‘itself’, for here, we have only one interval) chills without undue grotesquerie; all is very much in the spirit of a fairy tale that is anything but ‘mere’. (There is no literalist river by the meadow here, but there is water, which, when we see, even feel, it, thereby makes its point all the more clearly.) The subconscious is clearly at work, but never in laboured, didactic fashion. That, after all, is not the way of the subconscious. And we make what we will of it; that, after all, is its way.


At the heart, in more ways than one, of the performance was Nadja Mchantaf’s superlative performance as Rusalka. She captured, in gorgeous, never self-regarding, vocal tone, the longing, the dreaming, the sadness, the heartbreak. Her stage presence, again entirely at the service of the drama, was second to none. One could read into her frustration as much – or as little – more as one wished, or rather as one’s subconscious wished. Mchantaf’s ability to capture ‘girlish’ sweetness, not necessarily unalloyed, and desire, indeed desperation, for something more will linger long in my memory. Rusalka’s unknowing imitation of the Foreign Princess’s knowing sexual advances upon the Prince were perhaps saddest of all. Karolina Gumos herself brought old-style glamour to a stage-stopping performance as the Princess, seductive in voice as well as in her shameless yet never inelegant display. Timothy Richards’s honestly perplexed performance as the Prince occasionally edged towards vocal strain, but never excessively so. Jens-Erik Aasbø brought a sense of the deeply, sternly primæval to Vodník, the Water Goblin, lamenting Rusalka’s fate, refusing to grant her false hope. Nadine Weissmann, Frank Castorf’s Erda, was perhaps always going to court that comparison, especially when singing this opera in German, but I was just as interested to hear how the role differed; her malevolence and yet also her personal, hinted-at tragedy shone through with what was, I think, the blackest of humour. Kosky’s conception of both goblin and witch as mediators between two irreconcilable (dream?) worlds was in excellent hands – and voices. There were no weak links, and a true sense of old-fashioned – in the best sense – company lifted every contribution. One final mention should go to the splendid trio of Wood Nymphs, Rhinemaidens in the making – or is it the other way around?


Nánási’s conducting traced the ebb and flow of Dvořak’s score very well. Opening in perhaps more formalistic fashion – not at all inappropriately so – this reading acquired impetus, even aqueous dissolution, of its own, rather as if the composer were ‘progressing’ from something more Schumannesque to the world of Tristan. In a sense he is, and one can certainly here proximity in some of the later harmonies. The orchestra and chorus glistened and glowered, equal partners – at least – in a drama more compelling still than most of Dvořak’s symphonies. Lange, in that interview, actually drew comparisons with Mahler, and compared the opera to ‘eine gensungene Sinfonie’. Nánási seemed very much to follow in his footsteps, St Anthony’s preaching to the Mahlerian fishes as ever going (tragically) unheeded.