Saturday 23 September 2017

Der fliegende Holländer, Deutsche Oper, 22 September 2017

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Erik (from a different cast, 2017 premiere)
Images: Thomas Jauk

Daland – Andreas Bauer
Senta – Martina Welschenbach
Erik – Robert Watson
Mary – Ronnita Miller
Steersman – Gideon Poppe
Dutchman – Josef Wagner

Christian Spuck (director)
Eva-Maria Abelein (assistant director)
Rufus Didwiszus (set designs)
Emma Ryott (costumes)
Ulrich Niepel (lighting)
Dorothea Hartmann (dramaturgy)

Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines) of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

Poor Erik. Most people who have seen and/or heard The Flying Dutchman must have thought that at some point, if only mildly and with a hint of contempt. It is in many ways a thankless role, perhaps not unlike Don Ottavio, albeit with less in the way of vocal beauty. And so, it is an interesting idea to place him at the centre of the action, to turn the drama into his story. The payoff in the third act of Christian Spuck’s production – we do not, thank God, have any intervals – is considerable. I rather wish, though, that what we see there might have been read back more clearly, strongly, or something at least, into the first two acts. Apart from Erik wandering around the stage, often sitting with his head in his hands, or wall hugging (yes, I am afraid so), everything else looks pretty ‘modern-ish-traditional’. Ulrich Niepel’s lighting creates, especially in the first act, plenty of dark atmosphere. Otherwise, Spuck’s production and Rufus Didwiszus’s designs look pretty much as you might have expected them to – at least unless you are of an unfortunately ‘folksy’ persuasion. (In that case, Wagner is probably not for you.) The small model ship we have seen in many other productions is there for Erik to hold. There is rainfall – its noise frankly distracting, and not in a good way, during the Overture; there is plenty of water; there are galoshes; there are nineteenth-century sewing machines; and so on.

Without Erik, then, there really would be no Konzept on which to remark. No problem with that: one strongly delineated idea may well be enough. It is not, though, unless we count his mildly surprising behaviour and his different, slightly more colourful, clothes. Perhaps it has all been his dream; it makes, I suppose, a change from Senta’s dream. His stabbing her at the close is a moment of genuine drama. Then, everything recedes –the image and acts of a repressive crowd familiar from almost every staging, for how could they not be present? – leaving him alone on the stage, as at the beginning. The decision to use Wagner’s later musical thoughts – I tend very much to prefer Dresden – is thrown into interesting relief here; what is the ‘redemption’ we hear but certainly do not see (even on the questionable terms of Senta and the Dutchman)? Is it utter Wahn? Again, I wish we had seen or heard something more of a trail leading up to this, beyond, that is, Erik’s frequent onstage presence. Perhaps the idea had been more strongly, coherently presented when the production received its premiere earlier this year; rehearsal time and repertory direction can sometimes mislead. On the other hand, I can only comment on what I saw.

And, of course, on what I heard – which was a perfectly decent repertory night’s performance, with some things very good indeed. Donald Runnicles was generally on secure rather than inspiring form, emphasising the numbers within the score – yes, a perfectly justifiable approach ‘historically’ – rather than its musicodramatic anticipations (and more than anticipations). Bar a strange transition, including one glaring missed entry – these things happen – to the second act, and some slightly lacklustre treading of aural water early in the third, there were solid virtues to be heard. On the other hand, when performing in one single span, and perhaps especially when incorporating the 1860 Tristan-esque revisions, more in the way of overt Fernhören might make for a more fulfilling dramatic experience. (‘Yes, Cosima,’ I hear you reply. Guilty as charged in this, but only this, respect.) It is a very difficult work to bring off, though, with such competing demands; perhaps that ideal performance in my head is simply unrealisable, even if someone else were to agree to my ‘ideal’. Those occasional fluffs notwithstanding, there was much to be enjoyed in the orchestral playing, secure of line, and often impressively dark in tone. Choral singing also impressed, not least the confrontation between the two bands of sailors in the third act, clarity and heft there quite beyond reproach.

Whatever one thinks of placing Erik at the dramatic centre, he will still only have the same amount to sing. In that respect, at least, much will still hang upon the Dutchman. Josef Wagner gave a deeply musical, considered performance. He perhaps occasionally lacked the last ounce of dramatic power, for instance, during his first-act duet with Daland, sounding slightly out-sung at times. That, however, was probably as much a comment on the estimable performance of Andreas Bauer, no mere caricature: flawed yet honourable. Martina Welschenbach’s Senta took a little time to get going vocally, but grew into something impressive indeed. Her obsession with the painting – a dialectical result of Erik’s obsession with her, real or otherwise? – registered strongly from the outset. And in the ‘non-title’ role, Robert Watson sang Erik’s part very well, clearly alert to its competing stylistic demands: a trickier task than many imagine. Gideon Poppe’s Steersman proved a vocal delight, having one wish, as so often, that he had more to do; the same went for Ronnita Miller’s typically likeable, yet not too likeable, Mary. Did this all quite fit into the Konzept? I am not so sure. However, I do not think that was in any sense the fault of a fine cast of singers: something one should never take for granted.

Friday 22 September 2017

Szűcs/BPO/Altinoglu - Ravel, Bartók, Debussy, and Roussel, 21 September 2017


Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole
Bartók: Viola Concerto, Sz 120 (first European performance of new completion by Csaba Erdélyi)
Debussy, arr. Alain Altinoglu: Pelléas et Mélisande: Suite (world premiere)
Roussel: Bacchus et Ariane, op.43: Orchestral Suite no.2

Máté Szűcs (viola)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Alain Altinoglu (conductor)


The Berlin Philharmonic’s prowess in French, or indeed in any other, music should not remotely surprise us. They have a long history together: Rattle, Abbado, Karaja, not to mention guest conductors, foremost amongst whom must surely be Boulez… Even Furtwängler conducted Ravel with them, although, as one of his greatest admirers, even I should have to admit that his recorded performance of the Rapsodie espagnole would perhaps never be a first choice. (Listen to it, though: you will hear things you have never heard before. I have just done so, and found myself liking it far more than I ever had done before.) Alain Altinoglu, in his highly successful debut with the orchestra, proved far closer to what we conventionally expect from Ravel, without that indicating anything remotely routine. Excellent preparation and technique liberate the imagination – and so it was here. What struck me immediately, however unsurprisingly, was the exquisite character to the Berlin sound and then, soon after, the seemingly infinite number of gradations to it, whether in dynamic contrasts or timbre. Balances were throughout perfectly judged, as were woodwind solos, Andreas Ottensamer’s clarinet alluringly slinky. Altoinoglu proved himself quite the master in building suspense, not least in always giving the impression of something being held in check, La Valse just around the corner. There was languor, yes, splendidly so in the closing ‘Feria’, but even then it was controlled, just like Ravel’s abandon, if one may call it that. A magnificent performance.


Máté Szűcs joined the orchestra for Bartók’s Viola Concerto, neither in the familiar reconstruction by Tibor Serly, nor in the subsequent edition from Peter Bartók and Paul Neubauer, but in a new version from violist Csaba Erdélyi (2004, revised 2016), here receiving its European premiere. I am not sure that I could tell you much about the differences; it is a long time since I have listened to earlier versions, for it is not, alas, my favourite Bartók work. I had a sense that there was, perhaps, more of an overt effort, really quite successful, to bring the orchestration into line with that of other late Bartók works, above all the Third Piano Concerto. What I can say, although I was still not entirely won over by the work ‘itself’, is that Szűcs, first principal viola in the orchestra, gave an impeccable performance, leaving me want to hear him again soon. (Interestingly, I shall shortly hear Amihai Grosz, also first principal first viola, in the Walton Concerto, under Simon Rattle.) His tone and projection were such as to cut through the orchestral writing – that is partly a matter of the scoring, of course, but only partly – at whatever dynamic level he chose. Clarity and security of line were never sacrificed to ‘atmosphere’; they were sides of the same coin. The passage in harmonics had almost to be heard to be believed. Twilight sections, be they solo, orchestral, or both, made their full impact. And there was a fine impression of the rhapsodic, in the best sense (just as in Ravel). Bach’s D minor Sarabande made for a splendid encore, and an intriguing comparison with Christian Tetzlaff on violin in the same hall a few nights previously.

Altinoglu conducted the new production of Pelléas et Mélisande inVienna earlier this year. He now offered the first performance of his own single-movement orchestral suite. Previous attempts I have heard to forge something coherent out of the score in purely orchestral terms have never quite seemed to come off; this, I am delighted to say, did. There was, perhaps, one transition that sounded slightly awkward, but even then only slightly. This offered, needless to say, a very different form of, or approach to, ‘rhapsodising’ from Ravel or Debussy. Altinoglu, however, showed himself equally adept at the art of dark anticipation here, not least as we moved towards that fateful well (quite early on). The influence of Parsifal, sometimes bordering on rather more than mere influence, spoke for itself. Indeed, one especially welcome feature of the performance was the way that deep string tone ‘spoke’ without words: post-Wagner, of course, but also, perhaps, with a nod to earlier accompagnato writing. Altinoglu’s selections were intelligent, having one convinced that one passage had ‘naturally’ led to another, even when it must actually have required a great deal of thought to contrive that impression. Off-stage bells at the close were both musically and dramatically apt. (I was interested to note, by the way, that the Berlin Philharmonic’s first performance of the work had been with Rattle, in Salzburg, in 2006. It seems that Karajan, although he recorded it with the orchestra, never performed it in concert with them. In the course of a little research, I discovered, however, that, in addition to performances in Vienna in 1962, Karajan also conducted the work with the RAI Orchestra in 1954, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Ernst Haefliger.)

Finally, we heard Roussel’s second suite, again in a single movement, from his opera, Bacchus et Ariane. The opening viola solo (Naoko Shimizu: what strength the orchestra has here!) perhaps offered a connection with Bartók, but difference was more striking. One might, I suppose, have placed Roussel somewhere between Debussy and Ravel, but that would have raised more questions than it answered; this was music, rightly, relished in itself. Again, the way it ‘spoke’ without words was remarkable. Altinoglu handled transformations of metre and mood with great skill. The orchestra performed with an idiomatic command and security worthy of a ‘repertoire’ piece. There was no doubting the thrill experienced by much of the audience at the suite’s bacchanalic close


Tuesday 19 September 2017

Musikfest Berlin (8) - Tetzlaff/RSB/Jurowski - Yun, Schoenberg, Nono, and Beethoven-Mahler, 17 September 2017


Images: Kai Bienert

Isang Yun: Dimensionen, for large orchestra with organ
Schoenberg: Violin Concerto, op.36
Nono: Julius Fučik
Beethoven, retouched by Mahler: Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Max Hopp (speaker: Fučik)
Sven Philipp (speaker: Officer)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)


My final – although not quite the final – concert of this year’s Musikfest Berlin fell on the hundred birthday of Isang Yun. Having heard some of his chamber music that afternoon, it was an interesting prospect to hear a work for full, indeed large, orchestra, with organ. (Alas, I was unable to find the name of the organist anywhere in the programme.) Dimensionen, or Dimensions, was commissioned by the city of Nuremberg, as part of the 1971 celebrations for the five-hundredth anniversary of Albrecht Durer. I wish I had been able to respond more than I had, but found myself a little nonplussed; perhaps I needed to give it another hearing or two, or indeed to do a little homework rather than coming to it cold. The idea seemed to encompass three different planes of sound: the organ and high, often very high, strings; deep percussion and brass; and woodwind in between, less static than either. I was certainly struck by the passages in which woodwind really took on the ‘persona’ of highly tremulant organ stops. One section, in which loud organ was offset by vigorous percussion sounded oddly like avant-gardist Poulenc, but I doubt that was the intention! There was a good bit of (considerably earlier) Ligeti- or Xenakis-like violin swarming too. It all, however, seemed to me a great deal of trouble to have gone to for relatively little reward. And then, it stopped.

With Schoenberg, though, I found myself back very much on home territory, and should have no hesitation in saying that this was the finest performance of the Violin Concerto I have heard in the concert hall. Indeed, I am not sure that I have heard a better one on record, either. Opportunities are rare to hear the work; even I have only heard it ‘live’ twice before. The last time had been in 2009, in which Nikolaj Znaider had – sadly, if all too predictably – been let down by a clearly unprepared Valery Gergiev. There was no such question of that being the case here. Vladimir Jurowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSB) were just as much party to the success of this performance as the outstanding Christian Tetzlaff. The first movement very much set the tone for what was to come: precise, yet dancing idiomatically. Textures were almost incredibly clear, so much so as to have one wonder whatever the ‘problem’ might ever have been with this work. More than once, there seemed to be a strong orchestral affinity with the more or less contemporary world of Berg, albeit more Lulu than the Violin Concerto. (Schoenberg was anxious to make clear, in a 1936 letter to Webern, that he had conceived of the idea of his work at the same time as Berg had his.) Tetzlaff’s tone could hardly have been more centred; one might readily have taken dictation, however dazzling the virtuosity. The Andante grazioso brought a winning match of doggedness and sublimity to the long violin line, dance again never far away. Developing variation was here so much more than a mere description; it was something one could hardly fail to experience. The mood of defiance to the finale was brilliantly captured too. Perhaps there was just a little ‘formalism to Jurowski’s conducting, but to be able to hear so much of this wondrous score was more than ample compensation. Mahler seemed almost resurrected in its militarism, and yet to very different purposes. Tetzlaff’s despatch of the cadenza seemed almost calculated to echo Schoenberg’s workds: ‘Yes, yes. That will be fine. The concerto is extremely difficult, just as much for the head as for the hands. I am delighted to add another unplayable work to the repertoire. I want the concerto to be difficult and I want the little finger to become longer. I can wait.’ And the soloist’s choice of Bach’s D minor Sarabande as an encore was perfect. Not only could one read back Bach’s line into Schoenberg’s, and vice versa; the choice of D minor picked up on and responded to Schoenberg’s hints at that key – always a ‘special’ one for him – in the concerto.


I had heard Jurowski conduct the British premiere of Nono’s unfinished Julius Fučik in London in 2011. ‘Pointillism’ was what had immediately come to mind in the opening then; so it did now; far more so, say, than in the later Il canto sospeso, heard earlier in this festival. Its melodramatic quality inevitably puts one in mind of Schoenberg: for instance, A Survivor from Warsaw. There was certainly no doubting the violence and the human ‘provocation’, such as Nono said he always needed: ‘an event, an experience, a test in our lives, which provokes my instinct and my consciousness, as man and musician, to bear witness’. In this case, the witness borne is to a Czech communist and literary critic, hanged by the Nazis in 1943. (Fučik’s words would also be used in Intolleranza 1960.) Drums and trumpets again suggested Mahler (and Schoenberg), as the music led us to one of those typical Nono passages of agonising beauty. The German ‘Schönheit’, spoken shortly after, made the point clearly. And then, to hear the phrase ‘ein Motif von Beethoven’ alerted us, with savage irony, to where we were heading.

Jurowski had followed that London performance too with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The great difference here was that it was performed with Mahler’s retouchings to the score – and with a much larger orchestra. Interestingly, Jurowski now seemed liberated, no longer hidebound by self-imposed ‘authenticke’ restrictions. It was, of course, a splendid experience in itself to hear Beethoven via Mahler, but it was not just that; we heard more, I think, of Beethoven ‘as Beethoven’ too. Moreover, simply to hear a full-sized orchestra, still more one on such splendid form as the RSB, let loose on this music – sixteen first violins down to eight double basses – is an opportunity all too today too. Doubling of wind made perfect sense in such a hall and on such an occasion too. Yes, of course it is not strictly ‘necessary’, but what is? If we go down that route, we might as well all stay at home and listen to recordings – or indeed to nothing at all. To hear, for instance, the oboe solo in the first movement not as a solo at all was fascinating, especially when played as well as it was here. We doubtless will not hear it like that next time, but we might have the memory in some sense with us, offering a different, reflective standpoint on what we hear. Moreover, the first movement as a whole burst forth with all the radicalism of Beethoven’s almost incredible gift for concision. Perhaps Jurowski might have yielded a little on occasion, but one might say the same about Klemperer.


It was glorious to hear the lower strings, so full and rich, so songful and soulful, at the opening of the second movement. Even the slightly static approach Jurowski brought to the music seemed to work, although I could not quite tell you how or why. I was less convinced that this was really a ‘Mahlerian’ approach, but so what? To attempt to imitate, whether something imaginary or otherwise, is an approach for pedants, not for artists. The performance, moreover, benefited from all the clarity we had heard in the Schoenberg. I very much like the stateliness, the strength – I dare not invoke ‘stability’ here! – of the Scherzo, transmuted into something similar yet different in the Trio. The reprise of the scherzo material sounded as ghostly as ever; alas, the transition to the finale remained somewhat foursquare, lacking in mystery. If there were times in that final movement when Jurowski seemed to hold back – rather oddly, and overtly, in forced ritardandi – many earlier virtues remained, showing clarity, strength of purpose, and numbers to be anything but antithetical. (It is extraordinary that one has to make such a point, but given the current fashionable climate, alas one must.) And this time, the surprise would be that the oboe solo was – yes, an oboe solo. Two piccolos, four flutes, four oboes, four clarinets (including bass and E-flat clarinets), four bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones: I have no doubt whatsoever that Beethoven would have been overjoyed to hear his music relished by and through so many. If, ultimately, I was perhaps more impressed than moved by the performance, it gave me much to be impressed by – and to think about.

Monday 18 September 2017

Musikfest Berlin (7) – Isang Yun 100 Chamber Concert, 17 September 2017

Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie

Quartet, for four flutes (1986)
Glissées, four pieces for solo cello (1970)
Gasa, for violin and piano (1963)
Trio, for violin, cello and piano (1972/75)
Images, for flute, oboe, violin, and cello (1968)  

Martin Glück, Fang-Yu Chung, Laura Schreyer, Ziangchen Ji, Roswitha Staega (flutes)
Birgit Schmieder (oboe)
Clemens Linder, Sunyung Hwang (violin)
Adele Bitter (cello)
Holger Groschapp (piano)

The Korean-German composer, Isang Yun, was born on 17 September 1917, one hundred years to the day before this commemorative concert. His was, by any standards, a dramatic life: a figure in the resistance to Japanese occupation, a participant in the Darmstadt summer schools and other important aspects of European musical life, kidnapped from West Berlin in 1967 by the South Korean military regime and charged with communist subversion, released two years later following an international outcry, and settling once again in Berlin, where he would live until his death in 1995. He aimed to combine, even integrate, elements of European and Asian – not just Korean – music. This concert, part of the Musikfest Berlin, offered an opportunity to hear various chamber music pieces, very much, it would seem, at the heart of his output, especially later in his career. They were all new to me; my remarks should be taken very much in the spirit of a first hearing. Insofar as I was able to tell, the performances all gave committed accounts.

I hope that flautist friends will forgive me when I say that the prospect of a piece for four flutes did not exactly fill me with joyous anticipation. As it turned out, I rather enjoyed this 1986 Quartet, both as work and performance. In four sections, it broadly seemed to encompass a journey if not from darkness to light then from deeper tones to something almost seraphic. The interval of a minor third seemingly in some sense fundamental, the work moves upwards in various combinations from two bass flutes and two alto flutes, through four standard sized flutes, two of them then swapped for piccolos, and finally to one of each variety; the turning of the four seasons also came to my mind. Perhaps it was simply because the example of Boulez comes to the fore in my memory, but the arabesque quality of the writing did have me think of his music at times, although Yun’s music seemed far more inclined to repeat, even if not exactly. The return of the bass flute in the final section heralded a change of mood, of pace, figuration above notwithstanding; something akin to the full range of this family of instruments offered a sense of culmination.  

The twelve-note organisation of Glissées, for solo cello, did not preclude a similar sense of something close to, if not to be identified with, tonality. It had, in Adele Bitter’s exciting, rich-toned performance, a strong sense of line, albeit with greater disruption than the preceding work. As time went on, I began to hear – or at least believe I did – more dodecaphonic process. The functional and expressive qualities – not that I intend a distinction between the two, quite the contrary – of glissandi fascinated, as the piece moved towards what I thought of, in homage to Nono, as a canto sospeso.

Gasa, from 1963, seven years earlier, perhaps had a greater proximity of some elements of ‘avant garde’ language, although, less, I think, of its temperament. If I knew a little more about East Asian music, perhaps I should find an answer there, perhaps not. Again, twelve-note method seemed not merely an element of organisation, but something, if far from the only thing, to be heard. There was also, in work and performance, a strong sense of drama, of whatever variety. The title means ‘Song Words’ in Korean: interesting, since I had thought of it more as a wordless scena than a song as such. I later discovered the following characterisation by the composer: ‘Gasa exists in space. It takes no heed of time – each moment exists in space and that space is unending. Within this (space) however there exists a dramatic development.’ Again, that was not necessarily how I had naïvely heard it, but it made me keen to hear it again with those words in mind.

The two movements of the Trio (that is, piano trio) were written in 1972 and 1975, on either side of the death of one of Yun’s teachers, Boris Blacher. Intervals, as in the piece for flutes, immediately announced their importance: both, I think, in their recurring use and in their transformation. At a certain point, though, I am afraid I began to found the music all sounding a little same-y, if you will forgive the colloquialism. Perhaps I was just tiring a little. The second movement, faster, at least to start with, certainly offered relief, seemingly more in the line of Glissées and Gasa. I loved the ricocheting of lines between instruments, never quite predictable. Then the music froze, seemingly, but only seemingly, to return us to the opening mood. I thought a little of the music of Giacinto Scelsi here, but perhaps that was just me finding my own bearings.

Images, for flute, oboe, violin, and cello sounded to me a little long for its material, despite the apparent distinction of performance. It seemed curiously static, somehow, but perhaps that was the point. I only learned afterwards – I should have worked it out, given the date! – that it had been written during Yun’s imprisonment, inspired by the frescoes at the Great Tomb of Kangso. Yun’s visit to North Korea, in which he had seen those frescoes, had raised the suspicions of the paranoid Southern authorities, partly leading to his abduction. Whether I should find this musical journey – perhaps not dissimilar to that in the opening work – more interesting armed with that information, or indeed simply on account of a second hearing, I do not yet know. On the basis of much of what I had heard, though, I should not mind finding out. Three cheers, then, to the festival for affording us this opportunity.

Musikfest Berlin (6) – RIAS Chamber Choir/Doyle - Monteverdi Vespers, etc., 16 September 2017

St Hedwig’s Cathedral and Pierre Boulez Saal

Photographs from General Rehearsal: Matthias Heyde

Monteverdi: L’Orfeo: Toccata
Plainsong: Introit, ‘Stabant juxta crucem’
Monteverdi: Missa ‘In illo tempore’
with Salomone Rossi: Sinfonia grave in G minor, Monteverdi: Adoramus te, Christe

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Virgine
interspersed with Salomone Rossi: Sinfonia IX in F major, Sonata XII sopra la
Bergamasca in G major, Canzon per sonar a 4 in G major; Biagio Marini: Sonata in Eco, in G major, Sinfonia ‘La Giustiniana’ in G minor; Rossi: Sinfonia in G minor; Plainsong: Antiphon, ‘Nolite me considerare’

Dorothee Mields, Hannah Morrison (sopranos)
Thomas Hobbs, Andrew Staples, Volker Arndt (tenors)
Andrew Redmond, Stefan Dreximeier (basses)
RIAS Chamber Choir
Capella de la Torre
Justin Doyle (conductor)

A day of Monteverdian delights, which, for me, at least will surely prove the highlight and climax of his 450th anniversary year. First, I interviewed conductor Justin Doyle about this and, more broadly, his work as new Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the RIAS Chamber Choir. Then to the Bebelplatz nearby, to St Hedwig’s Cathedral, Prussia’s first Roman Catholic church following the Reformation, the land given by Frederick the Great expressly for that purpose. (Toleration is, or at least was, easier when one was probably an atheist. How things have changed, eh, Richard Dawkins…) There under its great dome, modelled on the Pantheon, we heard the Missa ‘In illo tempore’. Then around the corner to the Pierre Boulez Saal, first for a talk by Silke Leopold, followed by a performance of what remains the composer’s most celebrated work, collection, call it what you will: the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, published in 1610 along with the Mass, and dedicated to Pope Paul V.


The composer’s first opera – the first great opera – L’Orfeo stands in many ways behind the collection. A modified version of its celebrated opening Toccata may be heard in the opening number – or whatever we want to call it! – of the Vespers. And so it would be here, of course. However, it was a nice surprise here also to hear it played from the cathedral gallery, almost as a call to worship or at least to listening, prior to the Plainsong introi, ‘Stabant iuxta crucem Jesu mater eius’. It sounded, the acoustic notwithstanding, far livelier – and not only in speed – to the rather dutiful account heard earlier in the festival from John Eliot Gardiner. We were, if so inclined, thereby reminded both of the Christianity of Orfeo and the theatricality of Monteverdi’s church music, all the world both a stage and a church. During the introit, the choir took their places beneath the organ pipes, facing the altar, ready for the Mass itself. A flowing ‘Kyrie’, accompanied by both organ and orchestra, benefited from the warmth of the acoustic, as did the ‘Gloria’, which ended with a fine, unexaggerated sense of jubilation. The performing style throughout sounded both suited to and shaped by the particular acoustic of the building: something one might have hoped would go without saying, yet in many performances, alas not. As Monteverdi’s prima prattica counterpoint unfolded, natural, almost unassuming, one realised that the move, never complete, to the seconda prattica was not all gain; no step in musical, or other, history ever is. I loved the imploring quality of the close, ‘Miserere nobis’, to the motet, Adoramus te, Christe, enough to have one feel one should be kneeling. Yet it was the lack of theatricality for its own sake that perhaps spoke most clearly: a trust and belief in the power and, yes, genius of Monteverdi’s music.


For the Vespers, in the very different setting of the Pierre Boulez Saal, the performance unfolded on different – physical – levels. Once again, the instrumental call to worship, to listen, to whatever it might be, was made from the first gallery, with the tenor injunction, ‘Deus in adiutorium meum intende!’ heard from the level above. The choir itself and, for the most part, the instrumental ensemble was at ‘ground’ level. In general, the home of the overtly, traditionally ‘sacred’ liturgical music, whereas the more ‘secular’ – and yes, I know the distinction is essentially false – concertos would be heard, at least in their solo parts, from above. The two seraphim, ‘Duo Seraphim’, were heard from higher still: a return, perhaps, to less unambiguous distinction between sacred and profane. Or one could simply experience such distinctions as experiments in spatial awareness. Who is to say what they ‘are’, whether in Monteverdi, in Gabrieli, or indeed in Boulez and Stockhausen?  At any rate, a distinction such as that brought home in the ‘Laudate pueri’ between choral sopranos and the soloist above was meaningful, verbally and musically.


The ‘collection’ becomes a ‘work’ in performance – or can be heard to do so, even when, as here, it was joined by instrumental pieces from Monteverdi’s colleagues, Salamone Rossi (Mantua) and Biagio Marini (Venice). It seemed almost to encompass the rest of Monteverdi’s work too: not just Orfeo at the opening (and in the Magnificat’s reminder of Orpheus in Hades), but the courtly, madrigalian soprano duetting of ‘Pulchra es’. Or is it later opera, even Poppea, of which we hear a fortelling? It need not be either or, and certainly was not in practice; sopranos Dorothee Mields and Hannah Morrison would clearly have been comfortable in any or all guises. ‘Swing’ might be an anachronism too far, not least since it perhaps misleads; what one needs above all is security of rhythm and metre. Nevertheless, it was a joy to hear something approximating to it in the cries of ‘Jerusalem’ from ‘Laetatus sum’. Likewise the contrasting plaintive quality, again never unduly exaggerated, never disruptive, later on. Here and elsewhere, Doyle and the Choir, well trained, and thus able to unleash its abundant musicality, offered readings that were not only thoughtful but delightful.


So too with the tenor seraphim, Thomas Hobbs and Andrew Staples; again, rightly or wrongly, I could not help but think of the world of Poppea. Gender is a complex matter in Monteverdi; after all, it is also a tenor who sings ‘Nigra sum’ (and very well he did so too). The tenor echo (Staples) from the heavens in ‘Audi coelum’ beautifully complemented Hobbs from the gallery below: distant, different, yet changing too, according to the demands of the text. There is almost an endless variety of ways to perform this music, but everything here had been thought through, not so as to limit but so as to enable spontaneity and, yes, drama in performance. When the choir responded, ‘Omnes hanc ergo sequamur…’, to what it had heard, it was almost as if a prayer were being answered, yet the mystery of grace remained. There are no easy answers here, musical or theological. An instrumental response seemed just the thing in turn, a fruity bassoon (sorry, dulcian) from the Capella de la Torre ensemble delighting in turn.


Following the interval, an instrumental invitation to dance-cum-worship was extended, leading us in to the extraordinary ‘Sonata sopra sancta Maria’. Female members of the choir reappeared, whilst the soloists appeared lightly lit (and lightly conducted) in what one might have taken for alcoves, mediating apparitions of saints themselves. Responses might be heard from all over, just as in the church or the world themselves. Stockhausen could eat his heart out – and most likely would have done. The ‘Ave maris stella’ sounded as a hymn in more than name, blossoming into something akin to a presentiment of a Bach chorale prelude, and even beyond, to Classical variation form. As for the closing ‘Magnificat’, I am not sure that it is not an even finer setting than Bach’s – and became even less sure here. This might not be a ‘work’ in the modern sense; if so, so much the worse for the modern sense. Whatever the truth of that, this was a crowning glory, in which, so it seemed, everything came together, greater than the sum of its parts. As an encore, we were treated to an aural glimpse of ‘what happened next’: Cavalli’s Salve regina, almost Schubert to Monteverdi’s Mozart, with none of the stiffness that often befalls performance of music that is far more difficult than it might often look or sound.


Sunday 17 September 2017

Interview with Justin Doyle: from Monteverdi to MacMillan with the RIAS Chamber Choir

From General Rehearsal for the Monteverdi Vespers in the Pierre Boulez Saal
Images: Matthis Heyde

For his first concerts as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the RIAS Chamber Choir, Justin Doyle finds himself very much in at the deep end: dual-venue performances of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (at the Pierre Boulez Saal) and the Missa ‘In illo tempore’, with which it was published (just around the corner, at St Hedwig’s Cathedral). ‘Finds himself’, one might ask, or was he pushed? I was lucky enough to be able to do so, on the lunchtime in between the first, Friday evening performances, and the second ones on Saturday afternoon (the latter to be reviewed shortly).
Doyle first spoke enthusiastically about the ambitions of the Musikfest Berlin, of which these concerts were part, and admitted that he would not necessarily immediately have chosen to perform the Vespers in the Boulez Saal. ‘It was their idea,’ he said, ‘but a very interesting one.’ Not the least of its difficulties, for such a performance, is its oval shape. What might seem to be a circle – like, say, the basilica for the Mass – is not. When I attended the first half of the General Rehearsal on the Thursday afternoon, it was, Doyle told me, the first time that the performers had been in that space, and certain changes had to be made concerning seating; sometimes, he had found himself unable to make eye contact with the performers. For a performance involving quite a bit of moving around, matters were thus complicated further. Rehearsals involve a great deal other than merely rehearsing. In this case, too, it involved speaking to performers, radio engineers, and various others, in a language other than his own ‘With no voice too,’ I learned, adding only to my admiration. (Yes, I know that others must do the former all the time, yet for us Englishmen and –women, it often comes far less easily.) ‘Everyone in the choir speaks English,’ of course, ‘but I made a conscious decision, even though it was twenty-four years since I’d done German at school, that it breaks down a barrier and it shows a degree of humility’: something, it might be added, for which conductors are not always renowned.
I went on to ask which edition he was using: an especially fraught question in the case of this work – or rather, as I would doubtless correct any of my students, ‘collection’, itself a distinction that gets to the heart of the problems, as well as the opportunities. ‘It’s from OUP: Jeffrey Kurtzman,’ a performing score made, it might be added, after considerable time studying the questions as well as the sources. That, at least was the score the choir was using, but Doyle had clearly made a thorough investigation of his own: not only because he said so, but because he spoke so clearly, intelligently, and informatively concerning what he had done. He had consulted every edition and more than that: ‘There are not a lot of stones I haven’t turned over in the last six months. And I keep going back to the same stones and having another look, and changing my mind. Between the General [Rehearsal] and yesterday, I changed a lot.’ What sort of thing? Presumably not who was singing or playing what, and when? No, but quite a few changes, not least on account of the venues, with respect, for instance to the cadential fermatas. ‘Are they actually stop fermatas?’ Does, for instance, ‘the sound need to go somewhere? And there’s nowhere for the sound to go.’ The partbook, for example, tells us something different from the Chorstimmen.’ Kurtzmann ‘lets you into his decisions, but … doesn’t box you into a corner. His notes are very useful and his book is exemplary. He shows his own ambivalence about certain performing decisions and his reasoning is always sensible.’ Just, then, what is needed for a particular performance in a particular – especially a rather unexpected – performing space.
Katharina Bäuml, the leader of the instrumental ensemble, Capella de la Torre, had also contributed, however. ‘She produced the instrumental parts, because we decided to do quite a lot of colla parte’ playing, that is (usually), when conductor and/or instrumentalist should follow the tempo and indeed rhythm of the vocal soloist(s). That made a nice contrast, Doyle thought – and such had been my experience in the rehearsal – with the use of only organ for the ‘Laudate pueri’. Monteverdi ‘says solo voices and organ,’ he explained, ‘but it’s a bit up for grabs quite what that means’. The way in which the movement could build, then, into something more than that meant that it could mirror ‘what the concerti do, starting with one solo voice, then two, three, and so on’.
‘As a collection, that’s clearly part of what he’s trying to do. But is it a structure as well?’ A bit like in the Selva morale e spirituale, I suggested. ‘Exactly. And that’s how collections tend to work. But this is full of very interesting touches. The first concerto is “Nigra sum”,’ which of course is a man singing “I am black and beautiful”, a female text. It’s a very similar text, but not quite the same, as that to the antiphons to several Marian feasts. Is it “filia Jerusalem” or “filiae Jerusalem”? Is it a “black but beautiful daughter of Jerusalem”? Or is it “black but beautiful, o ye daughters of Jerusalem”? Decisions like that: is it “a” or “ae”: do you go with the liturgical partbook or another source or possibility? … So we produce our own instrumental parts.’
That reminded me of something I had been intending to ask following something I had observed in rehearsal, and which I had long wondered about when it came to conducting the work. How difficult is it to handled the metrical changes involved and yet, as Doyle had put it during that rehearsal, immediately for the performers to ‘lock in’ to a new tempo? A case in point would be the ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria. ‘It’s not really that difficult. But we were all quite new to the space. The trick is always to prepare. I’m not actually beating like a normal conductor; it’s much more waft here, because you don’t want to get in the way too much here either. With respect to the tactus, it’s a down and an up. Is it cut-C or C? If you look at the part books, the partis generalis often has a cut-C; the others have C. Maddening! So if you go the Roger Bowers route,’ for which, see his Music and Letters article, ‘it cannot quite work – it’s interesting, but ultimately it must have broken down, because the part books didn’t match each other. So it tells me that the organist is being reminded that it’s a quicker tactus: as simple as that. If you go through the Magnificat, all those different sections sort of all work with the same tactus. Whether it’s a one- or a half-tactus, you’ll hear the difference, of course.’ I shall not even attempt to write out the musical demonstration he gave me, but it unquestionably convinced. ‘As long as you’re doing the maths three bars earlier, you will be fine, with preparation. And I can show it. But by last night, we’d prepared so that I could more or less stop conducting it. Get them singing and then abdicate.’
How much, then, of a distinction is there here, or should there be here, between choir and soloists? Should one think of them separately at all? ‘I’ve always thought of it as an eight-voice piece, not unlike Andrew Parrott says. Elsewhere, I’d probably do it with individual voices, because there’s not a lot for the individual soloists to do, the ladies in particular. Or I could have done it by giving solos to individual members of the choir, but that puts a lot of pressure on them to be major soloists in the same concert, and I thought then that I wouldn’t have the dramatic [spatial] possibilities. So to have extra bodies does help.’ That said, all the members of the choir would be capable of it, and indeed here they had a mixture: the third tenor, Volker Arndt, for instance, would be stepping out of the choir (very successfully) from time to time. Moreover, the ‘warmth and the luxury feel’ of a German choir, partly born of the greater rehearsal time available by comparison to an English choir, helped further dissolve any distinction. ‘It goes in deeper,’ as opposed to the traditional English ‘shortcut’ of sightreading and minimal rehearsal. Not that he wanted the tenors to sound the same: Arndt, Thomas Hobbs, and Andrew Staples all had different voices, but they would complement each other.
Ultimately, though, decisions would always come down to the following sensible principle: ‘Work out what Monteverdi would have done. Work out whether that was his ideal, or just what had to happen. Did he, for instance, have double reeds? Probably not. Or rather, he would have had them in Mantua, but not in the cathedral. And then whether they played in Venice or not; certainly for the festivals they had them. But if he had had players who could play as well as this, would he have used them more? And would he have used more singers if he had had them? And this is a RIAS Kammerchor concert. They can pretty much do everything.’
We closed, doubtless predictably on my part, by talking a little about the man whose name – and example – adorns the hall: Pierre Boulez. Boulez never conducted the Vespers, but thought very highly of Monteverdi – who would not? – and planned at one point to conduct the work as part of his opening concert season for a reformed Paris Opera (a project that, sadly, never came into being). He also spoke fondly of having heard Roger Désormière rehearse the work. I asked Doyle whether he could imagine what Boulez might have brought to the work, almost certainly conducting it on modern instruments, and certainly with a high modernist aesthetic. Would his own approach have anything in common with this imaginary performance, not that it need do so? Doyle had always had the regret of having had to turn down the opportunity to assist Boulez with the BBC Singers for a Prom, ‘because I was on honeymoon. Everyone has regrets, but that would have been a very short marriage, I think, otherwise. I think, though, given this room, and given that this is a festival concert, I think he would have done something quirky. I’ve put in sandwiches of vocal and instrumental movements, so there’s a nice logic to it. He wasn’t mathematical – well he was, but he wasn’t only that – but he was precise. And I have an instinctive drama about me, I think, which can sometimes be a little bit crazy, but I also have to plan a lot. And the more you plan, the more you can release that drama.’ Rather than be merely arbitrary? ‘Precisely. Never just whimsy: planned whimsy. So I think Boulez would rather have liked this, especially with the pre-concert concert [the Mass], in a different space, making use of what is different, as well as what they have in common.’ Why, I asked, could we not have more of his programming too: Machaut and Webern, Bartók and mediæval coronation music? ‘We can – and we will,’ I was assured.
With that in mind, and our time almost up, Doyle pointed me to the choir’s debut concert early next year in the Großer Saal of Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie. Playing with the Ensemble Resonanz: the Choir, under his direction, will perform Bach, Victoria, Henze, and James MacMillan. If only the website did not already read ausverkauft

Tuesday 12 September 2017

Musikfest Berlin (5) – SWR SO/Rundel - Schumann, Andre, Marenzio, Vicentino, and Nono, 11 September 2017

Philharmonie, Berlin
Images: Kai Bienert

SchumannManfred, op.115: Overture
Mark Andreüber, for clarinet, orchestra, and live electronics
Luca Marenzio – Ninth Book of Madrigals: ‘Crudele, acerba, inesorabil morte’
Nicola Vicentino – Fifth Book of Madrigals: ‘L’aura che’l verde lauro et l’aureo crine’
NonoIl canto sospeso

Jörg Widmann (clarinet)
Laura Aikin (soprano)
Jenny Carlstedt (mezzo-soprano)
Robin Tritschler (tenor)
SWR Experimentalstudio
Michael Acker, Joachim Haas, and Sven Kestel (sound design)
SWR Vocal Ensemble (chorus master: Michael Alber)
SWR Symphony Orchestra
Peter Rundel (conductor)

A programme that promised much and, ultimately, ‘delivered’ – as they now say. The main attraction was Nono’s Il canto sospeso: one of the undisputed masterpieces of what I am still old-fashioned enough to call the post-war avant garde. I have been waiting twenty years or so to hear it ‘live’, since I first listened, astonished and terrified, to Claudio Abbado’s live Berlin recording: made, according to a declaration in the booklet note from Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, ‘when ‘Germany … three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is once again in the grip of an increasing hatred of “foreigners”,’ when, across Europe, ‘nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism are once more on the increase’. The recording was ‘intended as a message on the part of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Claudio Abbado that we condemn all brutality and resurgent violence against people who think differently and that we do so from the very bottom of our hearts,’ Il canto sospeso being ‘music born of deep dismay, painful and accusing’. Plus ça change… Except that, without wishing to minimise the poison from the German far Right – recently addressed by and cheering Nigel Farage – much of the rest of Europe (and the United States) now stands in a far more parlous state. Angela Merkel and Luigi Nono: strange bedfellows, to put it mildly, but they are or were both adults, willing to speak out.


Every work of Nono’s, he said, required a provocation: ‘The genesis of any of my works is always to be found in a human “provocation”: an event, an experience, a test in our lives, which provokes my instinct and my consciousness, as man and musician, to bear witness.’ Each of the texts we hear – here in the standard German translation of the original Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza europea – is testimony to and from a resistance fighter shortly to be killed by the Nazis. It is the eloquence of this music, which ‘speaks’ or ‘sings’, almost irrespective of whether it be actually vocal or otherwise, which bears witness here – and so it did. Peter Rundel and the SWR SO (the first time I have heard the orchestra since its despicable forced merger) gave a performance that seemed to me to lie very much in the line of Nono’s Second Viennese School inheritance: not just Webern, although he was certainly there, but his (posthumous) father-in-law Schoenberg too. (As Nono declared, in a lecture on A Survivor from Warsaw, it stood as ‘the musical-æsthetic manifesto of our era. What Jean-Paul Sartre says in his essay, What is Literature?, about the problem ‘why write?’, is witnessed in utterly authentic fashion in Schoenberg’s creative necessity.’) This was glowing post-Romanticism: painful, even agonising, in its beauty, as it should be, nowhere more so than in the sixth movement, when, after what I think of as a choral Dies irae without (metaphysical) end – the testimony of Esther Srul – orchestral music so horrendously beguiles us. Words, witness, their horror – for which many thanks must also go to the soloists and choir – continue to resist their aestheticisation, however ravishing, say, the melismata of Laura Aikin or the Webern aria-with-ensemble of Robin Tritschker’s preceding number (Chaim, a fourteen-year-old Jew from Galicia). We await, wish for, reconciliation, even benediction, but know, with Nono and Adorno, that it can never happen. The final silence truly terrified. It would, perhaps, have been better if we had had no applause, although I understand why we did.


The rest of the programming was intelligent: a model of its kind, to set the Nono in relief. I had a few qualms about it in practice, though. The Schumann Manfred Overture – an important work for Nono, not least in his use of the ‘Manfred chord’ in Prometeo – was played with a great deal of nervous energy, but somewhat at the expense of what else makes this very difficult piece work. Rundel drove very hard and Schumann’s music lost much of its humanity – and, I think, its sense. The two Venetian madrigals suffered in a different way. I am certainly no fundamentalist on such matters, and was intrigued to hear them sung by a chamber choirs, as opposed to by soloists. There was a smoothness, however, especially to Marenzio’s Crudele, acerba, inesorabil morte, which seemed to me both somewhat to fail the piece and to fail as preparation for Nono. Beauty, yes, but not blandness, is required here.


As for Mark Andre’s 2015 über, for clarinet, orchestra, and live electronics, I am afraid I found myself rather at a loss. I liked the idea, insofar as I understood it, and Jörg Widmann certainly offered compelling showmanship as the soloist. But it seemed to me a very drawn out, often featureless, counterpart to an extended (!) Bruckner slow movement. The aural waves I heard promised much – and seemed to allude to Nono and Venice, above all to Prometeo (or at least, in this context, could be understood in that way). There were beautiful sounds to be heard; the blurring of boundaries between clarinet, electronics, and other instruments and their electronic transformation, allured. Had I not known there was no glass harmonica present, I should have sworn at one point that there was. Shadow worlds posed intriguing questions as to what was shadowing what. What did it all add up to, though? Perhaps I needed to hear it again; however, much as I should have liked to be convinced, I was not on this occasion. And it is the Nono work, which I had waited so long to hear, that now I need to hear again. So does the world in which we live, alas.