Sunday, 9 December 2018

LPO/Jurowski - Stravinsky and Berio, 8 December 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Stravinsky: Variations (Aldous Huxley in memoriam); Threni; Tango
Berio: Sinfonia

Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Maria Ostroukhova (mezzo-soprano)
Sam Furness (tenor)
Joel Williams (tenor)
Theodore Platt (baritone)
Joshua Bloom (bass)

The Swingles
London Philharmonic Choir (chorus director: Neville Creed )
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps. In the meantime, let us be grateful for every opportunity we have to hear this exquisite, deeply moving music. There were occasional signs of the (slightly) tentative to the London Philharmonic’s performance of the Aldous Huxley Variations under Vladimir Jurowski: perhaps no surprise, given infrequence of performance. There was nothing to disrupt, though: anyone listening, whether for the first or the nth time, would have gained a good sense of what the work was ‘about’ – if only ‘itself’ – and how it ‘went’. Jurowski’s trademark formalism – I am tempted to say ultra-formalism – clarified structure and procedures. Stravinsky’s post-neo-Classical intervallic games, symmetries, inversions, and yes, melodies registered not only with great clarity but also unerringly chosen colour. That involved opposition – for instance, strings versus woodwind – as much as blend or synthesis. If the variation for twelve violins – ‘like a sprinkling of very fine broken glass,’ the composer approvingly reported of the premiere – hinted at Ligeti, even Xenakis, there was never any doubt as to the mind, the ear behind it. As ever, the more Stravinsky changed, the more he stayed himself. And never more so than here, in his ultimate reconciliation with the (Schoenbergian) number twelve.

Threni – to give it its full title, Threni: id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae – has not proved fortunate in performance, whether in quantity or quality. Its 1958 premiere in Paris seems to have been an unmitigated disaster. The recording on Columbia/Sony’s Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky series gives little idea of the work’s expressive riches. I have only heard it once before in concert, in an excellent performance from the BBC Singers, London Sinfonietta, et al., under David Atherton, at the Proms in 2010. Here, Jurowski, the London Philharmonic Choir, the LPO, and some of the soloists did an excellent job; some of the latter’s colleagues proved more variable, a pity in a work of chiselled precision, in which accuracy is far from everything, but remains a necessity to unlock those expressive riches. Again, though, one should not exaggerate: no one would have left without a strong sense of the work and what it might be in performance. Moreover, cantorial tenor Sam Furness, deputising at very short notice, shone perhaps the most brightly of all. Necessity, as so often, proved the mother of invention.

In context, it sounded not unlike a continuation of, or perhaps better a posterior preparation for, the procedures heard and felt in the Variations. There were anticipations, moreover, of the Requiem Canticles, heard only last month as part of this same Stravinsky series from the LPC, LPO, and Jurowski: most obviously, perhaps, in the spoken choral text. That said, Threni may speak with Stravinsky’s unmistakeable voice, but it also, like all of his works, speaks with its own unmistakeable voice. Does the music ‘express’ something beyond itself, that age-old Stravinskian question (itself surely a clever pose, partly intended to prevent us from asking other, more apposite questions)? Here the question, perhaps rightly, remained unanswered, even unanswerable. The cumulative drama, mathematical and yet surely also theological, of the ‘Querimonia’ (first section of ‘De elegia tertia’) registered both directly and at a distance, female choir members and trombones punctuating its sections, each adding a further male soloist, with an almost divine ‘rightness’ that, like a Bach cantata or passion, brooked no dissent. Likewise the relative rejoicing of the opening of the following section, ‘Sensus spei’, Les Noces distilled and serialised, spoke of and through intervals, but yet also of something else, which may or may not have lain beyond. As words and music progressed – I am tempted to say turned – it was as if the spirit of plainsong, its function if not its style, were reinvented before our ears, until darkness fell toward its close. ‘Invocavi nomen tuum, Domine, de lacis novissimo.’ The final ‘De eleigia quinta’ seemed to perform a synthetic role, an impression enhanced by the occasional surprisingly Bergian harmony. A text whose straining to be ‘timeless’ rendered it all the less so had been consulted, read, heard, perhaps even experienced. Had it, though, been understood? That, one felt, was emphatically not the point.

I had forgotten that the 1940 Tango was on the programme. It therefore came as all the more lovely a surprise to hear it at the beginning of the second half, performed neither by piano nor orchestra, but by The Swingles: a winning introduction to Berio’s Sinfonia. Its opening chord, instrumental and vocal, acoustic and electronic, primaeval and modern, announced an entirely different approach to synthesis, all-embracing in a mode I am almost tempted to call ‘popular’ as opposed to ‘aristocratic’. Or such, perhaps, is Berio’s trick – for surely he is just as adept with games and, yes, masks as Stravinsky. It was interesting to note, though, perhaps especially during the first movement, how much I re-heard Berio through lessons learned from Stravinsky (and beyond him, Webern): just, indeed, as I re-heard words from Lévi-Strauss and others through lessons I was learning from Berio (and had from Stravinsky, Webern, et al.) Again, such is surely part of the game, the aesthetic, even the humanistic vision. In the second movement, my ears again doubtless schooled by serial Stravinsky, musical procedures once again sounded very much to the fore. That was also, I suspect, partly a consequence of Jurowski’s aforementioned formalism. Precision in performance ultimately enabled connection in listening.

How to listen to the third movement? So much there is present in our consciousness already; or is it? (Or are its quotations and underlay really so very different from other music(s)?) ‘Keep going’. At any rate, I found myself convinced I was hearing a very different performance from any I had heard before, certainly quite different from that given by Semyon Bychkov at this year’s Proms. ‘Keep going.’ What sounded like a weirdly unidiomatic way with Strauss and Ravel proved compelling in this context. How can anyone make a reminiscence from Wozzeck sound amusing? I genuinely do not know, but Berio – and his performers – did. We kept going – or did we?

The fourth movement emerged ‘as if’ Mahler’s ‘O Röschen rot’ were rewritten before our ears, within our minds – which, surely, it both was and was not. The music retained a trace of that Mahlerian function, whilst (apparently) effortlessly remaining itself. ‘The task of the fifth and last part,’ Berio wrote, ‘is to delete … differences and … develop the latent unity of the preceding fifth parts.’ Again, it both happened and did not. A traditional finale role of a sort was both very much with us, immanent, and yet questioned, facing imminent destruction. Jurowski’s clarity paid dividends here, ironically turning the music around to resemble other Berio works more closely than any other performance I can recall. One final Stravinskian lesson learned, then – after which two highly enjoyable encores: The Swingles singing Piazzolla (Libertango) and the LPO and Jurowski rounding off their year-long Stravinsky survey with Circus Polka: for a Young Elephant.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Uchida - Schubert, 7 December 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Piano Sonata in A minor, D 537
Piano Sonata in C major, D 840
Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D 960

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Who would willingly pass up the opportunity to hear Mitsuko Uchida play Schubert? Not I; nor did I regret having taken it up. That said, an artist whose gallery of virtues would generally be held to include a high degree of technical consistency did not always quite live up to that side of the bargain. During the C major Sonata, D 840, Uchida struggled at times, visibly and audibly distracted by an especially active bronchial audience contingent (not to mention at least two mobile telephone interventions). Edge-of-the-seat turbulence of the cross-rhythms part-way through the finale of the B-flat major Sonata, D 960, was not entirely to be ascribed to interpretative choice and insight. There were a few other such instances. Musical and more broadly humanist virtues nevertheless consistently won out. What we heard was some way from perfect; yet whilst perfection may often – often not, too – prove a laudable quality, rarely if ever should it prove an end in itself.

The recital opened with the A minor Sonata, D 537. A vehement, almost Beethovenian opening – yes, I know the temptation to compare and contrast with Beethoven is often better avoided; nevertheless… – subsided beautifully, yes, but more to the point, meaningfully. Schubert’s contours were well traced throughout this first movement and beyond; or rather, they were brought to life in performance, ‘traced’ suggesting something too passive. This sounded, rightly, very much as young man’s music. (That all of Schubert’s music is, strictly, a young man’s music is really neither here nor there.) What particularly struck me on a micro-level, was how Uchida’s leaning in to phrases always sounded just ‘right’: never quite the same, always subtly different, according to context. The movement’s closing bars sounded very much imbued with the spirit of Mozart of his A minor Sonata, KV 310/300d. Uchida judged the tempo and mood – the same thing here, really – of the second movement just right. The degree of halting uncertainty again seemed spot on, though I can imagine some finding it a little mannered. A ‘lateness’ that belied the actual year of composition (1817) worked well, icy winter winds very much the thing. There was certainly no doubting her command of the overall line. The finale again opened vehemently, yet in no sense as a repeat of the first movement; context and experience were all here. Perhaps some of what ensued might have benefited from greater variety of touch, but Uchida’s dream-like, at times almost stream-of-consciousness approach was compelling in its way.

If the C major Sonata suffered more than its companions from technical mishaps, it also proved to me the most intriguing interpretatively. Uchida’s opening phrase was floated with an indeterminacy that seemed to hurl a gentle (!) lance into the music-historical future: to Liszt, even to Debussy. Tonality, general and specific, evolved – and yet also often remained uncertain, Liszt again coming to mind, as indeed he did in certain rhetorical gestures. The first movement’s closing bars, luminous and numinous, lingered long in the memory. Schubert’s apparent inability, or unwillingness, to climax proved deeply moving. Was the Romanticism of the second movement more ‘conventional’? Perhaps, but so what? If so, it were only in such extraordinary company. Uchida’s great achievement here, I think, was to draw one in, to compel one truly to listen. Then the music developed in its own, strange, quite inimitable way.

The B-flat Sonata sounded from the outset more settled – at least until those slips during the finale. Resigned? I am not sure; this was certainly not Sviatoslav Richter. Perhaps ‘content’ might be better. Schubert’s music took wing more readily than earlier: in large part a reflection of the material, of course, but perhaps not entirely. Structure and form were certainly clearer throughout, notwithstanding an egregious telephonic intervention shortly before the first movement exposition repeat. An ineffable sadness during the development section emerged very much from its harmony: the minor mode, yes, but Neapolitan and other chromatic colourings in particular. The return was unruffled but certainly not unchanged. And it continued to develop, of course; or perhaps, better, to change, ‘develop’ in this work sounding almost indecently Beethovenian a charge. The rarity of key, tonality, and mood in the slow movement was established immediately, quite without preciosity. Again, Uchida’s command of large-scale structure and form – that is, dynamic delineation of structure in time – were key to her success here. The scherzo is, for me, the most difficult of four very difficult movements to bring off in performance. No such fear here: inner, presumed fragility encased, even entombed, in a finely judged scampering pretence at insouciance. The obstreperous quality of its trio, rightly different from Beethoven’s truculence, seemed in a decidedly peculiar way closer to a reification of Haydn. Many of those qualities continued, indeed developed, in a finale possessed of just the right degree both of exploration and ‘rightness’. A wordless Schwanengesang, whatever the occasional stumble, ultimately did what it should. Music, after all, is human rather than divine.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal College of Music, 30 November 2018

Britten Theatre

Count Almaviva – Thomas Isherwood
Countess Almaviva – Eleanor Dennis
Susanna – Catriona Hewitson
Figaro – Theodore Platt
Cherubino – Anna Cooper
Marcellina – Holly-Marie Bingham
Dr Bartolo – Timothy Edlin
Don Basilio – Glen Cunningham
Don Curzio – Samuel Jenkins
Barbarina – Milly Forrest
Antonio – Peter Edge
Two Bridesmaids – Camilla Harris, Jessica Cale

Sir Thomas Allen (director)
Lottie Higlett (designs)
Rory Beaton (lighting)
Kate Flatt (choreography)

Royal College of Music Opera Chorus (chorus master: Leanne Singh-Levett)
Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

A lively, enthusiastic young cast, as skilled at acting as at singing, proved the definite highlight of the Royal College of Music’s end-of-term Marriage of Figaro. There was no weak link, each of the singers offering something particular in roles many of us perhaps know all too well. At this stage in their careers, singers will always have a good deal of vocal development to await. Nevertheless, from the stern and angry Count of Thomas Isherwood to the decidedly luxury casting of Milly Forrest’s Barbarina, there was much to enjoy here. Eleanor Dennis, an RCM alumna deputising at the last minute, offered a noble Countess: poised, dignified, pained, and compassionate, an object lesson to her younger collaborators. Theodore Platt and Catriona Hewitson sparkled as a likeable, stylish pair of servants, Figaro and Susanna, Holly-Marie Bingham’s Marcellina and Timothy Edlin’s Bartolo perhaps giving a splendidly knowing hint of where the characters, if hardly the singers, might find themselves in a few years’ time.

Michael Rosewell’s conducting was sane enough: something to be grateful for in an age of perverse, often downright ugly Mozart ‘interpretation’. It lacked charm, though, orchestral writing too often going unshaped, even barely phrased at all. A few too many disjunctures between pit and stage were skilfully retrieved, yet all in all – and this is quite a different thing from minutes on the clock – the pace somewhat dragged, a greater sense of the musical whole proving elusive.

There was not much to glean, either, from Thomas Allen’s production. It was less aggressively, even offensively ‘traditional’ than the Figaro I last saw at the RCM (Jean-Claude Auvray, 2012), yet it would be difficult to claim any great insights. (Not that an extraordinarily disruptive – drunken? – audience, laughing and applauding almost every bar, seemed to seek insight; alas, the Glyndebourne Guffaw Brigade seemed very much to be at large.) Notwithstanding a strange initial preoccupation with babies, soon dropped, as it were, the production was very much school of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, albeit on a necessarily less grand scale. What worked in the mid-Seventies – in many ways gloriously, as we may still see on film, Karl Böhm’s presence certainly not hindering – does not necessarily ring so true four decades later. Why would it? Additional elements of something bordering on silliness did not help. There was not much more to it than that. I have little doubt that the cast would have learned much from working with Allen; I have little doubt, moreover, that that showed in their own character portrayals and their interaction.

For a greater idea, be it of the eighteenth century or any other, I sought in vain: a pity, given that two other London conservatoire performances of the last few years have offered much food for thought. The Guildhall (Martin Lloyd-Evans, 2013) offered, in retrospect, chilling presentiments of #MeToo in an American electoral campaign, whilst the Royal Academy’s gentle updating to pre-revolutionary Cuba (Janet Suzman, 2015) brought forth perhaps the single finest, all in all, Figaro I have seen and heard. Claus Guth’s Strindbergian Salzburg production of the previous decade doubtless changed the work forever. It need not, indeed should not, be imitated. Some awareness and communication of the work’s savage darkness, however, is now for many of us a crucial starting point, as much as it would be for Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. Mozart never suffers from sharply etched chiaroscuro. Still, there will surely be another opportunity before too long – and better this than the incoherent nonsense I endured from Johannes Erath in Dresden a couple of months ago.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

La bohème, English National Opera, 26 November 2018


Images: Robert Workman

Marcello – Nicholas Lester
Rodolfo – Jonathan Tetelman
Colline – David Soar
Schaunard – Božidar Smiljanić
Benoît – Simon Butteriss
Mimì – Natalya Romaniw
Parpignol – David Newman
Musetta – Nadine Benjamin
Alcindoro – Simon Butteriss
Policeman – Paul Sheehan
Official – Andrew Tinkler

Jonathan Miller (director)
Natascha Metherell (revival director)
Isabella Bywater (set designs)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Kevin Sleep (revival lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Mark Biggins)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Alexander Joel (conductor)

And still they come. The last opera I saw during my near-year of liberation from Poundland was La bohème at the Deutsche Oper. No year goes by without multiple opportunities to see it; few years now go by without my taking at least one of those opportunities. Indeed, I see that I shall now have gone to Jonathan Miller’s staging on three of its five (!) outings since it was first seen at ENO in 2009. Is there a degree of overkill, especially when it comes to a far from adventurous production? Perhaps, although I am well aware of the (alleged) reasons for a company performing the opera so frequently. Do they add up, though? Judging by the number of empty seats at the Coliseum on this, the first night, I am not sure that they do. Might that indicate that it is time to give the work a rest or a new production? Again, perhaps, although what in the present climate would be an adequate substitute for box-office certainty? Perhaps there is no longer any such thing. Is that a bad thing? For a company struggling with declining funding and years of mismanagement – remember the self-styled ‘She-E-O’, Cressida Pollock, granting interviews about how she liked to relax with a bottle of wine whilst wearing her favourite training shoes, at the same time as attempting to sack the chorus? – the answer would seem to be yes. On the other hand, might it ultimately be a prod towards diversity of repertoire, towards taking Puccini as something more artistically serious than a box-office certainty, towards asking whether a performance in an often jarring English translation vaguely ‘after’ Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica is really the best way to ‘sell’ as well as to perform this work to a multicultural audience? Perhaps. We shall see.

One very welcome aspect of this performance – and possible justification for retaining the production a little while longer – was the opportunity it granted, well grasped indeed, to a young cast including two of ENO’s Harewood Artists: Nadine Benjamin and Božidar Smiljanić. Benjamin’s Musetta is very much her own woman, no mere memory of other Musettas we have heard – or claim to have heard (‘does not efface post-war memories of Dame Ermintrude Heckmondthwike, “Ermie” we called her…’). Not that she was different for the sake of it, quite the contrary, the crucial facets of Musetta’s character coming through bright and clear, but fresh too, very much an acquaintance as well as a reacquaintaince – and a vocal acquaintance too.  Smiljanić is likewise an able actor and impressed greatly both as soloist, insofar as possible for a Schaunard, and in ensemble. Likewise David Soar as Colline, his final-act moment something truly to savour. Nicholas Lester’s Marcello was definitely a cut above the average, rich and, where appropriate, ardent of tone, hinting cleverly at far more to the character than we ever officially learn (surely so much of the trick to a compelling Puccini performance). Simon Butteriss’s comedic turns as Benoît and Alcindoro even had a doubter such as I consider the approach (Miller’s, I suspect, more than the artist’s) perfectly justified.

Last yet anything but least, our pair of star-crossed lovers, played by Jonathan Tetelman and Natalya Romaniw, showed themselves (mostly) sensitive artists who could yet project to the back of the largest of theatres. (Alas, the Coliseum remains not the least of ENO’s problems, whatever audience members ‘of a certain age’ might claim.) Romaniw’s Mimì proved perhaps the more moving early on, but that is more likely a consequence of the opera itself than of any great performative disparity; both certainly moved in the final tragedy of the work’s final minutes. If only they had not on occasion – under instruction, I suspect – played to the gallery, treating their ‘big moments’ as stand-alone arias. The real culprit here, I think, was Alexander Joel. His conducting of the ever-excellent ENO Orchestra was incisive and mostly unsentimental, but he seemed incapable of thinking – or at least projecting – a greater unity to each act, let alone to the score as a whole. Of Puccini’s ‘symphonism’, we heard little or nothing.

As for Miller’s production, ably revived by Natascha Metherell – who surely deserved a curtain call – it is what it is. Paris updated to the thirties looks beautiful, occasionally desperate too; Personenregie is keen. As mentioned above, I am more reconciled to its comedy than I first was. Moreover, I rather like – some do not – the glimpses we catch of characters off the set as such, carrying on with their lives. Something a little challenging or interesting, though, would surely not go amiss in the future. As yet, few if any directors seem to have matched Stefan Herheim’s challenge in his superlative Norwegian Opera production, let alone gone beyond it. Will time tell? Perhaps.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Hagen Quartet - Schubert, Webern, and Haydn, 22 November 2018

Wigmore Hall

Schubert: String Quartet no.9 in G minor, D 173
Webern: Five Movements, op.5; Six Bagatelles, op.9
Haydn: String Quartet in B-flat major, op.55 no.3

Lukas Hagen and Rainer Schmidt (violins)
Veronika Hagen (viola)
Clemens Hagen (cello)

It is rarely anything but a joy to hear the Hagen Quartet, especially when it comes to the central Austro-German repertoire. This Wigmore Hall concert of works by Schubert, Webern, and Haydn proved no exception.

Schubert’s G minor Quartet, D 173, opened the programme. Its first movement proceeded with a ‘rightness’ very much setting the tone for the rest of the concert. Well judged, without a hint of complacency, it offered formal dynamism with due flexibility – and a sense of G minor as a key, as a key with tradition, in the line of Mozart. Lyricism and turbulence were equal partners, Schubert’s often underestimated – even by him – skill with counterpoint their midwife. The Andantino smiled through tears, fragile without sentimentality, the Hagens’ playing as cultivated as the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm. Hushed passages drew one in, above all harmonically, with a simplicity that wanted to be Mozart’s yet, with the pathos of distance, could not quite reach him. Such, after all, is Schubert. The minuet proved very much an heir to its counterpart in the ‘Little’ G minor Symphony, distance and affinity again equally remarkable, as too they were in the post-Mozartian trio. Similarly posed between precursors and the Romantic future, the finale’s aesthetic drama unfolded before our ears as if for the first time.

The two following works received some of the finest Webern playing I have been privileged to hear. In the Five Movements, op.9, the first movement alone conveyed a full sense of the most concentrated sonata form: not merely structure, but form, experienced in time, in performance. Crucially, it danced too, old Vienna still with us; so too did it sing, unmistakeably in Schubert’s line. Dramatically necessary after that, the second, slow movement seemed more immediately of Schoenberg’s school. Every note – and so much more than every mere note – told. An instrumental scena, Webern’s Erwartung: that was how the central movement, marked ‘Sehr bewegt’, came into our consciousness. Likewise its successor: how every interval spoke to us, possessed of a meaning seemingly beyond the ability of words to communicate. Such listening seemed in retrospect to have prepared us for the final movement, albeit here at least as much vertically as horizontally: Webern’s music might as well have been serial all along. And how much music there is here to play and to listen.  

Those op.5 Movements seemed on the verge of expansive when compared with the concision of the op.9 Six Bagatelles. There was no mistaking, though, the common voice, the composer unquestionably the same, although the material was entirely different and sounded as such. The first sounded very much as a first movement in the line of Schubert or indeed Haydn, whilst the second brought a world transformed as its bracing wind blew. Terror or passion in the third? Why choose? Webern did not, nor did the Hagen Quartet. A similar refusal to indulge in the either/or characterised the fourth piece, a song of torment, consolation, and so much else. Connections between every note sounded all the more intense, all the more necessary as we reached the fifth and sixth bagatelles, both movements with character of their own, the latter every inch a finale in both style and dramatic necessity.

With Haydn’s B-flat major Quartet, op.55 no.3, we immediately heard the composer in full maturity. Times on the clock may have been different, but everything counted just as it had in Webern. Who needs a stage when all the musical world is a stage of the mind and senses already? Who needs a vocal quartet, when the instruments can sing and converse like this? Such interplay between ‘characters’, already marked in the first movement, seemed momentarily exchanged for something more ecclesiastical, even sacred, at the beginning of the second. Haydn, though, is never to be pigeon-holed, musical drama between those two tendencies, broadly defined, being revealed as its musical secret, equipoise almost Mozartian – without ever quite sounding ‘like’ the work of the younger composer, and rightly so. The minuet took nothing for granted, emerging all the more strongly for it. There were perhaps greater swing and vigour than I might have expected: again, the Hagens’ performance was one truly to draw one in. The trio followed on and contrasted, just as one might have hoped, if again never quite as one expected. With Haydn and with a great performance of Haydn, one must listen, truly listen. That holds, if anything, still more so for his finales; at any rate, it certainly did so here. Beethoven, Bartók, and many others, Schubert and Webern amongst them, would surely have doffed their hats at such riotous invention. I certainly did.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Podcast: Annabelle Lee and Mark Berry, 'Talking Classical'

Teaching is one of my greatest joys. Without wishing to take anything away from my students' achievements - they are theirs and theirs alone - I cannot help but take a good deal of pride in them. I was recently fortunate to co-supervise (with my Royal Holloway colleague, Dr Shzr Ee Tan) Dr Annabelle's Lee excellent thesis analysing social media marketing in the classical music industry. Annabelle has recently launched a new series of podcasts called 'Talking Classical'. Once again I found myself fortunate, this time to be her first interviewee, discussing my work in music criticism. Please click here for Annabelle's blog and here for a direct link to that podcast on Soundcloud.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Donnerstag, Opéra Comique, 17 November 2018

 Salle Favart

Image: Vincent Pontet

Michael (tenor) – Damien Bigourdan, Safir Behloul
Michael (trumpet) – Henri Deléger
Michael (dancer) – Emmanuelle Grach
Eva (soprano) – Léa Trommenschlager, Elise Chauvin
Eva (basset horn) – Iris Zerdoud
Eva (dancer) – Suzanne Meyer
Luzifer (bass) – Damien Pass
Luzifer (trombone) – Mathieu Adam
Luzifer (dancer) – Jamil Attar
Michael’s accompanist (piano) – Alphonse Cemin
Swallow Clowns (clarinets) – Alice Caubit, Ghislain Roffat
Two Youths (saxophones) – Eléonore Brundell
Old Woman – Bernadette Le Saché
Messanger – Antoine Amariutei
Nurses – Maxime Morel, Alphonse Cemin
Doctor – Simon Guidicelli
Child Michael – Ilion Thierrée

Luzifer bass (Damien Pass), Michael tenor (Damien Bigourdan)
Image: Stéfan Brion

What a year it has been for Karlheinz Stockhausen. The ninety-year-old composer from Sirius seems in this, the year of his ninetieth birthday celebrations, to be as strongly with us as ever. Berlin’s annual Musikfest did him proud with four concerts, three of which I was privileged to attend. (See here and here for reviews.) The Paris-based orchestra Le Balcon has, under the direction of Maxime Pascal, launched a series of his complete Licht operas, starting here with the French premiere of Donnerstag in a co-production between the Opéra Comique, Le Balcon, and the Opéra national de Bordeaux. It is planned to reach its conclusion in 2024. On the evidence of this performance – and indeed of Benjamin Lazar’s production – it will, from beginning to end, prove an absolute must for anyone with a remotely serious interest in opera.

Image: Vincent Pontet

Donnerstag may come fourth in the seven days of creation – and thus be expected take that place in a full ‘cycle’, if we must use the confusing, circular term. It was written first, though (give or take a single scene from Dienstag) and to my mind benefits – at the very least, is done no harm – from being placed first like this. At the opening of the treatment of Licht in his book on Stockhausen’s music, Robin Maconie writes: ‘As the first completed opera of LICHT, the day in which, drawing on his own life experiences, the composer lays out his philosophical agenda for the entire week, Donnerstag aus LICHT is at once the most personal in its declarations and the most troubling and controversial in its ethical and spiritual implications. In as much as the opera has a theme, the theme is Kindheit: education, upbringing, self-determination, and spiritual growth.’ Much of that came through strongly – in both musical and dramatic fashion. Indeed, as one would expect in so post-Wagnerian a work, the distinction made no sense. What certainly made an impression – ‘sense’ will be in the eyes and ears of the beholders, the listeners – was the overriding idea, modernist (?) fragmentary tendencies notwithstanding, of self-formation, of a Bildung that is, has been, and, doubtless ever shall be both classical and anything but.

Alphonse Cemin (Nurse), Eva soprano (Léa Trommenschlager), Maxime Morel (Nurse),  Luzifer bass (Damien Pass) 
Image: Meng Phu

There was, perhaps, something necessarily didactic to the first act. (I think one may, even should, accept a degree of essentialism when it comes to Stockhausen. Can one really fail to do so in the German tradition of which he is unquestionably part?) So it felt, at any rate, to me. Following our call to observance in a very particular version of ‘Donnerstags-Gruss’, heard throughout the house but faintly, impinging upon our consciousness, almost switching us or our receptivity on, the first act proceeded almost as if it were a director’s metatheatrical intervention, drawing upon the composer’s biography to elucidate. Except, of course, and with every respect to Lazar’s fine work, the director in that sense remained Stockhausen himself. We were free to draw whatever lessons we wished – none, I suppose, should we not have wished to do so – from Michael’s experience and education, his navigation of boundaries between his father’s (militaristic yet also theatrical) example and his mother’s (musical, carnal, and also theatrical).

Iris Zerdoud (Mondeva), Damien Bigorudan (Michael)
Image: Stéfan Brion

Michael’s coming of age, the loss of his mother and brother, was Stockhausen’s but not his: it was, in Orphic tradition, that of music too. In Wagner’s tradition, moreover, it was that of art as opposed to different arts: the Gesamtkunstwerk, if you will, a term often more suited to Wagner’s successors (and indeed to his predecessors’ Romantic aspirations) than to his own dramas and theories. Gesture in the traditional form of dance – as opposed to the broader Wagnerian transformation into staging and/or production – played here and elsewhere not only a crucial role but a role that questions and unifies, just as does singing, just as does instrumental performance. We see, hear, think of, even dream the relationships between these outstanding performers of different types. (Or are they different? Is that but our fragmented fantasy?) When Mondeva, whatever her relationship to mother Eva, showed her talons, sounded her basset horn, yielded to the young Siegfried (sorry, Michael), the hallowed German Romantic forest or memories thereof came back to life – albeit here subtly, without a hint of bad nineteenth- or twentieth-century to them. No wonder, then, he proceeded to pass his exams with flying colours. A musician had been dreamed, formed, made incarnate.

Maxime Morel (tuba), Henri Deléger (trumpet)
Image: Stéfan Brion

The instrumental fantasy of the second act, ‘Michaels Reise um die Erde’, as much perhaps a concerto for orchestra as for solo trumpeter (here the outstanding Henri Deléger), offered in many ways the greatest of contrasts. Having been ‘educated’, were we now to ‘enjoy’ – to tour the world, our worlds, other worlds (dramatic, galactic, etc.)? Yes, but not only yes. For the strange rhymes, the peculiar memories and remembrances, of the first act had formed us. There is nothing random, nothing arbitrary to Stockhausen – no more here in Licht than in any work of so-called ‘total serialism’. The composer’s formulae were doing their work, guiding us, in a total(itarian) way serving very much to remind us of his lineage. Michael’s instrumental companions, antagonists, interlocutors, guided yet liberated by Pascal, by Lazar, and – you have guessed it – by Stockhausen, played games with themselves, with us, dreamed of themselves, of others, most likely of us.

Eva (soprano) Léa Trommenschlager (act I), 
Eva (dancer) Suzanne Meyer
Eva (soprano) Elise Chauvin (act III), 
Michael (trumpet) Henri Deléger
Michael (dancer) Emmanuelle Grach 
Image: Meng Phu

For this, whether one likes it or no, is a world of mysticism: a mysticism prepared and finally explicit in the third act, in a ‘return’ that, like all returns, is as much concerned with what is new as with what is old. (‘Sonate, que veux-me tu?’ That, among many other things.) Choirs as celestial as those in Bach, theology as heretical as in Wagner and as unanswerable as in Messiaen (and Bach!), musical virtuosity, theatrical accomplishment: those and so much more, inviting yet rejecting such easy comparisons, recreated a world we both knew and did not. And, of course, they (re-)invited in our constant companion(s), Luzifer – again, of song, of instrument (trombone), of dance. There was victory, but at what cost? There were rejoicing and certainty – again, at what cost? This was the very stuff of drama as much as of ritual, of fantasy as much as of truth, of heroic dissent as much as harmonious union. Stockhausen was reborn both our eyes and ears.

I have, I confess, grown a little impatient with armchair listeners continuing to peddle the hackneyed line that the Stockhausen of Licht onwards demonstrated a sad, megalomaniacal decline, whilst acknowledging when pressed that they have never actually attended a performance of the Licht operas. There may be good reason for their not having done so; it does not, however, follow that such critics can possibly in a position to dismiss the works. No more than any other opera – rather less than many in the so-called ‘repertoire’ – should any of these works be considered as a ‘purely musical’ work. It may or may not be revealing simply to listen, simply to read the score. To give these extraordinary works a proper chance, though, one must engage theatrically with them. In turn, we need (excellent) performances and stagings to do so. For that, and for much else, we should be grateful indeed to the Opéra Comique and this intrepid band of artists. No one there will forget this, nor them, in a hurry.

Luzifer dancer (Jamil Attar), Luzifer trombone (Mathieu Adam),
Michael trumpet (Henri Deléger), Michael dancer (Emmanuelle Grach)
Image: Meng Phu

Such was not the least of the messages one might have taken, at the close, from the boy Michael learning from his mature selves and the rest of the heavenly cosmos, what the past, present, and future might entail. Enlightenment, Licht as well as Bildung, was seen as well as heard before our eyes, ears, and much else. I have concentrated here far more on the totality, on the overall ‘effect’, rather than on individual contributions; I hope that will not be taken amiss, as a failure to acknowledge their generally outstanding quality. Such was the collegial commitment of all concerned – the audience included, if the wild enthusiasm of its final reception were anything to go by. I have no doubt that it was. Stockhausen, ultimately, tends no more to provoke doubts than Bach. He is what he is – and this was what it was, something quite out of the ordinary. As we retreated into the Place Boieldieu for an 'invisible' musical farewell that spoke or rather sang as much of Gabrieli as new galaxies, that was something we simply, or not so simply, knew. Not entirely unlike the composer into whose cult we had been (re)admitted.

Neuwirth/Breslauer - Die Stadt ohne Juden, PHACE/Paz, 15 November 2018

Milton Court Concert Hall

Images: Mark Allan/Barbican

Nacho de Paz (conductor)

The rediscovery of Hans Karl Breslauer’s 1924 silent film, Die Stadt ohne Juden (‘The City Without Jews’), has involved a degree of reconstruction. Based on Hugo Bettauer’s novel of the same name, published two years earlier, the film was long thought lost and had indeed pretty much disappeared from broader public consciousness. Olga Neuwirth saw the first fragmented discovered in the Netherlands when she was twenty-two; further material for the ‘new’, present version was later spotted in a Paris flea market, but this reconstruction and restoration by the Austrian Film Archive almost certainly diverge from what was originally seen (especially when it comes to the ‘dream’ conclusion). Neuwirth’s approach from the head of the Vienna Biennale to compose a new score to accompany performances came as a consequence of that Paris rediscovery. She initially declined, not least since she was at work on her new opera for Vienna, Orlando, but was eventually persuaded to take a break from work on that score. The co-commission comes from the Barbican Centre, the Vienna Konzerthaus, the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, ZDF/ARTE, and the Basel Symphony Orchestra.

Bettauer’s novel seems to have been darker than the film. (I say ‘seems to’, since I must rely on secondary information, not yet having had chance to read it for myself. I shall now certainly try to do so.) His other writings include treatments of US ‘interracial’ marriage and various women’s issues. He was also an early victim of Austrian Nazism, condemned as a ‘red poet’ and ‘corrupter of youth’, and murdered in 1925 by Otto Rothstock, a dental technician and (most likely) party member. Breslauer, on the other hand, seems to have been an opportunist: happy to make films with Jews, to introduce scenes of Viennese Jewish life – fascinating as historical documents too – into the film, scenes not present in the book, yet also willing later on to join the Nazi Party and to make propaganda films. Such is obviously in itself a fascinating, disturbing context for a twenty-first-century composer, let alone one so socially and politically aware as Neuwirth.

It is, of course, impossible for us not to view a film about Vienna, sorry Utopia, let alone a film in which that city votes to expel its Jewish population – here with the happy ending that it staves off economic collapse by welcoming that population back, a Jewish hero also getting the girl – through post-Holocaust spectacles. That said, it does us no harm and indeed much good to attempt additionally to view it from a 1920s standpoint. (That holds even, perhaps especially, when we are trying to come to terms with what would later ensue.) Neuwirth’s score, for live ensemble of amplified instruments and tape, plays with distance and avoids the potential Romanticism – as she sees it – of writing portentously for a large orchestra, as was initially requested of her. There is an irony here that it is tempting to view in part as Jewish; I cannot help but think Heine would have approved. It was important for Neuwirth not to fall into the trap, as, following Hanns Eisler, she see it, of mere representation. Nevertheless, she employs fragments of found material, be it Austrian popular song, sonorities of the twenties (for instance, saxophone salon music) to bridge the gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’. This is emphatically not something to consign to ‘history’, nor should it be. The excellence of performances from PHACE under Nacho de Paz, perfectly synchronised with the demands of film accompaniment, did likewise. Neuwirth’s longstanding interest in film – at eighteen, she studied both film and music, before opting to concentrate on the latter – takes, after Long Highway, another productive turn.

In brief discussion with Bryony Gordon beforehand, Neuwirth related the irony of having arrived in London to hear Theresa May echo the words of the Utopian Chancellor on ‘leadership’. This is not, repeat not, an issue to be consigned to ‘history’. Alas, as history shows us time and time again, by the time we start to think, artistically to create, it is almost always too late. We ‘citizens of nowhere’: we know, like the Windrush Generation, like our EU27 brothers and sisters, where May’s Utopia will lead.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Semele, Royal Academy, 14 November 2018

Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

Semele (Lina Dambrauskaitė), Jupiter (Ryan Williams), Chorus
Images: Robert Workman

Semele – Lina Dambrauskaitė
Ino – Olivia Warburton
Cadmus, Somnus – Thomas Bennett
Athamas – Alexander Simpson
Jupiter – Ryan Williams
Juno – Frances Gregory
Iris – Emilie Cavallo
Cupid – Aimée Fisk
Apollo – Joseph Buckmaster
Pasithea – Maya Colwell

Olivia Fuchs (director)
Takis (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Laurence Cummings (conductor)


Handel’s Semele was born of and into a celebrity-obsessed society of conspicuous consumption. Here, in Olivia Fuchs’s new staging for Royal Academy Opera, it unfolds in one still more so obsessed, still more conspicuously consuming: our own. We can sentimentalise the former, view it through a sepia lens, consider it more ‘beautiful’, but we should be foolish to do so. Fashion ruled there as here. An endless supply of minor portraits – ‘endless pleasure[s]’ – of minor aristocrats might appeal to the ‘heritage’ crowd. Is it, though, anything more than snobbery, snobbery directed from the Brexit generation toward the young, to consider Instagram and its visual network of ‘celebrity’ so very differently?

Semele and Chorus

Consequent constructions of the individual and the social come across strongly here. The chorus’s individual and corporate wielding of mobile telephones in the first scene, awaiting the (never-to-happen) wedding of Semele to Athamas, ‘society’ anxious not to miss the opportunity to record every single image of the forthcoming nuptials, might seem a now tedious cliché of contemporary operatic staging. If I am honest, it did so to me too. I came to realise, though, that that was surely the point. It is on the back of such behaviour, such vapid, glitzy, priorities that Semele achieves her moment in the celebrity – divine – firmament. She goes too far, of course, urged on by Juno. Such people tend to: here today, gone tomorrow. In a nice touch, moreover, Jupiter, come to her as ‘himself’, as thunderbolt, not only destroys her, but does so in the flash of a photo shoot.

Juno (Frances Gregory), Chorus, and Semele

Within that framework of suitably slick designs (Takis) and telling lighting (Jake Wiltshire) the story unfolds with clarity and confidence. The Royal Academy’s young singers perform their roles admirably. A few minor opening night slips notwithstanding, no one could reasonably have failed to be impressed, not least since the cast could act too – and did: testament to talent, application, and of course, the RAM’s schooling. For me, pick of the bunch, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Lina Dambrauskaitė in the title role. She had presence, vocal and stage, and used it to great musical and dramatic effect. Her coloratura was outstanding, as it needs to be, but so was her quicksilver adoption of different guises (celebrities need that) within the same convincingly crafted personality. (They need that too.)

Cadmus (Thomas Bennett), Athamas (Alexander Simpson), Ino (Olivia Warburton), Semele, Chorus

Ryan Williams’s versatile tenor took a well-judged Jovian journey from unheeding divine masculinity to genuine tender care, albeit too late. Frances Gregory offered a Juno not to be trifled with, who yet certainly maintained and projected feelings of her own. Olivia Warburton and Alexander Simpson impressed as Ino and Athamas, the latter especially in his final aria, ‘Despair no more shall wound me’. Both judged well the tricky tightrope between earlier seria tendencies and a new world of sentimentalism (in an eighteenth-century sense). Thomas Bennett’s Cadmus and Somnus revealed a more than promisingly sonorous bass. All soloists and the chorus impressed, their musical and dramatic contributions unquestionably greater than the sum of their parts. The Purcellian ‘Oh, terror and astonishment!’ sounded wondrously grave; frippery and not a little splendour fared equally well.


My sole disappointment came with certain aspects of Laurence Cummings’s direction of the orchestra. Playing on period instruments, the musicians often sounded as if they would have been happier not. (I certainly should have.) Cummings’s determination not only to eradicate vibrato but, seemingly, phrasing too, led to some deeply unsatisfactory closes to sections and numbers, as well as a good deal of choppiness in between. At times, moreover, he was unable to coordinate pit and stage. A little more modernity, to match what we saw and heard on stage, would not have gone amiss; nor would a tad more charm.