Monday 29 January 2018

Das Rheingold, LPO/Jurowski, 27 January 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Images: Simon Jay Price

Woglinde – Sofia Fomina
Wellgunde – Rowan Hellier
Flosshilde – Lucie Špičkova
Freia – Lyubov Petrova
Fricka – Michelle DeYoung
Erda – Anna Larsson
Froh – Allan Clayton
Loge – Vsevolod Grivnov
Wotan – Matthias Goerne
Donner – Stephen Gadd
Fasolt – Matthew Rose
Fafner – Brindley Sherratt
Mime – Andrew Thompson
Alberich – Robert Hayward

Malcolm Rippeth (lighting)
Katie Thackeray (deputy stage manager)
Ted Huffman (consultant)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

It is, of course, quite an achievement in itself for a symphony orchestra to perform Das Rheingold or indeed any of the Ring dramas. It does not happen very often, not nearly so often as it should; for given Wagner’s crucial musico-historical position, this is music that should stand at the very centre of their repertoires – just as Beethoven should at the centre of opera orchestras’. One can envy the practice of many German orchestras, which play for both opera house and symphony hall, but envy does not necessarily take us very far. (Actually, as Alberich will show us, it does, but perhaps not in the best direction.) In a closer-to-ideal world, admitted Vladimir Jurowski in the programme, there would have been a theatrical production, but the Ring ‘would be the end of Glyndebourne as a venue – it would simply fall apart if we tried to squeeze the orchestra into the pit!’ Why an achievement to perform it, though? Because Wagner’s dramas offer a standing rebuke to neoliberalism. It is not that there is any lack of ‘demand’; look how performances, especially in Wagner-starved Britain, will often sell out within a few minutes. But however great the demand, they will not ‘pay for themselves’. They are a communal undertaking, explicitly intended and functioning as heirs, political, social, religious, and dramatic – the distinctions make no sense – to the Attic tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles. (For more on that, please click here.)

Moreover, for the London Philharmonic Orchestra to give such an outstanding orchestral performance, in what must be the first time many of its players will have performed the score, is again cause for thanks and rejoicing. The LPO strings could hardly have proved more protean, the variegation of their tone a challenge to many an opera orchestra, that variegation surely born in part of Jurowski’s strenuous demands. Detail was present and vivid to what sometimes seemed a well-nigh incredible decree. For instance, the brass spluttering as Alberich floundered in the Rhine, for instance, looked forward suggestively to Strauss’s critics in Ein Heldenleben. If the anvils did not sound as they might in one’s head, when do they ever? That was no fault of the excellent nine players on three sides of the stage. The Prelude sounded – and, given the pipes behind the stage – unusually organ-like: not just the timbres, but also the insistence on the E-flat pedal, quite beyond any I can recall previously having heard. Such was the revealing side of Jurowski’s tight leash and rhythmic (harmonic rhythm included) exactitude, Bruckner coming strongly to mind.

Fasolt (Matthew Rose), Freia (Lyubov Petrova), and Fafner (Brindley Sherratt)

And yet, as so often, Jurowski himself proved too unyielding, almost Toscanini-like, if on a lower voltage. His again was quite an achievement, given that this was the first time he had conducted the score. There is no reason to think that subsequent performances will not reap rewards. By the same token, however, it would be idle to think that this compared to a Daniel Barenboim or a Bernard Haitink, although it certainly knocked spots off the incoherent incompetence Wagner generally suffers under Haitink’s successor at Covent Garden. To Londoners who hear little or nothing else, this would rightly be a cause for rejoicing. Moreover, the sometimes almost caricatured formalism of Jurowski’s approach – I wondered at times whether he had been reading Alfred Lorenz! – was not without its rewards. Was structure, however, too clarified, even simplified? For every revealing instance of opposition between different varieties of thematic material – Fricka’s disruptive, recitative-like ‘Wotan, Gemahl’, for instance, amidst Wotan’s orchestral dreaming of Valhalla – there were at least two passages that were distinctly subdued, almost as if concerned that the orchestra would threaten audibility of the singers. (It never did, by the way.) It was wonderful to hear so much harp detail as the gods crossed the rainbow bridge, and there is certainly good, Feuerbachian dramatic reason to emphasis the unreal beauty of the fortress and the path thereto. It need not, though, and surely should not come at the expense of its sacerdotal power. Novelistic, almost domesticated narrative sometimes threatened, in a dialectical turn, the integrity of musico-dramatic form. Yes, this is epic, yet it is anything but undisciplined. Das Rheingold, however, is a very difficult work to bring off: in some ways more so than the subsequent Ring dramas. Even Barenboim has sometimes erred a little too much towards Neue Sachlichkeit here. That there was a good deal to engage with critically, however, the foregoing merely illustrative, suggests that Jurowski’s Wagner is and will continue to be something to take seriously.

Alberich (Robert Hayward) and the Rhinemaidens (Sofia Fomina, Rowan Hellier, Lucie Špicková)

Vocally, as will almost always be the case, the bag was mixed. I could not resist the sense that, to a certain extent, at least Matthias Goerne’s Wotan was a little too much reliant on stock emotionally stunted sociopathy. Only towards the end, after the arrival of Anna Larsson’s typically excellent Erda, did he seem more truly ruminative. That is a crucial moment, of course, in his road towards Schopenhauerian conversion, but Wotan is never merely a figure of force. ‘Nicht durch Gewalt!’ is, after all, his injunction to Donner.  Robert Hayward’s Alberich went awry a few too many times; at his best, however, he proved darkly impressive. The giant pair of Matthew Rose and Brindley Sherratt also duly impressed as Fasolt and Fafner, the lovelorn brother genuinely moving, the sheer malevolence of Fafner at and after his death chilling indeed. Vsevolod Grivnov and Adrian Thompson offered detailed, dramatically alert ‘character tenor’ portrayals of Loge and Mime respectively, Allan Clayton’s light, bright-toned Froh a proper contrast. Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka, often imperious, was sometimes a little on the wobbly side, but there was little harm done in that respect, nor in the not dissimilar case of Lyubov Petrova’s cleanly sung Freia. Above all, there was a fine, almost Mozartian sense of conversation in passages of much dramatic to-and-fro. If only there had been a little more conventional drama. There nevertheless remained much to admire – and far from only because it happened at all.

Loge (Vsevolod Grivnov)

Friday 26 January 2018

Tiberghien/LSO/Roth - Debussy, 25 January 2018

Barbican Hall

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Fantaisie, for piano and orchestra
Three Nocturnes

Cédric Tiberghien (piano)
Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)


Pierre Boulez, whom the musical world seems to miss more with the passing of each month, once noted that, as modern poetry had grown from the roots of Baudelaire’s verse, so had modern music been awakened by Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. As the voice and indeed the conscience of new (modern(ist)) music for considerably longer than half a century, Boulez should have known. Whilst he would have been – and was – open to other suggestions, for this is no zero sum game, it is difficult to argue with the truth of his observation. I certainly have no desire to try, least of all this year, the hundredth anniversary of Debussy’s death, when I fear we shall have far too much wishy-washy talk of ‘Impressionism’ and far too little of modernism – or, more to the point of its modernist substance and import. If the former brings people to the latter, all well and good, but it too readily becomes an easy-listening thing-in-itself, obscuring so much of what truly matters in this most radical of composers.


Nor, it seemed, did François-Xavier Roth have any desire to try to argue with the claim made by a composer whom Roth himself has consistently championed, not least in the Berlin hall that bears Boulez’s name. Here he is in London as Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO, a welcome appointment he has held since September of last year. The celebrated opening phrase of Prélude à l’après-midi, beautifully, enigmatically floated by Gareth Davies, immediately offered a sense of fantasy, even of magic, furthered by responses, whether from other soloists or the orchestra as ensemble. Roth led the work with a fluidity familiar as much from Boulez’s musical works as Boulez’s conducting, the apparent lack of bar lines well nigh wondrous. Debussy’s Prélude sounded all the more radical, ultimately all the more confrontational, for its apparent lack of overt confrontation, Languor – yes, I know, we all overuse that word when it comes to Debussy – and concision seemed somehow to coexist, even to awaken one another.


I can live with the concert title ‘Essential Debussy’ if it attracts more people to the music, but surely it is stretching ‘essential’ beyond breaking point to include the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. It is a fascinating work, at least as much for its atypical qualities, even its skirting (at least) with vulgarity, as for foreshadowings of the later, ‘essential’ composer. One can play spot the influence and inevitably does, to a certain extent, but perhaps it is better simply to take it, as much as one can, ‘as it is’. Such seemed to be the method of the musicians here, now joined by Cédric Tiberghien, in a piano performance both hammerless and directed. In the second movement, Debussy’s melodic and harmonic twists constantly surprised, without any need for underlining, an affinity with the piano Arabesques clear and revealing. In context, one also heard similarities to – I hesitate to say ‘anticipations of’ – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in the closing ‘Allegro molto’. I cannot say, though, that I was left regretting Debussy’s turn away from Franck, d’Indy, et al. A splendidly sec encore of ‘Minstrels’ followed.


Jeux, which opened the second half, shows Debussy at what is surely his most classically modernist. Its opening marriage of timbre and harmony proved almost melodic in itself, without quite becoming Viennese Klangfarbenmelodie; it certainly had me think again of Boulez. Roth did not neglect, though, the sense of ballet, even of (thin) sporting narrative, the musical to-and-fro evocative and unrestricted, up and until the final drop of the ball. This extraordinary score remained as enigmatic as ever, its form seemingly generated before our ears, inviting and yet resisting ad hoc analysis.


If we had heard in Jeux fragments that might – or not – have come from Pelléas et Mélisande, they were more obvious, more frequent in the less kaleidoscopic Nocturnes. In ‘Nuages’, they were especially apparent in that passing between darkness and light without ever quite jettisoning the one for the other. Roth kept the score moving with great skill, almost imperceptible and thus all the more impressive. This is certainly not Debussy that invites a display of ‘personality’. ‘Fêtes’ proved a welcome contrast with bright, almost primary colours delivered and relished by the LSO. Marriage between detail and bigger ‘picture’ was finely judged. I found it irresistible. That, of course, is precisely what sirens should be, and so they were in ‘Sirènes’, the wordless female chorus imparting a sense of something akin to secular plainsong in summer – which returned us, in a way, to the opening work. The ‘cyclical’ takes many paths and forms.

Friday 19 January 2018

Quatuor Diotima - Szymanowski, Saunders, and Schubert, 18 January 2018

Wigmore Hall

Szymanowski: String Quartet no.2, op.56
Rebecca Saunders: Unbreathed (world premiere)
Schubert: String Quartet no.15 in G major, D 887

Yun-Peng Zhao, Constance Ronzatti (violins)
Franck Chevalier (viola)
Pierre Morlet (cello)

Bracingly modernist Szymanowski opened this Quatuor Diotima concert. Tremolandi in the first movement of the Second String Quartet sounded almost as if presentiments of Ligetian swarming. Clarity was striking too; there was nowhere to hide, almost as if this were Mozart. (It would have been very odd Mozart indeed, but anyway…) And when Ligeti bowed out, there was a Schoenbergian violence to the string-writing, married in performance to a very Gallic abrasion. Harmonics sounded other-world – and not in a sentimental way. There was palpable fury in the precision of the second movement, not unlike Bartók, although certainly not to be reduced in that way. Tonality sounded just as ambiguous here as it had in the first movement; one ‘knew’ it, yet did not always experience it. If there were a little less of such ambiguity in the third movement, there was at least as much emotional ambiguity to its unfolding. This was some of the least gorgeous Szymanowski I have heard, but was none the worse for it; it seemed to speak with, even of, truth.

If the shock of the new infused the Szymanowski performance, and would do so still more the Schubert in the second half, Rebecca Saunders’s Unbreathed, here receiving its world premiere, was performed with all the confidence of an established repertory work – which surely it will become. The title comes from her own poetic inscription:

Inside, withheld, unbreathed,
Nether, undisclosed.

Souffle, vapour, ghost,
Hauch and dust.

Absent, silent, void,
Naught beside.

Either, neither, sole,


Written in a single movement, it seemed to me to be divided into two sections, the second initially perhaps suggestive of a slow movement that is not a slow movement, before turning out to breathe – or perhaps to unbreathe – if the reference will be forgiven, the air of another planet beyond the more familiar ‘another planet’. A destination of sorts, I think: but how had the music got there? Phrases, arguably ‘gestural’, yet certainly not only gestural, seemed to incite one another: consecutively, overlapping, even simultaneously; rhythmically as well as melodically. As often in Saunders’s music, the illusion of an electronic penumbra proved melodically fascinating, indeed constructive; it was no mere ‘effect’. Was that perhaps even an approach to Stockhausen in a frenetic, hard-won upward passage? I found myself preoccupied by the relationship between vertical and horizontal that yet, almost contradictorily, seemed to play itself out through time, in a dramatic form creating itself in modernistic fashion. Then the relative calm of much of that second section, eerie and not at all still, suggested ghosts in a reinvented, reset machine, anything but dualistic.

Schubert’s G major Quartet, D 887, sounded quite unlike any Schubert I had ever previously heard, although I am not sure I can really put my finger on how, let alone why. As in the Szymanowski, there was something truly menacing, coldly so, to the tremolandi, but it was much more than that. Likewise it was more than a matter of febrile energy, although that too played its part. It was not that the performance was fragmentary; it had a strong sense of line, at least in certain ways; nevertheless, sometimes phrases, again as in Szymanowski, seemed on the verge of taking leave of their tonal moorings. Passages of relative stasis sounded all the odder in this context, at least to begin with all the more unnerving. However, by the time we reached the second movement, which, like its predecessor, sounded slower than it most likely was, I was missing a little too much a sense of harmonic motion. Was it I who was merely missing it, though, or was it not there? I genuinely do not know, especially since it seemed to be restored somewhat in the scherzo, if only on account of the nature of the material. Its trio, though, sounded especially weirdly distended, all the more so on account of generally glassy tone. This was strange, even wearing Schubert. Should it (not) have been? Again, I do not know.

Monday 15 January 2018

Modigliani Quartet - Haydn and Brahms, 14 January 2018

Wigmore Hall
Haydn: String Quartet in G major, op.54 no.1
Haydn: String Quartet in G minor, op.74 no.3, ‘Rider’
Brahms: String Quartet no.1 in C minor, op.51 no.1

Amaury Coeytaux, Loïc Rio (violins)
Laurent Marfaing (viola)
François Kieffer (cello)

It was good to be back at the Wigmore Hall, by any standards the jewel in London’s musical crown, after almost a year away. No hall or house can maintain identical  standards, night in, night out – in this case, often day in, day out too – over an entire season; even if possible, it would be quite undesirable to do so. Nevertheless, the level of musical excellence heard here far more often than not only exceeds any other venue in London, but surely withstands comparison with any in the world. The Modigliani Quartet had much to tell us in performances of Haydn and Brahms: never merely ‘different’ for the sake of it, yet, by the same token, all possessing points of particular interest to differentiate themselves from others.

Haydn’s G major Quartet, op.54 no.1, opened with cultivated tone and considerable, although far from unvaried, vibrato. One should always be wary of imputing too readily ‘national’ or other stereotypical characteristics, but the group’s sound seemed to me very much to speak of a Franco-Belgian string heritage. My ears took a minute or so to adjust, having perhaps become more accustomed recently to other schools of string playing. (I have also probably listened to less in the way of string quartet music in my time away from London.) Whatever the characteristics of the sound – or Klang, as the German in me wants to say – the important thing was that, from this first movement onwards, formal process and dynamism were apparent, attentiveness of mutual listening equally clear. Modulatory development witnessed a relative, although only relative, withdrawal of vibrato, as it subtly to underline Haydn’s questing. Its concision was breathtaking, almost Webern-like. Rightly, everything had changed in the recapitulation, its material played and heard anew. Nothing was taken for granted in the slow movement either. Without any unnecessary underlining, phrasal, harmonic, and almost Schubertian modulatory qualities were made, or perhaps better, enabled, to tell. Haydn’s startling originality and ‘rightness’ of form were rendered immanent. Beethoven was but a stone’s throw away in the minuet and trio, yet a stone’s throw away he remained; this was still very much Haydn. Motivic integration nevertheless looked forward far into the future, at least as far – with the rest of the programme in mind – as Brahms. Rigour and fun proved inseparable in the finale: a properly Haydnesque combination. Both work and performance evinced sheer delight in musical argument: an object lesson in navigation of the overarching tonal universe and of the particularities of this work.

The opening bars of the Rider Quartet immediately announced that Haydn will always do things differently, in every quartet as in every symphony. Material dictated, or suggested, the terms of performance, and rightly so. Here, the composer’s transformations, all lovingly, intelligently handled, proved worthy of Beethoven or Liszt, permitting the work’s opening G minor sadness, close to yet never to be identified with, that of Mozart, to give way to other, quite different forms of musical expression. In some ways, the music seemed to assert its status as heir to the Sturm und Drang Haydn – without, again, being merely identified with him. Harmonic and tonal rarity, in every sense, were apparent in the slow movement; it was difficult not to think already of late Beethoven. The central turn to E minor offered a dignified, noble sadness all its own. The third movement was taken as a not-quite-scherzo, which seemed spot on; it might have been in three, yet was not really. Intensification in the trio was especially well judged. Haydn’s finale surprised with every twist and turn, even when, perhaps particularly when, one ‘knew’ it. The composer’s genius of motivic development and transformation could hardly have been granted more subtly dramatic life.

It was interesting, indeed enlightening, to hear Brahms’s First Quartet in the motivic developmental light of the Haydn works. If initially I found the first movement somewhat hard-driven, I tried to ask myself whether that were my problem rather than that of the performance; most likely it was. The music in any case relaxed for the second group, without loss to dramatic tension. Crucially, there were throughout this performance no compromises with the difficulty of the work. I have heard it played with richer tone, but so what? Tellingly, greater tonal richness was to be heard at points of developmental climax, prior to post-Mendelssohn passages of exhaustion. Voice-leading came very much to the fore in the Romanze, an heir to Schumann as much in sensibility as in method. Mediated simplicity was something to be worked at, by players and listeners alike; the effort was unquestionably worth it. A concision that spoke of Beethoven was to be heard in the third movement; again, one had to listen, and rightly so. There were, moreover, surely echoes of Haydn to be heard and relished in the trio, in tandem with a keen sense of ghostly, even corrosive questioning. The finale offered highly wrought intensity: a conclusion in every sense. Brahms never offers easy answers; there was no attempt to pretend that he does here.

Puccini’s Crisantemi proved an inspired choice of encore. Craftsmanship and elegiac sensibility alike proclaimed the composer far more ‘German’ than his often regrettable popular reputation might suggest. Not for nothing would he and Schoenberg so greatly admire one another.

Sunday 14 January 2018

LSO/Rattle - Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Shilkret, Tansman, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Toch, and Bartók, 13 January 2018

Barbican Hall


Various: Genesis Suite (United Kingdom premiere)
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Helen McCrory, Simon Callow, Rodney Earl Clarke, and Sara Kestelman (narrators)
Gerard McBurney (creative director)
Mike Tutaj (projection design)

London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)


‘We live now in a time of refugees.’ With those words, Simon Rattle opened his typically engaging spoken introduction to this concert of works – if the Genesis Suite may be called a ‘work’ – by émigré composers, of whom a good few certainly count as refugees themselves. Indeed we do. Having spent the last year at work writing a book on Arnold Schoenberg, I should know. And whilst it would be self-indulgent to describe myself as a refugee, I too, tired and sickened at the political condition of my country, felt it necessary to leave during that time – and to leave for what, ironically, has now become the greatest place of refuge on earth: Germany. I also visited Los Angeles as part of my research last year. Not only did I visit Schoenberg’s house, where I was kindly received by his surviving sons and their families, but I was also kindly taken on a tour of émigré houses by Alex Ross; two of the sites we saw were the houses of Ernst Toch and Igor Stravinsky (the latter, in Beverly Hills, somehow fittingly obscured from any sort of public view).


It was, then, an exciting prospect for me to hear the British premiere of this composite work, the Genesis Suite, in its entirety, as well as rather a fitting one for the first note of live music I heard in 2018 to be by Schoenberg. I should probably say something briefly about the Suite itself, since it may be unfamiliar. (Alas, the programme note, by Neil W Levin, was not entirely reliable, especially – if predictably – concerning the relationship between Schoenberg and Stravinsky.) It emerged from a likeably bizarre project by the Hollywood musician and ‘personality’, Nathaniel, ‘Nat’, Shilkret. According to his autobiography, Shilkret had, during a Mid-West roadtrip, asked people ‘what records they would like the most, and invariably it was the Bible. This gave me the idea of starting the Bible at the beginning: Have the text read and write music to help the beauty of the text. I decided to call the record album the Genesis Suite.’ For the six stories he selected, up to and including the Tower of Babel (Stravinsky), he recruited Schoenberg for the void prior to Creation (Shilkret himself), Darius Milhaud, Alexandre Tansman, Ernst Toch, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. ‘I had tried to get Richard Strauss and Manuel De Falla but they were too old or too busy.’ Take your pick. Bartók may have been asked too; I am not entirely sure whether that were the case. Nevertheless, he would be present in this concert, with an undeniable masterpiece of exile, his Concerto for Orchestra.


Positioning himself inevitably as an heir to Haydn and his ‘Representation of Chaos’ from The Creation, Schoenberg presents order even within Chaos, the twelve-note series generating a remarkable fugue, perhaps the ultimate, neo-Bachian instantiation of order. It is, perhaps, a premonition or even reminiscence of the gigantic Choral Symphony he had once planned, of which a completed Jakobsleiter would have been but one section. Here it was prefaced and accompanied – as was all the music – by images and, in some cases, sounds too. ‘I would invite you to think we’re in the great age of radio,’ Rattle had said. If it helped as a way in, then I have no problem with that; I was not always quite sure what they added, being quite unsure later on when a superfluity of images of Margaret Thatcher came to the fore. At least we were saved Theresa May and Donald Trump. What struck me in the performance of the Schoenberg Prelude was how close some of the lines and their harmonies sounded – not always the case in this piece – to the ‘freely atonal’ Schoenberg, to Erwartung, to the Five Orchestral Pieces. Constructivism takes strange paths sometimes; with Schoenberg, freedom and determinism are certainly two sides to the same coin, but never straightforwardly, always dialectically.


The remaining five pieces all contain Biblical narration. Again, although it did no harm, and sometimes led to interesting effects – with more than one narrator speaking at once – I was not entirely sure why we had four narrators. They nevertheless grounded this often highly contrasted – in aesthetic quality, as well as style – music; as, in their way, did the projections. The skill with which Shilkret’s own Creation music emerges from Schoenberg’s is laudable indeed, even if intrinsic musical interest is not maintained. (One might well argue that that is hardly the point.) Tansman’s contribution brings a more Gallic sound to the story of Adam and Eve, whereas Milhaud actually sounds more conventionally Hollywood – certainly on this occasion, the LSO’s long experience with film music very clear – for Cain and Abel. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Flood music does not seem to me to add anything more than generic background – and not always appropriately generic – but again, it was played with filmic relish, well steered by helmsman Rattle. Toch’s Rainbow music speaks of greater compositional individuality, even though it veers between ‘late Romanticism’ and something closer to Shostakovich. Its lively counterpoint proved quite a joy, as did that of Stravinsky’s Babel, whose proximity to the Symphony in Three Movements, for instance, was clear in this performance. No, this is not a masterpiece; how could it be? But it is of great interest, and was royally served by Rattle and the LSO. If I were left in no doubt that Schoenberg’s contribution is by far the greatest, I can happily live with that.


And so to Bartók. In the last Berlin Philharmonic – Rattle’s ‘other’ orchestra – concert I heard during my months in exile, Iván Fischer led the orchestra in Bartók and Mendelssohn. This LSO performance of the Concerto for Orchestra was in all respects the more interesting – at least to me. Introduced by a reading from a late letter from the composer to Bartók to Joseph Szigeti, in which Bartók mentioned a peasant curse ‘may you have nine wives’, the performance seemed, more tragically than ironically, to return, surprisingly yet convincingly, to the world of Bluebeard’s Castle (which I heard Rattle conduct in Berlin last year too). Rarely can the opening music of the ‘Introduzione’ have sounded eerier; it seemed almost to ‘speak’ operatically, as if it were wordless accompagnato. The LSO’s highly wrought, ultra-dramatic way with the music not only surprised, but truly enlightened, enriching my understanding of the possibilities of a work I had thought I knew well. Mahler rarely sounded far away, to considerable, deeply moving effect. Perhaps this is fanciful, but I am convinced that Rattle was determined to bring to this particular performance a sense of the longing and bitterness of exile; if so, he certainly succeeded. Moreover, I was alerted more strongly than usual to the importance of orchestral choirs in this movement; no more than in Schoenberg were mood and drama purchased at the expense of constructivism


The game of pairs in the second movement was similarly relished, in a performance both loving and mordant. Again, even without the images of upstate New York above the stage, it was well-nigh impossible not to think of Bartók as exile, with all the richness of experience that implies. I loved the way the music danced, yet never danced too easily. There is ‘foreignness’ to this music, whatever standpoint or guise one adopts. The darkness of the central elegy seemed, rightly, to take its leave once again from Bluebeard and indeed from the first movement itself. If the material were very different, an emotional closeness to Mahler was again to be heard, as indeed it was in the ‘Intermezzo interrotto’, which intriguingly took upon itself, in context, a function not entirely dissimilar to that of the ‘Adagietto’ in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. There was longing, yes, but also a sense that we might be about to turn the corner, even that we had. That the music remained ultimately enigmatic was not the least of this performance’s virtues. Without wishing to push the Mahlerian parallel beyond endurance, there was again a sense not only of resolution but of difficulty in resolution to the finale that recalled its counterpart in the Fifth Symphony. Anger and fury remained behind the notes, perhaps more strongly than I can recall ever having heard before. This was no ‘mere’ exhilaration. Bartók’s music had been made strange once again, even re-exiled, in the very best of ways.


Monday 8 January 2018

Marche fatale

This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper but a bang. If ever we needed proof that 2018 will bring Götterdämmerung… And who better to bring down the curtain on Trump, May, neoliberalism, a certain 'love's dream', upon everything really, than Helmut Lachenmann? Listen, I implore you, to these six minutes. And do not doubt, for one second, that Lachenmann this is.

Thursday 4 January 2018

La bohème, Deutsche Oper, 29 December 2017

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Image, Bettina Stöß (2015 revival)

Rodolfo – Lisparit Avetisyan
Schaunard – Dean Murphy
Marcello – Noel Bouley
Colline – Ievgen Orlov
Benoit – Jörg Schörner
Mimì – Dinara Alieva
Musetta – Alexandra Hutton
Parpignol – Ya-Chung Huang
Alcindoro – Peter Maus
Customs Officer – Sam Roberts-Smith 

Götz Friedrich (director)
Gerlinde Pelkowski (revival director)
Peter Sykora (designs)

Children's Chorus (chorus master: Christian Lindhorst) and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus master: Thomas Richter), Berlin
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Nicholas Carter (conductor)

It was with considerable surprise that I found myself making one final visit of 2017 to the Deutsche Oper. On Christmas Eve, a malfunctioning sprinkler system had flooded the stage, leading to the cancellation of that day’s Nutcracker and a number of subsequent performances. Nevertheless, having clearly worked very hard, the company was able to announce that, from 28 December, performances would resume, albeit ‘halbszenisch,’ which seemed to mean in costume, but without full staging (scenery and so on). When Intendant, Dietmar Schwarz came on to the stage before the performance, it was difficult not to wonder ‘what now?’ However, it was with good news: the scenery would be there; the only real problem now lay with lighting, which would have to be provided by different methods (hence my lack of a lighting credit above).

In the circumstances – goodness knows what, if anything, happened by way of rehearsal – a detailed review would seem beside the point. What I will say is that, insofar as I could tell, the great Götz Friedrich’s 1988 production, here receiving its 118th performance, did not seem especially tired. The cast seemed well directed by revival director, Gerlinde Pelkowski; interaction between the characters on stage proved detailed and convincing, within an overall realist framework. One did not expect the experience of Stefan Herheim’s Oslo staging – still the only one I have seen to offer profound, even life-changing insights – nor the bizarre yet inviting sounding lunar antics of Claus Guth recently in Paris. (How keen I am to see that at some stage!) Herheim’s shadow falls over everything I have seen thereafter, in any case; one does not need to have it in front of one, whether on stage or on screen, to experience again what it tells of death and its agonies.

A good cast offered plenty of opportunity, well taken, for solo and ensemble excellence. Liparit Avetisyan and Dinara Alieva proved a likeable Rodolfo and Mimì. As so often, the Musetta glittered especially bright: this time courtesy of Alexandra Hutton. Dean Murphy’s Schaunard stood out vocally, far from the easiest of tasks in that role. Choral singing was excellent, no allowances needing to be made for ‘circumstances’. And Nicholas Carter’s conducting of the ever excellent Deutsche Oper Orchestra steered a generally judicious balance between what one might broadly term the score’s Wagnerian and Stravinskian tendencies. Above all, though, and without abdicating one’s critical faculties, this was an evening for gratitude to all concerned. It was also an evening for especial gratitude from me, both to the Deutsche Oper and to Berlin. Sad to say, work compels me now to return to the United (sic) Kingdom. I intend to be back as often as possible, and shall be grateful for the rest of my life to the city that offered me refuge from (some of) the worst of British society and politics. London awaits.

Tuesday 2 January 2018

Performances attended during 2017; or, where were the women?

Rebecca Saunders

For the past few years, I have tried to count up the composers featured in performances I have attended, and wanted to do likewise for 2017: not the best of years in other respects, but with much for me to rejoice about musically. One review I have still to write, La bohème at the Deutsche Oper (29 December), but that should follow soon. Here, then, is the breakdown, for operas, for concerts, and together. As before, one appearance in a programme is counted once, whether it be for a Webern canon (alas not at all this year: not a single Webern performance) or a Wagner drama; so be it. And I have tended towards a more generous definition of opera, including music theatre, and so on, even including the Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s staging of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Wagner’s extraordinary dominance in opera is quite unlike any other year, but there is quite a mix otherwise, including two (I know only two…) women composers, and it is wonderful to see Monteverdi in second place there.

When it comes to concerts: Beethoven-Mozart-Brahms. I am a Viennese classicist, am I not? Boulez’s reappearance, though, is most welcome, with seven concerts: thanks here are due to the opening of the Pierre Boulez Saal, and to the Vienna Konzerthaus’s Boulez festival.

To return, though, to women, and indeed to turn to a subject I should have thought about long ago when making such a list: how is it that, of 96 composers featured, only six are women? (I think I have done my sums correctly; please forgive any slips in that respect, and feel free to tell me!) The problem is certainly not that I have not attended enough contemporary music. Of those 96 composers, 32 are living: one thing, at least, of which I am quite proud. Yet, whilst all six of those women composers are alive, the contemporary scales are still weighted 6:26. Is this partly my fault? Doubtless. I could certainly make more of an effort to attend and to review performances of music by women. (I could also make far more of an effort when it comes to teaching too.) Is it entirely my fault? Clearly not. This is systemic. What, then, are we going to do? We cannot pretend there is no problem here.

Opera/music theatre, etc.
Wagner 15
Monteverdi 4
Strauss 3
Debussy, Mozart 2
Bartók, Benjamin, Berg, Berio, Borodin, Busoni, Cavalli, Humperdinck, Elena Kats-Chernin, Janáček, Ligeti, Menotti, Mussorgsky, Puccini, Ravel, Reimann, Nicola Sani, Rebecca Saunders, Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini, Schreker, Schumann, Shostakovich, Johann Strauss, Stravinsky, Verdi, Weber, Ryan Wigglesworth 1

Beethoven 13
Mozart 10
Brahms 9
Boulez, Schubert 7
Debussy, Schoenberg, Schumann 6
Haydn, Ligeti, Jörg Widmann 5
Berg, Ravel, Stravinsky 4
Bach, Bartók, Dvořák, Mahler 3
CPE Bach, Carter, Chopin, Messiaen, Monteverdi, Rihm, Shostakovich, Strauss, Takemitsu, Tchaikovsky, Isang Yun 2
Mark Andre, Georges Aperghis, Julian Anderson, WF Bach, Vykintas Baltakas, Alessandro Baticci, Benjamin, Birtwistle, Johannes Boris Borowski, Bruch, Busoni, Duparc, Britten, Fodé Lassana Diabaté, Eisler, Grisey, Ivan Fedele, Luca Francesconi, Franck, HK Gruber, Lou Harrison, Hindemith, Ibert, Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin, Kodály, Kurtág, Liza Lim, Liszt, Luca Marenzio, Christian Mason, Mendelssohn, Nono, Helmut Oehring, Eva Reiter, Matthias Pintscher, Enno Poppe, Prokofiev, Roussel, Rzewski, Rebecca Saunders, Iris ter Schiphorst, Johannes Schöllhorn, Marco Stroppa, Telemann, Nicola Vicentino, Walton, Weber, Weill, Gerhard E. Winkler, Wolf, John Zorn 1

Concerts and opera combined
Wagner 15
Beethoven 13
Mozart 12
Brahms 9
Debussy 8
Boulez, Schubert, Schumann 7
Ligeti, Monteverdi, Schoenberg 6
Berg, Haydn, Ravel, Stravinsky, Jörg Widmann 5
Bartók, Strauss 4
Bach, Bartók, Dvořák, Mahler, Shostakovich 3
CPE Bach, Benjamin, Busoni, Carter, Chopin, Messiaen, Rihm, Rebecca Saunders, Takemitsu, Tchaikovsky, Weber, Isang Yun 2
Mark Andre, Georges Aperghis, Julian Anderson, WF Bach, Vykintas Baltakas, Alessandro Baticci, Birtwistle, Borodin, Johannes Boris Borowski, Bruch, Cavalli, Duparc, Britten, Fodé Lassana Diabaté, Eisler, Grisey, Ivan Fedele, Luca Francesconi, Franck, HK Gruber, Lou Harrison, Hindemith, Humperdinck, Ibert, Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin, Janáček, Elena Kats-Chernin, Kodály, Kurtág, Liza Lim, Liszt, Luca Marenzio, Christian Mason, Mendelssohn, Menotti, Mussorgsky, Nono, Puccini, Helmut Oehring, Eva Reiter, Matthias Pintscher, Erno Poppe, Prokofiev, Reimann, Roussel, Rzewski, Nicola Sani, Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini, Iris ter Schiphorst, Johannes Schöllhorn, Schreker, Johann Strauss, Marco Stroppa, Telemann, Nicola Vicentino, Walton, Weill, Ryan Wigglesworth, Gerhard E. Winkler, Wolf, John Zorn 1

One sign of hope, if hardly of mitigation: the new work that made the strongest impression on me was, I think, Rebecca Saunders’s Yes. New music groups of the world: unite and perform it as soon as you can, please. Audiences of the world: unite and attend.