Wednesday 21 February 2018

Kavakos/LSO/Harding - Grime, Prokofiev, and Strauss, 18 February 2018

Barbican Hall

Grime: Virga
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.63
Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie, op.64

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor)

A wonderful concert. Without being didactic – nothing wrong with that, far from it – in its programming, it permitted connections to be made, if one would, whilst concentrating on performing and interpretative excellence. If I have heard better live performances of either Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto or Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, then I must have forgotten them. That seems unlikely.

First, in a programme that more or less corresponded to the traditional, yet now quite rare, overture-concerto-symphony format – it was actually never quite so ‘traditional’ as some like to claim – came Helen Grime’s Virga. Commissioned by the LSO for its UBS Sound Adventures Scheme and first performed more than ten years ago in 2007, Virga takes its name, to quote John Fallas’s excellent programme note, from ‘precipitation that falls from a cloud but evaporates before reaching the ground’. I do not know whether you will believe me – I hope so, dear reader – but I thought of raindrops whilst hearing the piece (for the first time), prior to reading the note immediately afterwards. Indeed, I thought, almost saw, droplets falling or travelling not so much in both as in many directions. Immediately, that is, after an opening éclat which must surely have offered particular appeal to one of the piece’s early advocates: no less than Pierre Boulez. The precision both of work and performance under Daniel Harding would surely have appealed to him too; it sounded not un-Gallic, and indeed not without a little Russianness either. (I do not think it was just the coming of Prokofiev that had me think that.) However, there was something intriguingly Germanic, a little Germanic out-of-water perhaps, to an almost Romantic cello melody, still more so its violin (Mahlerian?) successor, heard without accompaniment. Messianesque tuned percussion incited a Boulezian sense of controlled delirium – or, perhaps, rather the sense that such a state might be around the corner. I mention other composers not because I found the music in any sense derivative, quite the contrary. But just to place it, as I indeed placed it for myself, when hearing it for the first time. Harding and the LSO shaped it beautifully, but this was music, ‘poetic’ in a far from un-Romantic sense, which permitted of such shaping. I very much look forward to hearing it again – and indeed to the LSO’s new commission from the composer, to be heard later this year, conducted by Simon Rattle.

The opening solo of the Prokofiev concerto is surprisingly difficult to bring off. It needs to be direct yet inviting, anything but fussy and yet – a frustratingly vague term, I know –  ‘expressive’. Those things it certainly was in Leonidas Kavakos’s performance; it sounded the easiest thing in the world, as deceptive and yet as necessary an impression as if the melody were Mozart’s. Somehow, without my always being quite sure how, the orchestra and conductor seemed always to complement Kavakos’s playing, as that did theirs. This was clearly a meeting of minds and, I think, of souls too. There was an unusual sense of the ‘Allegro’ as well as of the more common ‘moderato’ of the first movement’s tempo marking, greatly to its benefit. It was flexible, yet directed: flexibly directed, one might say. There was darkness too, without exaggeration: a world of fairy-tales, perhaps, yet we know how deep such tales delve into our psyches, individual and collective. Dead-centred, whether in a single line or double-stopping, Kavakos’s tone was surely a joy in itself, yet there was no ‘in itself’ to it. His counterpoint blended perfectly with that of the orchestra’s soloists, every one of them first-rate.

Egyptian cotton, rather than silk, was my first thought concerning the soundworld of the slow movement, often sentimentalised, yet not here. The pulsating ‘accompaniment’ did all that could be asked of it and more; so did the hemiolas it helped create. Kavakos’s vibrato, the length of his bowing, his fingering, all were perfectly chosen and varied; and yet again, it sounded so easy. (It most certainly is not!) I think I even preferred this to Heifetz. Music and performance alike proved soulful, communicative, yet never narcissistic. Form, once again, was vividly, even magically communicated by all. The finale, taken attacca, offered just the right degree of contrast: very much the next and final chapter. It had – something about which I have been thinking quite a bit recently – very much the character and dynamism of a finale. That might sound a truism, but I do not think it is; it certainly did not seem so in a performance of such distinction. And yet, it was very much the particularity of this finale, castanets and all. The side-slipping ‘simplicity’ of the third movement from the Sonata for Two Violins, op.56, collegially given with LSO leader, Roman Simovic, made for the perfect encore.

Richard Strauss’s music and indeed his æsthetic seem to me all the more necessary by the day. His defence, a musical defence, of art and of music in particular are just what a world, descending further daily into abject barbarism, needs. And of course Strauss knew very much about that – not just after 1933, but over the four-year period of writing this symphony, 1911-15. The darkness, here visual as well as aural, in which the symphony’s ‘Nacht’ opens is, or should be something very special: materialist, yes, and with a Nietzschean spirituality born out of anti-Christian materialism. So it was here. Harding’s way with the opening material intrigued me greatly: more flowing than one often hears, Wagnerian with its unendliche Melodie. I liked it very much. What grew out of it was elemental, magnificent, yet never pompous. It breathed the air of Strauss as much as of Garmisch; it spoke not only of ‘Nature’ in the way that some think it does, pictorially. Nor was the music unduly shoehorned into conceptions, often irrelevant, of what a symphony ‘should’ be. It made its own way, more a symphonic poem, perhaps, certainly sui generis: all the better for it. Paths opened up – and closed – before one’s ears; this was a musical ascent, not just a musical recreation of an ascent.

If I say that I found the performance captivated me still more than one from Bernard Haitink with this same orchestra several years ago, that should give an indication of quite how highly I esteemed it. The LSO certainly sounded warmer, or at least the Barbican acoustic did, and I do not think it was just that. For ‘symphonic’ need not, should not, imply a lack of attention to colour, of which there was as much to appreciate here as in the pieces by Grime and Prokofiev. Fragments from Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier – not literally from those works, but ‘as if’… - dissolved before our aural imagination, just as they had in Verga. Indeed, that coupling came to seem all the more inspired in retrospect. Then Die Frau ohne Schatten came into earshot, above all progressions that might well have come from there – even if, again, they did not. To put it another way, this was not just Strauss’s Alpine Symphony; it was most definitely Strauss.

Olivier Stankeiewicz’s oboe solo, exquisitely moving, made me long to hear him in Strauss’s concerto for that instrument. Indeed, at times, the composer’s ‘Indian summer’ did not sound so distant. At other times, though, quite rightly, it seemed a world away; there was a battle to be fought right here, right now. These are very particular Straussian phantasmagoria here; so they sounded, relished yet thoroughly integrated by Harding and his players. In the Epilogue – Karajan used to say that he conducted the work only for this – everything mattered. Above all, Strauss mattered – more than ever. The lamps were going out all over Europe, across the world. I think we all knew or at least felt what Sir Edward Grey (may have) said next. And yet, there was hope of a sort. For this work offers the best of tests. You cannot really believe in Strauss if you do not believe in it. (You cannot even really have listened to it, I should argue.) If you do not believe in Strauss, can you really believe in music? At any rate, if you do not believe in music, especially now, may God help you.

Sunday 18 February 2018

Damrau/Kaufmann/Deutsch - Wolf, 16 February 2018

Barbican Hall

Images: Mark Allan/Barbican

Italienisches Liederbuch

Diana Damrau (soprano)
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean. Wolf, one might say, was an Austrian composer, which is or at least was certainly to say also a German composer; yet he was born in Windischgrätz, now Slovenj Gradec. Both names for what was long a Styrian town refer to the Slovene or Wendish Graz, to distinguish it from the larger Graz. And so on, and so forth. Mitteleuropaïsch is more than a collection of disparate identities; it is an identity in itself. It certainly was in the Austrian Empire in which Wolf was born, and it certainly was in the Dual Monarchy in which he grew up. Moreover, northern Italy had long been part, to varying extents, and depending on who was, of that identity too. So too, however, had a romanticised German idea of ‘Italy’, of the Mediterranean, of the South. Look to Goethe and Liszt, for instance – or to Paul Heyse’s selection and translations of songs, as set by Wolf (not greatly, or indeed at all, to Heyse’s pleasure).

What one can say is that this idealised ‘Italy’, Tuscan rispetti and Venetian vilote could only have come from without the Italian lands. If ‘German’ constitutes at least as multifarious a multitude of sins as ‘Italian’, these songs remain very much a German evocation of lightness, of sunlight, of serenades, of a ‘love’ that is rarely, if ever that of German Romanticism, although it may well be viewed through that prism. All three performers at this Barbican recital understood that, I think: both intuitively and intellectually. At any rate, the tricky balance between Italian ‘light’, in more than one sense, and German ‘prism’ seemed almost effortlessly communicated – however much art had been required to convey such an impression.
The songbook is not a song-cycle, so to speak of ‘reordering’ is perhaps slightly misleading. At any rate, the ordering selected made good sense, grouping the book’s forty-six little songs into four groups, which, if not exactly narratives of their own, made sense as scenes or, if you will, scenas. One made connections as and when one wished; nothing was forced, much as in the music and the performances themselves. Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann opted, boldly yet not too boldly, for a staginess alive to the humour, or at least to the potential for humour without sending anything up or otherwise trying to turn the songs into something they are not. Helmut Deutsch, in general the straight man, perhaps had the ultimate moment of humour, in his piano evocation of a hapless violinist (‘Wie lange schon war immer mien Verlangen), Damrau having ambiguously prepared the way, at least in retrospect, with a lightly wienerisch account. Deutsch provided an excellent sense of structure throughout: non-interventionist perhaps, but none the worse for that. Damrau and Kaufmann, after all, were intended to be the ‘stars’ here.

In general, but only in general, Damrau’s performances – roughly alternating, yet with a few exceptions – were knowing, whilst Kaufmann’s were lovelorn. Such is the order of things in this ‘German Italy’. Metaphysics, when they reared their head – more in Wolf than in Heyse – tended to be the tenor’s. Was he right to make relatively little of them? I am not sure that right or wrong makes much sense here. Perhaps it is all, or mostly, in inverted commas anyway. There were a few occasions when I found Kaufmann, especially during the first half, somewhat generalised, but such generality remains a very superior form: more baritonal still than I can recall having heard him, yet with an ardent, show-stopping tenor, even upper-case Tenor, that puts one in mind, just in time, of his Walther (‘Ihr seid die Allerschönste’) or his Bacchus (‘Nicht länger kann ich singen’). And Damrau was perfectly capable of responding, of singing about his singing, as for instance, in ‘Mein Liebster singt am Haus’, to which Kaufmann’s ‘Ein Ständchen Euch zu bringen’ came as the perfect response, and so on. Piano and voice together in the latter song conveyed to near perfection the shallow yet genuine sexual impetuosity of youth. (Or is that just what older people think?) The lightness of a wastrel’s self-pity in ‘O wüsstest du, wie viel ich deinetwegen,’ was likewise finely judged. So too was the cruelty of his beloved in ‘Du denkst mit einem Fädchen’.

Yet, as the two archetypes, stereotypes, call them what you will, drew closer towards the end of the first half, there was genuine affection too, or so one thought. The rocking piano in ‘Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen’ suggested, without unnecessary underlining, a peace perhaps all the more interesting, or at least characteristic, for its lack of interest in passing all understanding. For, as that half had climaxed with an acknowledged role for Wolf’s Lisztian Romantic inheritance, so the piano harmonies of the second half took up from that half-destination, taking us somewhere new, briefly darker (the austere Doppelgänger flirtation of ‘Wir haben beide lange Zeit geschweiegen’) and ultimately, once again, ‘lighter’, yet perhaps never truly ‘light’. Sweetness of death (‘Sterb’ ich, so hüllt in Blumen meine Glieder’) intervened, yet was it but an act, the commedia dell’arte perhaps, or, as the Marschallin would soon have it, ‘eine wienerische Maskerad[e]’. Increasingly, neither party wished truly to resist, whilst making great play of doing so: on stage as well as in music. An air of Straussian sophistication became more marked, without ever shading into mere cynicism. If the ‘girl’ were always going to win, that was as it ‘should’ be. There were enough qualifications, or potential alternative paths and readings, though, to make one wonder. And then to wonder – ‘lightly’ or no – why one was wondering at all.

Anderszewski/Philharmonia/Hrůša - Beethoven and Mahler, 15 February 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.1 in C major, op.15
Mahler: Symphony no.5

Piotr Anderszewski (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Jakub  Hrůša (conductor)

A frustrating yet far from uninteresting concert, this, the interest lying mostly in moments, corners, even in performative difference. The Festival Hall audience erupted at the end of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, but then London and indeed most other audiences do at the end of any Mahler performance, irrespective of what has actually been heard. Jakub Hrůša is a fine conductor, yet proved uneven here in Mahler. The Fifth Symphony is a very difficult work indeed to bring off; I have heard many conductors come quite unstuck here, not least, in their very different ways, Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim. Probably the best performance I have heard was with the same orchestra as this evening, the Philharmonia, under Daniele Gatti. Comparisons are odious, no doubt, yet Hrůša’s account here seemed very much a work-in-progress: fascinating moments, interspersed with merely loud, fast, even vulgar passages, whose structural role seemed at best unclear.

That said, the first movement opened promisingly, with great sadness to the phrasing in particular, although even here the balances were often brass-heavy. The Philharmonia’s string sound was cultivated to a degree, although something a little closer to the sound Rafael Kubelík drew from orchestras – he came to mind not least on account of the Beethoven concerto, on which more below – would not have gone amiss. As I was drawn in, though, there was something more sepulchral, more sinister to be heard and to be felt, almost as if through the harmonic cracks. Hrůša’s Bernstein-like hysteria I liked less, partly because it did not seem to have been born of a Bernstein-like conception of the work; it sounded more arbitrary than anything else. Ultimately, though, this, like much of the symphony, came across as something of a patchwork, not necessarily more than the sum of its parts. There was a keen sense of dualism(s) to the second movement; what I missed here was might mediate between them. Or was I trying to find something that was not there? That I asked the question spoke of a reading to take seriously. And if the music teetered sometimes on the brink of collapse, there is certainly a case to be made for such an approach.

The scherzo and thus the second part of the symphony proved nicely enigmatic, if just a little too episodic. It opened in intriguingly materialist fashion, without ever sounding too much like Strauss, at least until the pizzicato marionettes, who surely spoke of something beyond. The impotence of the Meistersinger-ish counterpoint really told too. The close, quite rightly, told us everything and nothing.

It was in the third part that doubts really set in – again, despite some thought-provoking moments. Hrůša made a bit of a meal of the Adagietto, not so much in terms of tempo as in succumbing a little too much to the temptation to pull it around. The light shone on its darker corners was, however, well directed. The final movement ideally needed a stronger sense of a whole: easier said than done, I know, yet still necessary. That its mood fell somewhere between gentle humour and mockery was certainly to be applauded, as was the impression of an object of enigmatic fascination.

Hrůša seemed on surer ground with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, and the Philharmonia – somewhat scaled back, yet not unduly – proved quite outstanding here. The problem lay more with Piotr Anderszewski, who seemed unsure quite what he thought of the work. He was quite capable of yielding on occasion, sometimes magically so; by the same token, there was something bracingly modernistic to gleaming, almost Bauhaus-like passages. Others, however, sounded merely brutal. Perhaps it was indicative of a lack of a meeting of minds that Anderszewski seemed at his keenest and most coherent in the first movement cadenza. Hrůša and the Philharmonia might almost have been Kubelík and his Bavarian Radio orchestra, whether in tone or in melodic and harmonic understanding. I should have loved to hear them play Beethoven with another pianist, or with Anderszewski in a different mood – or, indeed, in one of the symphonies.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

Jerusalem Quartet: Haydn, 12 February 2018

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet in C major, op.33 no.3, ‘The Bird’
String Quartet in D major, op.64 no.5, ‘The Lark’
String Quartet in G major, op.77 no.1

Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins)
Ori Kam (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)

Haydn surprises with the unexpected, whereas Mozart surprises with the expected. As with all rules of thumb, there are exceptions, sometimes important enough to have one rethink the entire generalisation. (I remain convinced that I read it once in HC Robbins Landon, yet have been unable to find the source. Please do let me know if you know!) There was no doubting, however, the ‘surprises’, however well one ‘knew’ them already, revealed in the tension of the opening of the first movement to the C major Quartet, op.33 no.3, often known as ‘The Bird’. Indeed, the Jerusalem Quartet’s performance occasionally put me in mind of Bartók. Chirping was no mere tone-painting, of course, but musically generative, just as it would be in the music of the later composer. Throughout, sonata form emerged from and through the musical material and its development, not least the jolt of the recapitulation opening in so unexpected – yes – a key. Tone was varied, at times verging even upon the relatively astringent; there was always, however, a musical justification for what we heard. The throwaway ending was, rightly, possessed of a knowledge that comedy is not only a laughing matter. The ensuing scherzo was heard with a strange, straightforward, almost Beethovenian simplicity and sincerity. Surprises galore followed, with a concision beyond even that of the first movement. The slow movement was taken swiftly indeed, but it worked. If its beginnings seemed again sometimes to hint at Beethoven, the path taken proved quite different. A modulation one can surely only call Schubertian was judged in performance to perfection, telling on account of its integration. Motivic integrity and invention were revealed truly as the agents of comedic drama in a finale that did just what it should, when it should, how it should – without that ever implying there to be no other way.

However much there is of Haydn’s music, it is always different. Only to a ear that does not, cannot, listen, will it ever sound ‘the same’. The ‘Lark’ Quartet showed that very well, both as work and as performance. Here, interestingly, the players’ general tone was somewhat different: more modern, even Romantic, although there was certainly nothing anachronistic to it. The contrast with the earlier quartet could only be described as fruitfully dialectical. One size never fits all; there was no attempt to make it do so here. I also noticed immediately how the mood of the first movement’s marking ‘Allegro moderato’ had been captured; tempo is never just, or even principally, about speed. Throughout, an almost Mozartian joy in counterpoint told for itself. The slow movement, here placed second, was again on the swift side for an Adagio but was undoubtedly cantabile. That songfulness was full of integrated incident, worlds away from any lazy all-purpose ‘lyricism’ and all the better for it. The Minuet, again in character as much as mere crotchets per minute, was very much of the allegretto variety. Counterpoint was lightly worn yet generative; so too was the humour of expectation. A Haydn finale, if ever there were one, followed, its moto perpetuo no mere display but musically necessary. Again, counterpoint proved the agent of joy, and vice versa.

Following the interval, a performance of the op.77 no.1 quartet breathed the initial sprit of opera buffa, blossoming into ‘purely musical’ delight. The first movement’s tonal structure proved as well judged in performance as in the score, the development’s first modulation the gateway to an exploration such as, one felt, Haydn had never quite conducted before. After The Creation, before The Seasons, he still had so much to say, so many new tonal relations to explore. Beethoven again came frequently to mind in the Adagio, some passages even suggesting his later quartets. The music sang with, through an intellectual complexity that was anything but forbidding; it could hardly have been more inviting. There were surprises galore again in the minuet – a Presto scherzo in all but name – and its trio, the world of the Razumovsky Quartets again close, yet never quite to be confused with what we heard. Invention and wisdom proved quite undimmed in the finale. The minuet from the ‘Sunrise’ Quartet, op.76 no.4, proved a splendid choice of encore, the humour with which its own surprises told as infectious as anything heard earlier. How could anyone not love Haydn?

Theatre of Voices: Stockhausen, 9 February 2018

Hall One, Kings Place

Else Torp, Signe Asmussen, Randi Pontoppidan, Wolomydr Smischkewych, Jakob Skoldborg, Jakob Bloch Jespersen (voices)
Ian Dearden (sound design)

A Stockhausen performance in London, indeed anywhere, remains an event. Mittwoch in Birmingham went so far beyond a mere event, that I am sure its memory and its ongoing reality will remain with me for the rest of my life. From Chöre für Doris to Klang, you may count me in, not least since there is so much I have yet to experience in the flesh. Stimmung, believe it or not, fell into that category prior to this Kings Place performance. Whereas my companion was already something of a veteran, having attended previous performances in Riga and in London, I had never been in the right place at the right time.

Now, however, I was. It was certainly an event – and a musical event at that. However, the experience of Stimmung live reinforced the suspicion I had long held that it was unlikely ever to be the Stockhausen of strongest appeal to me. I am afraid, try as I might, I cannot help but nod agreement to Boulez’s observation: ‘Oh yes, the endless chord, how German.’ Or rather, the obvious Rheingold reference apart, how very un-German. Not that Stockhausen’s apparently minimalist foundation – that B-flat ninth chord in just intonation – proceeds in minimalist fashion, but I keep wishing it would develop into something else. My problem, I am sure, but even in so intriguing a performance as this from Theatre of Voices, I sometimes found it a bit of a trial.

Presentation was exemplary. Wolomydr Smischkewych led the singers and ultimately the audience in an initial exploration of overtones, from which this listener – and, briefly, singer – learned a great deal. Whether on a vowel sound or, ultimately, revealingly on a US American pronunciation of ‘weird’, new sonic universes seemed to open up before our ears – and throats. Such was a reminder that for all the New Age baggage to the work, perhaps more of an irritant to some of us than to others, the idea of overtone singing came to the composer from hearing his nine-month-old son, Simon singing in his Connecticut cot. I also heard so much of the foundation for later spectralism. For all the talk of Aztec temples and so on, there is always another side to Stockhausen, a mythology that is not quite what it seems. In that, of course, he is far from unique.

The performance was perhaps more attuned to the dramatic qualities, or at least possibilities, of the work than I had expected. For me, that was a definite advantage; the road to La Monte Young et al., whilst I have nothing against it, is not the easiest for me to take. (My companion, by contrast, wished for something still more laid-back, trance-like.) I loved the moments of decision, if you like, generated by the demands of moment form in performance. The closer it came to the actual theatre not only of, say, Boulez’s second book of Structures, but also of Stockhausen’s own Inori and even Hymnen, whose procedures began to seem, to sound closer than I had expected, the more enthralled I was. At other times, I felt a little like someone observing a rite – in this setting, with the performers on stage rather than in the round, something akin to a séance – which not only did I not really understand, but also did not really know how or even whether to enter. At times, I could not help but wonder whether something a little stronger than the wine I had drunk in the bar beforehand would have helped. There was no gainsaying, though, the excellence and commitment of the performances of this, Theatre of Voices’ own ‘Copenhagen version’ of 2006. If I felt bemused, even a little nonplussed, I should certainly give it another try. But first, I think, some Boulez…

Thursday 8 February 2018

Carmen, Royal Opera, 6 February 2018

Royal Opera House

Carmen (Anna Goryachova)
Images: Bill Cooper

Moralès – Gyula Nagy
Micaëla – Kristina Mkhitaryan
Don José – Francesco Meli
Zuniga – David Soar
Carmen – Anna Goryachova
Frasquita – Jacquelyn Stucker
Mercédès – Aigul Akhmetshina
Escamillo – Kostas Smoriginas
Dancaïro – Pierre Doyen
Remendada – Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Voice of Carmen – Claude de Demo

Barrie Kosky (director)
Katrin Lea Tag (designs)
Joachim Klein (lighting)
Otto Pichler (choreography)
Zsolt Horpácsy (dramaturgy)
Alan Barnes (assistant director)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Jakub Hrůsá (conductor)

At least Francesca Zambello and her donkey are gone. The Royal Opera’s previous production of Carmen worked in its way – not entirely unlike Meyerbeer at less than his best – yet it offered neither ambition nor insight; indeed, it appeared not even to try. Barrie Kosky rarely lacks ambition; insight is often more hit or miss, though. Kosky is a frustratingly inconsistent director: he is capable of outstanding work and something not far from its opposite. This Carmen is neither. First seen in Frankfurt in 2016, it offers an apparently arbitrary mixture of abstract grand opéra – surely the Intendant of Berlin’s Komische Oper should have a little more respect for, or at least understanding of opéra comique – and the irritating silliness of ‘look at us’ variety show routines. A few visually arresting moments, courtesy of Katrin Lea Tag’s designs, notwithstanding, it amounts to substantially less than the sum of its parts, not least on account of its perverse apparent lack of interest in characterisation.

I am not at all opposed to the idea of something adventurous being done with, even to, Carmen. It will always survive. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s recent, superlative Aix staging showed what can be done with a fundamental rethinking of the work. Not the least of its interesting insights was how, if we decentre Carmen, look at the action, in this case already very much in the realm of metatheatre, from the standpoint of, say, Don José, Carmen might actually become a far more interesting character. Kosky seems at times to inch towards the metatheatrical. ‘Don’t we all?’ one might well ask. However, it is only, ultimately, with the insight, if one can call it that, that Carmen is a show, all singing, all dancing – except when, occasionally, it is not. And so, the steps, certainly a fine edifice in themselves, and suggestive both of an amphitheatre and a bullring – are they not often the same thing in any case? – offer a way for the action to look at us, and for the characters not to look at each other. That is pretty much it, though. The loss, moreover, in never really knowing who anyone is – or rather knowing, but not on account of anything the production is showing or suggesting – is great. One can imagine the pseudish Christof Loy doing something like this; indeed, he did in his dreadful Lulu. Kosky is capable of much better than that, though.


The lack of realism – as an æsthetic: I am certainly not insisting that one ‘must’ see a romanticised Seville – inevitably hampers the musical performances too. In this weird abstraction, especially when punctuated by lengthy, breathy, soft-porn-style readings from the ‘Voice of Carmen’, over loudspeakers, we lose sight, aural sight too, of connections in the score as much as on stage. Again, it is not that I have a problem in principle with attempting an alternative to the dialogue, ‘edited by Barrie Kosky’ or not. However, the loss of a true sense, whether ‘then’ or ‘now’, of opéra comique, is not compensated for by any other gain. Further misguided performing choices, ‘after the critical edition by Michael Rot, adapted by Constantinos Carydis for Frankfurt Opera, 2016)’, conspire to the general ‘effect without cause’ of making heavy weather indeed out of so ‘Mediterranean’ a work.


I have never heard a poor performance from Jakub Hrůsá, a conductor I admire greatly. Here he certainly proved suggestive, in an admirably anti-Nietzschean way, of a ‘symphonic’ Carmen, Beethoven and even Wagner often coming to mind. Whether that really might be what Carmen needs, let us leave on one side; I had my doubts, but there are possibilities here worth exploring. In this context, however, it seemed more another confusing strand. Whilst Hrůsá often drew fine playing from the orchestra, in terms of colour, precision, even harmonic motion, there were perhaps a few too many slips, not least from the brass. Likewise, whilst choral singing was generally good, there were also passages in which stage and pit fell noticeably, disconcertingly out of sync. Such problems I can well imagine being ironed out in subsequent performances.

Escamillo (Kostas Smoriginas)

Anna Goryachova sang well enough in the title role, with clean command of line. I could often make little sense of her French, however, without the titles. Moreover, I had the strong sense she would have made more of an impression, if not in a smaller theatre, then at least in a more intimate production. The same could be said of most of the cast: hardly their fault. Francesco Meli’s all-purpose Italianate style had its moments, and in some senses might have been better suited to the staging. One surely wants something a little more idiomatic for Don José, though, and surely less coarse on top. Kristina Mkhitaryan’s Micaëla sounded curiously undifferentiated from Carmen, but again that was not necessarily the fault of either singer. The production offered her little opportunity to show who she was, but again she sang well enough. Quite why Escamillo was turned into a figure of mere camp is anyone’s guess; Kostas Smoriginas did what he could in the circumstances, and yes, you have guess it, did that well enough. Indeed, there were no causes for complaint amongst any of the cast. Ultimately, however, for all the production’s increasingly attempts, somehow both desperate and smug, to ‘entertain’, proceedings quickly became more tedious than anything else. That is an achievement of sorts for Carmen, but a sad one. Carmen’s shrug at the end – it had all been just a very protracted game – said it all really.

Monday 5 February 2018

Ensemble 360 - Janáček, Mozart, and Beethoven, 3 February 2018

Wigmore Hall

Janáček: Concertino
Mozart: Quintet in E-flat major for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, KV 452
Beethoven: Septet in E-flat major, op.20

Juliette Bausor (flute)
Adrian Wilson (oboe)
Matthew Hunt (clarinet)
Amy Harman (bassoon)
Naomi Atherton (horn)
Benjamin Navarro, Claudia Ajmone-Marsan (violins)
Ruth Gibson (viola)
Gemma Rosefield (cello)
Laurène Durantel (double-bass)
Tim Horton (piano)

Ensemble 360 appeared here in its full complement of five string players, five wind players, and pianist, although never (quite) all at the same time. I have no idea why we do not hear Janáček’s Concertino all the time, but then I might say the same about all the music performed here, none of which suffers from over-exposure. Maybe it is just a matter of the slightly unusual ensemble, although it would hardly be difficult to put one such group together from time to time. At any rate, this proved to be a delightful, varied concert of delightful, varied, and yes, great music.

The commanding nature of the opening piano figure, both in work and in Tim Horton’s performance, ensure that it lodged itself in the memory securely, ready for what was to come. Soon one could hardly help but imagine oneself, whether musically or even scenically, in the world of The Cunning Little Vixen. The obsessive, obstinate quality of Janáček’s music shone throughout the first movement, and indeed beyond, with splendidly big-boned playing both from Horton and Naomi Atherton on French horn. Vixen-like scurrying announced the second movement’s well-matched partnership between Horton and Matthew Hunt on E-flat clarinet. Music and performance seemed almost to suggest a chamber fantasia on the opera – save for the fact that your common-garden operatic fantasia might seem somewhat vin ordinaire compared to this. (So, to be fair, would your common-garden opera to Janáček’s’s masterpiece.) It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that most chamber writing of this period will reveal a debt, a comparison, or at least a contrast with Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale; the third movement in particular did so here, without ever jettisoning a strong, true voice of Moravian modernism. Resolutely unsentimental as before, it and the final movement proved as colourful as they were rhythmically taut, a sense of joy in the ‘purely’ musical, however illusory, shining still brighter than any partial association.

No one with an ear would ever deny the masterpiece status of Mozart’s Quintet for piano and wind instruments. It is difficult to imagine anyone having done so after this performance, again big-boned, more Klemperer- than Böhm-Mozart, if that makes any sense, and certainly none the worse for it. Not that it was old-fashioned, hesitate though I may to use the dubious word ‘timeless’ here. Perhaps it is better simply to say that it was certainly Mozart – and what could be better than that? The grandeur of the first movement’s introduction was certainly communicated. So too, though, was the chiaroscuro of what followed. The work emerged as something close to a predecessor of the Berg Chamber Concerto – and, again, what could be better than that? The import of the development section’s modulatory plan seemed especially keenly felt, occasional very minor slips notwithstanding. I wondered to begin with whether the Larghetto might have yielded, even smiled, a little more, yet it certainly had, in its own way, the virtues outlined for its predecessor. Solo wind playing was delectable from all, likewise the Harmoniemusik as a little band. Any slight reservations I might have had evaporated during the course of the movement. Crucially for a finale, and however obvious they may sound, the final movement worked as something very much more than music that just happened to be placed last. Objectively, whatever that might mean, it was perhaps rather on the fast side for Allegretto, but I did not mind; and, if I did not, I doubt that anyone else would have done. Its character was well judged, a slight loss of tension in the approach to the cadenza notwithstanding, and that ultimately is what matters.

I am not sure that I can come up with a single minor reservation concerning the performance of what may well be Beethoven’s sunniest work, the Septet. The first movement, echoing Mozart’s in more than mere tonality, again benefited from an introduction on the grand scale, followed by an especially rhythmically alert performance of the exposition and indeed the rest. Not that, as sometimes, regrettably, happens with Beethoven, an emphasis on rhythm emerged in isolation; melody and harmony were equal partners, at least. Above all, though, this glorious music, which I love more than words could ever speak, made me smile and even shed the occasional tear. In abstracto, I might have thought the second movement again taken a little too quickly. There is, however, no in abstracto when it comes to Beethoven. It worked, flowing in utterly ‘natural’ fashion. The balance, once more, between detail and the longer line, between melody and harmony, could hardly be faulted, and I certainly have no wish to try.

Swifter than I can recall hearing, the Minuet likewise worked – with thrilling affection, as it were, in no sense sounding rushed. And yet, at the swift tempo, certain wind notes sounded intriguingly, indeed revealingly, close to Webern. (Maybe we should hear some of his music from these players; I do not doubt they would have something to say about it.) The Theme and Variations unfolded relatively quickly again, yet again without sounding rushed. I loved the viola and cello solos in the first variation for the real sense of the instruments they imparted, if that does not sound too nonsensical. The physicality of playing an instrument was certainly imparted, albeit by musical rather than distracting visual means. Wind instruments taking the lead in the following variation proved an equal, if different – is that not what variations are for? – delight. Every variation possessed and spoke of its own character, whilst retaining a strong, generative sense of relation to the whole. The scherzo proved, in tempo broadly understood and thus in character too, a step on, if only a step on, from the minuet, but that was quite enough. As for the finale, one might simply have asked ‘finale problem, what finale problem?’ The grandeur, again, of the introduction and the sheer joy of what ensued, taking daringly fast – it is, after all, marked Presto – registered with a keen sense of fun. The movement’s sterner moments and procedures, quite properly too; yet, however ‘symphonic’ we may consider this work, its place in the serenade tradition remained unchallenged.

Thursday 1 February 2018

Hagen Quartet/Widmann - Webern, Widmann, and Mozart, 30 January 2018

Wigmore Hall

Webern: String Quartet (1905)
Widmann: Clarinet Quintet (2017, UK premiere)
Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, KV 581

Lukas Hagen (violin), Rainer Schmidt (violin)
Veronika Hagen (viola)
Clemens Hagen (cello)
Jörg Widmann (clarinet)


The Hagen Quartet opened this concert with Webern’s 1905 String Quartet, not a work I can recall ever having heard ‘live’ before, although it has been well treated on disc. (Yes, I remain old-fashioned enough to say that and indeed to listen to recordings.) I was quite taken aback by the frozen, starkly modernistic opening in the Hagens’ performance: not only arresting in itself, but not quite what I should have expected from them. The music certainly warmed; yet, in that warming, it became more, not less, febrile, this fascinating early piece sounding almost as if it were sped-up and, later, slowed down early-ish Schoenberg. It does not – and did not – have the consistency of, say, Schoenberg’s own unnumbered quartet, let alone his four ‘official’ ones, nor indeed his fragments. The Hagens, however, captured very well its unsettled strangeness of style and method, whilst still pointing to those aspects, more than one might initially suspect, that look forward to Webern’s mature works. The unisons, quite rightly, did not ring true, nor the somewhat contrived cadences at the ends of sections. With equal justice, though, the final cadence did, as if a flickering reminiscence of Verklärte Nacht. This seemed to me an object lesson in performance of a problematical work, neither making excuses for it, nor running away from its difficulties.


Jörg Widmann joined the players for the rest of the concert, first in his own Clarinet Quintet, here receiving its first British performance, and then in Mozart’s supreme masterpiece of the genre. It is, according to the composer in a programme note, ‘a single 40-minute Adagio in which the initial tempo marking Lento assai could stand as a programme for the entire work. (I say ‘according to’, not because I disbelieve him, but simply because I did not consult my watch.) It is, not unreasonably for a clarinettist composer, something he had long wanted to write, yet, ‘in 2009, my humility and admiration of these masterpieces [the ones you would expect…] brought my life project clarinet quintet to a temporary halt. … Eight years later, in 2017, I returned to my plans.’ Immediately, Widmann continues, he ‘sensed that the long wait had been worth it.’ Without claiming any knowledge of what it would have been like had he continued earlier, I suspect that he was right, for what we heard proved to be a typically accomplished and absorbing reckoning with tradition.


That febrile quality heard in much of the Webern performance seemed to continue, indeed to be intensified, in the opening of this long slow(ish) movement, whose overall conception often brought to mind a Brucknerian conception of time, although not, I think, a remotely Brucknerian method. Perhaps, though, there were elements of deformation of an imaginary Bruckner Adagio, for, as is often the case with Widmann’s music, one perceived – or at least I did! – all manner of refractions of ‘original’, Classical-Romantic music, which had most likely never existed in the first place: at least not for us. Mozart, Brahms, perhaps Reger too, also hovered as ghosts in our musical consciousness: sometimes in a phrase, sometimes in a progression, sometimes goodness knows how. Interestingly, in context, some of the results of what appeared to have been a very different conception and process, did not sound so very different from Webern either. Or was that all a matter of my own historical baggage? We all have our Vergangenheitsbewältigung to do, after all, even if some countries are rather more advanced than ours in doing so. (It would hardly be difficult.) Haunted and haunting, just when the music might have seemed in danger of coming too close to a past, even if that past had never been, more recent, even living ghosts, or angels perhaps – Lachenmann, Stockhausen, Rihm? – appeared to join our musical host.


Then, through a performative virtuosity that sometimes we are in danger of taking for granted, Widmann suggested (again, at least to me) a glass armonica, perhaps even something older, a mediaevalism. Dactylic meter seemed to evoke Beethoven and Schubert, but did it? You can call that postmodernism if you like, but I do not think it is, not here, not straightforwardly. For there is an overall conception of form, of purpose, that is quite different, to my understanding anyway. At any rate, extended techniques, both in composition and performance, spoke both of a reinvented past as much as present and future. ‘Zum Raum hier wird die Zeit?’ Not really, or not at any rate, as the anti-historical Schopenhauer might have understood Gurnemanz’s words. Wagner, ever a student also of Hegel, knew better, though; so, I think, does Widmann. Ruptures intrigued, as, I fancied, they might have intrigued Adorno. Might a caesura bring back the past? Of course not, but why should it, or rather its composer, not try, knowing, like Mahler with a Luftpause, that he was bound at some level, to fail? The violence of such a rupture nevertheless remained: again, haunted and haunting.


A great performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet will, in different yet not mutually opposed ways, possess some of that haunted and haunting quality to us, as twenty-first-century listeners. This did, and I think may genuinely be accounted as ‘great’, or very close thereto. The utter perfection of Mozart’s work shone through. Even if there were occasional things one might have done differently oneself in the abstract – and if so, they were so minor, I have forgotten them – then there was nothing that jarred, nothing that screamed ‘look at me’, nothing that spoke of ‘reassessment’ for the mere sake of reassessment. We seemed, at any rate, to return to an Elysium from which we knew we should soon be expelled once again; or rather, we beheld it, in some sense partook in it, whilst knowing that it was never straightforwardly ours. Such is the particular pain of Mozart’s music, perhaps ever more so with the passing of every year (and his every January birthday).

This was as attentive a performance as anyone might have hoped for. Beauty of tone was certainly present, yet expressive, not a mere end in itself. Mozart’s formal concision as well as dynamism shone through, Webern in a sense remaining. And yet so did his command of the longest of lines and the way he plays with expectations: Widmann remained too. The first movement’s development section sounded as rare, as fantastical, as anything in Così fan tutte. Its recapitulation – with apologies to the Guardian journalist who recently declared, ex cathedra, that such talk should be banished from her brave new world of quinoa for all – functioned, or rather was experienced, very much as a second development, a new, wondrous world of wordless dramatic exploration.

Hushed equipoise characterised much, although not all, of the slow movement. There was nothing remotely sentimental to it. We were, however, called, drawn in to listen; and listen, I think, we did. Mozart’s music sang as if this were the only way to sing it. It is not, of course, but a sense of absolute ‘rightness’ is no bad thing, however much we know it, in retrospect, to have been relative. The minuet, alive, alert, in some sense again unattainable, contrasted duly, wondrously with its in turn contrasting trios, the one stern, without rupture to kinship, the other breathing the world of a remembered Salzburg serenade. The finale concluded and unified our experience without apparent effort: just as it should sound, however great the actual effort. Its profusion of melodic and, later, harmonic variation were relished with, again, that sense of ineffable ‘rightness’. How did anyone ever dare to write another clarinet quintet after this? We should nevertheless be grateful that some composers have. For if we are to believe in tradition at all, it must never stand still, always develop. Mozart will remain.

Arcayürek/Lepper: Schubert, 28 January 2018

Wigmore Hall

Frühlingsglaube, D 686; Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren, D 360;  Rastlose Liebe, D 138a; Abendstern, D 806; Der Jüngling and der Quelle, D 300; Am Flusse, D 766; Der Jüngling auf dem Hügel, D 702; Der Schiffer, D 536; Der Doppelgänger, D 957; An den Mond, D 193; Über Wildemann, D 884; Nachtstück, D 672; Der Einsame, D 800; An die Laute, D 905; Der Musensohn, D 764; Sehnsucht, D 879; Schäfers Klagelied, D 121; Die Liebe hat gelogen, D 751; Romanze aus ‘Rosamunde’, D 797/3b; Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt, D 478b; Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass, D 480c; An die Türen will ich schleichen, D 479b; Schwanengesang, D 744.

Ilker Arcayürek (tenor)
Simon Lepper (piano)

The first thing that struck me in this Wigmore Hall recital was the palpable sincerity of Ilker Arcayürek’s artistry. Sincerity is not everything, of course; what we think of as such may even be carefully constructed artifice, although not, I think, here. Stravinsky may or may not even have been correct to call it a sine qua non (before, in imitable style, demolishing the claim that it was in anyway enough). Whether there is sincerity in the deliberate presentation of insincerity and in irony is, perhaps, a dialectical question for another day. (For what it is worth, I think the answer is probably ‘yes – probably’.’ Artistic sincerity is surely, however, a good starting-point, a fine way to draw the listener in. And so it was here from Arcayürek, ably accompanied by Simon Lepper, in a wide-eyed (wide-voiced?!) Frühlingsglaube, properly vernal.

The programme’s progression made sense too. Without overt didacticism there were paths, musical, verbal, thematic to follow, to make one’s one way through this Schubert recital. Musical – in this case, rhythmic – discipline enabled Mayrhofer’s song to the Dioscuri to take us further on our way, whilst the sadness of his Abendstern shone through in voice and piano alike. In between, a rastlose (restless) account of Goethe’s Rastlose Liebe likewise relied upon the freedom born of such discipline. The same poet’s – and, of course, composer’s – Am Flusse flowed nicely, without a wearisome attempt to make it into something it is not.

The Jüngling auf dem Hügel (youth on the hill) could then look down upon what we had seen, heard, experienced so far, the music the key to the words and vice versa, Schubert and his present-day collaborators winningly attentive to the alchemic balance of Lieder-performance. The death knell rang out on the piano perhaps all the more clearly, at any rate movingly, for the lack of underlining. We were trusted to listen for ourselves. Impetuous relief, then, came at just the right time with Der Schiffer, prior to a wan and worldweary Doppelgänger, Arcayürek’s voice rising to encompass fear, anger, and defiance, although never to the neglect of more ‘purely’ musical values. That such moonlit drama could shade into reminiscences of Beethoven’s moonlight in An den Mond spoke well not only of that particular performance but of the thought that had gone behind its placement. Winds and mists brought the first half to a Romantic close, vocal tone and mood their agent, yet precision too. It takes art to evoke rather than fall into the imprecise.

Der Einsame brought piano onomatopoeia (the crickets at night) from Lepper and an apt lightness of approach from Arcayürek, making me think he would be a dab hand at first-rate operetta: Offenbach, or occasional Johann Strauss. There was nothing tedious to the performance of a song which, in the wrong hands, can sometimes become just that. Pristine neoclassicism and a little second-stanza naughtiness enlivened Die Laute and its solitary lamp: a different yet related vision of night-time. Likewise Sehnsucht: another well-judged change of mood. A well shaped account of another Goethe song, Schäfers Klagelied offered typically Schubertian smiling through tears, as well as the vivid drama of actual (and metaphorical?) storm. One began to appreciate the sadness that had underlay even the earliest songs in the programme, in part retrospectively.

It may sound obvious, but to perform the Romanze from Rosauunde as, well, a romance, offered the key to its success, especially as relief after a darkly romantic indictment of ‘love’ in Die Liebe hat gelogen. Again, the clue proved to be in the title for Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt, Schubert extending, as perhaps only music can, Goethe’s conception of loneliness. Particularity of mood characterised both of the following Goethe songs too; so did able voice-leading: in piano, tenor, and both. The quiet dignity of Schwanengesang – the 1822 song, not the song-cycle! – and its unforced Unheimlichkeit brought genuine, not contrived silence at the close. Which returns us to sincerity: an ideal for us as listeners too?