Saturday 31 March 2018

Polyphony/Britten Sinfonia/Layton - St John Passion, 30 March 2018

St John’s Smith Square

Evangelist – Nick Pritchard
Christ – Neal Davies
Anna Dennis (soprano)
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano)
Hiroshi Amako (tenor)
Ashley Riches (bass)

Britten Sinfonia
Stephen Layton (conductor)

This was the first time, I think, since having moved to London that I had attended a Bach Passion performance on Good Friday here. More often than not, I had been in Germany, either for a Passion in Leipzig (most recently in 2011) or for Parsifal (most recently last year). A change is as good as a rest, though – sometimes, at least. This proved an impressive, indeed moving, performance from a good cast of soloists, the chamber choir, Polyphony, the Britten Sinfonia, and conductor Stephen Layton. An eighteenth-century church, ‘Queen Anne’s footstool’, is a not inappropriate venue, of course; the warmth of the St John’s, Smith Square acoustic certainly helped balance a certain dryness in what one might characterise as an ‘period-ish’, rather English approach.

This was certainly not a Roman Catholic Bach in the vein of, say, Nikolaus Harnoncourt – but nor, after all, was Bach a Roman Catholic. Nor was it really a very German Bach we heard, or perhaps better, nor was it one of the many German Bachs we heard. What was more on my mind, than placing the performance within performance tradition, however, was the thorny matter of anti-Semitism. Such has, of course, been a preoccupation of British news reporting over the past few days. Moreover, having been working on the life and work of Arnold Schoenberg for quite some time now, musical and linguistic coding – as well as more overt violence – have been very much in my thoughts too. What do we do about a text, a sacred text no less, which, were it from anywhere other than the Bible, we might approach with greater apprehension? It is a particular problem with St John’s Gospel, and a particular problem within that, of the telling of the Passion. What, moreover, do we do about those turba choruses, in which Bach’s musical mastery, his extraordinary ability to characterise the crowd, add a further layer of discomfort? I do not know. I am certainly not saying that we should necessarily change the words, either of Bach’s work, or the Gospel; nor, however, am I saying that we should not at least consider making such changes on occasion. I do think, however, that, in a post-Holocaust age, in which the Church has been forced to confront long-standing anti-Semitism amongst its earthly sins, we cannot airily declare that there is no problem, that this is ‘just’ a work of art; nor indeed that a work of art, however ‘great’, is far too important to be implicated.

For those choruses truly proved the beating heart, Christian, (anti-)Semitic, or otherwise, of the drama that unfolded here. Taken generally, yet not unvaryingly, at quite a speed, there was fury in them? Whose fury, though? The (Jewish) crowd’s? Ours? If the latter, then what was our fury concerned with? Those who crucified Christ? And if so, what might that mean on earth as well as in theology? The changing role of Bach’s choir, after all, prompts us to consider our own relationship to it. When it sings the chorales – here, quite beautifully, and occasionally, arrestingly, a cappella – it seems to be ‘us’, as congregants and/or audience. We feel its pain, and/or it ours. It comments, like a Greek Chorus; and yet, also, like that Chorus, it participates. Not for nothing was it a crucial model, more so even than Handel’s oratorio choruses, for Schoenberg’s children of Israel in Moses und Aron.

Another particular strength, I thought, was a keen sense of soloists, almost as figures in an aural painting, coming on stage to portray and to reflect. That is what they do in their arias and other solos, of course, but it somehow came across both with particular differentiation and yet also interconnection on this occasion. I am not quite sure I can explain how or why; perhaps it was just that each of the soloists was on fine form. Lines were clean, yet far from un-emotional. There was, however, no attempt to impose ‘emotion’, least of all anachronistic or otherwise inappropriate, heart-on-sleeve emotion upon the music. All manner of approaches can work, of course, but this did – and it seemed, rightly or wrongly, to be something of a collective decision. Much the same can be said of the playing of the Britten Sinfonia, I think. I might sometimes have missed a little greater warmth, especially from the strings, but my ears adjusted soon enough, and I came to appreciate the performance very quickly for what it was, not for what it was not. Obbligato passages were always well taken, without a hint of narcissism. As voices seemed to emerge from the choir – even though they did not, at least literally so, in this case – so did instruments sound very much as if emerging from the greater instrumental collective. Guiding this all, with a determined dramatic presence, yet also due musical collegiality, were the wise presences of Nick Pritchard’s intelligent, finely sung Evangelist and, of course, Layton as conductor. 

This was, then, not just an observance, insofar as a concert can or should be; it also made me think. And all the time, I kept returning to the turbulence of that seething opening chorus – as, I think, does Bach. Wagner himself never wrote a finer, more complete, more troubling instance of music drama.

Thursday 29 March 2018

Britten Sinfonia (Voices)/Dougan - 'Easter Voices': works by Mozart, Stravinsky, et al., 28 March 2018

Milton Court

Andrea Gabrieli: Maria stabat ad monumentum
Stravinsky: Fanfare for a New Theatre
Mozart: Missa Brevis in F major, KV 192186f, interspersed with:
Stravinsky: Pater Noster and Ave Maria
Salonen: Concert étude, for French horn
Bruckner: Aequale no.1, for three trombones
Gesualdo: Two movements from Tenebrae Responsories for Good Friday
Stravinsky: Mass

Ben Goldscheider (French horn)
Britten Sinfonia Voices
Britten Sinfonia
Eamonn Dougan (conductor)

It was a little early, perhaps, to be hearing ‘Easter Voices’ in the middle of Holy Week. However, this was not especially an Easter programme – and, in any case, included two pieces from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. Given the continued vileness of the weather, a little foreshadowing of something warmer was in any case most welcome. (Yes, I know: I should hang my head in Lenten shame.)

Andrea Gabrieli’s Maria stabat ad monumentum functioned splendidly as an introit: Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb, telling the angels ‘they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid Him’. It cautioned us against the adoption of anachronistic models of ‘expressiveness’. This is no heart-on-sleeve lament, nor was it in performance. Britten Sinfonia Voices, under Eamonn Dougan offered a warm, nicely flowing account, the choral sound recognisably ‘English’, no doubt, but there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Who on earth, or indeed beyond, knows what the composer’s ‘intentions’ were here, in any case? The very question most likely makes no sense. He would surely have been astonished to hear that the piece was being performed in a London ‘concert hall’ in 2018, let alone that someone was writing about that on a ‘computer’, that writing soon to be posted on a noticeboard on which, in theory, anyone on God’s earth would be able to read it, although most would not.

The same, of course, would go for Mozart, and parts of it would at least have been a stretch for Stravinsky. Their music formed the twin pillars of this concert, the rest of the first half given over to Mozart’s F major Missa brevis, KV 192186f, introduced by and interspersed with short pieces by Stravinsky, the second half offering pieces by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bruckner, and Gesualdo, leading up to a performance of Stravinsky’s Mass. Both masses were written, ‘intended’ for liturgical performance, although Stravinsky would not have been so greatly surprised to hear of concert performance, however much he might have affected to disdain it, or indeed genuinely done so.

His 1964 Fanfare for a New Theatre heralded ‘the start of the concert proper’, according to Dougan, quoted in Jo Kirkbride’s booklet note. Written for the opening of the New York State Theater, it proved, as ever, blazing, uncompromising, in its forty-second-odd, post-Webern character, whilst at the same time having one wonder: might that actually be a passing reference to Monteverdi? Probably not: one just thinks of Orfeo anyway. In any case, no one time-travels quite like Stravinsky; no one ever remains so much himself. Stravinsky’s Pater Noster and Ave Maria, following Mozart’s ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ respectively, spoke, almost unmediated – or such was the trick. The composer would surely have approved. Choral blend was impeccable, the words highly audible. (Both were given in their later, Latin versions, as per their 1949 revision.) The former sounded a little more Russian, perhaps, as if a neo-Classical remembrance of the world he had left, the latter whiter still, with a strong sense of a musical ‘object’, a Stravinskian icon.

Stravinsky notoriously affected disapproval of Mozart’s early masses: ‘Rococo-operatic sweets of sin,’ he called them, having discovered some scores in 1942: ‘I knew I had to write a Mass of my own,’ he continued, ‘but a real one’. Give me a fake one any day – as well, of course, as Stravinskian ‘reality’. Classical sacred music, whether that of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, or others, less canonical, is woefully un-performed, with the signal exception of Mozart’s Requiem and perhaps, though only perhaps, the Mass in C minor. Granted, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is not a work for every day. But many of Mozart’s and Haydn’s masses and other works are just that – or should be. Here we heard a small-scale performance of the Missa brevis: small choir, with soloists drawn from it, two violins, cello, double bass, chamber organ, and occasionally, those two Stravinskian trumpets.  This was, not unreasonably, the sound world, if hardly the acoustic, of the church sonata, slightly augmented. It worked well in a small hall with nothing of the ‘Rococo-operatic’ to it. One can always go to Salzburg’s churches for that.

Performances were again generally warm, if occasionally less so – an interpretative decision, no doubt – from the solo strings. Words again were crystal clear. I especially liked the rich timbre of Tim Dickinson’s bass, but all solos and ensembles were well sung indeed; a fine balance between solo line and blend. The culminatory nature of the ‘Amen’ in the ‘Gloria’; the learned counterpoint of the ‘Credo’, whose contrapuntal tag has one think, whether one likes it or no, of the Jupiter Symphony; the nimble ‘Osanna’ music; and the darkness of the imploring harmonies of the ‘Agnus Dei’, which yet hung over the concluding ‘Dona nobis pacem’: such were just some of the highlights of a lovely performance, well shaped, without interventionism, by Dougan.

Salonen’s 2000 Concert étude for solo French horn, a homage to his teacher, Holger Fransman, offered an equally refreshing opening to the second half, not least given the outstanding, indeed mesmeric quality of Ben Goldscheider’s performance. It acted here almost like a wordless second introit, Messiaen heard from another, related world. The twin requirements of a single line and, at times, multiple voices (various extended techniques, including singing a line in addition to that played) were handled beautifully and, more to the point, meaningfully. The first of Bruckner’s two Aequale followed from the gallery, rooted in tradition and yet, in both melody and harmonic implications, unmistakeably Bruckner.

Gesualdo’s weird chromaticism – is that the best way to think about it at all? – stood out, without undue exaggeration, in carefully unfolding performances of ‘Omnes amici mei’ and ‘Vinea mea electa’. The former proved, perhaps, more of an object, almost in the Stravinskian sense, the latter more developmental, opening in chaster fashion, yet blossoming. Is this how such music, such words ‘should’ be performed? Who knows? Again, the question is hardly the right one to ask. One could certainly imagine what might have fascinated Stravinsky in this composer’s music.

And so to his ‘proper’ Mass, with its non-string, wind orchestra. I was interested to read Dougan speak of ‘the more lush sound world of the winds and brass in the Stravinsky’, as compared to Mozart’s strings. I hear it the other way around – and did again. Although this was anything but a cold performance, an austere, even angular quality, with roots in Symphonies of wind instruments nevertheless manifested itself. We all have our own Stravinskys, I suppose; yet, as Boulez, once put it, Stravinsky demeure (the title of his Rite of Spring analysis).  Is there, was there, something ‘Oriental’, or at least ‘Orientalist’, in the opening wind and vocal arabesques of the ‘Gloria’? Or is/was that just recollections of Paris? Whatever it might have ‘been’, it was delightful. The ‘Credo’ perhaps spoke a little, yet only a little, more nostalgically, of a service from ‘home’ now once again viewed or heard as an ‘object’, its jangle of ecclesiastical Latin leading inexorably to a beautifully floated Amen. Intonation throughout was spot on, as it must be, truly permitting one to appreciate the originality of Stravinsky’s own heavenly host in the ‘Sanctus’ and the  imploring qualities of the closing ‘Agnus Dei’. As a surprising encore, another object of fascination, we heard Mozart’s Ave verum corpus motet, with accompaniment from the wind orchestra on stage: Mozart and Stravinsky, perhaps, united at last.

Saturday 24 March 2018

'Voices of Revolution, Russia 1917’: Abduraimov/Gulitskaya/Philharmonia/Ashkenazy: Mosolov, Prokofiev, and Glière, 22 March 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Mosolov: The Iron Foundry, op.19
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto no.3 in C major, op.26
Glière: Concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra, op.82
Glière: Suite: The Red Poppy

Bezhod Abduraimov (piano)
Nadezhda Gulitskaya (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

The title of the concert series is perhaps slightly misleading: ‘Voices of Revolution, Russia 1917’. It is perhaps also slightly belated, although one might argue that we are now living in the year following the centenary date itself of the October Revolution. No matter, as Martin Sixsmith, former BBC correspondent in Moscow and series advisor, explains, the intention is to explore ‘works by composers who had very different reactions to the Bolshevik Revolution of autumn 1917, with a selection of music that revolves around themes of idealism, propaganda and repression.’ Moreover, as Sixsmith and Marina Frolova-Walker proceeded, in an enlightening pre-concert talk, to discuss, the three composers on offer here certainly acted very differently in that respect:  Alexander Mosolov an archetypal figure of early Soviet modernism, Prokofiev an exile who eventually returned, and Reinhold Glière a purveyor of dubious ‘socialist realism’.


Glière simply wanted instructions from whomever was in charge so that he could get on with his (hack) work. As Frolova-Walker explained in the programme: “‘just tell us what to do”, … he said at one official meeting.’ When no ‘formalists’ were available for consideration, he passed the Zhdanov test and won the 1948 Stalin Prize, as he would again in 1950. He had also done so in 1946, for his 1943 Concerto for coloratura soprano, which struck me as rather more than hack work. Indeed, the conception itself, whilst not entirely original, remained unusual, even if the neo-Romantic language did not. Nadezhda Gulitskaya, a late substitution for Ailish Tynan, proved fully up to its demands, contributing more than a little glamour as well as necessary precision of a pitch to a work whose undeniable charms might otherwise have palled, however excellent the contribution of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor of all four Philharmonia concerts). Let us be kind and say that the opening phrase merely displays a strong resemblance to a theme from Die Walküre (think of Brünnhilde’s ‘War es so schmählich’); there are only so many notes in the major scale, and there are in any case worse models for a melody than Wagner. The music proceeds somewhat in television-score-ish fashion, save for the imaginative vocalise, and certain moments beyond: for instance the soprano’s duetting with clarinet. The second of the two movements, a neo-Tchaikovskian waltz, seemed a bit odder, but it was a welcome opportunity nevertheless to hear a work hardly overburdened with performances.

The opening, quite un-Wagnerian theme


The Red Poppy, even in its suite version, is likely – I hope – to remain more of a rarity. Almost socialist realism avant la lettre, or at least long before its necessity, it was apparently the first Soviet ballet on a properly contemporary socialist realist theme: an imperialist one at that, Russian sailors venturing ashore to rescue victims of nationalist China’s capitalism. Bizarrely, and perhaps still more disturbingly, the United States later took it up, following the alliance between Roosevelt and Stalin, exchanging American sailors for Russians, and Japanese victims (of something else, I presume) for Chinese. It begins colourfully, cartoon-like, clearly being relished on at least one level by players and conductor alike. Yes, I suppose one would expect pentatonic writing – but really, it here soon extends here beyond a harmless joke. ‘I’m not racist, but…’ Glière was nothing if not eclectic – reactionary eclectic, though – and a bad Johann Strauss waltz entered to provide ‘balance’. It was all gorgeously played, solos as well as full orchestra, as I suppose they should be. The Naxos performance below is harder-edged, rather to the music's - and our - benefit, I think. This was fascinating to hear, once; but I cannot, even without its highly problematic Orientalism, imagine wanting to repeat the experience in a hurry.


Mosolov’s Iron Foundry is, of course, well known – if relatively little heard in concert – as a signal-bearer for Soviet musical modernism. The Philharmonia’s performance under Ashkenazy was every inch the match for the Glière items. For me, at least, the music, as well as the politics, are – and, in performance were – far more compelling. Riccardo Chailly once recorded it alongside (more) acknowledged works of international modernism, Prokofiev’s Third Symphony and Varèse’s Arcana. Here one could certainly here why. I thought also of the former’s Pas d’acier, the irony being of course that such high water-marks of Prokofiev’s own modernism were decidedly non-Soviet works. The size of the orchestra struck one visually, its volume aurally. Here was a factory of an in music, a worthy successor – indeed, a superior work, I think – to Honegger’s Pacific 231, replete, to quote Frolova-Walker, ‘with a kind of heroic “hymn to labour” in the horns’. Tremendous stuff!


So too is and, once again, in performance was, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, in C major – not in F major, as claimed in the programme leaflet handed out on the day. It is the most Classically proportioned of Prokofiev’s five essays in the genre, with three movements of more or less equal length, but in this performance as well as in this context, its relation to its own time sounded more than typically apparent. Bezhod Abduraimov’s pounding of the piano – and Ashkenazy’s of the orchestra too – reminded one just how radical Prokofiev’s percussive treatment of the instrument can, and most likely should, seem. Bartók is not the only pioneer in this respect. But Parisian neo-Classicism welcomed the work with open arms too; the C major ‘whiteness’ of the close also came strongly to the fore, alongside magical, silvery premonitions of Cinderella. That said, the finale’s status as complement to the first movement was also clear in retrospect. That first movement sounded as if taken at a relatively swift tempo: no bad thing. However, I am not sure that it actually was; the feeling was at least as much a matter of energy from soloist, orchestra, and conductor (who, of course, played the piece more than a few times himself). The central theme and variations proceeded briskly, again not too briskly, and again emerged all the stronger for it, rhythms nicely sprung: the basis, so it seemed, for much of the melody and harmony with which they worked. Its darker, almost cinematic, side was not neglected: again, I thought, an instance of ‘period’ interest in a strong rather than antiquarian sense. Shadows of Scriabin still registered too, in a truly brilliant performance. I hope to hear more from Abduraimov, even if his Schubert encore sounded closer, intriguingly so, to Prokofiev than to the ‘source’.


King's/Parry - Lenten Choral Music, 21 March 2018

Cadogan Hall

Palestrina: Stabat Mater
Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah (Part 1)
Poulenc: Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence
Lassus: Stabat Mater
Byrd: Ne irascaris, Domine; Civitas sancti tui
Brahms: Warum ist das Licht gegeben, op.74 no.2; Schaffe in mir, Gott, op.29 no.2

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Ben Parry (conductor)

Time was I could hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge almost any evening I chose, at least during term time. (If I remember correctly, Mondays were reserved for the mixed voice King’s Voices.) Not that I did, of course: I tended to go to my own chapel services more than others’; I also tended to prefer the services down the road at St John’s, less packed with tourists and thus seemingly less of a ‘concert’. I also preferred, in many ways, the more ‘Continental’ sound of St John’s to the typically ‘English’, whiter sound of King’s. Nevertheless, it was always quite an experience, first to set foot in that masterpiece of late Perpendicular Gothic – pay no heed to its cultured despisers, the same sort who will tell you that St Paul’s is a monstrous hybrid – gowned (and thus in slightly better seating than the non-Cambridge congregants), and to hear that celebrated choir, which, through radio and other recordings, I had known for so long before my time in the city that was essentially my home for fifteen years.

Ben Parry, an old boy from the choir and Assistant Director of Music at King’s, substituted for Stephen Cleobury, who was recovering from a bicycle accident. Parry certainly knew the choir and how to play to its strengths; it is difficult to imagine anyone having been disappointed, even in the almost diametrically opposed (to its echoing Chapel home) acoustic of Cadogan Hall. If some tempo choices, perhaps especially in the closing Brahms motets, seemed chosen more to help the boys than on ‘purely’ musical grounds, there is no great harm in that. The business of a collegiate (or other) choral foundation, after all, is far more than providing concert material; indeed, that is not really its business at all. Perhaps those works by Brahms, Warum ist das Licht gegeben? and Schaffe in mir, Gott, the latter a setting of part of Luther’s translation of the Miserere (Psalm 51), will have flowed more readily, especially in the relationship between different sections, and indeed have benefited from surer intonation, but there was much to enjoy, especially in their respective closing sections.

Two settings of the Stabat Mater, by Palestrina and Lassus, opened the concert’s two halves. Both were nicely shaded, without jarring (to my ears, without any) anachronism. The performance of the former imparted, when called upon, a real sense of ‘dec and can’ (decani and cantoris) antiphony in a different setting. It perhaps sounded closer to Monteverdi than often one hears, less ‘white’ than I had expected. Whatever the Council of Trent’s suspicion of the poem, I was struck by the essential simplicity, however artful, of the music and by the guiding role of words. Lassus’s setting came across as darker, a little more Northern perhaps. (He was, after all, Kapellmeister in Munich.) Within the context of an undoubtedly ‘Anglican’ performance, full of tone yet not too full, the sound seemed – or maybe it was just my ears adjusting – to become a little more Italianate as time progressed.

Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence offer a challenge, not least intonational, to any choir, and are more often heard with older (female) voices. In these forthright performances, there was – rightly, I think – no great attempt made to ape other performing traditions, but there was nevertheless sometimes a harshness, even perhaps, in the closing ‘Tristis est anima mea’, an anger, we do not necessarily associate with the choir. The shading of ‘Vinea mea electa’ was intelligent, fuller than Anglican reputation would have you believe. If intonation proved far from perfect, especially in the opening ‘Timor et tremor’, nor should one exaggerate; one always knew where the music and indeed the text were heading.

The music of Tallis and Byrd is home territory for King’s – albeit here without the trebles. Naturally, in their absence, countertenors came more strongly to the fore. Parry wisely made no attempt to do too much in terms of word-painting in the Tallis; the words speak for themselves, and did so here especially on the Lenten cries for ‘Ierusalem, Ierusalem’ to return to her God. The two Byrd motets offered, for me, the highlight of the concert. Without a hint of blandness or routine, there was simply – or not so simply – that ineffable sense of ‘rightness’, of ease with the music, the composer’s recusancy notwithstanding. Music and words spoke freely, in greatly satisfying performances. As we heard in both, ‘Sion deserta facta est, Jerusalem desolata est.’ And yet, there was comfort to be had, if not in the wilderness and desolation of Jerusalems heavenly and earthly, then in their artistic representation – which is doubtless as it should be.

Thursday 22 March 2018

Tristan und Isolde, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 18 March 2018

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Images: Monika Rittershaus

Tristan – Andreas Schager
King Marke – Stephen Milling
Isolde – Anja Kampe
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
Melot – Stephan Rügamer
Brangäne – Ekaterina Gubanova
Steersman – Adam Kutny
Young Sailor, Shepherd – Linard Vrielink
Tristan’s Mother – Kristin Becker
Tristan’s Father – Mike Hoffmann
English horn (onstage) – Florian Hanspach-Torkildsen

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, set designs)
Elena Zaytseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Tieni Burkhalter (video)
Tatina Vereshchagina, Detlef Giese (dramaturgy)

Berlin State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Raymond Hughes)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Tristan (Andreas Schager) and ensemble

No one doubts the supreme challenge presented in performing Tristan und Isolde. After seventy-seven rehearsals, the intended 1861 Vienna premiere had to be abandoned. A work that had taken less than three years to write took more than double that, as John Deathridge has observed, to ‘overcome prejudice about its viability. … Strasbourg, Karlsruhe, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Dresden, Hanover, Stuttgart, Prague, and Vienna: in the end none of these opera houses would touch it.’ When Munich finally did, in 1865, Wagner’s Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, died after just four performances. Wagner’s foes, political, aesthetic, and ‘moral’, seized on the opportunity to claim, ludicrously, that Tristan, rather than typhus was the agent of death. If audiences today avoid quite such high (melo)drama, more often than not they meet the curse on the other side of Wagner’s melodramatic coin: ‘only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, - I cannot imagine it otherwise. This is how far I have gone!! Oh dear! – I was just in full career! Adieu!’

The twin dangers of unviability and necessary mediocrity were avoided in this outstanding performance from the Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, and a cast headed by Andreas Schager and Anja Kampe. When I last heard Barenboim conduct Tristan, in 2010, I observed that this, ‘of the three Tristans in the theatre’ I had heard him conduct, had ‘surely [been] the best, above all in as searing a first act as I have ever heard, reminiscent of Karl Böhm at Bayreuth.’ This proved a more powerful musical experience still, and quite different. Yes, the first act was ‘searing’, but it had little in common with Böhm, save perhaps for the visceral, overwhelming quality to the close, which left me in quite a state of shock: not so far from Wagner’s ‘perfectly good ones … bound to drive people mad’. Barenboim now appears to be hearing Tristan more overtly through ears transformed by his recent Parsifal performances – or at least leading us to do so. (Perhaps it is not entirely a coincidence that they too have been collaborations with Dmitri Tcherniakov – and Schager, and, oneyear, Kampe too.)

Some people have, apparently, been complaining that his tempi were ‘slow’: do they really want a ‘fast’ Tristan? I fear that, unconsciously or even consciously fearful of Wagner’s ‘perfectly good,’ they actually might. Perhaps sometimes they were. I have no idea, not being a clock-watcher. More importantly, there were ample space and tension, for the ebb and flow of Wagner’s Schopenhauerian Will to find orchestral representation. For, still more than Parsifal, the music of Beethoven – and Barenboim’s recent Beethoven, as heard in a life-changing symphonic Proms cycle with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – made its harmonic mark. The ‘growth’ of harmony from the bass line, even when, indeed particularly when, Wagner’s extreme chromaticism tugs away from it, ensured both musicodramatic comprehensibility and a placing between Beethoven and Schoenberg, yet reducible to neither. The Staatskapelle Berlin might almost be taken for granted in this, so inveterate is its Wagnerian excellence; it should not be. Without its dark, ‘German’ tone, ‘traditional’ and yet probing so many of those new musical worlds seemingly born in this score, we should come nowhere near The World as Will and Representation at all, still less to a ‘perfectly goodTristan.

Isolde (Anja Kampe), Brangäne (Ekaterina Gubanova)

Likewise Barenboim’s excellent cast, crucial to far more than the ‘surface’ role Schopenhauer’s aesthetics might suggest. Schager again might readily be taken for granted. (Remember when we had no such Heldentenor? It was not so long ago.) His was certainly the finest account of the role I have heard in the theatre, fully worthy of comparison with the great, doubtless mythologised performances of the recorded past, although again certainly not to be reduced to them, nor indeed to comparisons therewith. If the seemingly infinite vocal resources Schager can call upon to make his way through the third act monologue – it was to that in particular that Wagner referred in his letter – suggest Lauritz Melchior, there was none of the laziness or, at least, somewhat cavalier attitude that could afflict the latter’s work. Schager can sing the part and he does, but dramatically it needs to be hard work; we need to feel, to share in, Tristan’s struggle, even as it frightens, repels us. We did, in this, a performance for the ages. Kampe’s Isolde was perhaps not on quite so grand a scale; nor did it need to be. She offered her own detailed portrayal, again matching ‘musical’ and ‘dramatic’ imperatives – as if they might ever formally be separated! – to a degree it would be difficult to match, let alone to surpass. Boaz Daniel and Ekaterina Gubanova offered far more than support as Kurwenal and Brangäne, the latter’s ‘operatic Lied’ approach, unfailingly sensitive to words and their implications, without permitting them to override the imperatives of the musical line. King Markes rarely disappoint: what a gift of a role it is in a more traditional sense. Nevertheless, Stephen Milling’s depth of tone and grace of character impressed greatly. Amongst a strong ‘supporting’ cast, Linard Vrielink’s beautifully sung Young Sailor and Shepherd stood out.

There remains, however, another common danger, increasingly common, to contemporary Tristan performances – more strictly, to productions. That is of missing the point of the work entirely. I hope it will not be taken that I am referring in some generic reactionary fashion to the ‘creator’s intentions’. However, Tristan seems in practice to prove unusually resistant to attempts even to question what it might be ‘about’. The idea of the work being shoehorned, for instance, into a justified protest against anti-immigration policies hardly bears thinking about. Tristan is certainly not in any emphatic sense ‘about’ its ‘characters’, insofar as they be characters at all; it seems to come closer than any other of Wagner’s dramas to that all-too-celebrated description of ‘deeds of music made visible’. Prior to Tcherniakov’s staging, I had yet to see what might broadly be termed an ‘interventionist’ staging that worked.

King Marke (Stephen Milling), Tristan, Melot (Stephan Rügamer), Kurwenal (Boaz Daniel)

Does Tcherniakov change that? I hope it is not unduly pretentious – it may already prove a little late to sound that alert – to say I think it too soon to tell. What I can say is that his production has made me think about the issues involved like no other: an achievement I think worth lauding in itself. By contrast with his perhaps atypical, unquestionably brilliant Parsifal – the best I have seen since Stefan Herheim – we return to Tcherniakov’s homeground of the unpleasant rich. Fair enough: with kings, queens, and princes, that is what we are dealing with. Elena Zaytseva’s costumes and Tcherniakov’s own set designs – in the first act, a true luxury vessel, replete with ‘bespoke’ anything you might care to mention; in the second, a ‘tasteful’ Jugendstil indoor forest ‘theme’ we want to hate, yet secretly want – instantly evoke the excesses of a corporate, materialistic world we know only too well. The third act by contrast retreats to a homely comfort zone for Tristan, an old moneyed boy who never grew up (haunted, as his monologue tells us, by the circumstances of his birth, visions of his parents appearing in his delirium).

Is that all too specific, though? Does it fall into the trap of making Tristan about the trappings of wealth? Not really, for there is an intriguing, deadly game afoot. Tcherniakov does not treat the lovers as identical, as two mere parts of ‘Tristan and Isolde’. He does not accept Wagner, let alone Schopenhauer, at face value. Instead, he implicitly, even explicitly, criticises some of their (neo-)Romantic premises. Is Tristan, perhaps even Isolde at times, actually mocking whatever it is they play out? It is not always clear, but there is a degree of unnerving alienation to the proceedings that intrigues, questions, even (metatheatrically?) frightens. A woman fainting in the second act seems to fall into their trap, or is she in on the game too? Or, perhaps most important, is this a critique of the game we play, when we sit around, almost as Nietzsche’s ‘Wagnerians’, ‘disciples – benumbed, pale, breathless!’, both at the performance, enraptured, and afterwards, discussing how singular this work is, how it refuses directorial interventionism? The question of aestheticisation is live, just as in the Staatsoper’s newproduction by Hans Neuenfels of Salome, which I saw the previous evening: a fascinating, provocative pairing. Who, both productions seem to ask, is the Wagnerian now, whether on or off stage? The English horn player on stage (the excellent Florian Hanspach-Torkildsen) perhaps asks us something similar, his deeds of music rendered unusually visible.

Shepherd (Linard Vrielink), Florian Hanspach-Torkildsen (English horn)

Tcherniakov seems to me on balance to succeed where many others have failed, presenting an element of alienation that holds work and musical performance at arm’s length, without descending into mere reductionist banality. In the separation of ‘work’ and staging, even of musical performance and staging, the two become problematically, rather than mystically, reengaged. Romanticism is decisively rejected, whether in work or reception. It need not always be, perhaps, but it is here – and fruitfully. For instance, Karol Berger has recently argued that that is, part way through Tristan’s monologue, it ‘is clear thus far … that the escape from the separating illusions of Day into the unifying truth of Night remains Tristan’s goal, but a goal he cannot accomplish in Isolde’s absence, since they need to escape together.’ Perhaps. I should certainly allow, at least, that that was Wagner’s intention, most likely even what he thought he had achieved. The work here, though, I think, knows better than its creator. Wagner’s need to ‘transcend’ at the close already betrays the relative poverty of such Romanticism, just as Mozart’s terrifyingly clear-eyed coda to Così fan tutte does (more knowingly, I think, although that may be debated).

Tristan and Isolde

Tcherniakov’s treatment of the so-called Liebestod – Wagner’s own ‘Verklärung’ is worth fighting for against Liszt’s well-meaning misunderstanding – seems to me of particular interest here, sharing, even intensifying the ambiguity of work, conception, and tradition. Tristan’s room returns to darkness, Isolde having cocooned herself with him, safe from prying eyes – whether ours or those on stage. The prior onstage separation between Shepherd and his instrument, the scenic and the musical, seems thereby at a remove almost to have been overcome. We could believe in what she is doing, she doubtless could too; but we do not, and we doubt whether she does. Wagner’s reconciliation is false. Which returned this listener at least to one of the most searching – as well as, on occasion, utterly wrong-headed – of Wagner’s critics after Nietzsche: Theodor Adorno. On the final page of his Essay on Wagner, we read: ‘Tristan’s curse upon love [Minne] is more than the impotent sacrifice intoxication offers up to asceticism.’ It is rather music’s rebellion against its own ‘constraint of Fate’. In that rebellion, music will often benefit from enlisting the services of ‘drama’, and vice versa. Negative dialectics indeed.

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Salome, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 17 March 2018

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Annika Schlicht (Herodias's Page), Oscar Wilde (Christian Natter), Salome (Aušrine Stundytė)

Herod – Gerhard Siegel
Herodias – Marina Prudenskaya
Salome – Aušrine Stundytė
Jochanaan – Thomas J. Mayer
Narraboth – Nikolai Schukoff
Herodias’s Page – Annika Schlicht
Jews – Dietmar Kerschbaum, Ziad Nehme, Linard Vrielink, Andrés Moreno García, David Oštrek
Nazarenes – Adam Kutny, Ulf Dirk Mädler
Soldiers – Arttu Kataja, Dominic Barbiere
A Cappadocian – David Oštrek
A Slave – Corinna Scheurle
Oscar Wilde – Christian Natter

Hans Neuenfels (director)
Philipp Lossau (assistant director)
Reinhard von der Thannen (designs)
Kathrin Hauer (assistant stage designer)
Sommer Ulrickson (choreography)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Henry Arnold (dramaturgy)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Thomas Guggeis (conductor)

‘These Germans: they are obsessed with sex.’ Such were the puzzling words I heard from an irate Frenchman in the queue behind me for the cloakroom at the close of this performance of Salome. Far be it to suggest that ‘the French’ might also have a reputation for an interest in such matters, but I could not help but wonder whether, if he were weary of at least implicit sexual context onstage, Salome were really the opera for him. As it happens, Hans Neuenfels’s excellent new production, provocative in the best sense, is far more concerned with the absence of sex, sexual repression, the ultimate inability to perform, and, following Oscar Wilde in particular here, the aestheticisation of such problems, than with sexual display or fulfilment. Prudishness and aversion take many forms, however, as Neuenfels also suggests.

For Wilde is placed, increasingly literally, centre stage. Not having looked properly at the cast list, let alone the programme, beforehand, I had not realised that this would be so. Instead, as intended, it gradually became clear that the actor, whose role I could not quite place, either in the work or more laterally, was Wilde himself. The neon sign, ‘Wilde is coming’, had announced it clearly enough,’ I realised – just as Jochanaan announced one who would follow him. Not that the accomplished, mesmerisingly versatile Christian Natter, in this entirely mute role, is made up to resemble the playwright: we are, let us give thanks, at a level of drama beyond the caricature of the impressionist. Eventually the green carnation gives the game away: the only instance throughout the entire evening of a colour on stage that is not black, white, or red (typically sharp, meaningfully coloured designs by longtime Neuenfels collaborator, Reinhard von der Thannen). But before that, a world of Victorian sexual repression, that of the society from which Wilde sprang, has been constructed. Its imperialism is nodded to, in very British Empire uniforms for the soldiers: let us play at governing the Middle East, with catastrophic consequences to be seen to the present day and beyond.

Jochanaan (Thomas J. Mayer), Herodes (Gerhard
Siegel), Herodias (Marina Prudenskaya)
More to the point, John the Baptist, foreteller of Christianity – perhaps, in this reading, more so than Christ himself, certainly more of a hypocritical moral fanatic – is encased in what Neuenfels calls ‘a phallus or rocket of indignation, a constant appeal to obdurate, concealed, packed away carnality. This results in a constant ban, a threat.’ The traditional cistern is gone, but as Henry Arnold, Neuenfels’s dramaturge points out, Strauss wrote to Ernst von Schuch, conductor of the first performance, that Jochanaan ‘should be understandable without a voice pipe. Maybe he could sing through a gaze veil (a hole in the wall, invisible to the audience) with his head two feet above the floor so that he sees the conductor and can sing directly to the audience. This is very important.’ Take that, alleged ‘respecters’ of ‘the composer’s intentions’. What is it that our proto-ayatollah objects to? In a sense, it does not really matter, for such things are more matters of opportunism than anything else, as the ‘religious Right’ backers of Donald Trump testify more clearly than ever. What Neuenfels opens up is the possibility of a more thoroughgoing exploration of gender and orientation. Salome herself becomes a significantly gender-bending figure, her absurd, ultra-stylised (which is, crucially, to say aestheticised) Victorian bustle transposed onto others, Wilde and Jochanaan chief amongst them. Who dresses up? Who dresses whom? With what intent?

Wilde, Salome

When Herod commands, or rather requests, ‘Dance for me, Salome’, does he too want as much of an aesthetic as a sexual experience? Do we err to distinguish the two? (Given recent reports of sexual abuse by conductors, the question seems especially relevant now.) He has his own reasons, as such ‘immoral’ rulers tend to, in many ways far less objectionable than those who loudly trumpet their ‘morality’; he is weak more than anything else, as signalled by Herodias’s theft of and refusal to return his ring of kingship. Make of that gesture, so rich in symbolism political and sexual, what you will. Meanwhile Wilde, increasingly confident, perhaps as in his play, in his denunciation of denunciation, allows his homosexuality to become clearer – and, more important still, to acquire greater dramatic agency. When he dances, as angel of death, with Salome, a game of omnisexual sadomasochism unfolds, the poet’s leather harness-corset (which?) and what he does with it speaking a thousand words (back at least as far as Neuenfels’s brilliant Salzburg Così fan tutte, a work Strauss, a true Mozart connoisseur, so adored).

But, in a world of such repression, what does one put in the place of sexual freedom? Aestheticism, of course, in Wilde’s case – and, surely, in Strauss’s too, throughout his career. Ever the student of Nietzsche rather than Wagner, Strauss believed in art above all else: indeed, perhaps only in art. Thus the constructions we place on stage, and the very constructions we make of them in our minds too, play their part in a similar game, perhaps even identical, at the very least related – depending, most likely, upon who we are, even how we feel on the night. Salome – sometimes a girl, sometimes a more progressive, perhaps older, woman with something of the caricatured lesbian to her, sometimes perhaps a surrogate for the young man Wilde, on and off stage, may be seeking – focuses her own aesthetics upon her construction of Jochanaan, who sometimes resembles what she thinks she wants, yet in other respects could hardly be more distant. The pent-up rage in which she smashes one of the multiple, ‘beautiful’ busts arranged on stage for her delectation following the dance is both a genuine act and a ‘work of art’, or at least an aspiration thereto, in itself. Has anyone learned of ‘love’ then? It seems unlikely. We have nevertheless learned a good deal about the lengths to which many of us will go in order to prevent ourselves and others from doing so.

Wilde, Salome

Thomas Guggeis, originally scheduled to conduct but one of these performances as assistant to Christoph von Dohnányi, ended up conducting them all. He did a very good job, the Staatskapelle Berlin seemingly very happy to play under his leadership. The weird musical world in which dances do not dance and non-dances do came across with considerable dramatic power. I have heard more outrageously, or at least phantasmagorically, coloured performances, but no single performance is likely in itself to respond equally to the manifold possibilities of Strauss’s score. There can be little doubt that this young conductor is a musician of great accomplishment, nor that we shall be hearing much more from him. What an opportunity, though, to have fallen to him!


If tonal beauty were your thing, then Aušrine Stundytė’s Salome would most likely not be for you. Is the problematisation of such priorities, though, not one of the dramatic themes, at least possibly, of work and production? She certainly entered into the role with dramatic gusto and considerable stage presence. One heard, moreover, many more of the words, words moreover imbued with true verbal potency, than will often be the case. Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Jochanaan likewise navigated intriguingly between such polarities, offering a solution, however provisional, suited to his character and his portrayal. Looking at the royal couple from the other side of that (doubtless too) crude opposition, Gerhard Siegel and Marina Prudenskaya offered formidably sung performances, more so than one will often hear, without sacrifice to the drama. Nikolai Schukoff’s astute, enigmatic, vocally ravishing Narraboth was perhaps the single most impressive performance of all.

Narraboth (Nikolai Shukoff), Salome, Jochanan
Images: Monika Rittershaus

Indeed, at the time, one rather resented Narraboth’s being elbowed aside by Wilde – which is surely the point. And yet soon we did not, for criticism of society, his, Salome’s, and ours, becomes all the more necessary. Until the drama, musical rather than scenic, less closes than stops. It could be Wozzeck, almost, except in its aestheticism, it is anything but. Wozzeck does not die of boredom; Salome does, but whose? Patriarchy remains, but do we care - truly care, as opposed to claiming to?