Friday 27 April 2018

Goerne/Schmalcz - Brahms, 26 April 2018

Wigmore Hall

Neun Lieder und Gesänge, op.32; Sommerabend, op.85 no.1; Mondenschein, op.85 no.2; Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht, op.96 no.1; Es schauen die Blumen, op.96 no.3; Meerfahrt, op.96 no.4; Vier ernste Gesänge, op.96 no.4

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Alexander Schmalcz (piano)

At his best, Matthias Goerne does serious (ernst) at least as well as anyone else. He may not be everyone’s first choice as Papageno, although what he brings to the role is compelling indeed, quite different from the blithe clowning of some, arguably much closer to its fundamental sadness. (Is that not, after all, what clowns are about?)  Yet, individual taste aside, whom would one choose before him to sing Brahms, let alone the Four Serious Songs?

That set came last in this Wigmore Hall recital from Goerne and Alexander Schmalcz. Whilst it is difficult to imagine anyone having been seriously disappointed by the performance heard, I do not think it came close to matching a performance I heard last year in Salzburg from Goerne with Daniil Trifonov. Before hastening to judgement, however, I should caution that the fault did not necessarily lie with the pianist. Here, as indeed throughout, Schmalcz gave estimable accounts of Brahms’s musical structures, duly suggestive of both how they complement and how they do not the ways of the verbal texts. ‘Denn est gehet dem Menschen’ was perhaps the strongest performance here, offering a true sense of having reached the beginning of the end, finality clear even in the fury of its central stanza; ‘Es fährt alles an einen Ort…’. Echoes from Ein deutsches Requiem, always apparent, were perhaps more than usually so here. However, during the second and fourth songs in particular, a hectoring quality to Goethe’s performance, sometimes apparent earlier too, seemed to go a little too far in the role of the verbal Preacher (be it that of Ecclesiastes or St Paul). In the latter and final song, ‘Wenn ich met Menschen,’ there was a sense of the music never quite having settled; it seemed unduly complicated, as if minds of singer and pianist had not truly come together.

The Neun Lieder und Gesänge, op.32, fared much better. Why we do not hear these songs more often I really do not know. Perhaps it is simply that Brahms is still thought of more as an instrumental than a vocal composer. Surely the autobiographical element – Graham Johnson once suggested considering the set as a Komponistenliebe sequel to Schumann’s Dichterliebe – should attract. Above all, though, the sheer musical – and musico-dramatic – quality should. Wagner’s was not the only way. Schubert often hovered in the background, more oppressively than benignly, the opening ‘Wie raft ich mich auf in der Nacht’ suggestive almost of a retelling of the night of ‘Der Doppelgänger’, from a different, related person’s standpoint, several years later. Indeed that fabled ‘lateness’ of Brahms, however much it may stand in need of deconstruction, seemed, not inappropriately, present throughout this dark night’s proceedings. That is not to say that darkness was unvaried; it nevertheless predominated, still more so in the following ‘Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen’. ‘Ich schleich umher’ offered different forms of repression, repression remaining the operative word, however. Two August von Platen storms ensued, prior to a true sense of reckoning in another setting of that same poet, ‘Du sprichst, dass ich mich täuschte’, almost as if this were the cycle’s – if indeed a cycle it be – peripeteia. Hafiz, translated by Georg Friedrich Daumer followed, in three songs, the first two exquisitely bitter in their ‘Süsse’ (‘sweetness’, as the first has it) – or should that be the other way around? Blissful in its quiet ecstasy, ‘Wie bist du meine Königin’ seemed to hark back to Schubert’s ‘Du bist die Ruh’, without abdicating its ‘late’ knowledge that it would prove impossible to return.

Five Heine settings came in between. (There was no interval.) ‘Sommerabend’ benefited from especially fine piano voicing, as if shadowing the vocal line, a Doppelgänger to it, which in a way it is, yet not only in a ‘purely musical’ way. ‘Mondenschein’ proved in turn a moonlit Doppelgänger to its predecessor. The exquisite drowsiness of death and recollection, quite without hope of an after-life or any other ‘beyond’, came to us in the deathly ‘Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht’. An intermezzo-like reading – from both artists – of ‘Es schauen die Blumen’ was followed by a somewhat hectoring ‘Meerfahrt’. Perhaps that was the point – up to a point. Sometimes, however, as Heine might have advised, there are other forms of preparation than rage.

Thursday 26 April 2018

Philip Venables, 4.48 Psychosis, Royal Opera, 24 April 2018

Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

Images: ROH/Stephen Cummiskey

Gwen – Gweneth-Ann Rand
Jen – Lucy Hall
Suzy – Susanna Hurrell
Clare – Samantha Price
Emily – Rachael Lloyd
Lucy – Lucy Schaufer

Ted Huffman (director)
Hannah Clark (designs)
D.M. Wood (lighting)
Pierre Martin (video)
Sound Intermedia (sound design)
Sarah Fahie, Rc-Annie (movement)

Richard Baker (conductor)

Philip Venables’s 4.48 Psychosis, based on Sarah Kane’s final play, seems to have received a largely rapturous reception, at least from opera critics, on its first outing in 2016. I missed it then, so was very curious to catch it on its revival: one of the Royal Opera’s ventures outside Covent Garden – perhaps aptly, in a theatre, the Hammersmith Lyric, known for its spoken theatre rather than for opera. I seem to be somewhat out on a limb here – only somewhat, since my impressions are far from uniformly negative – but I am afraid I found myself, on the basis of a first encounter, more troubled by doubts than some. (I should certainly not put it stronger than that.) It is genuinely not my intent to find fault for the sake of it; I suspect, moreover, that much may more be a matter of my own aesthetic preconceptions and preoccupations. However, given so enthusiastic a reception, there is perhaps room also for a moderately dissenting voice; it is not as if anyone won over is going to have his or her mind changed by someone who failed to ‘get it’.

Effort has certainly been extended, by composer, production team, and performers alike, in transforming this enigmatic, fragmentary play into an opera. As is often, although far from always the case, that has involved an element of simplification. We have characters and a more concrete setting, the latter still at a relative level of abstraction and/or malleability. The same could be said of the former, barring the protagonist, Gwen, and her psychiatrist (one presumes), Lucy, and even they can come together in the mass of five voices so as to present something beyond, or perhaps before, mere individuality. The use of ensemble often works well, breaking down or not, as the case may be – not unlike what we see on stage. A central narrative is much clearer: if, in the play, we know where everything is heading, even without knowing that that was precisely where Kane’s life was heading, temporal sequence is perhaps clearer, or at least less fragmentary, which may or may not be the same thing.

There is genuine musico-theatrical imagination, arguably innovation, too. Use of titles to present unspoken or unsung thoughts and words is not unknown, often playing, as here, with mismatch between what we see and what we hear. Here, however, it often seems an especially apt response. If an oft-posed – too often, perhaps – question in opera, is ‘Why are they singing?’ then here one might ask, ‘Why are they not singing?’ Two percussionists in the ‘pit’ – actually above the stage, adding, alongside some of the multifarious musical styles employed, to something of a nightclub feel – correspond syllabically with each other, ‘their’ or rather the ‘characters’’ words ‘typed’ out below. Likewise the psychiatric test of counting down in sevens makes its near-deadly appearance on that wall of further action between instrumentalists and stage. There was certainly no gainsaying the excellence of the musical performances either. Gweneth-Ann Rand and Lucy Schaufer stood perhaps as first among equals, but this was a vocal ensemble to be reckoned with by any standards. Likewise the players of CHROMA under Richard Baker’s clearly expert direction proved a match for any new music ensemble. Without knowing the work at all, there seemed little doubt that we were hearing what we should, in duly incisive performances.

And yet, I had a nagging suspicion, sometimes more than that, that it was performative and production excellence that were pulling this together in the direction it wanted – or we wanted it – to go. Was there actually that much more to the mélange of sections of music, often perhaps on the verge of noise – a meaningful distinction or not? – here? After all, a confused barrage of sounds may perhaps lend itself a little too readily to depiction of or engagement in psychosis. What of the clichés of Bach quotation and a modernised – post-modernised? – early music ‘lament’? Perhaps, though, that is the point. I readily acknowledge that it might be. Is not treating operatic music simply ‘as music’ almost always to miss the point? As a scholar of Wagner and opera more generally, I can hardly deny that. Likewise to make comparisons to original source material; again, as a scholar and indeed devotee of… Perhaps, then, it was more of a matter of my not necessarily having ‘liked’ the often popular musical styles, whether taped (presumably) or live. Again, that may well be the, or at least a, point. It is hardly much of a criticism to say ‘I did not like that.’

Even, at a more fundamental level, my doubt as to how much of an opera this was, interest in the voice, whether ‘intrinsic’ or ‘dramatic’, not always immediately apparent, might well be answered with many historical and contemporary examples of that too being the point. I could not help but think of Stravinsky’s typically artful twin avowal and disavowal of participation in such debates: ‘The Rake’s Progress seemed to have been created for journalistic debates concerning: a) the historical validity of the approach; and, b) the question whether I am guilty of imitation and pastiche. If the Rake contains imitations, however – of Mozart, as has been said – I will gladly allow the charge (given the breadth of the Aristotelian word), if I may thereby release people from the argument and bring them to the music.’ Was I involved in the drama, wherever that lay? Yes. If so, does it matter what my ‘ideas’ of opera might be? Probably not. After all, there is, or at least was, a long operatic tradition, both non-Wagnerian and non-Stravinskian, in which ‘the work’ takes less than centre-stage, in which the performative, contingent element is stronger. Perhaps Venables’s opera, then, lies closer to Rossini and Donizetti than to those works with which I stand more at home, and therein lies my ‘problem’; perhaps that problem is mine, and mine alone.

My next London opera visit will be to hear George Benjamin’s new work, also from the Royal Opera. Who knows what that will hold? I suspect, however, based upon his first two operas, that it will prove more to my taste, perhaps to my understanding too.

Napolitano - 'Brahms the Progressive': Brahms, Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern, 25 April 2018

St John’s, Smith Square

Brahms: Six Piano Pieces, op.118
Berg: Sonata, op.1
Schoenberg: Six Piano Little Pieces, op.19
Webern: Variations for piano, op.27
Brahms: Four Piano Pieces, op.119

Pina Napolitano (piano)

It is sometimes difficult now to imagine a time when Schoenberg’s view of ‘Brahms the Progressive’, outlined in his celebrated radio broadcast, was not widely accepted. At least for some of us. I suspect, however, that the typical Brahms listener even now, safely ensconced for a comfortable couple of hours in the Festival Hall or the Musikverein, gives little thought to the implications of Brahms’s music, even continues to hear it as the end of a line. Would that more of those listeners might have had their ears and minds opened by Pina Napolitano’s St John’s, Smith Square recital: for Brahms’s sake, for that of the Second Viennese School, and above all, for their own. For the only disappointment of this lovely evening was how few people had attended. The ‘Schoenberg problem’ remains, to the intense frustration of his devotees.

An announcement was made at the start of the recital to the effect that Napolitano was unwell, suffering from a fever, yet would nevertheless perform. There was no doubt that she was indeed ailing; the occasional lack of energy – for instance, an op.118 no.3 Intermezzo that was some way from ‘Allegro energico’ – should doubtless be ascribed to that. Otherwise, the opening op.118 set of Piano Pieces had much to offer. A temptation to view them too much with hindsight, be it Schoenbergian, Schenkerian, or something else was resisted, motivic and other implications coming to the fore seemingly ‘by themselves’, however much artistry that concealed. A slightly slower than usual basic tempo for the second Intermezzo worked very well. It blossomed, moreover, as inner parts increasingly ‘took over’, harmony and counterpoint proliferating in a fashion one might call Schoenbergian, one might call Bachian, one might even call Mozartian: let us, however, ascribe it to Brahms. There was true subtlety of agitation in the third of the four Intermezzi (no.4), and likewise subtlety of sadness in the final piece. Nothing was overstated: instead, we were made to listen.

Berg’s Piano Sonata, his opus 1, benefited from similar clarity of line. Again, harmony and counterpoint proved inseparable, indissoluble: I had better stop there with my negative descriptions, lest I land myself in Moses und Aron – and/or Adorno. I very much liked Napolitano’s disinclination to turn this into some sort of ‘late Romantic’ farewell. Already, even at this stage of Berg’s career, we instead heard seeds of a Neue Sachlichkeit too little acknowledged in clichés concerning the most ‘Romantic’ of the Viennese Holy Trinity. If Berg is indeed the Son, that need not make us Arians.

Schoenberg’s exquisite op.19 miniatures followed the interval. A great strength of Napolitano’s performance was her ability both to hear and to communicate them as a whole. One utterance provoked another, in true dialectical necessity. By the time we had reached no.6, that magical evocation – in some sense – of the bells at Mahler’s funeral, this was a symphonic finale in itself. Lines might readily have been taken or developed from Brahms; and yet, the timescale is no irrelevance. We felt difference and distance as well as roots. Likewise in Webern’s Variations for Piano, op.27. Napolitano trod a fine line between Brahmsian roots and Boulezian implications. One felt time and time again the future calling – Webern as Boulez’s ‘threshold’ – and the potential for further development of the serial idea. And yet, equally apparent, with more or less equal strength – coexistence or conflict? – the deep rootedness of Webern’s music, at least as much as that of Schoenberg – in that of Brahms.

Returning to Brahms’s op.119 set, the three Intermezzi followed by that final, defiant Rhapsody spoke both of ‘lateness’ and of re-reading, re-listening in the light of what we had heard. Half-lights invited us to adjust our aural eyes: are they quite the same as ears? They invited us in, and yet reminded us of limits. Musical history, like history in general, is a complex dialogue. Direct ‘influence’ – ‘I wrote x because of y’ – is at best of limited interest. That is not how interesting music is written to, performed, or heard. Sometimes we need to go back to the beginning, wherever and whatever that might be; sometimes we should look elsewhere.

As if to acknowledge that, Napolitano offered Webern’s extraordinary little Kinderstück as an encore. This posthumously discovered work, from 1925, both denies and affirms what we ‘know’ about dodecaphony, about Webern, about serialism – chronologically or aesthetically. Napolitano’s loving performance – Webern teasingly marks it ‘Lieblich’ – treated it seriously, yet never starkly. At the close, Webern writes: ‘D.C. ad libitum’. Napolitano took the opportunity to play it one more time at least; the music is transformed in the light of hearing it again and yet anew. I should not have minded another da capo, yet it is always better to leave an audience wanting more. Moreover, there are, or should be, stringent limits when it comes to repetition, as any of these composers would have been the first to tell us.

Saturday 21 April 2018

LSO/Rattle - Grime and Mahler, 19 April 2018

Barbican Hall

Helen Grime: Woven Space (world premiere)
Mahler: Symphony no.9

London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

No doubting the important performance here: the world premiere of Helen Grime’s Woven Space, commissioned by the Barbican for the LSO and Simon Rattle. Alas, Rattle’s recent way with Mahler and indeed with much central repertoire prior to Schoenberg continued: not so extreme as some performances, yet still highly mannered, and for the most part lacking in direction. The Barbican Hall does not help, of course: too small, the sound constricted, yet another indication of why London so desperately needs a decent large concert hall. Yet that would not, could not have changed the fundamental problems with the performance, lapped up, needless to say, by the audience. I was left longing for something along the lines of Bernard Haitink with the same orchestra.

The good news, however, was very good. Grime’s piece, in three movements, had apparently been offered in a sneak aural glimpse last autumn, the first movement, ‘Fanfares’ heard at the opening of the LSO’ season. Its opening éclat, hard-edged (tuned percussion and strings in particular), even icy, yet inviting, proved not only to be éclat, soon developing, perhaps not entirely unlike later Boulez. At the same time, there is something fantastical to it too, almost akin to a tone poem in the Dukas line; her Virga, written for the same orchestra in 2007, performed again by them in February, did not seem so entirely distant in that sense at least. Tautness of rhythm, unity of purpose from Rattle and the LSO could hardly be faulted. Bells and solo cor anglais – I could not help but think of Berlioz – may not have been reducible to a narrative; nor, however, did they rule it out. For there are fanfares, certainly, but as part of something more, be it a narrative as such or something which, in performance, fulfils a similar function: perhaps the structure by Laura Ellen Bacon, a 2009 Chatsworth Park aenclosure within an enclosure, after which Woven Space is named. There is stillness too, unease, I think, and consequently something darker. Fascinating in its multivalence – again, perhaps not entirely unlike Boulez’s Notations, albeit with a smaller orchestra – it must have whetted the appetite for more in September.

More we now heard. ‘Woven Space’ is also the name given to the second of the three movements. It seems to pick up, loosely – not, I think, necessarily in terms of material as such – from the ‘uneasy’ section of the first movement. There are similar sonorities, ‘hard’ and ‘softer’, yet this is no mere repetition. I fancied, looking ahead aurally, that some of the string lines, whilst more tangled, might be hinting at late Mahler, but perhaps that was nothing more than my own personal fancy. At any rate, the harmonies have little in common. There is a strong sense of descent, in the sense of downward motion, played out amongst three competing choirs, distinct yet not unvarying: roughly, strings, woodwind and percussion, and brass. What initially seems to be the still heart of the work reveals itself to be at least as much its dramatic cauldron. I liked the way it simply stopped once it had no more to say: less shattering than Wozzeck – what is not?! – yet perhaps in its line. ‘Course’, the third movement, presents different motion and different forms of motion: upwards, this time, swirling and perhaps even swarming, yet with other forces competing against that primary tendency. At a certain point, the tension built up starts to dissipate, preparing the way for a telescoped, binding (that woven structure again?) conclusion that is no mere return. New lines, new developments open up, or seem to: the uncertainty is part, I suspect, of the fascination. Again, the music stops; again, we are left wanting more.

I feared the worst at the very opening of the first movement of the Mahler, yet once the second violins entered, Rattle engendered a far greater sense of momentum. Indeed, the unease that pervaded roughly the first half of the movement, pervading in particular its progress, was enlightening in its suggestion of the implacable. Mahler’s music was made stranger without merely sounding perverse. We were made to listen, especially in its hushed, liminal passages, their exaggerations notwithstanding. Ultimately, though, it became clear that these were more passages, even sections, of interest than building blocks within a structure, let alone dialectics within its formal elucidation. The sense of connection, however complex, Rattle had brought to the first half generally eluded him here. The dawn of the recapitulation sounded duly monstrous in its combination of beauty and ugliness; alas, its disintegration proved all too distended.

The second movement proved strong of heft, yet heavy, in more than one sense, in stylisation. Fair enough, one might say, and initially I did. But do we not need something behind the parody of a parody, perhaps of a parody? At best, some of the Schoenbergian transformation of rhythms – seemingly, intriguingly, founded in rhythm and then extending itself to melody – had one listen anew. In the absence of Schoenbergian, or indeed other discernible method, though, the performance began to sound merely bloated. There is much to be said for problematizing repertoire in performance; Boulez, for instance, often did just that. Yet Boulez’s clarity of purpose, whatever one might have thought of it and its underlying ideology, proved once again elusive here. Structure and form less dissolved – an enticing, almost Debussyan prospect – than lost their way. It was above all the loss of impetus that concerned most, far more than slowness of tempo as such. Alas, I remained resolutely unmoved.

The ‘Rondo-Burleske’ fared better, especially to start with, as if the music had come back into focus: not tamed, thank goodness, yet with a guiding thread to help us through the labyrinth. The LSO responded, so it seemed, in kind. Again, later on, there seemed to be some loss of way, yet to a lesser extent. And so, when the violins dug into the opening phrase of the final ‘Adagio’, it seemed to mean something. Rattle could not resist moulding the theme that emerged, yet not unreasonably so. He certainly did not take the easy way through this movement, which is to be applauded; its extremities were acknowledged, without abandonment of a sense of harmonic motion. A passage in which string vibrato was withdrawn made its chaste point; so too did the relative rarity of giving the strings their heard. If the final goodbye were perhaps unduly prolonged – it takes a Boulez not to succumb – then such a reluctance is eminently comprehensible. Even here, though, I longed for the relative straightforwardness of a performance Rattle gave with the same orchestra round about 2000. There is much to be said for letting musical contradictions overflow into performance; Mahler should never sound too easy, let alone bureaucratic. At the same time, however, his music too needs its ‘woven space’.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Philharmonia/Salonen - Biber, Beethoven, and Chin, 15 April 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Biber: Battalia à 10 in D major
Beethoven: Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36
Unsuk Chin: Le Chant des enfants des étoiles (European premiere)

Trinity Boys Choir (director: David Swinson)
Philharmonia Voices (director: Aidan Oliver)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)


Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’) Any connections between the first and second halves were not necessarily explicit; this was not an overtly didactic programme (nothing wrong with that, of course). Nevertheless, I fancied I could hear certain pitches, certain turns of phrases, perhaps even certain rhythms, in both; and even if I could not, contrasts fascinated enough.

There was no doubting the avant-gardism of either of the first two composers. Biber’s Battalia opened in lively fashion, soon displaying the composer’s seventeenth-century extended techniques – ‘extended’, by the standards of many a twentieth-century composer too – with col legno playing and foot stamping in its opening ‘Sonata’. Members of the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen offered a splendidly cultivated, non-puritanical sound. (Certain journalists, having learned of a thing called ‘performance practice’ do not like that. They need rules to help them deliver a ‘verdict’.) Then, to take us all by surprise, lest we latter-day Friends of Karajan were becoming too pleased with ourselves, an ‘older, more ‘fiddling’ sound catapulted us back through time to the bizarre, Ivesian quodlibet of ‘Die leideriche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor’, horribly hilarious in its ‘wrongness’. (Would we think so, though, if we had been told it were twenty-first-century music?) Virtuosic solo passages for Mars – Martian?! – a slow aria whose twists surprised as if they were Purcell’s, a battle in which the post-Montverdian stile concitato (and again Purcell) came to mind, and a touching final lament for ‘Verwundten Musquetirer’: these and much more were presented with a relished concision suggesting that Webern had better look to his laurels – that is, had the concert-going public ever permitted him to collect them in the first place.

I freely admit that I had not previously found Salonen’s Beethoven very much to my taste, nor, perhaps more to the point, to my understanding. This performance of the Second Symphony, also of course in D major, proved very different, making me keen to hear more. Where previously I had longed for a more modernistic approach such as I suspected might have been his, here it was: not for its own sake, but emerging from score and programming alike, almost as if a Michael Gielen for our times. The opening chord struck me with its rasping natural trumpets; otherwise, there was nothing – thank goodness – especially ‘period’ about this. Salonen even showed that it is perfectly possible to hear dialogue between first and second violins without placing them on opposite sides of each other. The first movement was lively in a different way from Biber, yet suggestive nevertheless of some sort of kinship. Most notable of all was the real sense of return at the onset of the recapitulation, of joy in a Haydnesque, even Handelian manner. The sheer character of the coda made me smile, as it stormed the heavens in a twenty-first century remodelling of ‘tradition’.

The second movement struck an excellent balance between neo-Mozartian flow and the ‘late’ Brahmsian future. Gorgeous, never narcissistic, richness to the inner parts proved an especial joys; as often with the Philharmonia, I could not help but notice the playing of the viola section in particular. Mystery and tension in the minor mode were palpable. This seemed very much a precursor to the ‘slow’ movement of the Eighth, even though I am not sure that it actually ‘is’. The scherzo was sprightly without tending towards brutality, as too often it can (say, in the worst of Karajan). Its musical roots were in Haydn, whilst the Trio peered forward, more ‘modern’ in material and formal instantiation. The finale proved more brazen even than in Gielen’s hands. Yet it still had plenty of time to display woodwind charm and colour. It had space and impetus – which brings us to the second half.

Chin’s Le Chant des Enfants des Etoiles, jointly commissioned by the LOTTE Group and the Philharmonia, had received its world premiere in 2016 from the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myun-Whung Chung, to whom it is dedicated. Written for children’s choir (here the outstanding Trinity Boys Choir), mixed choir (Philharmonia Voices, also on excellent form) and large orchestra, it reflects and even perhaps, whatever her intention or not, ‘expresses’ the composer’s longstanding interest in physical cosmology, setting related poems from writers ranging from Henry Vaughan (roughly contemporary with Biber, be it noted), through Blake, Octavio Paz, Shelley, to Edith Södergran, Fernando Pessoa, Juan Ramón Rimenez, Eeva-Liisa Manner, and others. The approach is not so literal-minded as to set them chronologically, but the work itself seemed both to reprise the exploratory historical path announced in the first half and to take it further, in dialogue with and yet not bound by those poems. Tension builds and eventually subsides, perhaps not unlike the life in each of us, every one a piece of stardust – or even of a star itself.

There was no doubting Chin’s grateful writing for voices, nor the intelligibility of most of the words. When one could not immediately discern them, it seemed that that was the point – or at least that intelligibility was not the priority. I was put in mind from time to time of Britten’s ability to write for a range of performers, not all of them professionals, not that, a prominent harp solo notwithstanding, the music sounded like his. Insofar as I could tell, the singers relished their task; such, at any rate, was the performative impression. I wondered whether the earliest sections trod water a little, but perhaps that was more a matter of my ears and mind taking time to adjust; having looked at the score since, I could not tell you why. At any rate, once the shimmering stardust really took flight – at least in my ears – it never looked back. An almost Messiaenesque ecstasy – not as pastiche, yet in spirit – was to be felt as well as heard. An organ cadenza seemed to usher in a world of experimental Gothic Romanticism: Prometheus unbound, or Unbound? Bells, a battery (Biber?) of percussion, gorgeous harmonies took us to climax, prior to a retreat, or perhaps better a twilight, the trebles intoning ‘M’illumino d’immenso’ in the final ‘Matin’. Was this work, was the programme as a whole, more than the sum of its parts? I am not entirely sure, and why should I be, after a single hearing? I tend, however, to think so. I should love to hear both again, if not to find out, then to further my thoughts on the subject. For art, like cosmology, is surely there to broaden our horizons, to stimulate us, not to provide an answer, nor to be ‘correct’.

Saturday 14 April 2018

Frederic Rzewski’s 80th Birthday Concert – Levit: Rzewski, Mendelssohn, and Mahler, 13 April 2018

Wigmore Hall
Rzewski: Ages (2017, world premiere)
Mendelssohn: Songs without words: op.19b/1, 4; op.38/6
Mahler (arr. Ronald Stevenson): Symphony no.10, ‘Adagio’

Igor Levit (piano)
With Dallapiccola I made a serious mistake. ... I missed a lesson because I had gone to visit some friends in London, and when I came back from London I found a letter saying that Maestro Dallapiccola felt that I was not the kind of student that he wanted, needed to work with, and would I please go somewhere else. And I realised that I had made a serious mistake ... I must have given the impression of arrogance ... And now, it’s one thing I’ve always regretted, because I certainly could have gotten a lot from that man if I had approached him correctly.
With those rueful, rather moving words, spoken in a 1984 interview, Frederic Rzewski described the foreshortening of his lessons from Luigi Dallapiccola. Reading them when writing a chapter on the latter composer’s Il prigioniero for my book, After Wagner, sparked my interest. The other principal spark, slightly later, came from the now celebrated recording and performances (such as this) of Rzewski’s The People United will Never Be Defeated by Igor Levit. Now, a little under three years later, Levit gave the first performance, on Rzewski’s eightieth birthday, of a similarly lengthy new piano work by the composer: Ages, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall with the support of Annette Scawen Morreau.
Size is not everything; in many ways, it is nothing. (Ask Webern – although concision there is, of course something.) It would nevertheless be vain to insist – and I shall not try – that the scale of canvas, the generosity and ambition of work and performance were irrelevant, for they were not. Ages seems in some sense to play – although the composer insists that ‘the music does not “mean” anything – with ideas both of the ages of man and ‘“ages” in the sense of epochs, or periods, of history: stone, ice, digital and so on’. In five movements, it would almost have made a concert in itself – although I am very glad that it did not, given the equally outstanding performances of Mendelssohn and Mahler following the interval.
The first movement, marked ‘Solenne, maestoso’ (according to the programme, that is: I have not seen a score), opened, both as work and commanding performance, with an opening blow, on the case and keys of the piano. Then came silence, followed by slow, diatonic chords in sequence (if I remember correctly!) Not for the first time late Liszt, in spirit although hardly straightforwardly in language or other musical writing, came to mind. A long diminuendo and responding crescendo led into a typically gestural, post-Webern splash, responded to in what sounded almost akin to Shostakovich-style humour. (Not for nothing, perhaps, has the pianist recently been devoting himself to Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues.) An aspirant tango came into aural view. And so on. I thought, here and throughout the work, of  a vast wall frieze – except that it passed us by, rather than vice versa. Maximalism of a kind and something more minimal, if not quite the latter’s –ism, played with each other, with us. Such, I think, was familiar from The People United; yet it was never quite the same, never retreading old ground. Moreover, Levit’s fullness of tone, whether in Rzewski’s furious outbursts or ‘maestoso’ progress, had to be heard to be believed. At one point, a slow, quiet phrase – perhaps foretelling the monodic lines of the Mahler Adagio in the second half – threatened to morph into the subject of the Art of Fugue. It did not; indeed, nothing one predicted ever quite happened. BACH? I think so, as indeed I would continue to think so throughout; but again, who is to say that certain intervals must refer to what we think they do? In some pieces, it is clear: here rather less so. Toys and whistles came and went, even old-fashioned video game (I think) cries and boings. I could not help but recall a notorious caricature of Mahler.
‘Free; slow, espressivo’ is the marking for the second movement. It seemed at times, especially to begin with, almost to be in the mould of a Russian mesto movement. Textures were very different, slowly transforming. Liszt, even Mussorgsky (‘Bydlo’) came to my mind briefly in the bass, the figure, whatever it ‘was’, swiftly transforming itself into a melodic (near-)sequence. Many such ‘Romantic’ gestures were to be heard, without suspicion of mere pastiche. Levit proved himself a handy percussionist, knocking on the piano’s case, in the third movement, marked ‘Robotic’. Such knocks eventually provoked, from underneath the keyboard, pitch resonances, returning him and us to the keyboard proper. There was something menacing, even dead, here to the knowing clichés: robotic, one might say. A cyber clockwork orange, perhaps? Moaning cries from the pianists, one suggestive perhaps of an air-raid signal, had one audience member seek refuge outside the hall. Our passions, of whatever sense, seemed momentarily united in the chorale, ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’. Was that Shostakovich again, not cited but suggested? Allusion or not? Figures we might have heard previously – the lack of certainty perhaps part of the point – led us into a lazy jazz ornamentation of Purcell’s Music for a While, which had, perhaps, been hinted at earlier. Coaxing that wonderful melody into a later, more chromatic pianistic world, Rzewski and Levit developed it in various ways, always at least a little surprising, whistled fragmentation included. There was even an organ-style ‘prelude’ to be heard. (Yes, I know that pianists used to ‘prelude’ too, but here the inner parts suggested a particular organist brand of legato, at least to this renegade organist.) A reckless cry of ‘Yee-ha!’ could not help but have political resonances as our ‘leaders’ prepared to bomb Syria.
The fourth movement, ‘Each note an age; glacial’, seemed aptly to have been around for a while (music for a while…) before it fully dawned upon us. At a (relatively) glacial pace, the music had me think once again about the question of certain intervals, their potential references, and how they might or might not fit together: Purcell and Bach in particular. Is an interval sometimes just an interval? Almost certainly. Quirky figures, perhaps self-consciously so, announced the final movement, ‘Too fast to last’, presumably in some sense the ‘digital age’. Levit’s digits certainly had a good deal of work to do here. I thought of Mussorgsky’s ‘Baba Yaga’, again from his Pictures. The wild woman eemed eventually to speak freely, but was that my fancy, my illusion? If this were a broken toccata, as I thought of it, by whom it had been broken? Ages were telescoping, perhaps telescoped. Repeated notes, fast, decreasing in volume, took us – or did they? – to a disembodied, again somehow Lisztian final chord.
The second part of the concert opened with three Mendelssohn Songs without words, heard in performances more delectable than I could ever have imagined. The E major piece, op.19b no.1, showed Mendelssohn to be every inch, every note the equal of Schumann. Likewise its successor, the fourth from the same book, revelling in the dignity of its harmonic progressions. A feather-light final phrase was simply to die for. It was again Schumann, if not quite, that I thought of in the ‘Duetto’, op.38 no.6. A good-natured contest between the world of the former’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien and a Lutheran, devotional character ensued.
Ronald Stevenson’s transcription of the first movement from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony fascinated; in Levit’s performance, it both thrilled and satisfied too. The opening, Parsifalian monody sounded almost as if in search of another Song without words, although it was soon clear that we were almost, yet never quite, in the world of Schoenberg. Without strings, Mahler’s harmonies perhaps sounded all the more radical, all the more of our time rather than his. (There need not be any such opposition; that, perhaps, is the more important point.) It was, at any rate, interesting to consider how much of a difference equal temperament made, or did not. Marionettes from the ‘Rückert’ symphonies and the Ninth’s ‘Rondo-Burleske’ did their thing as enigmatically as ever. When the monody returned, it was perhaps more suggestive now of Tristan; was that Mahler’s doing, his transcriber’s, his pianist’s, or the listener’s? Who knows? Such, in a sense, is the magic of music. I relished the way dances of death turned from Mendelssohn to Rzewski and back. Or did they? Were they deathly at all? A grand tremolo, perhaps inevitably, was employed for that horrendous chord. What else, however, could Stevenson have done? And again, there was something almost Lisztian to the serenity experienced in the shadow of that trauma. As ever, Mahler’s Adagio proved both complete, especially in so well-shaped a performance, and not. The next century of musical history was both immanent – and not. Mahler remains.

Thursday 12 April 2018

Hardenberger/ORF SO/Storgårds: Schuller, Zimmermann, and Dvořák, 6 April 2018


Gunther Schuller: Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee
Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Trumpet Concerto, ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’
Dvořák: Symphony no.9 in E minor, op.95, ‘From the New World’

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
John Storgårds (conductor)

Much – not all, but much – of the United States’s Western art music tradition is (Austro-)German in origin. ‘You would say that, wouldn’t you?’ might come the reply to someone awaiting publication of his Schoenberg biography. And yes, I suppose I should – yet not only on that count. Consider the (new) worlds of performance, composition, musicology, musical institutions: less so, now, of course, and rightly so; their roots, however, will often be found embedded in Teutonic soil. To appreciate that, one only need consider the childish, often downright bizarre anti-German sentiment encountered today amongst certain anti-modernist composers and musicologists alike. ‘I’m so daring to write/analyse a tune; Wagner/Schoenberg/Adorno/Stockhausen would never have let me do that.’ ‘Yes, neoliberalism has no tunes; you truly cannot move for total serialism in the world of the Culture Industry…’

Not that the traffic has ever been one-way, of course; more complex interchanges have deep roots too. George Whitefield Chadwick, trained in Leipzig and subsequently director of the New England Conservatory, which he re-organised on European lines, for instance instituting an opera workshop, pre-empted Dvořák’s use in his ‘New World’ Symphony of ‘negro’ pentatonic melodies in the Scherzo to his Second (1883-5) Symphony. Interestingly, however, Boston audiences reacted far less favourably than New York to Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, the critic William Apthorp notoriously decrying its use of ‘barbaric’ plantation songs and native American melodies, resulting in a ‘mere apotheosis of ugliness, distorted forms, and barbarous expressions’, He might have been a typical Viennese critic ten years later, fulminating against Schoenberg; racism, after all, is common to both attacks.

Here in Vienna’s hallowed Musikverein, home to more than one such attack in the past, we had a splendid opportunity to hear some of that more complex interchange. Gunther Schuller, born in Queens, to German parents, has always struck me, albeit from a position of relative ignorance, as an especially interesting example of a musician, both performing and compositional, able to straddle ‘jazz’ and ‘classical’ divides; not, of course, that such a ‘divide’ has ever been so clear as many, for varying, even opposed, ideological reasons, might have claimed. In the work heard here, moreover, he turned to Paul Klee (a Swiss painter, of course, whom many of us are fond, sometimes all too fond, of comparing to Webern). Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee was heard for the first time at the Proms three years ago (almost), under Oliver Knussen. It was a joy to reacquaint myself with the music, and not only to find my admiration for it undimmed, in so fine a performance as this, from the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and John Storgårds, but also to observe it so warmly received in the hall which, just over a century earlier, had played host to the notorious Skandalkonzert, at which anti-modernist protests against the Second Viennese School had landed some of the participants in court. (Would that… No, I had better stop there.)

The first movement, ‘Antique Harmonies’, certainly had an air of the undefinable antique to it. That can cover a multitude of sins and virtues, ranging from Debussy to Birtwistle; there is little point in attempting definition of such a ‘mood’ or ‘air’. Fineness of orchestral balance surely helped, though. The following ‘Abstract Trio’ seemed almost to take us from Schoenberg to Stravinsky; I even fancied that I heard premonitions of the later work of Boulez in its motivic working. Coincidence, doubtless, if indeed that, but intriguing nevertheless, for this Old World listener. The cool jazz of ‘Little Blue Devil’ seemed almost as distilled as Mahler does in Webern; it was also just as recognisable. Muted trumpet set up a connection with the Bernd Alois Zimmermann work to come. Febrile, seething, yes, ‘The Twittering-machine’ indeed, came next, with perhaps a little touch of post-Webern Klangfarbenmelodie. A flute solo from above (rather than off-stage in the conventional, unseen sense) beguiled in ‘Arab Village’: simple, yet never predictable, with a true sense of narrative, almost as in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. ‘An Eerie Moment’ lived up to its name too, Webern perhaps distilling Stravinsky’s Rite, prior to the unsettling – did it or did it not unify what had gone before? – ‘Pastorale’, which again benefited from expert orchestral balancing by Storgårds and his players.

Zimmermann’s hundredth anniversary falls this year. (Click here for my feature on the composer in the New York Times.) There is jazz inspiration to his trumpet concerto too, of course, as well as that of the spiritual, ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’. Zimmermann was adamant that the work, originally entitled ‘darkey’s darkness’ – thank goodness, from our twenty-first standpoint, that that was ditched – played with elements of progressive rather than ‘commercial’ jazz. I think that may be adjudged a perfectly reasonable claim. (We should always remain on our guard concerning what composers say their music may or may not ‘be’. Why might they be making such a claim?) So, at any rate, it sounded here, Håkan Hardenberger – who else? – joining the orchestra.

Varying ‘atmosphere’, almost as varying as that of the Schuller Studies, suffused this outstanding performance – played as the repertory work it almost is, and certainly should be. The long line, both for Hardenberger’s trumpet arabesques and for the orchestra, somewhere between ‘jazz’ and ‘symphonic’, was effortlessly maintained, or so it seemed – until, that is, it was no longer required. Controlled riot might then be the order of the day – or something else. Zimmermann’s later, more overt polystilism was almost there, already; perhaps it actually was instantiated, right there, right then. Rightly, neither score nor performance could be pinned down. And yet, there was ultimately, just as rightly, an almost Nono-like sense of bearing witness – even if one were never quite sure who, or what, the ‘subject’ might be. A hushed close did not comfort, nor should it have done.

And so, for the second half, we returned to the ‘New World’ Symphony, bastion of many a more conservative concert programme – despite its rocky initial reception in Boston. There was no routine comfort, however, to Storgårds’s performance. One really had the sense, as the cliché has it, that every note had been rethought – and it probably had. The introduction to the first movement sounded unusually dark, almost as if from Weber’s Freischütz Bohemian Woods. So did much of the rest of the movement, although the symphonic dialectic necessitating contrast, even at times negation, was not only observed but dramatised. Ultimately, a good deal of Brahms was revealed beneath the surface, although much that was not him, even opposed to him, too. Indeed, the contrast between first and second groups proved so great, especially in the exposition, as to sound almost Mahlerian. None of that was achieved at the expense of traditional lilt, which propelled rather than inhibited new worlds to come.

The second movement’s celebrated, all-too-celebrated cor anglais solo was taken beautifully, yet never just beautifully, likewise other solos. That Largo had all the time in the world to unfold, yet not a second more than necessary. It never forsook the quality of song, of Europeanised spiritual. Fast, insistent, almost brutally so, the Scherzo proved exhilarating, brought into still greater relief by (relative) woodland relaxation and charm. The finale proved a finale in the emphatic sense, as it must, with fury not only in the first but the second group too. Sometimes it can relax a little too much, but not here. Its dynamic telos was maintained until the end, as terse as the first movement, and yet, crucially, utterly different too. Brahms, again, remained, if never without ambiguity. This was a fine conclusion indeed, to an outstanding ORF concert. More soon, please!


Monday 9 April 2018

Parsifal, Vienna State Opera, 5 April 2018

Amfortas – Jochen Schmeckenbecker
Gurnemanz – Kwangchul Youn
Parsifal – Christopher Ventris
Klingsor – Boaz Daniel
Kundry – Anja Kampe
Titurel – Ryan Speedo Green
Squires – Rachel Frenkel, Miriam Albano, Wolfram Igor Dentl, Peter Jelosits
First Knight of the Grail – Benedikt Köbel
Second Knight of the Grail – Marcus Pelz
Flowermaidens – Maria Nazarova, Lydia Rathkolb, Rachel Frenkel, Hila Fahima, Mariam Battistelli, Stephanie Houtzeel
Voice from Above – Zoryana Kushpler

Alvis Hermanis (director, set designs)
Kristīne Jurjāne (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Ineta Sipunova (video)
Silvia Platzek (assistant set designer)

Children of the Vienna State Opera Opera School
Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Martin Schebesta)
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

Parsifal continues its strange career in the opera house, both its ‘home’, Bayreuth, and beyond – the ‘beyond’ Cosima Wagner haplessly, hilariously attempted to prevent with her Lex Parsifal. (Note to pious New York Wagnerians: next time you appeal to the Master’s alleged intentions, consider your house’s role in confounding them.) Wagner’s desire, as expressed to Ludwig II, to protect the work from ‘a common operatic career’ is understandable. Indeed, Pierre Boulez, a highly distinguished interpreter and critic of the work as well as compositional successor, understood this very well when he approvingly noted Wagner loathing a system in which ‘opera houses are … like cafés where … you can hear waiters calling out their orders: “One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!”’ Bayreuth has veered from the very best, indeed the very greatest, in Stefan Herheim, to the very worst, with Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s festival of Islamophobia, bizarrely released on DVD whilst its predecessor languishes in the (virtual) vaults. I do not think I saw Vienna’s previous Parsifal, directed by Christine Mielitz; at any rate, I have no recollection of it. This first revival of Alvis Hermanis’s production had me wondering, however, whether it could have been any more vacuous.

Hermanis would not be my choice to direct anything, whether for his avowed Islamophobia – how he must have cursed Laufenberg for getting there first – or for the limitations of his craft, such as it may be. His Salzburg Liebe der Danae combined the two to an uncommon degree. I am astonished any theatre or opera house would still enlist his services, following his storming out of Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre on account of its having extended a welcome to refugees. What we have here, at seemingly great expense, is a series of impressive designs – with which, to be fair, he is credited too – and very little that could really be considered a production at all. There is just enough – again, to be fair – to permit one’s mind to work, to posit connections between what one sees, essentially tableaux from Vienna 1900. Yet, whilst I am certainly in favour of us all having to do some mental lifting, I cannot, hand on heart, say that my psychoanalytical thoughts had their roots in what I saw, whereas they unquestionably have done in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s outstanding Berlin staging.

The conceit, if we may call it that, is that two Wagners, Richard and Otto, shared the same, well, surname. Therefore the action takes place at the ‘Wagner Spital’ – alias Otto’s Steinhof psychiatric hospital. I wondered whether there might be a nod to Nietzsche and/or Thomas Mann on Parsifal, here, but suspect myself, perhaps unusually, of undue charity. A model of the human brain grows larger, amidst some books on shelves: ‘Durch Mitleid wissend…’? There is a half-hearted attempt, which nevertheless made me think, at pschyoanalysis, Kundry on Klingsor’s couch, in the second act, although it quickly becomes unclear, rather than fruitfully ambiguous, who, if anyone, amongst the characters, is analysing whom. Bits of Wagner’s (Richard’s) poem are flashed up above the stage from time to time; having hired someone for video, it must, presumably, have been necessary to find something for her to do. (Not her fault in the slightest, I hasten to add.) As for the final scene, in which a few Vienna 1900 celebrities join the chorus, bedecked in the most absurd winged helmets you will ever have seen, even as devotees of ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’, I simply gave up. The stage direction itself might as well have been a wet Wednesday’s revival of Otto Schenk.

Fortunately, musical matters were considerably better. The orchestra sounded better than I have heard it in Wagner for some time. It will always play well for conductors it likes: I can therefore only presume that, quite rightly, it likes Semyon Bychkov. The seamlessness of Bychkov’s account showed that, once again, as in, say, his Lohengrin, his Tannhäuser, and his Tristan, he both discerns and can communicate the Wagner melos. Some passages were thrillingly dramatic, not least an overwhelming close to the second act. Others seemed, perhaps, to tread water a little, but that may just have been my difficulty in dissociating what I heard from what I saw. No one, however, could justly have been disappointed with what (s)he heard here, those hallowed Vienna strings not far from the top of their golden game.

However, rather to my surprise, I found Christopher Ventris slightly disappointing in the title role – certainly no match for his 2008 self for Herheim and Daniele Gatti. Ventris can still sing the role, often beautifully, but his stage presence seemed almost tired, whether compared with ten years ago in the same role or indeed with his Bayreuth Siegmund last summer. Perhaps he just needed stronger direction; one can certainly sympathise. Anja Kampe’s Kundry proved thrilling, increasingly so as time went on, her laughter at Christ erotically chilling. Kwangchul Youn’s Gurnemanz has gathered wisdom over the years; this may have been the finest I have heard from him, utterly at ease in the role, without taking a single note or word for granted. At times, I found Jochen Schmeckenbecker’s Amfortas a little underpowered, even monochrome, but again there was much to be savoured from his way with the text, both verbal and musical. Boaz Daniel’s Klingsor had one wishing, as so often with this role, that it were at least a little longer. Choral singing, from boys, men, and women alike was excellent: clear, transparent, and yet weighty, having my mind flit back to Wagner’s work in Dresden, whether on his own, strange Liebesmahl der Apostel, or Palestrina’s Stabat Mater (which he edited, less interestingly than one might have hoped). There was, then, redemption to be had, but in a strictly musical sense.