Sunday 27 May 2018

Philharmonia/Gatti - Mendelssohn and Brahms, 24 May 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Mendelssohn: Symphony no.4 in A major, op.90, ‘Italian’
Brahms: Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73

Philharmonia Orchestra
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

When I first heard Daniele Gatti conduct the Philharmonia, it proved, I think, to be the best Mahler Fifth I have been privileged to hear. I do not think I have heard them together since, although I have often heard them separately. It is clearly, however, a partnership that has continued to flourish; for six years on, almost to the day, Mendelssohn and Brahms received outstanding treatment too – in the in the latter case, a worthy successor to the performance I heard Gatti give with the Berlin Philharmonic last year.

It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Philharmonia’s woodwind that immediately caught my ear in Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony: as bright and fresh as a Titian expertly restored. ‘We were just starting for our second visit to Titian’s Assumption,’ wrote Fanny Hensel in a letter of 1830, ‘when we received Felix’s letter, advising us to see it often.’ It felt a little like having received that letter and indeed agreeing with what Hensel went on to say: ‘How pleasant it will be to have long talks about Venice with Felix!’ The strings, moreover, spoke with a depth of which Klemperer would have approved and yet with a translucency that was more of our time, almost Abbado-like. Gatti’s approach was, moreover, more flexible than Klemperer’s – at times, anyway. As the exposition and indeed the whole of the first movement progressed, what became more and more clear, though, was the crucial role played by motivic development of a depth and complexity one perhaps more readily associates with Brahms. (Klemperer would surely have admired that!) Indeed, in the development, the counterpoint quite rightly spoke of both Bach and Beethoven. The recapitulation arrived as if the crest of a rolling wave.

The second movement moved along swiftly without loss to the sense of a processional: somewhere between the melancholy Mendelssohn observed in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony and Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. There was naturally more than a little of the parallel movement in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony too. The balance between strings and woodwind is critical here; I am not sure I have heard it better judged or played. The opening of the minuet is tricky, yet did not sound here, its anacrusis leading us not only inexorably but lovingly. It was, rightly I think, more homage to than stylisation of Mozart; indeed, it seemed possessed of an ineffable vocal quality that yet could only ever have been rendered by instruments. (A voice can hardly ‘suggest’ a voice, at least in Classical-Romantic music; a violin can. The same is true, of course, vice versa.) Indeed the clarinet trills might have come from a sequel to Così fan tutte. My only reservation was a certain lack of contrast in the trio. There was certainly, however, contrast in the finale: a swirling dance of death, which yet heightened our awareness of a motivic method that often comes more to the foreground in Mendelssohn’s more ‘German’ woodland music. Style and idea are certainly not to be associated in Mendelssohn, but this came as a salutary reminder that the Italy we hear – even see – in this symphony remains a German, if Goethian Italy. This had the cumulative tension of the finest Beethoven and Brahms.

I am not sure how Gatti managed to convince from the very first line of the Brahms Symphony that it contained the seeds of everything to come, but somehow he did. I could not help but think of Giulini’s description of Furtwängler in Brahms, evoking the flow of a great river. (He referred to the Third Symphony, but surely it is just as true of the Second.) If ever a composer, perhaps other than Beethoven, were amenable to meaningful analysis of both a broadly Schenkerian and Schoenbergian bent, then surely it was Brahms. This, it seemed, was what we heard here, except in performance, and not just listening backwards: the potential was both harmonic and motivic, or rather, quite rightly, showing us the meaninglessness of any such distinction. (So yes, as usual: Schoenberg ultimately won.) Orchestral colour exuded a warmth that seemed to lie between the vernal and autumnal, without being of summer. In context, the first movement’s contrapuntal development seemed referred back to that in Mendelssohn’s first movement; yet we were equally aware that Brahms stood very much on the cusp of Schoenberg. His hand, retrospectively, could be heard perhaps still more subtly in the transformational genius of the recapitulation, where Brahms’s method sounded closer in spirit than mediocre ideologues such as Hanslick – is it really not beyond time to stop trying to rehabilitate him? – could ever have understood to Wagner and Liszt. A history of developing variation including both ‘sides’ has yet to be written – save, occasionally, in performance, and only then in performances of such quality as this.

The musical complexity even of the opening, almost Elgarian opening theme to the second movement was never undersold, yet it and its implications were presented directly, with none of the arbitrary fuss some conductors who, for the moment, shall remain nameless would bring to the music. We were led into a labyrinth by music and its performance, not imprisoned by a cage externally imposed upon them. Tonal Webern resounded – if only we had more occasion to hear Webern performed like this (or indeed at all!) This sounded very much like the second section of that Giulini-Furtwängler river: it had turned a corner, yet remained unquestionably the same work. Likewise for the third movement, its dances developmental and contrasted – and concentrated, Webernian again. Not that it was without shadows, indeed apparently tragic premonitions of the Fourth Symphony. We heard, it seemed, several intermezzi in one, sometimes simulatenously. The path, or rather flow, remained integrative, though: dialectical in the best sense.

Finale problem, what finale problem? Here Gatti and the Philharmonia – and, above all, Brahms – offered a masterclass in the unity of the vertical and horizontal, both motivically and in the longer term. Not that ‘analysis’, if that be the right word, whether for performers or listeners, was somehow ‘cold’ or ‘removed’. Why should it be? It was as dramatically charged in its teleology as any Beethoven. And was I imagining that I heard something of a Liszt-Schoenberg four-movements-in-one approach too (something that also has its roots in Beethoven, of course)? A hushed scherzo-ish passage proved suggestive, at any rate, of Beethoven’s Fifth. This is not a stand-alone movement, nor did it come across as such, but that complexity of dynamic form – that is, structure developed in actual time – reminded us vividly of a dialectical necessity for integration that will always require both further negation and integration. I have not re-read my review of the Berlin concert to which I provided a link; even if I had, it would not be possible for me to experience the performance itself once again. That, however, was unquestionably an attribute common to both performances. Trombones alone – not that they were alone! – would have told us much in that sense. What Boulez once observed of Schoenberg’s music, specifically in Moses und Aron – that one could sample its workings by taking a sample, like a cheesemaker tasting a slice from his cheese – was equally true here. The great thing about such a performance, both analytical and dramatic – the two depend upon each other, whatever anyone might tell you to the contrary – is that, whilst there will be more than one can ever take in, there is no need merely to take a sample.

(This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and will thus be available via the Radio 3 website for thirty days thereafter.)

Friday 25 May 2018

Clayton/Britten Sinfonia/Adès - Beethoven and Barry, 23 May 2018

Milton Court

Beethoven: Six Ecossaises, WoO 83
An die ferne Geliebte, op.98
In questa tomba obscura, WoO 133
Gerald Barry: Jabberwocky
Beethoven: Quintet in E-flat major, op.16

Allan Clayton (tenor)
Alex Wide (horn)
Timothy Rundle (oboe)
Joy Farrall (clarinet)
Sarah Burnett (bassoon)
Thomas Adès (piano)

As a whole, this concert proved a curious affair. It probably made more sense in the context of Thomas Adès’s series of Beethoven and Barry concerts with the Britten Sinfonia. The idea of a night off from the symphonic Beethoven to turn to chamber works was, in principle, a good one, but the sole Gerald Barry piece here seemed oddly out of place – and not in a productive, provocative way. Even the Beethoven pieces did not really seem to fit together especially well. A lovely performance of the op.16 Quintet nevertheless made the evening worthwhile.

The first half, however, put one in mind of that proverbial, clichéd curate’s egg. Adès walked onto the stage and apologetically informed us that two works had been added to the programme. Nothing wrong with that, although Beethoven hardly requires apology. The first was his Six Ecossaises, WoO 83, which many of us will recall from childhood piano lessons. Adès’s performance proved a curious mixture of the reticent – as though he would rather be playing the dances at home – and the heavy-handed. It became more flexible, to good effect, as it went on. Ultimately, though, little was made of these charming miniatures, whether individually or as a whole.

An die ferne Geliebte followed, Adès continuing to show a good deal of reticence, for most of the time very much the ‘accompanist’. Allan Clayton offered a sincere, verbally attentive performance until the final song, in which he sounded curiously harsh of tone, even hectoring. Still, there was a good deal to savour, for instance a true hint of sadness at the close of the fifth stanza of ‘Es kehret der Maien’. Adès seemed to come into his own as the cycle progressed. If he still came across as shadowing the singer at the beginning of ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’, his shaping of a minor-mode phrase at the end of the third stanza – ‘Klagt ihr, Vöglein, meine Qual’, offered just the sort of touching insight I had hoped he would bring to the music of a composer with whom he is not so obviously associated. The transition to the next song, ‘Diese Wolken in den Höhen’ was also skilfully handled.

The second additional work was In questa tomba oscura, WoO 133, Beethoven’s setting of a poem by Giuseppe Carpani, amongst other things an early biographer of Haydn (and royalist spy!) This proved a duly haunting performance of a song whose text has a man visit the grave of his beloved, albeit from the standpoint of the latter, who reproaches her lover for not having thought more of her whilst she was alive. Perhaps again Adès might have brought out the piano part more strongly. Beethoven’s harmonies nevertheless told – and there is much to be said for understatement. Clayton clearly relished its challenges, heightening without overstating its curious drama.

‘Curious’ is certainly a word to be applied to Lewis Carroll, and to Gerald Barry, let alone to their combination in Jabberwocky, commissioned and premiered by Britten Sinfonia in 2012. The idea of performing its nonsense words in French and German translation is typically brilliant – and makes just as much (non)sense as the original. Clayton’s declamatory performance perhaps inevitably put one in mind of Barry’s brilliant operatic comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. Alex Wide’s bizarre horn flourishes added another level to the studiously inexplicable entertainment unfolded. The song – should one call it a ‘song’? – seemed, almost in spite of itself, to grow, even to develop. And then it was over.

Additional wind players joined the ensemble after the interval for Beethoven’s Quintet for piano and wind instruments, op.16. It was the sheer gorgeousness of their sonorities that struck me first – and Beethoven at his most Mozartian (or, his tragedy, post-Mozartian). Balance with the piano here sounded much improved; there was greater impetus to the performance too. This is music that needs plenty of space, a grandeur of scale if you will, as well as chamber intimacy; it received both. The second movement was again well paced, its post-Mozartian sadnesses again given space to breathe, yet also to progress. Here, Adès could prove a little indulgent, his solo rubati occasionally puzzling; in concert, however, everything delighted. The hunting finale again summoned up Mozart’s ghost – as opposed to Haydn’s ebullience. Yet, quite rightly, not all was subtlety, not all was interiority. That balance and others were finely judged, in a performance of almost tiggerish enthusiasm.

Tuesday 22 May 2018

Voices of Revolution – Kuusisto/Philharmonia/Ashkenazy: Prokofiev, Exile and Return, 20 May 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Seven, they are Seven, op.30
Violin Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.19
Cantata for the Twentieth Anniverary of the October Revolution, op.74

David Butt Philip (tenor)
Pekka Kuusisto (violin)
Aidan Oliver (voice of Lenin, chorus director)
Philharmonia Voices
Crouch End Festival Chorus
Students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (military band)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

The Philharmonia’s ‘Voices of Revolution’ concert series, programmed in the wake of celebrations for the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, reached its climax with a performance of Prokofiev’s Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of that revolution. First, however, we heard two highly contrasted works by the composer from 1917 itself: the much shorter cantata, Seven, they are Seven, and the First Violin Concerto (on whose material he had begun work two years earlier).

Seven, they are Seven (Semero ikh) received an exhilirating performance under Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor of the entire series, joined by the equally fine David Butt Philip, Philharmonia Voices, and Crouch End Festival Chorus. Talk about starting in medias res! Here was a Russianised hymn to Mesopotamian paganism such as few of us, however feverish our imaginations, might otherwise have imagined, albeit with a materialist, nihilist bent the performers could not and should not shake off: the Scythian Suite rendered choral and, somehow, both more and less austere. Prokofiev’s clamour for a spirit world in which he clearly did not believe – hints of something later in the programme, or not? – looked forward to The Fiery Angel, and perhaps even beyond. Perhaps, though, the deepest, darkest music came with the relative hush towards the close: ‘Spirit of Heaven, conjure them’.

That Silver Age dying away into nothing seemed apt preparation for the Violin Concerto’s celebrated silver opening. ‘Febrile’ is a word I am sure I overuse. It is difficult, however, not to resort to it in describing Pekka Kuusisto’s performance, full of the most intense – perhaps, for some, too intense? – variegation in articulation and phrasing. Unfashionably, I have always preferred the concerto’s G minor successor; if this performance did not change my mind, it came closer than most and, indeed, seemed almost to highlight what the two works have in common rather than what distinguishes them. Moreover, its side-slipping harmonic progressions, especially in the first movement, seemed almost to incite metrical equivalents. The second movement proved truly a twentieth-century scherzo, with the musical – and technical – consequences implied. Bitter-sweet lyricism and much else one could imagine, whether a priori or a posteriori, characterised the finale. Kuusisto’s despatch of Prokofiev’s double-stopping was despatched with almost diabolically casual ease, he and Ashkenazy shaping and characterising the movement to a tee. Kuusisto’s encore improvisation on a Russian folksong, ‘Midnight in Moscow’, was perhaps for fans only – but he clearly, far from unreasonably, has a good few of them.

Then came the Cantata grand finale. Ashkenazy seems to have had it about right in an interview with The Daily Telegraph – remember when that was still occasionally a serious newspaper? – in 2003, telling Geoffrey Norris that the composer had ‘kind of welcomed what was happening in Russia and wanted to see the brighter side. He didn't want to see the tragedy. With this welcome back into his country, he felt he should do what the country wanted him to do.’ More specifically concerning the Cantata, Ashkenazy continued, ‘it wasn't … an obligation ... Some people say that he wanted to mock, but I don't think so. It's a great piece, one of his greatest achievements. His attitude was just to go along with the general flow.’ It is a fascinating piece, certainly; I am not entirely convinced that it was one of his greatest achievements, but it is far, far too good not to hear. And how the world has moved on since that interview: bar a few irreconcilables on the Right, we are mostly communists again now, albeit of very different stripes, from ‘fully automated luxury queer space’ to something a little more traditionally Stalinist. If the point, as Marx maintained in his Theses on Feuerbach, as heard here, were not just, as philosophers had done, to interpret the world, but to change it, then the progress socialism has made in just the last few years augurs well indeed. It still seems a little odd, perhaps, to watch a Festival Hall full of Home Counties concert-goers, celebrating Leninism, but none of them seemed to have a problem with doing so. Good for them, for who, in what is also Marx 200 year, is not now in some sense a Marxist? At any rate, surely none of us would have the grimly negative imagination – or perhaps you would? – to dream up a neoliberal cantata celebrating, say, Hayek, Thatcher, and May: perhaps one of those curious ‘Hecklers’ who once disrupted Birtwistle performances? Trump, perhaps, albeit in a gaudier, more ironic fashion: perhaps a commission for Helmut Lachenmann. As for a Blairite Third Way

The opening sounded as if a socialist realist-ish Boris Godunov, the Philharmonia brass commendably ‘Russian’ in tone, albeit without raucousness. Whether that lack of roughness were an entirely good thing one may wonder; it is certainly Ashkenazy’s way. Listening afterwards, for instance, to Valery Gergiev in Rotterdam, I found more variety, perhaps something deeper, but it would be churlish to complain unduly, in what remained a highly accomplished performance. For Prokofiev’s late (late for him, that is) modernistic fragmentation retained degrees both of revolutionary disconcertion and of traditional grounding: surely Beethoven’s Ninth in the cellos that prepare the way for the choral entry: ‘massive’ here in every respect. Frozen, then thawing strings seemed also to pave the way for the ‘patriotic’ world soon to come, of Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. Russia or socialism? You decide – or rather, Stalin will. Factory metal resounded, a reminder, perhaps of Mosolov, heard earlier in the series?

The lack of belief, in a strict sense, is quite different here from that of Shostakovich, and sounded as such. Whatever we think of the latter composer as ‘dissident’ or anything else, Prokofiev’s personality, musical and political, was of a very different nature, as side-slipping as those harmonies, which is not to impute cynicism, but perhaps to return us to Ashkenazy’s observations. (He, after all, unlike most of us, lived in the USSR.) And, just as in the Violin Concerto, Cinderella called too. There are no straight lines to draw in Prokofiev’s career; he did not come to write as he later did only on account of ‘external’ pressures. For there was belief of a sort: on hearing ‘We vow to you, Comrade Lenin…’ we did – if only, to quote Ashkenazy, ‘kind of’, at least whilst in thrall to Prokofiev’s stream of consciousness. Deafening: almost. Extraordinary: certainly.

Sunday 20 May 2018

Madama Butterfly, Glyndebourne, 19 May 2018

Glyndebourne Opera House

Pinkerton – Joshua Guerrero
Goro – Carlo Bosi
Suzuki – Elizabeth DeShong
Sharpless – Michael Sumuel
Cio-Cio-San – Olga Busuioc
Cousin – Jennifer Witton
Cio-Cio-San’s Mother – Eirlys Myfanwy Davies
Yakuside – Adam Marsden
Aunt – Shuna Scott Sendall
Imperial Commissioner – Michael Mofidian
Official Registrar – Jake Muffett
Bonze – Oleg Budurtaskiy
Prince Yamadori – Simon Mechlinski
Sorrow –Rupert Wade
Kate Pinkerto – Ida Ränzlöv

Annilese Miskimmon (director)
Nicky Shaw (set designs)
Mark Jonathan (lighting)
Kally Lloyd Jones (movement)
Ian William Galloway (video)

Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Nicholas Jenkins)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Omer Weir Wellber (conductor)

‘Picture it,’ as senior Golden Girl, Sophia Petrillo used to say. ‘England, 19 May 2018…’ An audience found itself enthralled by the marriage of an impressive woman to a privileged man, impeccable and dashing in his military uniform, from another nationality and ‘race’. They wished her well in this fairytale, investing their hopes, personal and communal, in the success of their union, even as some of their number risked spoiling the party by exploring a little of the history of this meeting of cultures. All the while, the mediating moneymakers – well, they made money. Would it last? Were some of them/us already gearing up to be thrilled by its potential difficulties, failures, even tragedy? From Windsor Castle, then, to the Sussex Downs did not seem too lengthy a journey – I saw signs at Clapham Junction for the latter, as I found my platform for the latter – especially for a festival opening for which the not-quite-so-great-and-good-as-would-have-resulted-in-an-invitation-to-the-reception were naturally out in force.

Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Madama Butterfly, Glyndebourne’s first, has been seen previously on the 2016 tour, but this was its first appearance at the Festival proper, and my first encounter with it. It would be considered reasonably straightforward for most composers, bar the ‘updating’ – must we continue to use that dated word and idea? – to the 1950s, yet for Puccini, who perhaps suffers more than any other opera composer from a surfeit of reactionary stagings, probably marks quite an important step. It is not Calixto Bieito, nor would one expect it to be. What we see, however, portrays the drama, both a clash of cultures and expectations on anything but a level playing-field and a very personal tragedy, with unfailing intelligence and emotional commitment. I liked it – and the stage performances – very much, and responded pretty much how I ‘should’, whilst being provoked to think rather more than I often have been.

What comes across very strongly from the outset is that, whatever the exalted setting – be it a royal castle or an opera stage – and the undeniable personhood of the sacrificial victim, there is something distressingly typical about the story and the social structures that give rise to it. Cio-Cio-San is placed explicitly in a line of geishas, ‘married’ off to their respective ‘husbands’, educated onsite at the marriage bureau by the slide show, ‘How to be an American wife’, a ready source of income for the grubbily venal Goro. (He returns at the close of the first act to count his money.) A neon-lit HOTEL stands next door, for ease of consummation; or rather, the bureau stands next door to it, for ease of commerce. The overweening arrogance of Pinkerton is his personally and culturally: not just the cigarettes he smokes, but his – in context – shocking act of forcing a horrified Cio-Cio-San to toss her bouquet behind her. She does not understand, nor do the girls behind her, who dart away from it. It is cultural misunderstanding, yes, but from a man and a culture – a gender too – which, holding all the cards, have neither need nor wish to understand. Perhaps he does, a little; he too, after all, is ultimately ordinary, nothing special. (Unlike his ‘bride’, he remains that way, resolutely untransfigured, untransfigurable.) There are a few little signs of such, and, in the duet with which the first act closes, he shows her a degree of kindness, or at least of toxic masculine, Yankee concern. He is, however, a colonial tourist and overlord – and will remain so. So says the score too, of course, as Puccini subjects the Star-Spangled Banner to further exploration than one might innocently expect. In Madam Butterfly, we are all robbed of whatever innocence we may fondly delude ourselves we possessed in the first place.

The second act, tellingly, shows us an American house, set in a Japanese – or, rather stylised, orientalised ‘Japanese’ – landscape. There is no doubting Butterfly’s – sorry, Mme Pinkerton’s – belief and pride in her new situation, whatever the parlous financial situation of which Suzuki informs her. She smokes American cigarettes too now, or claims to; she proudly offers one to Sharpless, and discreetly chokes on hers. Prince Yamadori was surrounded by Americans as well as ‘natives’, when he paid her a visit: he is the compromising member of a colonial elite one would expect. Much is done with light, much is done with designs, costumes included; she is dressed as an American woman too. Until the end, that is, when to die in honour, she dresses, tragically and yet not without her hallmark pride, as the Japanese woman she has, perhaps, always known herself to be. And her son, little Sorrow, plays with a model of an American gunboat, as he waits for his father – and as his mother kills herself. Throughout, the tragedy is intensely personal and intensely imperialist.

In the title role, Olga Busuioc impressed greatly, especially during the second and third acts, when she seemed more at ease in the role. (This was, after all, an opening night.) As Alexandra Wilson writes in her programme note – and this goes for so much Puccini in general: think what we actually see and hear first-hand in La bohème! – ‘one of the particular strokes of brilliance about the opera is the way in which Puccini manages to trace the development of … [her] personality so vividly and perceptively across the span of a comparatively short opera.’ That needs performative brilliance too, which one certainly received later on, the dynamic scale of her vocal contribution not the least of her dramatic tools. Elizabeth DeShong made for a kindly yet – again – proud Suzuki. If I am rehearsing colonialist stereotypes, what else is one to do in such an opera? Perhaps the best we can hope for is to do so with a degree of critical awareness, unless, that is, we are puritanically to consign this and so many other works to the dustbin of history – and then remain with what?

Joshua Guerrero portrayed Pinkerton to a tee: his easy, false charm, his arrogance, and yet, a hint of the ambiguous, albeit quotidian devil to him too. (The pantomime booing he received was, as ever, deeply regrettable. Can we not put a stop to that, right now, please?) Carlo Bosi made us loathe the shallow evil of the aforementioned Foro, whilst Michael Sumuel did an excellent job as the duly compassionate – up to a point: repeat, up to a point – Sharpless. Indeed, every member of the cast impressed, and contributed to a greater whole; I noted, especially, Michael Mofidian’s Imperial Commissioner, Oleg Budartaskiy’s Bonze, and, as much in stage beaing as in voice – for, as one always rediscovers, she has so little to sing – Ida Ränzlöv’s Kate Pinkerton.

The London Philharmonic clearly relished playing Puccini’s score. (Which orchestra would not?) String sheen and more general tonal allure were not purchased at the expense of incisive drama: quite the contrary. I could not help but wish that it had been given its head a little more often by Omer Meir Wellber, but perhaps that was his point. If he did not always communicate the quasi-symphonic form of the musical work as strongly as he might have done, with a consequent lack of dramatic impetus at times. For the most part Wellber showed himself a good accompanist, more often than not alert to the ebb and flow, often a little reticent and sometimes even sluggish. In Puccini, just as in Wagner and Strauss, the relationship between orchestra and singers is not, or should not be, a zero-sum game: attention paid to the one should heighten our attention to the other. More of that will probably come, though, as the run progresses. This remained, by any standards, an impressive opening night for the 2018 Glyndebourne Festival. For those, moreover, who cared to think, it may have had a good deal still to tell us about our own hopes and fears, about our own prejudices and our struggles, however vain, to surmount them. As Carl Dahlhaus once observed, ‘it is precisely in order to radicalise conflicts — so that “resolutions” are ruled out — that dramas are written; if not, they would be treatises.’

Wednesday 16 May 2018

Lessons in Love and Violence, Royal Opera, 15 May 2018

Royal Opera House

King – Stéphane Degout
Gaveston, Stranger – Gyula Orendt
Isabel – Barbara Hannigan
Mortimer – Peter Hoare
Boy, Young King – Samuel Boden
Girl – Ocean Barrington-Cook
Witness 1, Singer 1, Woman 1 – Jennifer France
Witness 2, Singer 2, Woman 2 – Krisztina Szabó
Witness 3, Madman – Andri Björn Róbertsson

Katie Mitchell (director)
Vicki Mortimer (designs)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Joseph Alford (movement, associate director)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
George Benjamin (conductor)

Girl (Ocean Barrington-Cook), Isabel (Barbara Hannigan), King (Stéphane Degout), Boy (Samuel Boden)
Images: © ROH 2018/Stephen Cummiskey

If Harrison Birtwistle remains acknowledged as England’s greatest musical dramatist since Purcell, then Lessons in Love and Violence may well come to be seen as the work with which George Benjamin mounted his challenge. There is no reason, of course, why such matters should be adversarial, and such is hardly Benjamin’s style, whatever the grisly subject matter of his third opera. He is more someone to knock on the door, enter and delight us with what he brings to the party, without any need to elbow anyone aside. Let us instead rejoice in the creation of another masterpiece, darker and perhaps deeper still than Written on Skin. (Not, of course, that we should forget Benjamin’s first opera either: the wonderful Into the Little Hill.)

As you will doubtless know by now, Benjamin has been reunited with Martin Crimp for this, Crimp’s third libretto, and Katie Mitchell, who directed the excellent first staging of Written on Skin, and who has also worked with Crimp on his other theatrical works, has rejoined the team too. This seems, almost a priori, to have given rise to a degree of ennui in certain quarters. (I have tried to avoid hearing what others have thought about the work, but have not been entirely successful.) One objection seems to have been ‘more of the same’, more or less. I can only presume that the same people would have regretted Mozart’s decision to ‘pursue a collaboration’ with Lorenzo da Ponte after Don Giovanni, perhaps even after Figaro. After all, one often hears the most ridiculous nonsense spoken of Così fan tutte. But there is no reason to be defensive here; I only mention the matter since, for better or worse, it is being spoken of already. Upon leaving the theatre, I hastily typed an ‘instant reaction’ tweet, even, for once, remembering to use the ‘hashtag’: ‘#ROHLessons is a towering masterpiece, its intellectual brilliance and sensual wonders matched, at the very least, by its emotionally overwhelming dramatic path. Drained and satisfied as if by Wozzeck or Katya Kabanova; or, the work that increasingly came to mind, Boris Godunov.’ I have no argument with that almost a day later, and shall try to explain why.

Are such comparisons less odious than ridiculous? Perhaps. Not entirely, though, since I think this is how we often approach new works, not least in so repertory-bound a genre as opera, perhaps especially with a house and company such as the Royal Opera (House). They are far from exact and the tragic trajectory is not the same; here, in the story of Edward II, it is nicely doubled at the end. Essentially we see (and hear) here Edward’s (never, I think named as such) inability to say no to his lover, Gaveston, resulting in the banishment of the clever, unscrupulous politician, Mortimer, who returns, having manipulated the people to his end, to restore himself in something equivalent to a queen’s coup, ridding the court and realm first of Gaveston and then of the king. But the young king, again not named as Edward III, having watched, with his sister, everything unfold, including that violence which is often yet not always subtly hinted at or stylised, turns upon the usurpers and truly becomes king himself.

Boy, Girl, Isabel

Tragedy or restoration? That rightly does not quite seem to be the question, just as that bald outline omits the mess of motivations that characterises this horrible, political world. Much is hinted at, there for one to join the dots, but much is portrayed too. The audience member is, rightly or wrongly, treated as an intelligent human being, a participant, not a consumer of Verdi or other tedious kitsch. It is certainly not so straightforward as portraying a situation in which no one is sympathetic. Rather, as in ‘real life’ – and what, alas, could be more real than our present, not so different high or low ‘political’ life? – motivations are complex, contradictory, and, between characters at least, irreconcilable. Such is surely not the least of the lessons of love and violence that unfold – whether one does not believe in love, as Mortimer, or in violence, as the younger young king does not, yet must. Mortimer, after all, schools him, too, perhaps better than he intended. Likewise, Isabel seems – perhaps is – wronged at the start; we can understand why she, a mother and a wife as well as a queen, acts as she does. Yet she is far from white to start with; in her aestheticism – her love of music and her chilling dissolution of a pearl in acid, a pearl that would have given houses to petitioning subjects – she actually seems a good, or rather deadly, match to her husband, as well as a potential rival to Gaveston. There is horror, too, in her children turning upon her, however deserved that turnaround might be.

But we must return to music, so beloved of these unpleasant people, yet puritanically or sadistically prohibited by the Young King. (Or so he claims: we never quite know the truth of many claims, for who is narrating? We almost seem to know better in the play within a play, that of David and Jonathan, in which Isabel almost literally begins to call the shots, and in the non-musical reprise of such ‘entertainment’ which is threatened, and yet which turns out to be ‘real’, a tortured Mortimer about to be shot dead by the Young King’s sister.) Yes, we must, that too lengthy parenthesis notwithstanding. For it is music that seems – apparently or otherwise – to structure the words and the drama, or perhaps to re-structure them. It is music that creates them, in many ways, regardless of empirical priority. It also creates, and is created by, the situation: its colour, its tensions, its possibilities. ‘It’, whatever it may be, is always, ultimately, about the music; for when the music stops, so does the opera. Perhaps that has always been Isabel’s fear: the fall of the curtain. Mitchell certainly seems to hint at that, but so do Benjamin and Crimp – and, of course, the outstanding cast and orchestra.

Madman (Andri Björn Róbertsson) restrained, Queen, Girl, Boy, Mortimer (Peter Hoare)

Benjamin’s ability to create a sound world has always been one of his hallmarks; in that sense I could not help but think of Janáček and Mussorgsky, both in general and in particular, as mentioned above. Yet, as with those composers, it is certainly not a matter of simply providing atmosphere, a setting, although that certainly is created. Just as Vicki Mortimer’s plush, power-dressing – dressing itself becomes, in true royal fashion, almost a ritual in itself – claustrophobic designs, both for sets and costumes, provide a framework, both to contain and to be broken by the action, so do timbres, often in combination, and harmonies, likewise. There is almost infinite variegation within. The old problem, almost yet not quite Schoenbergian, of reconciling musical antimonies between freedom and determinism, gains new clothes – aural and visual. And the inevitability of the action, at least viewed from the close, of what has happened, takes upon itself an almost Bergian thrust, not least through the characters of and connections between particular scenes. The orchestra follows Benjamin, whether as composer or conductor; or rather, it leads the action with all the confidence and, more to the point, understanding it might once have shown Bernard Haitink in Wagner. And, as with Wagner, still more so with the Debussy of Pelléas, so much action, so much of the truest, wordless action, occurs in the interludes, the transformations between scenes. It is perhaps in those, as in Pelléas, that the stature of Benjamin as a musical dramatist is most immediately manifest.

Or does it? Does the orchestra lead? Do not the singers? Yes, they do too. There is much leadership: too much in the plot, just enough in performance. For song, or at least singing, is crucial to this opera; it is certainly not to be defined as a ravishing, horrifying symphonic poem with voices, although it is perhaps partly that. Benjamin and his co-creators and co-performers refuse the either-or that many of us, seeking for a way in to account for our reactions, would seek to foist upon him. There is drama in melisma: what could be more traditionally operatic than that? There is drama in the entwining and the opposition of melisma? Again, what could take us back more closely to that first zenith of the genre, to Monteverdi? Perhaps the encounter between Isabel and Gaveston, in which she verbally bids him come closer to her, that she might also come closer to the King (who remains distant on stage), is most instructive of all here, for it expresses and creates a musico-dramatic situation more complex than, and still more deadly than, the duet of two baritones so full of sensual delight between the king himself and his lover. Both, and other duets and ensembles, are necessary of course, in the structuring of the drama, just as in the still sorely misunderstood Così. Post-Mozartian Harmoniemusik occasionally seemed to make that point, at least to me; likewise the haunting death rattle avant la lettre emanating from harps and cimbalom, as the Stranger took the King’s life in his cell. The King thought this stranger was Gaveston; so did we, even though he told us he was not, and Gaveston was dead. One could hardly fail to think of the careful, meaningful symmetries of Lulu.

Isabel and Mortimer

And, as with Mozart, although whether through design or through the sheer excellence of these artists on stage, one had the sense that the roles had been written with them in mind. They were, of course, for Mozart, but here, who knows? We are not so much concerned with process, as with each artist having inhabited his or her role. Stéphane Degout’s velvet tones cloaked the impetuous, arbitrary deeds of a weak tyrant, who was also a wronged and wronging man. One made no distinction between role and performance; he simply was the King. So too, and increasingly so, as her role came into focus, was Barbara Hannigan, as his consort. That she played so well in the initial background speaks just as well of her as the display of that extraordinary ability we all know and love – think, for instance, of her Ligeti – to encompass so many modes of vocal delivery within a single line that remains spun from the same silk. Gyula Orendt’s seductive, nasty, manipulative way with Gaveston mirrored and contested the politician’s path of Peter Hoare’s clever, calculating, just as (in)human Mortimer. Not the least of the evening’s performances was the coming of age through politico-emotional stunting of Samuel Boden’s Boy and Young King. Dressed like a boy, he acted unerringly like one too: almost a Prince William, whilst Diana was still around, or shortly after. Ably assisted by his sister, Ocean Barrington-Cook (a mute role), the crown was, again if only in retrospect, his for the taking – once he had learned his deathly lessons. Smaller roles were all very well taken, by Jennifer France, Krisztina Szabó, and Andri Björn Róbertsson: suggestive of a greater number of voices and faces than was actually present, drawn, as it were, as if from an imaginary chorus.

Isabel, King, Gaveston (Gyula Orendt)

For, as in Boris, we observed and felt the people’s grief, feared equally for what we knew to be their largely hopeless future. As the Third Witness had accused the Queen, in a shocking intrusion, orchestrated by Mortimer, into her chamber, the poor had no choice, unlike the decadent rich, to sleep three to a bed. The miracle here was that fury, both external and internal to the drama of princes and nobles, manifested itself through three single voices, an orchestra, and, not least, an endlessly inventive, supportive, and questioning production. Mitchell too did the work the necessary honour of treating it as a mature drama, as she had in Written in Skin; this was not something to be introduced, hesitantly, but to be directed with the critical modernity she would bring to any other work. This may be a quiet operatic manifesto; such, as discussed, is Benjamin’s way. It may even be a manifesto without intention to be a manifesto. Perhaps that makes it all the more convincing, all the more accomplished.

BERGfrühling (4) and (5) – Dvořák, Berg, Schumann, and Schubert, 12 May 2018

St George’s Parish Church, Sternberg, and Alban Berg Saal, Carinthian Music Academy, Ossiach

Dvořák: String Quintet no.2 in G major, op.77, for string quartet and double bass

Berg: Four Pieces for piano and clarinet, op.5
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E-flat major, op.47
Schubert: Octet in F major, D 803

Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Sylvia Careddu (flute), Alexander Neubauer (clarinet), Ariane Haering (piano), Sebastian Gürtler, Régis Bringolf (violins), Subin Lee (viola), Florian Berner (cello)), Rya Yoshimura (bassoon), Peter Dorfmayr (horn), Ivan Kitanović (double bass)

This year’s BERGfrühling closed in style with two final-day concerts: one at the lovely little Parish Church of St George, Sternberg/Strmec (in this part of Carinthia, one is very close indeed to Slovenia), the other back at Ossiach Abbey, now the home of the Carinthian Music Academy. At the former, we heard Dvořák’s Quintet, op.77, the little church full to the rafters. I found a place up in the organ loft, from where I could look – and listen – down to an equally lovely performance. I was struck immediately by the richness and sheer physicality of the string tone, the first movement, like its successors, proceeding at a well chosen tempo, with a fine sense of motivic cohesion and harmonic impetus. It thus perhaps sounded closer to Beethoven than one often hears, and was certainly none the worse for that. Not that ‘Bohemian’ lyricism was lost, far from it. Indeed, ‘local’ dance rhythms and melodies were transmuted into something more universal, nowhere more so than in the scherzo. Darker undertones were given their due, especially by the viola and cello. The melancholy lyricism of the third movement was permitted to speak, even to be savoured, without indulgence. An intangibly – sometimes tangibly too! – integrative finale again relied on motivic cohesion, or rather on its communication to round things off in duly good-natured style. Then it was out of the church for a little tasting of local produce.

Back in Ossiach, Berg, Schumann, and Schubert concluded the festival. I do not think I have heard a better performance of the Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, op.5 than this, from Alexander Neubauer and Ariane Haering, both musicians clearly in their element. The first piece exuded Schoenbergian lyricism, horizontally and vertically: paradoxically perhaps – or not – given its tendency to aphorism. (Schoenberg could write aphoristically too, of course. When he and Berg do, it is striking how little they sound like Webern!) Weighting and tone quality sounded just right, an integral part of the work’s performance. A more fragmentary Busoni – the Busoni of, say, the Sarabande and Cortège – came to mind in the second piece, its line as long, or so it seemed, as those of the Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet heard the previous day, yet endlessly variegated too. The third piece, ‘Sehr rasch’ was sardonic, yet lightly rather than aggressively so: a Mahler movement telescoped, not unlike Webern perhaps in conception, and yet still very different in practice. It was a very different radicalism we heard in the final piece, imbued with an unmistakeably Bergian nostalgia, and yet related nevertheless, almost mystically, to Wozzeck too. Violent and serene, there were dialectics aplenty here.

Schumann’s Piano Quartet seemed to take leave from late Beethoven, prior to release in the exposition proper. If hardly carefree, it nevertheless spoke of joy in its post-Mozartian lot. (Given the key, E-flat major, one can hardly fail to think of certain Mozart works in that same key: KV 482, 493, etc.) Not that we were ever in any doubt that this was Schumann, of course, especially when it came to the piano writing – and performance, but there is perhaps something more Classical, not least in its very particular tension between major and minor, than in much of his music. Beethoven inevitably came to mind in the scherzo, but Mendelssohn too, for its opening proved truly featherlight, whilst lacking nothing in harmonic grounding. Its fantastical paths spoke unmistakeably, though, of a darker, more troubled woodland. Over in the twinkling of any eye, it prepared us for the necessary contrast of the Andante cantabile, ardent lyricism to the fore. A few intonational lapses could readily be overlooked for chamber music with such a heart. The final fizzed as post-Mozartian Sekt: necessary release. There were darker passages too, of course, a battle still to be won, yet we knew that it would be.

Additional woodwind caught one’s ear from the off in Schubert’s Octet. Here, aptly for so welcoming a festival, we found ourselves in the world of superior Hausmusik. The first movement offered space and dynamism. For all that one can and should delight in this music, it needs direction, which it certainly received. Likewise the Adagio never dragged, whilst remaining very much an Adagio in character. There was darkness at its heart, but light too. The scherzo gloried in its evocation of rusticity (not the same thing as rusticity itself!) Like the first trio in the previous day’s Mozart Clarinet Quintet, the trio both relaxed and intensified, Florian Berner’s cello a guiding presence here in its counterpoint. The theme and variations developed with purpose, a rebuke to those – there are still many – who underestimate classical variation form (perhaps excepting the Diabelli Variations). All musicians shone individually, yet, more important still, as an ensemble. There was more post-Mozartian delight, but also pathos and tumult in the minor mode. The strange minuet proved melancholic without exaggeration, preparing the way for the extraordinary introduction to the finale, imbued with foreboding, close to Beethoven, yet never quite to be identified with him. The main body of the movement emerged as if a storm had passed, with the colours one might thereby expect. There were reminders, yes, of what had passed, yet, as with Schumann, it was clear where we were heading. And once we had reached that destination, what was more fitting than to round off with a little Johann Strauss, the Kaiser-Walzer, as arranged by Schoenberg? A delightful end to a delightful festival.

Sunday 13 May 2018

BERGfrühling (3) – Haydn, Berg, and Brahms, 11 May 2018

Alban Berg Saal, Carinthian Music Academy, Ossiach, 11.5.2018 (MB)

Haydn, arr. Johann Peter Salomon: Symphony no.104, in D major, ‘London’
Berg: Lyric Suite
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, op.34

Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Sylvia Careddu (flute), Alexander Neubauer (clarinet), Ariane Haering (piano), Sebastian Gürtler, Régis Bringolf (violins), Subin Lee (viola), Florian Berner (cello))
Ivan Kitanović (double bass)

We think that we know a broader range of music than ever before, or at least that we can. Everything is there, often at the mere click of a mouse. Perhaps we do. Or perhaps not. So many nineteenth-century households knew Haydn’s, Mozart’s, Beethoven’s symphonies, and many more works, through playing them in piano duet versions. Other domestic chamber arrangements existed too, even at the time of first performance. Johann Peter Salomon’s chamber versions, often highly flexible regarding instrumentation, are a case in point. And Salomon knew the London Symphonies; he had, after all, commissioned them, and brought Haydn to London for that purpose. Indeed, those symphonies have sometimes also been called Haydn’s Salomon Symphonies. The twelfth and final of that set, and the last one of all, remains, of course, his singular London Symphony; it was that which we heard this evening, in Salomon’s arrangement, here for flute, piano, string quartet, and double bass.

Such arrangements tend to be more rewarding for players than for listeners, but it remains fascinating to hear them from time to time, not only as documents of taste, but also, often, for what they permit us to hear in the musical argument itself – if only because we are compelled, or at least invited, to listen differently. The first movement’s introduction proved broad, yet broad as chamber rather than symphonic music: just right, in many ways. The Allegro I perhaps found less convincing as a whole, although it grew on me. It seemed that Salomon allocated a little too much to the piano: fun for the pianist, no doubt, but did it quite work for the listener? Nevertheless, the players understood and communicated its formal dynamism, offering a fine sense of arrival at the close of the development. The Andante walked quickly, which made sense in a chamber version, and was far from inflexible. There was an almost – I stress ‘almost’ – Beethovenian vehemence in the central section, without abandoning its Baroque roots. The minuet again worked well, taken almost as a scherzo. However, I found the finale, especially its drone bass – perhaps surprisingly, given the presence of a double bass – lent itself less well to these particular forces. There were a few intonational slips too.

Berg’s Lyric Suite is, of course, ‘the real thing’, and what a thing it proved here, in work and in performance. We began in the thick of it: in medias res, if you prefer. Unfailingly alert and generative, the first movement set the scene for the explicit – in more than one sense – drama to come. Its successor seemed to partake in the erotic worlds of both Wozzeck and Lulu, whilst remaining quite rightly itself. What especially struck me was the fine command of what Wagner termed the melos of the work: its line or thread. Whispering, scurrying confidences, almost on the cusp of Ligeti, characterised the third movement, whose closeness also to Tristan und Isolde was never in doubt. The rich, mahogany sound of the quartet, married to the delirium of Berg’s argument, intensified that sense of Tristan in the Adagio appassionato. ‘Du bist mein Eigen’ is the celebrated Zemlinsky quotation. Quite. Afterglow lingered, yet not too long for us to regret its passing, greater tension then reignited, leading us necessarily into the motive-led vehemence of the fifth movement: at least as intense, differently so. The final movement sounded just as marked: Largo desolato. Eroticism, Tristan in particular, remained. And then, it subsided, but into what?

Brahms’s F minor Piano Quintet followed. There was much to admire here, much to get our teeth into, and again there was much to be gleaned from the programming, hearing it after both Haydn and Berg. In the first movement, there seemed to me more than a little of Schumann’s Florestan and Eusebius too. Was there a little too much? Did the argument threaten to break down? I was genuinely unsure, and unquestionably benefited from being compelled to listen: to find out, as it were. Brahms is difficult, and should never sound otherwise. That difficulty, to the point of collapse, however manifested itself more clearly, problematically in the rhythmic contradictions of the second movement. The scherzo, no more a joke than in Chopin, proved more successful, at least to my ears – and mind’s ears. Its fury rightly hung over the trio too. The finale offered, again, something of both worlds. Its introduction seemed to pick up where late Beethoven had left off, the Allegro non troppo offering a degree of relief, yet with a keen sense that there remained a long way to go. I enjoyed the danger, the sense of losing oneself, but did it quite add up? Should it have done? Ultimately, did Brahms not need something a little more integrative? I was made to ask such questions, though: no bad thing at all.