Sunday, 9 December 2018

LPO/Jurowski - Stravinsky and Berio, 8 December 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Stravinsky: Variations (Aldous Huxley in memoriam); Threni; Tango
Berio: Sinfonia

Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Maria Ostroukhova (mezzo-soprano)
Sam Furness (tenor)
Joel Williams (tenor)
Theodore Platt (baritone)
Joshua Bloom (bass)

The Swingles
London Philharmonic Choir (chorus director: Neville Creed )
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps. In the meantime, let us be grateful for every opportunity we have to hear this exquisite, deeply moving music. There were occasional signs of the (slightly) tentative to the London Philharmonic’s performance of the Aldous Huxley Variations under Vladimir Jurowski: perhaps no surprise, given infrequence of performance. There was nothing to disrupt, though: anyone listening, whether for the first or the nth time, would have gained a good sense of what the work was ‘about’ – if only ‘itself’ – and how it ‘went’. Jurowski’s trademark formalism – I am tempted to say ultra-formalism – clarified structure and procedures. Stravinsky’s post-neo-Classical intervallic games, symmetries, inversions, and yes, melodies registered not only with great clarity but also unerringly chosen colour. That involved opposition – for instance, strings versus woodwind – as much as blend or synthesis. If the variation for twelve violins – ‘like a sprinkling of very fine broken glass,’ the composer approvingly reported of the premiere – hinted at Ligeti, even Xenakis, there was never any doubt as to the mind, the ear behind it. As ever, the more Stravinsky changed, the more he stayed himself. And never more so than here, in his ultimate reconciliation with the (Schoenbergian) number twelve.

Threni – to give it its full title, Threni: id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae – has not proved fortunate in performance, whether in quantity or quality. Its 1958 premiere in Paris seems to have been an unmitigated disaster. The recording on Columbia/Sony’s Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky series gives little idea of the work’s expressive riches. I have only heard it once before in concert, in an excellent performance from the BBC Singers, London Sinfonietta, et al., under David Atherton, at the Proms in 2010. Here, Jurowski, the London Philharmonic Choir, the LPO, and some of the soloists did an excellent job; some of the latter’s colleagues proved more variable, a pity in a work of chiselled precision, in which accuracy is far from everything, but remains a necessity to unlock those expressive riches. Again, though, one should not exaggerate: no one would have left without a strong sense of the work and what it might be in performance. Moreover, cantorial tenor Sam Furness, deputising at very short notice, shone perhaps the most brightly of all. Necessity, as so often, proved the mother of invention.

In context, it sounded not unlike a continuation of, or perhaps better a posterior preparation for, the procedures heard and felt in the Variations. There were anticipations, moreover, of the Requiem Canticles, heard only last month as part of this same Stravinsky series from the LPC, LPO, and Jurowski: most obviously, perhaps, in the spoken choral text. That said, Threni may speak with Stravinsky’s unmistakeable voice, but it also, like all of his works, speaks with its own unmistakeable voice. Does the music ‘express’ something beyond itself, that age-old Stravinskian question (itself surely a clever pose, partly intended to prevent us from asking other, more apposite questions)? Here the question, perhaps rightly, remained unanswered, even unanswerable. The cumulative drama, mathematical and yet surely also theological, of the ‘Querimonia’ (first section of ‘De elegia tertia’) registered both directly and at a distance, female choir members and trombones punctuating its sections, each adding a further male soloist, with an almost divine ‘rightness’ that, like a Bach cantata or passion, brooked no dissent. Likewise the relative rejoicing of the opening of the following section, ‘Sensus spei’, Les Noces distilled and serialised, spoke of and through intervals, but yet also of something else, which may or may not have lain beyond. As words and music progressed – I am tempted to say turned – it was as if the spirit of plainsong, its function if not its style, were reinvented before our ears, until darkness fell toward its close. ‘Invocavi nomen tuum, Domine, de lacis novissimo.’ The final ‘De eleigia quinta’ seemed to perform a synthetic role, an impression enhanced by the occasional surprisingly Bergian harmony. A text whose straining to be ‘timeless’ rendered it all the less so had been consulted, read, heard, perhaps even experienced. Had it, though, been understood? That, one felt, was emphatically not the point.

I had forgotten that the 1940 Tango was on the programme. It therefore came as all the more lovely a surprise to hear it at the beginning of the second half, performed neither by piano nor orchestra, but by The Swingles: a winning introduction to Berio’s Sinfonia. Its opening chord, instrumental and vocal, acoustic and electronic, primaeval and modern, announced an entirely different approach to synthesis, all-embracing in a mode I am almost tempted to call ‘popular’ as opposed to ‘aristocratic’. Or such, perhaps, is Berio’s trick – for surely he is just as adept with games and, yes, masks as Stravinsky. It was interesting to note, though, perhaps especially during the first movement, how much I re-heard Berio through lessons learned from Stravinsky (and beyond him, Webern): just, indeed, as I re-heard words from Lévi-Strauss and others through lessons I was learning from Berio (and had from Stravinsky, Webern, et al.) Again, such is surely part of the game, the aesthetic, even the humanistic vision. In the second movement, my ears again doubtless schooled by serial Stravinsky, musical procedures once again sounded very much to the fore. That was also, I suspect, partly a consequence of Jurowski’s aforementioned formalism. Precision in performance ultimately enabled connection in listening.

How to listen to the third movement? So much there is present in our consciousness already; or is it? (Or are its quotations and underlay really so very different from other music(s)?) ‘Keep going’. At any rate, I found myself convinced I was hearing a very different performance from any I had heard before, certainly quite different from that given by Semyon Bychkov at this year’s Proms. ‘Keep going.’ What sounded like a weirdly unidiomatic way with Strauss and Ravel proved compelling in this context. How can anyone make a reminiscence from Wozzeck sound amusing? I genuinely do not know, but Berio – and his performers – did. We kept going – or did we?

The fourth movement emerged ‘as if’ Mahler’s ‘O Röschen rot’ were rewritten before our ears, within our minds – which, surely, it both was and was not. The music retained a trace of that Mahlerian function, whilst (apparently) effortlessly remaining itself. ‘The task of the fifth and last part,’ Berio wrote, ‘is to delete … differences and … develop the latent unity of the preceding fifth parts.’ Again, it both happened and did not. A traditional finale role of a sort was both very much with us, immanent, and yet questioned, facing imminent destruction. Jurowski’s clarity paid dividends here, ironically turning the music around to resemble other Berio works more closely than any other performance I can recall. One final Stravinskian lesson learned, then – after which two highly enjoyable encores: The Swingles singing Piazzolla (Libertango) and the LPO and Jurowski rounding off their year-long Stravinsky survey with Circus Polka: for a Young Elephant.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Uchida - Schubert, 7 December 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Piano Sonata in A minor, D 537
Piano Sonata in C major, D 840
Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D 960

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Who would willingly pass up the opportunity to hear Mitsuko Uchida play Schubert? Not I; nor did I regret having taken it up. That said, an artist whose gallery of virtues would generally be held to include a high degree of technical consistency did not always quite live up to that side of the bargain. During the C major Sonata, D 840, Uchida struggled at times, visibly and audibly distracted by an especially active bronchial audience contingent (not to mention at least two mobile telephone interventions). Edge-of-the-seat turbulence of the cross-rhythms part-way through the finale of the B-flat major Sonata, D 960, was not entirely to be ascribed to interpretative choice and insight. There were a few other such instances. Musical and more broadly humanist virtues nevertheless consistently won out. What we heard was some way from perfect; yet whilst perfection may often – often not, too – prove a laudable quality, rarely if ever should it prove an end in itself.

The recital opened with the A minor Sonata, D 537. A vehement, almost Beethovenian opening – yes, I know the temptation to compare and contrast with Beethoven is often better avoided; nevertheless… – subsided beautifully, yes, but more to the point, meaningfully. Schubert’s contours were well traced throughout this first movement and beyond; or rather, they were brought to life in performance, ‘traced’ suggesting something too passive. This sounded, rightly, very much as young man’s music. (That all of Schubert’s music is, strictly, a young man’s music is really neither here nor there.) What particularly struck me on a micro-level, was how Uchida’s leaning in to phrases always sounded just ‘right’: never quite the same, always subtly different, according to context. The movement’s closing bars sounded very much imbued with the spirit of Mozart of his A minor Sonata, KV 310/300d. Uchida judged the tempo and mood – the same thing here, really – of the second movement just right. The degree of halting uncertainty again seemed spot on, though I can imagine some finding it a little mannered. A ‘lateness’ that belied the actual year of composition (1817) worked well, icy winter winds very much the thing. There was certainly no doubting her command of the overall line. The finale again opened vehemently, yet in no sense as a repeat of the first movement; context and experience were all here. Perhaps some of what ensued might have benefited from greater variety of touch, but Uchida’s dream-like, at times almost stream-of-consciousness approach was compelling in its way.

If the C major Sonata suffered more than its companions from technical mishaps, it also proved to me the most intriguing interpretatively. Uchida’s opening phrase was floated with an indeterminacy that seemed to hurl a gentle (!) lance into the music-historical future: to Liszt, even to Debussy. Tonality, general and specific, evolved – and yet also often remained uncertain, Liszt again coming to mind, as indeed he did in certain rhetorical gestures. The first movement’s closing bars, luminous and numinous, lingered long in the memory. Schubert’s apparent inability, or unwillingness, to climax proved deeply moving. Was the Romanticism of the second movement more ‘conventional’? Perhaps, but so what? If so, it were only in such extraordinary company. Uchida’s great achievement here, I think, was to draw one in, to compel one truly to listen. Then the music developed in its own, strange, quite inimitable way.

The B-flat Sonata sounded from the outset more settled – at least until those slips during the finale. Resigned? I am not sure; this was certainly not Sviatoslav Richter. Perhaps ‘content’ might be better. Schubert’s music took wing more readily than earlier: in large part a reflection of the material, of course, but perhaps not entirely. Structure and form were certainly clearer throughout, notwithstanding an egregious telephonic intervention shortly before the first movement exposition repeat. An ineffable sadness during the development section emerged very much from its harmony: the minor mode, yes, but Neapolitan and other chromatic colourings in particular. The return was unruffled but certainly not unchanged. And it continued to develop, of course; or perhaps, better, to change, ‘develop’ in this work sounding almost indecently Beethovenian a charge. The rarity of key, tonality, and mood in the slow movement was established immediately, quite without preciosity. Again, Uchida’s command of large-scale structure and form – that is, dynamic delineation of structure in time – were key to her success here. The scherzo is, for me, the most difficult of four very difficult movements to bring off in performance. No such fear here: inner, presumed fragility encased, even entombed, in a finely judged scampering pretence at insouciance. The obstreperous quality of its trio, rightly different from Beethoven’s truculence, seemed in a decidedly peculiar way closer to a reification of Haydn. Many of those qualities continued, indeed developed, in a finale possessed of just the right degree both of exploration and ‘rightness’. A wordless Schwanengesang, whatever the occasional stumble, ultimately did what it should. Music, after all, is human rather than divine.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal College of Music, 30 November 2018

Britten Theatre

Count Almaviva – Thomas Isherwood
Countess Almaviva – Eleanor Dennis
Susanna – Catriona Hewitson
Figaro – Theodore Platt
Cherubino – Anna Cooper
Marcellina – Holly-Marie Bingham
Dr Bartolo – Timothy Edlin
Don Basilio – Glen Cunningham
Don Curzio – Samuel Jenkins
Barbarina – Milly Forrest
Antonio – Peter Edge
Two Bridesmaids – Camilla Harris, Jessica Cale

Sir Thomas Allen (director)
Lottie Higlett (designs)
Rory Beaton (lighting)
Kate Flatt (choreography)

Royal College of Music Opera Chorus (chorus master: Leanne Singh-Levett)
Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

A lively, enthusiastic young cast, as skilled at acting as at singing, proved the definite highlight of the Royal College of Music’s end-of-term Marriage of Figaro. There was no weak link, each of the singers offering something particular in roles many of us perhaps know all too well. At this stage in their careers, singers will always have a good deal of vocal development to await. Nevertheless, from the stern and angry Count of Thomas Isherwood to the decidedly luxury casting of Milly Forrest’s Barbarina, there was much to enjoy here. Eleanor Dennis, an RCM alumna deputising at the last minute, offered a noble Countess: poised, dignified, pained, and compassionate, an object lesson to her younger collaborators. Theodore Platt and Catriona Hewitson sparkled as a likeable, stylish pair of servants, Figaro and Susanna, Holly-Marie Bingham’s Marcellina and Timothy Edlin’s Bartolo perhaps giving a splendidly knowing hint of where the characters, if hardly the singers, might find themselves in a few years’ time.

Michael Rosewell’s conducting was sane enough: something to be grateful for in an age of perverse, often downright ugly Mozart ‘interpretation’. It lacked charm, though, orchestral writing too often going unshaped, even barely phrased at all. A few too many disjunctures between pit and stage were skilfully retrieved, yet all in all – and this is quite a different thing from minutes on the clock – the pace somewhat dragged, a greater sense of the musical whole proving elusive.

There was not much to glean, either, from Thomas Allen’s production. It was less aggressively, even offensively ‘traditional’ than the Figaro I last saw at the RCM (Jean-Claude Auvray, 2012), yet it would be difficult to claim any great insights. (Not that an extraordinarily disruptive – drunken? – audience, laughing and applauding almost every bar, seemed to seek insight; alas, the Glyndebourne Guffaw Brigade seemed very much to be at large.) Notwithstanding a strange initial preoccupation with babies, soon dropped, as it were, the production was very much school of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, albeit on a necessarily less grand scale. What worked in the mid-Seventies – in many ways gloriously, as we may still see on film, Karl Böhm’s presence certainly not hindering – does not necessarily ring so true four decades later. Why would it? Additional elements of something bordering on silliness did not help. There was not much more to it than that. I have little doubt that the cast would have learned much from working with Allen; I have little doubt, moreover, that that showed in their own character portrayals and their interaction.

For a greater idea, be it of the eighteenth century or any other, I sought in vain: a pity, given that two other London conservatoire performances of the last few years have offered much food for thought. The Guildhall (Martin Lloyd-Evans, 2013) offered, in retrospect, chilling presentiments of #MeToo in an American electoral campaign, whilst the Royal Academy’s gentle updating to pre-revolutionary Cuba (Janet Suzman, 2015) brought forth perhaps the single finest, all in all, Figaro I have seen and heard. Claus Guth’s Strindbergian Salzburg production of the previous decade doubtless changed the work forever. It need not, indeed should not, be imitated. Some awareness and communication of the work’s savage darkness, however, is now for many of us a crucial starting point, as much as it would be for Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. Mozart never suffers from sharply etched chiaroscuro. Still, there will surely be another opportunity before too long – and better this than the incoherent nonsense I endured from Johannes Erath in Dresden a couple of months ago.