Wednesday 26 June 2019

Vadim Repin and friends: Brahms and Dvořák, 23 June 2019

Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna

Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, op.34
Dvořák: Piano Quintet in A major, op.34

Some might have expected a clash of solo egos with an instrumental line-up such as this. Not a bit of it: the billing ‘Vadim Repin and friends’ seemed very much borne out by what we saw and heard in this Vienna Konzerthaus performance of piano quintets by Brahms and Dvořák.

There are doubtless many ways to sound Brahmsian; we should not be prescriptive. This, from the outset of Brahms’s F minor Quintet, was undoubtedly one of them. Overall line and its ebb and flow were likewise immediately impressive: more often said than done, perhaps particularly in the first two movements. Similarly balance: what, one might have asked, is often held to be the problem? What struck me particularly about the opening ‘Allegro non troppo’ was both the sense of proximity to and distance from the sound and conversational quality of a Classical chamber ensemble, and the character of themes when announced: the latter something for which, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Schoenberg consistently lauded Mozart, many of whose techniques he also claimed to have learned more consciously via Brahms. ‘I found, Schoenberg once told a pupil, ‘that if he [Mozart] has a scene in which there are several characters or moods, then he would construct a theme in the beginning of this scene which contains at once as many elements as necessary to contain the later coming moods.’ Such was what we heard here. Another distance relished was that of the development from home – until, that is, we were (tonally) home for a recapitulation that proved a true second development.

The opening piano quartet music to the second movement (minus Nikita Boriso-Glebsy’s second violin) left us in no doubt concerning this music’s complexity. Somehow Boriso-Glebsy’s first entry, however brief, seemed to ground music that had threatened already to veer off towards Schoenberg. Perhaps that was a conscious straining towards full ensemble; it certainly felt like that. Not that that precluded further complexity, far from it. The Scherzo was taken swiftly indeed – and it worked. Transformation from ghostly to vehement is key to this music. That was very much how it sounded here. Rhythm was rightly grounded in harmony, as opposed to being some thing-in-itself; it was all the stronger for that. There was, quite rightly, no attempt to beautify the Trio, which made the Scherzo’s reprise all the more different. The finale’s opening, reminiscent of late Beethoven in its rarity, fragility, and humanity, offered fertile ground for a veritable explosion of material. Not that its profusion was arbitrary; again it put me in mind of Schoenberg on Mozart.

Dvořak’s A major Piano Quintet opens very differently. Mellow, duetting lyricism between Alexandre Kniazev on cello Denis Kozhukhin on piano was nonetheless emphatically, unanimously brought to an end by the whole ensemble, setting up a polarity that would run through the performance as a whole. I was especially struck by the limpidity of Kozhukhin’s playing and golden yet variegated playing from Maxim Rysanov on viola; but truth be told, every musician’s playing was outstanding. Perhaps the overall tone was richer than in Brahms: a reflection, I suspect, of the greater, or more overt, lyricism on display. Affinities also made themselves apparent, but the expansiveness on offer seemed to owe little to Brahms and more than a little to Schubert. There was a great deal of art concealing art to the ‘Dumka’ (Andante con moto) that followed, properly grounded in harmony as the force through which this music could truly sing. It was Schubert who again came to mind in the high spirits of the Scherzo/Furiant, poles apart from its Brahmsian counterpart. Kozhukhin’s way of reminding us of that material throughout the Trio proved wonderfully compelling. And there was no doubt that the Finale was indeed a finale, relished and communicated as such. It lent a fine sense of coherence to a work that can sometimes seem to meander. A fitting conclusion to a fine concert.

Thursday 20 June 2019

Boris Godunov, Royal Opera, 19 June 2019

Royal Opera House

Images: (C) ROH 2019/Clive Barda

Boris Godunov – Bryn Terfel
Andrey Schchelkalov – Boris Pinkhasovich
Nikitch – Jeremy White
Mityukha – Adrian Clarke
Prince Vasily Ivanovich Shuisky – Roger Honeywell
Pimen – Matthew Rose
Grigory Otrepiev – David Butt Philip
Hostess of the Inn – Anne Marie Gibbons
Varlaam – John Tomlinson
Missail – Harry Nicoll
Frontier Guard – Alan Ewing
Xenia – Haegee Lee
Xenia’s Nurse – Fiona Kimm
Fyodor – Joshua Abrams
Boyar – Christopher Lemmings
Holy Fool – Sam Furness

Richard Jones (director)
Miriam Buethner (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Ben Wright, Danielle Urbas (movement)
Gerard Jones (associate director)

Trinity Boys’ Choir
Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Marc Albrecht (conductor)

Dmitri (David Butt Philip ) and Pimen (Matthew Rose)

Maybe there is something to be said after all for the 1869 version of Boris Godunov. There is obviously a huge amount to be said for what we see and hear, the problem lying in comparisons with later versions. However, unlike 2016, when Richard Jones’s production had its first outing, I actually felt – as opposed to being able to come up with an argument in my head – what particular virtues it might have. It no longer came across as the ‘sketch’ of which I wrote three years ago, so long as one were able to keep 1872, or indeed aspects of Rimsky-Korsakov, out of one’s mind. That I was, more or less, speaks perhaps of still more distinguished performances than last time around – and not only of greater receptivity on my part during Britain’s own, unending Time of Troubles.

Shuisky (Roger Honeywell) and Boris (Bryn Terfel)

That began, I think, at the top – or rather in the pit. Last time around, Antonio Pappano had offered one of his better performances at Covent Garden. Marc Albrecht, however, proved surer, more focused, more grimly fatal, aided by an Orchestra of the Royal Opera House on fine, impressively dark form. Just what this version in particular needs then: almost enough to have one shrug at losing the Polish act, if not quite the clock. The chorus, almost as much the opera’s foundation as the orchestra, was on good form too: the sound of Mother Russia and her tribulations resounding from and through multiple pasts: that of the historical Boris Godunov, nineteenth-century reinventions, and our own. The rawness of its cries certainly brought out that quality in Mussorgsky’s ‘original’ text. One could doubtless pick holes, were one so inclined; I admit my lack of competence to judge the Russian. Neither this chorus nor any non-Slavic one will ever quite attain that ‘Russian’ sound many have in their heads from recordings, some from performances too. But so what? This is an opera for the world; if your sole objection is that it does not sound as you ‘feel’ it should, based upon what you have heard before, then perhaps the fault may lie with you. Nationalism may help to ground nineteenth-century opera; it should have no place in twenty-first-century performance and reception.

Holy Fool (Sam Furness) and children's choir

The same goes for the stage performances too, most highly distinguished on their own terms. Bryn Terfel’s portrayal of Boris seemed to me to have developed considerably from last time, though it had had much to offer then too. In some ways, his facial expressions, his haunted demeanour, their combination with vocal delivery seemed to have drawn closer to a great, non-Russian predecessor in the role, John Tomlinson (seen at Covent Garden under Semyon Bychkov in 2003). Not that this was anything other than Terfel’s own portrayal, of course. As Varlaam, Tomlinson himself proved in finer vocal fettle than I had heard for some time, his as fully committed a performance as we have come to expect over the years. It was, perhaps, Matthew Rose as Pimen who offered the finest vocal performance of all, the monk and chronicler – apparently innocent, but who knows? – brought vividly to life with surpassing vocal radiance. David Butt Philip’s Grigory benefited from a typical detailed, intelligent performance, with Roger Honeywell a properly wheedling Shuisky. This was a Boris with no weak links, cast from depth, other impressive performances coming from Jette Parker Young Artist, Haegee Lee and treble, Joshua Abrams, as the doomed ruler’s children. Sam Furness's Fool rightly held sway in his scene - and perhaps swayed the tsar too.

Boyars, Pimen, and Boris

Jones’s production has much to be said for it, especially when compared to more recent stagings I have seen from him (Katya Kabanova and La Damnation de Faust, for instance). The ritual re-enactment above of Dmitri’s assassination not only chills, but imparts unity and immediacy. That we see the re-enactment re-enacted, or threatened to be, below too heightens the sense of never-ending sorrow, of political and cultural impossibility. The red hair that marks out erstwhile and present Tsarevichi, as well as pretender Grigory, is but the most visible strand that seemingly marks out the fate of all. Lightly nineteenth-century dress reminds us, like Pimen’s chronicle, here literally writ large, that this is a contested history, in which generation after generation, not least those of Pushkin and Mussorgsky, will continue to rewrite to their own purposes. There is no peace in Russia, no peace in the world at large. It is not, perhaps, a production that has a great deal to say in and of itself, but it amply permits us to continue on our sorry path, both as chroniclers and readers.

Murder of Tsarevich Dmitri

With that, it is goodbye to the Royal Opera House for me for a little while. Next month, I shall leave the country again for a while. Will the ‘will of the people’ to which Boris attributes the Tsarevich’s death continue to prevail? As much and as little as ever. Who will be tsar when I return? A Godunov, a Shuisky, a Romanov? May God have mercy on the souls of the crowd, if not those whose Kremlin machinations have done this to us.

Monday 17 June 2019

Philharmonia/Strobel - Huppertz: Metropolis, 13 June 2019

Royal Festival Hall

Gottfried Huppertz, arr. Frank Strobel: Score to Fritz Lang, Metropolis, with screening of film

Philharmonia Orchestra
Frank Strobel (conductor)

An interesting evening – alas, the only one I shall be able to attend – from the Philharmonia’s Weimar season, ‘Bittersweet Metropolis’. To see Fritz Lang’s celebrated film, Metropolis, not only on the large screen but including sections rediscovered in Argentina in 2008, offered fascination in itself. The plot may be absurdly sentimental, but the direction and cinematography are often breathtaking: no wonder the film’s costs were never covered. Crowd scenes alone would be worth the prize of ambition. Lang’s combination of Expressionism and wide-eyed urbanism retains just enough of the counter-intuitive to afford an interest extending beyond the merely ‘historical’. It remains, moreover, just about possible to relish the elements of class struggle, however naïvely presented, without falling for the false reconciliation of the close (or, for that matter, the workers’ all too ready descent into a vengeful mob). It is what it is; different ages and different audiences will most likely continue to discover new standpoints.

What, then, of the live performance of Gottfried Huppertz’s score, the true occasion for this showing? The Philharmonia generally seemed in its element, a few moments of imprecision notwithstanding. All that glitters may not be gold, but there was plenty of gold and glitter here, with a warmth of string tone it would have been difficult not to characterise as German. That was aided, of course, by the score itself – although what ‘itself’ means here, given the role of conductor, Frank Strobel, in its ‘arrangement’ is not clear. (I could find no information on that in the programme.) I suspect that it might often have been more incisively conducted; faults, however, seemed primarily to lie with what was being conducted. After a while, Huppertz’s music becomes all too predictable: the sort of thing that gives ‘leitmotif’ a bad name. Swathes of repetition do no particular harm as background to viewing of the film, but the formulaic musical contribution betokens no masterpiece. Decidedly sub-Straussian attempts to climax; attempts at something more generically ‘modern’, if hardly modernist, for urban scenes; much that at best strains toward the likes of Korngold: one can hear where it might lead in later film music, and that is probably where the greater part of its interest will remain.

Monday 10 June 2019

Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, 7 June 2019


Images: Stefanie Loos

Annesley Black: Tolerance Stacks: excerpts (2016/19)
Ann Cleare: on magnetic fields (2011/12)
Mithatcan Öcal: Ein musikalischer Spaß (2017-19): ‘Birds with Beards’ (world premiere)
Rebecca Saunders: Skin (2016)

Juliet Fraser (soprano)
Ensemble Musikfabrik
Enno Poppe (conductor)

The first woman composer to receive the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize could not have been a worthier candidate. From the first time I heard Rebecca Saunders’s music, in a 2012 Arditti Quartet concert at the Wigmore Hall, I have been intrigued, fascinated, and thrilled by it. At this ceremony and concert in Munich’s Prinzregententheater, we heard not only Saunders’s Skin (given in London this January by the same soloist, Juliet Fraser, with the Ensemble Modern and Vimbayi Kaziboni), but also music by the three winners of Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation Composers’ Prizes: Annesley Black, Ann Cleare, and Mithatcan Öcal. When three out of four of the composers are women and the other a Turkish man, perhaps the tide is finally beginning to turn. In addition to prize money, the three recipients of composers’ prizes will also receive portrait CDs from the Kairos label, to be released at the end of this year – so helping others to discover their music for themselves.

First we heard excerpts from Black’s Tolerance Stacks, followed by a greeting from Peter Rusicka and a short film showing the composer at work. (Each composer received such a film, in other cases seen before her or his music was performed.) Fraser was the soprano soloist here too, excellent as ever. Piano, responded to by clarinet and percussion, in turn responded to by piano, set the scene, the pianist thereafter moving across to one of two electronic mixing desks in preparation for the vocal entry. Was it pain or pleasure being evoked? Why choose, amidst such a colourful, dramatic frenzy? Might one characterise what we heard as post-Stockhausen in a meaningful rather than merely chronological sense? I think so, but am not sure quite how much that would matter. The sense of electronic and vocal play was keen throughout. So too was an intriguing relationship – which I could not yet put my finger on to describe, let alone analyse, yet could certainly perceive – between sound and structure.

Cleare’s and Öcal’s works were both for ensemble without voice, all in the superlative care of Enno Poppe and Ensemble Musikfabrik, longstanding Saunders collaborators. Cleare’s on magnetic fields added to the ensemble what I presume was an instrument of her own, hybrid instrumental design being a particular musical interest of hers. (I do not even know what it was, or what it was called, but such is part of the fun!) At any rate, three chamber groups conversed, collaborated: made music, two violins from two separate groups coming across as first among equals in dialogue and competition. Sounds were often metallic, mechanical, industrial, creative, but they were no mere sounds: this was a true musical narrative, finely paced both in writing and performance. Likewise every note, attack, timbre, and duration seemed deeply considered and dramatically necessary.

Öcal’s ‘Birds without Beards’ was prefaced by a duly entertaining film, in which a member of his Istanbul Composer Collective remonstrated with him for having included a pitch, C-sharp, he had expressively ruled out, whether in itself or even as suggested by harmonic structure. Repeated pitches and their implications, perhaps rhythmic as well as harmonic, seemed to be one of the concerns from the outset here, wind notes jabbed and intoned, initially set against scurrying string figures. One was intended, I think, to notice just as keenly when those pitches were repeated and varied. Öcal offered on occasion an almost Mahlerian sense of echoed reminiscence of ‘found’ material, actually found or imagined. But those were just two aspects of an absorbing, colourful, witty showcase for the composer’s work, types of material coming into intriguing collaboration and conflict – just, perhaps, like the Collective itself.

‘It sounds how it’s played,’ as Robert Adlington once put it, cited in trumpeter Marco Blauuw’s oration, as intelligent as it was heartfelt, for Rebecca Saunders and her music ‘Stay stubborn, self-willed,’ Saunders advised her three predecessors on this evening, having dedicated receipt of her prize to her undoubtedly stubborn and self-willed predecessor as composer, Galina Ustolvskaya. Those and many other aperçus helped guide our appreciation of the performance of Skin; but mostly, like Samuel Beckett, another guiding spirit, this music spoke with a bleakness and humanity, the two quite indivisible, of its own. If the opening starkness, at least in the context of Saunders’s words, obliquely brought Ustolvskaya to mind, the poetry of music and silence, music as silence, distillation in instrumental combination, and that combination in distillation, bore Beckettian witness more strongly than ever. Breath and cries from voice and instruments alike, often in tandem, both formed and inhabited landscape and narrative. (Sometimes we need such metaphors to speak about music, but we should always be wary of ascribing them importance that is greater than whatever that music may be ‘itself’). As ever, properties of instruments, the voice included, indeed the voice foremost among them, were both respected and extended, testament to the composer’s searching, collaborative way with performing colleagues. No silence, though, was more pregnant, more magical than that following Fraser’s final, solo ‘skin’. It rightly proved a prelude resistant to, then part of, that warmest of applause that ensued.

Saturday 8 June 2019

The Diary of One who Disappeared, Muziektheater Transparant, 6 June 2019

Linbury Theatre

Ed Lyon (tenor)
Marie Hamard (mezzo-soprano)
Wim van der Grijn (actor)
Annelies van Gramberen, Naomi Beeldens, Raphaële Green (semi-chorus)
Lada Valešová (piano, music director)

Ivo van Hove (director)
Jan Versweyveld (set designs)
An d’Huys (costumes)
Krystian Lada (dramaturgy)

It is more than a decade since I saw Muziektheater Transparant theatre piece, Wolpe!, at the Edinburgh Festival. Stefan Wolpe had hitherto been little more than a name to me; that ‘staged concert’ immediately made him, his music, and his politics much more than than what I see I went to far as to call an ‘inspiring event’.

Janáček is unlikely to require such an introduction, at least, should such a thing exist, for a core audience, though one can hardly call him and his music over-exposed. His song-cycle, The Diary of One who Disappeared, should be far better known, or at least more frequently performed, than it is. Language is doubtless an issue: if song performances in translation are not unknown, they are decidedly uncommon, and Janáček loses so much in sound and speech rhythm when translated that we should probably be grateful. Not that there was any cause to regret the use of Czech here, at least to my untutored ears. Ed Lyon’s command of the language seemed excellent, as did that of his collaborators in song, Marie Hamard and offstage, female semi-chorus, Annelies van Gramberen, Naomi Beeldens, and Raphaële Green. Lyon, Hamard, and pianist and music director, Lada Valešová certainly proved vividly communicative throughout, Lyon’s anguished, well-nigh televisually detailed stage presence chilling and human indeed. (What a joy, as ever, it was to be in a smaller theatre where such detail could register and be appreciated.)

There is, of course, nothing remotely new about staging the cycle; the practice dates back to 1926, only five years after the Brno premiere, in Laibach/Ljubljana. What matters is how it is done. But this is not straightforwardly a staging of the cycle, although it stands considerably closer to that than some such theatre pieces, seeking less to tell another story than to tell a story that incorporates and, at a remove, contextualises and interprets the work. Ivo van Hove’s production presents a man, played by Wim van der Grijn, remembering his past: what might have been and what was. Or does it? For it starts neither with him, nor with Janáček’s male protagonist, but with a woman (Hamard), soon seated at a piano. She does what she is told via a recording, until she does not, until she takes on life of her own, her role at the piano quickly taken by Valešová. The man takes his lead in the drama, at least partly – such is society, ours and Janáček’s – and is joined by another, who seems to be his younger self. But the lines are not precise: deliberately, I think. Whilst the obvious interpretation is – well, obvious – it is not mandatory. There are alternatives, or at least aspects one might fill in differently. And so, whilst that affair, presumably long past, comes once again to life in his memory and leads the older man to rueful regret or worse, the woman in a sense takes charge again, just as her musical part and that of her semi-chorus are augmented by additional songs composed by Annelies Van Parys (whom some English opera goers will recall from her skilful chamber reduction of Pelléas et Mélisande, performed by English Touring Opera in 2015).

There is no question of the significance of Kamila Stösslová for the cycle and its female character, Zefka, or indeed, for Janáček as creator, vice versa: ‘I do not have words to express my longing for you, to be close to you,’ he wrote. ‘Wherever I am I think to myself: you cannot want anything else in life, if you have this dear, cheerful, black little “gypsy girl”.’ Janáček knew, he continued, ‘that my compositions will be more passionate, more ravishing: you will sit on every little note in them. I shall caress them: every little note will be your dark eye.’ The troubling exoticism of the idea of the ‘dark … little gypsy girl’ is, to an extent, jettisoned or at least addressed, with an element of reclamation. (Or should we consider it cultural appropriation? These things are never straightforward, nor should they be – and it is hardly for me to say.) Zefka, insofar as it is she, sings songs, which move between idioms more and considerably less related to Janáček’s, which look upon her former, gadjo (non-Roma) lover from her, Roma standpoint. Having had her say, though, she cedes the stage to the older man, who reads from the composer’s celebrated letters to Stösslová, burning them as he would – as he did. Is it so straightforward as the man being revealed as Janáček? I do not think so, though someone could reasonably take that line. Memory is a complex thing: how it haunts us, what it includes, excludes, edits. So too is theatre, at least as a similarly active experience. There is clearly, though, something of the composer in the man we see on stage, embittered, and perhaps facing some degree of justice for his actions, albeit in a setting contemporary or at least closer to us. We too must decide what it is we have seen and heard, relate it as we will or must.

It is a far more interesting, far more finished, piece of work than Richard Jones’s recent, lacklustre Katya Kabanova for the main stage (Jones’s production, that is, rather than the excellent musical performances it attracted). At the same time, it remains, like much contemporary theatre in general, and much contemporary operatic theatre in particular, fruitfully open-ended. I continue to think about it; I suspect that, should you see it, you will too.

Thursday 6 June 2019

Aminta e Fillide and Venus and Adonis, Guildhall, 5 June 2019

Milton Court Theatre

Images: Clive Barda
Cupid (centre, Collin Shea) and chorus

Aminta – Harriet Burns
Fillide – Carmen Artaza

Venus – Sîan Dicker
Adonis – Andrew Hamilton
Cupid – Collin Shay
Shepherdess – Katherine McIndoe
Shepherd – Damian Arnold

Victoria Newlyn (director)
Madeleine Boyd (designs)
Andrew May (lighting)
Karl Dixon (video)

Chorus and Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Chad Kelly (conductor)

The stature of John Blow becomes clearer, it seems, with every encounter. Alas, paucity of encounters remains the problem for many of us. This was the first live performance of Venus and Adonis I had heard, let alone seen; I am delighted to report that it did not disappoint. Indeed, it brought vividly to life what so many of us know intellectually: that if Purcell’s genius will likely always remain the loftiest summit of English Restoration music, it stands far from alone; and that, moreover, Dido and Aeneas owes a great deal to the example of what is rightly considered the first English opera. When one hears Blow’s anthems, many characteristics one has hitherto considered quintessentially Purcellian are revealed to be part of a common musical language; the same is true here, and for dramaturgy as well as musical language.

Adonis (Andrew Hamilton)

Any passable performance of Dido – ‘Tristan und Isolde in a pintpot’, Raymond Leppard once called it – will fly by; so did this more than passable performance of Venus and Adonis. Conductor Chad Kelly seemed very much in his element, continuo and orchestral playing warm, flexible, charged with dramatic meaning and atmosphere. The singers did too. Sîan Dicker sang and acted a splendidly voluptuous Venus: sexier than Dido, yet moving towards similar grief. If the latter were ultimately more generalised, that shows the final distinction between Blow’s opera and Purcell’s and is no reflection upon a fine performance indeed. Andrew Hamilton’s Adonis, perhaps not unlike Aeneas, was similarly imbued with allure: less complex, in his own way more vulnerable – he, after all, meet death – and a blanker sheet for projection in an under-acknowledged reversal of gender norms. Collin Shay’s Cupid fascinated. Presumably in conjunction with director, Victoria Newlyn, Shay presented a god of love by turns sullen, awkward – childish, one might say – who sprang to animated life when finally heeding the call to use his bow. Damian Arnold’s finely sung and acted Shepherd had one wishing there were more for him to do, the chorus from which he sprang exemplary in delivery of notes, words, stage action and that alchemy we call opera. Newlyn’s production presented Venus as an artist(e), her final words delivered movingly almost as a nightclub torch song. Video projections of the random world of Internet dating – iCupid, should we call it? – and a telling contrast between such urban modernity and the decidedly down-at-heel American hunting community from which poor Adonis had been plucked brought to contemporary life dramatic conflicts that have haunted our civilisation however far back we may care to trace.

Cupid, Aminta (Carmen Artaza),
Fillide (Harriet Burns)

I was less sure about her staging of Handel’s Italian cantata, Aminta e Fillide, and ultimately less sure whether staging it had been a good idea at all. This is not a dramatic piece and was never intended to be. Concert performance without stage hyperactivity would surely have served it better. One can try, of course, and I should be delighted to be prove wrong. Frenetic scene changes taking us from airport lounges to early video games were doubtless fun for those taking part, extras included, but seemed only to confirm that less would have been decidedly more. Cupid's linking presence felt forced; still more so did the desultory appearance of Botticelli's Birth of Venus at beginning and end.Here, Kelly seemed more constrained by what has become ‘period’ convention, vibrato-less strings sometimes grating, the music in general more regimented. However, Harriet Burns and Carmen Artaza offered some dazzling singing, especially later on, coloratura and range of colour alike showing what should really lie at the heart of this pastoral. 

Manon Lescaut, Opera Holland Park, 4 June 2019

Holland Park

Images: © Robert Workman

Manon Lescaut – Elizabeth Llewellyn
Lescaut – Paul Carey Jones
Des Grieux – Peter Auty
Geronte di Ravoir – Stephen Richardson
Edmondo – Stephen Aviss
Singer – Ellie Edmonds
Dancing Master – John Wood
Innkeeper, Sergeant of the Royal Archers – Alistair Sutherland
Backing Singers – Hannah Boxall, Susie Buckle, Lara Rebekah Harvey, Ayaka Tanimoto
Shadow Manons – Angelica Barroga, Isabella Martinez, Hanan Mugga

Karolina Sofulak (director)
George Johnson-Leigh (designs)
Rory Beaton (lighting)
Tim Claydon (choreography)

Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Richard Harker)
City of London Sinfonia
Peter Robinson (conductor)

Manon Lescaut is a curious opera. Its protracted genesis and sometimes unsatisfactory dramaturgy seem ultimately to work against it, whatever the attempted solution. A Leipzig revival of its original, 1893 version suggested that reinstatement of the original first-act finale was certainly not the answer. I am yet to be convinced that it can be made to work, though I shall happily be proved wrong. Perhaps Puccini’s greatest devotees feel the same way I should about La finta semplice, Feuersnot, or Die Feen. The operatic repertoire is full of works, after all, whose potential has been incompletely realised; we do what we can with them and should often be the poorer without them. The gap between potential and realisation can even prove part of a work’s fascination, especially in a knowing production and performance.

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Manon Lescaut) and Shadow Manons

Alas, Karolina Sofulak’s production, ambition notwithstanding, does not come across as engaging with quite enough of those apparently intractable problems – and a little too often seems unclear. The 1960s updating works well enough in theory and has its moments in practice too. A society preoccupied with style and with a strong tension between reaction and liberation has obvious parallels with the eighteenth-century world of the Abbé Prévost. Where Sofulak’s production does score is in trying to make something of the heroine. If only we had something of Manon and Des Grieux’s time in Paris, she might come across as more fleshed out. (Puccini continued to entertain such a possibility for a decade.) Instead, Sofulak offers us a nightclub singer and entertainer who attempts – I think – to take responsibility for her own career, to wrest its control from the lowlifes around her. The idea seems to me a good one; the problem lies, perhaps as with the work, in its partial, confusing realisation. There is nothing wrong with making an audience work, asking it to fill in certain aspects; not everything can be portrayed on stage or indeed in the pit. The clashes between ‘original’ and new setting, though, often seem arbitrary rather than productive. By the time one realises what is happening in the fourth act, that Manon is making her escape from this world, abandoning her lover too, one may have ceased to care. A keener sense of place, even if place explicitly not created, would have helped. One does not need to see Le Havre or the bizarre ‘desert’ outside New Orleans, but if much is to remain the same, either abstraction or knowing, purposive infidelity may need to come across more strongly. Perhaps, though, I was missing the point and might feel differently on a second viewing; it has happened before and will surely happen again.

That difficulty with caring or with otherwise feeling truly involved is part of the work’s problem, at least for many of us. Too often, I found myself wishing that this were Lulu or, somewhere in between, Boulevard Solitude. Perhaps, though, that did credit to much of the musical performance. If, in my heart of hearts, I might prefer a few more strings for Puccini, I could hardly fault the City of London Sinfonia under Peter Robinson, and do not wish to try. There were a few moments when pit and stage fell out of sync in the first act, but that can happen in the finest of houses. More to the point, Robinson and his players pointed up nicely the character of each act, permitting one’s ears to draw all manner of connections between Puccini’s roots, his future, and his influence and affinities. Wagner loomed increasingly large, but so did devices Puccini would adopt more successfully in subsequent works, as well as sounds one might have thought stolen from Debussy, Stravinsky, even Poulenc – save for the fact that, if anything, it must have been the other way around.

Lescaut (Paul Carey Jones), Manon, Geronte (Stephen Richardson)

Elizabeth Llewellyn unquestionably did what she could to have one care about Manon and her plight. If the character remains unsatisfactory, that is in no way to be attributed to Llewellyn, whose typically intelligent, sympathetic performance rose far above the vocal difficulties recent laryngitis occasionally revealed. Paul Carey Jones and Stephen Richardson brought similar depth to their roles as Lescaut and Geronte respectively, again supplying as much implied context as anyone could reasonably ask. If Peter Auty’s performance as Des Grieux proved somewhat generalised and gestural, there could be no doubting his enthusiasm. The Holland Park Chorus combined such enthusiasm with greater precision – vocal and staged; so too did other members of the cast, Stephen Aviss and Alastair Sutherland making a particular favourable impression.

Monday 3 June 2019

Aimard et al.: Stockhausen, 1 and 2 June 2019

Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room

Klaverstücke I-XI; Kontakte
Für kommende Zeiten
Zyklus; Mantra

Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Tamara Stefanovich (pianos)
Dirk Rothbrust (percussion)
Marco Stroppa (sound diffusion)

London Voices:
Laura Forbes L’Estrange (sopranos)
Clara Sanabras (mezzo-soprano)
Richard Eteson, Ben Parry (tenors)
Nicholas Garrett (bass)
Ian Dearden (sound projection)

Apartment House:
Simon Limbrick (percussion)
Philip Thomas (piano)
Kerry Yong (piano, keyboard)
Rhodri Davies (harp)
Anton Lukoszevieze (cello)

As Amsterdam celebrated ‘Aus Licht’, not quite the complete Licht premiere we still await, but a generous tasting from all seven operas, those of us unable to attend had to content ourselves with a Stockhausen weekend in London instead. It was certainly an intense couple of days, rewarding too, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard at its heart, just as he had been of the Stockhausen performances at last year’s Musikfest Berlin (three of them reviewed here and here).

I have purposely not re-read what I wrote then, though I shall have a look after posting. The enormity of Aimard’s achievement in the first eleven Klavierstücke, followed here by Kontakte (in a different programme in Berlin), was not diminished by a second hearing, quite the contrary. Indeed, a fundamental theme to everything heard here, in many ways a more diverse offering than in Berlin, was the crucial role played by performance in Stockhausen. Aimard’s ordering remained III, IV, II, I, V, VIII, VII, VI, XI, IX, X. Some people, I know, would have preferred the first four to have been played I-IV, but for me, the order of chronological writing worked well too. The third took its leave from Stockhausen and Webern, but starker, more northern (less Austrian?) Hard on its heels, the fourth initially yielded, almost as if a second subject, but quickly went on its own way: in the same line, yet different. Aimard’s gleaming Yamaha sound seemed ideal for the fusion of musical meaning and serial requirements that lies at the heart of the composer’s art – and thus at the performer’s too; for here was no doubting Aimard’s internalisation of this music, just as there would not be for Beethoven or Messiaen. The second piece sang and struggled, detail of duration and thus of meaning at its heart; the first proved frenetic, especially when not overtly so, in its post-Schoenbergian build-up. Time, then, for a little pause.

There was an intriguingly Boulezian éclat to the opening of the fifth piece, though its development – I think we can call it that, at a pinch – proved once again more overtly Germanic. Much the same might be said of its later chordal progress. The scale was, of course, quite different here from the shorter, earlier pieces; it was made not only to feel so, but necessarily so. An intensely dramatic eighth piece seemed, at least in retrospect, to prepare the way for the artistry with which, in the seventh, repeated pitch was ‘repeated’, or perhaps better, reinstated. (Such was how it felt, anyway.) It was as if this was the moment Stockhausen truly began to itch for the stage, even if it were that of a late Wagnerian ‘invisible theatre’. Aimard’s mastery of resonance already looked forward, fascinatingly, to the second and third concerts of what one would generally, quite rightly, think of as a very different Stockhausen. Then came the sixth, to which, again in retrospect, everything seemed to have been working towards. It sounded generative in a fashion both ‘traditional’ and anything but. How its silences told! How everything else did too, in all its combinations of parameters and their relationships. Monumental was the word for it.

There was opening éclat to the eleventh piece too. By now, there was little way one could not but listen to every note and its relationship to every other – or rather, at least think and feel that was what one was doing. Such was the way Stockhausen and Aimard had led us in. Were those strainings towards electronic sound? Perhaps it was fancy, but is that not too part of musical composition, performance, and listening? Likewise in the ninth piece, albeit in more chordal terms – yet still in terms of something greater. What was ‘old’, what was ‘new’? One asked, even if one could not answer. Finally, we heard the gloved scherzando of Klavierstück X, pyrotechnics and poetry as one: a Feux d’artifice for the atomic age. It was terrifying, thrilling, anything other than consoling. Sheer variety of sound, of voices, of music was very much the thing. And if the final phrase were not quite throwaway Haydn, nor was it quite not that.

For Kontakte, following an interval, Aimard returned (!) with Dirk Rothbrust (percussion) and Marco Stroppa (sound diffusion). Here, virtuosity was returned with interest: à 3, as it were. Theatre was more overt, in every sense, spatial performance and hearing to the fore from the outset. Precision, however, was every bit as crucial, as awe-inspiringly realised, as in the solo piano works. It was interesting to reflect, historically, on how twentieth-century percussion may have paved the way for electronics; such seemed to be part of the ‘moment’ here, at least. At one point, I almost fancied I heard helicopters about to take flight. Structure and its dynamic realisation in time, form, proved dizzyingly circular, yet not quite. This was music-making at its most open, in at least one sense.

Immediately afterwards, we moved from the Queen Elizabeth Hall to the Purcell Room for Stimmung. How one responds to a performance is perhaps an unusually personal thing. I, however, found this London Voices rendition especially involving, the drama heightened, verbal acuity to the fore. There was ritual, yes, but of an approachable kind, perhaps more akin to what we experience in general concert life, less ‘other’. Overtones did their work, but so did words (whatever one thinks of them). There were pros and cons to hearing this after the piano works and Kontakte; for me, on this occasion, the former outweighed the latter.

Likewise, after a good few hours’ break, for the following day’s Für kommende Zeiten. Here, the intuitive music that is not improvisation, the verbal scores that seem both to require reading and performance in just as emphatic a way as the Klavierstücke yet also not to do so, will perhaps always remain a mystery, at least to those of us listening rather than performing. The splendid performers of Apartment House, however, took us on a journey as fascinating, at many times as unexpected, as those to which many of us are more accustomed. We did not hear all seventeen pieces, but seven over about an hour and a quarter, ‘Intervall’, for piano duo (the only piece in which precise instrumentation is specified) proving quite the curtain-raiser, as our blindfolded pianists, Philip Thomas and Kerry Yong, acclimatised and gained their sight, in the process seemingly enabling our hearing to become listening. ‘Verlängerung’, ‘Zugvogel’, ‘Vorahnung’, ‘Japan’, ‘Anhalt’, ‘Spektren’, and ‘Schwingung’ followed. It is doubtless the height of Orientalism to say there were hints of an Orient that seemed to go beyond Orientalism, but such was our illusion.

For the final concert, we returned to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Zyklus and Mantra. Rothbrust treated us to a mesmerising performance of the former, centre stage in every sense. Relationships again manifested themselves not only as points of interest but as the binding material of the music – if not just as in Beethoven, then in a way one might relate to his music, should one wish. Barriers between tuned and untuned percussion seemed to fall by the way. Here was a new orchestra: no gamelan, but Stockhausen’s own, Rothbrust’s own too. Such was the variegation of timbre and its implications, one could imagine never wanting to hear anything else. This was a cycle that was both just that and so much more.

Aimard returned for Mantra, with Stroppa and Tamara Stefanovich. I found myself making comparisons with Boulez’s second book of Structures, which I had heard – and seen – Aimard and Stefanovich perform in this same hall in 2011. Not that the works have very much in common; it was as much a visual-dramatic way in, and very soon more a contrast than a comparison. Two pianos, two pianists, then, played with bells, became bells and their masters. What was the relationship between acoustic and electronic, between work and performance, between instrument(s) and their performers? Such questions, such contests and collaborations, were part of the drama, but so too was an almost conventional battle royal heard at one point, Stockhausen’s often overlooked (German) sense of humour certainly given a fair hearing in this case. His music proved as obstinate as Beethoven and as strange to us as – well, life on Sirius. Aimard and Stefanovich afforded us as strong a sense of the whole as they might have done in Bach or Brahms; within that framework, there were in equal measure to be heard, felt, even thought, great subtlety and starkness. There was ritual, of course, but again not of an especially esoteric kind. There was no doubting either the composer’s voice or that of his performers. The sense of aftershock following the pianists’ howling proved almost Mahlerian. What did it mean? Who knows? Perhaps the question is as irrelevant as Stravinsky would have us believe, or as the ritual of later Stockhausen works such as Inori might suggest. The ensuing two-piano-plus toccata proved at least as mesmerising as Zyklus; and likewise changed the face of all that came thereafter. Form manifested itself in work, performance, and listening – even if, sometimes especially if, one could not put a name to it. There are, after all, many such mysteries in our world and beyond.