Sunday 27 October 2019

Aimard/BPO/Roth - Haydn, Bartók, and Varèse, 26 October 2019


Haydn: Symphony no.59 in A major, ‘Fire’
Bartók: Piano Concerto no.3, Sz 119
Bartók: Dance Suite, Sz 77
Varèse: Arcana (revised version, 1960)

Varèse: Poème électronique; Ionisation; Density 21.5; Octandre; Intégrales; Hyperprism; Ionisation; Octandre; Offrandes

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Sarah Aristidou (soprano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Scholars of the Karajan Academy
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

Two Berlin Philharmonic concerts in a single evening: such is the cultural desert we know as Berlin. For the first, we heard Haydn, Bartók, and Varèse from the full Berlin Philharmonic, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and François-Xavier Roth; for the second, Roth and members of the orchestra were joined by scholars of the orchestra’s Karajan Academy, a few guest instrumentalists, and soprano, Sarah Aristidou for late-night Varèse that went beyond a mere ‘bonus’. Both concerts proved enlivening and edifying: complementary, yes, yet eminently satisfying in their own right.

Haydn’s Symphony no.59 received, sadly yet far from surprisingly, its Berlin Philharmonic debut. (That is not intended in any sense as a criticism of this orchestra; I imagine it would be the same for many others.) Is there a composer so fundamental to the canon – other, perhaps, than Schoenberg or Webern? – so scandalously neglected? The orchestra and Roth certainly made up for lost time, in a performance as fizzing as it was thoughtful, as charming as it was enthralling. A vigorous opening movement, full of life, released nervous energy rather than – in the manner of so many current Haydn performances – trying to impose it upon the music. Line and disjuncture were revealed to be too sides of the same coin; Beethoven certainly did not come from nowhere. It was full of surprises, even for those who might have ‘known’, so long as one listened – which listening was certainly invited. Harpsichord continuo, so discrete one could barely hear it, was employed, for those who care about such matters. The second movement sounded elegant, yet strange: nothing taken for granted, whether by Haydn, Roth, or the players. Balance or dialectic between counterpoint and harmony? That was the question key to both work and performance. Haydn’s ingenuity is and sounded extraordinary, without exaggeration. Likewise in the minuet, whose structure many, foolishly, might consider merely conventional – that is, again, until they listen. A sotto voce move to the trio again took us by surprise, drawing us in further to savour Haydn’s tonal delights. The finale was everything a finale should be, not least in its brazen particularity. Berlin horns in particular thrilled, but really, this was a showstopper for all concerned. How could one not adore such music, when taken on such a journey, with such twists and turns, and in such expert hands?

Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto has long been a problem work for me. Although it was the first I heard, thrilled by a performance I heard as a schoolboy at Sheffield City Hall – I cannot recall by whom – I have, almost ever since, responded far more readily to the First and Second. I might have known that Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Roth would be the musicians to change that. With this performance, it suddenly made sense to me and I could no longer understand what my difficulties might have been. Exceptional keenness at the opening, from orchestra and soloist alike, promised much and was fulfilled. Again, nothing was taken for granted; again, we were invited, in eminently collegial fashion, to listen, rather than bludgeoned into doing so. (That is partly the nature of the music, of course. There would have been nothing wrong with, say, Beethoven or Mahler compelling us to do so in different fashion.) What struck me, in this first movement and throughout, was the revelation of listening to (this) Bartók in the light of Haydn. Indeed, listening to the relationship once more of harmony to counterpoint, in a not entirely dissimilar way, was invaluable to finding that key to the door that was not Bluebeard’s. Aimard’s phrasing and voicing were second to none: never prominent for their own sake, always in the service of musical expression. This was, moreover, a true partnership between conductor, soloist, and orchestral musicians, all listening to and responding to one another; audience too, it seemed.

There was an almost neoclassical chasteness to the opening of the second movement, Aimard’s responses to the orchestra almost akin to those of the piano in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, less taming the Furies, if we recall Tovey’s evocative characterisation, than beginning to thaw the intriguingly Stravinskian ice. The night music was both contrasted and rooted in what had gone before, again recalling Haydn’s moves; fantastical and not without the occasional hint of Ravel, it sounded newly strange and yet ultimately familiar. The finale erupted with perfect yet never predictable logic, as if to say, yes, the old Bartók is still here; that is, before it took another, related path, once again bringing Haydn’s surprises to mind. Bartók as Classicist? No. Bartók as fresh renewal of the Classical? Quite probably.

Following the interval, Bartók’s Dance Suite – first played by the orchestra under Furtwängler, most recently under Boulez – was immediately characterised by a similar freshness, rhythms sharply etched yet, crucially, never considered separately from other parameters. This was dance music, one might say, rather than musical dance. Flexibility, where apt, was as noteworthy as drive. The Berlin Philharmonic sounded at its most magnificent when truly unleashed, but this was a multi-faceted performance, of fantasy, charm, balletic moves, and ebullience.

Varèse’s Arcana was given its German premiere by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1932, conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky. Its 1960 revision was last heard here as recently as 2016, under Andris Nelsons. Roth proved a worthy successor, setting up a clear, anticipatory opposition and complement between the stark and the fantastical. The Stravinsky of the Rite, but even of the Firebird, was far from dead, but much the same might have been said of Romanticism. It is easy to think of Varèse in such terms in the abstract; it is not always so easy to hear him as such. Here, in a beautifully upholstered performance, a delightful, structured starscape emerged, twin riots as well as rites of spring heard – even, perhaps, seen – in simultaneity. Or was it more summer? Roth’s tracing of the work’s logic and illogic was, at any rate, vividly communicated.

We returned to the hall a little later for Varèse’s Poème électronique. There remains something a little strange to a concert hall, a space for performance, as home for a work without performers (at least in the conventional sense). Percussionists and conductor filled the gap, in a way, entering the hall ready for the following Ionisation, Roth pressing the button on the laptop onstage for the beginning of the electronic poem first ‘performed’ at Expo 58’s Philips Pavilion, designed by Le Corbusier and Xenakis. Now we sounded closer to Stockhausen, though these sounds, this music, could never be mistaken for his. The spatial element was undeniable, of course, but only as part of something more. This was, it seemed, in a very different way both from Arcana and Sirius’s most celebrated son, music of the stars. Memories, the illusion of a heavenly, electronic ‘ensemble’ and much else combined – both just as musical instruments and performers might, and quite differently from anything they might have accomplished.

Ionisation emerged from its shadows – or rays. It was fascinating, disconcerting, even amusing to hear the siren sound as if it were still part of this piece’s fading predecessor, though that fading had, in fact, already ceased. One made connections: perhaps above all of ritual. The hieratic quality heard here, as later with Intégrales in particular, was, however, quite different, revealing a very different musical conception and narrative. Was this a controlled riot, or a riot out of control? As with Varèse’s successor, Boulez –Roth seemed especially sensitive to that affinity – it was difficult, perhaps impossible to tell. Then, before we knew it, Density 21.5, for solo flute, was heard from on high. Initially seductive, Debussyan, in a way that seemed to extend beyond mere sentimental identification with the instrument, it announced the importance of timbre and then revised that initial assessment, suggesting that it had, in fact, been little more than sentimental. For soon, we sensed what the two works had in common too: a fascinating, telling juxtaposition.

Octandre’s instrumental timbres engendered not only different expectations but the musical material itself. It is, in reality, a game of chicken-and-egg, not least since the distinction is arguably false, but such was the impression in context here. The music’s aggression was palpable and powerful, tension at times close to overwhelming. I am not sure that I have heard a double bass sound stranger, and yet I am equally unsure that I could say why.

The starkness of hieratic ritual in Intégrales seemed to foreshadow Birtwistle, albeit initially without explicit, perhaps even implicit, violence. Not that that could be said at the close, growth and transformation powerfully conveyed in an exceptional, disconcerting performance. One might have thought Hyperprism would sound dissimilar; but no, as in the case of, say, two Haydn symphonies written for similar forces, the musical invention was revealed to be very different. Instruments in themselves, we learned, do not create the material: as important a lesson in listening as in composition. Aristidou duly complemented and contrasted with the players for the closing Offrandes, the first song oracular, the second losing its mooring in the ‘old’, whatever that may have been. It was, like its predecessors, a detailed and compelling performance. It asked what might have been, had Varèse taken a different path, and also confirmed the rightness of that he did take: not unlike, then, the rest of this evening’s music-making.

Friday 25 October 2019

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Deutsche Oper, 24 October 2019

 Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Image: Bettina Stöß

Hoffmann – Marc Laho
Stella, Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta – Heather Engebretson
Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, Dapertutto – Byung Gil Kim
Muse, Nicklausse – Irene Roberts
Andrès, Cochenille, Franz, Pitichianaccio – Andrew Dickinson
Mother’s Voice – Ronnita Miller
Spalanzani – Jörg Schörner
Luther, Crespel – Andrew Harris
Hermann – Matthew Cossack
Schlemihl – Timothy Newton
Natanael – Ya-Chung Huang

Laurent Pelly (director)
Christian Räth (revival director)
Chantal Thomas (designs)
Joël Adam (lighting)
Charles Carcopino (video)
Agathe Mélinand, Katharina Duda (dramaturgy)

Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines) of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin 
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Daniel Carter (conductor)

It is a strange piece, The Tales of Hoffmann. I can only speak from my own experience, but, irrespective of performance, irrespective of production, irrespective of textual issues, it never quite seems to come off. Perhaps it is that, as a friend said to me last night, it is too ambitious. That seems to me a better emphasis than ‘problematical’, though arguably the distinction in meaning is negligible. It also points, as that wise and learned friend went on, to the opera’s charm: a more fragile and yes, perhaps, problematical beast, given scale and forces, than the more intimate, often acutely satirical opéras bouffes with which Offenbach is more naturally bien dans sa peau.

Something could – should – be done with those and other tensions, with the work’s metatheatricality, with the fantasy of a work that, after all, is designated an opéra fantastique. Laurent Pelly, alas, would not seem to be the director for any of that. If there is nothing especially wrong with his production, new last year, nor is there anything especially right with – or, better, compelling to – it, either. There are handsome, if highly conservative, set and costume designs (Chantal Thomas, with assistance from Jean-Jaques Delmotte in the latter case), accomplished revival direction and Spielleitung (Christian Räth and Eva-Maria Abelein), and that is about it. Of questions arising from writing an opera based on a play about a writer we have nothing; of any subtexts, be they political, aesthetic, sexual, anything at all, nothing; of a critical standpoint, nothing; of anything approaching modern, let alone contemporary, theatre nothing; and so on, and so forth. There was not even anything in the way of spectacle; unless, out of desperation, you were to count a large video projection of Antonia’s mother’s face, to accompany her voice from beyond. Were this the nth revival, replete with a new lick of paint, of something in the repertory for four or five decades, one might think something once present had been lost; in this case, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Pelly had presented precious little to get one’s teeth into in the first place. There is so much more potentially here – one need not look elsewhere – than is acknowledged by so reactionary a standpoint. Just when I thought there might be the glimmerings of a concept, however circumscribed, in the Olympia act, seeing the mechanical doll’s visible stage apparatus, it turned out to be no such thing: sometimes visible stage apparatus is just somewhat unfortunately visible stage apparatus. One can recognise and celebrate the skilled work of all involved backstage – true, valuable skills – while wishing it had been put in the service of something more interesting. The version employed had its virtues and its problems; I shall leave them for another day.

If there was little in the way of theatrical interest, however, there was much to admire musically. This was the first time I had heard Daniel Carter conduct, but I hope it will not be the last. If I say that his conducting did not attract attention to itself, I do not intend to imply that it was dull, far from it; rather, there was a rightness to his choices of tempo, of balance, and everything else that fed the illusion was ‘simply’ hearing Offenbach. The Deutsche Oper’s orchestra and chorus proved estimable partners in crime: incisive, fantastical, wry, full of body as required. French vocal style seems a well-nigh impossible thing for modern, international – even modern French – casts to bring off; or perhaps my expectations are at fault. That said, there was an uncommonly high success rate with the language: never something to be taken for granted. And if some singing tended unduly towards the Italianate, it was not so difficult to enjoy it for what it was. Marc Laho and Heather Engebretson worked tirelessly in the central roles, both vividly communicative, the latter distinguishing and yet combining the demands of her various characters with great success – and scoring higher in the stylistic stakes than most. Byung Gil Kim’s bass-baritone proved a joy from beginning to end; darkly suave, this is surely a Don Giovanni in the making, perhaps already made. Moreover, I can imagine Boris Godunov knocking on the door a few years down the line. Irene Roberts’s Muse and Nicklausse were beautifully, honestly sung and acted throughout: another artist from whom I hope to see and hear more. Andrew Dickinson and – offstage – Ronnita Miller also shone; as, highly creditably, did the excellent tenor, Ya-Chung Huang in the role of Natanael. There were no weak links, though; and, as so often, at this house, a proper sense of company. If only there had been a production to match.

Thursday 24 October 2019

Mutter/Ma/WEDO/Barenboim - Beethoven and Bruckner, 23 October 2019


Images: (c) Monika Rittershaus

Beethoven: Concerto for piano, violin, cello, and orchestra in C major, op.56
Bruckner: Symphony no.9

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
West-Eastern-Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano, conductor)

Twenty years of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: can it really be so? Indeed it can, and what an inspiration – musical, political, humanist – it continues to be. ‘Not in our wildest dreams,’ Daniel Barenboim writes in the programme, ‘could we have imagined that 20 years later this orchestra would be travelling the world as a musical ambassador for cultural understanding.’ Yo-Yo Ma was with the orchestra from the start; Anne-Sophie Mutter first joined only this year. After a wonderful performance of the Beethoven Triple Concerto, all three musicians performing as soloists, Barenboim as conductor too, the latter announced that his colleagues, to their evident delight, would now be honorary members of the orchestra. It was, then, a special evening in several ways – yet, as ever, none more so than the musical, without which the project, born in Weimar in 1999, would long since have been forgotten. For there was nothing remotely of the routine to either of these performances, separately and together an event fitting to these anniversary celebrations, which will now look forward to the future of the ensemble and its ideals, in a series commemorating the 200th anniversary of Goethe’s original West-Eastern Divan, from which the orchestra and more broadly its mission take their name.

I am not sure that I have heard the orchestral cello opening to the Beethoven sound quite so full of expectation, still less so when the rest of the orchestra joined, sending shivers down the spine. What depth there was to the sound of the string section, what keenness to the wind. When our piano trio entered, the relationship between soloists, however starry, and orchestra sounded collegial. Sometimes the latter would amplify, shadow in an almost Boulezian sense, the former; on other occasions, the give and take of Classical chamber music found itself writ large. Throughout this first movement and beyond, the performance was variegated and dynamic, founded, as ever with Barenboim, on harmony, be it that of the piano bass, its orchestral counterpart, or both. If he necessarily stood (and sat) at the centre, there was no grandstanding, no pretence at superiority; as there should, indeed must, be in Palestine, there was room for all. Ma’s quicksilver response and careful listening to that of his fellow musicians was perhaps the most readily visible, yet without such an attitude from all concerned, all would have come to naught. A welcome note of old-school glamour from Mutter brought thoughts and memories, however distorted by sentiment, of the age of Jacques Thibaud. All had roles to play, none more important than listening.

The slow movement’s opening cello solo, as eloquent as it was elegant, was cushioned perfectly by the orchestra. How many years’ experience by now Barenboim must have as ‘accompanist’, whether at the piano, as conductor – or here, as both. Ma’s honest lyricism – rapt might suggest here something more self-regarding – was duly responded to by all concerned, whether soloists or orchestral musicians, wondrous Harmoniemusik proving just the trick. A finely traced transition took us to a finale imbued anew with a sense of tonal discovery, however much one may have ‘known’. The release of pent-up energy was echt-Beethoven; so too was its humour. Delicacy and drive were combined in a performance whose Beethovenian nobility was felt just as keenly as the intelligence of its structural command. Whatever some cultured despisers may tell you, this is not second-rate Beethoven. Only a second-rate performance could have one think so, and this was certainly not that.

A string section pretty much doubled in size, alongside augmented forces all round, returned for Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, its opening heir to another, (still) more elemental Beethoven, that of the Ninth Symphony. And so, the first movement opened, again expectant, febrile. However, what struck me here and throughout was Barenboim’s tendency towards highlighting the modernist, the fragmentary: not at the expense of underlying coherence, but rather in dialectical relationship to it. This might almost have been Pierre Boulez conducting; perhaps ironically, there was a stronger sense of incipient Mahler – a composer to whom Boulez stood closer than the more selective Barenboim has – to the second thematic group than I can recall hearing previously, the chorale from the first movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, rooted and yet rootless, seemingly already in the making. That said, a Furtwänglerian combination of flexibility and direction endured, indeed intensified, in the great flow of this movement and its successors. If Barenboim’s Beethoven has often seemed to owe much to a compelling synthesis of Furtwängler and Klemperer, here Furtwängler and Boulez seemed to be the thing. Fascinating – and, crucially again, compelling. Harmony below, its dissolution above; brass of the Wagnerian apocalypse; as full an orchestral sound as you could imagine; that and much more took us to a coda of unutterable defiance. ‘Dem lieben Gott’? Yes and no.   

The scherzo proved more overtly diabolical, in properly disconcerting fashion. Rhythm, melody too (delectably turned woodwind melodic fragments in particular), emerged from harmony, threatening to separate, yet quite properly, never managing to do so. This music may retain strong roots in Schubert, yet it sounded at times uncommonly distant, without rejection. Relaxation, such as it was, in the trio, was deeply ambiguous. Dissolution and disintegration of at least one type, often more, was always a present danger. It should be no surprise to hear Wagner in Barenboim’s Bruckner, but rarely, if ever, can the third movement have sounded quite so soaked in Parsifal, and so fatally determined to escape its narcotic orbit. How? The question is part theological, part ontological, above all musical. Such, in many ways, was the drama of this movement and indication of the futility of any attempt to ‘complete’ the symphony; for this was a supremely questing, questioning performance, plagued by doubt, yet equally certain that it must find a way. Taken to extremes, not least of tempo, it refuted any case for ‘moderation’, cohering, yet never too readily. Final repose somehow seemed both absolute and temporary. There are lessons beyond the ‘merely’ musical in that too.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

R.I.P. Raymond Leppard (1927-2019)

‘The light of my life,’ Janet Baker once described him. Raymond Leppard's recordings certainly lit up mine – and continue to do so. From his legendary Monteverdi and Cavalli, which still knock spots off much of the allegedly ‘authenticke’ competition, to the twentieth century, Leppard’s music-making was above all characterised an unmistakeable zest for and belief in his art, quite without affectation or concomitant regard for fashion. I only heard him twice in the flesh: once as a schoolboy, in Sheffield, with the Hallé; and once, with his beloved English Chamber Orchestra, in London, in Handel’s Acis and Galatea, with Dame Janet, no less, as narrator (the only time, alas, I heard her, and then only speaking). His sense of joy and humanity,  remained undimmed, not least in a Hallé Enigma Variations to rank with the best. We shall not hear his like again – but we shall continue to listen to his wonderful performances. Let us take a few minutes, as soon as practicable, to do so in his honour.

Monday 21 October 2019

The Mask of Orpheus, English National Opera, 18 October 2019


Images: (c) Alastair Muir, 2019

Orpheus the Man – Peter Hoare
Orpheus the Myth, Hades – Daniel Norman
Orpheus the Hero – Matthew Smith
Eurydice the Woman – Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Eurydice the Myth, Persephone – Claire Barnett-Jones
Eurydice the Hero – Alfa Marks
Aristaeus the Man – James Cleverton
Aristaeus the Myth, Charon – Simon Bailey
Aristaeus the Hero – Leo Hedman
The Oracle of the Dead, Hecate – Claron McFadden
The Caller – Robert Hayward
First Priest, Judge of the Dead – William Morgan
Second Priest, Judge of the Dead – David Ireland
Third Priest, Judge of the Dead – Simon Wilding
First Woman, Fury 1 – Charlotte Straw
Second Woman, Fury 2 – Katie Coventry
Third Woman, Fury 3 – Katie Stevenson
Dancers – Joan Aguila-Cuevas, Sam Ford, Ripp Greatbatch, Stefano de Luca

Daniel Kramer (director)
Lizzie Clachan (set designs)
Daniel Lismore (costumes)
Peter Mumford (lighting, video)
Barnaby Booth (choreography)

Ian Dearden (sound design)
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus masters: James Henshaw, Mark Biggins)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins, James Henshaw (conductors)

‘All opera is Orpheus,’ Adorno once declared – although, typically, what he meant by that was rather more complicated than mere quotation would suggest. Perhaps, in some sense, all music in the Western tradition is too – again, so long as we take care, as Harrison Birtwistle always has, never to confuse starkness with over-simplification. In the beginning, then, was Orpheus, his myth repeated, elaborated upon, throughout Western musical tradition, and especially throughout Western operatic tradition. It is surely no coincidence that it was with this monumental work that Birtwistle sought his most radical extension yet of that line. He wanted, he said, ‘to invent [my italics] a formalism which does not rely on tradition in the way that Punch and Judy, my first opera, relied on tradition. There I used forms such as the chorale, toccata and gavotte. I injected them into my work just as Berg injected formal ideas into Wozzeck. In The Mask of Orpheus, I didn’t want to hark back any more; I wanted to create a formal world that was utterly new.’

Expectations could not have been higher. For some, yours truly included, this was a moment for which we had been waiting the whole of our musical lives. From a career strewn with masterpieces, here came at last a second staging of Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus: heard only once complete, in concert, since its 1986 premiere, and never since seen in the theatre. I had previously only managed to hear a single act, in concert, at the Proms: an unforgettable experience that only increased my hunger to hear – and to see – more. Present at that first, ENO performance, Alfred Brendel extolled The Mask of Orpheus as the first English musical masterpiece since Purcell. Many will find that view a touch harsh on some music and composers – even assuming Handel’s exclusion – intervening. Be that as it may, no one with any serious interest in music or opera, indeed no one with a passing interest, yet possessed of half an ear and a little curiosity, would deny the work’s stature.

Musical values were high, as they would have to be: there is no more point putting on Birtwistle with musicians unequal to its challenges than there is Stockhausen. That excellence we heard from ENO forces should nevertheless not be taken for granted. The conflict between rational and irrational, between what Orpheus must do to win back Eurydice and what his urge to act as a human being, a conflict as old as that between Apollo and Dionysus and in many respects to be identified therewith, lies at the heart of this work. The climax to the second act, indeed the whole of that extraordinary structure of recollective arches, not only retains its enormous, truly post-Wagnerian power; it seems to increase with every hearing. This proved no exception. One was truly left reeling then – and not only then – at least insofar as one could separate the musical performance from its sadly inadequate scenic realisation, on which more shortly.

Moreover, if that conflict between the demands of reason and those of emotion lies at the work’s dramatic heart, so too does the variety of ways in which its participants, us included, might look at, experience, reflect upon that conflict, not least through time, ours and the characters’ (broadly speaking, as human, myth, and hero, though never in linear fashion, and just as much musically – lyrically and formally – as verbally and scenically). In a sense, this is true of all opera; ‘all opera is Orpheus’. But it is perhaps more so here, more overtly so, more strenuously. Martyn Brabbins and James Henshaw, assisted by Adam Hickox, did a superlative job of enabling the excellent orchestra, chorus, and cast to express what they could of this, Peter Hoare a fascinatingly flawed, multifariously tragic Orpheus the Man, Marta Fontanals-Simmons an alluring, inscrutable, even alluringly inscrutable Eurydice the Woman, ably supported by penetrating, intelligently contrasted performances from Daniel Norman and Claire-Barnett Jones as their mythical counterparts. James Cleverton as Aristaeus and Claron McFadden as the extraordinary Oracle of the Dead also stood out dramatically, but there was nothing approaching a weak link to the cast. Barry Anderson’s electronic realisation, with sound design by Ian Dearden, proved as liminally dramatic in its way as Stockhausen, as pregnant with dramatic purpose as an ‘interlude’ in Wagner.

If only Daniel Kramer’s bizarre, ultimately vacuous production had been remotely equal to its task. Where the work speaks of and with starkness and complexity, Kramer seemingly mistook the latter for a gaudy variety show, validated by inclusion of more and more unconnected – with each other, let alone with the work – acts. This was not the idea of the circus, nor indeed the idea of anything else; it was a hideous and, doubtless, highly expensive mess. Occasionally, the possibility of recollection, of memory, even of dream sequence, asserted itself, more by default than anything else. For the most part, we suffered an absurd – never, alas, absurdist – display of exaggerated, ‘saucy’, latex-clad nurses and medical equipment; of supposedly shocking, yet actually deeply tedious, sexual acts; of people – often entirely unclear who they were, and to what end – emerging and sinking into bathtubs; of highly skilled acrobats (for the opera’s mime action) removing and replacing their clothes, before resuming their distracting activity; of general hyperactivity that not once seemed to enquire what it, let alone of anything else, might be for, let alone of whether its seemingly hapless orientalism might prove a tad problematical to some. It was unclear that the ‘concept’, if one may call it that, was anything more than an ageing rock musician – we see the platinum discs on the wall – Orpheus, holed up in his extravagantly equipped hotel room, having a bad trip. And even that was perhaps to dignify it.

Was this, perhaps, opera for a world with its eyes – and possibly ears – on several screens at once, craving instant diversion rather than satisfaction? Was there even something of the postdramatic to it? I can see that the argument might be made, but frankly, in this particular case, I think not; or if it is, then there really ought to be more to it than this. Constant changing of the emperor’s still newer, still more sparkly, clothes – ‘by artist, campaigner and designer Daniel Lismore, described by Vogue as “England’s most outrageous dresser”’ – was not enough, never nearly enough. Nor was there any sign of irony, of critique, of anything more than camp excess really – which is not to deny the excellent artistry of those on stage, doing what they could. Carry on Birtwistle, then? It just about qualifies as a point of view, I suppose; or, better, as the slender basis for one. I cannot help but think that it would have been better left on the shelf, along with the rest of this wasteful production: a non-ironic cross between Robert Lepage and Liberace.

The absurdity might have worked; all manner of things might have worked; however, in the absence of a connecting pair of ears, let alone anything between them, this was doomed to remain an endless parade – in a decidedly non-Birtwistle sense – of effortful vulgarity on- and offstage, as idiotic as it was wasteful. Wherever one looked, one was assailed with advertisements for a crystal company to which I shall refrain from granting further publicity. Nothing could have lain further from the essence of Birtwistle’s score, nor indeed from Peter Zinovieff’s libretto. Yet such contradiction was not fruitful; nor even, so it seemed, intentional. If anything, it simply suggested a director out of his depth – and not even in the opera’s shallows. The true tragedy, of course, lies in the damage this may do to prospects for a third production, even for a further concert performance. Not for the first time, alas, ENO has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Friday 18 October 2019

Shani/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Rachmaninov, Elgar, and Strauss, 15 October 2019


Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no.3 in D minor, op.30
Elgar: Falstaff, op.68
Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op.28

Lahav Shani (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The most German of all English composers, no one benefits more greatly than Elgar from rescue from the clammy, constricting embrace of ‘English music’. No conductor and orchestra perform that deed of rescue with greater conviction, insight, and rewards than Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. With this astonishing performance of Falstaff, they perhaps surpassed even themselves. Here, pre-empting Till Eulenspiegel, in danger of slightly overshadowing it, we heard a tone poem unmistakeably in Strauss’s tradition, albeit pushed still further, certainly not to be reduced to inheritance; yet equally unmistakeably, it spoke with Elgar’s voice, as if this were his true third symphony. Mordant yet affectionate, grand yet intimate, as thrilling as it was poignant, this performance, full of colour and incident, was, as much as any from Barenboim of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, or Wagner, founded securely and dynamically on harmonic and motivic development. Counterpoint was dramatically, even riotously, as generative as any in Die Meistersinger. Barenboim’s expert shaping at micro- and macro-levels never felt unduly moulded; this was music-making without so much as a hint of narcissism. Conductor and orchestra alike nonetheless revelled in the sheer complexity and virtuosity of a work that has eluded so many; I certainly felt that it had eluded me as a listener until then, hearing it as if for the first time. String tone was glorious, yet never for its own sake; every part of the orchestra, every soloist – principal bassoon, cello, and concertmaster first among equals – came truly into their own, as if this were their core repertoire. Thanks to Barenboim, it is not far off becoming so.

It was fascinating, then, to hear Till Eulenspiegel in Falstaff’s wake, in a performance that shared many of its virtues and added others of its own. Infinitely flexible, where called for, it was equally secure in direction and equally vivid in narrative. Above all, perhaps, it smiled – through Strauss’s mastery’, Barenboim’s, and that of the Staatskapelle Berlin. Technique is, or should be, a supremely enjoyable thing; so it was here. It should be a moving thing too, when in the service of something worthy, which here was the case in every sense.

In the first half, we had heard Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, with Lahav Shani as soloist. This is less obvious Barenboim territory, though he proved a wise, supportive accompanist to his protégé. In the first movement, depth and clarity alike characterised an often understated performance at swift tempi, not the only thing Shani’s approach had in common with the composer’s own. There was plenty of space nonetheless for pianistic reverie, for evocation of more than a few Lisztian sprites too. The second movement, arguably possessed of a broader emotional range here, sounded more in the line of Tchaikovsky. The piano part in particular proved more volatile, without loss to precision and pointing. There was no grandstanding to the finale, again taken swiftly, and none the worse for it. The turn to the major was especially well handled, Barenboim clearly understanding – and communicating – what was at stake. Harmony, then, once more.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Katya Kabanova, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 12 October 2019

Katěrina Kabanova – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanicha – Karita Mattila
Varvara – Anna Lapkovskaja
Boris Grigorjevič – Simon O’Neill
Váňa Kudrjáš – Florian Hoffmann
Tichon Ivanyč Kabanov – Stephan Rügamer
Savël Prokofjevič Dikoj – Pavlo Hunka
Kuligin, Passer-by – Viktor Rud
Glaša – Emma Sarkisyan
Fekluša – Adriane Queiroz
Woman – Liane Oßwald

Andrea Breth (director)
Annette Murschetz (set designs)
Silke Willrett, Marc Weeger (costumes)
Alexander Koppelmann (lighting)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Thomas Guggeis (conductor)

Katya Kabanova (Eva-Maria Westbroek)
Images: Bernd Uhlig, from the 2014 premiere

Given the success of Andrea Breth’s Berlin Staatsoper production of Wozzeck, it was perhaps not surprising to emerge from this Katya Kabanova feeling similarly drained. It had not previously occurred to me to consider the points of affinity between these two tragic operatic masterpieces of similar length, written at a similar time – Berg started composition considerably earlier and completed his work later – but Breth’s approach played a suggestive role. For redemption, spiritual uplift, any such glimmer, one would likely have sought in vain – certainly at its conclusion. Where Wozzeck’s expressionism was tempered or expanded by something one might characterise, with certain reservations, as realism – not that the opera ‘itself’ lacks that too – here it is perhaps the other way around, Janáček’s drama extended in its final act by something that, if not quite expressionistic, certainly went beyond the realm of realism conventionally understood. The storm and its aftermath are, in any case, clearly not intended purely in meteorological terms; here, however, Breth’s ritualistic stylisation affords opportunity, without abdication of tragic content, for a form of starkness somewhat different from that more readily encountered.

There, as at the opening, we see action, movement, that seems either to tend towards or away from a tableau: secularised, doubtless, like Janáček’s outlook itself, yet not without a sense, for better or ill, of the religious. This, it seems, is a grim, difficult world in which women especially, but many men too, are cowed by social and political rather than more strictly theological constructs. ‘Modesty’ of female dress is clearly no matter of choice; likewise, the shrouded identity, if one may call it that at all, of many of the women we see. Repression and hypocrisy are, at least in considerable part (for perpetrators, that is, not for victims). And, of course, whatever the social similarities Breth suggests with Wozzeck, heightened by a destitute Eastern Bloc setting perhaps even going beyond that chosen by Christoph Marthaler for Paris several years ago, a major distinction remains the centrality of women to Janáček’s opera.

If anything, Breth pushes that further. We see Katya treated to the point of torture by domestic incarceration in a cupboard (or is it a refrigerator?). We witness perhaps a truly formidable Kabanicha, a fur-clad Karita Mattila, rule the roost and let her guard down in private: second-act drunkenness leading to an extraordinary scene with Dikoj, in which, rather than reject his advances, she joins him on the dinner table to masturbate him, only to react with anger when his stamina proves insufficient for her needs. And we see, likewise at beginning and close, a small girl led across the stage in quasi-religious procession. Who is she? Is she one of the female characters, whose life might have turned out differently, had it not been for this vicious society and ideology? Is it a baby girl Katya might have lost? There are various possibilities open to us; if only there had been to her.

A particular strength of Thomas Guggeis’s conducting of the Staatskapelle Berlin lay in kinship with Breth’s conception. No one in his right mind would eradicate Janáček’s lyricism from the orchestra, let alone from the vocal line. (How could one, anyway?) That said, these remained brief moments of thwarted possibility amongst a notably dark account of the score, its niggling motivic, even cellular, possibilities pointing already to the Dostoevskyan world of From the House of the Dead. If there were times, especially during the first act, when I missed a little in the way of more conventional musical narrative, it seemed to me that this was very much an aesthetic choice – and one that had me ask why, the answers seeming more than justifiable in context. When the storm came, the unleashing of orchestral power – almost a tone poem with voices – said what must be said. As, of course, in her conception, did Kabanicha at the close.

Mattila’s delivery of her final line, thanking the people for their efforts, offered an unanswerable summation not only of her richly expressive vocal portrayal; not only of her imperious stage presence, unquestionably possessed of a complicated back-story concerning whose nature we could only speculate; but also of work and tight-knit production as a whole. Equally impressive was Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role, a character whose soul as well as her vocal line would constantly take flight, as much in societal repression as in those few, rare – in every sense – moments of free expression. Katya’s, Westbroek’s, and Janáček’s humanity shone through, extreme difficulties notwithstanding, indeed in many ways very much on their account. Simon O’Neill, if a little lacking in stage credibility, sang clearly and convincingly as Boris. Florian Hoffmann and Anna Lapkovskaja made for a lively, engaging pair of ‘secondary’ lovers; at least there was some hope remaining of matters turning out better in their case. Pavlo Hunka’s Dikoj and Stephan Rügamer’s Tichon proved keenly observed throughout. All, then, contributed intelligently and movingly to the greater dramatic conception. What a conception that continues to be.