Tuesday 15 December 2020

Friend/Maxwell Quartet - Haydn, Scottish folk music, and Mozart, 13 December 2020

St John’s, Waterloo

Image: Matthew Johnson Photographer

Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op.74 no.1
Scottish folk music
Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, KV 581

Anthony Friend (clarinet)
Colin Scobie, George Smith (violins)
Elliot Perks (viola)
Duncan Strachan (cello)

A highlight of my (late) summer was a visit to the Bandstand Chamber Festival in Battersea Park. For the dark nights, in every sense, of December, artistic director Anthony Friend has had the festival decamp a little further down the Thames to St John’s, Waterloo under the new guise of ‘Spotlight Chamber Concerts’. Very apt, too, the church in darkness, musicians spotlit in front of the altar steps.

The Maxwell Quartet’s concert (later joined by Friend on the clarinet) opened in arresting fashion, thanks to Haydn’s grand gesture—a simple perfect cadence, and yet…—to open his op.74 no.1. It is very much a ‘London’ quartet, written for the same public as those astonishing final dozen symphonies, and there seemed in these darkest of times something special indeed to hearing it in a city that has suffered so greatly not only this year but ever since Cameron’s infernal referendum. Keenness of playing encompassed civilisation and rusticity, detail and longer line, Haydn’s vision of humanity thus diverse and reconciled: a European union. I was struck by the concision of the whole, nowhere more so than in a development that, in performance as on the page, changes everything and yet has us return. The surprises, well-nigh Beethovenian, of the recapitulation, if we may call it that, afforded both delight and imperative to listen.

Cultivated innocence characterised the Andantino grazioso. Such dialectical reconciliation—not for nothing was Haydn Beethoven’s teacher—did not efface but rather brought into relief both the movement’s darker movements and the composer’s ever-astonishing powers of invention. Speaking of invention, what an extraordinary movement the Minuet is, here relished and communicated as such with evident love and understanding. Its swing said so much, as did the relaxation, finely judged, of its A major Trio. The finale fizzed with character, connoisseurship, and yes, invention. As in the first movement, performance made clear the richness of use to which Haydn puts his material. It was, again like the opening, impressive in a frankly symphonic sense that remained true to this mesmerising chamber music for Johann Peter Salomon, an earlier ‘citizen of nowhere’.

There remain—dare one even use that verb any more?—other unions for our political masters to break, not least that with us since 1707. At least for this evening, though, that could be postponed, the Maxwell players rewarding us with a little Scottish folk music, as arranged by fiddlers William Marshall and Isaac Cooper. In excellent command of the idiom, the players built and shaped both selections finely.

We were left in no doubt from the opening bars of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet that here was a very different composer from Haydn, or indeed his eighteenth-century Scots counterparts. Lyricism of a quality it is difficult not to think divine—and why would one try?—is the order of the day, and so it sounded, Anthony Friend’s liquid tone just the tonic for cares we had (almost) left without the church. Distinction of method in so many ways was communicated with an effortlessness, however apparent, however illusory, that remains nonetheless crucial to so much Mozart. The development sounded every bit as exploratory as Haydn’s, the recapitulation both returning and venturing into new, Così-like territory. That sense was furthered in a reading of the Larghetto of rare hushed intimacy, clarinet first among equals—until another instrument was. The Minuet brought ebullient contrast that yet already hinted at a vulnerability, even anguish, given fuller voice in the first trio. The second trio’s serenading chimed with both tendencies. Both uniting and providing new points of departure, Mozart’s finale once again proved the very model of Classical variation writing, transformative in a fashion difficult not to consider operatic. For, in those most European of music, wistful and joyful, we both recognise ourselves and a world now sadly, even tragically, unattainable.

Hopes to attend the final two concerts in this series, scheduled for later this week, have now been dashed by the latest preposterous restrictions. Shops, gyms, even saunas remain open; a Christmas massacre looms; yet Covid-secure chamber concerts are once again forbidden. However, there is spotlighting at the end of the tunnel; Steven Isserlis and Angela Hewitt will reschedule their recitals. Perhaps it was too much to hope that my final concert music of 2020 would be Beethoven’s opp.110 and 111. As I have recently written elsewhere, this virus-ridden world remains obstinately deaf to the music it most needs to hear. If anything can have us retain hope, it is the composer of the Ninth Symphony, with which I heard out 2019. Let us hope; let us pray. 

Wednesday 9 December 2020

ASMF/Wigglesworth - Sibelius, Nielsen, Wagner, and Mozart, 5 December 2020

St Martin-in-the-Fields

Sibelius: Belshazzar’s Feast: ‘Nocturne’
Nielsen, arr. Hans Abrahamsen: Three Piano Pieces, op.59, recomposed for ten instruments
Wagner: Siegfried-Idyll
Mozart: Symphony no.34 in C major, KV 338

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

‘Awakening’, aptly enough, was the theme of this post-lockdown concert from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in the church where, for this orchestra, it all began. I only noticed that after the event and confess to having been thinking in different, if far from opposed, terms, related to the theatre. Music means many things at different times, to different people—and surely all the more so in times such as these. At any rate, a sign of musical light in London at the close of the first week of Advent was welcome indeed, not least given the typical accomplishment of the Academy’s playing, this time under Ryan Wigglesworth.

As a heretic who has always preferred Sibelius’s smaller pieces to his symphonies—perhaps one day they will ‘click’ with me—I was delighted to hear the ‘Nocturne’ from his incidental music to Belshazzar’s Feast in a spacious performance well judged for the church acoustic. One heard from the outset coolness and warmth in the Academy’s sound, both in timbre and harmony. Such balance was typical of the performance as a whole, Tchaikovskian inheritance apparent, yet neither overwhelming nor overwhelmed by Sibelian distinctiveness of voice. Scalar orientalism may have charmed, yet sounded rightly incidental (in the other sense). Here was a Nordic heart beating through out.

Hans Abrahamsen’s ‘recomposition’ of Carl Nielsen’s Three Piano Pieces had no intrinsic connection with the stage, yet sounded here very much as if it had. The first piece set the scene for quite a journey within only a few minutes. Quirky, colourful, yet with enough disorientation to retain a welcome enigmatic quality, it proved neither one thing (Nielsen) nor the other (Abrahamsen), albeit in a positive, alchemic sense: if not quite the magic of theatre, then certainly of performance, the latter here one of sensitivity and verve. The second proved similar yet different, a second act in miniature. Here a sense of kinship with Maskarade seemed stronger, but likewise tendencies in another, re-composer’s direction. Likewise, still more, in the third: whether that were a matter of work, performance, or my listening, I am not entirely sure. And does it matter? Some wind sounds, perhaps inevitably for such an ensemble, echoed Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony; by the same token, some emphatically did not. Music guards its mysteries.

Wagner’s Siegfried-Idyll is music with a complex relationship to the stage: it precedes the composition of the section of Siegfried from which it seems to ‘come’, written for a domestic stage—and a domestically staged event. To accord it its full title: ‘Tribschen Idyll with Fidi-Birdsong and Orange Sunrise as Symphonic Birthday Greeting Offered to his Cosima by her Richard, 1870.’ This lullaby of peace, joy, and world-inheritance, to employ the conventional leitmotif references from the opera yet ‘awakens’. It certainly did here, in a reading brisk and unsentimental which, at start, sounded a little as if Wigglesworth were trying to force Wagner’s melos into pre-conceived moulds. In truth, the opening is very difficult indeed to bring off; it takes the most experienced of Wagnerians, whether a Furtwängler or a Boulez, to do so with the ease it seems to demand. There was no denying, though, the excellence of the ASMF’s instrumental playing, nor later on of Wigglesworth’s shaping of Wagner’s climaxes, always more economical than one expects and all the more telling for that. There was, moreover, an almost Straussian after-glow to the final minutes; it would always have been welcome, but was all the more so set against the cold frigidity of the pandemical world outside.

Finally came Mozart: ever poised between concert hall, theatre, and indeed church. His Symphony no.34 opened with festal swagger that did not preclude relaxation. If anything, I felt Wigglesworth offered too much of the latter later in the first-movement exposition, somewhat losing momentum. It remained a joy, however, simply to hear this music once again. There was throughout a keenness to the woodwind that spoke, or better sang, of the opera house, leading to a coda to lift the darkest of spirits. Sometimes—often, with Mozart—C major can prove just the tonic. The Academy’s small forces reinforced the slow movement’s lineage in Salzburg serenades. Wweetness of string tone was especially welcome given the perversities we often suffer nowadays in this music. Polish and fire marked the finale: a Catherine wheel in the Salzburg night sky I missed so much this summer. There was, thank goodness, no fussiness to Wigglesworth’s direction, nor to the playing. And what playing it was!

Tuesday 8 December 2020

Beethoven and Nature: Exploring the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony


The British Library has launched its online exhibition to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary with a new Discovering Music space on the nineteenth century. I am delighted to have contributed, alongside such excellent scholars as John Irving, Laura Tunbridge, Barry Cooper, David Wyn Jones, Leanne Langley, and Wiebke Thormählen. My own contribution, drawing on a sketchbook and other of the Library’s holdings, is on the Pastoral Symphony and Beethoven’s relationship to Nature. Please click here.

Tuesday 1 December 2020

My Beethoven

 What a year, and it is not yet over yet. It was to have been Beethoven's, of course, and still was in its way. To celebrate as well as to mourn that, I wrote a piece on 'My Beethoven' for Frances Wilson's excellent Cross-Eyed Pianist blog: click here.

Sunday 22 November 2020

Wotan: A Character Sketch


Donald McIntyre in Patrice Chéreau's Bayreuth Centenary Ring

“In the cloudy heights / live the gods,” Wotan, in earthly disguise as the Wanderer, tells Mime; “their hall is called Valhalla.” So it is, but such has not always been the case; indeed, it is a recent development. Wotan, at any rate, “reigns over” this Schar: a word that may be understood militarily or angelically (host), socially (company), or in a pastoral, religious sense (flock). That is part of the point. Wotan’s, more broadly the gods’, dominion is priestly. The priesthood, as actually existing priesthoods tend to be, is both religious and political; it relies upon tradition, custom, belief, and ultimately – although Wotan is cagey about this – upon force. “Not through force,” he tells his fellow god Donner, with his hammer; if only to sustain the illusion (Wahn), there should usually be another way.


Yet force, that primeval sin against Nature, is how Wotan’s – the gods’ – rule has come about, as we learn in the Norns’ Scene. An “intrepid god” came to the spring of the World Ash, drank its cooling waters of wisdom, paid the price. For, Wagner tells us, there is always a cost, be it political, religious, economic, ecological, metaphysical. Paying with one of his eyes, hence the eye-patch, Wotan broke off a branch; he hewed from it the shaft of his spear, the violence of that deed brought home by the spear motif’s abrupt upward leap of a major seventh in the orchestra.

Spear motif

Violence of spear creation

That that was more than the tree could take, more than Wotan should have done, is symbolized by the tree’s withering and its death, the poisoning of its spring. Yet with that deed of brutal, poisonous violence, Wotan became ruler of the heavens and thus ruler of the world. Wagner had learned much from his study of the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, as he acknowledged by dedicating to Feuerbach one of the major theoretical essays accompanying the Ring, The Artwork of the Future, echoing Feuerbach’s Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. Perhaps the most important lesson learned and extended was that human beings (for that matter, giants, dwarves, heroes too) have a psychological tendency to ascribe their positive qualities, above all their capacity to love, to an exterior being or beings. In that process, not only do they deprive themselves of those positive qualities; they thereby  invite, permit, enable that external force’s dominion (Herrschaft) over them.


Throughout the tetralogy, there is something ominous, indeed dominating, to the spear motif, closely associated with its creator and owner. It holds its own until finally Siegfried shatters it, scenically and musically. Wotan inscribes on it runes of law, with which he and the alien force of law rule over men, women, and their lives. His intentions have certainly not all been ignoble; he is a dreamer, with the advantages and disadvantages that entails. However, to inscribe them, literally, in dead wood is forcibly to perpetuate arrangements that have had their day. He must learn otherwise, and eventually does, but not before having fulfilled his dream of Valhalla, a sacerdotal fortress in the sky where, as he greets it, “safe from fear and dread,” the gods will rule in eternity. (That they need to be safe from fear and dread suggests that, at some level, Wotan knows they cannot be, that there is no eternity, especially when it comes to rule.) And so, he involves himself in a bargain with the giants, his builders, which he cannot keep; that is, he cannot keep to his own laws, his own runes. As the anarchist Wagner, friend of Bakunin, would tell you, such is the way of law, of political and religious power, of power relations tout court.


The Valhalla motif, the other principal theme associated with Wotan personally, is first heard softly, dreamily, as the young(ish) god imagines it, although even then, it has already been revealed, during the interlude between the first two Rheingold scenes as the other side of the motivic coin to Alberich’s curse, the latter’s B minor paralleled by the relative major, D, of Valhalla (in which both Das Rheingold and the Ring as a whole will conclude).


What a later, serialist generation, heavily influenced by Wagner and successors such as Debussy, would term all musical “parameters” – melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre – cooperate in the transformation. The Ring’s baleful song is voiced by cor anglais and clarinet reeds – the future of Tristan und Isolde not so distant – as scenically, if only in our heads, Rhenish tides at horizon become clouds. Harmony shifts, shedding dissonance and pungency of timbre as one. Softer-grained violas come to the fore, paving the way for the rhythmical transition towards Valhalla. That first soft, dream-like statement of the Valhalla motif proper is heard almost before our ears and mind realize any transformation has taken place. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, another dark tale of a castle fortress and doomed inhabitants, may have been born here in this transition, a process Wagner more generally and, in my view, quite rightly termed his “most delicate and profound art”.


By the time that Wotan has paid the giants, through deceit and brute force, “through theft” – as Loge has told him he must, in order to survive – and thereby enabled the gods’ entrance into Valhalla, both motif and orchestration have hardened. They dazzle, a little too brazenly. Dreamed horns (Wagner marks them weich, or “tender”) have been transmuted into the public display – almost “trespassers will be prosecuted” – of fortissimo full orchestra, at which the Rhine maidens’ sung accusations gnaw away: “false and cowardly” are the revels above, a charge underlined by chromatic C minor chords, piercing a diatonic rainbow bridge and fortress that are simply too sure of themselves. However, Wotan knows, even if he will not admit it, even if the other gods do not know it, that the gods’ rule, even at its apparent zenith, is now doomed.


Thus, when we see Wotan next, in the second act of Die Walküre, he is a man who has begun to change. He has sired a good number of children from women other than his consort – for Wotan and Fricka, read Zeus and Hera – but that is what patriarchs do. More importantly, encouraged by Erda’s words, he has begun to reflect upon his and the world’s predicament. The children of whom we know, and whom we meet, are the Volsungs – Siegmund and Sieglinde, from a mortal woman, unnamed – and the Valkyries, from Erda. Earthly heroes and the Valkyries who take them to (supposed) immortality in Valhalla serve one purpose for Wotan: to protect him and the gods, above all from Alberich. Siegmund is even intended – as ultimately is Siegfried – to win back the Ring from Alberich. Valhalla thus proves anything but “safe from fear and dread”; instead, it intensifies those feelings. As well it might, for, as Fricka’s ruthless logic points out, the tragic dilemma is entirely his own: like that of the modern political and religious order he symbolizes.


For, as Wagner wrote in a celebrated letter of 1854, immediately prior to starting work on the score of Die Walküre, Wotan is the “sum total of present-day intelligence,” not only an individual character. He is, essentially, where the world is, nowhere more so than in his second-act scene with Brünnhilde. In the course of this self-torturing monologue, in which Brünnhilde serves only as a foil, Wotan truly discovers for himself the impossibility of his situation and thus wills “the end.” He needs a free hero to rescue the order he has created, yet he also needs to control that hero’s deeds, thus removing his – “her” would be incomprehensible to Wotan and Wagner alike – freedom. Not for the last time in the Ring, though, Wagner the dramatist knows better than Wagner the theorist or Wagner the man-in-real-life, for Brünnhilde (see below), if incapable of nominal “heroic” status, nevertheless becomes indispensable to this process. Dramatic irony indeed. Faced with his insoluble dilemma, Wotan instead comes to will oblivion: first political, eventually metaphysical. We hear not merely repeated but developed, in well-nigh Beethovenian fashion, a motif that has since been named – not by Wagner, though – “Wotan’s frustration.”

'Wotan's frustration'

Itself born of the spear motif, it points to the source of Wotan’s problems: pursuit and exercise of power. Its developmental recurrences seem to hark back to an older operatic tradition, punctuating, as it were, recitativo accompagnato with something equating structurally to ritornello. (If only Wagner had known Monteverdi’s music; he is certainly inspired here by Gluck and Mozart.) “I, lord of contracts,” he declares, “am now a slave to those contracts.” That, then, marks the start, if only the start, of Wotan’s conversion to the pessimistic idea of the nullity of human existence. Via his reading of Arthur Schopenhauer, Wagner had grown increasingly convinced of that since completion of the text of the Ring poems and the composition of Das Rheingold; the idea would permeate ever more strongly the music of those dramas to come. Returning to the phenomenal world, Wotan must, quite against his inclination, either as god or father, sacrifice his own son, Siegmund. Only then will Fricka’s wrath (on which, see below) be appeased; only that way will the rule of the gods be maintained.


When, a generation later, we see – we hear too, with wondrously floating, “wandering” chords – Wotan as the Wanderer, conversion has progressed. The idea of the Wanderer had already a considerable German Romantic pedigree. Think of Schubert’s song, closing “There where you are not, there is happiness,” or Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, Wanderer above the Mist. There are, however, wanderings aplenty throughout the whole of the Western tradition, Homer’s Odyssey a case in point. In his essay A Communication to My Friends, Wagner had already drawn connections between Odysseus and earlier alienated, wandering characters in search of redemption: the Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin. Wotan takes his place here in a development of so many earlier tendencies, within a more pessimistic, Schopenhauerian context. For the resigned Wotan as Wanderer takes his leave not from Odysseus’ return to his beloved Penelope – Wotan and Fricka have no issue and never will – but to Schubert’s and Friedrich’s antihero: resigned, unwilling to act, awaiting the end. Following their riddle contest, Mime’s head is his, yet he leaves it – not without malice – to Siegfried. He wins the upper hand in his final confrontation with Alberich by declining to engage. Alberich may still lust after the Ring of power; Wotan has (partly) learned.

In the momentous first scene of Siegfried's third act, its Prelude having prepared the way for the perepiteia (turning point in ancient Greek tragedy) as a whole, Wotan may now reject Erda and her dictates of Fate. There may be an element of chauvinism, even misogyny, in the speed of transformation from “All-knowing! Primordially wise!” to “Unwise one,” but it is more than that. “What once I despairingly resolved in the wild anguish of internal conflict,” the conflict of family, society, and politics, “I shall now freely accomplish, gladly and joyfully.” And yet, while, having shed himself of the burden of that care – or so he thinks – Wotan cannot bring himself to acquiesce before Siegfried. The young Wotan is not entirely dead; nor will he ever be. Characters develop. Rarely, however, in plausible dramas, do they become something entirely different, any more than the head of an old political order will plausibly lead a new, revolutionary order. Here Wagner the dramatist, who had lived through the actual, political challenges of revolutionary defeat, knew better than Wagner the younger theoretician, who had called upon the king of Saxony to lead a “republican monarchy” and who had initially intended, in Siegfrieds Tod, to have the rule of the gods continue, purged and purified by the arrival of Siegfried in Valhalla. That had been almost a reversion to the old operatic necessity of a “happy ending,” the lieto fine. Neither life nor politics worked like that, however. At a dramatic level, Wagner had known that all along – as seen in Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin.


A Wotan philosophically converted yet not entirely transformed must still fight, must still have his spear shattered by the young hero’s sword. There is no avoiding the moment of the revolutionary deed, however bitter its consequent disappointments. Moreover, when Waltraute visits Brünnhilde in the first act of Götterdämmerung, we learn that Wotan in Valhalla continues to behave with fear and dread, not with the joy of which he spoke to Erda. Despondently, he awaits the end; even that is more difficult than he had assumed. Gloom and foreboding, of Wotan and the world he has in good part created, pervade the score of Götterdämmerung, even if he never sets foot on stage. It is arguably more “his” drama now than ever before. The most difficult lesson to learn – arguably he never does – is to await the acts of others. When Valhalla burns, a release both personal and political, it is at a moment of someone else’s choosing. Had Wotan asked himself riddles with the skill he did Mime, he might have learned that. Who, however, as even the Sphinx never asked, does that?

To read more on 'Characters in the "World" of the Ring,' see my chapter so entitled in the new Cambridge Companion to Wagner's 'Der Ring des Nibelungen', co-edited by Nicholas Vazsonyi and me, published this autumn.


Friday 30 October 2020

Blue Electric, Playground Theatre, 28 October 2020

Maya (Mimi Doulton), Leon (Jonathan Brown), Bella (Camilla Seale)
Image: Claire Shovelton

Maya – Mimi Doulton
Bella – Camilla Seale
Leon – Jonathan Brown
Sarah – Helen Charlston
Samuel Beckett – Christopher Bowen
Barbara – Emily Wenman

Orpha Phelan (director) 
Eloise Philpot (designs) 
Peter Vocka (lighting) 
Madeleine Boyd (creative consultant) 

Gabrielle Teychenné (conductor)

One step forward, one step back? Who knows any more, given the catastrophic chaos of ‘tiers’? Operatic life we snatch where we can—and are all the more grateful for it. Since my final full-scale, staged opera, Carmen in Berlin on 7 March, I have now been to three opera performances: Holst’s half-hour Savītri (outdoors); Tristan und Isolde (in concert performances, with piano trio); and now Blue Electric from composer Tom Smail and librettist Alba Arikha, drawing on her memoir Major/Minor. This was staged, with soloists and a small chorus, at the Playground Theatre in North Kensington, but with electronic orchestral sound: another innovative way to make opera work in such difficult circumstances.

An expanded, two-act version of a shorter work-in-progress given by Tête-à-Tête in 2018, Blue Electric focuses upon the relationship between the bullied child, Maya, and her father, Leon, as Maya grows up, emerges as a woman rather than girl, and learns of Leon’s thwarted adolescence as a Holocaust survivor. Many operas—perhaps most famously, those of Verdi—have such a father-daughter focus, but not in this particular context of discovery of self, other, and history. Narrative is clear, each scene playing its part in construction of the greater whole. Music, of course, plays its role, here suggestive perhaps of Smail’s work as a composer for film and television. The scene is set, has its own flavour—even tintà—within a tonal language often reminiscent of the earlier twentieth century.

It takes dramatic flight above all in grateful vocal writing, whether for solo voices, ensemble, or for chorus. Of these, first among equals was Mimi Doulton as Maya. Her vividly human portrayal, vulnerable, yet drawing upon strengths of human reserve, quite rightly seemed to inspire those around her. Jonathan Brown’s tortured artist—and human—Leon, Camilla Seale’s sprightly Bella (sister), and Helen Charlston’s Sarah (mother) also stood out from a cast that was impressive throughout. Conductor Gabriella Teychenné’s task might have been thought thankless, but she ensured fine co-ordination between stage and relayed orchestral score. Orpha Phelan’s unfussy production proved resourceful and suggestive in equal measure.

Without in any sense wishing to elide or to compare entirely different situations, certain ideas, as ever, seem to speak with particular directness to us now: loneliness, internalisation, depression, depriving the young of their youth, fears for a future destined for many to be eternally traumatised by the past. Necessary compromises to perform in front of an audience at all, but also the heightened meaning of the very experience of performance, also inevitably play their part. Was it mere coincidence that the final scene, in hospital, portraying Leon’s final hours, brought to mind a more overtly tragic version of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress? Perhaps, perhaps not. We all make connections as and when we will, as and when we need. From the chaos of tiers, then, to the iron tragic-social order of tears, longstanding agent of catharsis.

Sunday 25 October 2020

Cox/ASMF/Keller - Rebel, Fernando, Mozart, and Copland, 24 October 2020

St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, 24.10.2020 (MB)

Rebel: Les Élémens: ‘Le Chaos’
Samantha Fernando: Lost Things, for solo flute
Mozart: Flute Concerto in D major, KV 314/285d
Copland: Appalachian Spring

Let us not kid ourselves: there is absolutely nothing to recommend our historical moment. That is still more the case when it comes to music, for reasons no reader will need to see repeated. Yes, in some ways we may feel we appreciate it all the more, yet scarcity is no way to show appreciation, nor is throwing musicians’ lives on the scrapheap in order to funnel more cash to Dido Harding, Serco, and the horse racing ‘industry’. People are rightly angry, depressed, in despair—and dying. That is not something to celebrate with naïve, neo-Panglossian hopes for a better future. What music, when we can find it, when we can make it, can do is give us a little more hope for the present, a little relief from the hell that engulfs us.

It is chaos right now, of course, a different kind of chaos, man-made, from that which pertained prior to Creation. One could nevertheless make connections—and did—in an outstanding performance of Jean-Féry Rebel’s ‘Le Chaos’ to open the concert. Its extraordinary opening cluster, containing all seven notes of the D minor harmonic scale, hit home, but so, at least as importantly, did the six minutes or so of the piece’s progress, like Rameau on steroids, that unmistakeable ‘French Baroque’—however unsatisfactory the name—combination of texture and timbre ringing through the friendly acoustic. We may be all at sea, all in chaos even, but there was some comfort to be had from the Academy returning ‘home’ all these years later from its 1958 debut. So too was there in Michael Cox’s flute’s pastoral memories and, in the context of the concert as a whole, harbinger of music to come. The ASMF’s fabled polish was naturally present, but this was a performance of great commitment too, scales, one of our most basic musical building blocks, seemingly created anew in the struggle of ‘elements’—earth, water, air, and fire—to assume their place in a ‘natural order’ which, however constructed, we could yet momentarily believe in. Dance, if only imaginary, played its role, courtly yet modern, as much as notes ‘themselves’, for this was a dramatic, even conceptual, narrative that unfolded before our eyes and ears.

Cox returned as soloist for the next two pieces. First was Samantha Fernando’s Lost Things, derived from her music-theatre work The Journey Between Us. Perhaps inevitably in this concert context, the solo instrument emerged as if from French tradition, Debussy above all, yet in no sense sounded hidebound by it. Exploratory, idiomatic, leaving one curious to hear more, this was a piece that drew one in to listen, to appreciate the importance of every note: not just its pitch, but the nature of its sounding, and its relationship to others. Again, the sense of narrative was readily apparent: ‘lost things’, doubtless, yet much was found too.

In Mozart’s D major Flute Concerto, we heard cultivated, finely articulated orchestral playing from the outset, the soloist responding and developing in kind, his tone to die for, phrasing effortlessly expressive. Narrative here was above all harmonic, likewise in a slightly different sense in the kaleidoscopic cadenza. From that fundamental narrative, finely honed detail emerged to beguile us in the slow movement. A garden of tonal delights that, by Mozart’s later standards, is straightforward to interpret, whether as performer as listener—this is not Così fan tutte—it nonetheless enticed, on the cusp of recollections of a summer that never was (this of all years) and autumnal bite. Youthful high spirits and sheer beauty of sound were almost too much to bear in the finale. It spoke, or rather sang, of another world, a world we fear we shall neither see nor hear again. Still, better to have experienced its loveliness than not; such relief can and does help.

Last on the programme came a return to dance music: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, in its original, chamber version for thirteen instruments. As ever, the ensemble under Tomo Keller’s direction was second to none. Thinned textures—at least from the standpoint of general experience—fascinated, not least in the clarification of counterpoint at dawn. There was a heightened sense, I think, of Stravinskian influence in the following section: to my ears, all to the better, though that is really a matter of taste. Much of what comes thereafter is a bit folksy and soft-centred for me, but that is no comment on the performance itself, which clearly delighted many. Moreover, given the intent to send a message to the Academy’s American friends, scheduled at this time of year to hear the ensemble on tour, there was an undeniable message to be heard and felt. Many of us, after all, feel the loss of being cut off from loved ones, be they in Trump-land, currently more inaccessible to us than North Korea, or elsewhere, and a need to communicate with them in forms both old and new. Now, more than ever, music’s therapeutic benefits should be recognised whenever and wherever we can. 

Sunday 4 October 2020

Tristan und Isolde, London Opera Company, 3 October 2020

The Warehouse, Waterloo

Tristan – Brian Smith Walters
Isolde – Cara McHardy
Brangäne – Harriet Williams
Kurwenal – Louis Hurst
King Marke – Richard Wiegold
Young Sailor – Ben Thapa
Melot – Jonathan Cooke
Shepherd, Steersman – Bo Wang

Jonathan Musgrave (piano)
James Widden (violin)
Alison Holford (cello)
Michael Thrift (conductor)

Almost a year to the day (5 October 2019) since I had last seen Tristan und Isolde and considerably sooner, given the world’s catastrophic state, than I had anticipated, Wagner and Tristan returned to my life and to the lives of the performers of the London Opera Company, here giving its inaugural performance. For any company to open proceedings with Tristan is a declaration of intent, not least in London, so starved of Wagner compared to any city of its stature. Yet, this group of musicians determined not so much to keep the flame burning as, in contradistinction to its eponymous lovers, emphatically to ignite it—‘Das Licht! Das Licht!—showed a heroism as impressive and as moving in achievement as in conception. It is their hope that this will ‘inspire further chamber performances’; it should be ours too.

There were unquestionable advantages to a small performing space such as The Warehouse, near Waterloo station. No singer needing to force his or her voice. Facial expressions could readily be observed in a performance acted if not staged. We in the audience were readily drawn into the noumenal realm of Night in which Tristan's deepest action unfolds. So much Wagner is chamber music anyway; as with Liszt, that chamber music is usually part of a grander scheme rather than the essence of a work in itself. 

Michael Thrift conducted, as he had in a slightly larger-scale Parsifal given four years ago in Chiswick a flexible, clearly directed account of the score. It may from time to time have had one long to hear him communicate such understanding in front of an orchestra; equally, it seized on the virtues of a chamber performance and had one appreciate them in themselves. Jonathan Musgrave’s heroic battle to convey Wagner’s orchestral writing on the piano, ably assisted by James Widden on violin and Alison Holford on cello, made for absorbing listening. Even Liszt would have had his work cut out here. Yet it was perhaps the Lisztian delicacy accorded to more intimate moments and passages—private, not public; Night, not Day—that lingered longest in the emotional memory.

Brian Smith Walters, Parsifal in that earlier performance, showed himself here as Tristan every inch a Heldentenor. As vividly communicative in words as in music, Smith Walters paced his performance wisely, with as keen a developmental edge as any listener might wish for, culminating in shattering agonies of Kareol and sweetly longed-for release. For all the surrounding metaphysics, this was a profoundly human journey: proportionate to, yet far from constrained by, a chamber setting  that increasingly took upon itself characteristics of the nineteenth-century drawing rooms in which Wagner's own dramatic journey had taken flight. Likewise Cara McHardy’s performance as Isolde. Similarly reactive to dramatic circumstance, her path to ecstatic transfiguration excited in the uncertainty of the here-and-now, yet proved commendably clear in retrospect. Wagner's owl of Minerva once again spread its wings at dusk.

In this chamber context, the performances of McHardy and Harriet Williams as Brangäne afforded an unusual first-act opportunity to hear some of the roots of Wagner’s vocal writing in earlier, Italian or at least Italianate, opera. Shorn of rich orchestral tapestry, the score, or better one’s aural perspective upon it, yielded other secrets: words and their meaning, steeped in Novalis's verse as much as the philosophy of Schopenhauer, often overlooked amidst the musicodramatic maelstrom; a grander bel canto than we have come to expect, Wagner’s Norma, rather than Bellini’s; not to forget those treacherous, enticing paths to a Schoenbergian future for voice with ensemble. Williams’s performance, wise and compassionate, with deeply affecting vocal colour—at one point, chalumeau-like in her lower register—had this listener long for more.

Moreover, not only was there no weak link in the cast; strength of ensemble and dramatic interaction rendered it considerably more than the sum of its parts. Louis Hurst’s honest Kurwenal; finely etched accounts of the Young Sailor and Melot from Ben Thapa and Jonathan Cooke; Richard Wiegold’s sonorous King Marke, timbre and delivery redolent at times of noble Finnish predecessors such as Martti Talvela and Matti Salminen: all were valued contributors. It was, however, the keenly communicative qualities Bo Wang’s Shepherd and Steersman that made the greatest impression on me: nothing taken for granted, all presented with palpable sincerity and commitment. Above all, this was an accomplished and moving company debut.

Saturday 19 September 2020

Ebbs/St Paul's Sinfonia/Morley - Beethoven, Doolittle, and Mendelssohn, 18 September 2020

Stanley Halls

Beethoven: Overture: ‘Coriolan’, op.62
Emily Doolittle: A Short, Slow Life
Beethoven: Ah! perfido, op.65
Mendelssohn: Symphony no.4 in A major, ‘Italian’, op.90

Carleen Ebbs (soprano)
St Paul’s Sinfonia
Andrew Morley (conductor)

Attending a concert in London has at present something of the Prohibition era to it. Music-making is not quite prohibited, of course, yet not so far off, even without an audience. (Football, being a matter of crucial national importance, is of course another matter.) And so it was that I found myself taking three trains to South Norwood to hear this St Paul’s Sinfonia concert in the Edwardian Stanley Halls, part of a select yet enthusiastic audience, augmented several times over at home, I trust, by a Front Rooms Concert audience, helping raise money for Help Musicians.

There remains something very special about the privilege of hearing Beethoven’s music this year. To feel the Coriolan Overture course through one’s veins in as immediate and reverberant an acoustic as this was more than worth the journey in itself. Andrew Morley, elsewhere an energetic and engaging compère, led the musicians in a cultivated, urgent performance, in which one could feel as well as see and hear bows fly from strings. Rhythmic insistence played its part in bringing Beethoven’s heroism to life: much needed, given what desperate news lay outside the hall. The final, decisive turn to C minor spoke of true, noble tragedy, not the deadlier banality around us. How this music matters: it is part of what makes us human.

Soprano Carleen Ebbs joined the orchestra, now slimmed down to ensemble size, for Emily Doolittle’s Elizabeth Bishop setting, A Short, Slow Life. Again, one could hardly fail to make connections with, to draw conclusions from our current plight; again, our experience was certainly not to be reduced to that. It opened sharp, precise, yet certainly not without warmth, whether in work or performance. A fine ear for instrumental combinations was revealed on the composer’s part, likewise by players and conductor for the balance necessary to reveal them in performance. Apparently simple figures—scalic passages, for instance—sounded fresh, even far from simple, somehow reinvented before our ears. Procedures were clear, while remaining means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Indeed, the variety of musical writing within a relatively short frame was striking, not least since it unquestionably formed part of a greater whole. Grateful vocal writing, whether in musical response to scansion or in beguiling melismata, sometimes as part of the ensemble, sometimes set in relief, found a compelling interpreter in Ebbs.

So too did Beethoven, in his 1796 concert aria, Ah! perfido, the first of two German visits to Italy. Vigour, nobility, and tenderness showed Beethoven coming as close as ever he could to the Mozart of Così fan tutte, reminding one above all why, though admiring its music greatly, poor Beethoven and his very different morality could never comprehend Mozart’s bracing modernity here. Like Wagner, only more so, Mozart proceeds beyond good and evil; Beethoven’s conception of the good is an entirely different matter. Good is good, though, especially in a performance in which the orchestra truly speaks. Cellos and basses did excellent work in the accompagnato; the soloist sent shivers down the spine in the hochdramatisch final section.

Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony completed the programme. Morley’s evident affection for and understanding of the work shone through. (How could anyone not love this music?) Bright and vivid A major in the first movement benefited from insistence of counterpoint and dance rhythm. The second movement processional proved nicely poised between invitation and something more forbidding: to join the pilgrims or not? Mendelssohn is not, after all, Berlioz. An amiable minuet gave way to a touching trio, Mendelssohn’s writing for horns duly relished. It was the finale for me that received the most compelling performance, a veritable whirlwind of saltarello that yet found space for detail. Far from coincidentally, the frame through which local colour could be glimpsed and felt was decisively Beethovenian.

Thursday 17 September 2020

Hill Quartet - Haydn and Ravel, 15 September 2020

The Bandstand, Battersea Park

Haydn: String Quartet in E-flat major, op.64 no.6, Hob. III:64
Ravel: String Quartet in F major

Bridget O’Donnell, David Lopez (violins)
Julia Doukakis (viola)
Ben Michaels (cello)

The last in a series of four Bandstand Chamber Festival concerts, in which the Hill Quartet played works by Haydn and Ravel, made for a delightful Indian summer’s evening. Strings are not the easiest instruments to play outdoors. The Battersea Park Bandstand offered shade and shelter, however, any intonational shifts swiftly addressed.

Haydn’s op.64 no.6 Quartet opened with expectancy and poise: a fine balance typical of the Hill Quartet’s reading of the first movement as a whole. Contrapuntal learning, lightly worn yet deeply felt, proved key to the onset of the development. Unexpected tonal paths, relished yet never exaggerated, led us to the twin reassurance and further development of the recapitulation. Rapt without preciosity, the Andante flowed with equally fine judgement, its stormy central section holding the attention vis-à-vis a passing aeroplane. Haydn’s Minuet was taking swiftly, yet was never unyielding, accents and phrases the key to its progress. Its Ländler trio rightly relaxed, first slightly tipsy; second time around, more than slightly. The players clearly loved Haydn’s play with harmonics; how could they not? A Haydn finale in all its glory concluded the performance, performing the role one might expect, yet never in expected fashion. Most important, throughout its exhilaration, it smiled, even laughed.

Ravel’s Quartet made for quite a contrast. Its first movement offered poise of a different, complementary kind, An increasingly strong sense of disconcerting undercurrents spilled over, setting the scene for a reading both dramatic and variegated. If broader contours were in good hands, so was attention to detail. Ravel imbues a cello pizzicato or the emergence of the viola as soloist with great poignancy; such poignancy, however, requires and received fine projection in performance. Rhythm and harmony proved each other’s agents in the scherzo: a game of mutual incitement that flipped over into melancholy and then perhaps something sadder still. Combination of the two tendencies was not the least of the Hill Quartet’s achievements. Similar yet different relationships between material marked the slow movement, ultimately and rightly drawn on a grander emotional canvas. A whirlwind opening to the finale brought hints of later Ravel vortices. Especially impressive was the communication of tendencies unifying both this movement and the work as a whole. Time, then, to look forward already to next year’s festival.

Sunday 13 September 2020

Musikfest Berlin (8) - Tetzlaff/Konzerthaus Berlin/Eschenbach - Haydn, Jost, and Beethoven, 6 September 2020


Haydn: Symphony no.21 in A major, Hob. I:21
Christian Jost: Violin Concerto no.2, ‘Concerto Noir Redux’ (world premiere)
Beethoven: Symphony no.8 in F major, op.93

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Konzerthausorchester Berlin
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

How wonderful to hear Haydn’s Symphony no.21 in the concert hall. I had never done so before, and whilst I should happily be corrected, I doubt many others in the audience had. Christoph Eschenbach led the Konzerthausorchester Berlin in a performance alert to the work’s formal strangeness, albeit with none of the exaggeration and downright grotesquerie that often, regrettably, accompany such exploration. The first movement ‘Adagio’ in particular benefited from simply being permitted to speak, however great the art concealed in that ‘simply’. Gorgeous, warm tone invited us in to contemplate and to experience Haydn’s formal mysteries, mysteries through which certain harmonic progressions and their rhythmic instantiation already seemed to prefigure the Beethoven of the Eighth Symphony, if only one listened (to both). Following the model, though only in the most skeletal sense, of the sonata da chiesa, Haydn follows that movement, which, like much in the Beethoven, makes sense so long as one does not wish to put a name to it, with a fast movement, here marked ‘Presto’. It sounded as an eruption of joy, of harmonic release, sharpened by rhythmic, alert playing. Concision and expression in thematic development again had one think of Haydn’s most celebrated pupil, but it was the teacher’s voice that was unmistakeable. Above all, this was music that made me smile. Eschenbach’s unfussy way with the ‘Menuetto’ again had it tell its own story. Its trio’s curious melancholy, rhythmic signature and all, was relished throughout the orchestra. If there were occasional untidiness here, it did little harm. The finale proved a veritable compendium of syncopated surprises, of invention and a posteriori inevitability—thus emulating the first movement, albeit in very different style, ‘Allegro molto’. The spirit of Haydn as revealed through the recordings of Antal Doráti seemed reborn, albeit warmer and more conciliatory. Delightful!

By contrast, I struggled to make much out of Christian Jost’s Concerto Noir Redux, notwithstanding the excellence of solo (Christian Tetzlaff) and ensemble playing. Opening effortful violin slides, taken up by other strings, eventually unleashed something akin to ‘traditional’ solo virtuosity, which Tetzlaff of course possesses in spades. It was interesting to hear how such techniques could be echoed by the skilled percussion section, here four strong, both tuned and untuned. Was that perhaps a sense of the ‘infectious’, in a nod to current preoccupations? So far, so good. Where the rest of this single movement (in roughly twenty-five minutes) went was, to me at least, more obscure. A new, softer focus section sounded redolent of a generic television score. Different moods and sections summoned up music suggestive more of note-spinning than anything else, with curious nods elsewhere, for instance clarinet lines that might have been offcuts from The Rite of Spring. A frenzied close brought this vaguely neo-Romantic, not unpleasant work to an end, at least ten minutes too late; or perhaps that was just me.

I had long ago given up hope of hearing the symphonic Beethoven this year (save for the wonderful ‘Beethoven-Séance’ given in Cologne, during the dying days of our ‘Freyheit’). Anything other than a catastrophe, then, would have been welcome for the Eighth Symphony, and this was certainly not that. Eschenbach’s way with the first movement was insistent, even through agogic accents which would not have been to all tastes. He made no apologies for old-style heft, and was all the better for it, though progress was at times a touch deliberate. There was splendid contrapuntal interplay, though, a battle of a development underpinned by crashing syncopations. Thereafter, the movement proved as full of surprises as the Haydn heard earlier. Again, this fresh reading made me smile, long before triumphant coda and witty sign-off. I was also reminded quite how difficult a piece this is to bring off—even to begin to understand.

Humour is best delivered straight in the ‘Allegretto scherzando’; to do otherwise in this case, would be entirely to miss the point. Its considerable charm suggested paths to Mendelssohn; it also proved an excellent choice of encore. There is more to it than charm, of course, and motivic development came to the fore once that charm could be (almost) taken for granted. There was charm of a different kind in Beethoven’s neo-Classical reinvention of the eighteenth-century Minuet. It boasted all the complexity such cunning reinvention entails, but also due affection. Eschenbach and his players showed a keen ear for detail and balance, the trio once more exuding a tenderness that brought Mendelssohn to mind. Woodwind were not always entirely together, but I could live with that were once. If the concert had begun with a formal enigma, it closed with another, at least in theory. In practice, of course, this finale is what it is—and must be made to sound as such, which it was. I sometimes had my doubts as to whether Eschenbach was proving over-demonstrative, but there is much to be said for such clarity of purpose and texture. It was unyielding at times, but again that was his conception. The jokes of the coda had me laugh, not only smile; for that, I could forgive anything.

Saturday 12 September 2020

Musikfest Berlin (7) - Altstaedt: Bach, 6 September 2020


Suite no.1 in G major, BWV 1007
Suite no.2 in D minor, BWV 1008
Suite no.3 in C major, BWV 1009
Suite no.4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010
Suite no.5 in C minor, BWV 1011
Suite no.6 in D major, BWV 1012

Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)

What a lovely way to begin my birthday: a morning and afternoon concert, in which Nicolas Altstaedt gave us, in order, all six Bach cello suites. ‘Bach, c’est Bach, comme Dieu c’est Dieu,’ as Berlioz, far from the composer’s most unequivocal admirer put it; once more, he was proved right.

Altstaedt showed himself beholden to no one particular ‘school’ and all the better for it. One might, if one were so inclined, locate the style of his performances within a broad contemporary mainstream—I am not sure ‘period’ is remotely helpful here—but that was not how I thought of them. To take the First Suite first, the opening Prelude was taken swiftly, yes, yet it felt fleet rather than in any sense harried, and benefited from flexibility that was ultimately grounded in harmonic motion. Rhetoric was no thing-in-itself, applied from outside, but insofar as it reared its head, an integral part of the composition and its life in the moment. Line and direction were clear throughout. (I might, for instance, have found myself saying very much the same thing for Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven, however different the ‘style’.) The Allemande flowed in its wake, a different character emerging, once more, rather than being foisted upon it. This, as later on, was music informed by dance, not ‘a dance’, as some naïve souls seem to think it—and worse, insist that it must be. Subtle dynamic shading, quite without pedantry, spoke volumes. Likewise in the Courante, possessed as its successor movements would be, of its own character, generic and specific. And indeed the Sarabande, whose melancholy encompassed yet unquestionably surpassed notions of the ‘courtly’. A graceful and joyful succession of Minuets culminated in a Gigue that flowed rather than grimaced: rounding off, as opposed to Romantic climax. I suppose I should mention the cellist’s use of a ‘Baroque’ bow, but it seems beside the point to make anything more of it; doubtless it informed his way with the music, but informing is not dictating.

D minor, for the Second Suite, brought a darker, more ruminative mood. No one size fits all. Its Prelude was shaped with immanent rather than prefabricated drama. In the Allemande, it became still more apparent that dissolution of boundaries between melody and harmony—next stop Brahms and Webern—lies at the root, pun semi-intended, of so much Bach. A subtle dramatic edge to the Gigue reminded us that no two ‘dances’, or dance-inspired movements, are the same—or at least they should not be.

By contrast, the airiness with which the C major Suite opened oriented us in a different world: not remotely trivial, nor skated over, but a matter of character, even of openness. Altstaedt’s traversal of the Prelude’s tonal territory was highly accomplished and meaningful, not least his communication of subdominant and other harmonic colours toward the close. Once more, Altstaedt showed that a swift Courante need not be breathless. Welcome fifth-movement variation, moving from Minuets to Bourrées, was keenly felt, not least the whispered intimacies of the second Bourrée. Wildness in the closing Gigue at times brought us close to Bartók, but this was but one facet of a performance that emphasised balance and breadth.

After lunch to E-flat major, and a different cello sound. I am not sure I should call it brighter a priori, but that was how it felt here. The Fourth Suite’s Prelude demonstrated just how much Bach’s fundamental building blocks—broken chords, for instance—inform the architecture of the whole. A darker tinge to the Allemande suggested that, after all, such colour was not really a matter of underlying tonality at all; or at least need not be. It is always good to have one’s interpretation (of an interpretation) challenged and reassessed where necessary. Once more, a Courante of infectious energy reminded us that tempo and speed are not one and the same. I was less sure about Altstaedt’s tapering ritardando and diminuendo here, but one is unlikely to be convinced by every aspect of a traversal such as this. The Gigue offered a puppy’s progress of boisterous affection that was yet not without its sterner moments.

Moving to C minor, E-flat’s relative minor, brought what is surely the darkest of the six Preludes. It certainly sounded so here, not least on account of the sound of Altstaedt’s open string bottom C. The movement’s distinctive structure was given its due. Perhaps a more ‘Romantic’ approach would have afforded greater depth, or what we have come to regard as such, but this had its own validity. The Allemande’s gravity looked back to seventeenth-century predecessors, but perhaps more strongly forward; so too did the contrapuntal complexity of the ensuing Courante. Bach’s Sarabande seemed to come from a place of raw, Passion-like emotion: partly numbed, yet all the more powerful for it. The introduction of a new genre, the Gavotte, seemed in context to form part of this different mood and complexity.

For the final, D major Suite, Altstaedt moved to the violoncello piccolo. One could hardly fail to register the difference in tone, by turn more viola-like and more viol-like. Perhaps I should simply say it sounded like itself. The leisurely, expansive, and flexible approach he brought to the Allemande contrasted nicely with a bright, lively Courante. The distanced drone of the second Gavotte afforded further evidence not only of Bach’s dizzying array of invention within the constraints of genre and instrument, but of Altstaedt’s responsiveness thereto. If intonation sometimes went a little astray in the Gigue, its registral rusticity offered compensation. In any case, here was a pair of concerts that was naturally more than the sum of its considerable parts.

Thursday 10 September 2020

Musikfest Berlin (6) - RSB/Jurowski: Bach, Berg, Webern, and Schnittke, 5 September 2020


Bach-Webern: Musical Offering, BWV 1079: ‘Ricercar a sei voci’
Berg: Three Fragments from ‘Wozzeck’
Webern: Variations for Orchestra, op.30
Schnittke: Concerto grosso no.1, for two violins, harpsichord, prepared piano, and chamber orchestra

Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)
Erez Ofer, Nadine Contini (violins)
Helen Collyer (piano and harpsichord)
Children’s Choir of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (director: Ralf Sochaczewsky)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

Only connect. Vladimir Jurowski has a longstanding talent for programming that does so—and ensures active participation from the listener in doing so too. Some connections in this programme were obvious, some less so, only revealed in performance and listening (at least for me). Whatever small reservations I may have had about some of Jurowski’s interpretative choices, they were outweighed by the illumination of his programming as a whole.

First up was Webern’s extraordinary orchestration, if we may call it that, of the six-part Ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering. Clarity, both in itself and with respect to transition of lines between instruments, was a hallmark of this performance. There were times, especially earlier on, when I wished for a greater sense of flow, but Jurowski’s formalistic determination to have one hear processes, here and beyond, had its own rewards. There were many purely orchestral joys, in any case, from the sound of the RSB’s four double basses in pizzicato to any number of solos and transitions. There were also presentiments of much that was to come, the inner dialogue of string principals prefiguring Schnittke’s first Concerto grosso. The glorious full sound at climaxes, truly golden at the close, was moreover never a mere wash of sound, an idea utterly foreign to Webern; it was, like this concert as a whole, the sum of many parts.

Process was strongly to the fore in Berg’s Three Fragments from ‘Wozzeck’, for which orchestra and conductor were joined by Anne Schwanewilms and a thirteen-strong children’s choir—unlucky for some, Wozzeck’s child included—from the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Jurowski’s deliberate way with this music worked well as an introduction to the labyrinth. In the first piece, Berg emerged in more Brahmsian fashion than I think I have ever heard (save, perhaps, in the songs). It became increasingly difficult not to see an imaginary stage in one’s head, even before the military parade and Schwanewilms’s full-blooded delivery of her part. If not note-perfect—is it ever?—it was vivid in its communication, which is surely the more important achievement. The second movement proved touching as ever, even to the point of the unbearable. Hearing this music after Bach, seven variations and a fugue, was revelatory; it offered a pathway to subsequent Webern too. Schwanewilms’s voice, an instrumental thread like that of the strings, offered musical as well as verbal argument. Workings were again clearly exposed in the final movement, generating musical drama in the absence of staging. That extraordinary build-up to Berg’s D minor climax could hardly fail, in our plague-ridding world, to have profound emotional force; it shattered, as it should, as it must. The orchestra, necessarily smaller than one would often hear, tended towards wind and somewhat away from strings, but that had its own fascination. To hear, finally, the world of children, innocent yet cruel, ready to pass on cruel gossip and doubtless other viruses too, chilled to the bone. Back to school, with that most terrifying of musical stops.

Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, op.30 followed, tension high from the opening double bass line, initiating such a variety of responses, through to the gestural mirrored intervals of the close. Again, process was paramount. This is not really how I hear the music in my head, or even in the score, but again, Jurowski’s way had its own justification, its analytical strength undeniable, vertical and horizontal unmistakeably apparent. That is not to say that it was cold, far from it, but rather that it was less flexible than Webern’s Romantic heritage—and practice—would suggest. There is no one way, and this remained Romanticism sublimated rather than banished. Different characters were imparted strongly to different variations: more than ever an heir to the op.27 set for piano. And those harmonies! I wanted to hear it again immediately, for what astounding music this is. Webern remains, as Stravinsky put it, ‘a perpetual Pentecost for all who believe in music’. Now, perhaps, we need that more than ever.

The equally extraordinary, postwar sound of the prepared piano ushered in the Prelude of Schnittke’s Concerto grosso no.1. Its sinister childishness had one recall the close of Wozzeck, yet here, quite rightly, meaning was more enigmatic. Initial, non vibrato string response underlined a sense of the sinister, eventually relieved yet never replaced by violin vibrato: from a cruelly reimagined past to the here and now? Tension gradually screwed up over a chillingly clear pedal. The following Toccata offered fiddling writ large—and writ wrong: quite memerising. And yet, before we knew it, we were once again in a sinister nursery world. Integration of those tendencies, or at least its attempt, unleashed a veritable house of horrors. Machines collapsed, though had they ever been intact? Schnittke’s ‘Recitativo’ properly spoke, ever uneasy, its growing intensity continuing into the Cadenza, which then spun off the rails in other directions, many of them. What could have been a better introduction to the idea of polystylism, whether in work or performance, than the hyper-Romantic surprise of the Rondo? There was nothing remotely amusing about Brahms’s appearance—just as it should be. Incongruity was the name of the game. The closing ‘Postludio’, return of prepared piano and all, seemed both to mean something and nothing. This was a commanding performance, intrinsically the finest of all four, although connection was the key throughout.

Musikfest Berlin (5) - Klangforum Wien/Pomàrico: Saunders and Aperghis, 4 September 2020


Rebecca Saunders: Flesh, for solo accordion with recitation (2018)
Sole, Trio in F-sharp for mobile accordion, percussion, and piano (2019)
to an utterance – study, for solo piano (2020, world premiere)
Scar, for 15 soloists and conductor (2018/19)

Georges Aperghis: Der Lauf des Lebens, for 6 voices and ensemble (2019, world premiere)

Joonas Ahonen (piano)
Krassimir Sterev (accordion)
Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart
Klangforum Wien
Emilio Pomàrico (conductor)

Two concerts from Klangforum Wien: one a world premiere, the other including a world premiere and its ‘early music’ coming from 2018. New music indeed, then, however distant 2018—Theresa May: remember her?—may seem to those of us bewildered and exhausted by the current plague. I hope I shall be forgiven for any errors I might make, confronted with such a wealth of new sounds and their organisation, without so much as a programme note, coronavirus precluding such, let alone a score. Is that not, however, an ideal way for us to approach new music, whether ‘New Music’ or not? It was certainly welcome exercise for ears starved of such experience over the preceding months.

First, we heard works by Rebecca Saunders: not only one of the most important composers of her generation, but also one of my favourites. It certainly seems another world since I flew to Munich last June to see and hear her receive the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize. Indeed, some of the music we heard had then yet to be written. The opening Flesh, however, had. We hear much about embodiment nowadays, but here the physicality of Saunders’s work and Krassimir Sterev’s astounding performance as accordionist and reciter could not have been more physical: quite erasing, like Molly Bloom’s monologue itself, any thought of dualism between mind and matter. This is not ‘programme music’, certainly not in the sense of mere portrayal, but it was difficult not to think or rather to experience the piece’s progress in extremely direct as well as more indirect terms. Squeezing, shuddering, rattling, shouting, screaming: this was a musical performance of musical material.

Sole for accordion, percussion, and piano was taken attacca, its predecessor necessarily influencing our reception, yet beautifully setting the scene, the next piece stealing in to our consciousness in the after-glow or -shock of Flesh. Resonance and even ritual—perhaps closer to Stockhausen than I might have expected—enabled pitch to be heard both ‘in itself’ and as the key to transformation of other parameters, such as timbre, rhythm, and dynamics. Put another way, post-Debussy and post-Webern tendencies united, without ever remotely sounding like Boulez or any other such forerunners. There were no electronics; yet, as so often in Saunders’s work, I could have sworn I heard them.

Next, Joonas Ahonen gave the first performance of to an utterance – study, for solo piano. Its opening pitted bass resonances, later spreading across the instrument, against glissandi and similar devices: some more scampering, some more furious, again in a not entirely un-Debussyan fabric (at least to my ears). Listening, one created and dissolved new aural hierarchies; and yet again, the sheer physicality of an outstanding performance proved just as crucial to one’s experience. Ahonen’s commanding virtuosity left one in no doubt one was hearing what one should be. Chases were as furious, perhaps even more so, as or than anything in the previous night’s Rihm Jagden und Formen. Ultimately, the piece seemed to me very much to take its part in the distinguished line of (extended) piano studies, growing into something emotionally and intellectually more all-encompassing. Were ‘symphonic’ not so obviously clichéd a misnomer, I might have been tempted to use it with less caution.

The opening of Scar, with its opening soft drum tattoos, dark pitched sounds emerging therefrom, put me in mind of Berg’s Op.6 Pieces. The tricks one’s ears and such resourceful writing can play, not to mention the ensemble performance under Emilio Pomàrico, convinced me at one point I had heard a voice. Slides, dark flashes, an aural landscape in their shadows, a liminal zone between tearing and torn: this was certainly the world of scars. Flights of fancy or of flesh took wing in a process of persistent metamorphosis, leading to dazzling climax and return to the opening material, transformed by our experience of listening.

In the second concert, the ensemble and Pomàrico were joined by the six voices of Neuevocalisten Stuttgart, for the premiere of Georges Aperghis’s Der Lauf des Lebens. Words, at least my words, are still more problematic an approximation here than usual, but I sensed something of a distinction between the dramatic use to which words were put in Saunders and a more ‘purely musical’—to resurrect a choice vintage chestnut—approach to their qualities from Aperghis. Accordion at the opening (the indefatigable Sterev) made for a nice link between the two worlds, but Klangforum Wien and the (initially) female Stuttgart voices immediately took our experience in a very different direction. A riot of sound, not without resonances from jazz, raucous riffs and all, put me a little in mind of Berio at times; that, however, was just me finding my bearings, for this was exuberance very much on its own terms. Vocal parts, sung and spoken, solo and ensemble, may or may not have made ‘verbal’ sense, yet who cared? Both work and performance offered a strong sense of a greater whole over an hour-long span, despite or perhaps on account of a host of mood swings and other transformations. In such winning superfluity, the overriding, most welcome sense was of fun, even of Alice in Wonderland-like wonder. 

Saturday 5 September 2020

Musikfest Berlin (4) - Ensemble Modern/Benjamin - Benjamin and Rihm, 3 September 2020



© Monika Karczmarczyk / Berliner Festspiele

Benjamin: At First Light (1982)
Rihm: Jagden und Formen (1995-2001, 2008 version)

Ensemble Modern
George Benjamin (conductor)

George Benjamin returned to the Musikfest Berlin to conduct, in typically excellent performances, Ensemble Modern in one of his early works, At First Light, and the 2008 version (Zustand, more literally ‘state’ or ‘status’) of Wolfgang Rihm’s Jagden und Formen. These were pieces, at least it seemed to me at first, that offered contrast more than exemplification of an idea, but there is nothing wrong with that. On reflection, however, I began to make connections after all, intended or otherwise. It was instructive to be reminded once again of Benjamin’s breadth of musical sympathies, leading here in a direction I should not necessarily have suspected, as well as to step back from his more recent, often operatic output, to a piece from his (near-)Wunderkind years.

At First Light opened in a world of ever-changing liminality, against which fanfares made an unmistakeable mark, almost as if entering from another world. La Mer in reverse? Perhaps, not least given the Turner painting, Norham Castle, Sunrise, which lay behind Benjamin’s inspiration for the work: ‘the way,’ he once wrote, ‘in which solid objects – fields, cows, and the castle itself – virtually appear to have melted under the intense sunlight.’ The impression is different at first light, of course, but the distinction between object and haze still appeared to play a role, both in work and performance. The pristine quality of sounds, both alone and in combination – for instance, minor thirds – seemed here just as important as the undeniable complexity of combinations throughout the fourteen-strong chamber orchestra. Memories of one glorious moment, when instruments and players came together as if a consort in the sky, will remain with me long.

Rihm’s Jagden und Formen likewise lived up to, and expanded our notions, of what its title implied: ‘hunts and forms’. By coincidence, I had visited earlier in the day the old Jagdschloss (hunting lodge) in the Grunewald, the oldest Hohenzollern castle remaining in Berlin. This, however, seemed to be an altogether more ferocious hunt than that implied in the Renaissance clearing by the lake. An opening battle between two fiddlers offered resonances aplenty, more strings and later other instruments entering, yet at first in a role more akin to commentary. In time, however, more hunts and forms were incited, even ignited, forms unquestionably created before our ears: perhaps an attempt to control the wildness of the hunt; or, just as likely, a way for it to extend its reach. If there was perhaps something of Henze – König Hirsch or The Bassarids, for instance – to some points of departure, they were soon left behind; that may have been more a matter of my ears seeking orientation in a new work (to me) rather than of anything more ‘objective’. A crazy duet between cor anglais and viola, other instruments providing ever-shifting background – kinship with Benjamin’s piece after all? – lingered in my recollections, but there were many such concerto-for-orchestra-like partnerships of the moment. Was there a sense of persistent frustration, perhaps of the metaphorical quarry escaping? Or was the point more the thrill of the chase? Why choose? Metamorphosis through infectious energy was the order of the day, nowhere more so than in the outstanding musicianship heard from the Frankfurt players. I sensed a strangely Mahlerian mood toward the close, disrupted by further fury, and then a sudden falling into the distance. All was over for another day, but it had been quite a ride. Time to rest, then, before another ‘first light’.

Friday 4 September 2020

Aristidou/Widmann/Boulez Ensemble/Barenboim - Schubert, Mozart, Berg, and Widmann, 1 September 2020

Pierre Boulez Saal

Schubert: String Quartet in C minor, D 703, ‘Quartettsatz’
Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, KV 581
Berg: Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, op.5
Widmann: Labyrinth IV, for soprano and ensemble 

Sarah Aristidou (soprano)
Jörg Widmann (clarinet)
Staatskapelle Berlin String Quartet (Wolfram Brandl, Krzysztof Specjal (violins), Yulia Deyneka (viola), Claudius Popp (cello))
Boulez Ensemble
Daniel Barenboim (piano, conductor)

The new season at the Pierre Boulez Saal could hardly have opened in more promising fashion, whether strictly musical or in the hope imparted for the year to come. I was there at its predecessor’s premature close in March; so too was Daniel Barenboim, completing just in time his series of the Beethoven violin sonatas with Pinchas Zukerman. Here we heard Barenboim as pianist and conductor, but as part of a greater ensemble, of which Jörg Widmann was at least as prominent a member.

The first piece featured neither Barenboim nor Widmann, but rather the Staatskapelle Berlin String Quartet, in Schubert’s Quartettsatz. It works splendidly as a quasi-overture, not least to a programme such as this: ‘first’ and ‘second’ Viennese schools, themselves inextricably interlinked, with a contemporary successor who has long gained inspiration from both, as composer and performer. The Staatskapelle players offered a balanced and dynamic reading, alert, even febrile, so as to draw one in not only to this piece but to the programme as a whole. Schubert’s instrumental drama already presented themes that with only a slightly tweak of melody or harmonic context would be at home in Berg. Growing unease led inevitably to the tragedy of a coda whose tragedy seemed also to be that of our present condition, albeit without an ounce of self-pity: rather, fate itself.

Such anxiety, often subtle yet all the more pervasive for it, was to be heard in Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, for which Widmann joined the quartet. Mozart’s cultivated mastery might mask such feelings to incurious players and listeners, but as we now know very well, masking is a strange and defective thing. There was no question here in the first movement as to the importance of Mozart for his Viennese predecessors, Berg and of course Schoenberg among them. Developing variation and extraordinary balance in complex phrasing—how many even notice?—were miraculously achieved in work and performance, proceeding in unfussy yet variegate fashion at a well-judged tempo. The drama of the development presented instrumental intrigue to rival any operatic ensemble, resolving with equal mastery.

So too in the second movement, which seemed to speak of the Countess a few years on. Detailed playing from all concerned had Widmann first among equals, if that. Why could harmony not have stopped here? It seemed a question as necessary to ask as it was impossible to answer; as the Countess would have told us, time moves on, such being both the comedy and tragedy of the human condition. Cultivated, composed, resolutely unsentimental, the minuet’s view on life was enhanced by trios in tragic, then serenading dialogue with its material, the second seemingly from a world poised between Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito, a world that might spin out of control yet never did. Mozart’s balance between joy and melancholy was once more finely judged in a finale of metamorphosis through variation: a message there for all wishing to listen. Inevitability, in which the darkness of the viola-led variation (wonderful playing from Yulia Deyneka) necessarily bubbled over into the high spirits of the next, afforded further immersion in Mozart’s tragicomedy of life.

Melodies from Mozart and Schubert, or reminiscences thereof, however imaginary, haunted the pages of Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, in a commanding performance from Widmann and Barenboim, each movement a labyrinth and scena of its own, which yet formed part of greater mysteries. Berg’s alchemy of melody and harmony came as thrilling alive as had Schubert’s and Mozart’s, the frankly erotic charge stronger still. An expressionist chill of fate, culmination of a single yet multifarious breath, brought glowing, glistening, eruption, and death, and not only sequentially. This was a full-scale opera, or at least an instrumental drama, of its own.

Barenboim, the Boulez Ensemble (drawn from members of the Staatskapelle and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra), and Sarah Aristidou gave the premiere of Widmann’s Labyrinth IV last year. I was delighted to hear it and look forward to deepening my acquaintance with a compelling work for soprano and ensemble which, if not quite a song-cycle, suggests elements of that great Schubertian tradition in its setting of texts concerning Ariadne and the Minotaur—no Theseus, no other mediator—from Euripides, Brentano, Nietzsche, and Heine. An opening primal cry signalled much: not least that vocal music, for the first time since March for me, was now also back on the agenda. Instrumental interjections, from double bass to drums to accordion, heightened the sense of a primaeval drama which, if owing no evident debt to Birtwistle, perhaps shared with his music that sense of a violent, unsentimentalised prehistory. In this case, Ariadne must confront her half-brother and indeed her mother, the first number eventually moving to Euripdes’ words: ‘O miserable mother, tell me why did you bear me?’ (in Greek). It was Aeschylus, perhaps, who seemed to speak in the music, though, at least according to the still-influential typology dictated by the author of The Birth of Tragedy (and, of course, his mentor and ultimate, unknowing antagonist, Wagner).

For the following ‘Kinderlied für ein Ungeheuer’, we heard indeed a nursery rhyme for a monster, Aristidou, a born singing-actress, circling the hall on its first level, looking and singing into the orchestral labyrinth itself: again, first music, only latterly with words. A neo-Bachian (via Second Viennese School) canon marked the ‘Gang ins Labyrinth’, Ariadne’s progress delineated by ensemble alone, the labyrinth, in proper Bergian sense felt as much as observed. Were those echoes I heard of the Berg’s Violin Concerto and its inheritance from Bach? Barenboim led a performance of shattering intensity, a scream from above announcing the fourth number, ‘Im Labyrinth’, words from Nietzsche’s Dionysus-Dithyramben. A furious chase, ultimately to the death? In part, but an uneasy stillness and quest for recognition, both of which, as in Berg’s operas, proved as much instrumental and vocal, were equally important. Lyrical reminiscences of a German Romantic world from which a certain distance could yet be retained: could there have been a more in-keeping response to Heine, in the following ‘Traurig schau ich in die Höh’’? Wozzeck-like tread and post-Lulu harmonies continued to suggest a Bergian trail, which may or may not have been the true path through the labyrinth. For the final ‘Tötung des Minotaur’, Widmann, Aristidou, and indeed the ensemble as a whole suggested a revenge at first Ariadne’s, yet ultimately that of Dionysus. Yes, this was Nietzsche again. Blood-red sun above the stage brought visual as well as aural attention to trumpeters proclaiming in triumph glow of death against Ariadne’s white. We were all, however, in the labyrinth now; such is the power of music. Mahlerian explosion and death rattle lingered, even seduced. ‘Ich bin dein Labyrinth …’