Friday 31 January 2020

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Deutsche Oper, 29 January 2020

Images: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM von Benjamin Britten, Regie: Ted Huffman, Premiere am 26.1.2020, Deutsche Oper Berlin, copyright: Bettina Stöß

Oberon – James Hall
Tytania – Siobhan Stagg
Puck – Jami Reid-Quarrell
Theseus – Padraic Rowan
Hippolyta – Davia Bouley
Lysander – Gideon Poppe
Demetrius – Samuel Dale Johnson
Hermia – Karis Tucker
Helena – Jeanine De Bique
Bottom – James Platt
Quince – Timothy Newton
Flute – Michael Kim
Snug – Patrick Guetti
Snout – Matthew Peña
Starveling – Matthew Cossack
Cobweb – Markus Kinch
Peaseblossom – Lora Violetta Haberstock
Mustardseed – Selina Isi
Moth – Chiara Annabelle Feldmann

Ted Huffman (director)
Marsha Ginsberg (set designs)
Annemarie Woods (costumes)
DM Wood (lighting)
Sam Pinkleton (choreography)
Ran Arthur Braun (Puck’s choreography)
Sebastian Hanusa (dramaturgy)
Neil Barry Moss (Spielleitung)

Children’s Choir of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus director: Christian Lindhorst)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

For my final review – unless, which seems unlikely, I manage to write up this evening’s concert before midnight – written as a European citizen, it is perhaps fitting to be writing of an English opera, performed by a German company, conducted by a Scotsman. Given the circumstances, I hope I shall be forgiven if it does not find me at my most inspired, should such a condition even exist. Hand on heart, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not an opera I can bring myself to care for greatly, although – perhaps there is a lesson, or at least an irony, here too – the Berlin audience reacted enthusiastically.

Shakespeare is a dramatist whom composers, at least opera composers, confront at their peril. However clichéd it may be to say this, there is so much music in his verse that setting it can seem superfluous. This is not a rule; there are no such rules. However, I cannot see, or rather hear, what is gained in this case, other than an undeniable creepiness to score and elements of the dramaturgy, which therefore does not seem an unreasonable place for a performance to take as its point of departure. In that, as in everything else, Donald Runnicles’s leadership of the excellent Deutsche Oper Orchestra and Children’s Choir and a fine group of soloists proved just the ticket. Rarely if ever have I heard those recurring slithering glissandi and the weird balances of instrumentation and of instrumentation-vis-à-vis-harmony sound quite so ambiguous, even callous in their indifference to the affairs of mere mortals. This was fairyland music properly unsentimentalised. Moreover, Runnicles communicated the constructivist aspects of Britten’s writing more powerfully than any conductor I can recall. Unsurprisingly, the closer it sounded to The Turn of the Screw, the more interesting the score became. There is only so much anyone can do about the general thinness of writing and a tendency, constructivism notwithstanding, towards diffuse formlessness; insofar as anyone can, Runnicles certainly did. Colour, however, came first and foremost. Those silvery slivers of orchestral moonlight cast, in a fine dramatic paradox, as much shadow as anything else.

The children’s choir had evidently been very well prepared by Christian Lindhorst. Indeed, I had to remind myself afterwards that most of its members would have been singing in a foreign language. A mixed cast included many Anglophone singers, but those who were not, at least in terms of mother tongue, could again hardly be distinguished from those who were. (Singing and musical performance more generally are, of course, international businesses in which British artists have been enabled to flourish by membership of the European Union; goodness knows what will happen next year.) It seems invidious to single out particular performances when all impressed and contributed to a whole that was unquestionably greater than the sum of its parts. I shall limit myself to noting vocal portrayals that, for whatever reason, particularly caught my ear. From James Hall came a warm yet, in the best way, piercing Oberon, channelling Alfred Deller’s memory through something more than imitation; he was well matched by Siobhan Stagg’s spirited, knowing (at least until she was not!) Tytania. Gideon Poppe and Samuel Dale Johnson offered an excellent rutting pair of impetuous youths, well matched and contrasting with their lovers, Karis Tucker and Jeanine De Bique. James Platt’s bluffly comic Bottom led a characterful troupe of rustics.

Ted Huffman’s production gave the impression of good ideas that might fruitfully have been taken further, while shining a clear path through the basic narrative. No one would have stood in any doubt as to who was who, nor as to what was taking place: more, after all, than can often be said in opera staging. I presume the mid-twentieth-century setting – 1940s? – was intended to suggest the period of writing or at least Britten’s life in some respect. It was not, however, immediately clear why we should not then have been closer to 1960. Military uniforms and a suggestion – or was that just me? – of a battlefield as all slept in the forest may have alluded to wartime; if so, without something more, I was rather at a loss as to why and with what consequences. In a programme interview, Huffman referred to Oberon and Tytania fighting over the Indian boy as being akin to the status of Britten and Peter Pears as a childless couple. Once more, if so, nothing more was made of it – and I should hardly have thought of that without reading. Lines delivered in somewhat exaggerated fashion by Jami Reid-Quarrell, Puck was likewise intended, I learned, to represent an outsider. Fair enough, although surely that comes with the territory. There was, however, no doubting Reid-Quarrell’s agility, nor the skill of Ran Arthur Braun’s choreography for him. Quite why Theseus, in a fine vocal and stage display by Padraic Rowan, was drunk, I am afraid I have no idea, but the use of giant puppets for Pyramus and Thisby was charming.

What did I miss? Christopher Alden’s superlative ENO production, far and away the best I have seen, went for the pederastic jugular. Would that more would grasp that thorny nettle with such dramatic verve – be it in this or any other Britten opera. Perhaps, though, I was missing the point. With that, I should probably sign off. See you on the other side, lost in a far darker wood than this, with blue passports, yet nothing in the way of fairyland magic and no ‘break of day’ for at least a couple of decades. If we are lucky.

Thursday 30 January 2020

Arnold Schoenberg: Beauty and Horror (in the TLS)

I have an essay on Schoenberg in the TLS's Grace Notes series. To read more, please click here. And for anyone interested in reading more on Schoenberg's life and work, please click here for my recent book, published last year in Reaktion's Critical Lives series.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Salzburg Mozartwoche (5): MCO/Uchida - Mozart, 27 January 2020

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Piano Concerto no.17 in G major, KV 453
Flute Quartet no.1 in D major, KV 285
Piano Concerto no.22 in E-flat major, KV 482

Chiara Tonelli (flute)
Alexi Kenney (violin)
Béatrice Muthelet (viola)
Frank-Michael Guthmann (cello)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Mitsuko Uchida (piano, conductor)

Now for the third of three orchestras during my Salzburg visit. Following the Vienna Philharmonic and Camerata Salzburg, it was now time for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, directed from the keyboard by Mitsuko Uchida. Each of these ensembles offered differences in approach, though too much need not be made of that; there was certainly nothing perverse, nor unwelcome. Perhaps there was a little more in the way of ‘period’ sound to aspects of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s performance: only really, though, in certain aspects of articulation. Immediacy was unquestionable, notes veritably flying from string bows. It was, moreover, instructive to hear Mozart’s gorgeous woodwind writing in the context of earlier chamber concerts in the series. For this was to be no more a display of puritanism than of any other form of egotism. All orchestras, all performances more broadly Cultivated, transparent, and in many ways more big-boned – in part, yet only in part, the Mozarteum acoustic – than what we had heard in earlier concerts, the G major Piano Concerto’s opening tutti met, perhaps, with a surprisingly soloistic response from Uchida: more overtly articulated than, say, Daniel Barenboim with the VPO, but also standing at times in greater opposition to the orchestra. Harmonic surprises registered with dramatic immediacy, not least the crucial intrusion of the flattened submediant, E-flat, in the run-up to the cadenza.

Warm and dark, a tragic edge to the MCO’s strings in the central Andante proved just as important as the Elysian delights savoured from its woodwind soloists. Did Uchida’s limpid piano entry signal reconciliation? Perhaps. If so, not yet, however, for there was some way to go in so vividly conceived an instrumental drama. Indeed, the sense of grief increased, not only in the minor mode, rendering consolation, when it came, all the more necessary and moving. In that, the cadenza proved a fine microcosm of the whole. It can be tempting to take the finale too fast. (A brief glance at later note values should be enough, yet alas is not always.) There was no question here, however, in a reading alert to this music’s very particular trajectory. Papageno must be reached, as opposed to nonchalantly presuming his company from the outset. The piano sparkled, never garbled; one heard its notes, no mere effects. Likewise, of course, the orchestra, whether in delectable oboe solos or repeated, generative violin figuration. Mozart’s minor-mode chromaticism reminded us once again – as had Uchida’s earlier balance between horizontal and vertical – of the music’s Schoenbergian tendencies, necessary preparation for an exhilarating final section, E-flat once again the propulsive grit in the finest of oysters.

There followed a charming performance, from MCO principals, of the First Flute Quartet: elegant and airy, with no attempt to make the music into something that it is not. The invention of the first-movement development section was a joy to hear – and, so it seemed, also to play. Structure became dynamic form, especially so at the moment of return, highlighting how all had been transformed by what had already passed. There was no underlining, though, nor any need for it. A central dance of blessed spirits led to some rebellious moments and thereby straight into the finale. Imbued with a proper sense of joy and release, if it sounded at times close to Haydn, that is only because it should.

I had a few doubts concerning the performance of KV 482, though could not help but applaud Uchida’s unwillingness to be swayed by fashion. Grander, statelier than one might generally hear, its first movement certainly afforded space to listen. What I missed, however, was the formal dynamism that a musician such as Barenboim brings to this music, its structure never quite taking flight in that – or another – way. There was nevertheless something splendidly distinctive to the grandeur of orchestral sweep and indeed to the dark-hued Romanticism of parts of the cadenza (Uchida’s own), indicative of the contrasts to be heard elsewhere. Likewise the deliberate tempo adopted for the slow movement, in combination with withdrawn string vibrato indicative, perhaps, of Orpheus taming the Furies. Who was Orpheus, though? Piano or wind? The latter were a little jaunty at times, jarring for me with the overall conception. That said, the pathos of the movement’s closing bars proved quite irresistible. Such doubts were dispelled, however, in a finale presented with that elusive yet unquestionable sense of Mozartian ‘rightness’, save perhaps for some of Uchida’s ornamentation during the Andantino cantabile episode. Its high spirits brooked no compromise between weight and energy. For an encore, an ineffably lovely, strikingly personal account of the slow movement from the C major Piano Sonata, KV 330/300h could not have been more welcome.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

Salzburg Mozartwoche (4): Vents français/Kodály Qt/Le Sage - Mozart, 27 January 2020

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Trio in E-flat major for piano, clarinet, and viola, ‘Kegelstatt’, KV 498
Sonata in B-flat major for bassoon and cello, KV 292/196c
Oboe Quartet in F major, KV 370/368b
Horn Quintet in E-flat major, KV 407/368c
Quintet in E-flat major for piano and wind instruments, KV 452

François Leleux (oboe)
Paul Meyer (clarinet)
Gilbert Audin (bassoon)
Radovan Vlatković (horn)
Attila Falvay, Ferenc Bangó (violins)
Zoltán Tuska (viola)
György Éder (cello)
Éric Le Sage (piano)

What better way to celebrate Mozart’s birthday than with two concerts of his music in the city of his birth? The first, showing what a festival such as the Mozartwoche can do to go beyond the general run of subscription concerts, however distinguished, brought together members of two chamber groups, Les Vents français and the Kodály Quartet, alongside pianist Éric Le Sage, to present five works for differently constituted ensembles.

First, we heard Paul Meyer, Zoltán Tuska, and Le Sage in the Kegelstatt Trio, Meyer’s liquid tone an especial joy throughout. The work’s infinitely touching melodies and harmonies seemed to have their foundation in these particular instruments, the performance making it impossible to imagine them otherwise. Following an opening Andante of fine balance and character, work and performance alike seemed both to be balanced and intensified by a rich, courtly Minuet and its ever-surprising Trio, the heart of the work in more than one way. Occasional blemishes in the finale’s early piano passagework – there is nowhere to hide here – did not seriously detract from an account of this movement both charming and searching. It was good, moreover, to hear the viola offered an opportunity, splendidly taken, to shine too. True chamber music, then, concluding in a movement of heavenly length.

Even I should not claim the Sonata in B-flat major for bassoon and cello to be a masterpiece. Nevertheless, composer and performers, Gilbert Audin and György Éder, responded resourcefully. To hear such pure two-part writing offered contrast of its own, flowing performances drawing one in to consider implied harmony and counterpoint alike. The closing Rondo proved the high-point, its shift to the minor mode suggestive enough of depths one might not otherwise have suspected; the preceding Andante offered winning elegance too.

Cultivated, characterful playing marked the Oboe Quartet from its outset, the players navigating skilfully and revealingly implied boundaries, and lack thereof, between chamber music and mini-concerto. Éder seemed here to relish a less thankless role than in the previous work, but all players shone, a bubbly François Leleux first among equals. A sure test of successful sonata-form playing is whether everything has changed by the point of recapitulation; it most certainly had in this first movement, imbued with a freshness it was difficult not to consider, however hopefully in late January, as vernal. The pathos of the slow movement was neither over- nor underplayed, in an account that flowed, while retaining plenty of space to develop. It was a lament of considerable beauty, over all too quickly. High spirits and variegated texture characterised the finale every inch worthy of the name.

The Horn Quintet opened in similar yet distinct vein, light, shade, and their interplay splendidly apparent in the first movement. Its successors proved similarly euphonious, although both somewhat underplayed the import of Mozart’s shadows – at least until Le Sage’s reminder at the close. There could be no doubt, however, of the distinction of playing from all concerned.

That lack of something bolder was felt also in the opening movement of the Quintet for piano and wind instruments, though certainly not in its spacious introduction, unquestionably announcing a masterpiece. Perhaps it was more a problem of balance, for the recapitulation and final two movements were more sharply etched – and all the better for it. The slow movement, recalling that introduction, proved ideally balanced between vertical and horizontal impulses. Not for nothing was Schoenberg so devoted to Mozart’s navigation between the two. In its dramatic transformations, moreover, it seemed that an invisible stage opened up before our ears. The finale too, came close to ideal: ebullient, detailed, clearly directed, yet never hurried. There was always plenty of time in which to admire its crucial detail, wherever in piano figuration or the harmonies engendered by parallel wind trills. It was a delightful way to close a fascinating concert.

Salzburg Mozartwoche (3): Pahud/Vents français/Camerata Salzburg/Leleux - Mozart, 26 January 2020

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, for oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, KV 297b/ (Anh. C 14.01)
Flute Concerto no.2 in D major, KV 314/285d
Flute Concerto no.1 in G major, KV 313/285c
Symphony no.36 in C major, KV 425, ‘Linz’

Emmanuel Pahud (flute)
Paul Meyer (clarinet)
Radovan Vlatković (horn)
Gilbert Audin (bassoon)
Camerata Salzburg
François Leleux (oboe, conductor)

‘Play it as if it were Mozart and Mozart it will be,’ seems a good rule of thumb for performance of the embattled E-flat major Sinfonia concertante for oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon. In any case, it seems clear to me on a number of counts that Mozart’s was the primary, if not necessarily the only, hand in what has come down to us. Soloists from the French wind ensemble, Les Vents français, joined Camerata Salzburg for this and the two flute concertos and gave as good accounts of all three works as one has any right to expect, oboist François Leleux doubling as conductor for all three, plus the Linz Symphony.

It was a different sound we heard from the orchestra than from the Vienna Philharmonic for Daniel Barenboim the previous evening. That should not, for any number of reasons, surprise. More important were the warmth, brightness, alertness, and fineness of articulation these seasoned Mozart players brought to their music-making. The Sinfonia concertante’s opening tutti was lovingly – not too lovingly – shaped by Leleux, the well-blended wind quartet seemingly growing out of the orchestra rather than standing opposed to it. This was a performance as infectious as those of Mozart divertimenti the previous morning, yet necessarily fuller of sound and reach. The slow movement, spacious and poised, reminded us that there is no firm boundary, especially in Mozart, between hope and melancholy. Lifting the spirits without glibness, the finale proved a delight from start to finish. Cultivated and collegial playing afforded an opportunity for soloistic display that was also so much more than that.

Emmanuel Pahud’s two performances, either side of the interval, boasted from the first work’s – that is, the Second Flute Concerto’s – first solo phrase flute playing to have one sit up in wonder. Then another, and another… Clean, warm, above all musical in cognisance of where Mozart was taking us and why, it proved the perfect foil for elegant, attentive playing from Camerata Salzburg and Leleux. With lesser players, the flute can seem limited in range; here, we heard chiaroscuro to rival a Raphael. KV 314’s slow movement was a song of tender consolation, delivered with seemingly endless reserves of breath – and, again, musicianship. Gallic airs, but a mitteleuropäisch heart beating beneath: Mozart may not have been in Paris when he wrote the finale, or indeed any of the work, but there was an apt sense of affinity to that musical capital, style and form revealed as two sides of the same coin. A Jacques Ibert encore in which all five ensemble members could briefly come together offered wit and colour

The First Concerto offered many similar virtues to the Second, with warm, detailed orchestral performance, and clear, meaningful phrsaing from Pahud. Dazzling virtuosity, for instance in the first movement cadenza, remained entirely in the music’s service, the key to a veritable garden of delights. Seductive in its gracious euphony, the slow movement’s darker shadows were felt, without danger of overwhelming. The profusion of melody characterising the finale benefited from not dissimilar grace and formal understanding. Mozart’s turn to the minor rightly spoke of the opera house, while reminding us also how much his operas owed to his instrumental writing. I could not help but notice appreciation not only from Intendant, Rolando Villazon, but also from another audience member seated next to him, one Daniel Barenboim.

Leleux led an enthusiastic performance of the Linz to conclude. Its first movement proved full of contrast, not least between festal C major, trumpets and drums blazing, and something more intimated. If, at times, I found the contrasts a little overplayed, at least without more in the way of mediation, Leleux’s way with the work had me listen anew. There was, moreover, no doubting the excellence of orchestral response. The Andante breathed the air of a Salzburg serenade, its symphonic stature nevertheless made clear by the Haydnesque gravity of those trumpets and drums. If Beethoven’s music too sounded close, that is only because it is. A minuet both brisk and weighty was balanced again by winning intimacy in its trio, leading to a finale of great character and many (quasi-operatic) characters. Even in his later, more ‘monothematic’ writing, Mozart is not given to parsimony; nor should his interpreters be. Hearing the distinct character of each string section proved a particular joy as motifs passed between them. It was a duly celebratory close to another fine morning for Mozart.

Sunday 26 January 2020

Salzburg Mozartwoche (2): Baborák/VPO/Barenboim - Mozart, 25 January 2020

Grosses Festspielhaus

Symphony no.33 in B-flat major, KV 319
Horn Concerto no.3 in E-flat major, KV 447
Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466

Radek Baborák (horn)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano, conductor)

Mozart’s music requires but one thing in performance: perfection. Needless to say, it rarely receives what it needs. That is hardly the fault of us mere mortals; it is, however, our fault when we impose absurd ideological constraints upon his music, consciously reducing and impoverishing it. On this occasion, I am delighted to report that an all-Mozart concert came as close as I can recall to that perfection in performance it required. Radek Baborák, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Daniel Barenboim did Mozart, his music, and their audience proud.

Bewilderingly neglected – have I ever heard it in concert before? - the B-flat major Symphony, KV 319, benefited from that ‘rightness’ that is difficult to put either into words or practice, but which one knows when one hears it. Tempo, balance, articulation, sound, line: everything was there, just as it should be, in the way one used to hear from Sir Colin Davis, though never quite to be identified. (Near-perfection takes more forms than one might suspect.) Barenboim clearly heard the first movement, indeed the whole work, as if in a single breath, but that did not preclude a host of characters making their mark on Mozart’s invisible stage. The development section contrasted and complemented what had gone before. There was no need to make a meal of the four-note contrapuntal tag that to us inevitably presages the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony; it was simply put to its post-Fuxian work, thereby blending in and generating. A graceful return smiled and led to a thrilling climax and coda.

Poised and poignant, the slow movement also boasted an oboe solo to die for, not that the Vienna strings were any less gorgeous to hear: warm, translucent, inviting. Barenboim’s harmonic understanding underlay and underwrote it all. The Minuet had a fine swagger to it, an equally fine developmental edge too. This was a dance that recalled or looked forward to the ballroom, but was certainly not to be confined to it. Its trio, often underestimated, was afforded due weight (not heaviness!), thereby singing, seducing, and effecting a Don Giovanni-like response in the reprise of its elder sibling. Champagne of the finest vintage characterised the finale, corks bursting, wine overflowing. ‘Finch’han del vino!’ Style and symphonic drama emerged as one in a performance whose stature was underlined by Barenboim’s opting to take the second repeat. Why, after all, should anyone wish such music and such music-making to end?

I wonder whether Baborák’s performance in the Third Horn Concerto may have offered the finest horn playing I have heard. I can safely say that I have heard none finer. Flawless of phrasing and of line, despatched with supreme aristocratic elegance, the first movement set expectations impossible high, only for them to be fulfilled. A slightly smaller string section, just as warm and polished as before, and delectable woodwind followed Barenboim’s lead to effect a partnership poised between chamber and orchestral music, or rather navigating between them. What riches of musical thought were revealed anew, not least some of Mozart’s most breathtaking modulations. A splendidly directed cadenza, Baborák’s own, presented us both with a true microcosm of the whole and a witty surprise. Sung with perfect consolation, human in its divinity and vice versa, the slow movement spoke of tragedy too, its turn to the minor all the more affecting for the lack of underlining lesser musicians would have brought to it. The quintessence of a hunting finale ensued, detail and sweep, balance and propulsion all finely weighed and communicated.

Dark, mysterious, soon explosive, the opening tutti of the D minor Piano Concerto again had expectations run unreasonably high, only to meet, even to surpass them. Dialogue between first and second violins, not only its clarity but also its import, left us in no doubt this was to be no run-of-the-mill performance. It set the scene, however, for a movement of great contrasts, responsorial and otherwise. When I had last heard Barenboim play this concerto, his technical control had not always been what it might; here, technique proved the liberation of the imagination, as Peter Pears once put it (at least according to a quotation on my A-level music teacher’s wall). The sweetness of tragedy, that ineffably Mozartian smiling through tears, was my abiding memory of a first movement as terrifying as anything in Don Giovanni, anger repressed as crucial as anger unleashed. It was, however, a more intimate performance than I expected, once again showing that, at his best, Barenboim is never a musician to rest on his laurels. That said, the lead up to the cadenza and the voice of Beethoven himself was seamless. And if that were not the Angel of Death hovering in the penumbra of the coda, I cannot imagine what it was.

Piano legato flowed like oil in the slow movement, as Mozart famously prescribed. It was in the half-lights and shadows, however, that the truest revelations – in every sense – lay. It was played with all the ease of a young man and all the wisdom accumulated since. The grief of which the central minor mode section spoke was harnessed thereafter to something seraphic, which managed to sing through the memory, through the trauma. Barenboim’s opening finale solo leapt off the page onstage, inciting a demonic rage from the orchestra that surely would have thrilled Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner too. The dramma giocoso balance to this movement, however, was Mozart’s and Mozart’s alone. Our destination, D major, proved balm for the soul and all the more painful for it. Whatever the horrors of our world, Mozart remains.

Saturday 25 January 2020

Salzburg Mozartwoche (1): COE Soloists - Mozart, 25 January 2020

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Divertimento in B-flat major for two oboes, two horns, and two bassoons, KV 270
Divertimento in D major for two violins, viola, double bass, oboe, and two horns, ‘Nannerl Septet’, KV 251
Divertimento in E-flat major for two oboes, two horns, and two bassoons, KV 252/240a
March in D major, KV 290/167AB and Divertimento in D major for violin, viola, double bass, bassoon, and two horns, KV 205/167A

Malin Broman, Maria Bader-Kubizek (violins)
Pascal Siffert (viola)
Enno Senft (double bass)
Sébastien Giot, Rachel Frost (oboes)
Jasper de Waal, Beth Randell (horns)
Matthew Wilkie, Christopher Gunia (bassoons)

There are worse ways to start the day than with four Mozart Salzburg divertimenti: all the better when performed in Salzburg and with such distinction and evident affection as was brought to them by soloists from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The B-flat major Divertimento, KV 270, proved an especially delightful way to open the concert, its opening Allegro molto buoyant, bubbly, yet grounded. Interaction between different pairs and groups of instruments was faultless and lightly generative, revealing an already astounding capability for balance between harmony and counterpoint on the part of the twenty-year-old composer. Like a fine glass of sparkling wine, it proved to be over in a flash, yet lingered longer than one might ever have expected. The following ‘Andantino’ was likewise all too brief: a courtly perambulation – development, no mere contemplation – through a garden of delights. All that was missing – well, perhaps not quite all, yet near enough – to transport us to the world of Così fan tutte, or at least the later piano concertos, was clarinets. The Minuet danced, without being reduced to ‘a dance’, its trio relaxing just the right amount. However many the notes, the musicians hurtled through the ‘Presto’ finale without a hint of fussiness or harrying. Natural fizz, one might say.

Claudio Abbado made an excellent case for playing the ‘Nannerl Septet’ with orchestra; but there is, of course no need. (Not that we need ‘need’; results speak for themselves.) Its opening movement was graceful yet directed, cultured strings offering lovely antiphonal response to Sébastien Giot’s magical oboe. Eminently ‘symphonic’ one might say, though perhaps that would give the wrong impression: better to think of it as taking its place in the myriad of eighteenth-century sonata writing. An ear-catching minuet had its charm and character – not least Enno Senft’s double-bass solo line – brought out from within: nothing, thank God, was applied to the music. The third movement sang with apparent insouciance, yet there was unquestionably more beneath the beguiling surface: Mozart in a nutshell. Another minuet and variations proved beautifully contrasted, both with that and with the minuets that had gone before. The more one listens, the more one appreciates the riches of early(ish) Mozart one might once have been overlook: at least, that is, in a performance such as this. Many clearly assumed the ‘Rondeau’ to be the final movement, applauding at its close. One can understand why, up to a point, and it did not harm. But the different turns Mozart’s music takes, delightful and surprising, even when one ‘knows’, perhaps hinted otherwise. It was not ‘symphonic’ at all, then – and all the better for it. After the short pause necessitated, the closing ‘Marcia alla francese’ emerged as a duly winning encore.

Following the interval, the opening movement of KV 252, an ‘Andante’, offered a lovely contrast, especially when played with such charm in balance and development. The second movement confirmed yet again what variety Mozart offers both players and listeners in his minuet-writing, Jasper de Waal’s horn solos here a particular delight. Mozart in Polonaise form benefited from a buoyant, splendidly responsive account of the third movement, leading to a finale no one would have doubted as such. We could tell where it was heading from the outset: now it was but a matter of enjoying the ride.

Finally came the D major March and Divertimento, almost certainly the oldest music, probably written in 1772 and 1773. Quite rightly, they were played with all the care, attention, and affection afforded to their companion pieces. The March emerged cultivated and variegated, quite without pedantry: there was always music between its phrases too. And what delight there was to be had here in horn interventions from de Waal and Beth Randell. This was music as light and as life-giving as air itself. The first movement of KV 205/167A proved a fine foil for what had gone and what was to come, heard with a grave dignity that again seemed to point to the composer’s later years. If, again, I could not help but think of Così, it was music of a different buffo quality that emerged from it; or was it? Yes, of course, yet a detailed, infections performance ever beguiled and edified. The Divertimento’s two minuets were sprightly and spirited, once again ringing the changes; likewise their trios, clearly relished. In between, the extraordinary ‘Adagio’, for violin, viola, and double bass, gave the lie to any doubts anyone may have held regarding the instrumentation. One would never have known the potential difficulties in so graceful and ultimately moving a performance. The ‘Presto’ finale again revealed character both in genre and particularity, imbued with a well-nigh operatic drama in its turn to the minor. With Mozart, there is never a clear distinction between ‘dramatic’ and ‘instrumental’ music; why should there be?

Friday 24 January 2020

BPO/Petrenko - Mahler, 23 January 2020


Symphony no.6 in A minor

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

‘Keine Pause’ (‘no interval’), announced the programme booklet for this Berlin Philharmonic performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Uncontroversial performance practice, one might have thought. Far more controversial, of course, is the ordering of the internal movements. I shall admit my heart initially sank on noting that Kirill Petrenko intended to follow the common recent practice of Andante-Scherzo rather than vice versa, yet told myself that this would be an opportunity once again to revisit my judgement on the matter, a judgement that is in any case entirely pragmatic. Were I to hear a performance ordered Andante-Scherzo that convinced me, I should be delighted, for it would be perversely dogmatic to reject any performance on textual grounds alone. If it works, it works.

So, did it work? There could be no doubting the musical, not merely technical, excellence on display from Petrenko and his orchestra. (Does one ever hear from the Berlin Philharmonic the kind of Schlamperei in which its Viennese counterpart might occasionally indulge?) This was, by any standards, an impressive performance. However, it was only truly in the finale that I felt everything came together, both intellectually and emotionally. That was not simply a matter of the movement order, although I am sure that played a part. Ultimately, I think, Petrenko hears much of this music differently from the way I do. There is nothing wrong with that: certainly not for him, at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic; nor, I hope, for me either. Mahler is big enough to take a variety or, to use a more Mahlerian word, a world of approaches. I ask that any reservations noted here should be taken in that spirit, as trying to explain why I felt – or did not feel – the way I did (not), and not as mere carping.

It began as a quick march, monstrously metronomic: by design, of course. Timbre was hard-edged too, harder than one can imagine it ever sounding in Vienna, closer to Shostakovich than to Berg, though certainly not to be heard reductively in any respect. The chorale proved as inscrutable as I have heard. Only with the ‘Alma’ theme did the music finally yield, its echoes yielding further still. On the exposition repeat, I was struck by how the strings seemed to dig in deeper still: no ‘mere’ repeat, then, in this unusually ‘Classical’ practice for Mahler. The wandering strangeness of Mahler’s voice-leading likewise registered all the more strongly this second time around. The development scored highly on percussion-led mystery: not only cowbells, but celesta and glockenspiel too. Was that Shostakovich’s Fifteenth we heard before us in the distant - or not so distant – future? Even when not playing, those instruments’ shadow and that of the chorale too loomed ominous: in, for instance, the duet between horn and violin or the collision between second violin pizzicato and celesta. How eerie in this light did the sped-up chorale sound in the recapitulation, like forlorn running on the spot. And how desolate, how emotionally spent was the coda’s announcement.

Next came the Andante, its contours drawn lovingly, yet never too lovingly. Schoenberg’s celebrated analysis suggests he would have thought well of Petrenko’s way with this movement (if not, necessarily, with its placement). It was meaningfully shaped, above all in its climaxes, with none of the overt interventionism that can so disfigure much contemporary Mahler performance. Mahler’s music truly developed, as one realised upon looking back. The return to A minor for the Scherzo, however, unsettled – and not, for me at least, in a good way. This has yet to sound right for me, for all manner of reasons, analytical and hermeneutical. Perhaps one day it will; for now, I remain in the camp of Mahlerians such as Pierre BoulezBernard Haitink, and Michael Gielen. That said, Petrenko proved more yielding than the first movement had led me to expect. This certainly was ‘good unsettling’. The Scherzo emerged more sardonic than brutal, especially in its liminal passages. Tutti passages again had more of a Shostakovich than a Central European sonority to my ears. The way, however, it petered out, exhausted, was quite something: not only different from what we had heard before, but also clearly a prelude to the ultimate tragedy of the finale.

Its opening cry instilled fear of God, followed by some of the most extraordinary, now unabashedly Bergian sonorities I have heard here. Malice and fear sounded on both side of the subject/object divide. There was defiance too, though, in necessary reaction: just as frightening in its way, when a motif passed from violas to second violins to firsts; or when the wind attempted to take us where the material demanded, yet could not. There was also relief of an almost Mendelssohnian variety, rendering what was to come all the more cruel. Once the first hammer blow had fallen, its trauma could never be escaped. The sweetness of strings in its wake was almost too much to take. After that, let alone the second, there could be no doubt of where we were heading. The recapitulation could hardly have opened in greater despair: musically earned, not hysterically whipped up, as a lesser conductor might have done. Mahler – and we – tried to hope, and how, yet it was in vain. So much so, indeed, that I found myself wanting the third hammer blow, its denial perhaps as cruel as its fall would have been. The blackness of the close spoke for itself. Aftershock, rather than the Scherzo’s nihilism.

Thursday 23 January 2020

Tetzlaff Quartet - Schoenberg and Beethoven, 19 January 2020


Schoenberg: String Quartet no.1, op.7
Beethoven: String Quartet no.13 in B-flat major, op.130, with Grosse Fuge, op.133

Christian Tetzlaff, Elisabeth Kufferath (violins)
Hanna Weinmeister (viola)
Tanja Tetzlaff (cello)

What better way to attempt to restore severely battered faith in humanity than with the music of these two composers? We may deconstruct the heroism of Schoenberg and Beethoven all we like – it is, in many respects, meet and right so to do – but first and foremost, we construct and, in that construction, we remind ourselves of what humanity can and should be. That is certainly what we heard in outstanding performances from the Tetzlaff Quartet.

The first movement of Schoenberg’s First String Quartet opened as if taking its leave from Verklärte Nacht: not the lazy, ‘late Romantic’, ‘acceptable Schoenberg’ of reactionaries, but febrile, generative, surveying the twentieth century as Beethoven did the nineteenth. More ‘expressionist’ too, for want of a better word, and but a stone’s throw from the life-affirming complexities – and formal compression – of the First Chamber Symphony. There was urgency yet, just as necessary, there was space. Motivic and harmonic development less travelled less hand in hand than hurled each other, however undeniable the intricacy, into the vortex of things to come. The second group of the exposition/first movement/however one wishes to think of it – clue: one should think of it in all these respects and more – spoke with perfectly judged light depth, well-nigh immediately initiating regathering, redoubling of strength. Counterpoint of vigour and teleological force, the sheer effort of construction looked both back and forward to Beethoven. The latter’s good humour and rapt lyricism seemed reborn too in a performance which, throughout its three-quarters of an hour span, maintained tension even when, particularly when, it relaxed. This was, rightly, no mere matter of background and foreground, though it certainly included that, Schoenberg ever a superior guide to Schenker.

Becoming, then, was ever the thing: becoming that reminded us we need not look to later Schoenberg for homage to and reckoning with the great Classical trinity of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The stillness and serenity with which the third of the Quartet’s four sections opened again seemed to presage what we would hear in Beethoven’s op.130, though that would be negated and then have its negation negated soon enough. Holy ground opened up before us, suggesting Schoenberg’s own air of another planet, even the Burning Bush of Moses und Aron, yet before we knew it, we were plunged headlong into something as wondrously profane. The finale, if we may call it that and I think we may, registered almost as a homage to Haydn, proving as full of fascinating, moving contrast as all that had gone before it, all the time developing further, before reaching, fulfilled yet far from spent: its very own Heiliger Dankgesang.

Emotional fragility and sureness of line announced the Adagio ma non troppo ‘introduction’ – does that word really suffice any more? – to Beethoven’s first movement. The music, not unlike Schoenberg’s, spoke of and as something too rare, too good to last, yet which we therefore needed all the more. This movement’s concentration, contrasts, and general humanity were impossible not to hear in the light of Schoenberg – and why would one try? Moreover, whilst unquestionably a first movement ‘proper’, the performance suggested also an exposition to the quartet as a whole. Dynamic form is never so straightforward as either/or, certainly not in Beethoven. Haydn continued to sound both near and far. And what music, what wisdom, lay in the silences.

Energy, constraint, and their mutual frustration proved, in a whirlwind second movement, the stuff of melody and it of them. The third, likewise yet differently, spoke similarly of contrasts and complements equally hard-won, equally divine. It was an intellectual and spiritual tour de force, no doubt; it also sang with a plainspoken honesty that was equally Beethovenian. The players left us in no doubt that it both emerged from the dance that had preceded it and led to the fragile joy of the next. That in turn necessitated, if only in retrospect, the mysterious, untouchable, yet utterly human tones of the Cavatina. Whatever the challenge – and these musicians left us in no doubt that late Beethoven will always, must always, remain a challenge – the owl of Minerva will continue to instruct us when it spreads its wings at dusk.  

Speaking of challenge, the small matter of the Grosse Fuge was yet to come. A recent tendency to speak unreflectively of late Beethoven anticipating twentieth-century modernism – it is never quite so easy as that – has rightly encountered some resistance lately. Such resistance, however, would surely have wilted in the face of so commanding, so uncompromising a performance as this. No, it is not Schoenberg; nor is to Boulez or Stockhausen. No, it is not trying to be. The spirit of exploration, however, in a struggle that threatened to have the Missa solemnis sound like a teddy bear’s tea party, could hardly have been more honestly, necessarily sounded. The struggle to write, to play, to listen was, so it seemed, everything: certainly everything one needed. From Bach to Boulez, beyond in both directions, musical history became alive, as it must in performance of that most enigmatic, most modernistic of all settings of Christendom’s central rite. For an encore, the second movement, ‘Allegretto vivo e scherzando’, of Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet may have been unexpected. It fitted the bell well, though, having me hear this snatch of an apparently very different work in terms I should hardly have guessed would ever apply.

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Usher, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 18 January 2020

Alter Orchesterprobensaal

Images: Martin Argyroglo
Lady Madeline (Ruth Rosenfeld)

Roderick Usher – David Oštrek
The Friend – Martin Gerke
Lady Madeline – Ruth Rosenfeld
Doctor – Dominic Kraemer

Philippe Quesne (director, set designs, lighting)
Christin Haschke (costumes)
Sébastien Alazet (sound design)

Members of the Staatskapelle Berlin and its Orchestral Academy
Marit Strindlund (conductor)

What to do with an unfinished artwork? It is not, perhaps, the right question: different works or part-works, different circumstances, different performers, different listeners, will have different answers. Right or wrong, however, we continue to ask it, and at that level of generalisation or abstraction, there is more than one possibility. One can perform a fragment, with or without reconstruction. The answer to whether to reconstruct will depend both on inclination and on possibility: the condition of fragments will be such that what one saw or heard would make little sense without considerable intervention. Tradition will also play a part: the much-abused Süssmayr completion of Mozart’s Requiem – to my mind, though not to many others, unfairly abused – has a standing, a familiarity, a performance tradition of its own. It also retains a mystery at its heart – and probably always will. If original writing is to be involved, does one attempt pastiche or something more adventurous, more personal? Where does this leave already fraught issues of fidelity in performance? Is that opposition a helpful one at all, begging far too many questions of its own?

Lady Madeline, Roderick (David Oštrek), Doctor (Dominc Kraemer)

Having raised such questions, I shall now move them a little to one side, neither forgetting them nor retaining my focus upon them. In that, I am echoing my own experience of having attended this LINDEN 21 performance of Usher in the old orchestral rehearsal room of the Berlin State Opera. What we saw and heard is not a reconstruction of Debussy’s La Chute de la maison Usher such as was first seen staged on the main stage at this very house in 1979 (courtesy of Juan Allende Blin’s reconstruction). Is it a completion? It depends what one means, but that was not in itself the point; this is not primarily an evening of metatheatre, nor does it seem intended to be. Better, then to say what it is: a chamber opera in three short acts, coming to about ninety minutes in total, by Annelies Van Parys and Gaea Schoeters, incorporating Debussy’s music and outline(s), themselves founded on Edgar Allen Poe’s story. (I suggest the plural ‘outlines’, given that Debussy wrote three libretti, each considering the story from a different standpoint.)

What especially interested me in what I heard was a particular aspect of the relationship between music by the two composers. It was not so much that I could not tell where one ended and the other began, as that it was in general very clear indeed where the one (Van Parys) had begun, without that sounding incongruent or even in a different voice. Debussy’s music evidently fascinates Van Parys. I have written before of her chamber version of Pelléas et Mélisande, as performed by English Touring Opera in 2015. Usher, however, not only presented a very different task; that task or, perhaps better, project was fulfilled and always intended to be fulfilled in a very different way. That itself is worked out in different ways. Musically, this is not a Debussyan ensemble, nor even an updated version thereof. There is malevolence, yes, such as one might extrapolate – reduce? transmute? – from Pelléas. But it is perhaps more akin to a spectralist standpoint taken upon what we might think, correctly or no, to be ‘original’, which approach would be in keeping with some of Van Parys’s other music.

Doctor, Friend (Martin Gerke), Lady Madeline, Roderick

There is a ‘horror music’ here far more interesting, at least to me, than anything popularly associated with the term. There is ‘atmospheric music’ too, though not necessarily of the Debussyan variety, one can sense a starting-point in Poe’s – Debussy’s? – mists, stagnant waters, and, perhaps inevitably with respect to the house itself, in Bluebeard’s Castle too. The ambiguity between house as building and house as family brings to the fore another, more contemporary (to us) focus: surprising, perhaps, yet undoubtedly disturbing. References to race offer clear resonances with far-Right politics. The figure of the doctor, already elevated by Debussy into a more important figure, a rival for Roderick in his incestuous love with his sister Lady Madeline, takes on an additional, political significance: a manipulator of emotions, of sickness, of beliefs and practices we might have thought we had gone beyond. Increasingly sinister, aggressive, and liable to speak as well as to sing, is he perhaps, rather than the hapless ‘house’, however understood, the real actor here? Roderick’s visitor is surely well advised to leave.

Roderick and ensemble

In the context of such interesting ideas and committed performances from all concerned – three fine baritones, David Oštrek, Martin Gerke, and Dominic Kramer; the multi-talented Ruth Rosenfeld, equially at home in spoken and vocal theatre; and an instrumental ensemble with excellent direction by Marit Strindlund – it is a pity that Philippe Quesne’s production, adept at making eerily domestic use of this rehearsal room, ultimately opts for a little too much in the way of a commercial horror film aesthetic. Multiple television screens showing the ill-fated house on fire add little to the drama. What we see too often neither resonates with nor works productively against the grain of the opera itself. There will, however, be opportunities for other productions, I am sure. In the meantime, the work having been co-commissioned by the Staatsoper Unter den Lindn and the Folkoperan Stockholm, three other companies (Opera Vlaanderen, Muziektheater Transparant, and Nanterre-Amandiers centre dramatique national) have joined with them for this co-production. There is no one way to ‘complete’, but this path has proved fruitful.