Wednesday 26 February 2020

Argerich/Staatskapelle Berlin/Mehta - Ravel and Stravinsky, 23 February 2020


Ravel: La Valse
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Martha Argerich (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Zubin Mehta (conductor)

Martha Argerich notwithstanding, this was, I am afraid, a disappointing concert: in the vein of Zubin Mehta’s Berlin Philharmonic Bruckner Eighth in the autumn, only more so. Perhaps that was because what can to a certain extent pass muster in Bruckner, at best letting the music flow without interference, leads to scrappiness and other lack of necessary control in Ravel.

At any rate, near collapse at two moments in the first movement of the G major Piano Concerto can hardly be accounted a positive; likewise bizarre orchestral balances, seemingly resulting less from an eccentric hearing of Ravel than from an inability to hear him at all. It was difficult to escape the view that the concerto and especially this movement would have been better off without a conductor. Once the fabled tigress of the keyboard took the lead, there was much to enjoy in terms of pellucidity, drive, and clarity, not least of the rhythmic variety. Her opening solo in the slow movement was everything one could wish for: line, voicing, nobility, a refusal to mistake sentiment for sentimentality. Beating time, Mehta did a reasonable job for the most part, despite a couple of audibly difficult corners to turn. The Staatskapelle Berlin’s woodwind nevertheless sounded gorgeous. Argerich’s pianism proved in equal measure muscular and variegated, spot on throughout the finale. When she was not playing and occasionally even when she was, Mehta’s tendency was to let the orchestra fall behind.

La Valse, preceding the concerto, had perhaps fared better, so long as one were not looking for revelation. Growling double basses – eight of them – at the opening augured well, but soon the performance had fallen strangely rigid. When Mehta intervened a little more, it helped; that is, until he drove the score too hard. Again there were wonderful woodwind solos, often allied to string playing of sheen and depth: recognisably this great orchestra. Overall form, however, remained elusive in a performance that seemed simply to move from phrase to phrase, sometimes even bar to bar. The sign-off was, by any accounts, bizarrely plodding.

To my surprise, The Rite of Spring probably came off best, albeit in strictly relative terms. So long as one were not expecting Pierre Boulez or Esa-Pekka Salonen, there would have been enough to make sense of the piece. Its opening in particular verily teemed with signs of rebirth, capturing fascinating instrumental combinations and balances and relationships between freedom and metrical precision prophetic for later-twentieth-century modernism. For most of the first part, there was nothing eccentric about Mehta’s tempi, nor did he lose momentum. Indeed, tension increased, notwithstanding a few strange decisions concerning balance. Stravinsky’s rite became more involving, seemingly of its own ‘volition’ or at least material: that is surely the trick here, at least to mainstream Rite interpretation. There was something properly horrifying to the apparent automation of the Procession of the Sage, although its immediate aftermath fell oddly flat. The final dance of the first part, however, perked up. Alas, the second part was somehow rather on the dull side. There was nothing really to complain about, save for an overtly sectional approach. It was neither involving nor intriguingly ‘objective’, just ultimately rather nondescript and lacking in cumulative power. I have never felt less thrilled at the close.

Sunday 23 February 2020

Braunstein/Argerich - Schumann, Prokofiev, and Franck, 22 February 2020

Pierre Boulez Saal

Schumann: Violin Sonata no.1 in A minor, op.105
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata no.2 in D major, op.94a
Franck: Violin Sonata in A major

Guy Braunstein (violin)
Martha Argerich (piano)

Martha Argerich returns to town: for chamber music with Guy Braunstein and for the Ravel G major Piano Concerto with Zubin Mehta (to follow). My heart went out to those in the lengthy queue for returns at the Pierre Boulez Saal, but certainly not so much as to relinquish my ticket. Was it worth it? Yes, as ever. All three sonata performances elicited thoughtful, committed performances from Braunstein and Argerich in this, their first joint recital.

First, though, we heard the first of Schumann’s three late violin sonatas: enigmatic works, for which many seem unable to find the key. (I battled with all of them at one time or another as a student pianist, always finding at least one movement well-nigh impossible to bring off.) From the off, this was clearly a true partnership, well balanced, moving forward together, offering dialogue and contrast as required. All three movements benefited from a rightness of tempo and of tempo variation such as enabled much that can often sound problematical simply to fall into place. Argerich’s piano part in the first put me in mind of a cauldron from which Schumann’s witches’ brew could rise and seep into our consciousness – not, perhaps, entirely unlike Wagner’s contemporaneous conception of the orchestra as Greek Chorus. Motivic working seemed to nod on either side to Beethoven and Brahms, without ever sounding like anyone other than Schumann. The central ‘Allegretto’ was taken swiftly, yet with commendable flexibility. Surprises, modulatory and otherwise, at the ends of phrases registered with all the freshness in the world. If ultimately, the music remained enigmatic – that word again – then so it should. In the finale, fantastic, even impetuous flight and traditional lyricism alike rested on rock-solid foundations, harmonically and rhythmically. With so distinguished exponent of the Piano Concerto at the keyboard, we should not have been surprised, but there was no sense that this was something other than music-making between friends on which we were fortunate to eavesdrop.

Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata (the violin transcription of his Flute Sonata) followed. I noticed immediately a difference of voice, not only concerning the composer but also his performers, its first movement speaking with idiomatic bitter-sweetness – such exultant, lyrical sweetness from Braunstein – and romanticised modernism. Mood swings were more abrupt, even cinematic, without compromise to underlying continuity. Potentiality in the piano part, simultaneously vertical and horizontal, was vividly generative. And still there remained some of the composer’s old Fiery Angel bite; perhaps there might have been a little more at times, but relative subtlety had its own rewards. The scherzo spoke more clearly of demonic possession, piano scampering taken up by violin and vice versa. There was plenty of sulphur here, however neoclassicised. Uneasy placidity characterised the side-slipping ‘Andante’, perhaps the movement that went deepest, so long as one listened. The finale proved fantastical, swashbuckling, and not without a little grotesquerie. Argerich’s seductive hammering of Prokofiev’s chords said it all.

Opened the Franck Sonata sounded as if one old friend was greeting another – and it her, a third, Braunstein, responding in kind. Not that the music was taken for granted, but that the score had been thoroughly internalised as material for recreation. Outpouring and subsiding were two sides of the same Argerich coin, sometimes even within the same phrase; its spinning would often find itself caught in magical, almost Brahmsian half-lights, though never for long. Tracing and shaping of the first movement’s contours and indeed those of the rest of the sonata were undoubtedly a dual effort, partnership once again apparent from the outset. The second and third movements both offered intensification and due attention to particular character. There was wonder in their transformation too, not least in the myriad of colours revealed in piano chords and their progressions. Braunstein’s violin recitative in the third movement was eloquent and alluring, Argerich already having forestalled the danger of premature climax at the close of the second by taking this music attacca – and what attack this was! The finale offered refreshment in well-nigh Mozartian response, thereafter taking its own path, our guides both knowledgeable and passionate. As encores we heard not one but two Viennese dances by Fritz Kreisler, played, as Braunstein now informed us, on Kreisler’s own violin: a lilting, poignant Liebesleid and a Schön Rosmarin whose notes flew off the page with all the time in the world.

Saturday 22 February 2020

Médée, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 21 February 2020

Images: Bernd Uhlig

Médée – Sonya Yoncheva
Jason – Francesco Demuro
Créon – Iain Paterson
Dircé – Slávka Zámečníková
Néris – Marina Prudenskaya
Médée’s handmaidens – Serena Sáenz, Aytak Shikhalizada
Médée’s children – Malik Bah, Toyi Kramer

Andrea Breth (director)
Martin Zehetgruber (set designs)
Carla Teti (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Oksana Lyniv (conductor)

Since enduring Simon Stone’s extravagant travesty of Cherubini’s Médée in Salzburg last summer, I have been keen to see an alternative staging. That opportunity came sooner than I had dared hope, with a revival of Andrea Breth’s 2018 production for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. One major concern notwithstanding, Breth’s production is in another league, an intelligent attempt, in many respects well realised, to respond both to the specificity of the work and to some of its broader ideological concerns.

Set designs (Martin Zehetgruber) are more or less what one would expect from a Breth production. More concerned, at least unless I were missing something, with establishing a stage aesthetic than with specific meaning of their own, they would not have looked entirely out of place in her Wozzeck or Lulu for this same house. I have no problem with that: different directors work in different ways; the point here is to focus on what does matter dramatically to Breth and her collaborators, a mission finely accomplished. Balance is well judged between provision of a space – not just a scenic space, but certainly that too – for the drama, renewed in much of its horror, strangeness, and yet credibility and familiarity, to unfold, and a critical stance upon Médée’s status as an outsider. With respect to the former, Breth clearly knows how to bring out the best from her cast as actors; there is little or no sense of anything extraneous, rather of a musical drama unfolding, gathering pace, enveloping characters and audience – when it can be bothered to remain silent – alike.

This is not a reductive attempt, as with Stone, to make Médée ‘relatable’; in reality, all it did was banish her story and much of her agency. This Médée knows her strengths, is unafraid to use them, and exacts her revenge – just as we should expect. Yet, alongside that, Breth takes care to suggest why this might be so. Créon’s Corinth is not and could never be a friendly place to her, however magnanimously her rival Dirce’s father might have offered ‘sanctuary’ to Médée’s sons. Therein, alas, lies my major concern too. It is an excellent idea, with strong roots in the ‘original’ myth as well as in the opera itself, to stress Médée’s unacceptable otherness to the polis. Carla Teti’s costumes, Olaf Freese’s lighting, and various other aspects of the production, contribute to this admirably, as does Sonya Yoncheva’s performance. The discredited practice of ‘brownface’, however, does little more than distract, at best, as unnecessary as it is offensive. Had there been some element of deconstruction, in a very different, less direct sort of production, perhaps showing a ‘behind the scenes’ transformation or at any rate problematising the practice, perhaps there would have been an argument. Here, I am afraid it steals the show in quite the wrong way: a great pity.

For Yoncheva’s performance was of a stature that it would have moved and explained all simply – or not so simply – through her voice, let alone her stage presence. Clean and focused of tone – no ‘dramatic’ imprecision here – yet at the same all-encompassing in its mystery and magic, hers was a contribution that gripped from beginning to end. Slávka Zámečníková’s Dircé, spirited and alluring, yet a fatally insecure rival, proved equally impressive, as did Marina Prudenskaya’s typically thoughtful, beautifully sung account of Néris, Médées faithful slave. As Jason, Francesco Demuro acted well, taking care not to court our sympathy, yet vocally, this was often an unduly Italianate, extroverted performance, out of kilter not only with the production but with a greater appreciation of French style shown elsewhere. A dry-toned Iain Paterson was strangely out of sorts in his first-act aria, ‘C’est à vous de trembler,’ yet rallied later on. Choral singing was excellent throughout.

If there were times when I wished for something a little larger-scale, more ‘Romantic’ – I could not help but wonder what Daniel Barenboim made of Cherubini’s score in 2018 – Oksana Lyniv’s conducting had its own logic and merits, well placed to win over any scepticism founded in mere taste. I admired her technical control over the Staatskapelle Berlin last autumn in the concert hall. Similarly admirable control and what came across as fine rapport with the orchestra were harnessed to proper understanding of the dramatic implications of Cherubini’s musical structures. In the theatre, structure became form, most strikingly of all in the third act, yet without question throughout. Neo-Gluckian style was harnessed to idea, rather than vice versa.

The ‘version’ of spoken dialogue used, credited to Breth and Sergio Morabito, worked well, an inordinate improvement on the interminable voicemail messages – I kid you not – served up by Stone in Salzburg. Even Médée’s breathy, amplified, final-act interventions stayed the right side of menace and ‘madness’. That strange, sad miscalculation concerning make-up notwithstanding, then, there was more than enough to confirm the stature of Cherubini’s opera and have one experience its musico-dramatic immediacy. This was a serious confrontation with a serious drama.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Deutsche Oper, 18 February 2020

DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL, Regie: Rodrigo Garcia, Premiere 17. Juni 2016 Deutsche Oper Berlin, copyright:Thomas Aurin

Konstanze – Flurina Stucki
Blonde – Gloria Rehm
Belmonte – Matthew Newlin
Pedrillo – Ya-Chung Huang
Osmin – Patrick Guetti
Bassa Selim – Annabelle Mandeng

Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus director: Jeremy Bines) 
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Nicholas Milton (conductor)

Rodrigo García (director, set designs)
Ramón Diago (set designs, video)
Hussein Chalayan (costumes)
Carlos Marquerie (lighting)
Teresa Reiber (Spielleitung)
Jörg Königsdorf, Anne Oppermann (dramaturgy)

Though recollection has proved more diverting than direct theatrical experience, I doubt I shall forget Rodrigo García’s Entführung aus dem Serail in a hurry. Of the five productions I have seen live, three (Elijah Moshinsky, David McVicar, and John Copley) fall into the category of trivial, unreflective Orientalism; one into that of recreative genius (Stefan Herheim) such as will appear only rarely in one’s life; and one now into a further category which, whatever it lacked in Orientalism was certainly made up for in triviality and lack of reflection. One way to deal with problematic aspects of any ‘clash of civilisations’ is to remove anything much in the way of clash, let alone of civilisation. With Garcia’s staging, Mozart’s score becomes at best an eccentric film track, unheeded and unheedable, to a hodgepodge whose themes might conceivably have offered a starting point to a production, but which are so carelessly presented and undeveloped that they come across more as a tired and tedious attempt at provocation than anything more serious, let alone coherent.

The Overture is accompanied by filmed footage of an American roadtrip; my apologies, an American roadtrip is accompanied by some randomly selected music by Mozart. It is full of ‘hilarious’ events – well, viewed as hilarious by certain members of audience – such as someone smoking and the smoke filling in the car; and, needless to say, people dressing and undressing. Those people are Belmonte, Konstanze, and Blonde, to whose earlier antics, presented bureaucratically in each combination and permutation, we are treated a little later on a prolonged soft porn film. (During that ‘treat’, someone takes down a small wall portrait of Mozart and places it under the covers, cueing further, prolonged hysterical laughter.) Pedrillo, as you may have noted, is not with the travellers. However, he pops up soon enough on film, drinking in a bar with Konstanze (I think, though it may have been Blonde), and a little later on stage, replacing Konstanze and Blonde. Throughout, we gain the strong impression that the director would have been happier presenting everything on film and leaving the opera stage well alone; the stage would surely have responded in kind. In case we were wondering why those characters were now in different places, Belmonte remaining (for now) in his ‘monster truck’ – familiar, apparently, to habitués of US light entertainment – we see, following repeated, oh-so-daring exclamations of ‘fuck’, further film footage in which Pedrillo, Konstanze, and Blonde are taken up by beams issued from a flying saucer, presumably transported thereafter to wherever they happen to be now.

None of it makes any sense, nor does it seem to make any real point about incoherence. Most of the dialogue is reimagined – let us be charitable – by Garcia in (US) English, though some is in German and odd words appear in French. Bassa Selim has become a woman basketball player, whose sponsorship deals are shown – you guessed it – on film, with such inspired transformation as an Adidas logo with ‘Bassa’ substituted for ‘Adidas’ and a Shell logo with ‘Selim’ substituted for ‘Shell’. Poor Annabelle Mandeng, a fine actress, keeping a commendably straight face, delivers material such as this to Konstanze (reproduced from the programme): ‘Love Love Love in my pussy Storm storm storm in my pussy/Love Storm love storm Love Storm love storm in my anus/Sex in my eyes Love in my anus Storm in my mind/Sex in my eyes Love in my anus Storm in my mind/Love in my clitoris Sex in my mind Storm in my anus/pussy pussy pussy pussy in my brain…’ Konstanze shouts ‘Crazy!’ a little later. Perhaps – although to my mind, or to whatever remained of it by this point, ‘crazy’ was unduly to dignify such moronic drivel.

Who were these people? There was no indication, still less interest, although towards the end Belmonte claimed that his father was richer than Donald Trump. Had the drugs – yes, surely you must have guessed there would be drugs – come around earlier, one might have ascribed everything to their influence. Perhaps that was the point, that anything people do while under the influence is unspeakably tedious to anyone else and probably to them too. If so, perhaps Garcia would like to make a film about it; but then that would not provoke, or cost so much money. We saw some crystal meth paraphernalia wheeled on, though, so that was daring, and also, naturally, lots of additional people wandered around – there was little in the way of Personenregie – in various states of undress. Cartoon characters came and went. Oh, and of course, our ‘monster truck’ was driven around a little more onstage, while further film footage was played. There were a few explosions at the end, perhaps to wake up those who, inexplicably, had been neither mentally nor physically aroused. I am sure the goings-on will have offended those they were intended to offend; as for me, I wished I had stayed at home to listen to the Staatskapelle Dresden, Karl Böhm, and company.

For a vintage orchestral evening it certainly was not. Conductor Nicholas Milton seemed determined to treat Mozart like Rossini, harried, hurried, and little else – save for when he engaged arbitrarily in pulling the score around, as if he had suddenly been told to inject a little imitation Harnoncourt into proceedings. (For what it is worth, Harnoncourt quite rightly loathed conducting that had Mozart reduced to Rossini.) The orchestra sounded at best as if it were going through the motions, and frankly who could blame it? Perhaps it was a reading intended to complement the shallowness onstage, but somehow I doubt it. Singing, thank goodness, fared better; as, to be fair, did the excellent work of the Deutsche Oper’s Statisterie. Bass Patrick Guetti stole the show as Osmin, in a committed performance as thoughtful as it was virile. Matthew Newlin’s sweet-toned Belmonte and Gloria Rehm’s spirited Blonde almost impressed. If intonation from the other two singers sometimes left a little to be desired, I suspect it would be fairer to assess their contributions in a better production. At any rate, I am unlikely to return to this.

RSB/Storgårds - Schumann, Scenes from Goethe's 'Faust', 16 February 2020


Szenen aus Goethes Faust, WoO3

Faust, Pater Seraphicus, Doctor Marianus – Markus Eiche
Gretchen, Una Poenitentium, Solo – Christina Gansch
Mephistopheles, Böser Geist, Pater Profundus, Solos – Stephan Klemm
Ariel, Pater Ecstaticus, Solos – Bernhard Berchtold
Sorge, Not, Jüngerer Engel, Magna Peccatrix, Solos – Sophie Klußmann
Mangel, Muller Samaritana, Solos – Stefanie Irányi
Marthe, Schuld, Penitent, Mater Gloriosa, Maria Aegyptiaca, Solos – Katharina Magiera

RIAS Chamber Choir (chorus director: Gregor Meyer)
Children’s Choir of the Georg-Friedrich-Händel-Gymnasium, Berlin (chorus directors: Jan Olberg and Vera Zweiniger)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
John Storgårds (conductor)

Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust is a curious work. How would one conceive of it if one did not know Goethe’s ‘original’? Whether we like it or not, such will doubtless be the experience of an increasing number of listeners (relatively speaking, for how many will ever come to it all?) just as some will come to the St Matthew Passion or Messiah without knowledge of the Gospels. They will make what they will of it, of course, just as all of us will do what we can in similar situations; none of us knows everything, nor should any of us be expected to. But how much is this a meta-work, of which deeper understanding is dependent on a broader knowledge of Goethe? The ‘scenes’ set by Schumann do not always seem the most obvious to form a whole of their own without some further frame of reference. Even with that frame, proportions might also be thought peculiar, especially when – as here – using the second version of the final chorus, which I do not think I had heard before.

Each of the three performances I have heard in the flesh has brought something different to the task of bringing Schumann’s score to life. Schumann did not live to hear the work performed in full, although partial performances were heard for the 1849 Goethe centenary in Weimar, conducted by Liszt; in Leipzig, by Julis Rietz; and in Dresden, by Schumann himself. Much was added thereafter, and it is hard to believe that those three performances were not in themselves very different. It is probably fair to say that this is one of those works that offers more possibilities, some of them at least on the verge of the contradictory, than can be reconciled in a single performance. Daniel Harding, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, proved the most dramatic in a quasi-operatic sense. There are arguments for various approaches. Notwithstanding the decidedly mixed blessing of a staging from Jürgen Flimm, Daniel Barenboim seemed less concerned to present an opera manqué – there was, to be fair, a good deal of spoken dialogue – and more interested, in general productively so, in presenting something akin to symphonic incidental music. On this occasion, John Storgårds and his Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSB) forces seemed, as a far from inviolable rule, especially attuned to the intimacy not only of Schumann’s writing but of his broader conception. Not that this sounded necessarily like Lieder-performance writ a little larger; rather it took its leave from a smaller-scale, German (in the best sense, provincial) oratorio tradition than many of us have since become accustomed to, vocal, choral, and indeed orchestral writing springing, so it seemed, from just such a source. Such domesticity and traditions surrounding it had much that was compelling to tell us about the nature of the work and, indeed, the relationship between Faust and Gretchen.

Darkly Romantic, then, though the Overture may have been, its D minor tonality surely acknowledging predecessors such as Mozart and Beethoven, if not necessarily on so cosmic a scale, it was leavened aptly enough by a ‘feminine’ second group, so as to provide context for much of what would unfold in the first part of the oratorio. There was thus, in the garden scene, bright-eyed sincerity to Christina Gansch’s Gretchen, readily matched by a freshness to lines such as ‘Ja, mein Kind! Lass dieses Blumenwort’ from Markus Eiche’s Faust. It was not clear here – nor, if one thinks about it, throughout – who or what would emerge victorious; such is neither Goethe’s nor Schumann’s true concern. Before the picture of the Mater Dolorosa, Gretchen’s sadness was clear –colouring, for instance, of the word ‘Schmerzensreiche’ – but the sweetness of orchestral playing, strings and woodwind alike, more than hinted at a force in counterpoint. There was undoubted tragic vehemence to the cathedral scene, not least in fine choral singing of the ‘Dies irae’ material, but it struck me as a particular strength of the approach offered by Storgårds and his performers that it told without unduly overwhelming. This is not a music of cheap thrills.

I was especially taken by the affinity with Lohengrin at the sunrise opening of the second part, Bernhard Berchtold’s tenor Ariel a public-facing counterpoint to a more innig, perhaps even more truthful orchestral part. Storgårds’s handling of transitions here, for example between the chorus and Ariel’s response impressed; so too, did the increasing darkness and continuing verbal acuity of Eiche’s performance. Further highlights included a beautifully, even magically sung Sorge from Sophie Klußmann, her third-part angel also possessed of a fine spring in its step; an excellent contribution from the Children’s Choir of the Georg-Friedrich-Händel-Gymnasium; and a heart-rending sense of idealism from Faust in his final confrontation with Mephistopheles.  The third and final part benefited greatly from a subtle yet undeniable feeling of upward movement, as well as Eiche’s turn to Doctor Marianus. As for the Chorus Mysticus in its second version, knowing Mahler’s Eighth Symphony doubtless presents a problem of expectations, but I confess to having found Schumann’s setting a little drawn out here. Schumann preferred it, though, so I should doubtless give it another try.

Monday 17 February 2020

BPO/Petrenko and Wood: Stravinsky, Zimmermann, Rachmaninov, and Grisey, 15 February 2020


Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Zimmermann: Alagoana: Caprichos Brasilieiros
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances, op.45

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Grisey: Le Noir de l’Étoile

Raphael Haeger, Simon Rössler, Jan Schlichte, Wieland Welzel, Matthias Kessler, Laura Melero Beviá (percussionists)
James Wood (conductor)

Reviewing the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony last month, I referred to the ‘monstrously metronomic’ quality of its opening march, ‘by design: of course’. I might almost have used the same phrase for the opening of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements from the same forces, save for the implication of life in ‘monstrous[ly]’. ‘Brutal’ would perhaps be better here, for whatever humans were perpetrating the wartime images said to have inspired the composer’s musical gestures, they seemed to have become practically disembodied, automated in their robotic quality. Not only in this first movement, but certainly here, it was rhythm above all that had become dramatically generative, music thereby projecting its own motion picture. There was as much darkness, moreover, in the cracks between the music’s chamber dialogue and in its self-automated retransformation into fuller orchestral music. In what sense, however, is this a symphony, is this a symphonic movement? That, probably rightly, remained as unclear as ever. Balletic? Perhaps; it certainly had an iron structure that it does not always. The second movement was possessed of an uneasy yet – in its way – delightful interiority: another form of balletic self-automatic, Marie-Pierre Langlamet’s harp here as crucial as Majella Stockhausen’s piano in the first movement. A mechanistic brutalism that cannot fail to voice historical and political resonances once more characterised the finale, the goose-stepping soldiers of whom Stravinsky spoke coming vividly to death, all the more so for the music’s infernal catchiness. Desiccated woodwind clucking showed how an allegedly Haydnesque gesture could be transformed into something so dramatically lifeless. Repetition and even transformation, yet without development; the mysterious fugal combination, at last, of solo piano and harp: such were the Stravinskian riddles brought so vividly to our attention, yet rightly never solved.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s ‘ballet suite’ – actually a ballet in its own right, for there is no further material – Alagoanoa: Caprichos Brasilieros followed. The first of its five movements, the Overture, benefited from similar rhythmic precision, albeit precision which could now be bent, indeed swung – and its was. Delightfully grotesque yet ultimately seductive instrumental combinations shone through, Hendrik Heilmann’s harpsichord instructively, even wittily, quizzical. The following ‘Sertanejo’ likewise caught a fine balance between observation and involvement, all the while dancing – or being danced. More ‘human’ than Stravinsky, yet not necessarily less inscrutable, there was something undeniably chilling to its weird climax. Foreboding in the ‘Saubade’ was founded on, yet not restricted to, cello and double bass pizzicato. Repeated guitar figures; strange woodwind solos; percussion machinations, tuned or untuned: all contributed to an unease both general and specific. The ‘Cabachio’ was jazzier and relished as such, bass pizzicato once more put to excellent use, Wenzel Fuchs’s clarinet solo; yet compositional and performative control necessarily also emphasised distance, even alienation. A hallucinatory interlude seemed to foretell the suspense prior to brutal climax in the finale. Its fallout – this was, after all, music for the nuclear age – spoke both humanly and enigmatically. Die Soldaten lay just around the corner.

It was welcome to hear a performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances that did not sentimentalise the score, though whether the music might sometimes have yielded a little more will remain mostly a matter of taste. Certain exaggerations will have overstepped the mark for some. At any rate, Petrenko seemed to understand rhythmic precision rather than harmony as the ultimate key, not only in the first movement but throughout. Even the string sound spoke with poignant alienation of a composer long in hopeless exile: familiar sounds, yet uprooted. The opening of the second movement had more than a hint of Debussy both to its brass fanfares and waltzing response. Some will perhaps have found the orchestral solos a little distant, but I rather liked the continuing sense of exile. Far better this, certainly, than the sort of muddy chaos one might hear from the likes of Valery Gergiev. Petrenko declined to coerce the finale into answering questions, thereby permitting it to ask a few more of its own. Materials, even the composer’s life and career, were once again revisited from a different standpoint: enigmatic and, like Stravinsky and Zimmermann, not without reference to a brutal external world.

There followed a bonus downstairs in the Philharmonie’s foyer. Six percussionists, four from the Berlin Philharmonic, two from the orchestra’s Karajan-Akademie, and James Wood performing Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile. Inspired, as we heard from an introductory recorded text (Andreas Sparberg) by the 1967 discovery by a young astronomer of, to quote the composer ‘a rapidly varying radio signal, in the form of periodic impulses 1.3 seconds apart’, this performance, aided by simple yet powerful lighting and projection, seemed to tread a line between the initial suspicion that the irregularity betokened signals from an extra-terrestrial civilisation and the subsequent discovery of ‘a truth … just as surprising: the signals were being emitted by a pulsar, the fantastic compact residue created by the supernova explosions that long ago disintegrated the massive stars.’ We listened intent, following the signals, trying to make sense of them, making connections that may or may not have been there – not so very unlike what we had done in the evening’s earlier performances. Just as a pattern, be it rhythmic, timbral, spatial, emerged, it transformed itself so as to confound lazy and even informed expectations. There was an undeniably powerful sense of forces beyond our comprehension at play: like the gods of old, yet unlike them too. This was a vision, an experience, not so much without hope as beyond it. Our world would do well to remind itself more often of such concerns; that is, if it is not too late already.

Friday 14 February 2020

BTVN WOCHE (4) – Meta4/Zimmermann/Saksala/Mustonen - Beethoven and Mustonen, 9 February 2020

Kammermusiksaal Hermann J. Abs, Bonn

Beethoven: Violin Sonata no.8 in G major, op.31 no.3
Beethoven: String Quartet no.5 in A major, op.18 no.5
Olli Mustonen: Sextet (world premiere)
Beethoven: String Quartet no.16 in F major, op.135

Antti Tikkanen, Mina Pensola (violins)
Atte Kilpeläinen, Tabea Zimmermann (violas)
Tomas Djupsjöbacka (cello)
Janne Saksala (double bass)
Olli Mustonen (piano)

BTVN WOCHE 2020 took a different path from predecessors, offering in Beethoven’s anniversary year his music alone – ‘Beethoven Pur’ – in order to present the entirety of his chamber music. However, no such celebration would be complete without at least a glance to the present and future, so for its final instalment, Tabea Zimmermann’s final concert as artistic leader, we were treated also to the world premiere of a newly commissioned work from Olli Mustonen, a Sextet for two violins, two violas, cello, and double bass, the string quartet Meta4 joined by Zimmermann and Janne Saksala.

First, however, we heard Antti Tikkanen and Mustonen as pianist for Beethoven’s Violin Sonata, op.31 no.3. A first movement infused with nervous energy, skittish and excitable even to the point of violence both confounded reasonable expectations and set the tone for much that was to follow, both in this work and in the concert as a whole. The second movement was likewise full of contrasts, both within and between sections, however defined. I confess that I wondered initially whether it were simply too much, but it grew on me – and far better the shock of the new than comfortably derivative Schlamperei. There was no doubting that both these musicians cared. Ebullient, extrovert, highly insistent, the finale proceeded somewhat in the vein of the first movement, yet fulfilling nonetheless its structural role. This was, then, like Meta4’s performances in an earlier concert, as well as those to come, a highly rhetorical reading the likes of which I should not necessarily want to hear often, but which seized the moment for itself.

The op.18 no.5 Quartet proved freely unpredictable, as by now I had learned to expect. Whether I could quite discern a line in the first movement was at best an open question, but such rediscovery was never dull. A similarly free second movement seemed to cohere better, its drunken, rustic trio full of charm and wit. One needed to listen intently, but so one should. The minuet’s reprise, heard through the trio, proved a little crazier still. (Largely) winning eccentricity characterised the third movement, traversing an extraordinary range of emotions, styles, possibilities. This, I felt, truly got to the heart of the players’ vision: a divine and at times rambunctious comedy. The helter-skelter creation of euphony and contest between euphonies heard in the finale proved quite a ride, fascinating and, I think, revealing so long as one held on tight.

Mustonen’s three-movement Sextet was clearly intended to be heard with and in relation to Beethoven. A meta-work? Most probably, but that doubtless only rephrases the question(s). The angular rhythms of the opening suggested Beethovenian gesture reimagined, subsequently balanced and/or contrasted with a more ‘feminine’ – to employ nineteenth-century gendered language – second subject equivalent, which nonetheless seemed to grow from what we had heard before. What I learned immediately after formulating that impression, however, was that it was better to listen on whatever the work’s own terms might be, for that Beethoven comparison quickly proved unhelpful, indeed quite wrong. We may still often find our bearings in the musical world with a Beethovenian compass – more often than not, the ‘Beethoven’ of the later nineteenth century – but at some point we need to let go. Will ‘Beethoven’ let us, though? Material related to those opening gestures kept on returning; I even fancied I heard something related to the Fifth Symphony. Ears and memories can (productively) play tricks. Then came a glacial close, with little or no harmonic change.

Beethovenian derivations became clearer in the second movement; or was I now listening differently? What did those ghosts of Beethoven scherzi mean? What could they mean, perhaps above all that of the Ninth Symphony? And did they not always possess more potential meanings than any one performance or reading would allow? Accompagnato chords in remembrance of the entry of the voice in the Ninth heralded the third and final movement. Answers were different, if not necessarily unrelated. Again, has that not always been the case for ‘Beethoven’? How do we connect fragments, remembered or misremembered? And who, as composers, performers, listeners, and yes, scholars too, are ‘we’? After all, Beethoven’s music has never gone out of fashion, never been neglected. A little violence here and there may be just what it needs. Then, to rebuild or not?

If hardly ‘traditional’, whatever that may now mean, the first movement of Beethoven’s final quartet, op.135, seemed less wilful and, more importantly, more convincing in its liberties than that of op.18 no.5 had. Or was that a matter of having been preceded by the Mustonen Sextet? How could I ever really know, and why should I care? Whatever the answers to those unanswerable questions, Beethoven’s musical procedures here seemed clearer to me, although, this music being what it is, there was always much to challenge. The music seemed from the outset to be developing themes of which we had prior knowledge: in medias res, however much we might cling to the idea of ‘exposition’. A second movement of kinetic energy proved so much of a whirlwind that a vortex beckoned, yet never quite materialised. (Should that be dematerialised?) Seraphic fragility that nonetheless found strength to construct something from itself characterised its successor. Then came the ultimate question, both answerable and not: ‘Muß es sein?’ This was music on the brink, even if we knew not of what, the query followed by release and intensification. The path hereafter would be difficult though never obscure. There was struggle to be had, yet on one level, at least: ‘Es muß sein’.

BTHVN WOCHE (3) – Elias Quartet: Beethoven, 8 February 2020

Kammermusiksaal Hermann J. Abs, Bonn

String Quartet no.9 in C major, op.59 no.3
String Quartet no.14 in C-sharp minor, op.131

Benjamin Nabarro, Duncan Grant (violins)
Simone van der Giessen (viola)
Marie Bitlloch (cello)

Grave fragility, almost yet not quite without vibrato, characterised the introduction to the first movement of the third Razumovsky Quartet in this performance from the Elias Quartet. Then came the exposition proper, as if a command to ‘snap out’ of such melancholy or worse, to bring us into the present. Its good humour, however, did not betoken any lack of serious. This was cultivated playing, full of life, somewhere between brusque and boisterous. Later on, the infectious mystery of Beethoven’s – and the players’ – trilling prepared us for a recapitulation that had more than a few surprises left to spring. The second movement was eerily founded on a cello pizzicato (Marie Bitlloch) both angry and sweet. An inward turn of darker harmonies was rightly unnerving, but this was quite rightly a performance of many voices and moods. That underlying onward trudge that seems Schubertian, yet which it seems strange actually to call so, was in sensitive, comprehending hands throughout. A relatively relaxed minuet – Beethoven marks it ‘grazioso’ – offered something of a backward, even neoclassical glance, giving way to a tenser trio, teeming with counterpoint and seeming preparing the way for the finale. This frenetic performance captured its madness, although there were times when it seemed to run away with itself before regrouping.

The strangeness of the key, C-sharp minor, especially for strings, registered immediately in the performance of the op.131 Quartet; so too did the rarity, in every sense, of Beethoven’s writing therein. ‘Unearthly’ may be a cliché – what is not when writing about this music? – yet how else might one characterise such seraphic sweetness as was to be heard in this work’s extraordinary first movement? ‘The most melancholy thing ever said in music,’ according to Wagner: who are we to disagree? Bach’s abiding presence, crucial to both composers in later life, was revealed in struggle and sweetness alike. Much the same might be said of the next two movements, if not on the surface, then beneath, where the truest action and sentiment are to be found. Fragility, even further fracture, beneath the already fractured surface of the third told of music that will perhaps always resist a more complete understanding. The central ‘Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile’ heard no taming of its harmonies, its procedures the more enigmatic the more one listened. And yet, it often remained recognisably rooted in the eighteenth century: a paradox perhaps beyond even dialectical understanding. It was a rarefied form of release, yet release nonetheless, that we heard in the scherzo. Though marked ‘Presto’, I think it was taken less hurriedly than the finale of the earlier quartet (‘Allegro molto’); at any rate, the tempo seemed better suited both to work and to performance. A sixth movement that seemed to reimagine aspects of the first, in still richer yet no less rare tones, prepared the way for a strongly related finale, defiant yet once more sweet-toned. As an encore, we heard a waltz composed by violinist Duncan Grant for the wedding of two of his friends.

Thursday 13 February 2020

Aimard/ Gürzenich Orchestra/Roth:.‘Alleyn Freyheit: Eine Beethoven-Séance’ – Mundry, Beethoven, Lachenmann, Filidei, and Zimmermann, 10 February 2020

Philharmonie, Cologne

Images: Holger Talinski

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

All music once was new: uncontroversial statement, one might have thought, however much one sometimes imagines having heard its particular strains before. ‘Es klang so alt und war doch so neu!’ as Hans Sachs muses to Walther of the latter’s melody. New music needs, after all, to be performed if not as if it were old music, then with at least as much commitment and understanding, both ‘in itself’ and of whence it has come. A celebrated concert, entirely Beethoven’s music, with no fewer than four world premieres, took place on 22 December 1808 at the Theater an der Wien, Beethoven both playing and conducting. How might we have heard it? We can never know – and probably should not want to, not least on account of what seems, given but a single rehearsal, to have been an unsurprisingly poor orchestral performance. We faint-hearted would-be-modernists can only marvel, however, at a programme that ran: Symphony no.6 (premiere); Ah, perfido; Mass in C major, ‘Gloria’; Piano Concerto no.4 (premiere); Symphony no.5 (premiere); Mass in C major, ‘Sanctus and Benedictus’; solo piano improvisation; Choral Fantasia (premiere).

There have been occasional repetitions of the programme of this particular ‘academy concert’, which experience will of course be entirely different from that of its first audience. Cologne, however, has presented something quite different for the composer’s anniversary year, a ‘new Beethoven Academy’, entitled ‘Alleyn Freyheit: Eine Beethoven-Séance’. The city’s Gürzenich Orchestra, Pierre-Laurent-Aimard, and François-Xavier Roth, invited us to this séance of freedom with what, through the offices of infidelity, may actually have proved in some senses a more faithful or at least imaginative recreation of its spirit. We were told nothing of the music to be performed other than its composers – and that pieces by Isabel Mundry and Francesco Filidel would receive their first performances. What we had heard would be revealed to us only at the end, on a programme insert to be collected as we left the hall. With that in mind, I have uniquely placed details at the close rather than the opening of this review, following not only that chronology but also that of Debussy in naming his piano Préludes. The impatient or merely curious are of course free to skip the following paragraphs, but I thought it might be more valuable to record my impressions as they came to me rather than to edit with inevitable hindsight. I thus took notes during the performance and shall make do with as little editing as possible, doing little more than turn them into full sentences (usually). The reader will have to take my word for it that I correctly identified Beethoven’s scores and matched composers to music. works by Helmut Lachenmann’s and Bernd Alois Zimmermann I knew; the others I could not possibly. However, after a little metaphorical head-scratching, I worked out that Isabel Mundry’s music – orchestral fragments, as I learned later on – was interspersed with Beethoven and Lachenmann. For what it is worth, I have also refrained from reading interviews and notes in the actual programme, although I shall certainly take a look after posting this.

A large orchestra, soloist, and conductor having assembled onstage, it was perhaps surprising – although what here would qualify as unsurprising – for the concert to open to the strains of the Moonlight Sonata, yet from afar. It made sense, though, if this were to be a retrospective appreciation of the composer, for this was not only from afar. A second pianist and Aimard began to collaborate with what we had heard – recorded, or was it? and for the soloist as such to assume his proper role. Immediately memories, ears, the imagination started to play tricks – as did orchestral percussion. Musicians turning, bowing their heads, and so on acknowledged the billing of choreographer Jörg Weinöhl. The orchestra grew, though it took longer for relatively conventional – non-extended? – techniques to be employed. There was no doubting, however, the éclat of Lachenmann’s contribution, nor of the orchestra’s performance, gradation of attacks and resonance both precise and visceral, waves of sound passing across the orchestra so as to send shivers down the spine.

A change in lighting (Bernd Purkrabek) heralded something different: a new piece, so it seemed, although not for long. [This, to avoid confusion, was the second of Mundry’s Fragments, Lachenmann having followed Beethoven.] It used both pianos and orchestra, calling on six horns and two oboes to stand; at least the choreography did. Then suddenly, without warning came something familiar yet strange: the introduction to the first movement of Beethoven’s First Symphony. Or was it? So disoriented had my expectations become that I found myself asked the occasional question about Beethoven’s scoring. (‘Did he really write that phrase for the flute?’ is one I recall, and afterwards recall Beethoven having been criticised for supposedly excessive use of wind in this work.) I think I was wrong to have done so, but to be enabled to listen critically in that way concerning music I allegedly know so well was a fascinating experience in itself. It was an unfashionably large orchestra we heard for this symphony, or however much of it we were going to hear – and all the better for it: it had bite and heft, colour and…

… then the light changed, downward orchestral glissandi were heard, and Aimard and his page-turner solemnly left the stage. So too did a number of other musicians from the orchestra, those six horns and two oboes included. This mysterious Mundry (?) interlude – was it a continuation of what we had heard previously? – led us to another Beethoven introduction, that of the Fourth Symphony, darkly expectant. This time, it was my sense of pitch that I did not quite trust. Was it at modern pitch? A nagging doubt remained. After all, I told myself as the exposition progressed, context is all: this means something different here and now, if indeed it ‘means’ anything at all. Departed wind players reappeared on the balcony above to signal to us friends nicht dieser Töne, but something again unexpected: the transition to the finale of the Fifth; and then the opening of the portals of heaven itself. Those trombones! The rest of the orchestra too, of course, not least the excellent Cologne timpanist, but those trombones: what a thrilling Beethovenian moment it was once more, ‘authentic’ in the best sense. I could after all be excited by this music again when conducted by someone other than Furtwängler, Klemperer, or Barenboim. (There are others, I admit, but a list would be beside the point right here.) Moreover, I could do so without the tonal preparation of the rest of the symphony, which I should otherwise have insisted was necessary. How long, I wondered, would it go on? When would it be transformed into something else? The scherzo reprise came and went; heaven reopened. Wind were again especially prominent, hinting perhaps at the contemporary music – to Beethoven – of French Revolutionary processionals. Was I merely romanticising? If I were, why should I not, given a tradition dating back at least so far as ETA Hoffmann? On this occasion, at least, we reached the end, thus signalling the interval.

Upon returning to the hall, it was clear that some audience members had left. My initial reaction was to wonder why, but perhaps just as valid a question would be ‘why not?’ It is difficult, for whatever this may be worth, to imagine that some did not in 1808 – and their departure did no harm to anyone. It was not the full orchestra that was back on stage, although Aimard was back. The opening piece [the fifth and final of Mundry’s Fragments] played with piano and orchestral response. Cellists, percussionists, others shone in ways traditional and not. [Alas my memory deserts me here with regard to precisely what.]  We were invited, even compelled, to listen and indeed to watch. Was that Aimard playing a ‘light’ version of Beethoven? It took me a few seconds to realise that such lightness, as ever with the Bagatelles, was largely deceptive; hearing them at the same time as other music, seeing them at the same time as other actions was undeniably strange. The orchestra, intriguingly, seemed at times almost asleep and needed to be roused.

‘Warmer’ lighting signalled an impending change; as if by magic, we were part way through the first movement of the Emperor Concerto, somewhere in the development, leading us to the recapitulation. Aimard offered some delightful leaning into phrases, blinding clarity too, not least in trills reminiscent of Pollini in his prime. Once the movement had come to a close, a further dialogue between piano and orchestra began, piano seemingly querying the chordal responses it received, responses that nevertheless led it – and us – away from Beethoven, whether we liked it or not, initial memories disintegrating. This different voice fashioned music to metamorphose into a new concertante work: hectic, rhythmically insistent, playing on the ruins of tonality with a fine sense of the sardonic that occasionally brought Prokofiev to mind. Childhood and even childish memories, clockwork machinations, other, darker remembrances of things past or imagined fascinated in a veritable riot of invention, after which Aimard left the stage. The second movement of the Seventh Symphony followed, as compelling a processional as ever, after which Aimard and missing orchestral players returned. The orchestra stood and the lights went down. There was, notably, no applause, although it seemed like a moment when there might have been. What was Aimard, seated, about to play?

It was the final movement [ultimately only part of it] of the final piano sonata, op.111, exalted yet also strangely exultant. Oddly, given the elements of choreography throughout, I started to wonder about the silhouetted organist’s head, sometimes still, sometimes moving, I saw to the side of the stage. Was it, too, part of the performance? It was difficult to see how, yet once seen, I could never quite forget my wondering. The music led without a break into something new – and yet perhaps not quite so new. By this stage, I had forgotten that Zimmermann was on the programme, and it took me again a little while to realise that this music, with its unnervingly oscillating opening, an oscillation seemingly retained yet transformed into a dialectic between precision and vagueness, was indeed what it was. So this was why an organist had appeared: for the horrific fragments of musical remembrance – how apt! – of Photoptosis. Yet there was no ‘O Freunde…’ moment; the finale to the Ninth had been revoked, as in Mann’s Doctor Faustus, or at least averted. Truly this was a nightmare from which we might never awake. Parsifal, The Nutcracker, and, for some reason the most unsettling, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy took their bows, but for what? Did they, did the Bach and plainchant, ‘mean’ anything any more? Do we not hear them all now in the shadow of Beethoven, which is to say of our construction(s) of ‘Beethoven’? Does not all music, old and new, Beethoven’s included, stand in that shadow? As if it had not been with us all along, darkness fell.

Isabel Mundry: Orchestral Fragments to Beethoven I-V (2020, world premiere), interspersed with (and on occasion played simultaneously with):
          Beethoven: Piano Sonata no.14 in C-sharp minor, op.27 no.2, 1st movement (1801)
          Lachenmann: Tableau (1988/9)
          Beethoven: Symphony no.1 in C major, op.21, 1st movement to bar 109 (1800); Symphony no.4 in B-flat major, op.60, 1st movement to bar 333 (1806); Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67, 3rd movement from bar 324 and 4th movement (1804-8); Bagatelles, op.119: nos 7,9, 10, and 11 (1820-22); Piano Concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73, 1st movement from bar 258 (1809-10)
Francesco Filidei: Quasi una bagatella, for piano and orchestra (2019, world premiere)
Beethoven: Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92, 2nd movement (1811-12); Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111, 2nd movement to Variation IV (1821-2)
Zimmermann: Photoptosis (1968)