Sunday 30 August 2020

Musikfest Berlin (1) - Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Mozart, 29 August 2020


Images: © Monika Karczmarczyk / Berliner Festspiele
Images: © Monika Karczmarczyk / Berliner Festspiele 

Symphony no.39 in E-flat major, KV 543
Symphony no.40 in G minor, KV 550
Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Almost six months ago, I penned my last concert review, Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zukerman having completed, all of three days in time, their latest survey of the Beethoven violin sonatas. I had had every reason, or so I believed, to look forward to a good deal more Beethoven in Berlin before reluctant return to London. The nine symphonies from Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, together with Fidelio from the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko were all booked, as were several other concerts and theatre visits, two new Mozart opera productions (Idomeneo and Così fan tutte) included. None took place. Instead, I scrambled to make another booking: a flight ‘home’ before it was too late. Literally homeless and unable to find anywhere to live during lockdown, I spent three months in Yorkshire with my brother and his family, to reach London once again only in mid-June, to start to rebuild my life. Since then, one short dress rehearsal apart, that life has truly been a Land ohne Musik, an especially strange coincidence with reception of the chalice, more bitterly poisoned than ever, bearing the name ‘Head of the Department of Music’ for the next three years. (There are baptisms of fire, and there are baptisms of March 2020.)

I could scarcely believe, then, that not only had I been able to reach Berlin, to say goodbyes previously denied; not only was I about to hear music once more in the flesh; but also that it would be with Mozart and the man who was to have conducted that never-to-be-seen Così, as well as the never-to-be-heard Beethoven series: Daniel Barenboim. But so it was. All was not the same. Under necessary social distancing, the Philharmonie can only offer interval-less concerts of up to ninety minutes and, more importantly, at what looked to me barely more than one in five capacity. This was no orchestra for Mahler; it was a typical Barenboim Mozart orchestra, strings, spaced so as to fill the stage, whether masked, as the players came on to and left the platform, or not, when (of course!) they played. Barenboim too was masked until after taking his podium bow. But then, in the presence of the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, the attempt to create a ‘new orchestral normal’ could begin.

It was not normal, of course; how could it be? That E-flat chord with which the first of the evening’s three symphonies opened would, even at the best of times have been heard with all manner of resonances. Here, however, it was not only a matter of presaging The Magic Flute. ‘The music itself’, a few years ago the bane of many a musicologist’s life, was recreated before our very ears, and to hell with pedantic criticism. It is always an introduction rich in expectancy; here, a whole world of possibilities lay before us, with all the fabled warmth of this great orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and its music director, Barenboim. Unsurprisingly, I welled up, surrendering—as if I had any choice—but then found myself able to listen, almost as if the intentness and immediacy of the experience were to compensate for the deprivations of the last six months. Silences to shame Bruckner played their part, but as ever with Barenboim at his best, it was above all understanding and communication of harmony that led us to the exposition proper, in a performance both collegiately genial and generatively constructed. Every note mattered, was connected, played its part: like every player, perhaps even every audience member. All the drama of opera denied erupted. Cello scales sounded for the miracles they are, transmuted from figures into music by the most Mozartian of alchemy. The lack of a repeat—one ear on the legal clock?—made for an uncommonly Boulezian overview from Barenboim, but it worked with similar purpose and acuity. Not his least strength as a musician has been constant rethinking of his way with familiar works, constantly on offer here today. The recapitulation sounded as a second development, that lack of an exposition repeat perhaps necessitating this still more strongly: how everything had changed by the ‘return’ to the second group! The triumph of the coda, often overlooked among the miracles of this triptych, sent shivers down the spine. Yes, music had returned, and it was music at its most exalted.

In the slow movement, Barenboim negotiated the difficult balance between development and, well, balance so well that would never have known its difficulty. The minor-key episode was expertly prefigured—harmony again!—so that the strange description I read as a teenager in a borrowed LP liner note, ‘bizarre’, seemed more bizarre than ever. The personal inscrutability born of apparently different subjectivity, which so strongly differentiates Mozart and Beethoven, however close they may otherwise become, was a guiding spirit here. Mozart never judges. Dramatic flexibility of tempo suggested, not without reason, the world of Don Giovanni. There was all the time, also all the urgency, in the world, and how we needed them; how those dissonances ached and their resolutions healed. The minute, ebullient yet yielding, likewise was founded on the securest of harmonic understandings. Its counterpoint told with a directed clarity vouchsafed only to the finest of Mozartians. The trio proved a garden of similarly directed delights, straight out of Così, or rather vice versa. Champagne with especially present pinot noir was the hallmark of the finale, its extraordinary concision uncannily prophetic of Webern. Motivic integrity and dynamism played a crucial role, once more founded upon harmony. The final, Haydnesque phrase was thrown away not as if nothing, but as if almost nothing, thereby rendering it everything.

The G minor Symphony began with Furtwänglerian fury, yet perhaps greater precision than Barenboim’s hero might have elicited. Concision again proved Mozart’s order of the day, likewise a motivic intensity to rival Beethoven, albeit with a tragedy that could only be Mozart’s. Disorienting descent and battle royal in the development wound down in well-nigh Mendelssohnian exhaustion to ignite a recapitulation that was again very much a second development. The fear and fury of the Requiem to come rendered the tragedy of the ‘failure’ to turn away from the tonic minor in the second group and coda all the more vivid and felt. The second movement likewise flowed as a wordless theatrical scene, with both the variety and unity that implies, at least chez Mozart. A particular form of inevitability, recalling more strongly than I can recall the music of Bach, characterised the minuet. Its trio offered balm, the promise of a better world, the purity of the Staatskapelle’s horns enough once again to have tear ducts do their thing. The finale burst forth as resolution to the truest of tragedies: no histrionics, but musical fate. There was hope, of course, but a rock-steady, almost Klemperer-like overall command marshalled its inevitable demise. The disjuncture with which the development opened ‘spoke’ almost as if a Wagner arioso. Here at least, Mozart needed no words.

I do not think it was temporal requirements that led Barenboim to take a brisker, even brusquer approach with the first movement of the Jupiter than I can remember him doing so before. In some ways, it seemed closer to Haydn and Beethoven than to Mozart. I may not have liked the idea a priori, but it worked: again, testimony to his determination to rethink, not to rest on his laurels. It was defiant; perhaps therein lay the key, given our present ‘circumstances’. Beethovenian goal-direction was very much the guiding principle to this movement as a whole, which is not to say that other musical themes lacked charm. However, it unfolded with a solemnity very much of our time, with little sense of celebration, though once again with an increasingly important role played, so it seemed, by Mozart’s study of Bach. 

The second movement was imbued with a humanity to match any of Barenboim’s Beethoven. This mattered, whether in the harmonic depths or on the melodic surface, such opposition more than usually meaningless. Mozart here spoke with all the moral goodness that he would with the late Colin Davis, and all the complexity of Schoenberg. Barenboim’s rethinking of the minuet was striking too, opening intimacy preparing the way for a veritable panoply of Viennese Redoutensaal life. Public-private contrast and interconnection proved the foundation of the trio too, relationship between the diatonic and chromatic adding a further layer of meaning to both dances of this third movement. The finale burned with fiery urgency as much contrapuntal as harmonic, though it was certainly both. (Bach again!) Perhaps it lacked the sense of absolute triumph, of a musical QED, that sometimes it will boast, but surely that was again to be expected in times of plague. It certainly lacked nothing in freshness, nor in thrill. I could happily, repeats or no repeats, have heard it all again.

Sunday 23 August 2020

R.I.P. Anne Ozorio

I have just heard, with great sadness, news of the death of my friend Anne Ozorio. Anne and I first 'met' on the Mahler List, which I joined when, somewhat belatedly, I finally started using the Internet. Hers was always one of the most intelligent, interesting, and generous whilst critical voices there. We became friends, writing to each other often (indeed after both of us had left that list, following unpleasantness neither of us had time or energy to indulge). We then met in person for the first time when she drove over to Cambridge for the launch party for my first book, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire. She acquired a copy and wrote a generous review.

Then, when I tentatively started writing more about music in performance, she encouraged me and recommend that, as well as writing for my blog, I write for another website, Seen and Heard, for which I still write. Apart from anything else, that enabled me to attend more performances and to gain greater experience in such writing, which has in turn greatly influenced much of my 'academic' work too (not that she or I would ever have made such a hard and fast distinction). My most recent completed article, 14,000 words on Frank Castorf's Ring and the politics of postdramatic theatre may otherwise never have been written.

Anne's blog, Classical Iconoclast, was always one I would check and read with enthusiasm, even, perhaps especially when we differed, in order that I might be challenged to rethink. I shall greatly miss her thoughts on performances and on much else, not least her Macau family history, from which she has been posting so many fascinating old pictures with commentary. I shall also miss her presence at the Wigmore Hall, the Festival Hall, Covent Garden, and many other venues, whenever, God willing, they reopen. Bumping into her and, often, Roger too for a pre-performance or interval chat was so often part and parcel of the experience, not least with respect to new music. Anne's voice will, of course, remain with us.

R.I.P. Anne. 

Sunday 16 August 2020

Wagner and Ludwig von der Pfordten

(Article originally published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)) 

Pfordten, Ludwig Karl Heinrich, Freiherr von der (b. Ried im Innkreis, 11 Sep. 1811; d. Munich, 18 Aug. 1880), politician and jurist. Held professorships in Würzburg and Leipzig. Appointed Minister of Education by Frederick Augustus II of Saxony in 1848. Wagner failed to interest him in his “Plan for the Organization of a German National Theatre for the Kingdom of Saxony.” Bavarian Minister-President and Foreign Minister from 1849-59 and 1864-6. During the 1850s, Pfordten failed to unite the smaller German kingdoms under Bavarian leadership against Prussia and Austria. He advised Maximilian II against a Munich staging of Tannhäuser, a slight Ludwig II held against him. Suspicious of Wagner’s influence upon the King, and horrified at his plans for a music school and festival theater, Pfordten and colleagues manufactured a public scandal in 1865, compelling Ludwig to choose, in Pfordten’s terms, between the love and respect of his faithful subjects and the friendship of Richard Wagner. Pfordten’s second ministry proved disastrous, Bavaria emerging on the losing side in the Austro-Prussian War (1866).

Thursday 13 August 2020

Sāvitri, HGO, 11 August 2020

Image: © 2020 Laurent Compagnon
Image: © 2020 Laurent Compagnon

The Lawn, Lauderdale House

Sāvitri – Esme Bronwen Smith
Satyavān – Alex Aldren
Death – Theo Perry
Dancer – Laura Calcagno 

Julia Mintzer (director)
Eleanor Burke (assistant director) 
Anna-Lou Mary (choreography) 
Ryan Wilce (company manager) 
Charles Ogilvie (props) 

HGO Orchestra
Thomas Payne (conductor)

Opera returns to London. As we know it? Yes and no—but then, is that not always the case? Convention dictates that one does not review dress rehearsals, but what is convention in times such as these? More to the point, I have permission to write and should not have dreamed of doing so without. HGO (formerly Hampstead Garden Opera) and its ever-enterprising impresario David Conway deserve our deepest gratitude and heartiest praise for merely conceiving of this project, let alone for bringing it to the garden stage with such zest and conviction. 

First performed in 1916, another time of troubles—also, as now hear ad nauseam, shortly prior to another pandemic—Sāvitri, more importantly, was conceived for outdoor performance, ‘or else in a small building’. No small building here, though a fascinating large building, Lauderdale House, made for a lovely backdrop to events on the lawn below. Theatrical hustle and bustle between rehearsals—arriving just after the first, I saw the second cast—brought to mind of another opera premiered that year, Strauss’s Ariadne, at least in the final version we all know and love. A bird flew overhead, sang cheerily, and: action… 

Birds of the forest, perhaps the Indian jungle, we heard. A woman wrote in red on glass. A man, unseen, singing with perfect pitch and diction, evoked something beyond, physically and metaphysically. Music, drama, opera were reborn before our eyes and ears, both the oneness in veil of illusion of Holst’s Mahābharata piece and that of the endlessly reborn and reinvented bastard progeny of an Athens that never was. In Julia Mintzer’s thoughtful, elegant staging, we were able to make connections, yet never pushed unduly. Sāvitri in her struggle with the Death that would take her husband could stand for the creative act itself, both abstract and concrete (Holst), but also in a time of pandemic could lead our thoughts elsewhere, whether particular or universal. ‘The world has now become a grave.’ 

Were those English, imperial memories we saw and heard? Perhaps, given the summery lightness of costume, orientalist harem pants and all. Above all, however, these were bodies, physical in their fear and trembling, archetypal in the stylised shaping of Anna-Lou Mary’s choreography. Space was rethought, Satyavān approaching our vision from behind, Death heard and occasionally seen from around us, even from within the house: the word, long and lingering, its musical shadows, as well as the character. Yet that use of space flowed, like Holst’s score, Straussian artifice put to one side in favour of something winningly ‘natural’, whatever the undeniable art and craft involved. Likewise Thomas Payne’s keen conducting, alive to the ebb and flow of Holst’s chamber orchestral subtleties—and its harmonies. Harmony, the greatest glory of Western music, Schoenberg’s final word: how we have missed you these long months ohne Musik

For the small female chorus sounded as if discovering music for the first time. The primal, wordless sounds from the Burning Bush in Moses und Aron came to my mind, however simpler the particular means; Evensong too, albeit the distinctly superior version of the college and cathedral choirs singing Holst’s own Nunc dimittis (1915, as I later discovered). The Death of Music, even of Anglican music, might yet be stopped, as Sāvitri conquers Death and saves, in quiet ecstasy, her beloved. Chords could be heard in all the evergreen freshness of, say, Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, and yet built and rebuilt in different ways, the ninths and beyond—that word again—of Holst’s imagination gently yet surely staking out their own territory. ‘Art thou the Just One? Art thou Death? Or art thou but a blind spirit, knowing naught of what is round thee? Give me life!’ Music is death, yet is far more than death, just as it is maya, yet far more. Holst, like the Schopenhauerian Wagner, knew that—even as he distanced himself, or thought he did, from that most overbearing of operatic predecessors. We may wait a while for our next Meistersinger, just as for our next Moses. Art, however, will find a way, not only along those paths, but along others not yet seen. We must find a way too.

Wednesday 5 August 2020

Wagner and August Röckel

(Article first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encycopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Röckel, (Karl) August (born 1 December 1814, Graz; died 18 July 1876, Budapest.) Conductor, composer, pamphleteer; son of tenor, Joseph Röckel. Assisted Rossini at the Paris Théâtre Italien, before assuming positions in Bamberg, Weimar, and finally Dresden (1843-9) as assistant to Wagner. Röckel withdrew his 1839 opera, Farinelli, accepted for Dresden performance, as unworthy compared to Wagner’s work. Dismissed for subversion, Röckel edited the socialist Volksblätter, to which Wagner contributed. Following the Dresden uprising (account published in 1865), Röckel received a death sentence, commuted; prison correspondence adds greatly to understanding of the Ring. In a letter of 25/26 January 1854, Wagner presents Wotan (Wodan) rising to the tragic heights of willing his own destruction, summarising a fundamental ‘pessimistic’ shift in his conception. Following release from prison in 1862, Röckel edited newspapers in Coburg, Frankfurt, Munich, and Vienna, and joined August Bebel’s Verband Deutscher Arbeitervereine.  Friendship faltered during the later 1860s: Wagner held Röckel responsible for dissemination of rumours concerning Wagner’s relationship with Cosima.

Sunday 2 August 2020

Wagner and Ludwig II

(Article, ‘Ludwig II, King of Bavaria,’ first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013))

Lohengrin's arrival in Brabant, August von Heckel, 1882-3 (Neuschwanstein)

Ludwig II, King of Bavaria (b. Nymphenburg Palace, Munich, 25 Aug. 1845; d. Lake Starnberg, near Munich, 13 June 1886; reign 10 Mar. 1864 to 13 June 1886). Succeeded his father, Maximilian II, but closer in artistic ambition to Maximilian’s deposed father, Ludwig I. Aestheticism was a hallmark of Ludwig’s reign, which witnessed construction of neo-Romantic, “fairy-tale” castles such as Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee, and Neuschwanstein; the latter’s wall frescoes depict Wagnerian scenes. Though Ludwig was hardly devoted to the more mundane of his duties and was no consummate politician, Bavaria under his rule nevertheless successfully held out for a high price even when there was no alternative to German unification. Ludwig won a private, secret income from Bismarck’s Guelph fund in return for putting his name to Bismarck’s “Kaiser letter,” bidding Prussia’s William I to “re-establish a German Empire and German imperial dignity.” Extensive correspondence, both with Wagner and Cosima, is an invaluable source for the Wagner scholar.

At thirteen, Ludwig was enthralled by reports of Lohengrin in Munich. He heard it there in 1861 and, inspired by the swan knight (cf. “Neuschwanstein”), engaged in study of Wagner’s writings. Increasingly tormented by his homosexuality, he would sooner withdraw from society, always preferring to experience private performances of Wagner’s works. In response to Wagner’s 1863 call for a German prince to fund model operatic performances of the Ring, Ludwig dispatched Cabinet Secretary, Franz von Pfistermeister, only a month after his accession (1864), to bring Wagner to Munich. The King’s “Friend” received a generous stipend, so that he might compose and perform his works. Soon exiled, if temporarily, to Tribschen, following machinations by Pfistermeister and Ludwig von der Pfordten, Wagner’s counsel persisted. Such was his influence that Bismarck attempted to have him ensure Bavarian neutrality between Prussia and Austria in 1866. In this context, and partly influenced by Constantin Frantz, if not Bismarck, Wagner penned “What is German?” (1865) for Ludwig’s instruction. Wagner counseled Ludwig against abdication, apparently strengthening his resolve – not least since, as King, he would be better placed to assist Wagner.


Ludwig paid the most pressing of Wagner’s debts, afforded him free residence, and supported the world premieres of Tristan und Isolde (1865), Die Meistersinger (1868), Das Rheingold (1869) and Die Walküre (1870), the latter two against Wagner’s will. Plans for a Munich festival theater by Gottfried Semper were thwarted, yet land for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was provided at no cost and the first Bayreuth Festival was saved by Ludwig’s loan of 100,000 thalers. Ludwig also sponsored land-purchase and construction costs for Wahnfried.

Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 1882

Ludwig grew heavily indebted, though Wagnerian expenses totaled under a seventh of the Civil List. (He funded artistic projects personally.) In 1886, exasperated by Ludwig’s refusal to economize and fearful of dismissal, ministers presented a medical report signed by four psychiatrists, none of whom had ever met Ludwig, declaring him unfit to rule – for life. Maximilian’s brother, Leopold, was declared Regent; Ludwig was transported to Schloss Berg. The cause of his tragic drowning in adjacent Lake Starnberg remains unclear: suicide, accidental death through escape, or murder?


Detta Petzet and Michael Petzet, Die Richard Wagner-Bühne Königs Ludwig II. (Munich: Prestel, 1970).

Otto Strobel (ed.), König Ludwig II. und Richard Wagner. Briefwechsel. Mit vielen anderen Urkunden, 5 vols (Karlsruhe: Braun, 1936-9).