Saturday 19 September 2020

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

Stanley Halls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 17 September 2020

Hill Quartet - Haydn and Ravel, 15 September 2020

The Bandstand, Battersea Park

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 13 September 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 12 September 2020

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


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

Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 10 September 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 5 September 2020

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



© Monika Karczmarczyk / Berliner Festspiele

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

Ensemble Modern
George Benjamin (conductor)

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

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

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

Friday 4 September 2020

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

Pierre Boulez Saal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 2 September 2020

Musikfest Berlin (3) - Levit: Beethoven, 31 August 2020


Piano Sonata no.5 in C minor, op.10 no.1
Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor, op.49 no.1
Piano Sonata no.20 in G major, op.49 no.2
Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, op.54
Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, op.57, ‘Appassionata’ 

Igor Levit (piano)

Sturm und Drang or full-blown Romanticism? Why choose? The point was twin fury and tenderness, their dialectical connection crucial. This Igor Levit performance of Beethoven’s early C minor Sonata, op.10 no.1, thereby offered an object, concise lesson in first-movement sonata form contrasts: their necessity and meaning. The shock with which the development section began and the new paths along which it led were very much part of that, roots unquestionably in Haydn, yet never reducible. It was all over before we knew it, Beethoven the radical—already. The poise with which the Adagio molto unfolded, plenty of space for detail truly to register, was finely judged. Here was a dignity that was moral above all: ‘“The moral law within and the starry skies above us!”—Kant!’ as he would note more than two decades hence, in an 1820 conversation book. Clarity, complexity, and the particular character of this slow movement were unerringly recreated before our ears. The finale’s extremity of Beethovenian drive, at times almost tipping over into Schumann, made for a thrilling ride, which, had we known, might well have come from closer to 1820. ‘Lateness’ can be early, as suggested by a rhetorical, formally comprehending performance that yet proved enigmatic to a degree.

The two little op.49 sonatas were treated with all the seriousness and affection they deserved. The G minor Sonata’s first movement as lovely as any Bagatelle, its melancholy and invention equally relished. Its second movement suggested a yarn well spun, full of incident. Taken without a break, the G major Sonata thereby sounded all the more as a companion piece. Its first movement had Mozartian poise and dignity, imbued with difference enough to make it quite clear that this was Beethoven. Touching naïveté characterised the second, its simplicity distinguishing it from Beethoven’s reworking in the Septet. Nothing was condescended to; everything was enjoyed for what it is. Delightful!

By contrast, simplicity such as we heard at the opening of the op.52 Sonata was unquestionably ‘secondary’, mediated: from Kant, then, to Hegel. Such subtlety pervaded Levit’s performance just as much as the work itself, even prior to the first furious dialectical outburst. Once more, ‘late Beethoven’ seemed already to be among us. There was no shying away from difficulty; rather it was celebrated and confronted. Strangeness was relished, even heightened, through fidelity, both here and in the second movement, its moto perpetuo a means rather than an end, that end unrepentantly modernist, even Schoenbergian.

Ghostliness of a different, yet perhaps related, kind haunted the opening of the Appassionata, whose first movement received a duly questing account, transcendental and Faustian by turn and sometimes simultaneously. It was difficult not to think of Liszt and Busoni, of what they might have made of this ever extraordinary work. Levit afforded space for surprises, yet equally urgency to remind us of Lenin’s celebrated devotion. Yet where Lenin could therefore not listen often to music, we were enabled, even impelled, to do so all the more. Here was an interior subjectivity that spilled over into exteriority, yet retained primacy throughout. Such was also the case in the second movement, albeit with different material and all that flowed from that difference. Much bubbled under and even on the surface, however much one ‘knew’. The shock of transition to the finale was undimmed by familiarity, a path to a defiant humanism that characterises both composer and interpreter. Such white intensity proved as exhilarating a work-out for the mind as for the fingers. One hardly dared breathe, even before the coda’s shock and awe.

The seventh of Busoni’s Elegien made for a perfect encore. You cannot top the Appassionata, but you can certainly do something else. Levit showed how Busoni’s flickering half-lights can, if anything, prove still more expressive from piano than orchestra. However different the means, there remained something subtly Faustian to the bargain. I look forward to hearing him play the Piano Concerto.

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Musikfest Berlin (2) - Levit: Beethoven, 30 August 2020


Piano Sonata no.24 in F-sharp major, op.78
Piano Sonata no.4 in E-flat major, op.7
Piano Sonata no.9 in E-flat major, op.14 no.1
Piano Sonata no.10 in G major, op.14. no.2
Piano Sonata no.26 in E-flat major, op.81a, ‘Les Adieux’

Igor Levit (piano)

Whatever equal temperament, ‘common sense’, or anything else might say, any pianist will tell you that, leaving aside absolute pitch, an all-black F-sharp major chord will feel and sound quite different from one made up of white notes or a mixture. It certainly did here, the rarity in every sense of the tonality immediately apparent, drawing one in both to Beethoven’s short introduction to the op.78 Sonata and thereafter to the first-movement exposition proper, which unquestionably grew from those magical, pregnant four bars. Intimacies were whispered and sung, sforzandi registered without exaggeration, all part of a greater whole envisaged and communicated by Igor Levit. Surprises in the development sprang from deepest Romanticism, be it that of Beethoven or his interpreter. All was equally fresh in the recapitulation. In the second of this extraordinary sonata’s two movements, humour both skittish and vehement was brought to life by the transcendental technique of a Liszt or a Prokofiev (so it sounded; it was, of course, actually that of a Levit). A one-off surprise at the close amused the pianist still more than it did us: a winning sign of humanity, in the unlikely case of anyone requiring it.

The E-flat major Sonata, op.7, hails from a different world: key, period, mood, and so on. There was no question, however, that its first movement also was Beethoven—and mature Beethoven, in a reading that felt no special need to dwell on his antecedents. At times, indeed, the music sounded bracingly, brazenly modern, without that ever precluding charm or tenderness. Once again, this was a protean whole, rhythm generative yet ever founded upon harmony. Levit maintained the slow movement’s essential simplicity of utterance at a daringly slow tempo. Beethoven was rendered strange once again, through fidelity and understanding, in a performance implacable and fantastical, intimate and forbidding. In the third movement, Beethoven and Levit in indissoluble partnership unleashed a dynamo of motivic and harmonic development, just as inextricably interlinked. The white heat of its trio was such as if to encircle Brünnhilde—and perhaps even to repel Siegfried. Like the first movement, the finale sounded remarkably mature, with little sense of (post)Mozartian throwback. Gruff and boisterous, it also reached for the stars: patently Beethovenian stars, in Beethoven’s tonal universe, discovered as if for the first time. Once again, Levit trusted Beethoven and Beethoven more than repaid that trust.

The opening of the E major Sonata, op.14 no.1, was necessarily made to sound as if it were the easiest thing in the world—until one listened, when the truest artistry was revealed. Voicing as directed as it was exquisitely of the moment was married to telling variety of articulation (never for its own sake). I found myself especially taken by the understatement of the development, not least since it had me realise what a vulgar mess I had once made of it. The second movement was a tale of Mendelssohnian melancholy disrupted and restored. In not entirely dissimilar fashion, the finale’s opening lightness had the vehemence of its central episode emerge all the more meaningful and necessary.

The op.14 no.2 Sonata made for a lovely companion piece in practice as well as in theory, the freshness of its first-movement Romantic lyricism beautifully judged. Tiggerish in its amiability, it led with all the inevitability of a grander work to its central Andante. It is all too easy to end up doing things to this movement, but not here in a reading whose seemingly infinite charm was born again of honesty (Beethoven and Levit), not subterfuge. Taken attacca, the scherzo finale thereby heightened its predecessor’s closing joke. It proved a performance full of contrast and incident, which yet remained unerringly part of a greater whole.

A deeply poignant introduction both prepared the way for and was dispelled by the Emperor Beethoven of Les Adieux’s exposition. It is not so simple, of course; when is it? Interplay between such tendencies proved the very motor of the music; it was, though, quite a starting-point. The second movement, ‘L’Absence’, revealed another side to the Romantic moon: mysterious, yet familiar; quietly insistent, yet richly exploratory. The finale was in many respects similar, uniting tendencies from both preceding movements, yet keenly attuned to its own function and specificity. Exultant, even ecstatic, Beethoven the sublime poured forth like proverbial molten lava, yet with none of the lazy clichés my insufficient words might suggest.

As an encore, Levit offered August Rosenbrunnen by his friend, Malakoff Kowalski. There was here a sense of the improvisatory that was anything but arbitrary. Unquestionably piano music, this was clearly writing, as well as performance, born of deep love for the instrument. If there were a certain post-Debussyan quality to some of the harmonies, their function seemed to me quite different. This was a song of dark passions and liberation, though whether in or from those passions remained an intriguingly open question.