Wednesday 29 December 2021

Tally of performances attended, 2021

Another strange and, let us hope, highly unrepresentative year, if not quite so strange as last year. As usual, I have counted any composer once for any one event (i.e. Parsifal counts as one, as does a minute of Webern, as do four Beethoven sonatas in the same recital). Concert performances still count as opera. Interesting and heartening to see Janáček fare so well, but there was one very clear winner for 2021:


6 Mozart
3 Janáček
2 Gluck, Wagner
1 Darren Berry, Cavalli, Enescu, Humperdinck, Ravel, Strauss, Tippett, Alastair White


6 Mozart
5 Beethoven, Schubert
3 Schumann, Stravinsky
2 JS Bach, Bartók, Brahms, Haydn, Janáček, Mahler, Messiaen, Purcell, Ravel, Sibelius, Strauss
1 CPE Bach, WF Bach, Martin Baker, Mason Bates, Benjamin, Berlioz, Berg, Georg Böhm, Joseph Bologne, Bruch, Byrd, Britta Byström, Chopin, Ann Cleare, Couperin, Debussy, Dvořák, Elgar, Brian Elias, Raquel García-Tomás, Gerhard, Gibbons, Gossec, Guerrero, Handel, Johann Wilhelm Hässler, Lisa Illean, Isaac, Betsy Jolas, Josquin, Lassus, Luise Adolpha Le Beau, George Lewis, Liszt, Kate Loder, Joan Magrané Figuera, Knussen, Johann Kuhnau, James MacMillan, Matthew Martin, Johanna Müller-Hermann, Sarah Nicolls, Pachelbel, Pärt, Anthony Payne, Charlie Piper, Enno Poppe, Poulenc, Rameau, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Saint-Saëns, Samuel Scheidt, Schoenberg, Mark Simpson, George Stevenson, Sweelinck, Vaughan Williams, Ryan Wigglesworth, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Zemlinsky


12 Mozart
5 Beethoven, Janáček, Schubert
3 Ravel, Schumann, Strauss, Stravinsky
2 JS Bach, Bartók, Brahms, Gluck, Haydn, Mahler, Messiaen, Puccini, Purcell, Sibelius, Wagner
1 CPE Bach, WF Bach, Martin Baker, Mason Bates, Benjamin, Berlioz, Berg, Darren Berry, Georg Böhm, Joseph Bologne, Bruch, Byrd, Britta Byström, Cavalli, Chopin, Ann Cleare, Couperin, Debussy, Dvořák, Elgar, Enescu, Brian Elias, Raquel García-Tomás, Gerhard, Gibbons, Gossec, Guerrero, Handel, Johann Wilhelm Hässler, Humperdinck, Lisa Illean, Isaac, Betsy Jolas, Josquin, Lassus, Luise Adolpha Le Beau, George Lewis, Liszt, Kate Loder, Joan Magrané Figuera, Knussen, Johann Kuhnau, James MacMillan, Matthew Martin, Johanna Müller-Hermann, Sarah Nicolls, Pachelbel, Pärt, Anthony Payne, Charlie Piper, Enno Poppe, Poulenc, Rameau, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Saint-Saëns, Samuel Scheidt, Schoenberg, Mark Simpson, George Stevenson, Sweelinck, Tippett, Vaughan Williams, Alastair White, Ryan Wigglesworth, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Zemlinsky

Wednesday 22 December 2021

'Hymns to the Virgin': Tallis Scholars/Phillips - Lassus, Josquin, Guerrero, Martin, Stravinsky, Pärt, and Isaac, 21 December 2021

St John’s Smith Square

Lassus: Alma redemptoris mater
Josquin: Missa Ave maris stella
Guerrero: Maria Magdalene et altera Maria; Ave virgo sanctissima
Matthew Martin: Sanctissima
Stravinsky: Bogoroditse devo
Pärt: Virgencita
Isaac: Virgo prudentissima

Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips (director)

St John’s Smith Square’s 36th Christmas Festival has gone ahead as planned. That in itself is something to grant seasonal cheer, especially at what again is proving a trying time for all of us. So too was this concert from festival regulars the Tallis Scholars, with music spanning a period of more than half a millennium, from Josquin’s Missa Ave maris stella in the late fifteenth century to Matthew Martin’s 2017 reimagining of Francesco Guerrero’s motet Ave virgo santissima, first published in 1566.

The concert opened with Lassus’s polychoral motet, Alma redemptoris mater, separation and recombination of the two ‘choirs’ (four singers apiece) taking place in typically patient, unshowy unfolding from Peter Phillips and his singers. Like much of the evening’s programme, it sounded bathed in Marian radiance, albeit of distinctly different varieties that yet all remained worlds distant from the concerted likes of Monteverdi or Mozart. In context, Lassus’s eight-part antiphon—he also set the text for five and, twice, six voices—sounded almost as if an overture.

If so, it was an overture to the mass honouring the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Josquin des Prez. We heard a properly responsorial ‘Kyrie’, its opening upward fifth signalling to all and sundry the cantus firmus that permeates so much of the setting in a motivic fashion it is difficult not to think of as ‘modern’, however problematic and ultimately unsatisfactory the notion may be. The ‘Gloria’ offered a not entirely dissimilar sense of unfolding and building towards climax such as we had heard in Lassus. Words were never underlined, yet nonetheless ‘spoke’ as Phillips and the Tallis Scholars traced, even inhabited Josquin’s work’s musical contours. (And no, it does not seem to me anachronistic here to speak of a musical work.) A glowing, full-toned ‘Sanctus’ contrasted nicely with the duets of the ‘Benedictus’. The crowning canonical writing of the ‘Agnus Dei’, canons recalling earlier writing and seemingly underlining the form of threefold petition, was permitted a sense of the expansive: in performance as in work, one might say. At any rate, there was a sense not only of conclusion but of culmination, without attempting to transplant later values not at home here.

Following the interval, we turned to two motets by Guerrero. His Maria Magdalene et altera Maria tells of that celebrated discovery on Easter morning. Here were a different voice, method, and subject matter; a different radiance too, I think. Yet again, there was that sense of patient unfolding and building unobtrusively towards a fine climax on ‘surrexit’. Our Saviour was risen indeed. There was a graver, more hymnal beauty to be heard and felt in Ave virgo sanctissima. Indeed, the prayerful quality in which I felt involved, no mere observer, imparted a sense of physical and metaphysical kneeling. Romantic nonsense, perhaps, though harmless if so. Martin’s reimagining, written to accompany the original, had Guerrero’s lines travel in lines of refracted, relative dissonance, within a tonal framework. Intonation sounded spot on, as surely it must be. It was rather lovely to hear in context.

The radical simplicity of Stravinsky’s Bogoroditse Devo quite simply brooked no dissent, as jewel-like an ‘object’ as, say, the Octet. It simply ‘was’—and doubtless will be. Arvo Pärt’s Virgencita took a lot longer to say rather less, yet the performance was one of evident fondness, warmth and patience bringing ‘holy minimalist’ process to the fore. Some attractive, almost Poulenc-like chords (in abstracto, not functionally), quite resplendent in performance, made the time pass more quickly. The encore, Pärt’s minute-long setting of the same Old Slavonic text set by Stravinsky was written for King’s College Cambridge's Service of Nine Lessons of Carols. The singers imparted a welcome sense of carolling dance to its despatch.

In between we heard Heinrich Isaac’s magnificent Virgo prudentissima, making the case for Archduke—soon Emperor—Maximilian’s piety, the Virgin his heavenly advocate. When compared with, say, Josquin, display of musical intellect seemed more overt. Canonic procedures came more strongly to the fore, propelling words in a fashion that had very much its own direction and directedness. Not for nothing did Webern write his dissertation on Isaac. This was an arresting polyphonic and cosmogonic tour past dominions, fiery cherubim, angels, archangels and others both above and below, to the Mother of Heaven and thence to Him who had taken her up. Yet we fittingly returned to her, ‘excellent as the Sun’, and sounding so. Hierarchies of music and theology created and reinforced one another, preparing us, so it seemed, for further, Christmas mysteries.

Monday 20 December 2021

Britten Sinfonia/Watkin - Handel, Messiah, 16 December 2021

Barbican Hall

Harriet Eyley (soprano)
Jess Dandy (contralto)
Stuart Jackson (tenor)
James Newby (baritone)

Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge (director, organ: Richard Pinel)
Britten Sinfonia
David Watkin (conductor)

Messiahs take many forms. They did during the eighteenth century; they did in the nineteenth; they did in the twentieth; despite the more or less complete victory of ‘authentic’—was ever the term less apt than for this work?—performance practices in the rest of Handel’s œuvre, they have continued to do so in the twenty-first. Sadly, even tragically, the video of that inimitable ‘Handel meets Pop with Messias’, starring the still-more-inimitable Robbin Casey, seems to have vanished not only from YouTube but the planet. (Please do let me know if you have a copy of the original broadcast!) But we still have options ranging from Mozart to McCreesh, from Beecham to Britten Sinfonia. The small forces employed here, including a tiny orchestra (strings and a choir of only twenty-six (men and women but not boys of Jesus College), were at least in part a response to the dread virus. They were perhaps not what one might have imagined ideal for the Barbican and would probably have worked better at home in the warmer acoustic of that most magical of Cambridge chapels. One’s ears nonetheless adjusted to aesthetics as well as to pragmatics. Not only would it be churlish and pointless to object too strongly; it would also arguably ignore the fact that pragmatics have almost always been an important part of aesthetics. Handel, after all, never composed a Helicopter-Quartet. 

That a musician such as David Watkin, so well versed in what, for better or worse, we have come to know as ‘historical performance’, would take an anti-Romantic, or perhaps better a non-Romantic, line should have come as little surprise. The Britten Sinfonia’s versatility is such that these players could doubtless follow any lead with equal relish. Nicely detailed playing in, for instance, ‘But who may abide the day of his coming?’ permitted of considerable instrumental drama, whatever the numbers involved. So too, naturally, did that greatest of musical rarities: a true and fine contralto voice, in this case Jess Dandy’s. When it came to ‘He was despised…,’ the plainness of some of the orchestral playing was a little underwhelming, yet Dandy’s voice and interpretation continued to carry the performance.

In any case, Watkin’s direction was in general pragmatic, clearly aiming to build a performance founded not upon an ideal, but on the forces in front of him. If I suspect I shall never share ‘period’ predilection for ending numbers in what I hear as merely perfunctory fashion, I watched and listened eagerly to hear the way Watkin worked with his soloists, no diktat handed down from above, but rather making the most of Stuart Jackson’s dramatic, even operatic flair, Harriet Eyley’s appealingly bell-like soprano, or James Newby’s rich yet agile baritone. So too was this the case for the young choral musicians, for many of whom the past twenty-one months will have been particularly trying. If ‘All we like sheep’ bobbed along amiably, if little more, the winning, Saul-like responsorial singing of ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates’, and agile passage work of ‘Let us break their bonds asunder’ duly impressed, as did the grandeur, finally achieved, of the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus. Most stood, although one peculiar soul, who had disturbed ‘How beautiful are the feet’ and a couple of other numbers with incredibly noisy crisp-eating elected instead to film the performance on his telephone.  Music-making is itself a human good, a human necessity: something none of us should ever forget again, even in the unlikely event further ‘restrictions’ do not return. 

Coloratura was a distinct strength to all concerned: not only ‘in itself’, but as put to dramatic use; so too was stylish and varied ornamentation. This is an oratorio, one can readily forget, that is simply scored. In an unassuming performance such as this, one welcomes perhaps all the more the coming of bright trumpets in ‘Glory to God in the highest’, certainly as much as telling, if often subtle, shifts between numbers in tempo. One size has never fit all, and never will. And if this will never, should never, come across as a dramatic, narrative oratorio in the mode of many of Handel’s, there was much to enjoy in that mode too: Jackson fairly scourging with his voice (‘All they that see Him…’), at times coming across as Handel’s unconscious response to Bach’s Evengelists; Ryder’s tasteful intensification of vibrato for Christ’s resurrection in ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’; and Newby’s moving representation of words and theology, allied to equally fine trumpet-playing (Imogen Whitehead) in ‘The trumpet shall sound’. A euphonious final chorus served not only as fitting aesthetic culmination, but worked as a keenly felt moral metaphor for what we had seen, head, and God willing, participated in too. Amen.

Monday 13 December 2021

Gerhaher/Huber - Brahms, 12 December 2021

Wigmore Hall

Neun Lieder and Gesänge, op.32; Vier ernste Gesänge, op.121; Meine Lieder, op.106 no.4; Geheimnis, op.71 no.3; Die Mainacht; op.43 no.2; Treue Liebe, op.7 no.1; Lerchengesang, op.70 no.2; Acht Lieder und Gesänge, op.59: ‘Regenlied’, ‘Dein blaues Auge halt so still’, ‘Mein wundes Herz verlangt’; ‘Nachklang’; Auf dem Kirchhofe, op.105 no.4; Von ewiger Liebe, op.43 no.1; O kühler Wald, op.72 no.3; Herbstgefühl, op.48 no.7; Die Kränze, op.46 no.1

Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Gerold Huber (piano)

Christian Gerhaher singing Brahms: it promised much and, if anything, delivered still more. This was a song recital as finely planned as it was executed, as thoughtful as it was moving. Ably supported by his pianist Gerold Hubert, not only did Gerhaher, by any standards one of the greatest singers of our age, give a masterclass in Lied-performance; he also showed quite how much his artistry has developed over the past few years. This is neither a musician to rest on his laurels, nor one to do something different for the sake of it; rather, with a quiet confidence and questing born of intelligence, sensitivity, and hard work, he led us to believe this was certainly the best way, perhaps the only way, whilst leaving open the door for other possibilities in subsequent reflection. 

Much nonsense is spoken about Brahms's songs. Some would have them all too similar, but then they might say the same about the composer’s symphonic works. Look, listen beneath the surface and you will divine a whole universe as distinctive and as varied as that of Schubert or Schumann. The first half offered bold programming in itself. If you place the op.32 songs and the Four Serious Songs there, do you run the risk of upstaging whatever comes afterwards? Perhaps, but if so, that risk was averted, by construction and performance of a second half that related to, extended, and contrasted with what we had heard, with where Brahms had travelled already beyond mere death. Moments of Romantic wonder, of a divine spark that actually makes life worth living even if it lies within rather than beyond this world, found themselves retrospectively bathed in light as well as further darkness. Gerhaher and Huber took seriously, as well they might, Brahms the Bible-loving agnostic as one of the nineteenth-century’s most intriguing theologians. Mortality may, after all, be a blessing, not a curse. The German Requiem may already have told us that, but these songs, from both before and after, told us more.

Indeed, the structure of Brahms’s songs in this context came to represent an intricate jigsaw of response significantly more than a musical momento mori. We could hear that in the Platen songs of op.32, just as in the Biblical texts of op.121; but we could hear it just as well, if differently, though a glass, less darkly, in the Schubertian flight of the early Treue Liebe. op.9, Gerhaher sensing and voicing inheritance without ever needing to underline. Echoed, with greater maturity, in the birdsong of op.70 no.2, Lerchengesang, barriers between natural and metaphysical worlds dissolved. Other connections were to be heard, of course, again subtly pointed, as much by Huber as by Gerhaher: the strangely comforting and disquieting intimations of the G major Violin Sonata in ‘Regenlied’ and ‘Nachklang’ from the op.59 set, the latter tellingly followed by ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ from a decade-and-a-half later, haunted by the most celebrated Passion chorale of them all—and thus by Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps via Mendelssohn. There was autumn, of course, and something more final too, but there was spring. Gerhaher’s verbal inflection, ear for colour, and fine aesthetic judgement in declining ever to exaggerate were very much what was needed. 

Where sometimes, a little while ago, I had begun to wonder whether his increased experience of opera—who can forget his Tannhäuser Wolfram?—was leading him to privilege sheer beauty of tone over other aspects of his art, here the thought never entered my mind. The comparison is odious, but from the opening of ‘Wie raft ich mich auf’, it was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who came to mind. Sounding like Fischer-Dieskau was not the point, although more than once I fancied Gerhaher did. This rather represented a renewal of lyric art from the spirit of verse, a renewal that seemed, however incidentally, both to pay homage and to reimagine these songs once again on terms that were both theirs, Gerhaher’s, and ours. A rare evening indeed.

Sunday 12 December 2021

Tosca, Royal Opera, 8 December 2021

Royal Opera House

Cesare Angelotti – Yuriy Yurchuk
Sacristan – Jeremy White
Mario Cavaradossi – Bryan Hymel, Freddie De Tommaso
Floria Tosca – Elena Stikhina
Baron Scarpia – Alexey Markov
Spoletta – Hubert Francis
Sciarrone – Jihoon Kim
Shepherd Boy – Alfie Davis
Gaoler – John Morrissey

Jonathan Kent (director)
Amy Lane (revival director)
Paul Brown (designs)

Mark Henderson (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Oksana Lviv (conductor)  

Images: Tristam Kenton. Copyright: ROH, 2021.
Tosca (Elena Stikhina) and Scarpia (Alexey Markov)

Tosca is a puzzling opera. It seems to me quite the weakest of those Puccini operas in or at the edge of the repertory. Its characters are nothing more than cardboard cut-outs; there is little in the way of broader dramatic interest; for so generally sophisticated a composer, it is often crude, even drab, though there is perhaps greater interest in aspects of the vocal writing than elsewhere. Then there are the bits that read—and sound—like an especially bad historical novel or television mini-series, undigested pieces of historical record thrown up as if somehow to guarantee veracity. It remains steadfastly unmoving—for who or what might move one here?—compared to the rest of Puccini. And yet, Tosca continues in its bewildering popularity. Perhaps I instead am the problem.


Whatever the truth of that, Jonathan Kent’s Royal Opera House production is a serious problem. Quite what Kent or any of his team—there is little to it other than its designs—was thinking, it is difficult to say, for it emerges as something that advances on the late, unlamented Franco Zeffirelli only by providing a sort of Reader’s Digest abridgement to the latter that rids it of its gaudiness and any semblance of internal coherence. One waits for any sense of ironic detachment; then one waits longer; and longer still. The set’s heavy vulgarity—there is little or no production beyond the designs—might have been a wry comment on the work, but wryness seems no more to be at stake here than it is in the airheaded vanity of Tosca herself, neither character nor idea. Characters, for want of a better word, generally seem too far away from one another, reducing still further any prospect for chemistry between caricatures. Quite what the point of having people walk up and down ladders is, I cannot say. It gives them something to do, I suppose, but there seems to be beyond no concept beyond that. Borgesian labyrinth this is not; nor is it Piranesi. The oddly designated ‘revival director’ Amy Lane doubtless does what she can, but you cannot revive something that never had life in the first place.


Musically, things were better. Elena Stikhina gave a finely variegated account of the title role, with considerable heft where needed, and considerable range of dynamic and colour contrast. She certainly seemed to believe in the role and would surely have made greater dramatic impact in a more plausible staging. As Cavaradossi, Bryan Hymel did not return after the interval, an announcement made that he had been suffering with a heavy cold. It only seems fair therefore to draw a veil over his performance and to say that his replacement Freddie De Tommaso would have made an excellent impression in any circumstances, let alone these. This was, like Stikhina’s, an unsentimental, idiomatic, and—work and production permitting—involving performance. The production’s crudity did Alexey Markov as Scarpia no favours, but there was no doubting the intelligence of his artistry, nor the blackness of this baron’s intent. Other singers all contributed with excellence, Hubert Francis's Spoletta in particular catching the ear. 

So too did the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, perhaps the greatest star of the evening. The players clearly relished Puccini again and responded with accuracy and style to conductor Oksana Lyniv, whose precision and disinclination to yield prevented any lapse into mere sentimentality, though perhaps it drained a little too much of the sentiment without evident cause that is Puccini’s orchestral stock-in-trade here. The Royal Opera Chorus’s contribution was mostly dependable, if at times a little frayed. I could not find the children’s chorus identified in the programme, though perhaps I missed it.

It will doubtless sell. Some, especially at the moment, will say that that is enough; but is it, really? If institutional opera even gives up the struggle to be anything other than a bad-taste museum piece, why should we struggle on its behalf? As we emerge, fingers crossed, from this wretched pandemic, Covent Garden should set its sights higher than being a faded Met-on-Thames. Give a director such as Calixto Bieito a chance to prove us Tosca-sceptics triumphantly wrong.

Thursday 2 December 2021

'A Catalan Celebration': London Sinfonietta/Colomer - Gerhard, Magrané, García-Tomás, and Illean, 1 December 2021

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Roberto Gerhard: Libra
Joan Magrané Figuera: Faula
Raquel García-Tomás: aequae
Lisa Illean: Januaries
Gerhard: Leo

London Sinfonietta
Edmon Colomer (conductor)

A miserable, rainy night seemed just the right time for the London Sinfonietta, in association with the Institut Ramon Llull, to light up the Queen Elizabeth Hall with what they called ‘A Catalan Celebration’. 2020, the year without music, marked fifty years since the death of Roberto Gerhard. It was doubly welcome, then, to have this celebration of mostly Catalan music take place in 2021, the year when music tentatively returned to our lives. To hear fine performances not only of music by Gerhard, but also works by contemporary (to us) Catalan composers, Joan Magrané Figuera and Raquel García-Tomás, as well as one by the Australian-born, London-resident Lisa Illean, would have been a splendid opportunity at any time. It also helped dispel a little of the current misery outside. 

Gerhard himself was represented by two of his three late astrological pieces, Libra and Leo, from 1968 and 1969 respectively (the 1966 Gemini for piano and violin missing). Both ensemble works were premiered and recorded by the London Sinfonietta under David Atherton. I have not heard those (nor any other) recordings, but these performances under Edmon Colomer spoke clearly not only of excellence in execution but of deep familiarity and understanding of Gerhard’s music, of its language and colour, but also of its structure becoming living form in time. The éclat, to use an intentionally loaded term, of Libra’s opening chord having grabbed one’s intention, one immediately garnered a post-Schoenbergian (post-Webern too, I think) sense of every line counting, heard through exemplary clarity in scoring and performance alike. One might have heard the guitar as ‘Spanish’, but I think that would have been lazy; both Schoenberg and Webern used the instrument in ensemble works too. One felt, not merely recognised, a multi-movement structure condensed into one, placing it in a tradition dating back at least to Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony—and, of course, beyond to Liszt and Schubert—though here, perhaps, sonata-form inheritance, Gerhard’s own Third Symphony notwithstanding, was not so apparent. A dialectic between abstraction and Romantic sensibility lay the heart of what we heard. Glistening, above all it sang. Music of exile? It is other things too, yet that conclusion did not seem unreasonable, especially at a close that approached, or perhaps better referred to, a sort of modal tonality born of ‘national’ roots. 

Magrané’s Faula (Fable) followed. Written in 2017 and inspired by a novel of the same name by Jaume C. Pons Alorda, it seeks, to quote the composer, not to ‘elucidate his narrative,’ but ‘first and foremost to use Pons Alorda’s ideas and aesthetic world to conceive of its structure texture, and sound’. Four sections, essentially sets of musical material, recur throughout the work, taking their own line but also necessarily interacting. What soon struck me, even within the first, ‘Mosso, con foco’, was a fascinating polyphonic tendency—would it be too fanciful to ascribe this to the composer’s interest in Renaissance polyphony?—of individual, sometime fractious lines combining to effect that ‘line’ of which we speak so often as the prevailing melos, as Wagner would have had it, of so much Western music. A phrase that came to my mind, knowing nothing alas of the novel, was multiple tectonics; there was musical grit, it seemed, both in that necessary interaction between different types of material but also in their contrast. This could produce music of great beauty: atmosphere, propulsion, emotion. There was also, I felt, a sense of play to it: of chance, of contingency, however carefully designed, and yet productively within a framework of structural determination. Schoenberg’s—Bach’s for that matter—dialectic between freedom and determinism seemed in the context of this concert to extend via Gerhard to newer music, not necessarily in the sense of ‘influence’, but as a way to listen, even if it were only mine. 

García-Tomas’s aequae (2012) is divided into six parts of equal (hence the title) duration, two minutes each. In its exploration of ‘the relationship of equality between the musical materials that make it up as well as the paradoxes that such equality can produce’, it made its way with strikingly powerful integral development, through timbral as well as harmonic tension. Bowing cymbals, for instance, proved generative yet also resistant: an observation of the work in microcosm. There was a slower pulse (than in the hectic contrasts of Magrané), yet much happening within that pulse. Instruments not previously heard, such as saxophone and muted trombone, opened up new aural vistas: the art of programming, it seemed, very much part of the overall performance. Likewise the lack of strings, if only in this context, suggested something colder, even icier. 

After the interval, we heard Illean’s Januaries (2017), shaped in some sense by ‘memories of summers spent as a child with my grandparents in Queensland’. What might initially have seemed more textural music in quality had a definite guiding thread, suggestive initially, if only to me, of a process of melting. Descending, sliding figures were part of that; so too were ever-transforming harmonic fields. Distant bells first seemed to evoke something, or perhaps the point was that they did not; they were part of the landscape, of a space that could not necessarily be delineated, that slipped between our fingers, even our ears.

For the final piece, we returned to Gerhard for Leo. Again, I was struck by its opening éclat, though its development and general character took a different path. There was again complexity to this music, but never superfluity; everything mattered, had a relationship to the greater whole, even though one knew it would take greater familiarity precisely to discern it. Serialism, almost as if a magic square before our ears, was a guiding framework but never in itself the point. This was a powerful, directed, and highly dramatic performance; much, clearly, was at stake. A hieratic section, initially brass-led, reminiscent of chorale writing without simply reproducing it, was heard as the work’s emotional core, prior to initiation of further frenetic activity, material ever transforming before our ears. As first clarinet, then flute sang at the close a pentatonic, folk-like melody, suggesting this discovery may actually have underlain what previous we had heard, yet without our recognising it as such, exile as reminiscence in surroundings transformed returned, poignantly, to our aural stage.

Wednesday 1 December 2021

Cooper - Schubert, Ravel, and Liszt, 28 November 2021

Wigmore Hall

Schubert: Piano Sonata no.16 in A minor, D 845
Ravel: Sonatine
Liszt: Années de pèlerinage: Troisieme année, S 163: ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’
Ravel: Jeux d’eaux; Valses nobles et sentimentales
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody no.13 in A minor, S 244

Imogen Cooper (piano)

A concert of two halves, this. Imogen Cooper’s severely insistent account of Schubert’s A minor Sonata, D 845, contrasted strongly with more colourful, yielding Ravel and Liszt. That, you might say, would be as expected, and you would have a point. I nevertheless longed for a little more in the way of chiaroscuro in Cooper’s Schubert, whilst acknowledging this may have been as much a matter of taste as anything else. Rhythm and, perhaps to a lesser extent, motivic working were to the fore in an angry first movement, whose uneasily wandering development section intrigued and did anything but console. There was greater ambiguity to the Andante con moto theme and variations, which again wandered in alienated, darkly Romantic fashion. An estranged lilt hilted at something else, but it was only a hint. Mercurial insistence in the scherzo led to still bleaker unease in its trio, whose ultimate note seemed to be of exhaustion. One would hardly expect the closing rondo to comfort. It certainly did not, though there were a few more ambiguous passages again. Ultimately, however, this was a bleak conclusion to a bleak reading. 

There was no question of playing Ravel as if it were Schubert (however understood). The Sonatine benefited from lighter touch and mood, and greater flexibility. There seemed to me, right from the start, to be greater awareness or at least communication of harmonic rhythm, and Gallic charm too, however clichéd the phrase. All three movements, albeit with different contours, character, and pulse, glistened from within. A liquid—aptly enough—account of Jeux d’eaux had backbone too, in a performance that was clearly deeply considered, whilst remaining quite free of pedantry. Valses nobles et sentimentales showed greater kinship, through its waltz rhythms, with Schubert. This was unashamedly big-boned Ravel, but none the worse for it; until it yielded, that is. For the second waltz proved more languorous and flexible; the delectable pain of the third was well-judged; and so on, through magical rubato and keen awareness of what had passes, musically and perhaps extra-musically too. There was a ghostly suavity to the ‘Epilogue’. 

After the Sonatine, we heard the first of two pieces by Liszt: ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’. Its muscular virtuosity also offered glistening results, very much here in the heat of the midday sun. It was forthright, yes, but it sang, in a performance of fine musical integrity. The A minor Hungarian Rhapsody is, well, rhapsodic—and sounded as such. Fervent Lisztian I may be, but I should quite happily never hear the Hungarian Rhapsodies again. They have their fans, though, and in her closing number, Cooper did not shy away from giving a grandly rhetorical performance, imbued with a rubato that evoked both temporal robbery and another, diabolical form of bargaining.

Die Zauberflöte, Royal College of Music, 26 November 2021

Britten Theatre

Sarastro – Jamie Woollard
Tamino – Ted Black
Speaker – Dafydd Allen
Teachers – Henry Wright, Sam Harris
Queen of the Night – Heming Li
Pamina – Hyoyoung Kim
Three Ladies – Lylis O’Hara, Annabel Kennedy, Emma Roberts
Three Junior Girls – Leah Redmond, Denira Coleman, Taryn Surratt
Papagena – Sofia Kirwan-Baez
Papageno – Theo Perry
Monostatos – Harry Grigg
Two Boys – Daniel Bray Bell, Redmond Sanders
Chorus – Madeline Boreham, Angelina Dorlin-Barlow, Matthew Curtis, Sam Hind

Polly Graham (director)
Louise Bakker (associate director)
Rosie Elnile, Hazel Low (designs)
Tim Mitchell (lighting)
Kate Flatt (movement)  

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)


A week that brought excellent student shows from two London conservatoires, both the Royal Academy of Music (L’Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi) and the Royal College (Die Zauberflöte) offered encouraging news for our often hesitant operatic recovery. In many ways, this Magic Flute came close to ideal: committed performances from a highly talented cast of young singers, a provocative production by Polly Graham, and a warm yet incisive orchestral reading—rarely did one notice the small numbers in the pit—from Michael Rosewell. How preferable this was, in almost every respect, to Covent Garden’s dull revival of David McVicar’s superannuated production in September under leaden musical direction. 

Graham’s feminist standpoint was refreshing for an opera often accused, sometimes justly, often unjustly, of misogyny. It is a standpoint, though, not an end in itself: a way of looking at an opera, of permitting its characters to speak, sing, and to be reconsidered. The opera takes place in a somewhat old-fashioned secondary school, replete not only with blazers (often honoured in not being worn) and teachers in tweed, but also marijuana and abuse, both drivers of the action. For Pamina, more central than ever I can recall seeing her, embarks on her journey following creepy advances from Sarastro, and she is the one who plays the field—will she choose Tamino or her boyfriend of apparently longer standing?—and offers others a path to temporary enlightenment via a spliff. If there is to be deeper, more rooted enlightenment, it will come neither via narcotics nor through the restoration of Sarastro’s order at the close, but through the psychoanalytical world of a magic garden beyond the school wall, in which fantastical events take place, later to be interpreted. Music in performance is very much part of that interpretation, as witnessed by Papageno’s bells and Tamino’s flute. I cannot help but think that Michael Tippett would have loved it, though this was more Freud than Jung. Tamino certainly learns better than his teachers have taught him, both through the example of Pamina and the love they feel for each other; likewise, of course, Papageno and Papagena. 

Ted Black and Hyoyoung Kim proved an outstanding central couple, offering fresh-toned musical performances fully worthy of starrier stages (though with the bonus of a small theatre enabling us to see and hear them closer-up). Pamina’s attempted suicide in ‘Ach ich fühl’s’ was deeply moving, convincingly paced and spun; Tamino’s quest for self-discovery not only convinced but drew one in to empathise. Theo Perry’s Papageno likewise emerged more rounded than often one sees and hears: no mere caricature, but a flesh-and-blood human being with desires and feelings of his own, beautifully expressed through music and gesture—and splendidly reciprocated by Sofia Kirwan-Baez as Papagena, her part considerably more substantial than is usually the case. Jamie Harry Grigg’s rascally Monastatos was similarly much more of a multi-dimensional character: tribute to both production and performance. Woollard’s vocal dignity as Sarastro duly troubled. Heming Li came as close to thorough accuracy as anyone has the right to expect in her glistening accounts of the Queen of the Night’s arias. All contributed, though, to the greater dramatic whole in a fine company performance, with some light, tasteful ornamentation that enhanced rather than distracted. 

This was accomplished with a few, relatively minor cuts and changes to the text. (An exception to that ‘minor’ qualification was the inserted cadenza for the Three Ladies in the first scene. Fortunately, we heard no more in that vein.) Titles helped draw out further meaning, sometimes engaging more with what we saw rather than heard on stage, sometimes offering a bridge between the two. The ‘original’, whatever that may be, will not go away; or rather, if we consider it as anything more than the score and libretto, it will never come back, since we have little idea what it was in the first place. Our visual imagination fastens on Schinkel, if anywhere: wonderful, but nothing to do with 1791. Opera must never degenerate into a museum piece; it must live and breathe, which it unquestionably did here.

Sunday 28 November 2021

L'Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi, Royal Academy of Music, 25 November 2021

Susie Sainsbury Theatre

Concepcíon – Bernadette Johns
Ramiro – Will Pate
Don Iñigo Gomez – Michael Ronan
Torquemada – Ryan Vaughan Davies
Gonzalve – Liam Bonthrone

Gianni Schicchi – Patrick Keefe
Lauretta – Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada
Rinuccio – Ryan Vaughan Davies
Gherardo – Samuel Kibble
Simone – Wonsick Oh
Betto – Daniel Vening
Marco – Will Pate
Nella – Sophie Sparrow
La Ciesca – Luiza Willert
Zita – Bernadette Johns
Spinelloccio, Notary – Michael Ronan
Gherardina – Clara Orif
Pinellino – Johannes Moore
Guccio – Charles Cunliffe
Buoso Donati – Tom O’Kelly

Stephen Barlow (director)
Yannis Thavoris (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Alice Farnham (conductor)

Images: Craig Fuller


How wonderful at last to return to opera at the Royal Academy of Music. (I caught an excellent concert of chamber music by Bartók and Eötvös from musicians coached by Tamara Stefanovich earlier this term.) Many of London’s best opera performances come from our conservatoires, young, enthusiastic musicians aided to act as a company, with none of the grind of repertoire routine, the ‘star system’, or worst of all, agent-determined casting that can blight bigger stages. The smaller size of theatres helps too. To see characters’ faces, especially in a fast-moving, highly reactive ensemble piece such as Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, is worth a great deal.


It is a work that tends to bring out the best in its performers—and certainly did here. Stephen Barlow directed a staging set roughly halfway between the time of composition and the present day. I do not think I have ever seen a production set in 1299, and cannot say I have any particular desire to do so. An abiding idea of Florence will always loom large, though, and so it did here: in this case, tinged with music. Composer Buoso Donati’s grand piano helped fill the stage, a drunken Betto (Daniel Vening) occasionally hammering out a tune on it. Monuments to past greatness, or at least renown, included a Maggio Musicale poster for one of Donati’s operas. A large instrument case inherited from the set for L’Heure espagnole, provided a place to hide the body where necessary. But the crucial action lay, as it were, in the interaction, clearly well planned and rehearsed both by Barlow and conductor Alice Farnham. Yannis Thavoris’s costumes contributed to the framework for delineation of character: Bernadette Johns’s Zita every inch the wheelchair-ridden (malingering?) battleaxe with airs, Will Pate’s Marco and Luiza Willert’s La Ciesca a uniformed policeman and ambitious, voluptuous wife, and so on. Patrick Keefe’s Schicchi necessarily took centre-stage once present, and figuratively once announced. His was a fine, detailed performance, as were those of his daughter Lauretta (Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada, with a lovely, snapshot-like ‘O mio babbino caro’) and her eager lover Rinuccio (Ryan Vaughan Davies). But there is little point in merely repeating the cast list. All contributed to the greater whole, as did incisive orchestral playing and conducting. Puccini’s score glistened as it should and must; the opera’s wit duly scintillated.


Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole had taken place in a musical instrument repair shop El Tempo, time more overtly met music in the guise of instrument cases with time signatures and tempo markings: ‘4/4’, ‘Assez vite’, and so on. The largest functioned as clock cases to be hiked up- and downstairs by Ramiro. Again set, costumes, and lighting (Jake Wilshire) made a considerable contribution to the overall mise-en-scène. What I missed somewhat, even at the time, though still more so in retrospect, was a sense of musical urgency and utmost precision, the latter surely a sine qua non for all Ravel performance. Farnham was supportive to her singers—and that, of course, may well have been to the point—but there were times when tempi dragged a little. The small orchestra (strings seemed less at home in Ravel too, sonorities and balances somewhat variable. That cavil notwithstanding, Johns offered a lively, seductive Concepión, Pate properly under her spell, growing in (the character’s) masculine confidence. So too were the other male singers, Vaughan Davies a nicely fussy Torquemada, Liam Bonthrone and Michael Ronan properly preening suitors in their different ways. Much to enjoy, then, in both cases.

Wednesday 24 November 2021

Hewitt - Mozart, Messiaen, and Chopin, 23 November 2021

Wigmore Hall

Mozart: Piano Sonata in C major, KV 309/284b
Messiaen: Préludes: ‘La colombe’, ‘Le nombre léger’, ‘Instants défunts’, ‘Les sons impalpables du rêve’, ‘Plainte calme’, ‘Un reflet dans le vent’
Mozart: Piano Sonata in B-flat major, KV 281/189f
Chopin: Nocturne in F minor, op.55 no.1; Nocturne in E-flat major, op.55 no.2; Scherzo in E major, op.54

Angela Hewitt (piano)

A slightly strange programme, this, albeit with much to enjoy. Neither of the Mozart piano sonatas is generally considered popular or even immediately ingratiating; that made it all the more interesting to hear what Angela Hewitt would do with them. Leopold Mozart found the C major Piano Sonata, KV 309/284d ‘strange’, having something in it ‘of the rather artificial Mannheim style’, though he modified that judgement by saying that the Mannheim contingent was ultimately so small that his son’s good style was not spoiled. In the first movement exposition, Hewitt nonetheless seemed to take Leopold at his word, giving an unyielding, unsmiling account, seemingly etched in chrome: clearly a performance decision, since she did not continue like that, either in this or other works. The development’s plunge into the minor was powerfully dramatic, speaking of the opera house both in initial gesture and melting, vocal response. If only there had been greater sense of harmonic direction and indeed of how various figures, finely articulated in themselves, might cohere to form a greater whole. Although neither of the remaining two movements smiled or relaxed quite as they might, they had more of that at least, emerging much the stronger for it. Hewitt’s deadpan sign-off in the finale’s coda was almost worth the price of admission alone. 

Hearing six of Messiaen’s eight piano Préludes was a little strange too, though there was plenty of variety to those that reached the stage. In this, the composer’s first published work—Le banquet céleste, written earlier, was published later—we naturally hear considerable influence from Debussy, for which Hewitt’s ability to play ‘without hammers’ proved duly illuminating. There were other ghosts at the feast too: Dukas, Franck, perhaps Ravel, and of course Liszt. It was as fascinating to chart their interaction as to bask in premonitions of Messiaen’s mature musical language and method. Many of the building blocks were there, not least modes of limited transposition, but the sensibility was somewhat different. Sometimes, that is; for in the closing ‘Un reflet dans le vent’, everything—in a wonderfully synthetic vision—came together, both in text and performance. Hewitt seemed to pick up contrapuntal tendencies from Mozart amidst the polymodal chromaticism of ‘Les sons impalpable du rêve’, though Bach was the likelier progenitor. At any rate, there was something feverish enough to suggest a dream world, without loss of clarity or direction. I very much liked the song-like quality imparted to ‘Plainte calme’: a deceptive simplicity, perhaps, in its mysticism. Much the same might be said of the opening prelude, ‘La colombe’, whose constructivism seemed both to the fore and magnificently beside the point. 

Hewitt seemed to view—certainly to interpret—Mozart’s B-flat major Sonata, KV 281/189f, more warmly than its predecessor. Here there was just as much variety of articulation as in the C major Sonata, but its first movement seemed to sing more freely. Less Mannheim, perhaps, and more aspiration to Vienna—or even to London, for the spirit of Bach (this time, Johann Christian) is surely more in evidence here. A crisp, unfussy opening Allegro gave way to an Andante amoroso suggestive of opera rather than born of it; this is instrumental music after all. Hewitt’s phrasing and voicing made a fine case for music all too readily underestimated. The closing ‘Rondeau’ delighted, its darker, chromatic turns voiced without over-emphasis, always attentive to a need for light and shade. That is not to suggest an old-fashioned Meissen china sensibility, but rather an ultimately sunny disposition that may not be mine yet has its own rewards. There are, I think, darker currents, sharper dramatic twists here, even in such early Mozart; others are free to think—and play—differently. 

Hewitt’s final set turned to Chopin. After a somewhat plain—deliberately so, I am sure—opening to the F minor Nocturne, op.55 no.1, her performance developed into something quite compelling, a strong sense of narrative drive allied to harmonic and motivic development. Likewise for its companion piece in E-flat major, op.55 no.2, which sang as it developed. The E major Scherzo seemed to offer an entire world: not unlike a sonata or symphony, save for the fact that it is entirely unlike a sonata or symphony. Here, rather more so than in Mozart (certainly the C major Sonata), different, contrasting material sounded—and felt—more clearly, dramatically integrated. We hear overt Romantic virtuosity less often than we might from Hewitt, but certainly did at the close: thrillingly. So too did we in a big-hearted, big-boned encore account of Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s Widmung. I should be fascinated to hear Hewitt play more Liszt.

Sunday 21 November 2021

Die Walküre, English National Opera, 19 November 2021


Siegmund – Nicky Spence
Sieglinde – Emma Bell
Hunding – Brindley Sherratt
Wotan – Matthew Rose
Brünnhilde – Rachel Nicholls
Fricka – Susan Bickley, Claire Barnett-Jones
Gerhilde – Nadine Benjamin
Ortlinde – Mari Wyn Williams
Waltraute – Kamilla Dunstan
Schwertleite – Fleur Barron
Helmwige – Jennifer Davis
Siegrune – Idunna Münch
Rossweisse – Claire Barnett-Jones
Grimgerde – Katie Stevenson

Richard Jones (director)
Stewart Laing (designs)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Sarah Fahie (movement)
Akhila Krishnan (video)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Images: (C) Tristram Kenton
Siegmund (Nicky Spence) and Sieglinde (Emma Bell)

I wanted so much to like this more than I did. It is not quite ENO’s return to the Coliseum after you-know-what, but in many ways it felt like it. (A Philip Glass revival and a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan will have had their devotees, but they are not my potion of forgetfulness.) Anneliese Miskimmon, ENO’s Artistic Director, could not have been more welcoming in her brief address from the stage before the performance. And what could be a greater declaration of intent for a new era than a new Ring? Perhaps a Schoenberg or, still more so, a Stockhausen series? But even then, the Ring retains for many the status of non plus ultra. Its all-encompassing nature continues to surpass all competitors; no artwork has more to tell us, so it seems, at any juncture in our dubious human development.

No Ring is therefore going to be perfect; even the most exalted performance, let alone staging, will have imperfections. It would be too easy to judge perfection a lesser thing; it is not, necessarily, but it is a different thing—one which Mozart (often) has covered. Yet if a Ring in performance will always fall short, it should not fall so short as Richard Jones’s half-hearted attempt at a production, which detracted all too much from a mixed musical performance laying claim to not inconsiderable virtues. Perhaps more would have been gleaned had we seen Das Rheingold first. Starting with the second instalment is not without precedent, but I remain unconvinced that it is a good idea. Berlin’s Deutsche Oper has had to present Stefan Herheim’s new Ring as and when it can, but that is a different case, planned performances having to be cancelled, given without an audience, and so on. (How I long to see what Herheim has done!) Yet it is difficult to imagine that much light being shed on a Walküre (sorry, Valkyrie, as ENO obstinately continues to refer it) seemingly without a concept or indeed much of an idea at all. Presumably, money was tight, for what we see is not so much minimalism as people wandering a little lost around a stage that sometimes has scenery and sometimes does not. As in Jones’s recent, wretched La clemenza di Tito for the Royal Opera, there was a vague look: in this case, noir-ish ‘Scandinavia’, though it would be difficult to say anything more precise than that. ENO’s publicity suggests the idea that this is a family saga: well, sort of, I suppose, but only if that is taken to be the crucible for something greater. Use of video to show Alberich (‘Nibelung’ tattooed on his forehead), Grimhilde, and Hagen when referred to in Wotan’s narration—nothing more, just show them—seemed both patronising and pointless, though perhaps in a greater context it contributes to the banal theme of family feud. The appearance of Hunding’s clan on stage might have contributed further, but ultimately undirected (like so much else), they proved little more than a distraction, the lack of much to distract from notwithstanding.


Alberich (Jamie Campbell), Brünnhilde (Rachel Nicholls), Wotan (Matthew Rose)

Maybe the strange claim (Christopher Wintle) that opened one of the programme notes offered a clue to the lack of any exterior, let alone political element: ‘Most of us can agree that The Valkyrie is “about” incest.’ I do not know precisely to whom ‘us’ refers; certainly not to me, anyway. Wagner’s drama is no more ‘“about” incest’ than The Flying Dutchman is ‘about’ sailing. The point of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love is that it breaks the violent, cruel bonds of marriage, family, and custom (which Wagner specifically identified with Fricka); that it leads Siegmund to reject immortality, and thus to put Brünnhilde on her way to doing likewise, to attaining the superior status of ‘purely human’; and precisely that it does not matter whether the Volsung twins are brother and sister, not that it does. Here, occasional straining towards a familial idea, for instance Hunding’s physical brutality to Sieglinde, seemed little more than striving after effect, given a lack of embedding in anything more than an IKEA catalogue. The production team sported more interesting clothes than those given to the cast; maybe they should have swapped.

Grimgerde (Katie Stevenson), Rossweisse (Claire Barnett-Jones),
and Siegrune (Idunnu Münch)


Or maybe they should have given them to the curious animals that pranced around the stage, Wotan’s ravens (I think) included: more Sesame Street than creatures of the forest. Whether the concept were malevolent or ironic, neither possibility was achieved. For some reason, a lone tap dancer did her stuff during the Ride of the Valkyries, whilst actors in horse costumes struggled around on tip toe. Why on earth Grane, understandably fidgeting, was made to balance in this way through the entirety of the final scene—and not only then—I have no idea; but then I have little idea about anything else either. Inability to set the stage ablaze at the close was attributed to a late intervention from Westminster City Council. Alas, Wotan’s protracted fumbling to attach to Brünnhilde a harness that would awkwardly suspend her above the stage, without the slightest sign of flames that had intermittently flickered earlier, seemed all too apt a metaphor. Quite what the Met, where Jones’s third (!) attempt at the Ring is heading, will make of it is anyone’s guess. It is certainly devoid enough of intellectual content to satisfy Friends of Otto Schenk. But the ‘look’, for that is all it is, and lack of discernible stage action will surely trouble many. 

Martyn Brabbins’s conducting was sane, measured, and doubtless sensitive—perhaps too sensitive—to the needs of his singers. Brabbins clearly appreciates the need to think in the broadest terms about Wagner’s structures, yet often seemed to confuse that with maintaining a slow speed throughout, occasionally changing gear when that could not conceivably be maintained any longer. A few understandable fluffs—every performance has them—notwithstanding, the ENO Orchestra played beautifully, if often in strangely subdued fashion, especially in the first act (!) I do not know how long it lasted in actual minutes, but it felt like the longest I had ever heard. By contrast, the third act often seemed rushed, if hardly short. This was clearly a work in progress, but there may be considerably more hope for improvement here than in the staging.



Had it not been for an initial announcement, no one would have known Nicky Spence was suffering from a cold. Siegmund is clearly a role for which he is ready—and for which he has well prepared. There are strength, vulnerability, and many other of the qualities we need, even in so unpromising a setting as this. It was difficult to discern much in the way of chemistry with Emma Bell’s Sieglinde; nor did this seem to be ironic or deconstructive detachment. However, considered on its own terms, her performance also impressed, indicative of a woman bruised yet determined to command her own destiny. Dart-playing Rachel Nicholls, lumbered with a strange skater-girl look, trod a fine, shifting line between Brünnhilde's youthful impetuosity and the glimmers of something more moving, more human—which is to say she understood what was at stake, even if Jones did not. Matthew Rose, lumbered with, well, being a lumberjack-turned-television-detective, offered a typically detailed and thoughtful performance as Wotan, though the third act did not show him at his strongest. These things vary from night to night. Brindley Sherratt's focus as Hunding varied too, though at its best it offered something darkly psychopathic. One of the strongest, most committed and sustained performances came from the team of Susan Bickley (finely observed, on stage) and Claire Barnett-Jones (also finely observed and with gleaming tone, from a box above) as Fricka. This, again, was a performance that truly used words, music, and gesture to suggest drama beyond Jones’s imagination.


So too did John Deathridge’s new singing translation. It was in many respects remarkably faithful not only to what Wagner said but, crucially, to what he did not, employing suggestion and ambiguity in the right places. It had an intriguing line too in something akin to Stabreim. Word order and stress played their part, as did various other considerations one might find—with profit—in reading Wagner’s own Opera and Drama. This did not, like many of ENO’s translations, attempt to draw attention to itself, still less to elicit inappropriate laughter; rather it participated in the dramatic effort in a way the singers and orchestra, if hardly the director, did. The sort of people who drone on about ‘the Coli’ and alleged halcyon days of Reginald Goodall will doubtless bemoan the lack of Andrew Porter, but their parochial concerns need not be ours.


Fricka (Susan Bickley) and Wotan

‘Mark well my poem,’ wrote Wagner to Liszt in 1853, enclosing a copy of the Ring in verse; ‘it contains the beginning of the world and its end.’ One might argue that beginning(s) and end happen elsewhere in the Ring; but were this the generic television ‘show’ from which Jones & Co. appeared to have taken non-inspiration, it seems doubtful, even in the unlikely event of a decision to renew for another ‘season’, that many viewers would have been remaining. To achieve not only an Annunciation of Death, but an entire Walküre, in which nothing whatsoever seemed to be at stake, was a peculiar, perverse and strangely pointless achievement. Either Jones needs to rethink—the prefix ‘re-’ may be too kind—or ENO should act decisively with courage and substitute another production or concert performances. With Wagner, in Wagner, much is or should be at stake.

Saturday 20 November 2021

Philharmonia/Schiff - Mozart, 18 November 2021

Royal Festival Hall

Piano Concerto no.9 in E-flat major, KV 271
Symphony no.36 in C major, KV 425, ‘Linz’
Don Giovanni, KV 527: Overture
Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466

Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff (piano, conductor)

‘A feast of Mozart’ is how this concert was advertised—and indeed in many ways it was, not least for those of us unlikely to be able to attend (yet again) Salzburg’s Mozartwoche next January. It was, though, a somewhat inconsistent feast, though and oddly planned at that, a piano concerto followed by an unrelated symphony making for a strange first half. The second half—rather less than half, in minutes taken—was more impressive, although there were certainly things earlier on to admire and enjoy. It was nonetheless difficult to resist the conclusion that, nowadays, the best of András Schiff’s pianism is to be heard on period instruments and certainly not on a modern Steinway; in addition, it is difficult to credit him as much of a conductor.

The opening of the miraculous E-flat major Piano Concerto, KV 271, augured well, the Philharmonia’s playing crisp and cultivated, Schiff’s tempo well chosen. And there was sometimes, if not always often enough, a willingness to yield. More concerning was an intermittent disinclination to phrase, ends of phrases merely left hanging, cut off abruptly. That was especially odd given an evident ability to phrase where so inclined, for instance in the passage for crossed hands. Why Schiff felt the need to play piano continuo throughout the opening tutti and beyond, I do not know; it added little other than distraction. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, I gained the impression the pianist would be happier playing a fortepiano. Fair enough, but in that case, why not do so? The slow movement was taken swifter than Schiff would once have been likely to, but had more in the way of dynamic contrast. His dogged continuo playing continued to irritate, but that is clearly now his way. The music’s restlessness was often well conveyed, but again a reluctance to yield was concerning. An ebullient finale seemed less hidebound by determination to eschew Romanticism: not because Schiff’s approach was notably different, but more on account of its intrinsic qualities. Again, passages for crossed hands were beautifully taken. The central episode was honest and unfussy, if hardly seductive, the Philharmonia offering some lovely orchestral playing nevertheless.

The first movement of the Linz Symphony proved a disappointment. A broad introduction tailed off at its close, dissipating the energy required for the main Allegro spiritoso to burst forth as surely it must. The impression was of flatness, and of an inability quite to settle on the right tempo. It took until the recapitulation to do so. Period trumpets with modern horns (and other instruments) made for a strange compromise; perhaps there was reason behind it. The second movement, together with the finale the most convincing, flowed with greater coherence. There was something of an edge to the Philharmonia strings, but that seemed to be an interpretative decision. A graceful minuet gave way to a slightly distended trio, small-scale (with radically reduced strings) rather than intimate. Momentum was restored in the finale, well pointed, nicely directed, and full of life and direction. Schiff largely left the players to play: a distinct improvement on earlier, fussy intervention. Taking the closing repeat is doubtless justifiable, but here it offered little beyond repetition for its own sake. 

The Overture to Don Giovanni was much better. Its introduction taken unfashionably in four, and all the better for it, was grander than anything heard hitherto, but more to the point offered due sense of expectation, fulfilled in the main body of the overture. It duly fizzed, crucially emerging from what had gone before. Again, Schiff wisely left the musicians largely to play for themselves. Although Schiff held up his hands to forestall applause, wishing to move straight into the D minor Piano Concerto, many applauded anyway. 

The concerto’s first movement was similarly ‘traditional’, but also more focused than anything we had heard in the first half. Schiff seemed more at ease with himself and with the Philharmonia. The opening tutti was exemplary, articulation integral to the musical drive, not a strange end in itself. If there were still occasions when his playing seemed more suited to an older instrument, they were fewer and less glaring. And the Philharmonia by now seemed to know when not necessarily to follow the arms waved around from the keyboard. Schiff used Beethoven’s cadenza. The Romanze was on the swift side, though not unreasonably so; better that than laboured. Focus remained, in a performance nicely sung and without fuss. During the central G minor episode, Schiff’s care to voice every note—not always the case in the first movement—went to show just how essential each of them is. The movement as a whole was well shaped, which is to say there was no overt shaping at all; it sounded just ‘right’. Mozart’s treacherous opening to the finale was despatched without fear, the orchestral response wondrous in diabolical grandeur. This was properly Catholic Mozart. Indeed, there was a keen sense of solo/tutti versicle and response, melting where necessary into chamber music. That is Mozart, of course, but it requires understanding and communication in performance too. The cadenza may have seemed a good idea in the abstract, opening with material from Don Giovanni before returning to music from the concerto itself, yet ultimately it failed to convince. It would surely have needed something more Mephistophelian, more Lisztian (a composer Schiff has long disdained), and less disjointed. Still, the coda, full of energy, offered a proper release. As an encore, we heard an unpretentious account of the Adagio from the extraordinary late B-flat major Piano Sonata, KV 570.

Friday 12 November 2021

Chamayou/LSO/Roth - Gossec, Saint-Saëns, and Beethoven, 11 November 2021

Barbican Hall

Gossec: Symphonie à 17 parties in F major, Rh 64
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.22
Beethoven: Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, op.55, ‘Eroica’

Bertrand Chamayou (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

François-Joseph Gossec lived a very long life during ‘interesting times’, born in 1734 in the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and dying in Paris in 1829, just short of the July Revolution. His Symphonie à 17 parties was written under Napoleon, in 1809, so makes for an interesting companion piece to Beethoven’s Sinfonia Eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo, its initial dedication (to Bonaparte) famously scratched out in fury in response to the First Consul’s self-elevation to the rank of Emperor. If closer comparison is beside the point—whatever the virtues of Gossec’s piece, it would pale if heard after Beethoven—then this was an excellent opportunity to hear a little-known work, with fine advocacy from François-Xavier Roth and the LSO, Bertrand Chamayou contributing a blistering account of Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto in between. 

Gossec’s Symphony immediately catches the ear with its grandly rhetorical opening bars, prior to what comes across to our ears as fond looking (listening?) back to the eighteenth century, unquestionably from the standpoint of a composer for French orchestras. (Gossec had founded the Concert des Amateurs in 1769, offering for twelve years a serious rival to the celebrated Concert Spirituel.) And that was only the introduction. The first movement as a whole proved colourful and theatrical, testament to the composer’s interest in concert and dramatic work alike (sacred music too). If the movement’s close relied heavily on tonic and dominant harmony, that in itself is hardly a fault; one might—many do—say the same of Beethoven. The Larghetto second movement showed some rather more surprising harmonic shifts, allied to a keen ear for colour as heard earlier. Such music can all too readily be rushed, but not here; nor did it drag. The minor-mode Minuetto (I should have guessed ‘scherzo’) came as a considerable surprise, both in itself and for its counterpoint. Split violins, as well as considerable LSO heft (twelve first violins down to five double basses), truly told, as did unmistakeably Gallic use of bassoons. The trio’s Harmoniemusik was attractive enough, though perhaps it outstayed its (symphonic) welcome. The finale again had a strong sense of the opera house to it. Some phrases sounded superficially Mozartian in themselves, but the construction is very different. 

Chamayou ensured a properly arresting opening to the Saint-Saëns Concerto, as if extemporising on Romantic memories of Bach—which, in a way, is very much what the composer is doing. The LSO’s response was equally, differently rhetorical, the first movement’s course meeting somewhere in between, broadly Lisztian. What some say of Liszt, I might wonder of Saint-Saëns; this movement does sound to me a little like an introduction to an introduction. I am probably missing the point, though, and there was no denying the superior quality of Chamayou’s pianism: glistening, melting, virile, double octaves and all. Fantasia-like swirling mists prior to the close proved mysteriously alluring. A sparkling, sprightly, even sprite-ly second movement began in Mendelssohnian vein, before moving in quite different directions. The tarantella finale sounded ambiguous, perhaps ambivalent, certainly a whirlwind. One could only marvel at the pianist’s technique and musicianship, Roth ever the alert, discerning accompanist. As an encore, we were treated to the Adagio from Haydn’s late Piano Sonata in C major, Hob.XVI:50. Rapt in its intensity, it benefited from a similar sense of the improvisatory, founded in attention to detail and command of line. I should love to hear more Haydn from Chamayou. 

The opening of the Eroica came as quite a culture shock (to me, at least). I do not think I have ever heard it so fast: presumably taken at the ever-controversial metronome marking. Roth’s musicianship won me over, though. This was a very different Beethoven from that of Wagner, Furtwängler, Klemperer, Barenboim, or a host of others. Of course it was, Colin Davis included. (It was under him, I think, that I last heard the LSO play this symphony.) But comparison, or for that matter contrast, is not the point here. Roth, anything but dogmatic, had his own vision and it worked splendidly. Ultimately, I missed a degree of grandeur, but here, in Beethoven’s first movement, not only did notes fly off the page; they fairly danced. There was, moreover, a fine sense of exploration to the development and what is in effect a second development (recapitulation). 

The Funeral March was brisk, if less (to my ears) iconoclastically so. Obsequies grew in stature, as if grief were approaching us from a distance. There was, fittingly for the programme, a strong sense of French Revolutionary processional. It was, perhaps, more Berlioz’s Beethoven than Wagner’s—and none the worse for it. Excellent woodwind solos (Olivier Stankiewicz’s oboe here first among equals) contributed to the greater whole. Counterpoint lay at the movement’s very heart; if sometimes I had wondered quite what was at stake in the first movement, here there was little doubt. Busy energy, born of detail and line, characterised the scherzo, the trio’s celebrated horns sounding with vernal freshness all the more welcome in dark November. Taken attacca, the finale constantly surprised, rethought in many ways by Roth. No variation was taken for granted, that for strings alone taken by solo instruments with strikingly ‘period’ tone. But that was a means to an expressive end, not an end in itself, the entry of the LSO’s woodwind creating all the greater contrast and later string vibrato far from parsimonious. It was exciting and coherent: neither quite what many would have expected, nor in any sense perverse. It was quite something (even to a die-hard Furtwänglerian such as yours truly).

And it was salutary to be reminded by Roth from the podium that Beethoven, here conducted by a Frenchman and played by an (international) British orchestra, was the most European of composers. ‘Vive l’Europe!’ as he said, to great applause. London needs to hear that more than ever right now.

Monday 8 November 2021

LPO/Gardner - Haydn and Bartók, 6 November 2021

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn: Symphony no.90 in C major, Hob.I:90
Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle

Ildikó Komlósi (soprano)
John Relyea (bass)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Image: Mark Allan

Intelligent programming, this, the C major of Haydn’s Ninetieth Symphony prefiguring one of the most jaw-dropping moments in all opera, indeed in all music: Bluebeard’s revelation of his kingdom in all its glory as the Fifth Door of his castle is flung open. There is ultimately greater difference, of course, than similarity between Haydn’s exploration of his Classical tonal universe and his tricks with our ears and expectations, and Bartók’s grandiose use of a C major chord as luminous, associative tonal centre; yet that in itself could be understood and, more important, perceived to be the point.

A broadly germinal introduction to Haydn’s first movement proclaimed just such a voyage of exploration. Under Edward Gardner, the LPO sounded lively and variegated, if also a touch hard-driven. For better or worse, such is the way of much Haydn performance today, perhaps an excessive if understandable reaction to clichés of geniality. More important was the strong sense of motivic development, not only in the ‘development’ section itself, but also in a recapitulation sounding on the cusp of Beethovenian second development. In that context, I could live with certain ‘period’ affectations, which did little harm, save for sometimes obscuring, more so later in the symphony, a longer term sense of line. 

The second movement flowed as one would expect in such a reading, its stern contrasts traced not without yielding. Again, Haydn’s score was finely articulated and variegated, albeit sometimes at that expense of traditional line, though with a welcome mystery to the course it would take (again prefiguring Bartók?) Solo lines, for instance flute (Juliette Bausor) and cello (Kristina Blaumane) were without exception very well taken. Gardner presented the minuet nicely on the cusp of one- and three-to-a-bar, its symphonic nature and individuality relished and communicated. A dainty reading of the trio, led by Ian Hardwick’s fine solo oboe, was given to a smaller ensemble, the return of full orchestra for the minuet’s reprise grandly moving. The finale blazed like fireworks outside (this was the sixth of November). Arguably, it too was a little hard-driven, though Gardner’s tempo had a sense of rightness, and the general yet particular character of a Haydn finale was undeniably present. The false ending caught out many—understandably. 

Following the interval, music emerged—not as in the Haydn’s introduction, yet in a way that could perhaps be associated with it—from words, from bardic verse, in the guise of the recorded spoken Prologue to Bluebeard’s Castle. The orchestra spoke, it seemed, doubtless in part testament to Gardner’s operatic experience, especially with orchestral recitative. Song, ineffably Bartókian rhythm, equally ineffable post-impressionist harmonies, and of course Bluebeard and Judit took centre (aural) stage. There was a sense of awe, of wonder, and of foreboding to our first encounter with the castle—listed by Bartók as a ‘character’—that never left us. Ildikó Komlósi’s request for the keys because she loved Bluebeard chilled, as shifting orchestral colours reoriented and disoriented us as equally helpless spectators to Fate’s progress (and regress). ‘Because I love you’: terror spoke, above all through the orchestra. All the while, John Relyea as Bluebeard remained implacable, until he too bowed, with a hint of brokenness, to what seemed to be—but is it?—the inevitable.   

Treasures glistened, eliciting audience wonder; likewise at timbre and tonality when, at the Fourth Door, the sun finally shone in, Bluebeard’s garden revealed. There was blood on the flowers’ petals, though, and we felt it. The opening of the Fifth Door would, in a half-decent performance, send shivers down the spine at any time, yet now, after all this waiting, it truly felt as though the symphony orchestra, here underpinned by organ (Richard Gowers) had returned in all its glory. Relyea was magnificently ecstatic beholding and introducing his kingdom. Judit, however, knew already that the game was up. The sheer horror we heard in the orchestra as the Seventh Door was opened, Bluebeard’s former wives present, Judit now bound to join them, was only furthered by the tenderness that followed. There was something beautifully elegiac, not entirely un-Straussian, to Bluebeard’s introductions here: not quite regretful, for he was certain, but resigned. The final, wordless climax told us night would now last forever.