Sunday, 17 October 2021

Quatuor Ebène - Haydn, Janáček, and Schumann, 15 October 2021

Wigmore Hall

Haydn: String Quartet in D major, op.20 no.4
Janáček: String Quartet no.1, ‘Kreutzer Sonata’
Schumann: String Quartet no.2 in F major, op.41 no.2

Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure (violins)
Marie Chilemme (viola)
Raphaël Merlin (cello)

You will struggle to find—no, you will not find—quartet playing finer than this. Audience response to the Quatuor Ebène’s performance of Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata Quartet bore an enthusiasm that registered somewhere between elation and shell-shock, heightened by the presence of a large number of young string players, identified not only by the palpable intent of their listening, but also by their instrument cases. 

From the outset of Janáček’s first movement, one had—as in the preceding Haydn quartet—of life- and, in this case, perhaps death-giving potentiality in every theme, motif, and cell. ‘I was imagining,’ Janáček told Kamila Stösslová, ‘a poor woman, tormented, beaten, battered to death, as the Russian writer Tolstoy described in his Kreutzer Sonata.’ Here were a pain and longing familiar, even sublimated, from Katya Kabanova and a highly developed sense of instrumental drama. One might or might not know Tolstoy—or Katya—but it did not matter; this was enough. The players’ mastery seemed almost to extend Janáček’s soundworld further than it goes already—or perhaps it is better to think in terms of responding more deeply than ever to potentiality, for there was no question of anything failing to sound as written, as conceived. The second movement, likewise characterised by intense drama of the imagination, foresaw, so it seemed, the world of the still-later From the House of the Dead. Sharply etched, coruscating, it breathed an unquenchable spirit that prepared the way for a successor that was, if anything, still more intense and extreme in its polarities. Janáček’s warm irascibility, perhaps also irascible warmth, spoke as ever of ineffable humanity. Here was a tone poem in itself, save of course that it acquired meaning as part of a greater whole. In the final movement, a sense of tragic revisitation, like a final act bringing the drama to a head, hung over music, both as work and performance, which necessarily had some way yet to travel; until, that is, it was over, shatteringly. 

Not entirely dissimilar in its still-shocking experimentalism, motivic development in Haydn’s Quartet op.20 no.4 was also relished by all concerned. The first movement introduction was set up as a set of questions and answers, which grew into something more, imbued with almost infinite energy and potential. Its strange eruptions, weirdly yet aptly prophetic of Janáček, likewise always felt dramatically necessary—and let us never forget what a drama, in the proper sense, sonata form is. When Haydn plays with our expectations, as he does here, he needs players to respond in kind; this they certainly did. The sad dignity of the second movement’s opening theme was at times more astringent in tone than I had previously heard from this quartet, but there was nothing dogmatic to that; their palette was broad, wisely drawn from, and coherent in context and expressive purpose. The ensuing variations showed, yet again, what nonsense is the claim we sometimes hear that variation form in Haydn and Mozart somehow has a lesser status than in preceding and succeeding eras. (Goodness knows where people get this idea from; presumably they copy it from one another. All they need do is read, play, or listen.) Raphaël Merlin’s cello, sensitive and commanding, proved as eloquent a principal narrator in the second variation as one could hope for; his colleagues responded as equals, invited and incited. Throughout, this was Haydn at both his most tragic and his most varied in tragic impulse, immanent in the Ebène’s intensity of conception. Rustic tone combined with post-Baroque complexity in the Allegretto alla zingarese, the concision of the first movement further intensified. Haydn’s experimental mastery in the finale, high-spirited, obstinate, helter-skelter, and above all consequent, was conveyed with equal drama and understanding. 

In some ways, Schumann’s F major Quartet sounded more Classical than Haydn—let alone Janáček. Not that it is without Romanticism, of course, but the tone of late Classicism we heard, especially in its first movement, was both appealing and apposite. There were new paths in the development, though in general a sense of subtle restraint. The second movement, another set of variations, unfolded patiently, permitted to reveal its secrets in its own time. And when it blossomed, it truly blossomed; one was rewarded—handsomely—for listening. There was a sense of Beethoven reimagined: not our Beethoven, nor perhaps Beethoven’s, but naturally Schumann’s. Beethoven and Mendelssohn haunted the scherzo, though it was certainly not to be reduced to any matter of ‘influence’. Its trio proved notably good-humoured. Schumann’s Romantic confidences and digressions form the very path of the finale; so it was in this case, a feeling somehow only heightened by a decision to stop, quickly re-tune, and resume, urgency not so much regained as redoubled. As a lovely encore, we were treated to the Quatuor Ebène’s own arrangement of the first piece from Schumann’s Bunte Blätter.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Happy 150th Birthday to Alexander Zemlinsky


Please click here for past posts on the composer, ranging from an essay on Die Seejungfrau to a reflection on Writing German History that opens with the Lyric Symphony. (When you reach the bottom, you can continue by clicking 'Older posts').

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Gansch/Martineau - Zemlinsky, Berg, and Mahler, 10 October 2021

Wigmore Hall

Zemlinsky: Walzer-Gesänge nach toskanischen Volksliedern, op.6
Berg: Sieben frühe Lieder
Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’, ‘Das irdische Leben’, ‘Ablösung im Sommer’, ‘Scheiden und Meiden’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’, ‘Rheinlegendchen’, ‘Die himmlische Leben’

Christina Gansch (soprano)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Song in particular and vocal music more generally were of great importance to Zemlinsky, Berg, and Mahler. In Zemlinsky’s case, more than half of his songs were composed in a short period from 1898 to 1901, these Walzer-Gesänger (1898) after Tuscan folksongs (translated by Ferdinand Gregorovius) included. One falls, perhaps as much out of habit as conviction, upon the word ‘Brahmsian’, but are they really, the obvious Liebeslieder precedent notwithstanding? There are certainly elements that look so on the page; perhaps they would sound more so in certain performances. Here—only here—I felt at times a mismatch between vocal performance and material. Perhaps it was more a matter of warming up, of a larger scale of performance than might have been ideal. Christina Gansch was certainly communicative, though, not only in diction but also in meaning. Or perhaps it was my expectations that were at fault, since I responded more keenly to the darker (within bounds) ‘Ich gehe des Nachts’, not least to its piano writing as vividly conveyed by Malcolm Martineau. The sense of mystery and ultimate communion in ‘Blaues Sternlein’ hinted at more, at a world to come both for Zemlinsky and ‘Austrian’ music more generally. 

Until he took composition lessons with Schoenberg, Berg was above all a composer of Lieder. It is not quite true to say that he was exclusively so, though in 1910 Schoenberg told his publisher that, ‘extraordinarily gifted’ though Berg was when he came to him, ‘his imagination apparently could not work on anything but songs. Even the piano accompaniments to them were songlike. He was absolutely incapable of writing an instrumental movement or inventing an instrumental theme.’ We should be grateful indeed to Schoenberg for his instruction. What would Wozzeck, let alone the Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6, be without the instrumental forms in which Schoenberg had compelled Berg to write? Given the quality of the Seven Early Songs (1905-8)—written during Berg’s studies with Schoenberg, albeit first in harmony, counterpoint, and music theory, only from 1907 in composition—one can well understand why Berg might simply have wished to carry on in that vein, though here already the piano writing is quite different from that in his truly ‘early’ songs. 

Whatever one’s thoughts on the Zemlinsky songs—I was grateful above all for the opportunity to hear them—Berg immediately took us into a different world, darker, more complex, more alluring. The harmonies of ‘Nacht’, voice almost as crucial to their sounding as piano, form and shape the song itself. Whatever the truth of Schoenberg’s retrospective criticism, it cannot have been intended for this song. A message both Tristan-esque and Nietzschean in words and music both warned and enticed: ‘Trinke Seele! trinke Einsamkeit! O gib acht! gib acht!’ Gansch seemed liberated by the greater musical possibilities, each song conceived in collaboration with Martineau with remarkable attention to detail, out of which was formed a singular whole. ‘Die Nachtigall’ took shape and indeed flight from its immanent growth in expressive range, reaching an ecstatic vocal conclusion such as to have Martineau’s piano epilogue bathed in Bergian afterglow.  The little red fire (‘Feuerlein rot’) of ‘Im Zimmer’ fairly crackled before our ears, vocal and piano parts alike subtly suggestive of image and import. A richly voluptuous ‘Liebesode’ became breathless in more than one sense, serving aptly as prelude to ‘Sommertage’, whose ‘image after image comes to you and quite fills you’. 

A short break of a minute or two was just the thing to prepare for the different world again of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, its naïveté never without a suspicion of knowing, alienation its lot, its tragedy, but also its attraction. Gansch captured to a tee the humour of Mahler’s absurdist neo-Bachian melismata in ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’ Mahler should never, arguably can never, be read on one level. ‘Das irdische Leben’ was well characterised, its horror all the truer for the lack of hysteria. Kindertotenlieder already seemed close. A sardonic account of ‘Ablösung im Sommer’, the piano properly played straight, prepared the way for the ambiguities of ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ and a dream-like, hallucinatory ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’, its wan, deathly piano prelude as Mahlerian as any orchestra. After that, ‘Rheinlegendchen’ offered necessary relief prior to the epiphanic mysteries of ‘Das himmlische Leben’, heard far more frequently in its orchestral guise as final movement to the Fourth Symphony. Already in its opening stanza, the subtle range of Gansch’s vocal colours suggested nothing was quite so simple as it might seem. Childhood, after all, is always an adult idea. ‘Sankt Martha die Köchin muss sein!’ seemed as strange a revelation as ever, yet one could not but nod assent, both to the claim and to Mahler’s path to transcendence. For an encore, we heard ‘Hans und Grete’, again apparently simple, yet with much beneath the surface. Gansch’s closing smile, very much part of the performance, encapsulated what we had just heard.

Saturday, 9 October 2021

'Musick's Monument' - Crowe/Fretwork - Byrd, Gibbons, and Purcell, 7 October 2021

Wigmore Hall

Byrd: Prelude and Ground a 5: ‘The Queen’s Goodnight’
O Lord, how vain
Fantasia a 5: ‘Two parts in one the fourth above’
O that most rare breast
Gibbons: Two Fantasias of 3 parts
Now each flowery bank of May
Byrd: My mistress had a little dog

Purcell: Two Fantazias in 4 parts
O solitude, my sweetest choice, Z406
Gibbons: Two In Nomines
Faire is the rose
Purcell: Two Fantazias in 4 parts
Oedipus, King of Thebes: ‘Music for a while’
The Fairy Queen: ‘When I have often heard young maids complaining’

Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Fretwork (Richard Boothby, Asako Morikawa, Sam Stadlen, Emily Ashton, Joanna Levine)

Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument, or, A remembrance of the best practical musick, both divine and civil, that has ever been known to have been in the world divided into three parts, looked back wistfully at an age of English music almost passed. Conservative, even reactionary, Mace detested new-fangled French influences on the musical culture of his own time. He disliked ‘Squaling-Scoulding-Fiddles’, to be used only if balanced by ‘Lusty Full-Sciz’d Theorbos’, and, as favoured sacred music from the age of William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, elevated music for viol consort, consort songs included, over newer styles and genres. If most of Henry Purcell’s music stood very much in the latter vein, Purcell, in his celebrated Fantazias of 1780, also paid tribute to the golden age of the consort, showing beyond doubt that a composer could be master of both. It was a farewell, though, however masterly—and probably ignored. They went unpublished until 1927, by Peter Warlock, and there is no evidence of performance in Purcell’s lifetime. This concert from Fretwork and Lucy Crowe, then, also looked back at English music of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, less from the standpoint of Mace than from that of Purcell. It proved enjoyable and instructive in equal measure. 

Byrd opened the programme and occupied much of the first half, shared with Gibbons, split between both halves, the younger composer a mediator between Byrd and Purcell. The Queen’s Goodnight, like so much of what was to come, flowed and gently danced: not reduced to merely ‘being’ a dance, but rather partaking its spirit, remembrance, and rejuvenation. The fascination of its harmonies spoke for itself without underlining, whether of false relations or other dissonances. This was a golden age of instrumental variations too, and it showed. Here was a lovely curtain-raiser, also enabling Byrd’s 1588 consort song tributes to Sir Philip Sidney, one to a text by Sidney himself, the other an explicit tribute by Sir Edward Dyer, to emerge as much as companion pieces as contrasts. Crowe’s floating of her melodic line atop the viol music proved undeniably affecting, perhaps especially in the Dyer setting, O that most rare breast. Undimmed in courtliness and affect, it negotiated and combined confessional traditions and boundaries as skilfully as Byrd himself, finally sublimated with quiet ecstasy on ‘thy friend here living dieth’. In between, for instruments only, Two parts in one the fourth above, gently suggested both affinity and variety within the family of consort music, much as one might with later instrumental music of Haydn. Pleasure derived both from occasional grit in the oyster, as well as the oyster itself, was the thing. Closing the first half, owing to a fine ballad-like performance by Crowe and her supporting musicians. 

Gibbons provided another voice, less expansive in the first of his two Fantasias than the second, and perhaps even another world in whose counterpoint one could readily, pleasurably lose oneself. In Fretwork’s performances, both of those Fantasias and two In nomines, it sounded lighter, perhaps more aristocratic, though not necessarily less ingenuous. If I find it less moving, on the whole, than Byrd or Purcell, that may just be me. Now each flowery bank of May had a different flavour, with a nice ambiguity in performance as to any ultimate message, should there be one: ‘… whose love is life, whose hate is death’. In the second half, Faire is the rose was short, sweet, and subtle. 

We lost a Duo in G for two bass viols by Christopher Simpson, Asako Morikawa having sprained her thumb—one would never have known from other performances—but heard four of Purcell’s four-part Fantazias. If there were times when I felt Purcell’s well-nigh Mozartian combination of seemingly effortless mastery and fathomless depth might have been served better by a touch of Romanticism, these were fluent, comprehending performances with their own agenda that had no need to be mine. At their best, they showed a splendid inevitability in unfolding and had me wanting more. Many counsel us against importing modern conceptions of sadness, melancholia, and so on into this music, but so much the worse for them. Purcell’s modernity remains as striking as his historicity; as with any great art, of which this is certainly an instance, the one encourages the other.

O solitude, my sweetest choice, as with all these songs realised by Richard Boothby for his own consort, likewise spoke with almost modern unity of words, music, and underlying sentiment in performance. At any rate, one could hear why Purcell’s word-setting continues to inspire Anglophone composers. Music certainly did our cares beguile ‘for a while’ in the celebrated, loveliest song from Oedipus, King of Thebes. ‘When I have often heard young maids complaining’, from The Fairy Queen, spoke with readier humour, perhaps, than Byrd’s mistress and her dog. It was an animated, captivating performance, as was the surprise encore, as you are unlikely to have heard it before: Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’.

Friday, 1 October 2021

Philharmonia/Rouvali - Strauss, 30 September 2021

Royal Festival Hall

Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, op.30
Eine Alpensinfonie, op.64

Philharmonia Orchestra
Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor)

It had been quite a while since I had heard an orchestra of the size of the Philharmonia assembled for this Alpine Symphony; not that the Zarathustra band was small either. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s farewell to the Philharmonia had necessarily involved a smaller orchestra. His successor Sanntu-Matias Rouvali picked up the reins in very different style and repertoire. The scale, not only size but ‘depth’ in all its manifestations, of an orchestra in Strauss or Wagner was something I had found myself longing for on several occasions during lockdown. Now, at last, it was here, and if this double helping of Nietzschean Strauss was not on the face of it ideal programming, there were revelations to be had from hearing these two tone poems side by side.

Whatever its renown, Also sprach Zarathustra does not pop up in concert programmes that often. I think this may actually have been the first time I heard it live. Its renown is, in any case, limited largely to its opening, especially in combination with a certain film. It is what it is. I am not sure it lends itself especially to interpretation, but orchestra and conductor projected it with strength, if not entirely without fallibility in the difficult Festival Hall acoustic. It was wonderful to hear the hall’s organ again too, here and later played by Richard Pearce. But then what? The darkness that follows immediately and attempts to emerge therefrom are perhaps more interesting, or at least more interpretable. The richness of the Philharmonia’s solo strings, gradually joined by more, was something to savour. Points of detail told throughout. What I missed in Rouvali’s reading was a greater sense of the whole: admittedly difficult to achieve in this work. His soundworld and the orchestra’s seemed more Wagnerian, even Brahmsian, than modernist. That said, the fugue’s beginning offered a hint of Bartók: unexpected yet welcome. Salutary reminders issued that much of what we think of as the world of Die Frau ohne Schatten or even Der Rosenkavalier is here already. Harmonies began to acquire a more sinister edge. If not exactly flat-footed, waltzing was only intermittently able to suggest something lighter, fleeter. Rouvali ultimately seemed excitable in the mode of a Solti, albeit without the precision, than comprehending as, say, a Haitink. Either way, the performance never really caught fire. These, however, are early days; this remained a welcome and surprisingly rare opportunity to hear the work.

The sepulchral, frankly Wagnerian opening of Eine Alpensinfonie sounded more idiomatic. Much teemed under the surface, though what was it? Posing that question cut to the heart, as it were, of Strauss’s materialism. Rouvali was certainly more flexible in transition and transformation. Perhaps surprisingly, this performance seemed less episodic, if without quite the symphonic achievement of conductors from Mravinsky to Haitink. And of course it was a treat simply to hear the Philharmonia in this music, massed horns—oddly, from a balcony, rather than offstage—included. The waterfall was a glistening orchestral delight, crucially paving the way for all manner of further phantasmagorical hallucinations—or realities. Despite himself, despite Nietzsche too, Strauss the ‘Antichrist’—so much pointless debate would have been averted had he used that title instead—could not resist hints and more of metaphysical meaning. Dissonances ground as we made our way to the summit, and the music as well as the orchestra unleashed at the top spoke of something we had all been waiting for. The uncertainties and sadness of descent proved powerfully moving, heard through a storm built on harmony and counterpoint as much as colour. Rouvali paced the performance well, an Epilogue neither rushed nor milked a case in point. There was Straussian integrity here that extended beyond the ‘merely musical’ to the human. As Night once more fell, one sensed a sleep that extended beyond closing one’s eyes.

Monday, 27 September 2021

Tragedy and Modernity: Honegger and Brahms

Notions of the tragic have changed greatly since the Golden Age of Attic drama and its posthumous codification by Aristotle. Some have claimed that, in Shakespeare’s wake, what we now call tragedy is something entirely different. A (post-)Christian need for redemption as heard, however equivocally, in Honegger’s Third Symphony seems incompatible with tragedy’s iron rule of Fate. Even Wagner, with the exception of Lohengrin, tended to offer redemption rather than catharsis in the ancient sense. Indeed, minor-mode symphonies that do not turn ‘affirmatively’ to the major are rarer than we might expect. Yet those tragic notions, their representation too, have also remained surprisingly close to their source, of which we still speak, in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Would it have seemed strange to ancient writers of tragic drama and verse to speak of symphonies as participating in the tragic and even, in the case of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, of embodying tragedy itself? Doubtless, but then to them the very notion of a symphony would have seemed equally strange.

New Life to Everlasting Themes

Born out of Paris in January 1945, Honegger’s Symphonie liturgique came to life in the strange atmosphere of French ‘liberation’. The end of war’s tunnel, amidst privation, bitterness and general settling of scores, was yet tantalisingly close. The future might, must be better than the recent past, but there was little reason to think it would be devoid of further pain and even tragedy. As if to symbolize life’s dualities more generally, the Symphony was written during wartime and peacetime, in France and Switzerland, where this singularly atypical member of ‘Les Six’ remained a citizen.

It is not intended for liturgical purposes, but rather takes a subtitle for each of its three movements from lines in the Latin (Roman Catholic) liturgy: ‘Dies irae’ (Day of wrath) from the Requiem; ‘De profundis clamavi ad te’ (Out of the deep have I called unto thee) of Psalm 130, recited prior to burial; and ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (Grant us peace) from the Agnus Dei of the Ordinary of the Mass. Each movement, Honegger said, attempted to express ‘an idea, a thought which I should not wish to call philosophical – that would be pretentious – but which represents the composer’s personal feeling’. His intention, he said, had been ‘to symbolize the reaction of modern man against the morass of barbarism, stupidity, suffering, machine-mindedness and bureaucracy’. Herein was ‘a drama played out between three characters, whether real or symbolic: misery, happiness and man [:] everlasting themes. I have tried to give them new life.’

The idea of the ‘Dies irae’, Honegger thought, would pose no problem to audiences who had all lived through ‘years of war and revolution’. Its dark opening, ‘de profundis’ avant la lettre, scurries and snarls by turn. In diabolical, malevolent grotesquerie, it comes close to Prokofiev’s Third Symphony (and thus his opera The Fiery Angel). A militaristic storm, again like Prokofiev, brimming with melody came, Honegger recalled, ‘suddenly, in its entirety, on the short train journey from Basel to Bern’ and was swiftly notated in draft before retiring to bed that evening. A ferocious energy framing wind intonation of the dread words ‘Dies irae, dies illa’ is the driving force of a movement, like its successors, in sonata form. Here that form proves to be principally exposition and developmental yet ultimately reversed recapitulation, subsiding into the opening darkness.

The prayerful second movement represents the tendency of ‘everything remaining of purity, clarity, and confidence in humanity […] toward that force we feel to be above us’. That might be God, or perhaps something from within, borne by each of us ‘in the most secret part of his soul’. Considerably more ambiguous in ‘message’, not least in the inconclusive climaxes to and from which Honegger builds and retreats, the music seems to float in a state of purgatorial suspension. Early responsorial exchanges between string and wind choirs recall the organ (or even Bruckner). If, to an English ear, there sounds an Elgarian nobility to the lower strings, such correspondence is doubtless mere coincidence. A seraphic flute solo evokes religious iconography of old, in flight above the ruins of modernity.

From its title, we might be a little surprised by the realm of the third movement: not that peace which passes all understanding, but the ‘inescapable rise of stupidity in the world: nationalism, militarism, red tape, administration, customs duties, taxes, wars, everything humanity has invented to persecute and degrade him, to transform him into a robot’. It is that stupidity, however, which has finally provoked ‘the cry of despair: “Dona nobis pacem”’. A goose-stepping march of idiocy, ‘la thème de la c…rie humaine’, gathers pace, forces and followers – ‘mechanical geese’ – over lengthy pedals, erupting in terrible ‘pesante’ cries of revolt from the oppressed. A rapt wind choir sings the closing Adagio, ‘pianissimo sempre e dolce’. Above divided strings, melismatic instrumental solos – flute joined by piccolo, violin and cello – take us to celestial C sharp major for ‘a brief meditation on what life could be: calm, love, joy – a bird’s song, Nature, peace’. And yet, the final chord’s ambiguity – what to make of its added notes? – suggests only a temporary peace. Nagging, gnawing doubt remains.


Tragedy that Brooks No Dissent

Brahms conceived his Fourth Symphony in very different circumstances, on an Alpine holiday in the Styrian village of Mürzzuschlag in 1884 and 1885. ‘It tastes of the climate here’, he wrote to Hans von Bülow, comparing it to the local cherries’ stubborn unwillingness to ripen: ‘you would not eat them!’ Like Beethoven’s works with similar opus numbers, the Symphony stands on the cusp of the composer’s unquestionably ‘late’ period and puzzled certain early listeners, though it has been long since assimilated into the repertoire. Few symphonies speak with a voice and direction so unambiguous in its Classical tragedy: Mozart’s 40th, Mahler’s Sixth, perhaps a handful of others. Brahms’s Fourth it seems, will always stand among them; defiant, unbending, if no longer incomprehensible as it initially seemed to some listeners, Eduard Hanslick and Clara Schumann among them.

The wistfulness of the first theme perhaps suggests the E minor opening of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. We can sense the melancholy shadows cast by those falling thirds, even when they rise to foretell added sixth harmonies that will colour the entire work. What follows, though, is tighter of structure – no criticism of Mendelssohn, for he and Brahms attempt and accomplish very different things. This was not Brahms’s first musical construction from a chain of falling thirds; the development section of the Finale of his Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor op. 60 is another example. But to place them first, without introduction, is a further refinement, even declaration of (proto-serial) intent. A recent fashion in Brahms studies has been to emphasize his Romanticism as opposed to a modernist legacy, reflected in replacement of images of the older, bearded composer – forbidding, avuncular, or somewhere in between – with his fresh-faced counterpart. However, an either/or misses the point. This opening could barely stand closer to both Mendelssohn and Webern. This is Brahms’s only symphonic first movement not to repeat the exposition: testament to what Schoenberg would extol as the ‘developing variation’ of ‘Brahms the Progressive’. It is again to Mendelssohn that Brahms stands closest in recapitulating at a point of exhaustion rather than triumph, ‘with all the majesty’, to quote Donald Tovey, ‘of the Norns prophesying the twilight of the Gods’. We move inexorably to Tovey’s ‘grim Amen’. So complete is the sound, we might fancy a larger orchestra were employed; this false tutti is, however, voiced without trombones, held in reserve for the Finale.

The second movement develops likewise by variation. It is heralded by horn calls whose strong hints at C major refer back to intervals and harmonies from the first movement, and forward both to the Phrygian mode of this movement’s close – horns again – and to the Scherzo. Once the home key has been established, the music is warmer, more redemptive, its later ‘sumptuous eight-part string texture’, to quote Malcolm MacDonald, ‘the most gorgeous assertion of the “himmlischer Trost” [heavenly consolation] of E major in Brahms’s output’. The composer of Ein deutsches Requiem and the Vier ernste Gesänge is the most devout of agnostics. Epiphany is enabled by shadows that follow and precede, modal inflections with roots in late Beethoven as well as Brahms’s early-music scholarship.

Brahms’s Scherzo is formidably iron-clad, even for a work so firmly in Beethoven’s tradition. Sonata-form concision both propels and questions the mood of celebration, though certainly not its coiled-spring energy. Intimations of the Finale abound, perhaps only recognized as such in retrospect. Brahms’s celebrated use of the triangle needs no defence, yet received a splendid one from Tovey, who pointed to combination with piccolo and contrabassoon in ‘grotesque poetic aptness to […] bacchanalian fury’.

The idea of the Finale dates back several years. In a conversation around 1880 with Siegfried Ochs and Hans von Bülow, Brahms lamented how little most musicians, then present company included, knew of the treasure trove of Bach’s cantatas. He played on the piano the final movement of Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (Cantata No. 150), of which he owned a copyist’s manuscript, a gift from Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. Bülow objected that voices would not bring out Bach’s climax with necessary force, at which point Brahms asked, ‘what would you think of a symphonic movement written on this very theme one day?’. It was, however, he admitted, ‘too chunky, too straightforward. One would need somehow to alter it chromatically.’ Brahms thus added a chromatic A sharp – prepared in the first group of the first movement – to the simple theme, heightening tension in transition to the dominant. He also stretched out Bach’s theme to eight bars and had it appear anywhere in the texture, not only in the bass, thereby composing what, Brahms’s own nomenclature notwithstanding, is considered a passacaglia rather than a chaconne.

In immediate departure from Bach, the theme is heard first not in the bass but over a bass line characterized once more by falling thirds. 30 variations ensue, taking us through intervals, tonalities, other musical qualities and relationships new and old. At the beating heart of this world of musical tragedy, invited by the 12th variation’s Orphic flute, sings Harmoniemusik patently longing for a Classical paradise no longer attainable. Trombones solemnly summon the All Souls ‘aequale’ tradition of communion with the dead. The grandeur of the final variation’s ritardando necessitates, like Fate itself, volcanic eruption. And so there is heralded a magnificent ‘Più Allegro’ coda in which, released from passacaglia confinement, music can again freely modulate. The destination to which it storms is never in the slightest of doubt. There is no nagging doubt here. No more than Aeschylus, Sophocles, nor, for all his Christianity, Bach does Brahms in his tragedy brook dissent.

(This essay was originally published to accompany a Salzburg Festival performance by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Herbert Blomstedt.)

Sunday, 26 September 2021

The Midsummer Marriage, LPO/Gardner, 25 September 2021

Royal Festival Hall

Images: Mark Allan

Mark – Robert Murray
Jenifer – Rachel Nicholls
King Fisher – Ashley Riches
Bella – Jennifer France
Jack – Toby Spence
Sosostris – Claire Barnett-Jones
She-Ancient – Susan Bickley
He-Ancient – Joshua Bloom
Dancing Man – John Findon
Half-Tipsy Man – Trevor Bowes
A Man – Robert Winslade-Anderson
A Girl – Sophie Goldrick

London Philharmonic Choir (artistic director: Neville Creed)
ENO Chorus (chorus director: Mark Biggins)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)

It would have been a work with which to make one’s mark for the opening of any Principal Conductorship. Following the LPO’s Festival Hall silence for the past year-and-a-half, it became, as Edward Gardner acknowledged in a brief spoken welcome, all the more so. Ambition imperfectly realised is in many ways more impressive than passing a lesser challenge—of the estimable qualities one associates with Michael Tippett, perfection is rarely one—but such was not a concern here. Edward Gardner’s gamble in presenting a concert performance of The Midsummer Marriage paid off handsomely, and was gratefully received by a London audience largely starved of sustained Tippett advocacy since the death of Colin Davis.


The orchestral opening was vivid, precise, variegated, as if the orchestra had never been away, likewise when the joint choral forces of the London Philharmonic Choir and ENO Chorus joined. Diction from chorus and soloists alike was excellent, which really helps in an opera whose word-setting does not always privilege verbal understanding. This first act, ‘Morning’, the dawn on Midsummer Day, felt as though it were just that; figuratively, a musical body, it seemed, greater than the sum of its parts, had awoken and was stretching, limbering up. ‘Music? What’s that?’ That and many questions and allusions had acquired new connotations during our recent travails. Tippett’s allusions to Elizabethan music appeared to speak not only of that past but of a nearer past, a ‘new Elizabethan era’ in English music his opera had helped inaugurate, and in which the hall around us, once again open, played so crucial a role (if ever so slightly predating it). Gardner’s—and Tippett’s—presentation of the score in time delineated the work’s dramatic as well as musical form, characters stepping forward as if themes in a giant sonata exposition. In a sense, that is precisely what they are. Against or rather in tandem with that, there was a strong impression, led by Gardner and the orchestra yet certainly including the cast, of revealing a protean imagination, twists and turns never awkward but rather distinctive. They were communicated with conviction, meaning, and what appeared—which cannot always have been the case—of ready familiarity.


Of many highlights, the majestic and, yes, laughing conclusion to the first act, the effervescence of the primal, sometimes dark, yet often touchingly naïve Ritual Dances and their madrigalian choral writing, and a final daybreak as moving as it was atmospheric stand out in my memory. If Tippett would doubtless have pointed to Jung, one did not buy in to that psychology to experience wonder of another sort. Likewise, if King Fisher’s consultation—if that be what it is—with Madame Soristris does not speak to us all in precisely the way intended, there was plenty of alternative in so evocative an exchange as we heard between a dark and dangerous Ashley Riches and a rich-hued Claire Barnett-Jones. For the working through of events or analysis continued to captivate musically throughout the third act, which brought a radiant reunion between Rachel Nicholls’s Jenifer and Robert Murray’s Mark. The versatility of Nicholls’s voice in particular struck me, phrasing always excellent, different colourings and moods always on dramatic point, and the extraordinary coloratura with which Tippett blesses or saddles her despatched without fear. Jennifer France and Toby Spence made for an outstanding ‘second’ couple, in reality no more secondary than their Mozartian model, at least if one imagines a greater role for Papagena than she actually receives. All impressed, but I shall give final mention to the dignity of Susan Bickley’s mysterious yet ineffably human She-Ancient.

From dim recollection of the only other performance I have heard, the 2005 Royal Opera revival under Richard Hickox, I should say this was more incisive, colourful, and generally impressive, though it may simply have been that I was more receptive this time around. My preference for Tippett’s King Priam has not been dislodged, but I think I have come to appreciate the great merits of this ambitious and engaging work as well as its more peculiar singularities. Above all, I felt that something might truly be at stake, and that part of that something was the gift of music.

Paride ed Elena, Bampton Classical Opera, 24 September 2021

St John’s, Smith Square

Paride – Ella Taylor
Elena – Lucy Anderson
Amore/Erasto – Lauren Lodge-Campbell
Pallas Athena – Milly Forrest
Trojans – Lucy Cronin, Adam Tunnicliffe, Lucy Cronin, Alex Jones
Dancers (Spartans, athletes) – Oliver Adam-Reynolds, Oscar Fonseca

Jeremy Gray (director, designs)
Alicia Frost (choreography)
Jess Iliff (costumes)
Ian Chandler (lighting)

Thomas Blunt (conductor)

Least popular of Gluck’s reform operas, Paride ed Elena shows what little store we should set on popularity. (Do not Gluck’s operas more generally?) Bampton Classical Opera once again deserves our thanks in bringing a ‘neglected’—frankly, ignored—eighteenth-century opera to performance, first in Oxfordshire and now in its annual visit to St John’s, Smith Square. That it should do so at all is praiseworthy enough, that it should do so in ‘current circumstances’ all the more so. If I found some elements of staging, costumes in particular, a little makeshift, it is not worth labouring the point; circumstances were far from ideal. 

The role of Paride, written for a soprano castrato, poses a problem in that one will end up with a cast of five sopranos—or one will transpose it down for a high tenor. Allegedly, for the nature of the alleged ‘problem’ is unclear when one listens, especially to so accomplished a performance as we heard from Ella Taylor. Taylor’s Paris—we may as well use English, since the opera was sung in an English translation by Gilly French—evinced youthful strength and vulnerability through Orphic song, rising to more militaristic clamour where required. Their portrayal both contrasted with and complemented Lucy Anderson’s equally multi-faceted Helen, knowingly beguiling and resistant, ultimately moved—perhaps musically as much as verbally—to confront and acknowledge the transformation of her own feelings. As cunning agent of that transformation, Cupid posing as royal counsellor Erasto, Lauren Lodge-Campbell shone and sparkled. Milly Forrest, a late replacement as Pallas Athena, commanded attention as the deus ex machina, as did members of the small chorus, Lucy Cronin first among equals given her accomplished first-act solo. So too did dancers Oliver Adam-Reynolds Oscar Fonseca, who brought to proceedings a highly physical eroticism otherwise lacking from the staging.

Thomas Blunt led CHROMA in a well considered, flowing account of considerable cumulative drama. Here there was none of the stiffness I observed in a Bampton performance earlier this year of La corona under a different conductor. Blunt judged ebb and flow with due regard for instrumental and vocal sensibilities, but above all with an ear to the greater whole. Cuts were judicious and did little damage, which is not to say that one might not wish to hear them restored in other situations. Here, no one could have tired, in the way some people unaccountably seem to do so, of Classical drama lyricised and rendered visible. Rarely if ever did a small instrumental ensemble have one wishing for larger forces, the St John’s acoustic weaving its magic. Gluck and Calazbigi will surely have won more converts, and willingness to explore dance as musical drama augurs well for further Bampton explorations. Dare we hope, perhaps, for a little Rameau or even Traetta? To be fair, more Gluck would also be highly welcome. We shall see—and hear; at least I hope we shall.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Throwing down the symphonic gauntlet: piano music by Beethoven-Liszt, Schubert, and Prokofiev

Humanist Heroism

Unveiling of the Beethoven monument, Bonn, in 1845. Liszt ensured that the project succeeded, contributing money, advocacy, performances, and his own music.

In his Third Symphony, Beethoven threw down the gauntlet: to himself, to contemporaries and to successors in the 19th and even 20th centuries. The scale and public quality of its utterance seem, like the composer’s visage in glowering, ineffably human portraits, to speak of and with something new: Beethoven’s heroic voice.

In the sonata-form first movement, generative simplicity and development of unprecedented length and complexity prove two sides of the same coin. Its opening E flat major triad, heard first vertically then horizontally, gives the appearance of organic necessity in informing all that is to come; so too does its subsequent – consequent? – turning away: E flat–D–C sharp. This music is in a dramatic, persistent state of becoming as opposed to being, not least a coda functioning as fully fledged second development. The monumental ceremonial of the Marcia funebre, the funeral games of the Scherzo and the thrills and spills of the Finale’s set of ultimately fugal variations present not only Beethoven’s titular ‘memory of a great man’ but also a present and future for heroism that lies in common humanity. Dedication to one man, Napoleon, even had his memory not been tarnished, could never have been enough. As Wagner would argue in a programmatic explanation to accompany a performance he conducted, ‘the term “heroic” must be taken in the widest sense, and not simply as relating to a military hero’; ‘understand “hero” to mean, above all, the whole, complete man’.

Liszt stood equal to Wagner in formulation and development of the 19th century’s Beethoven. Having met the composer in 1823 – alleged occasion of the mythical ‘Weiheküss’ (consecration kiss) – Liszt proceeded to act as champion in multiple ways: pianist, arranger, conductor, benefactor (to Bonn’s Beethoven Monument), custodian (to Beethoven’s Broadwood piano) etc. As recitalist – he invented the term – Liszt brought Beethoven’s piano sonatas to a rank of public utterance close to that of the symphonies; he likewise brought the symphonies to audiences that would rarely, if ever, hear an orchestra. Liszt transcribed the Marcia funebre of the ‘Eroica’ as early as 1837, alongside the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. The remaining three movements of the Third were added in 1863, after which he revised the slow movement. That first transcription afforded a model from which to work – literally, for Liszt wrote his modifications into an old copy – with certain difficulties now benefiting from more graceful solutions. In 1865, the Symphony was published as part of a complete set of nine, dedicated to Hans von Bülow.

Large hands are a prerequisite, with stretches of a tenth commonplace. If amateur pianists can happily make their way through the piano duet versions of orchestral music popular throughout the 19th century and even much of Liszt’s transcription of the First Symphony, the Third is another matter – the Ninth still more so. What is readily accomplished by orchestra is not always by piano, and vice versa. Liszt’s solutions, however difficult, are comprehending and ingenious. He notes instrumentation, and lines impossible to incorporate are included on a separate stave. Ossia passages for the more adventurous (and dexterous) cross hands to include further material, or to do so at the correct octave. Suggestions for pedalling are well thought out and imaginative, always deserving of consideration. To ask whether the purpose is interpretative or to further acquaintance with Beethoven’s score is to miss the point; Liszt rarely trades in the either/or.

The notes are on one fundamental level Beethoven’s. How much do they become Liszt’s and/or the pianist’s? Such questions would in a sense always be present: how much did they become Wagner’s or Furtwängler’s? We cast our imaginative net as wide or as narrow as we wish. Yet there is something more here, thanks not only to Liszt’s presence as intermediary – how ‘faithful’ will or should the pianist be to him? – but also to demands of transcendental piano virtuosity. What Romantics such as Liszt and Wagner would have called Beethoven’s ‘poetic idea’ is both treasured and transformed. The heroism of transcription and performance for solo piano offers a study in fidelity, infidelity and the complexity of their dialectical relationship.

Breadth and Introspection


A pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral, Schubert long fell too readily under his shadow, especially in the realm of instrumental music. If Schubert’s stature as songwriter – further inspiration to Liszt the arranger – no longer eclipses his instrumental achievements, it can remain tempting to consider them in relation to divergence from an alleged Beethovenian model. That said, when hearing Schubert immediately after Beethoven, some degree of comparison seems inevitable; it does little harm so long as it does not over-determine our response. For, in John Daverio’s words, ‘whereas Beethoven, especially in the symphonic works of his “heroic” phase, drives headlong from the present into the future, thus emulating the teleological thrust of drama, Schubert treats the present as a pretext for summoning up or mulling over the past, tending as he does toward epic breadth and lyric introspection’. That bardic impulse may be heard in Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke. These three pieces, composed in Beethoven’s wake, in 1827–8, may have been intended to contribute toward a third set of (four) impromptus, although a different paper type for the third may indicate otherwise (or simply earlier composition). They went unpublished until 1868, collected and edited (anonymously) by Brahms.

An E flat minor winter wind blows through much of the First, though oscillation with the tonic major renders its chill more uncertain, if hardly consoling. For consolation, we await the warm, almost hallucinatory lyricism – recognizable from Winterreise – of the central Andante section; in remote B major, it is not itself without moments of tragic vehemence. Schubert’s original conception of a five-part rondo, ABACA, became a ternary ABA form, the ‘C’ episode crossed out entirely in the manuscript. His motive remains a matter for speculation; René Rusch has recently pointed to differences in Schubert’s use of modal mixture (borrowing chords from E flat major) in the first two pieces. Some pianists follow Schubert’s deletion; others are unwilling to resist the lure of extra material and follow Brahms’s editorial reinstatement. Who knows what Schubert would have decided in performance or preparation for publication.

Schubert, in any case, employed that five-part form next, the second piece’s tender barcarolle, taking up where its predecessor had left off, in E flat major. Enharmonic means, similar yet different, take us on a journey through dark episodes of pathos that in themselves contain passages of modal transfiguration. The urgency of the final piece’s flights of syncopation once more offers strong, seemingly necessary contrast with the hymn-like central section, a semitone higher, yet a flatter key (D flat major to surrounding C major). Decidedly un-Beethovenian ambiguities persist.


‘In real time’


The quizzical opening of Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata might suggest a similar path. Its first movement’s marking, ‘Allegro inquieto’, indicates tempo in the fullest sense: concerned as closely with character and mood as speed. Needless to say, though, Prokofiev’s way proves very much his own, albeit with points of connection to all three composers heard previously.

Much depends, of course, on performance. As with Schubert’s Klavierstücke, Sviatoslav Richter – different from himself in alternative performances – will present something different from Maurizio Pollini; Igor Levit something different from both. Richter never performed Liszt’s Beethoven, publicly disavowing most transcriptions, Liszt’s response to ‘Erlkönig’ a rare exception. Given the depth of Richter’s ‘at home’ repertoire, he may well have explored more; at any rate, he certainly performed much Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert and Prokofiev, and loved to play symphonic and operatic music on the piano for himself. Prokofiev, who entrusted Richter with this work’s premiere, was more open-minded concerning transcription, whether of his own music or that of others, ranging from Buxtehude to Schubert. He was also a superlative pianist who knew, like Liszt, godfather to Russian schools of composers and pianists alike, how to compose ferociously demanding music that was always written ‘for’, not ‘against’, the instrument.

Moreover, whatever his enfant terrible reputation, principally a matter of contrast with reactionary conservatory professors, Prokofiev’s musical grounding was rooted in Classical tradition. Beethoven, whose music he had often as a child heard his mother play, always loomed large, whether in performance or composition; sonata forms and genres were ever present in Prokofiev’s music, modernist or more nostalgic. The distinction was always problematic, as we discover in the Seventh and its fellow ‘War’ sonatas – not a Russian term – of 1939–42. To many Western ears, the Seventh, as recorded by Pollini, seems most modernistic, at least in the wandering tonality of the first movement and the brutal insistence of the Finale; however, that begs more questions than it answers. It is more meaningful to follow Boris Berman’s argument that the Sixth anticipates war and the Eighth recalls it, while the Seventh ‘projects the anguish and the struggle […] experienced in real time’. For Richter, it plunged an audience ‘into the anxiously threatening atmosphere of a world that has lost its balance’.

Chaos and uncertainty reign. We see murderous forces unleashed. But this does not mean that what we lived by therefore ceases to exist. We continue to feel and to love. Now the full range of human emotions bursts forth. Together with our fellow men and women, we raise a voice of protest and share the common grief. We sweep everything before us, borne along by the will for victory. In the tremendous struggle that this involves, we find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life force.

Marina Frolova-Walker has similarly discerned a ‘Beethovenian narrative of victory won through struggle’: socialist realism, perhaps, though not of a dogmatic variety, and coming more naturally to Prokofiev than some would like.

Beethovenian realism might be better: in its inner voices, the second half of the opening theme bears apparent reference to what we have come to know as Beethoven’s motif of fate. This is no transcription, yet ambition to attain orchestral stature or suggestion remains, as in the marking ‘quasi Timp.’. Grotesquerie of yore is intermittently present, yet in a context of militaristic discipline is no longer a laughing matter. If the first movement offers a Beethovenian contrast between thematic groups, almost conventionally ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, its progress, both mocking and honouring hallowed sonata form, stands as close to theatre or cinema. The principal theme of the Andante caloroso may be heard as a reminiscence as false as it is fond, both in register and chordal accompaniment, of kindred movements in Beethoven. Ternary form stands familiar from many of its kind – and from two of Schubert’s Klavierstücke. The closing Precipitato offers synthesis in combat between jaunty 7/8 machine-irregularity and the Classical frame of a rondo finale. Hammered, even frenetic insistence, seemingly inherited from Prokofiev’s piano concertos, on the tonic of B flat speaks solely of the here and now. The Sonata hurtles to a close, exhilarating and only in retrospect exhausted: ‘in real time’, because it can do no other.


(This essay was originally published to accompany a recital by Igor Levit at the 2021 Salzburg Festival.)

Sunday, 19 September 2021

‘Let music not be forgotten in the meantime’: Sonatas, Fantasies, and Fragments by Schumann and Chopin


In Beethoven’s wake, composers, especially in the Austro-German tradition, asked themselves what should become of forms and genres he had seemingly taken to their ultimate, foremost among them the sonata and symphony. Allied to increasing interest, born of literary Romanticism, in the idea of the ‘fragment’ – for Friedrich Schlegel, ‘a small work of art, complete in itself and separated from its surrounding world, like a hedgehog’ – such pressure led in several directions: rejuvenation and rejection of old forms only two possible polarities. We shall hear in this programme Schumann wrestle with such questions; Chopin take, to Schumann’s bemusement, a very different sonata path; and much territory both between and beyond.

‘For ladies’

Writing in 1843, Schumann argued that ‘difficulties in form and content’ had prevented much of his music from gaining greater public esteem. The C major Arabeske, composed over his Vienna winter of 1838–9, had represented an attempt to offer something less elusive, less enigmatic, or, as Schumann put it, ‘for ladies’. In Classical terms, we may consider it a rondo: ABACA plus coda. Schumann’s literary alter egos, Florestan and Eusebius, appear respectively in passionately extrovert, minor-key episodes and wistful, introspective postlude. Strong interrelationships between first section and episodes, whether in thematic derivation or transitional return, suggest a fluid conception of developmental variation somewhere between Beethoven and Brahms.

A Lone First Movement

Schumann’s love of dotted quaver-semiquaver figures – the first note may be a quaver, followed by a semiquaver rest – as heard in the Arabeske also informs the Allegro in B minor op. 8. Conceived as the first movement to a piano sonata, completed or nearly so, yet otherwise destroyed, it occupies an interesting place in Schumann’s development. The pianist-composer integrates aspects of virtuoso display into a respectable, even venerable, musical form. We might suspect the opening cadenza to announce an improvisatory fantasia; it turns out instead to be a sonata-form movement’s first thematic group. The stark motto enunciated at its heart—B–C sharp–F sharp—proves to have multiple thematic consequences, serving, John Daverio observed, ‘as bass line for the elaboration of the first group, melodic backbone for the opening of the lyric second theme, head motif for the development, underpinning for the sequentially conceived retransition, and herald of the coda’. We might not be surprised to discern in those letters an extra-musical cipher, though that seems not to be the case. For Romanticism, incompletion does not itself signify a fragment; a fragment must in some sense be complete. However, like a ruin of yore, incompletion, however construed, forms a good basis on which to construct a fragment.

Sonata or Fantasy?

The Fantasie op. 17 is a very different kettle of fish: in Charles Rosen’s words, ‘the monument that commemorates the death of the Classical style’. The idea is especially apt given Schumann’s intention at one point during its complicated genesis to offer proceeds as his contribution to a Beethoven monument in Bonn (its committee chaired by the other Schlegel brother, August Wilhelm). Schumann expanded a single movement of 1836, a ‘fantasy’ called Ruinen – ‘a deep lament for you’, he told Clara during their enforced separation – into a three-movement ‘sonata’ entitled Ruinen, Trophaen, Palmen, tension between ancient and modern, introspection and the monumental integral to its design. Many continue to view the Fantasie in relation to sonata genre and forms, yet Schumann seems to have become convinced during, perhaps by virtue of, its composition that they had ‘run their course’, at least as comprehensible to his Classical forebears. ‘We should not repeat the same thing century after century’, he wrote in 1839; by all means write ‘sonatas, or fantasies (what’s in a name!), but let music not be forgotten in the meantime’.

Form, then, must not become formula; it is experienced as interplay between sonata and fantasy and other opposing yet related forces. Outer movements begin in medias res, with something to them of the old improvisatory fantasia. On the first’s stage appear Florestan and Eusebius as equals. The third hymns the latter, seemingly have cast off the last vestiges of Florestan’s sonata-like material. They frame and are framed by Florestan’s grand second-movement march. Mediating these oppositions, there appear (at least) two ghosts from Romanticism’s past and one from its present. First is Beethoven: in musical inheritance, but also in the first movement coda’s allusion to the closing song of Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, where the protagonist bids his ‘beloved’ during their separation to accept the songs he had once sung. Second is Schlegel, in musico-literary method and, explicitly, in Schumann’s inscription from his Die Gebüsche (once set by Schubert):

Durch alle Töne tönet
Im bunten Erdentraume,
Ein leiser Ton gezogen,
Für den, der heimlich lauschet.
(Through all the sounds
in the earth’s many-coloured dream,
one faint sound echoes
for him who secretly listens.)

Third and most important is Clara. ‘Are you not’, Schumann wrote to her, ‘the tone in the inscription?’. Is she (or Robert)? Who, then, is the secret listener? It need not be either/or.

The array of reference is dizzying: internal, external, and in a strange liminal zone of the literary-musical. Tonal and thematic relationships, as ambiguous as they are complex and thoroughgoing, fuse with questions of genre. The distinction Schumann drew between ‘higher’ or ‘noble’ forms, such as sonata, symphony or ‘fantasy’, and smaller, ‘characteristic’, simpler pieces, pertains within as well as between works. ‘Im Legendenton’, a Eusebian Lieder ohne Wortre of paradoxically timeless archaism – a musical ruin – that blossoms with typical Romantic passion, is flanked by Florestan’s sonata tendencies. For Daverio, it offers an instance of Schlegel’s conception of the Arabeske: ‘humorous, witty, or sentimental digressions that intentionally disturb the chronological flow of a narrative’, yet, ‘as a total form, […] tempers a seemingly chaotic diversity through a deliberately concealed logical process’. For Nicholas Marston, it is from here that Florestan’s flanking music is derived, if only in retrospect, by way of parallel to Schlegel’s fragmentary novel La Lucinde. The idea of a single reading misses the point. A multiplicity of readings, of (potential) performances, both fragments and unifies. Such, then, are those ‘difficulties in form and content’ to which Schumann would later refer, and which seem to have discouraged even Liszt, the dedicatee of the Fantasie, from frequent performance: ‘too difficult’, he wrote to Schumann, ‘for the public to digest’.

‘Unruly children’

We turn to Chopin for the single work named a ‘Piano Sonata’: his Second, in B flat minor op. 35. Schumann commented, sceptically, that Chopin having ‘called it a “sonata” suggests a joke, if not sheer bravado. He seems to have taken four of his most unruly children and put them together, possibly thinking to smuggle them, as a sonata, into company where they might not be considered individually presentable.’ There is no evidence to back up that observation, which says more about Schumann in 1841 than Chopin in 1839, when he wrote three of the four movements. Less weighed down by Beethoven’s example, Chopin had greater liberty to strike out on his own. He used the sonata genre, to quote Jim Samson, as ‘a framework within which the achievements of his earlier music – the figurative patterns of the Études and Preludes, the cantilenas of the Nocturnes, and even the periodicity of the dance pieces –might be drawn together in a kind of synthesis’.

More readily than the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasie, we may hear Chopin’s opening movement in terms of (modified) sonata form, especially in its exposition: a brief, powerful ‘Grave’ introduction followed by a headlong first subject and songful successor. ‘There is beautiful song in this first movement, too’, Schumann wrote, adding that the younger Chopin’s Polish qualities were vanishing, ‘via Germany, towards Italy’. We may beg to differ; Schumann did himself, continuing: ‘As soon as the song is sung, the Pole flashes forth again in all his bold originality. Certainly, Bellini never would nor could have dared the interwoven chords encountered after the close of the first episode of the second part.’ Indeed, though to be fair to Bellini, he had no more wish to do so than Chopin had to follow the hallowed (German) tonal pattern of the ‘double reprise’. The question is not ‘why did he not?’ but ‘why might you think he would have done?’. In place of the archetypal tonal drama of the Beethoven sonata, Chopin reveals his nocturne-like second subject as both heart and destination.

Typically for a Chopin scherzo, the second movement is quite without humour, even of Beethoven’s gruff variety. In dark E flat minor, its central ‘Più lento’ section shifts for the Trio to G flat major, more song – echoing the first movement’s second subject – than dance. Inner part voicing delineates Chopin’s delicate balance, born more of Bach and Mozart than Beethoven, between melody, harmony and counterpoint. Written two years earlier, the celebrated Marche funèbre offers similar contrast, this time between memorial and nocturne.

The moto perpetuo Finale represented, for Schumann, ‘more mockery than music. And yet one must confess that from this songless and cheerless movement there breathes a special and dreadful spirit, suppressing with resolute fist every inclination to resist.’ The music has certainly proved an enigma to many: Chopin at his most modernistic, even athematic? Perhaps. Again, however, is that the point? There is irony, bitter or otherwise, in this display, both in character and brevity, following the funeral march. Arthur Rubinstein described ‘night winds sweeping over churchyard graves’. The music needs neither poetic nor formal naming. Like a Prelude or Étude, it sweeps across the keys with diabolical magic entirely the piano’s own.

Singing on Its Own Terms

The Berceuse op. 57 bears affinities with the central section of the Sonata’s Scherzo. Like the Sonata itself, though, it speaks, or rather sings, on its own terms. Whatever its starting point – allegedly a lullaby for singer Pauline Viardot’s baby daughter – the music’s glittering ornamentation beguiles us into believing it, not the ostinato bass, to be the form-creating substance of 15 variations. Sometimes our ears know better than our eyes or biographies. Samson observes the patterns of Chopin’s ornamentation gain ‘new meaning precisely because of their divorce from harmonic progression, dynamic curve and even melody’. They become objects of contemplation, heard, like the Sonata’s Finale, simply as themselves. Liszt, Debussy, Ravel and other composers to this day have savoured and furthered this Romantic legacy. 

Swagger and Suggestion

The A flat major Polonaise op. 53 was Chopin’s last (bar, aptly enough, a Polonaise-Fantasy, op. 61). It strides majestically across the keyboard with fierce confidence and purpose that render its genre a starting point rather than a destination. It is clearly not intended straightforwardly to ‘be’ a dance. The composer bears witness, as if prefiguring a Liszt tone poem, to both particular and universal in wounded ‘national’ pride and heroism. Chopin’s late preoccupation with ostinato refreshes the central section, once more rejecting any notion of form as formula. Orchestral suggestiveness is no mere imitation. A piano can suggest an orchestra, but an orchestra cannot suggest itself – at least not prior, say, to Helmut Lachenmann. In sonority as in form, music is certainly not, as Schumann had it, ‘forgotten in the meantime’.

 (This essay was first published in a 2021 Salzburg Festival programme to accompany a recital by Maurizio Pollini.)

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Die Zauberflöte, Royal Opera, 15 September 2021

Royal Opera House

Tamino – Bernard Richter
Pamina – Salome Jicia
Papageno – Huw Montague Rendall
Queen of the Night – Brenda Rae
Sarastro – Krzysztof Baczyk
Monostatos – Michael Colvin
Papagena – Haegee Lee
Speaker – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Three Ladies – Alexandra Lowe, Hanna Hipp, Stephanie Wake-Edwards
Two Priests – Harry Nicoll, Donald Maxwell
Two Armoured Men – Alan Pingarrón, James Platt
Three Boys – Rafael Flutter, Benjamin Jardim, Victor Wiggin

David McVicar (director)
Dan Dooner (revival director)
John Macfarlane (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Leah Hausman, Angelo Smimmo (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Hartmut Haenchen (conductor)

Images: Bill Cooper. (C) ROH 2021

David McVicar’s 2003 Magic Flute production is really starting to look—more to the point, feel—its age. When fresh and new, especially when conducted by Colin Davis, it had a winning sense of theatrical wonder. If it never tried to plumb the work’s Enlightenment, Rosicrucian, or other depths, it left open possibilities in performance for others to do so. There was striking imagery in John Macfarlane’s designs and the story was told with clarity and intelligence—even if the final scene always seemed a little trite. Now, however, on its nth revival, much has degenerated into mere silliness. There is enough there to remind us of what it once was, with stronger direction, but enough missing to have one regret its lack. Seeing the first night of this revival on the same day that Nadine Dorries was named Culture Secretary suggested a rare moment of Dorries enlightenment, given her strange claim that ‘left-wing snowflakes’ had somehow managed to ‘dumb down’ pantomime. Once we reached the stage of fart jokes, I began to wonder whether, politics and flakiness aside, Dorries might, perish the thought, have unwittingly hit on a point. I suspect coronavirus restrictions played a part, getting in the way not only of interaction but some of the more ambitious mechanical elements, but it was difficult not to think more interesting solutions might have been explored. Perhaps there was simply not enough rehearsal time.

Tamino (Bernard Richter)

Singing, at least, was in another league. Bernard Richter’s Tamino was everything one could reasonably expect: alluring of tone, careful of words, warmly sympathetic. Huw Montague Rendall’s Papageno proved both lively and thoughtful, likewise respectful of the text, whist appreciating that it is the starting- and not the end-point for a performance. His was a properly physical performance, which nonetheless appreciated that there is much more to the character than that. Salome Jicia’s beautifully sung and acted Pamina and Brenda Rae’s astonishingly accurate, far from entirely unsympathetic Queen of the Night impressed similarly. The Three Boys can sometimes prove a weak link, but not here, Rafael Flutter, Benjamin Jardim, Victor Wiggin comprising an uncommonly fine trio. Krzysztof Baczyk initially sounded a little underpowered as Sarastro, but came into his own in the second act. Choral singing had its moments, in positive and less positive ways.

Brenda Rae (Queen of the Night)

Hartmut Haenchen’s conducting could have been worse. Indeed, I have heard much worse, though a rushed, scrappy Overture, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House on decidedly sub-par form, was cause for concern. Thereafter, breackneck tempi were not, let us be thankful, the order of the day. Indeed, speeds in themselves were rarely a problem. There was rarely much sense of grace, light, or indeed, where necessary, wisdom and weight in the orchestra and its direction, though; for that, the singers seemed more or less left to themselves. Instead, we trudged from number to number, sometimes even from bar to bar, without much sense of a greater whole. It was dutiful Kapellmeisterei, neither more nor less, a world away from Constantin Trinks’s revelatory Don Giovanni in here July.

An unruly audience did not help, applauding, even cheering etween and sometimes even in the middle of numbers: the second-act finale, for instance. That may occasionally, regrettably, happen, but Haenchen seemed to go out of his way to facilitate it. (He even turned for a bow at one point.) So, still more, did the revival direction, which went so far as to leave pauses without anyone or anything on stage. There is quietly accepting the near-inevitable; there can even be metatheatrical framing; there is also pandering to the lowest common denominator. If The Magic Flute is not about about gently, joyously assisting Bildung or self-cultivation, then I do not know what is. Ultimately, though, this speaks of how tired McVicar’s production has become. Time for a change, I think.

Papageno (Huw Montague Rendall)

When a work such as this is given in the original language—German at least, though little sounded especially Viennese—the dialogue needs greater attention. Fidelio often suffers similarly. Some performers were excellent in this respect, Richter and Montague Rendall first and foremost, and there were other perfectly reasonable performances. A few, however, spoke in bizarrely laboured fashion, at barely half speed. The effect was more weirdly expressionist than humorous. Given the dialogue fulfils a similar role here to recitativo secco, it deserves the same care in terms of pacing and rhythm, as well as pronunciation. Appearing to mean something would be a distinct advantage too, as would more accurate titles for those who insist on laughing uproariously at them.

For what it is worth, most of the audience seemed to love it. I was delighted to hear some excellent singing. The production may be seen on ROH Stream from Friday 1 October and is rep until 7 October.