Monday 31 May 2021

Rautio Piano Trio - Elias and Schubert, 30 May 2021

Hall One, Kings Place

Brian Elias: Piano Trio (world premiere)
Schubert: Piano Trio no.2 in E-flat major, D 929

Jane Gordon (violin)
Victoria Simonsen (cello)
Jan Rautio (piano)

Written in five relatively short, interconnected movements (Allegro-Lento-Presto-Adagio-Presto), Brian Elias’s Piano Trio makes for an impressive addition to the repertoire. If the composer seemed very much at home in the medium, the players seemed equally at home in his idiom. The Rautio Piano Trio certainly gave this world premiere as if they had lived some time with this music and its possibilities. An arresting opening, angular and lyrical, for all three instruments, seemed even on a first hearing to set up ideas and possibilities for the rest of the work. Not that that material is simply repeated; rarely did it seem to appear in quite the same guise. Rather, it is varied, transformed, and above all developed: in melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic terms. Here we heard a composer comfortable with roots in tradition, without in any sense being hidebound by it or otherwise backward-looking. Both work and performance imparted a strong sense of every note counting, of being made to count; for this sounded as a case of material being shaped, even mastered, as sculpture in sound. As Webern once put it, ‘To develop everything … from one principal idea! That is the strongest unity … But in what form? That is where art comes in!’ Freedom, as we must seemingly constantly remind ourselves and others, is not licence. Perhaps this is to indulge in undue anachronism, but it seemed to me there was indeed something of a Second Viennese School rigour and/of expression beneath the surface. The central Presto movement bears some resemblance to a Classical scherzo and trio, without necessarily ‘being’ such a movement; yet it also springs from and leads to the two slow movements that flank it. It is, moreover, in that ongoing transformation of musical figures that both some degree of formal symmetrical balance and thoroughgoing development occur—and are felt to occur.

It took my ears a minute or so to adjust to the greater expansiveness and, at least in this performance, greater lightness of Schubert’s E-flat makor Piano Trio. The first movement did not lack sterner, darker passages, nor Schubertian Sehnsucht when called for, but its initial mood was, rightly, quite different. Maybe it was hearing this music in the light of Elias’s new work, but the Rautio Piano Trio seemed unusually attentive to thematic transformation in Schubert’s writing too. At any rate, the sadness that is rarely too far from the surface of Schubert’s music began more strongly to register as the music developed (that is, not only in the development section). The paradoxical combination of lightness of tone and onward trudge in the opening of the Andante con moto was well judged. If I sometimes missed a greater sense of tension later on in that movement, the tragedy of its close held the attention in arresting manner. The apparent insouciance of the scherzo is just that, of course: apparent. The players being wise enough not to opt for one side or the other, that ambiguity was well served here. So too was the qualification in Schubert’s marking for the finale, ‘Allegro moderato’. A spacious account that was not slow but rather unhurried, permitted detail to emerge throughout, often in telling fashion.

Friday 28 May 2021

Waterloo Festival (1): Hewitt - Couperin and Brahms, 27 May 2021

St John’s, Waterloo

Couperin: Pièces de clavecin, Book III: 18e Ordre
Brahms: Piano Sonata no.3 in F minor, op.5

Angela Hewitt (piano)  

Images: Ilme Vysniauskaite

Taking as its theme the fifteenth-century English word, ‘respair’, the recovery of hope following a period of despair, the 2021 Waterloo Festival offers much of that desperately sought-after quality, not least the return of Anthony Friend’s Spotlight Chamber Concerts series, so cruelly cut short last December. Twice postponed, a recital by Angela Hewitt, originally conceived as a farewell to Beethoven Year (‘Geh, Hoffnung’) now offered music by Couperin and Brahms to a socially distanced audience of about 150 people. That in itself surely offered grounds for respair.

To the uninitiated, Couperin and Brahms might seem a strange combination. Brahms was of course a crucial figure in nineteenth-century revival of early music. He knew Bach’s cantatas intimately; it would be difficult to overstate the importance of Bach’s music for his own. Handel loomed large too: Brahms provided written out continuo parts (on piano) for an entire volume of Handel’s Italian duets and trios, gave the Vienna premiere of Saul in 1873, and the German Requiem speaks for itself. Brahms’s work with older German masters such as Isaac, Schütz, and Buxtehude likewise informed both concert life and his own writing. Brahms’s political nationalism—whatever some may tell you, far less tenuous than Wagner’s—notwithstanding, his musical inclinations were more generous. Advocacy for the keyboard music of Couperin, both as pianist and as ‘editor’ (it seems Friedrich Chrysander did much of the hard work in Brahms’s name), was, if more surprising, no less genuine. Clara Schumann declared herself baffled by Brahms’s interest in something that was ‘really of little interest musically’, yet Elaine Kelly makes a persuasive case for influence on some of Brahms’s later piano music. The Third Piano Sonata does not, of course, fall into that category. And whilst it would doubtless be fascinating to hear an attempted recreation, or at least reimagination, of Brahms’s performing style for Couperin, this was not attempted here. Nor, however, was this one of those perverse attempts to have the piano sound like the harpsichord. (Clue: it never will. If you want the harpsichord, play or listen to the harpsichord.)

Here we heard the 1722 eighteenth ordre, finally balanced between F major and minor—and thus preparing the way for the tonality of Brahms’s sonata. The opening allemande, ‘La Verneüil’ spoke with an occluded freedom very much of our moment. In Hewitt’s hands, it rightly took its time, but it (or rather she) knew where it was heading: respair, one might say. ‘La Verneüilléte’, presumably presenting the daughter of the previously evoked Duke of Bourbon, offered a more wilful obstinacy—make of that what you will—born of, yet extending beyond, its courtly idiom. In the rich melancholy of ‘Sœur Monique’, the acoustic vibration of Couperin’s ornaments in Francis Bedford’s church, proved part and parcel of its magic. Indeed as so often, ‘ornaments’ seemed quite the wrong word. ‘Le turbulent’, bright and busy, and the necessary contrast of ‘L’atendrissante’, all the more lugubrious on the piano, led to a delightful, dexterous musical box of a performance for the celebrated ‘Le tic-toc-choc’. There was finally an almost childlike delight to be had in the boisterous obstinacy, allied to that of ‘La Verneüilléte’, yet unquestionably different in character, in ‘Le gaillard-boiteux’.

Hand on heart, I am yet to be won over by any of Brahms’s three piano sonatas, all of them early works. Never say never, though, and it is quite possible that this performance will have edged me a little closer. There was no denying the captivating quality to the first movement’s contrast: tumultuous opening, soon scaled down to prophetic half-lights—far from solely the province of the composer’s late years—in a dialectic of tragic virtuosity. Hewitt captured well the Classicism with which the young composer already distinguished himself from Schumann: more than mere framing, though certainly that too. The ‘Andante espressivo’, to my ears more ingratiating, was sung without sentimentality and with clear direction, reflexively exulting in its material possibilities. If the Scherzo is giant, it is not elephantine; it sounded as serious, yet not so grim, as Chopin’s scherzi, in a reading plentiful in chiaroscuro. We heard more of the notes than there is any reasonable ground to expect. The pathos of a young Romantic already somewhat out of his time was readily, winningly apparent in the Intermezzo. The finale showed debts to Beethoven and Schumann if not settled then at least recognised and addressed.

For like so much else right now, they offer but a starting point, the future more uncertain than ever. In that spirit, Hewitt’s encore reignited our immanent sense of respair. Mary Howe’s transcription of Bach’s ‘Sheep may safely graze’ proved, perhaps inevitably, the most immediately moving music of all. Possessed both of dignity and of a freedom that comes of abiding acquaintance, it felt like meeting an old friend in fine new clothes. Where Bach remains, all is not lost.

Thursday 20 May 2021

La corona, Bampton Classical Opera, 18 May 2021

St John’s, Smith Square

Atalanta – Samantha Louis-Jean
Meleagro – Harriet Eyley
Climene – Lisa Howarth
Asteria – Lucy Anderson
Narrator – Rosa French

Robert Howarth (conductor)

La corona: Bampton Classical Opera certainly selected a title for our times. However, the English translation under which it was promoted, The Crown, not only has televisual contemporary resonance, but reminds us that every crown, though arguably a misfortune, is not quite a sign of a deadly virus. Not that the eighteenth century, at least until its close, saw things that way. In Europe, at least, monarchies seemed the height of modernity, the path to the future. The old prize of universal monarchy retained currency, albeit in conflict with more novel notions of the balance of power. Those few republics remaining were ailing, unlikely models for human flourishing. And at the centre of Europe remained the Holy Roman Empire and Habsburg monarchy, recently separated yet now once again reunited under Francis (Stephen) I and Maria Theresa.

This was the last of the dozen Metastasio libretti the Vienna court poet named ‘azione teatrale’: that is, a serenata, with definite action and to be staged. We should not get too hung up on the term, more a vague description than a genre; it is difficult to say why, say, L’isola disabitata (as set by Haydn, among many others) and Il sogno di Scipione (as set by many before Mozart, and at least one after him) should be considered such and other, similar works should not, let alone why the Orfeo of Calzabigi and Gluck, quite un-Metastasian, should originally have received that designation.

Gluck’s music, now lost, for an Iphigenia in Aulis ballet, first written for the Imperial Castle at Laxenburg, had been given once more a few months later at Innsbruck for the 1765 wedding of the Archduke Leopold (later Leopold II) to Infanta Maria Luisa (who later notoriously dismissed Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito as ‘una porcheria tedesca’). Having left the theatre at its conclusion, Francis suffered a fatal stroke in his carriage. The theatres closed and the azione teatrale in preparation for Francis’s name-day, in performance by a quartet of his daughters (the Archduchesses Maria Elisabeth, Maria Amalia, Maria Josepha, and Maria Carolina), went unperformed until a 1966 Austrian radio broadcast. Staging had to wait until 1987, in Schönbrunn’s Salon de Bataille, where Gluck’s premiere would have taken place.

The present performance, however, was given in concert, like the British premiere, also from 1987, slightly earlier, at the City of London Festival. In place of secco recitatives, we had a linking English narration. Having drawn inevitable reference to the other ‘corona’, it clearly told us where we were, what was going on, and sketched a broader mythological and literary context, lightly yet learnedly allusive. Context, that is, to the slight tale of who should take credit for the Calydonian boar hunt: ultimately neither Atalanta nor her sister, Climene, neither Princess Asteria nor or Prince Meleagro, but the goddess Diana. It culminates in bestowal of the crown of laurels on the keen royal huntsman Francis. Rosa French delivered her narration with elegance and wit.

The music is fresh, in many respects glorious, certainly well deserving of greater acquaintance, though this is no drama in the sense of the ‘reformist’ Gluck. (Nor was it intended to be.) Robert Howarth’s direction from the harpsichord of CHROMA was forthright and unfussy, well judged in balance and tempo, if occasionally a little four-square for my ears in negotiating Gluck’s structures. (We clearly hear Gluck differently, which is no crime. Far better this, in any case, than egoistic conducting that aims above all to draw attention to itself.)

All four singers acquitted themselves with honour, complementing and lightly contrasting as befitting. The extremity of Atalanta’s coloratura—could the Habsburg-Lorraine princesses really have come anywhere near singing this music?—was effortlessly tamed by Samantha Louis-Jean. Lucy Anderson’s spirited Asteria and Lisa Howarth’s sincere Climene were equally stylish. So too did Harriet Eyley’s Meleagro, whose heroism en travesti, both bright-toned and variegated, proved just the ‘early Classical’ ticket. If the splendid penultimate number, a duet between Atalanta and Meleagro, left both in peril of being outshone by Emma Feilding’s oboe, then that is Gluck’s doing. A joy from beginning to end, whatever our views on crowns, viruses, and their intersection.

La clemenza di Tito, Royal Opera, 17 May 2021

Royal Opera House

Tito – Edgaras Montvidas
Vitellia – Nicole Chevalier
Sesto – Emily D’Angelo
Annio – Angela Brower
Servilia – Christina Gansch
Publio – Joshua Bloom
Senators – Jeremy White, George Freeburn
Berenice – Fumi Kaneko
Conspirators – Amanda Baldwin, Tim Parker-Langston, Nicholas Sharratt
Guards – Andrew Carter, Davy Quistin

Richard Jones (director)
Ultz (designs)
Adam Silverman (lighting)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

Over fifteen months since I had last set foot in an opera house—for Carmen at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden—it felt extraordinary to be back. All else would be secondary. Constant frustrations and persistent fears of the new ‘Johnson variant’ shutting down everything again made for a background of great uncertainty. Comparisons with the crisis of the social order sweeping Europe during the 1780s and 1790s will shed little light, yet all of us this side of Dido Harding and her fellow profiteers crave a degree of certainty some way beyond that our world affords us. Like the Prague Estates commissioning La clemenza di Tito to celebrate Leopold II’s coronation as king of Bohemia, we clamour for something we knew and loved well, whilst knowing that it can never be the same again—and that it almost certainly never was.

That something might be Imperial Rome, Habsburg clementia austriaca, or both, as recreated by the Caeasarian poet Pietro Metastasio for Charles VI’s name-day. It might be Metastasio as set by forty composers prior to Mozart, among them Caldara, Hasse, Gluck, and Mysliveček. It might be Metastasio as galvanised by Mozart’s revisionary librettist, Caterino Mazzolà, transforming blank verse into ensembles and, crucially, three acts into two, rendering the moment of revolt the choral climax of the first, as opposed to an offstage event mentioned in recitative. It might be Metastasio-Mazzolà transformed by Mozart; it might the lives of artists and audience, traumatised beyond measure not only by the dread virus, but by the fundamental, immeasurably deadlier disease of neoliberalism. At all times many, barely daring hope for the endgame and, more to the point, having no idea what it will be, find themselves craving reversion and restoration. Revolution, taken literally, invokes turning of the wheel; it was only events in France that turned its meaning to rupture—and even then, only partially. To see Mozart once more on the Covent Garden stage came close to many such impossible dreams.

Or rather in this case, hearing Mozart from the pit and onstage came close. Anyone could point to occasional flaws in ensemble, but to experience ensemble at all, whether from orchestra, chorus, soloists, or tutti, was more than enough for now. The last time I had seen this opera on this stage, it had been conducted by that emperior among Mozartians, Sir Colin Davis. Now was not, however, a time to look back, whatever the splendours and delights of those performances. For this was 17 May: if not quite le grand retour, then the beginning, we can only desperately hope, of the end. Secco recitatives were cut, but anyone can live with that, given Mozart’s lack of involvement in them; what remained was performed convincingly indeed. (I should certainly credit the harpsichordist, if I knew who it had been.) 

This was not a Tito of immense grandeur, but looking at, listening to the world around us, there may have been good reason for that. Moreover, distancing within the pit, musicians one to a pit, necessitated a smaller number of musicians than ‘ideal’, whatever that may mean—or which may simply have been an aesthetic preference. Wigglesworth conveyed an inner, more domestic drama to the score that was not identical to Davis’s, Böhm’s, Muti's, nor anyone else’s—how could it be?—but which spoke from ruins on and off stage. It kept going in the face of adversity, and did much more than that. Swifter than we may be accustomed to, it was yet never harried and found time to relax: to savour many moments of woodwind—not only clarinet—beauty; to express pulsating life in Mozart’s inner strings; to urge us on to a close uncertain yet necessary.

Edgaras Montvidas’s youthful, mellifluous Tito enhanced that sense of present urgency, of a need to resist turning back. Politically Orphic, if you like. Nicole Chevalier occasionally struggled with her lower notes: how long must it be since many of these singers have appeared regularly, or at all, on stage? Hers was nevertheless a spirited, multi-dimensional Vitellia, more likeable than often, which seemed to be a choice. Emily D’Angelo’s Sesto captivated in a moral struggle framed by allure and weakness whose twin masculinity was only highlighted by the trouser role’s—originally castrato’s—blurring of boundaries. There was no doubting, moreover, her/his cleanness of line and general stylishness; likewise for typically fine performances from Angela Brower (Annio) and Christina Gansch (Servilia). Even Joshua Bloom as Publio, a thankless role, found space to shine. The Royal Opera Chorus, offstage throughout, made a welcome return too: doubtless equally true for its members.

Richard Jones’s production, however, was a bit of a mess. The vague neoclassicism, interior as well as exterior, of set designer Ultz’s Capitol worked well enough, so far as it went. Like the spareness of much of Mozart’s score—so different from that heard in the more-or-less contemporaneous Magic Flute—there was potential not only to frame, but also to propel, the drama before our eyes. Except it did not. Jones seemed on auto-pilot, offering little beyond a vague ‘look’ of fascism and football: a combination that might have been productive yet was not. Was the architectural model a Speer reference, imperial counsellors’ tailoring suggestive more of Berchtesgaden than south of the Alps? Perhaps, yet if so, it again went for little. Italian graffiti seemed not so much evocative of emptiness as merely empty. Why did a silent Berenice traipse around the set early on? Vitellia’s piece-by-piece destruction of her garland in ‘Non più di fiori’ could have been a model for careful attention to text not as artefact but as living drama. Much else, however, looked haphazard or even absent.

Shop-soiled ‘postmodernism’, laziness, or hasty quasi-improvisation? Probably all of the above, for this was ‘school of Richard Jones’ enough to suggest deliberate choices, however difficult the circumstances. A closing image of Tito running around the stage as if having scored a goal proved one of the most half-hearted attempts at Verfremdung I have seen since—well, Jones’s Covent Garden Bohème, which could not be excused by pandemic exigencies. Brecht is not to be reduced to a look, even by late capitalism; nor is opera. More in the way of Personenregie would have done this the world of good. Perhaps the singers will develop a stronger dramatic focus themselves as the short run progresses, responding to the mise-en-scène in ways beyond the director on this occasion. It is, in so many respects, early days. Maybe the present, however haunted by the past, always feels like that. Amidst all the uncertainty, it remained quite something to be back.