Friday 30 July 2021

Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival (1) – The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow (Acts I and II), 29 July 2021

The Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone

The Pure Ones, Acolytes of O’fela – Zoe Devlin
Momolow, High Preistess of O’fela – Susan Harriott
O’Fela, the Crocodile God – Oscar Dom Victor Castellino
Marquis de Sade – Phil Wilcox
Virgin Sacrifice, Justine, Marie Antoinette – Caroline Kennedy
Wizard Mystah Byegee – Jackson Scott

Eleanor Burke (director)
Seb Mayer (puppet maker)
Natasha Lawes (headdresses, wigs)

Darren Berry (narrator)
Eddie Giffney (piano).

Asking what is, or what is not, an opera is a fool’s errand, especially so when it comes to Tête-à-Tête. Ultimately, one probably has to conclude that an opera is anything someone, perhaps its creator(s), decides to call an opera. And yet that is obviously unsatisfactory. Hence we keep asking, as we do with music, drama, art, and so much else—all of which are generally held to combine under the heading ‘opera’. No wonder various people have rebelled against the term altogether, whereas still more have been attracted to it for reasons both close and distant.

Darren Berry’s The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow is certainly unusual, but there are many perfectly good reasons to consider it as such, not least his and Tête-à-Tête’s decision to do so. It has singing (live and filmed), other music (mostly recorded, but with live piano), acting (live and filmed), takes place in a theatre, and so on. As a ‘punk opera’, it has little connection, at least so far—we have only reached the end of the second act—with punk rock, though it perhaps has something in common with the elusive genre of ‘rock opera’, even with some of the work of Ken Russell. A mix of musical styles, from eighteenth-century pastiche and television accompaniment to Gospel, albeit with nothing one might consider modernist, let alone contemporary, suggests desire to be considered anarchic; so do combination with words (Berry’s own) and the words themselves (imbued, so it seems, with a schoolboy’s glee in regaling us with multiple slang terms for semen).

The first act, which takes us from pre-revolutionary Paris to ‘Old Kang Pow’, has much to entertain. Go expecting a successor work to Parsifal and you will doubtless be disappointed, perplexed, or something else, but then one might say that about many operas since. Nevertheless, diminishing returns, which had threatened to set in before the end of that act—a fun finale perhaps too extended—paved the way for a second act that, increasingly dubious racial stereotyping aside, actually turned a bit on the dull side. A fantasy of a secret, drug-induced (!) realm, in which the Marquis de Sade attempts to rediscover his libido in order to avoid execution at the command of Marie Antoinette, is doubtless not intended to be taken entirely seriously. Even with committed performances from all concerned—as ever, performers stand at the heart of a Tête-a-Tête production—there are probably limits to how long any particular member of the audience will remain engaged. I think I had reached mine, but a third act beckons for those who feel differently. And is that not always the case? Not everyone, after all, wants a Bühnenweihfestspiel; of those who do, nobody wants one every day.

Tête-à-Tête has much more to offer over the coming weeks; please consider lending your support, be that in the theatre or online.

Friday 23 July 2021

Monserrat/Mad Song/Ballance - Mahler, Müller-Hermann, and Schoenberg, 22 July 2021

St John the Baptist Church, High Barnet, London

Johanna Müller-Hermann, arr. Joshua Ballance: Fünf Lieder, opp.11 and 32
Mahler, arr. Ballance: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Schoenberg, arr. Webern: Chamber Symphony no.1, op.9

Anita Monserrat (soprano)
Hannah Gillingham (flute)
James Gilbert (clarinet)
Seleni Stewart (violin)
Benedict Swindells (cello)
Gus Tredwell (piano)
Joshua Ballance (conductor)

To the (other) end of the Northern Line, to High Barnet (Chipping Barnet, if you prefer), for a wonderful concert in the inaugural season of the High Barnet Chamber Music Festival, conceived during lockdown by conductor and scholar Joshua Ballance. Here was a judicious mixture of known and—to me, at any rate—unknown, the known in new, chamber guise, arranged by Ballance and Webern (whose music features in Ballance’s doctoral study).

First, the unknown: two songs from Johanna Müller-Hermann’s op.11 (c.1914) and three from her op.32 (between 1932 and 1936). It was a fascinating opportunity to hear music from this Zemlinsky pupil. If the music sounded broadly how one might a priori have expected it to sound, that is not intended to convey shortcoming. The first two song, both Goethe settings, ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ and ‘An die Entfernte’, initially had me thinking in (necessary?) clichés to orient myself: post-Brahms, post-Zemlinsky, but never to be reduced to mere influence. If vocal lines, especially phrase endings, had a certain Classical quality to them, that is not necessarily a bad thing and they were not entirely without surprises, suggesting perhaps a kinship with early Schoenberg songs (or those of Berg and Webern, for that matter). Harmonies were definitely of the time, whatever that may mean. These are well-crafted songs, worth anyone’s attention, in equally well-crafted arrangements: the first inviting, the second imploring and speaking not only of, but with, sad resignation.

As Müller-Hermann’s song-writing developed, so too did the arrangements in which we heard them. Ballance’s work both as arranger and conductor in the Hofmannthal song, ‘Vorfrühling’, hinted cunningly and seductively at Second Viennese School possibilities, whilst remaining true to Müller-Hermann’s more conservative style. This song seemed to look both to a typical expressionist landscape and the more stifling eroticism of the contemporary drawing room. In ‘Du schlank und rein’, Stefan George offered a verbal framework for kaleidoscopic harmony and timbre, above which the excellent soprano Anita Monserrat floated a finely spun yet variegated vocal line. Equally attentive to words and music, Monserrat suggested darker currents, as did Balance, in ‘In Traum und Gesang’ (Rudolf Alexander Schröder), Brahmsian in part, yet again far from reducible to any such model.

We know Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in piano and orchestral guise. Why not an ensemble somewhere in between? Why not indeed, especially in such fine performances as those offered by Ballance and his Pierrot ensemble Mad Song. Such instrumentation could hardly avoid to suggest the Second Viennese future, but there are tendencies enough, even in early Mahler, that this sounded the most natural step in the world. The combination of naïveté and alienation was spot on, allied to fine command of line and tempo. By the time we reached the second song, ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’, the enormity of hearing Mahler at long last again in the flesh hit home. There was little question, whether from Monserrat or Mad Song, that this was the real thing: exultant, and perhaps somewhere with a glimmer of that hope we have learned to call by its mediaeval name, ‘respair’. The final question, might happiness now begin, and negative response, no it can never bloom for me, hit home all the more strongly in such heart-stopping guise. ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ received hochdramatisch treatment, very much on a knife-edge, and pivoting in truly Mahlerian fashion to hallucinogenic new vistas, through not against form. The closing ‘Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz’ seemed very much to speak to our recent (and current) trauma, uncertain rebuilding, and further illusion and hope. A mirage? Perhaps, yet what else do we have? Haunting was the mot juste.

Webern’s arrangement (1922-3) of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony completed the programme. Unsurprisingly, Webern seems especially concerned to play up Schoenberg’s constructivism of fourths at the opening—or is it that one wants to hear that, knowing who it is? That was how it sounded, at any rate, balanced by Schoenberg’s well-nigh profusion of melody. Ballance’s reading, especially during the exposition, spoke of a musical understanding that had nothing to prove other than the immanent qualities of this extraordinary music. Later on, he seemed especially keen to characterise the character of individual ‘movements’ within Schoenberg’s overall single-movement form, though there was certainly affinity between them too. Variation of tempo at micro- and macro-levels was in general finely judged. If there were occasional corners whose turning seemed slightly abrupt, that is largely testament to what difficult music this is to bring off convincingly. That achievement was never in doubt, and it was intriguing to hear the ‘slow movement’ taken with more Brucknerian breadth. Not everything need, nor should, be taken frenetically here. Playing was committed throughout, Benedict Swindells’s cello perhaps first among equals. How welcome it was to welcome back both Schoenberg and Mahler, and to welcome a team of fine musicians from whom we shall doubtless hear more.

Saturday 17 July 2021

The Cunning Little Vixen, Opera Holland Park, 13 July 2021

Images: Ali Wright
Vixen (Jennifer France) and Fox (Julia Sporsén)

Vixen – Jennifer France
Fox – Julia Sporsén
Forester – Grant Doyle
Forester’s Wife, Owl – Ann Taylor
Schoolmaster, Mosquito – Charne Rochford
Priest, Badger – John Savournin
Harašta – Ashley Riches
Chocholka – Harriet Eyley
Lapák – Natasha Agarwal
Jay, Rooster – Grace Nyandoro
Woodpecker – Chloë Pardoe
Innkeeper – Phillip Costovski
Innkeeper’s Wife – Yolanda Grant-Thompson
Pepík – Alys Mererid Roberts
Frantík – Claire Ward
Frog – Daniel White
Caterpillar—Toby Yates
Grasshopper – Ben Jardim
Young Vixen – Estella Charlesworth

Stephen Barlow (director)
Andrew D. Edwards (designs)
Rory Beaton (lighting)
Sarita Piotrowski (choreography, movement)

Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Dominic Ellis-Peckham)
City of London Sinfonia
Jessica Cottis (conductor)
Forester (Grant Doyle), Schoolmaster (Charne Rochford)

Our present condition lends us, perhaps more than ever, to think of what has led us here, how things really are now, and where the world will take us next. Or so we fancy: for some of us that is doubtless the case, for others less so, and is it really that different from other stages in our earthly existence? Plus ça change? It is too early to tell. Whatever the truth or otherwise of such claims, an opera that decentres humans without obliterating them, turning our attention to the life cycles of which that of our species is but one—and an intrusive one at that—has much to say to us right now.

Enter The Cunning Little Vixen; indeed, enter the cunning little vixen Sharp-Ears. A particular strength of Stephen Barlow’s new production for Opera Holland Park is the heightening of a sense of interaction—perhaps neither good nor bad, but just ‘how it is’—between the natural and human worlds, in this case a decidedly urban world portrayed with sparing use of designs and props but decided suggestion, subtlety, and dramatic impact. We see Terynka on stage at the opening, a reminder not only of the intertwining—real, though less crucial than we might think—but also of the constructed parallels between the poacher Harašta’s forthcoming marriage to Terynka and the life, loves, and death of our vixen—and what will become in turn of her daughter. There is sadness, both of regret and of grief, in that, not least with respect to the lovelorn Schoolmaster, who has always admired Terynka from afar. There is also danger: danger that humans might encroach on that natural world too far: not for nothing are our urban foxes, human and animal, seen by a recycling bin. The natural world exists here too: we probably see foxes in London more often than elsewhere in the country. Should we? That is probably a meaningless question. How, then, might we effect some sort of return, for our sake and theirs, to a more ‘natural’ life-cycle? And should we?

That love (probably) and sex (definitely) lie at the heart of such conundrums, intertwined and parallel, is clear too. Much is done, probably all to the better in the age of coronavirus, by suggestion, again by intersection and parallelism. That word ‘intersection’ reminds us of gender issues, contemporary and age-old, too. The scene in which the vixen tempts hens to leave the apparent safety of their masters, animal and human, by presenting a utopia of women’s (and animal) rights seems especially crucial in this staging, both as high-point and as dead-end. Make of that what you will in light of the loss of their eggs and thus their potential for motherhood and, ultimately, the continuation of their species line. Are not, though, humans doing that anyway? Do we only care when, to borrow from Strauss and Hofmannsthal, a vixen rather than a forester/farmer steals their shadow?

There are rightly no easy answers, but they are posed: as they are in the musical performances, here very much of a piece with what we see. As so often in Holland Park, a sense of company that is more than its parts—like opera, like society, like nature?—is palpable and productive. Jessica Cottis’s direction of Jonathan Dove’s skilful reduction of Janáček’s score—very much a work of art in its own right, accordion and all—is fiercely alert in the moment; yet it also, as must any comprehending Janáček performance, senses and conveys the often surprising ways in which what might seem to be difficult, even rebarbative fragments are magically, indissolubly pieced together. The orchestra, here an attentive, lively City of London Sinfonia, takes on still more of that role when the work is sung in English, thus losing those foundational, generative Czech speech rhythms (even for those of us who speak no Czech). The decision is doubtless wise in a world permitting little international travel, a largely English cast (and audience) responding to the immediacy of a common tongue, a witty updating of Norman Tucker’s translation very much delivered and heard in the here and now. The ear compensates, as do the mind and eye.
Young Vixen (Estella Charlesworth), City of London Sinfonia, Jessica Cottis (conductor)

It was, then, the sort of performance in which it is tempting to re-list the cast and attribute good things to all of them. Such an approach, if slightly tedious, would doubtless be warranted. If I only single out a few performances that particularly caught my ear (and other senses), such words should be taken as indicative rather than exclusive. Jennifer France and Julia Sporsén offered lively, loving portrayals of Vixen and Fox, similarly alive in the moment yet allusive to broader, more cyclical (and/or ruptured) themes. Grant Doyle’s detailed way with words and music had me wonder what he would have made of the original Czech, though only in retrospect. As a key bridge between one world and another, he not only made things fit but ensured that they moved us in our human state of alienated longing. So too, albeit more exclusively on the human side, did Charne Rochford’s Schoolmaster. Ashley Riches operated as Harašta with a fine vocal and stage swagger, seemingly knowing yet ultimately foolish. All contributed, though; the operatic ecosystem would have been considerably the poorer without any. Surely that offers its own, broader moral.

Friday 9 July 2021

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera, 5 July 2021

Royal Opera House

Images: (C) ROH 2021, by Bill Cooper

Don Giovanni (Erwin Schrott),
Donna Anna (Adela Zaharia)
Don Giovanni – Erwin Schrott
Leporello – Gerald Finley
Donna Anna – Adela Zaharia
Don Ottavio – Frédéric Antoun
Donna Elvira – Nicole Chevalier
Zerlina – Zuzana Marková
Masetto – Michael Mofidian
Commendatore – Adam Palka
Donna Elvira’s maid – Josephine Arden

Kasper Holten (director)
Jack Furness (revival director)
Es Devlin (set design)
Luke Halls (video design)
Anja Vang Kragh (costumes)
Bruno Poet (lighting)
Signe Fabricius, Anna-Marie Sullivan (choreography)
Kate Waters, Simon Johns (fight direction)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Constantin Trinks (conductor)

This was the real thing, a return to Covent Garden that reminded one what opera can, should, even must be. We had made allowances for La clemenza di Tito, with which the ‘first reopening’ took place; there were admirable things, not least the return of some sort of hope for the art form in a hostile country, but we were making allowances—and rightly so. This Don Giovanni, however, was the real thing.
Masetto (Michael Mofidian), Zerlina (Zuzana Marková)

Such was clear from the opening bars. What a relief it was not to have them fashionably rushed. Indeed, Constantin Trinks led the finest Mozart I have heard at Covent Garden since we lost Colin Davis. It is a truism, but a truism worth repeating, that performing Mozart is the most difficult task in the musical world. Such complexity, especially in his later music, lies beneath the surface, yet it must sound the easiest, simplest of things. There is nowhere to hide. Like, say, Daniel Barenboim, but unlike most contemporary conductors, Trinks understands that Mozart’s music is ultimately founded on harmony—and knows how to communicate that. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounded rejuvenated, responding in style and with seeming relish to a vision of the work both attentive to detail and cognisant of tonal-dramatic architecture. Tempi were well chosen, not in isolation—‘Mme X will sing it like this’—but as part of what seemed to be a genuine company sense of a shared whole. For once, I could forget my objections to the all-too-familiar conflation of Prague and Vienna versions, enjoying a feast of music for what it was, if not the mutilation of the scena ultima (alas, the production’s doing, about which the conductor will have had no say). Trinks’s handling of recitative, both secco (from the fortepiano) and accompagnato, proved crucial both to musical and dramatic success, welding them together with that necessarily lightest of touches. If a conductor of the past occasionally came to mind, it was not so much Furtwängler (as it might have been with Barenboim) as a Carlo Maria Giulini of earlier vintage: less overtly ‘Romantic’, for want of a better word, though quietly, comprehendingly aristocratic. For this alone, it would have been Mozart worth making every effort to hear.

Don Giovanni

It was not, of course, alone, conductor and orchestra joined by a fine cast of singers. At its head was the ever-astonishing Don Giovanni of Erwin Schrott. Here was a role inhabited rather than portrayed, primarily animateur yet also, in chameleon-like reaction—how he slithers between, adapts, insinuates himself into all social-musical settings— animé. In keeping with and, in new circumstances, extending Kasper Holten’s production, here ably revived and similarly extended by Jack Furness, this Giovanni was dangerously seductive, disconcertingly (yet, in both musical and dramatic terms, brilliantly) spontaneous, and, at the last, or rather just before the last, thrillingly heroic. Holten’s undercutting of that heroism, having the final scene, albeit shorn (why?) of its opening, play out as the mental collapse of the hero signals, as so often, an unwillingness to take this most deeply Catholic of operas ultimately on its own terms, though less so than many others, which refuse or simply do not understand its premise in the first place.

Gerald Finley’s Leporello was just as excellent. One sensed a servant’s desire to become his master—as Schrott is a noted Leporello, so too is Finley a noted Giovanni—in musicotheatrical and metatheatrical terms. The particular mix of, and on occasion tension between, Mozart and Da Ponte that make the work what it is, galvanised by conscientious and charismatic performance was seen and heard not only in Finley and Schrott, but throughout the cast: Adela Zaharia and Frédéric Antoun a noble seria pair, their fundamental dignity both corroded and, especially in Donna Anna’s case, transformed by Giovanni’s combination of Casanova and Faust. Their arias, beautifully prepared and contextualised by recitative that told us just as much, proved moments of beauty yet, insofar as possible—that Prague-Vienna conflation really does not help—crucial dramatic reflections too. Zaharia’s coloratura was properly expressive, no mere decoration, as was that of Nicole Chevalier’s yearning Donna Elvira. Zuzana Marková and Michael Mofidian offered sweetly expressive and disarmingly bluff personifications of Zerlina and Masetto, studies in ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ that always offered more than the stock buffo characters they can sometimes seem. Adam Palka’s dark, direct Commendatore rightly put the fear of God—or Something Else—into the hearts of all but our atheist hero.

Zerlina, Donna Anna, Don Giovanni

In Holten’s staging, dramatic tension is generated by, on the one hand, through projected writing and rewriting of names upon the set, a sense of écriture poised somewhere between Barthes and Derrida; and on the other, that set’s labyrinthine video-propelled reinvention as it revolves, by dint of projected colour, new walls and passageways, phantom characters from past, present, and perhaps future. Such productive tension felt all the stronger in Furness’s revival, which seemed to mirror Trinks’s careful balance between detail and the whole. There is a strong sense of something Venetian, as so often in a work haunted by Da Ponte’s friend Casanova, in the masquerades, intrigues, and ultimately human passions that propel the drama. There is no question here that Donna Anna is attracted to Don Giovanni, doubtless a (post-)Romantic view, yet frankly far more faithful to the score and its spirit than the puritanical ‘reservations’ levelled by some at production and work alike. (There are many reasons unimaginative twenty-first century spectators might recoil at this drama. If they dislike it so much, why not do something else instead? No one is obliged to attend.) That does not, though, preclude her, nor indeed any female character, of agency. They know what they are doing and must also face the consequences of their actions; they are not dolls, but living, breathing women—and all the more involving for it. The male gaze, here at least, can be reversed if one wishes. Each character here has his or her own texts to write, to bring into dramatic reality; so should we all. Dramma giocoso indeed.

Tuesday 6 July 2021

Die Walküre, London Opera Company, 3 July 2021

St John’s, Waterloo

Siegmund – Brian Smith Walters
Sieglinde – Gweneth-Ann Rand
Hunding – Simon Wilding
Wotan – Simon Thorpe
Brünnhilde – Cara McHardy
Fricka, Waltraute – Harriet Williams
Gerhilde – Jacqueline Varsey
Ortlinde – Philippa Boyle
Schwertleite – Rhonda Browne
Helmwige – Natasha Jouhl
Siegrune – Carolyn Dobbin
Grimgerde – Katharine Taylor-Jones
Rossweisse – Angharad Lyddon

Rosemary Taylor (clarinets)
Jo Harris (trumpet)
William Brown (trombone, bass trumpet)
James Bower (percussion)
Peter Selwyn (piano, music director)

Wagner’s dramas, one might think, would be among the last things to return to our cultural lives. In a way, they doubtless will. For obvious reasons, a full-scale staging of Die Meistersinger would be a tall order right now, though Bayreuth proposes a few performances this summer of Barrie Kosky’s staging (widely lauded, though certainly not by me). Covent Garden has reopened its doors with Mozart: La clemenza di Tito and, now, Don Giovanni (review forthcoming), though friends in Berlin are currently enjoying Stefan Herheim’s new Rheingold at the Deutsche Oper. (How I wish I were still there!) In London, however, such possibilities seem still quite distant. The London Opera Company’s Tristan und Isolde, performed last October with piano trio in place of orchestra, was a rare beacon of light. Now, the company returns with its second instalment of Wagner—or anything else—Die Walküre, marked as a concert performance but with a degree of acting and a few small props.

Brian Smith Walters and Gweneth-Ann Rand offered pretty much everything one could hope for in the Volsung lovers. The former’s Heldentenor thrilled vocally as any Siegmund must; there was, though, much more to him than that. Like the rest of the cast, he took advantage of the lack of full staging to show just how much character narrative can develop through words and music. From outlawry and dejection to apparent victory, only to be snatched away from him by the chief of the gods himself (ever unknown to him as his father), this was a story that demanded to be told. Rand’s dignity told in sheer stage presence—even without a ‘proper’ stage—and again through words and music. She engaged us, had us feel for her, but was no mere victim; this was a Sieglinde with agency too. The titular Valkyrie herself was familiar from Tristan. Then as Isolde, now as Brünnhilde, Cara McHardy led us not merely to follow, but to share her journey from the warrior maiden’s first, thrilling ‘Hojotoho’ to a tender, closer-to-human farewell with Simon Thorpe’s Wotan. Thorpe’s performance seemed drawn from the sagas, delivered as myth that did not preclude but rather encompassed humanity. That quality was certainly present in Harriet Williams’s uncommonly sympathetic Fricka. She not only made her case—its chilling logic is, on one level at least, readily apparent—but had us understand why. Simon Wilding’s jet-black Hunding proved the perfect foil to Volsung Lenz, another considered and highly dramatic portrayal. Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sisters impressed equally in solo and ensemble performance, aided by a lucid instrumental ride from Peter Selwyn and company.

My principal reservation nonetheless concerned the arrangement itself: not, of course, the act of arranging, but the choices made. Tristan’s piano trio with conductor (the excellent Michael Thrift) worked considerably better for me. There will always be pros and cons, and the presence of bass clarinet in particular certainly had its Wagnerian moments. The choice of clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, bass trumpet/trombone, percussion (mostly timpani), and piano nonetheless seemed odd. It may not have been a choice; performing forces often are not. A few times, players and singers fell out of sync, likewise instrumental ensemble itself: doubtless to be expected, though perhaps a few times more than one might have hoped. Still, I should not carp. The openings of the second and, as mentioned, third acts in particular thrilled, ensemble seemingly reinvigorated. In Wagner-starved London, few will have been disappointed. Let us see what the London Opera Company, currently seeking sponsorship, comes up with for Siegfried next year.

St John’s, Waterloo will now close until next year for restoration, the first major work to Francis Octavius Bedford’s Greek Revival building since 1951, when it was rebuilt as the official church of the Festival of Britain. That festival helped bring hope and light back to London after the privations of war and rationing. St John’s has helped many of us over the past year, not least as home to the Waterloo Festival, with its actualised theme of ‘respair’, the return of hope after a period of despair. I look forward to its reopening and, in the meantime, the continuation of its crucial ministry to neighbourhood, city, and beyond.

Thursday 1 July 2021

Waterloo Festival (5) – Isserlis, Haywood, Bruch, Strauss, Dvořák, and Le Beau, 24 June 2021

St John’s, Waterloo

Bruch: Kol Nidrei, op.47
Strauss: Cello Sonata in F major, op.6 (London premiere of first version)
Dvořák, arr. Isserlis: Four Romantic Pieces, op.75
Luise Adolpha Le Beau: Cello Sonata in D major, op.17

Steven Isserlis (cello)
Sam Haywood (piano)

Image: Matthew Johnson

All good things must come to an end, or at least from time to time a pause. Let us hope that this, the last in the Spotlight Chamber Concert series, now also part of the Waterloo Festival, is only au revoir. Anthony Friend’s achievement in attracting such an array of musicians, to give such excellent performances at the darkest of times, merits our deepest gratitude; it certainly has mine. This long-delayed concert from Steven Isserlis, now with pianist Sam Haywood, made for a splendid finale—at least for now.

First up was Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, treated to a performance of High Romantic expressivity, balanced with great dignity, Haywood’s sensitivity as accompanist crucial here. Bruch’s piece is very different, of course, from Schoenberg’s Kol nidre for speaker, chorus, and orchestra. Schoenberg wrote to Paul Dessau that ‘one of my principal tasks’ had been to ‘vitriolize away the cello-sentimentality of the Bruchs etc., lending this decree the dignity of a law, of an “edict”.’ Whatever one thinks of that, one probably knows what he meant. Dignity takes many forms, however, as does sentimentality. It would have taken a harder heart than mine not to admire and enjoy so committed and freely romantic a performance. The way the music subsided just as dusk outside began to fall offered magic in itself.

Strauss and Schoenberg had a fraught relationship over the years. Schoenberg could not possibly, however, have known the first, 1881 version of Strauss’s Cello Sonata, since it only became available last year, Strauss’s music having passed out of copyright. (The same fate or opportunity awaits Schoenberg’s music next year.) Isserlis and Haywood gave the London premiere with a conviction that suggested a repertoire piece—which, even when one considers the first movement, in which relatively little changed, is perhaps something of an exaggeration for Strauss’s revision, let alone this. Both musicians were clearly inside the music, the pianist in particular, unsurprisingly, given quite a work-out. Strauss’s talent, at only seventeen years old, at writing for any instrument was heard both in his cello writing and in its combination with piano. There is little, even no, sign of the ‘real’ Richard Strauss, but it is an enjoyable, incredibly competent piece. The first movement was shaped as if it were Brahms, underlining an astonishing, Mendelssohn-like security of harmony and form. Its successor, an Andante entirely absent from the more familiar version of the work, received a rapt reading that did not obscure but rather enhanced its essential simplicity. The third movement, again replaced in its entirety in the second version, was likewise imbued with all the freshness of discovery and all the apparent familiarity of repertory. Mendelssohn again came to mind. It sang beautifully, if not remotely like the Strauss of maturity. There were some splendidly deadpan surprises too.

Dvořák, arranged by Isserlis, was next. One might never have guessed the Four Romantic Pieces were not originally written for cello and piano such was the success of arrangement and performance, clarifying textures that might conceivably have proved awkward. A delectable, songful performance of the first had genuine simplicity, albeit one that concealed much craft beneath the surface. The second was given in passionate contrast, founded on fine command of detail and articulation, leading aptly enough to a third that seemed to combine many of the virtues of both. Melancholy nobility, moving me considerably, proved the hallmark of the fourth.

Finally, a curiosity: the D major Sonata of Luise Adolpha Le Beau, written, albeit three years earlier and emerging victorious, for the same competition Strauss’s failed to win. The first movement’s opening proved, like Strauss’s, highly accomplished and, in performance, rich in tone. Where it travelled thereafter seemed more arbitrary. It nonetheless benefited from great care and evident belief. This big-hearted performance more or less melted my sceptical heart. A sad, yet warm and dignified slow movement, and pleasant enough finale likewise benefited from committed performance. I could not help but think the latter went on a bit, but did not mind in the slightest. The encore, Cécile Chaminade’s Sommeil d’un enfant was very much what one would expect: pleasant and well-crafted in its salon way.