Thursday 28 October 2021

Zimmermann/Helmchen - Beethoven, 27 October 2021

Wigmore Hall

Violin Sonata no.8 in G major, op.30 no.3
Violin Sonata no.9 in A major, op.47, ‘Kreutzer’
Violin Sonata no.10 in G major, op.96

Frank-Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Martin Helmchen (piano)

The last music I heard before lockdown had been these three sonatas, performed by PinchasZukerman and Daniel Barenboim in Berlin. This had been the last concert in a series of three, covering all ten Beethoven violin sonatas. There was, of course, very little music of any kind to be heard in the rest of 2020 and still less Beethoven. Barenboim conducting the nine symphonies, Kirill Petrenko conducting Fidelio, and so much else went by the wayside. I assume that this concert from Frank-Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen was either a (belated) conclusion to a similar series, or had been intended as such. In any case, there will always be illumination to hearing the three sonatas in question together, whether in broader Beethovenian company or not. They were, moreover, performances very different from those I had heard in Berlin, so highly emotional memories did not intrude in the way they otherwise might. 

The first, op.30 no.3, opened in promising fashion. Fresh, alert, energetic, it bade fair to navigate Beethoven’s tricky Classical-Romantic dialectic. And so the first movement did, in its own way, very much not an Old World way. At its best, it put me in mind of the modernist Beethoven of Michael Gielen. However, with Gielen, there was always an understanding, such as Barenboim’s, of ebb and flow founded upon harmonic rhythm. This I felt more in the recapitulation than elsewhere, which had been somewhat rigid. The second movement, here assuredly not a slow movement, was similarly swift, quite lacking in sentimentality; but was sentiment thrown out with the sentimental bathwater? At times, though the gravely beautiful turn to the minor spoke of deeper matters. Zimmermann’s vibrato was intelligently varied, telling and illustrating its own story and that story’s contours. Restless brilliance and vigour characterised the finale in both parts. It took no prisoners, but something remained missing, at least for me. 

In the Kreutzer, the introductory dialogue between violin and piano was keenly delivered: serious, without being weighted down; potentiality the thing. It soon gave way, however—as had already been the case in op.30 no.3, and as would continue to be the case in the rest of the recital—to fermata embellishment in both parts that increasingly distracted rather than illuminated. At least that my reaction; others may have felt differently. Fast and furious, not a little breathless, the first movement was, if not one-dimensional, then less multi-dimensional than ideal. So too were the earlier variations of its successor, welcome character notwithstanding, though it developed into something stronger, quite magical by its close. By the time of the finale, somewhat confrontational but perhaps none the worse for that, I had begun to tire of those interventionist interpolations. Doubtless others found them refreshing. Personal taste always plays an important role here. 

The enigmatic G major sonata, op.96 was to my mind ultimately the most successful of the three, especially once past its first movement, which would have benefited from a stronger sense of a guiding musical thread. It never quite settled, but perhaps that was the point. The Adagio espressivo did, though, and emerged both soulful and directed, ornamentation here duly expressive, even elucidatory, rather than distracting. The scherzo was similarly direct, both musicians clearly relishing its radical concision. If the finale was not entirely free of earlier fussiness, there was much to appreciate and enjoy in its variegated textures and mood swings. The closer one listened, the more one was rewarded, and the more complex Beethoven’s vision became: rather like the finale to the Eighth Symphony. Dedicated to the memory of Bernard Haitink, a ‘great friend’ to Zimmermann and Helmchen, the encore was the slow movement of the A major Sonata, op.30 no.1.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Esfahani - ‘Bach: Before and After’, 21 October 2021

Wigmore Hall

Pachelbel: Fantasia ex dis
Georg Böhm: Partita on ‘Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten’
Pachelbel: Chaconne in D major
Samuel Scheidt: Allemande: ‘Also gehts also stehts’, SSWV 137
Sweelinck: Fantasia cromatica; Six Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’
Johann Kuhnau: Frische Clavier-Früchte: Sonata no.6 in B-flat major
C.P.E. Bach: Sonata in G minor, Wq.65/17
Johann Wilhelm Hässler: Grande Gigue in D minor, op.31
W.F. Bach: Sonata in D major, F 3

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

I have been to recitals by Mahan Esfahani when I have known, or rather been acquainted with, all the music; only, I think, though, when the programme has been devoted to Bach (and not even always then). More often than not, there has been a good part of the programme that was entirely new to me. In this case, all but three pieces were. What a varied conspectus of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century keyboard music this was, both as works and in their performance.

Pachelbel’s Fantasia ex dis offered a bejewelled portal. Clear where it was heading but always with time to admire the view, to make a telling agogic point, Esfahani’s performance offered the ideal introduction. A similar balance was struck in Georg Bohm’s Partita on ‘Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten’. Sparing, typically intelligent use of two manuals, in tandem with imaginative, meaningful changes of registration furthered character and progression. Rhetoric was stronger, more fantastical in one variation, in which registration altered after (almost) every phrase. Pachelbel’s D major Chaconne is more virtuosic, perhaps a little lighter in style. (Bach’s example can mislead.) Esfahani relished its potentialities, the piece’s seeds growing into a fine tree indeed. 

For the next set, we moved to Samuel Scheidt’s Allemande, ‘Also gehts also stehts’. Hearing such variation in variation writing, as it were, proved both illuminating and frankly enjoyable, Esfahani teasing out and communicating the music’s secrets. Sweelinck’s Fantasia cromatica, chronological distance notwithstanding, seemed to me to come closest of all the works to that of Bach—though I suspect that says at least as much about my own conception of Bach as the composer’s own self-understanding and practice. At any rate, its darkly chromatic world, unmistakeably of the North, and dazzling instrumental drama in an almost Brahmsian sense (again betraying my own prejudices!) proved richly satisfying. The same composer’s Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’ offered yet another varied variational journey, Esfahani ever the enlightened guide. The nice sense of return at the close here was echoed in the last of the five movements of Johann Kuhnau’s B-flat Sonata. Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor offered music that was catchy, exuberant, and much more besides. Architecture was keenly communicated, as was detail, the two clearly linked and mutually reinforcing. 

The second half of the programme took us beyond Bach, or rather beyond Johann Sebastian. Two of his sons and one of his grand-pupils were heard, each with pleasure (certainly by me). Carl Philip Emanuel Bach’s 1746 G minor Sonata opened in declamatory fashion, with a heightened sense of musical theatrics and well-nigh kinetic energy. Wild yet ultimately coherent and disciplined, this first movement only underlined the composer’s reputation for avant-gardism. A true Adagio, albeit with typically clever complications, led to a finale that both mediated and concluded. Many, I know, are sceptical about CPE Bach’s modernity, but it remains real and admirable to me. Johann Wilhelm Hässler’s piece offered enjoyable light relief as well as opportunity for virtuosic display. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s 1745 D major Sonata was for me a fascinating discovery. A first movement imbued, not unlike the music of his brother, with nervous energy prepared the way for an Adagio just as restless in its way, prior to a lovely, galant ‘au revoir’ in its finale, Esfahani a compelling advocate throughout. For an encore, we headed south, to Domenico Scarlatti’s B minor Sonata, K.87, in an Apollonian reading that acknowledged yet never exaggerated discord beneath the surface.

Friday 22 October 2021

Die ägyptische Helena, Fulham Opera, 19 October 2021

St John’s Church, Fulham

Helena – Justine Viani
Menelas – Brian Smith Walters
Aithra – Luci Briginshaw
Altair – Oliver Gibbs
Da-Ud – Dominic J Walsh
Omniscient Mussel – Ingeborg Børch
Hermione – Liz Stock
Servants – Christine Buras, Natasha Elliott
Elves – Maggie Cooper, Donya Rafati Rosalind O’Dowd, Rebecca Moulton, Corinne Hart
Slaves – Kester Guy-Briscoe, Jack Stone, Robin Whitehouse, Graham Wheeler

Guido Martin-Brandis (director)
Johan Ribbing (assistant director)
Sarah Heenan (producer)
Alexander McPherson (designs)
Mitch Broomhead (lighting)

Instrumental Ensemble
Ben Woodward (conductor)

A splendid evening from Fulham Opera, making an excellent case for the bizarrely, well-nigh criminally neglected (at least on Plague Island) Ägyptische Helena. That a major Strauss-Hofmannsthal opera was here receiving its staged London premiere beggars belief; such, alas, is our lot in Das Land ohne Musik. Sunlit uplands and German car manufacturers will doubtless one day come to our rescue, perhaps with a spot of ‘innovative jam’. In the meantime, hats off to this ever-enterprising company, not only for putting on the opera but for visibly and audibly winning a host of new converts. This seems actually to have been the British premiere of the so-called Vienna version of the work, first performed at the 1933 Salzburg Festival. 

Reduced orchestrations have necessarily been in vogue for opera over the past year. This, however, was a far more radical arrangement from Paul Plummer, also at the piano, for small chamber ensemble (violin, cello, clarinet, horn, percussion, with piano and organ). The myriad phantasmagorical inflections of gold, azure, deep crimson, and other orchestral hues were of course largely absent, though often skilfully hinted at. What was remarkable, though, was how little one missed the full Straussian orchestra and, as with, say, the London Opera Company’s Tristan a year ago, where one’s ears were led in novel appreciation and understanding. Hearing the piano so often in quasi-continuo role led me, for instance, to release quite how much harmonic common ground there was with Ariadne auf Naxos—and thereby to muse on dramaturgical connections too. The general acuity of Ben Woodward’s direction of the score—well paced, well balanced, welcome ebb and flow—furthered that more generally, of course. It was a fascinating musical evening, even before we consider the singers. 

With resourceful staging, exemplary in its narrative clarity, from Guido Martin-Brandis and the rest of his production team, that sense of belonging to the greater Straussian corpus was stronger than ever. The space of St Paul’s, Fulham and its altar too were used to frame a production, whose detailed Personenregie and costumed suggestiveness—essentially, antiquity mediated by 1920s exoticism and its new technologies—permitted one to draw one’s own conclusions without abdication of its own responsibility. The business of potions, inevitably leading one to think of Tristan parody was handled with commendable directness and clarity, enhancing rather than detracting from Hofmannsthal’s heavy, post-Frau ohne Schatten symbolism. To take another example, Hofmannsthal wrote of the notorious Omniscient Mussel to Strauss: ‘When I mention “gurgling”, I have in mind the noise of water “speaking” in a pipe. It is not absolutely vital that one should understand what it says; it might in fact be amusing’ if the Mussel ‘were to sound distorted like a voice on the telephone when one stands beside the receiver.’ There was, wisely, no such distortion here in performance, but that sense of the early age of the telephone and, more strongly, the wireless announcer were to be seen, framing the opera’s multiple historicisms and Freudian remythologisation, whilst also retaining a welcome sense of fun: Nietzsche’s ‘the Greeks were superficial—out of profundity!’ 

There was no superficiality, save in that very particular Nietzschean-Straussian anti-metaphysical sense, to the singing—and even in that respect, a fine balance was generally maintained with the more metaphysical requirements of Hofmannsthal and of Strauss’s Wagnerian inheritance. One could read, watch, and above all listen in different ways, which is just as it should be; one could hardly, though, fail to think the vocal artistry on show here fit to grace more glamorous stages. Justine Viani’s gleaming, glistening, forthright soprano seemed to me well-nigh ideal for Helena. This was not only a beautiful sound; the words were clear and meaningful too. Together, words, music, and gesture made more than the sum of their parts. Much the same could be said for the rest of the cast. Brian Smith Walters’s Menelas had unmistakeable roots in Siegmund. Every inch a Heldentenor, with that historic semi-baritonal hue so characteristic of Wagner roles, Smith Walters offered a moving, vulnerable portrayal very much in that Volsung line, though certainly not to be reduced to it. Luci Briginshaw’s Aithra enthralled and entranced, coloratura despatched not only with apparent ease but with definite yet properly ambiguous meaning. Ingeborg Børch brought welcome contrast of tone as the Mussel, yet similar clarity of words. The elf-chorus’s sound as a Nibelung parody was richly suggestive. All contributed to the evening’s success, but I must make final mention of Dominic J Walsh’s lovelorn, ineffably human Da-Ud. 

Looking back in 1945 over his entire operatic career—give or take a tantalising hint of a Donkey’s Shadow—Strauss saw himself not only as having closed a chapter, even a book, but as having presented an ongoing dialogue, as much with himself as with ancient mythology: ‘Particularly in scenes such as Klyämnestra’s dream, the sister’s [Elektra’s] recognition, [Elektra’s] redemption through dance, the spiritual transformation of Menelas, Apollo’s kiss (from Daphne), and Jupiter’s farewell to the human world, my Greek operas have created musical symbols that may be taken for the last  fulfilment of Greek longing.’ Such was what we saw and heard here.

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.