Wednesday 29 December 2021

Tally of performances attended, 2021

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


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


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


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

Wednesday 22 December 2021

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

St John’s Smith Square

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

Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips (director)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 20 December 2021

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

Barbican Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 13 December 2021

Gerhaher/Huber - Brahms, 12 December 2021

Wigmore Hall

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

Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Gerold Huber (piano)

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

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

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

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

Sunday 12 December 2021

Tosca, Royal Opera, 8 December 2021

Royal Opera House

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

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

Mark Henderson (lighting)

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Thursday 2 December 2021

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

Queen Elizabeth Hall

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

London Sinfonietta
Edmon Colomer (conductor)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 1 December 2021

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

Wigmore Hall

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

Imogen Cooper (piano)

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

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

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

Die Zauberflöte, Royal College of Music, 26 November 2021

Britten Theatre

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

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

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)


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

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

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

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