Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Levit - Brahms, Hersch, Wagner, and Liszt, 25 September 2022


Wigmore Hall

Brahms, arr. Busoni: Chorale Preludes, BV B 50
Fred Hersch: Variations on a Folk Song
Wagner, arr. Kocsis: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178

Igor Levit (piano)


A typically thoughtful programme, brilliantly performed, from Igor Levit: the second half reprising that of his Salzburg recital in August, the first quite different, yet forming an equally coherent whole. First we heard the six of Brahms’s eleven late organ chorale preludes Busoni arranged for piano in 1902. The first, ‘Herzlich tut mich erfreuen’, rightly announced itself paradoxically, or better dialectically, both emphatically as piano music and yet also as ‘letting the music speak for itself’, in that most necessary of clichés. Musical processes behind and beneath the melody revealed two—sorry, three—great minds at work. Brahms’s arpeggiated half-lights emerged, as if from his own piano music; they were never imposed. That attentiveness to material—a sort of dual authenticity, though not in the debased sense the later twentieth century made all too current—marked out ‘Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele’ as more yielding, yet similarly straightforward, and the ineffably lovely ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ as differently inward, Levit relishing Busoni’s modest interventions. The two preludes on ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’ were properly contrasted, the first speaking with a richness of tone apt for a more overtly Romantic outpouring (from both Brahms and Busoni), the second acting with ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ both to encase that passion, and coming closest to the Passions of Bach. It was deeply moving in its modesty, patience, and depth. Levit took his time, rather beautifully, with the heartbreaking ‘O Welt, ich muß dich lassen’. His dignified performance spoke with a distilled wisdom, like Brahms’s, that seemed to say all that need, perhaps all that could, be said. 

Fred Hersch’s 2021 Variations on a Folk Song followed. An initial statement of a time-honoured theme, here ‘Oh Shenandoah’, provided a connection rather than kinship with Brahms, but enough to have one think. Twenty variations followed. Harmonic recolouring came first to the fore, followed in what I think may have been the third variation by a change of mood to something less ruminative, more extrovert. A wide variety of treatments ensued, one (mostly) for the left hand standing out in dark, muscular fashion, as an heir to Romantic tradition, another insistent and ardent, perhaps a little after Liszt (to come). Others were more inward or floating. This was evidently music Levit had internalised, just as it this clearly represented a tribute from one pianist to another pianist—and vice versa. The principal language may have been forged in the jazz world, but it was generous in its frame of reference—and that generosity extended to spirit too.

Zoltán Kocsis’s transcription of the Prelude to Act I of Tristan was strenuous, big-boned, virtuosic, the emphasis placed very much on struggle, on becoming. Always directed to a goal that was never reached, its oppressive lack of resolution (in more than one sense) led us directly into a performance of Liszt’s B minor Sonata perhaps still more fiery, still more coherent than that I had admired a month earlier in Salzburg. It was similarly bold and questing, and of course more unremittingly virtuosic, virtuosity and rhetoric always means to an end rather than ends in themselves. Post-Beethovenian goal-direction was equally apparent, through rather than despite flexibility. Bringing us to the recapitulation, for instance, Levit triumphantly banished the false dawn of the preceding fugato to the fiery furnace. Form was a living, breathing, even diabolical thing. Liszt here was, quite rightly, both highly integrated and far-flung, Liszt’s essence grasped and communicated.

Detail mattered too: the return of those strange descending scales told us beyond any doubt that, were a single note in them to be changed, so too would the rest of the work. Never, not for one moment, could one doubt our guide knew where he was leading us. For Levit’s command of line, which one might well consider ‘Wagnerian’ in terms of unendliche Melodie, was not the least tool in communicating a pianistic sorcery on Liszt’s part that under the right hands is anything but rhapsodic. As for hands, had I not witnessed the performance with my own eyes as well as ears, I might have sworn there were four at work. This is a masterpiece of musical thought, of course, but it is equally piano music, and sounded as such, reminding me of Donald Tovey’s observation that Liszt’s piano music was that of someone who could not fail to make a beautiful sound when touching the keys. Beauty takes many guises, of course, but Liszt never, ever writes against the instrument. Nor, so it seems, does Levit ever play against it. A beatific close seemed, at least in retrospect, to necessitate the lovely yet plain-spoken encore, (as in Salzburg) Schumann’s ‘Der Dichter spricht’.


Sunday, 25 September 2022

LPO/Gardner - Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, 24 September 2022

 

Royal Festival Hall

Waldemar – David Butt Philip
Tove – Lise Lindstrom
Wood-dove – Karen Cargill
Klaus-Narr – Robert Murray
Peasant – James Creswell
Speaker – Alex Jennings

London Philharmonic Choir (chorus director: Neville Creed)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)


Image: London Philharmonic Orchestra


The pandemic is not over. But I remember thinking, when some sort of minimal concert life was intermittently starting up again—socially distanced concerts at St Martin-in-the-Fields with a maximum audience of thirty, the first and second series of Spotlight Chamber Concerts at St John’s Waterloo, and so on—what resumption of a full range of musical life would entail for me. I chose three examples, which have remained in my mind ever since: a large-scale work by Richard Strauss, a full staging of Die Meistersinger, and a performance of Gurrelieder. Strauss came a little while ago, in a performance of the Alpine Symphony—though I await a Frau ohne Schatten. Meistersinger is yet to come. On this Wagner-and-Strauss-starved island, we should probably not hold our collective breath. Nevertheless, even if accompanied by precious little other Schoenberg, Gurrelieder has returned.

It was, if truth be told, a somewhat mixed performance we heard from Edward Gardner and the LPO: well sung and played, Gardner’s conducting more variable yet growing in stature, with one major, well-nigh catastrophic miscalculation for the closing melodrama. The Royal Festival Hall is far from ideal for this work, yet Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Philharmonia performances in 2009 and 2018 had seemed far more at home. Contrast was glaring in the opening bars. Both Salonen and Gardner achieved great clarity; whatever the Festival Hall’s shortcomings, it probably helped in that respect. Gardner and the LPO, however, sounded oddly mechanical, as opposed to pointillistic; the strange impression was of oddly balanced strings and flutes out of sync, even when they were not. And even once the music had settled, Gardner imparted an oddly regimented quality to it, moving bar-to-bar rather than via paragraph. There were, though, some inviting, dangerous, Tristan-esque sounds from the LPO that prepared the way splendidly for David Butt Philip’s first entry.

Butt Philip showed himself, without exaggeration, to be one of the finest Waldemars I have heard. His way with words and shaping of vocal lines were beyond reproach. As the first part progressed, his emotional range widened to encompass, as does the work, the impetuous, the angry, and also greater dynamic range. The ardent lyricism as he told of Waldemar’s pride, likened unto that of Christ seated once more next to His father, was an object lesson in dramatic delivery that yet retained a Lieder-singer’s attention to detail. Lindstrom offered a womanly Tove with Nordic steel: no false purity, and again a performance that took its leave from the verse. The LPO generally sounded gorgeous. Earlier on, Gardner might have lingered to advantage. Greater flexibility did come, though, whether in the coital stillness of Tove’s response or the ghostly, again Tristan-like brass of ‘unsel’ger Geschlechter’ foretold, developing via frightening double basses into something more ominous. Waldemar’s words ‘Unsere Zeit ist um’ offered ecstatic contradiction, already tinged with irony concerning fate and the future. Yet the sweetness of the interlude introducing Tove’s last words consoled, as it should. Could Lindstrom’s delivery here have been more lyrical? Probably. Her care for verbal expression nonetheless offered compensation enough, and the climax on ‘Kuß’, her final word, sent shivers down the spine, with credit due to all concerned: soloist, conductor, and orchestra.

The Wood-dove’s song was, quite simply, outstanding. Karen Cargill’s deep, rich tone furthered an interpretation once more unquestionably rooted in the text. Rising out of the orchestra, this was a forest messenger one knew one could trust, however much one wanted her words not to be true. Gardner here captured to a tee the crucial role of rhythm, not least in relation to harmony. It made for a gripping conclusion to the first part, the strange decision to break for an interval all the more regrettable.

That said, the brief Part Two plunged us, orchestrally and vocally, straight back into the action. Butt Philip showed anger, increasingly blasphemous, without hectoring. Crucially, he continued to sing, never shouting, and in highly variegated fashion too. Gardner communicated well the fulfilment of those early ghostly sounds in the opening of Part Three, Butt Philip and the LPO audibly responding by taking us on a journey to new, more bracingly modernist sounds, though the direction of travel rightly remained unclear, a veritable Götterdämmerung Hallowe’en from male chorus and James Creswell’s Peasant alike highly impressive. Robert Murray’s Klaus-Narr was nicely animated, communicating like Cargill’s Wood-dove with evident sincerity and truthfulness. Again, this was music that was sung, here in Straussian fashion, albeit more grateful for the tenor. Meistersinger-ish tendencies in the orchestra were welcome and revealing, preparing the way for that extraordinary experience in the prelude to the Speaker’s appearance of material transformed before our ears, almost against our (even Schoenberg’s?) will. History’s demand, the material’s, or the drama’s? Why choose?   

And then, talk about spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. The Speaker entered, perversely miked, and in English translation. One can perform Gurrelieder in English, I suppose, but then it should surely be the whole thing. The ‘effect’ was alienating in quite the wrong way, exacerbated by laboured, ac-tor-ly delivery on the part of Alex Jennings. The idea, it seems, was Gardner’s own; someone should have dissuaded him. For however sardonic, at times even vicious, the LPO sounded, this was a conceptual miscalculation that torpedoed the performance as a whole. How I longed for the inimitable Barbara Sukowa, icing on the cake for both of Salonen’s performances (as well as Claudio Abbado’s Vienna recording). Even the strange, choral climax, sincere in its way yet knowing that such tonal sounds can no longer truly convince, failed through no fault of the chorus to salvage matters. A great pity indeed.

 

Sunday, 18 September 2022

Salome, Royal Opera, 17 September 2022


Royal Opera House

Narraboth – Thomas Atkins
Page of Herodias – Annika Schlicht
First Soldier – Simon Shibambu
Second Soldier – Simon Wilding
Jokanaan – Jordan Shanahan
Cappadocian – John Cunningham
Salome – Elena Stikhina
Slave – Sarah Dufresne
Herod – John Daszak
Herodias – Katarina Dalayman
First Jew – Paul Curievici
Second Jew – Michael J. Scott
Third Jew – Aled Hall
Fourth Jew – Alasdair Elliott
Fifth Jew – Jeremy White
First Nazarene – James Platt
Second Nazarene – Chuma Sijeqa
Naaman – Duncan Meadows

David McVicar (director)
Bárbara Lluch (revival director)
Es Devlin (designs)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Andrew George (choreography, movement)
Emily Piercy (revival choreography)
59 Productions (video)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Alexander Soddy (conductor)

This was a Salome best remembered for its singing, at least once beyond the absurdity of prefacing it with ‘God save the King’. (The production might have been adapted, I suppose, to have Herod come onstage to receive his tribute, but that was not to be.) Stepping in for Malin Byström, Elena Stikhina acquitted herself very well in the title role, short notice or not. One more or less has to forgive a lack of consonants from time to time in this role; so long as that could be agreed upon, this was an involving, increasingly commanding performance, to which Stikhina clearly gave her all. Thomas Atkins’s heartfelt lyricism heightened rather than detracted from dramatic portrayal of Narraboth: another definite highlight. John Daszak and Katarina Dalayman convinced as Herod and Herodias, both very much stage animals, though there were times when insensitive conducting had one struggle to hear the latter’s words. Jordan Shanahan’s thoughtful Jokaanan had the great virtue of leading one to concentrate on words rather than aura, though I would not have minded a little more in the latter sense too. A fine supporting cast, assembled from depth, was another signal virtue; as, doubtless, was its direction. For trying to identify precisely who is responsible for what is often a fool’s errand; opera is, or should be, a team effort to which all contribute.

Sadly, in that respect, this performance was sorely let down by the conducting of Alexander Soddy. That side of things improved somewhat, though even the final scene turned out at best Kapellmeister-ish: a reasonable sense of how it should go, yet little beyond. Earlier on, though, it was a depressing account, for which the orchestra should probably bear some responsibility too. (Who knows, though, what havoc recent ‘events’ may have wrought with rehearsal schedules?) The first scene was all over the place, stage and pit unsynchronised and plagued by balance issues that marked the entire performance. Various orchestral lines went unheard, bludgeoned by shattering insensitivity. Even when together, Strauss sounded like a poor-to-stolid Wagner imitator, the phantasmagorical magic of his orchestration going for nothing in as non-transparent a reading of his music as I have ever heard. The aestheticism that marks not only Salome’s subject matter but the score itself, Strauss’s Nietzscheanism triumphantly rejecting, even mocking, Wagner and Schopenhauer alike was disturbingly absent, replaced not with an alternative view but merely an effort to progress from one bar to the next. Strangely pronounced bass lines neither grounded nor propelled the harmony; they were just strangely pronounced. Some passages—rarely anything longer than that—were better, but really this was playing unworthy of a major international house. 

That aestheticism was, however, touched upon in the fourth revival of David McVicar’s production, here renewed by Bárbara Llano. My response to McVicar’s staging has varied over the years, increasingly suspecting that its ‘house of horrors’ approach threw too many bags into the same basket. It is also, if we are honest, looking a little tired by now. That said, I was grateful not only for the sheer professionalism at work, but all the more so for ideas—my fault, I am sure—that had barely registered with me previously. Gore is still present, most memorably in the bloodstained emergence of the naked executioner Naaman, fresh from his deed. Whether one considers that gratuitous will probably remain a matter of taste, but it seemed to me clear, indeed far clearer than before, that this was a comment not only on an interwar world of militarised, fascist violence, but also, more importantly, on the dangers and joys of an aestheticism passed from Wilde to Strauss, via Pasolini’s Salò and Sade himself to McVicar and to us. Politics and aesthetics are not to be disentangled, however much characters onstage and audience offstage might wish them to be. Nor can we forget the past; a harrowing retelling of abuse during the Dance of the Seven Veils makes that clear. There are doubtless lessons to be learned there, but no one, least of all Salome, will do so: itself, of course, an important further lesson.


Saturday, 17 September 2022

To bear witness and build solidarity: Luigi Nono and the creative imperative in Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz and Quando stanno morendo


Human provocation

In a 1958 article on Luciano Berio for the Darmstadt Summer School’s house journal Die Reihe, Piero Santi outlined the post-war Italian avant-garde’s guiding principles:

Everybody’s purpose is authentic organization of the world of sound, which is finally to be freed from […] external compulsion […]. Thus, in the years after World War II, new Italian music, too, had a role marked out. Naturally, it profited from study of hitherto unavailable [modernist] works, and from insights gained elsewhere, but the natural reaction was against our most recent past. To put it more bluntly: there was a reaction against ‘expression at all costs’, against rhetoric (veiled to a greater or lesser degree), against sentimentality which no longer dared to express itself melodramatically, unreservedly.

Politics and aesthetics are interrelated, even identified, more strongly than might have been the case in Germany or France, although everywhere the fiction of a 1945 ‘Zero Hour’, sharply distinguishing post-war endeavour from a world culminating in Auschwitz (and Hiroshima) proved persuasive. In contrast to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy had in any case remained strikingly open to modernism. Berg’s Wozzeck received its Italian premiere in 1942; and at the Venice Conservatory from 1941 to 1945, Nono had been introduced to music by the Second Viennese School, Stravinsky, Bartók and others.

In Nono’s case, a further imperative was political engagement. He took A Survivor from Warsaw by Schoenberg, his posthumous father-in-law, as emblematic for what composition might accomplish. We might also ask to what extent it is meaningful to consider Nono, very much a Venetian as well as an internationalist, as an ‘Italian composer’ at all. In any case, no more than Schoenberg was Nono inclined to lack of ‘expression’; their music rather tends towards hyper-expressivity in which not only every note but also the network of relationships between each note is loaded with significance. The problem, rather, was perceived of sentimentality. In a lecture Nono gave on Schoenberg’s Survivor, ‘the musical-aesthetic manifesto of our era’, he located it in the line of Jean-Paul Sartre’s question ‘why write?’ and Sartre’s response:

And if I am presented with this world and its injustices, then I should not look at it coldly, but [...] with indignation, that I might expose it and create it in its nature as injustice and abuse.’ […]

And further, should someone refuse to recognise Schoenberg’s docere and movere, […] he should know that the words which the nineteen-year-old student, Giacomo Levi, wrote in his last letter before execution by the Fascists in Modena in 1942, are also addressed to him: ‘Do not say that you no longer wish to know anything about it. Consider this, that all that has happened is because you no longer wished to know anything more about it.'

Nono found such a ‘provocation’ necessary for artistic creation. ‘The genesis of any of my works is always to be found in a human provocation (provocazione umana): an event, an experience, a test in our lives, which provokes my instinct and my consciousness, as man and musician, to bear witness.’



Expressing the inexpressive


Emblematic even among the death camps, Auschwitz was more than a ‘provocation’, however severe. If the word seems blasphemously insufficient, so does all else, save the imperative to bear witness. Theodor Adorno’s celebrated, often misquoted 1955 claim, made roughly halfway between ‘liberation’ and Nono’s work, retains its sting even after neutering by the culture industry Adorno (and Nono) justly loathed: ‘Cultural criticism finds itself confronting the last stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and this also gnaws at the realization that expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.’ Adorno presented a problem, not a prohibition; the creative imperative remained.

In 1965, Erwin Piscator asked Nono to provide music for his staging of Peter Weiss’s new play on the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, Die Ermittlung (The Investigation), at West Berlin’s Freie Volksbühne. Nono recalled that Piscator had been ‘right’ with respect to ‘the relationship between music and theatre: what neither words nor scenes could express and represent, music must’. The following year, Nono reworked the musical material at Milan’s Studio di Fonologia della Radio into a stand-alone work for tape. Material from the children’s choir of Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, sounds and phonemes provided by the Polish soprano Stefania Woytowitz, and orchestral and choral material produced electronically in the Studio from earlier Nono works were combined and elaborated, so as to focus on and give expression to the human voice, while liberating it from the need to ‘set’ or to ‘express’ a pre-existing text, be it verbal (e.g. Weiss) or theatrical (e.g. Piscator). For voices, not words, Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz (Remember what they did to you in Auschwitz), its title inspired by Alberto Nirenstein’s Ricorda cosa ti ha fatto Amalek, a reconstruction of Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto and elsewhere in Poland, was the latest of Nono’s memorials with a contemporary imperative.

That attempt was grounded in a technical-aesthetic as well as a socio-political quest; arguably the two were for him the same. Nono’s interest lay less in an attempt to express what cannot be expressed – Auschwitz ‘itself’, say, or the Warsaw Ghetto of Schoenberg or Nirenstein – but in what might never have been considered ‘expressive’ in the first place. One can fancy here, for instance, that one hears a marching band or a chill wind, but the sound is almost certainly not intended to represent or to express that; more likely, it may express the dread force we feel to lie behind such representations of destruction. Violent and raucous, tender and sweet within a few seconds: those swings are doubtless part of a continuum of experience, but also seem to be opposing forces, one might even suggest of good and evil. Sound lies within an ominously contained band, beyond which is the uncanny realm of memory, Nono’s own included. His choice of self-quotations was instructive: Composizione per orchestra no.2: Diario polacco ’58, in which he had previously memorialized his visit to Auschwitz; Cori di Didone, in some sense expressing, if hardly representing, the atmosphere of death; and La fabbrica illuminata, whose ‘virtual sonic theatre’ of industrial sound and workers’ voices took on a still more ominous and deadly exposition of factory conditions in its new setting. This was an industrial and capitalist as well as racial genocide.

And yet, Nono’s longstanding fascination with voices solo and polyphonic, their embodiment and our spatial experience of them endures. As his friend Claudio Abbado attested, Nono ‘never lost the deep-rooted ties to the long tradition of Venetian music, as demonstrated by his unerring feeling for the relation of sound and space, recalling the music [Giovanni] Gabrieli wrote for the church of San Marco. Gigi’s sense of an espressivo or cantabile line also stems from this tradition.’ Here a voice that cries, that laments, that exults, is a voice, albeit mediated; yet no more than in Fidelio or Nono’s own Prometeo is it only a voice. It can express, if not represent, something of humanity, of resistance, however tragic and unspeakable its fate. There is no utopian liberation to be heard; the work is not concerned with survival or redemption. Yet perhaps freedom lies nonetheless in truth, witness and action.


 .


Return (or not) to Poland

Nono’s 1958 Polish visit and musical ‘diary’, ‘in memory of my Polish friends and of that country’, was followed almost a quarter of a century later by a Diario polacco No.2. This witnessed a non-visit to the Warsaw Autumn festival of contemporary music – for there was no 1982 festival, on account of General Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law. Nono dedicated Quando stanno morendo (When they are dying) to those who had invited and commissioned him in 1981, yet from whom he had heard no more: ‘To my Polish friends and comrades who, in exile, in hiding, in prison, at work, continue to resist and hope even in despair, to believe even in disbelief.’ Or, as we read in Nono’s own ‘Appeal for Solidarnosc’ combining specific, Polish resistance and universal, socialist humanism:

Condemnation of […] [the] coup no longer suffices. Condemnation of the military’s repression of the union movement, of independent Polish political bodies, no longer suffices. Nor is the simple denunciation of oppressive Soviet intervention or the concrete support given to the authoritarian regime in Warsaw by the USSR any longer sufficient. Every democratic, political, trade union and cultural body must now take advantage of every opportunity to give life to a mass movement in concrete solidarity with the Polish people and their freedom of expression.

Resistance and organization, like human activity in general, were complex, not simple. Art was no mere protest; nor was solidarity.

Nono’s friend and comrade, the philosopher Massimo Cacciari, assembled the written texts from verse by Czesław Miłosz (1980 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature), Endre Ady and Alexander Blok (Part I); Velemir Chlebnikov (Part II); and Boris Pasternak, Miłosz and Chlebnikov (Part III). Voices are to the fore in the first (initially, quasi-monodic) and third parts; instruments in the second, where text-setting is at first less fragmentary, more immediately comprehensible, until instruments and electronics do their invasive, even corrosive work. ‘The music “contracts”’, to quote Jürg Stenzl, although an a cappella close offers greater prospect of hope than had been permitted by the Auschwitz work. Where sound and music then had been constrained, now they look – listen, and enable us to listen – outwards. The world of Prometeo, Nono’s third and final opera and another Cacciari collaboration, beckons. As Nono and Cacciari explained: ‘we shall still be able to make “daylight” by refusing the death now coming to us. […] it will never be Death, so long as these voices speak.’

Renaissance polyphony and Venetian madrigalism meet a post-Webern present in which the qualities of every note and the connections between each one of them – intervals and other parameters – take upon themselves expressive force, moral and political as well as aesthetic, pointing in solidarity toward the future. Nono shadows and extends the horizons of voices (four female) and instruments (cello and bass flute) with live electronics, technological advances having enabled greater openness in every sense. He even declared that the score would ‘be born after the Venice “premiere”’. He did in fact produce a score beforehand, albeit one explicitly marked as ‘non-definitive’, pending eventual publication with greater information achieved in the light of performance.

The day before the premiere, Nono gave an interview to the Communist newspaper L’Unità, entitled ‘Electronic Solidarnosc’. In it, he declared that today, more than ever, ‘the artist has the responsibility to avoid conclusive, finalized results. He must understand that (as [Robert] Musil says): “it is not important what is, but rather what might have been.” This does away with all Manichaeism, all sectarianism, and all intellectual rigidity.’ Right up until the last moment, Nono insisted, his new work remained ‘open to all possible transformations’. The owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk, leaving the future open through understanding and empathy with present, past and alternative paths not yet taken but that might be. ‘When they die, men sing …’ concludes the final line of Chlebnikov’s verse. Therein lie hope and freedom of a kind.



(This essay was first published as a programme note for the 2022 Salzburg Festival.)

Thursday, 15 September 2022

Waiting in uncertain hope: Rihm's Vigilia and Haydn's Seven Last Words

 

Wolfgang Rihm (b.1952):

Vigilia for six voices and ensemble

1 Sonata I 2 ‘Tristis est anima mea’ 3 Sonata II 4 ‘Ecce vidimus cum non habentem speciem’ 5 Sonata III 6 ‘Velum templi scissum est’ 7 Sonata IV 8 ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ 9 Sonata V 10 ‘Caligaverunt oculi mei a fletu meo’ 11 Sonata VI 12 ‘Recessit pastor noster 13 Sonata VII 14 ‘Aestimatus sum cum descendentibus in lacum’ 15 ‘Miserere’

Joseph Haydn (1732–1809):

Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze, in the string quartet arrangement 

1 Introduzione: Maestoso ed adagio 2 Sonata I: ‘Pater, dimitte illis, non enim sciunt, quid faciunt’: Largo 3 Sonata II: ‘Amen, dico tibi: hodium mecum eris in paradiso’: Grave e cantabile 4 Sonata III ‘Mulier, ecce filius tuus, et tu, ecce mater tua!’: Grave 5 Sonata IV: ‘Eli, eli lama sabachthani’: Largo 6 Sonata V: ‘Sitio’: Adagio 7 Sonata VI: ‘Consummatum est!’: Lento 8 Sonata VII: ‘Pater! In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum’: Largo 9 ‘Il terremoto’: Presto e con tutta la forza

 

Haydn, Rihm, and connecting threads



‘Concerts as we know them are organized so that one piece follows another, sometimes like alien substances,’ wrote Wolfgang Rihm in a 2005 programme note, adding ‘there is always a secret thread linking our artificial arrangements, from which questions and replies will arise.’ One can understand why he might have said that concerning a programme of Haydn’s Symphony No.95 and the world premiere of his own Two Other Movements, alongside Ravel’s Boléro, Ernest Chausson’s Poème op.25 and Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.

In the present case, works by Rihm and Haydn are more obviously connected, yet that too requires a warning. One thread may be evident, but our ears should not rule out the possibility of a secret labyrinth too. Haydn is programmed more often than one might expect with Rihm, a composer fascinated by reckoning with the Classical-Romantic tradition at whose head Haydn in many respects stands. Indeed, one recent book on the piano trio is subtitled ‘from Joseph Haydn to Wolfgang Rihm’. Instrumental, chamber, orchestral and even sacred music – for some now itself a ghost at the musical feast – offer connecting threads, questions and replies both secret and revealed.

 

Rihm: Sonata, vigil, and plea for mercy

If six has often been thought a good number for instrumental collections (Haydn’s string quartets and even his symphonies), Jewish, Christian and other religious traditions have long considered the prime seven a ‘perfect’ number. Scripture takes us from the seven days of Creation, through seven days of Passover, to the seven last words or sayings of Christ on the Cross and, beyond, to seven seals in the Book of Revelation. Christian tradition presents seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven heavenly virtues, seven deadly sins, seven sacraments, and more. Rihm initially composed movements of his Seven Passion Texts between 2001 and 2006, one by one lightening the darkness of Holy Week vigils, knowingly in the venerable responsorial tradition (for six vocal parts) of Carlo Gesualdo. At the premieres of the sixth and seventh texts, he presented them as part of a larger work, Vigilia, now with preceding instrumental ‘Sonatas’, and a closing ‘Miserere’. 

Easter is coming, albeit not yet. There will be greater darkness, the greatest of all, entailing God’s death on the Cross and sojourn in Hell. Hence the vigils (the nocturnal hours of watching until Easter morning itself), their texts either straightforwardly depicting, referring to (Peter 1), or foretelling (Isaiah, Lamentations, Jeremiah, Psalms) the four Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion. A sense of uncertainty even in direction seems to hold particular appeal for Rihm, who in 2006 described himself as ‘one who does not pray, but speaks with God’. This stance we hear reflected and developed in Vigilia. 


Sonatas precede motets, but are no mere preludes. Rather they introduce the text from Scripture and respond to it with a subjectivity rarely if at all present in the motet to come. Clarinet and horn stand apart from the rest of the ensemble (perhaps an updated version of an ancient, largely tenebrous consort): two trombones, tuba, percussion, organ, viola, cello and double bass. There is musical violence here, to counterpoint, if not necessarily straightforwardly to depict, the agonies of Christ on the Cross. This is nowhere more striking than in the antiphonal organ and brass exchanges, mediated by percussion, of Sonata V; likewise from the organ and percussion at the opening of the final Sonata, where horn and clarinet respond as if from the other side of the void. Stinging dynamic contrasts and dissonance – the idea remains just about operative – contrast in turn with less ‘extreme’, more contemplative vocal liturgies, whose melody, rhythm and even harmony owe much to the mediating role of memory in reimagination of ‘early music’. Even a marking of ‘calmo’ (Sonata IV) seems to pertain more to volume and, latterly, to a Stravinskian coolness that is anything but without tension. 

The opening of the first Sonata with its leading brace of trombones has something about it of the late Renaissance, reimagined through time and paving the way for something more overtly modernist in timbre and gesture. Intervallic construction suggests Webern – and perhaps the early polyphony Webern avidly studied. (Seek and ye shall find, perhaps.) At any rate, the first of seven motets – notwithstanding its text ‘Tristis est anima mea’ – offers seraphic contrast. Likewise in Sonata III, first from brass and then from strings, agitato ghosts of Webern and Stockhausen joust in a musical drama denied the ensuing verbal setting of the temple rent in twain. Pesante octaves of two trombones and tuba in Sonata VI suggest distilled Bruckner, and woodblock intervention a modernist, even Messiaen-esque intervention, heralding the motet to follow. A lack of dynamic contrasts and markings in the motets as a whole speaks of an unmistakeably modern conception of non-subjective, even ‘expressionless’ early music. The accents of ‘Recessit pastor noster’ correct that even on its own terms, but it remains a contrast worth noting. At any rate, here is apparently timeless liturgy: a cappella other than low-key appearances of strings in this motet and percussion in ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’.

Peter Bannister’s comparison of Rihm to the Catholic-Marxist philosopher Gianni Vattimo is revealing. Bannister suggests that Rihm’s harmonic idiom in these pieces may be heard analogously ‘to Vattimo’s “weak thought”’, the thought of a ‘self-confessed “half-believer”’, in that Rihm’s ‘language suggests directionality and simultaneously subverts it at every stage, hinting at “strong structures” but scrupulously avoiding them’. In the ‘Miserere’, more than three times the length of the lengthiest motet, a productive yet provisional synthesis peters out (‘Tunc … tunc…’ – not entirely unlike the ‘ewig … ewig’ of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde) into alternation between voices and instruments, further suggesting the productive scepticism of Vattimo’s ‘half-believer’. Liturgy has become personally expressive after all, in a plea for forgiveness to which a response from beyond these nights of darkness remains as yet uncertain.



Haydn: Vigil in sonata, and earthquake

Rihm’s works for string quartet, dating from an unnumbered work of 1966 to the 2015 Geste zu Vedova, run throughout his career. So too do Haydn’s. If not quite the genre’s inventor, he was its first master. The Sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross) was first composed in 1786 for orchestra, with arrangements for string quartet and piano coming the next year (eventually joined by an oratorio version in 1796, with an additional piece of Harmoniemusik). The quartet version is now the best known. This is doubtless in part due to an economy of pragmatism concerning performing forces – but chamber conversation imparts intimacy and immediacy, with very much their own dramatic strength. 

The so-called seven last words (ultima septem verba) – more properly ‘sayings’ since, though brief, they are more than single words – of Christ on the Cross have been a focus of Christian Lenten devotion since the early 16th century. They come from the four canonical Gospels, though none is found in all; they have proved equally popular in Catholic, Protestant and other Christian traditions. The traditional order has been words of forgiveness, salvation, relationship, abandonment, distress, triumph (of a sort) and reunion. Musical settings and responses have ranged from Heinrich Schütz’s Die sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz, through choral works by César Franck and Charles Gounod, to more recent works by Sofia Gubaidulina (cello, bayan, string orchestra) and Tristan Murail (orchestra, chorus, electronics).

Haydn recalled his commission when dictating, 15 years later, a foreword to the score of the oratorio for Breitkopf & Härtel:


About fifteen years ago I was requested by a canon of Cádiz to compose instrumental music on The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross. It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent ... . The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit, and prostrated himself before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits.

Haydn asked the Abbé Stadler for his thoughts. ‘I answered’, Stadler relates in his autobiography, ‘that it seemed to me advisable that over the words an appropriate melody should be fitted, which afterwards should be performed only by instruments’, though he did not know whether that had always been Haydn’s intention. Haydn requested permission from the Bishop of Cádiz to exceed the ten-minute limit for his ‘sonatas’ – the same term as Rihm – if necessary, and received it: the Bishop responded that he would limit the length of his homilies to ten minutes each, ensuring scope for musical overrun. The music, though, was intended not for the Cathedral but for the subterranean Oratorio de la Santa Cueva, whose reconditioning, completed in 1756, had been the project of the priest José Saluz de Santamaria, original source of Haydn’s commission as communicated by an intermediary, Don Francisco Micon.

A severe, double-dotted D minor ‘Introduzione’ suggests with its angular melodies and rhythms Crucifixion: late-Baroque iconography surely comprehensible to Haydn’s audience-congregation in Cádiz. Sonata I (identical nomenclature as Rihm) turns to relatively relaxed lyricism in related B flat major. (There is no overall tonic, though surely there is iconography of Affekt.) Christ seeks forgiveness for his persecutors, ‘for they know not what they do’. Haydn’s setting is unusually homophonic: if not quite a necessary than a likely consequence of a string of Adagios. His setting of the ‘words’ is straightforwardly, unanswerably melodic, followed by musical response, commentary and development. The second Sonata takes us from stern C minor command – ‘Verily I say unto thee’ – to a promise of salvation with arpeggiated, angelic accompaniment, in pure, heavenly C major: ‘Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise’. E major maternal tenderness, inflected on occasion by visions of surrounding darkness (Sonata III) leads to Christ’s celebrated cry of anguish to His Father, in darkest, deepest F minor: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ 



Through agonising thirst, Johannine predestined accomplishment (‘it is finished’), and final commendation into God’s hands in the literally muted (con sordino) consolation of E flat major (Sonata VII), Haydn concludes with a brief, terrible C minor earthquake. Its sudden eruption, more fulfilment than contrast or release, leaves us in wait, as with Rihm or with the Passions of Bach. For now, our lot is to contemplate, grief-stricken yet in hope of something redemptive from beyond. 

(This essay was first published as a programme note for the 2022 Salzburg Festival.)

Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Prom 61: Walker and Beethoven, Cabell/Chineke!/Edusei, 2 September 2022


Royal Albert Hall

George Walker: Lilacs
Beethoven: Symphony no.9 in D minor, op.125

Nicole Cabell (soprano)
Raehann Bryce-Davis (mezzo-soprano)
Zwakele Tshabalala (tenor)
Ryan Speedo Green (baritone)

Chineke! Voices (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
Chineke! Orchestra
Kevin John Edusei (conductor)

Very much a concert of two (unequal) halves, I am afraid. The first Proms performance of George Walker’s 1995 Lilacs promised and delivered much. However, the following performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, though loudly acclaimed by much of the audience, exposed yet another contemporary conductor’s inability or unwillingness to do much more than skate over and harry this unluckiest of scores. 

Walker’s piece, for voice (Nicole Cabell) and orchestra offered many connections, even correspondences, with other music. What music, after all, does not? It could never, however, be reduced to those correspondences, speaking very much with its own voice and in its own way: direct yet rich, purposeful, yet (unlike poor Beethoven) with plenty of space. The opening horn solo and uneasy, gorgeous post-Romantic harmonies brought Henze to my mind. Certainly, when the voice entered in the first of the four movements, each setting a stanza from Walt Whitman, it was a post-Bergian world the grateful vocal line announced. Well-shaped, alluring, satisfyingly coherent: one might say the same for work as for performance, and for each of those four movements. Each was characterised by an arresting opening, low angular brass answered by strings at the outset of the second; a wandering flute line, then oboe, preparing the way for the voice in the third; and a clockwork, ghost-in-the-machine introduction announcing the fourth, answered by exultant vocal freedom from Cabell. ‘Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird…’. The lingering postlude found the Chineke! Orchestra, as elsewhere, very much in its element, sensitively directed by Kevin John Edusei. 

I shall try not to linger describing the Ninth. I desperately wanted to like, to respond positively to a performance of such enthusiasm from the young players. Edusei’s conception, conducted from memory, seemed to me so perverse, though, that I can only wish I had left at the interval. The first movement I have never heard taken at such a speed; not only that, but its short-breathed quality (repeated, alas, throughout the symphony) robbed it of line, consequence, more or less any possibility of musical meaning. Such hyper-urgency worked a little better in the development, but what should have been the wildness of the return sounded far too controlled to register for much. The coda had a little more fire, yet was so brittle it might have snapped. Edusei’s approach was more suited to the scherzo, and there was no gainsaying the admirable clarity of the orchestral playing. The trio was similarly athletic, not relaxing a jot. The Adagio flowed, as they say; it was at first amiable enough. We can talk all we like about how constructed German ideas of musical ‘depth’ may be; of course they are. But really, was that it? Apparently so.

As for the finale, that must have been the most underwhelming I have heard its opening. It went on its way, finely articulated, something akin perhaps to ‘designer Beethoven’. Matters picked up with the advent of the voice, Ryan Speedo Green truly using words and music to communicate Schiller as well as Beethoven. The chorus and other soloists responded in lively fashion. It was all extremely regimented. Without space to breathe or anything much in the sense of harmonic development, though, this came across more as a musical patchwork, with various incidental pleasures to be heard in the quality of singing and playing. I could not help but think of Daniel Barenboim conducting this same work here with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra ten years earlier. That, for me, had been air from another planet, but I should repeat that many in the hall appeared to respond with similar enthusiasm here.  


Friday, 2 September 2022

Salzburg Festival (7) – VPO/Salonen - Wagner and Messiaen, 28 August 2022


Grosses Festspielhaus

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and ‘Liebestod’
Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie

Yuja Wang (piano)
Cécile Lartigau (ondes martenot)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

A little morning light music by Wagner and Messiaen proved a fine way to round off my visit to this year’s Salzburg Festival. Esa-Pekka Salonen is by now quite an experienced Wagnerian, especially for one not so associated with the opera house. His association with Tristan und Isolde goes back many years by now; I have heard him conduct it both in Paris and (in concert) in London. This performance of the first-act Prelude and so-called ‘Liebestod’—Wagner’s ‘Verklärung’ is surely closer to the mark—spoke with the wisdom of long acquaintance, yet not the slightest hint of staleness. The same, of course, could be said of the Vienna Philharmonic—Wagner’s abortive planned Vienna premiere notwithstanding. Indeed, both conductor and orchestra took care to ensure that there was much more to the sound than string-saturated ‘voluptuousness of hell’ (Nietzsche); the Viennese woodwind in particular had considerable bite. Salonen’s ears seemed focused on the century to come, whilst remaining rooted in Wagner’s own. Taking all the time that was needed, the performance nonetheless always moved, always evolved. Climaxes shattered and thrilled. One could lose oneself, but it would have been a pity to have done so.

The Prelude’s after-glow or -shock proved especially inviting, ushering in Isolde’s transfiguration as if it were telescoping the action in between. It appeared as if out of a dream, a neat solution to what remains tonally a problematic non-connection between the two movements. Under Salonen, the music truly teemed with life; it was not done for yet. The VPO shimmered, almost as if it were Liszt’s piano. And what a final climax ir proved to be.

Messiaen’s vast Turangalîla-Symphonie followed without a break. Two apparently affronted audience members left within a minute or two; I wonder what they had been expecting. Whatever divine and/or diabolical force was at work in the Introduction, it certainly made its immanence felt. As did Yuja Wang, whether solo or as part of the ensemble, for instance in dizzying duet with xylophone. The crazy imagination of Olivier Messiaen—almost as crazy as that of Richard Wagner—had been unleashed: awe-inspiring.

It did not take long before the two ‘Chants d’amour’ revealed Tristan-esque yearning and languor. Cécile Lartigau’s ondes martenot worked its weird and wonderful magic, slightly beyond yet never dissociated. Wang’s piano glistened and shuddered. This is not subtle music, and why should it be? In between, though, lay something far more inscrutable, the beguiling, even forbidding ‘Turangalîla 1’. It seemed, to return to Nietzsche, to lie beyond good and evil, beyond morality; it simply ‘was’.

A duly wacky ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’ fully embraced its big-heartedness, the whole of Creation seemingly in motion. Its successor, the ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ offered a welcome, even necessary change of piece. The ‘rightness’ of Salonen’s tempi almost had one fail to notice them; on that account, it is all the more important to recognise them. There were darker, or at least less sweet, undercurrents, but undercurrents they remained. ‘Turangalîla 2’ in turn offered relief and contrast, before a ‘Developpement de l’amour’ designed to test the limits. Dynamic contrasts and moods of introversion and extroversion (albeit biased towards the latter) pushed each climax further. Apart from anything else, it was quite a noise. The close sounded, even tasted, as if an antidote we suspected might actually be a variant of the same witches’ brew.

‘Turangalîla 3’ extended the ambiguity of that close, erupting in hieratic, hypnotic mystery, as if aurally tasting—that sense again—a Boulezian sorbet. Hand on heart, I sometimes wish more of the work were like that; but then, it would be a different work. The final movement certainly functioned as such, motivically and in mood. It did not just happen to be last; it culminated.


Salzburg Festival (6) – Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, 27 August 2022


Grosses Festspielhaus


Images: SF / Sandra Then

 
Sarastro – Tareq Nazmi
Tamino – David Fischer, Mauro Peter
Queen of the Night – Brenda Rae
Pamina – Regula Mühlemann
Three Ladies – Ilse Eerens, Sophie Rennert, Noa Beinart
Papageno – Michael Nagl
Papagena – Maria Nazarova
Monostatos – Peter Tantsits
Speaker, First Priest, Second Armoured Man – Henning von Schulman
Second Priest, First Armoured Man – Simon Bode
Grandfather – Roland Koch
Three Boys – Stanislas Koromyslov, Yvo Otelli, Raphael Andreas Chiang
Old Papagena/Cook – Stefan Vitu
Third Priest – Valérie Junker

Lydia Steier (director)
Katharina Schlipf (set designs)
Ursula Kudrna (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Momme Hinrichs (video)
Ina Karr, Maurice Lenhard (dramaturgy)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera (chorus director: Jörn Hinnerk Andresen)
Angelika-Prokopp-Summer Academy of the Vienna Philharmonic (stage music)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Joana Mallwitz (conductor)



When Lydia Steier first presented her Salzburg Magic Flute in 2018, the world was, as they say, a very different place. The trials of the intervening years have left their mark on this wholesale revision. So, I think, has more general experience. Perhaps it is also a matter of my being more receptive; it is always difficult to know about oneself. (These are all, by the way, surely themes of the opera, as well as of this production and its way into the world.) At any rate, where I was far from convinced by its earlier, circus incarnation—not on principle, Achim Freyer’s enchanting, classic production remaining one of my favourites—I found myself intrigued and involved by many aspects of this Neueinstudierung.

It takes place in an upper-class household shortly before the outbreak of the Great War. Parallels, sadly, speak all too well for themselves here. Following an argument over dinner—staged as an overture pantomime—the three boys are sent to their room, and their grandfather reads them a story, his narration largely though not entirely replacing Schikaneder’s dialogue. (It is a pity, but Steier in the programme makes a good case that, given the realities of theatre and rehearsal, even at a Festival such as this, despatch of the dialogue by an international cast will often leave a good deal to be desired.) A fairytale unfolds, in words (by Steier and dramaturge Ina Karr, paying homage to venerable collections such as those of the Brothers Grimm), the imagination of grandfather and boys alike, and thus also in gesture and music. Members of the household—family, servants, and visitors—furnish the cast of the Singspiel. Tragedy from the grandfather’s past informs the action, when, in a magical feat fully worthy of the opera, his late wife, who took her own life, steps out of the painting on the wall. Will Tamino and Pamina fare better? Perhaps that hope, that intent, informs the story the captivating Roland Koch continues to tell.




Steier captures well many of the work's ambiguities, rightly saying (in a programme interview) that ‘there is no black or white in this opera, only grey’. Or rather a multitude of colours, but perhaps that amounts to the same thing ethically. In the second act, it becomes clear that a male-dominated society, Sarastro’s, will lead the boys—and the world—to war. There is a degree of excitement to that for the boys, of course, but we, quite rightly, fear. The sermonising of Sarastro and his order should not be taken at face value. Perhaps ‘wisdom’ is not always what it seems, and Papageno (the butcher’s boy) might have a better idea. Pamina’s boldness, quite different from that of the mute, veiled women we see elsewhere, permits her entry. But perhaps there was no right path after all; that will most likely be a story for another day.




Joana Mallwitz’s conducting was to my ears considerably more successful than that of her 1998 predecessor (Constantinos Carydis). It is fresh, almost modest, certainly worlds away from a Klemperer or a Böhm (or a Colin Davis, for that matter). But the production teaches us to beware male authority figures. In any case, this is clearly how Mallwitz hears the music; she and the Vienna Philharmonic communicate well its inner life, its sheer variety and, ultimately, many aspects of its miraculous unity.

Tareq Nazmi’s Sarastro was in something of a similar vein: less stolid than sometimes one hears, though with enough pomposity to fit role and production. Brenda Rae’s Queen of the Night startled in offering much more than mere set pieces; within the confines of the role, she hinted at greater humanity, more of a back story, and she acted as well as sang. An indisposed Mauro Peter’s last replacement, David Fischer—Peter continuing to act the role onstage—impressed greatly as Tamino. He would have done regardless of the circumstances. Ardent, sweet-toned, and well able to shape a clean yet infinitely touching line, Fischer offered Mozart singing of the first rank. Regula Mühlemann’s Pamina, possessed of clear inner resolve, likewise touched the heart-strings, not least in a well-judged ‘Ach, ich fühl’s, which resisted the unaccountable fashion of taking it as fast as possible. Michael Nagl’s lively Papageno chose to look on the brighter side of life, but hinted, sometimes more than that, at a broader emotional hinterland too. The chorus, unseen (Covid-safe, perhaps), impressed throughout.




Special mention, though, should go to the three members of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, Stanislas Koromyslov, Yvo Otelli, and Raphael Andreas Chiang: on stage pretty much the whole time, now with important speaking and acting roles, in addition to their singing, all of which was accomplished with convincing, indeed outstanding results. Maybe there is, after all, hope for a European future, whether in musical terms or beyond.

 

Monday, 29 August 2022

Salzburg Festival (5) - Katya Kabanova, 26 August 2022


Felsenreitschule

Katěrina Kabanova – Corinne Winters
Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanova (Kabanicha) – Evelyn Herlitzius
Varvara – Jarmila Balážová
Boris Grigorjevič – David Butt Philip
Váňa Kudrjáš – Benjamin Hulett
Tichon Ivanyč Kabanov – Jaroslav Březina
Savël Prokofjevič Dikoj – Jens Larsen
Kuligin – Michael Mofidian
Glaša – Nicole Chirka
Fekluša – Ann-Kathrin Niemczyk


Barrie Kosky (director)
Rufus Didwiszus (set designs)
Victoria Behr (costumes)
Franck Evin (lighting)
Christian Arseni (dramaturgy)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Huw Rhys James)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra,
Jakub Hrůša (conductor)


Images: SF / Monika Rittershaus 


For me, Barrie Kosky has often been at his best when staging more serious operas, which do not lend themselves to his trademark ‘showbiz’ treatment, and for which he has shown a single-mindedness again quite different from what other stagings may have led us to expect. Pelléas, Rusalka, Eugene Onegin, and Iphigénie en Tauride spring immediately to mind. Others differ strongly, I know, so it is probably more a matter of taste as anything else (though not in the case of that breathtakingly dishonest Bayreuth Meistersinger). This new Salzburg production of Katya Kabanova broadly falls, I suppose, into that category. There was certainly nothing to object to, nothing to distract; and yet, I could not help but feel—more feel than think—that something was missing. 

Theatre is not, of course, made in a vacuum. Experience of the pandemic—far from over, of course, whatever our overlords may tell us—is still raw and its consequences are still very much with us (he wrote, typing, FFP2-mask-clad, on a train out of Salzburg). No need to worry: this is not a Katya full of masks, Microsoft Teams, and parties chez Johnson and Simmonds, though surely it will come. (My bet is on a Zoom Tristan by 2025.) But rather, the vast stage of the Felsenreitschule seemed strangely underused, as if to allow for social distancing, save—a crucial exception, I grant—for a vast, immobile (boundaries occasionally altered between scenes) crowd, backs turned to us throughout. Extremely realistic, of all shapes and sizes, this wall of puppets could well have been taken for actual human beings, had one not known—or suspected, given the lack of movement. It was an arresting image, walling in the community, Katya’s horizons, and indeed those of everyone else, although Kosky’s interest, not unreasonably, seemed to lie in the heroine. A large stage with nothing else to detain us: on second thoughts, one could readily have had set designs and kept the characters apart as necessary, so perhaps it was not Covid at all. Words from a programme interview lend credence to that view, Kosky saying that he did not want to ‘do Kátá Kabanova as an Ibsen or Strindberg drama – it’s not just about the family.’ He says he and his production team needed ‘to consider how we could represent this village or small town and Kátá’s feeling of isolation within this place, and at the same time concentrate on Kátá and the immediate family around her, without turning it into a chamber piece with walls, doors, tables, chairs and a samovar – which wouldn’t work anyway in the Felsenreitschule.’

So maybe the pandemic and the horrific loneliness it brought for many of us haunts responses rather than intention; or maybe, just maybe, the one does not exclude the other, especially in the work of so experienced a man of the theatre. For whilst Kosky verbally acknowledged the role of the community, and that puppet-wall was ever-present, the impression—present, I think, in much of the Personenregie too—was of a more existentialist drama than either we are accustomed to or those words imply. True, there were at the beginning of each act other, sonic hints of something, whether natural or social, lying beyond. Birdsong preceded the first act, bells the second, and thunder the storm of the third. Beyond a light bit of sado-masochism, as Kabanicha walked Dikoj around on a leash and poured liquid on him, the abiding feeling for me remained loneliness in a vast space.

In the title role, Corinne Winters proved an estimable contributor to this concept, determined to make her own way in the role, never remotely reliant on post-Hardy (at least for an English speaker) cliché. If I observed and was duly repelled by her treatment, only really at the end was I moved. I say this not as adverse criticism; that seemed to be the dramatic strategy, to emphasise the final breakdown. It seemed to be Jakub Hrůša’s conception too, in the pit. Goal-orientation is not only a musical strategy for Beethoven and his followers. There was never an ounce of sentimentality, never a moment to enjoy the excellent, if not to my ears always entirely idiomatic, playing of the Vienna Philharmonic for itself. Sometimes, I may have wished the music, the drama, would linger just a little, but that was surely the point. And surely they were right.




Where I had a few doubts was with some of the Czech language heard. I cannot really say more than that, speaking not a word of the language myself, but I wonder whether it is a coincidence that, without knowing who they were beforehand, I often felt a greater immediacy from those whose first language it was. First and foremost was Jarmila Balážová: an outstanding Varvara, glowing with an infectious zest for life in such sharp contrast with Katya’s fate and, yes, that of the society around them. Presented with considerable vocal beauty and undeniable sincerity, David Butt Philip’s Boris was another fine portrayal—from an artist who seems never to give anything but. Evelyn Herlitzius gave a duly terrifying star turn as Kabanicha, surely one of the most unremittingly evil characters in all opera. As is her wont, this was a powerfully committed performance throughout. Benjamin Hulett’s idea of Kudrjáš and his communication of that idea seemed almost designed to vindicate the description in Ivana Rentsch’s excellent programme essay of his character’s ‘mellow detachment’, as much expressed through sonority as gesture.All contributed, though, to the sharply delineated drama unfolding; there were no exceptions, nor even weak links. And whether the pandemic coloured conception, response, or both, is perhaps unimportant, given the tragic power of the denouement.

 

Thursday, 25 August 2022

Salzburg Festival (4) - Levit: Bartók, Schumann, Wagner, and Liszt, 24 August 2022


Grosses Festspielhaus

Bartók: Out of Doors, Sz 81
Schumann: Waldszenen, op.82
Wagner, arr. Zoltán Kocsis: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178

Igor Levit (piano)


Image: SF / Marco Borrelli

For this Salzburg Festival recital, Igor Levit offered a programme of piano music—and, in one case, orchestral music transcribed for the piano—rich in connections explicit and implicit, and beautifully balanced too. Programming is in many ways an art in itself, yet not of course quite in itself: the music needs to be performed at least as compellingly as it has been assembled. There was little problem in that respect here, given performances that never took the works in question for granted, always looked—and listened—afresh.

Bartók’s Out of Doors suite was a welcome choice to open. The drums and pipes of the opening piece gave neither pianist nor audience time to adjust. Poundingly percussive from the word go, it was always much more than that, though: melody and harmony, as ever in Bartók, at least as crucial as the initially startling melodic element. Levit understood and conveyed this, not only here but in the following pieces of very different, highly contrasted character. This suggested what a treat we might have in store from the Sonata and the Piano Concertos; let us hope they are only just around the corner. The ‘Barcarolla’ emerged as a mysterious heir to Chopin et al., those others certainly including Liszt, especially the Liszt of those lugubrious late Venetian works. I thought I heard a kinship to Prokofiev too: less expected, perhaps, but making a great deal of chronological sense. (Kinship need not mean influence in either direction.) Levit’s variety of articulation in service of the musical idea was just the thing to tease out its secrets. Delicately insistent, the ‘Musettes’ presented yet another winding, post-Romantic way, sharply contrasted by the night music of the fourth piece. Bells? Birds? Breezes? Beasts? Who knows? It was certainly Bartók, at any rate, the beating heart of the work as a whole. Independence of hands, the very foundation of Lisztian technique—well, one of the foundations, anyway—was crucial here in delineation and communication. The final piece was every inch the finale, early echoes of the opening taking us along a very different, dancing path. Fiendishly difficult and infectious, this was the piece with the most transcendental virtuosity, in Levit’s hands a veritable whirlwind.

Schumann’s Waldszenen is another set of pieces one might expect to hear more often than one does. Here, it breathed a post-Bachian air, not only in its counterpoint, but in melody, harmony, figuration, and much else. The introductory piece gently placed us in medias res: storytelling magic with an inwardness (Innigkeit) all Schumann’s own. The hunters of the second brought a degree of stormy release, ever precise, though, just as in Bach. Deceptively, captivatingly ‘einfach’ or simple, ‘Einsame Blümen’ offered as keen a note of fantasy as anything else: a note struck, in various ways, throughout the set, not least in a questing ‘Freundliche Landschaft’. In between, the dignified pathos, both directed and a little wayward, of ‘Verrufene Stelle’ hinted at a fugal mind deconstructed. A friendly wayside inn (‘Herberge’) and dignified ‘Vogel als Prophet’, the latter’s animation almost yet never quite suspended, took us into the sky before coming properly back down to earth in a rhythmically generative ‘Jagdlied’ that, in context, suggested memories of Bartók. Schumann’s epilogues are always things of wonder; here was a fond ‘Abschied’ indeed, its reluctance to close as touching as it was understandable.

Nietzsche famously declared he would not touch the score of Tristan und Isoldewithout wearing gloves. There was no doubting the dangers of its opening Prelude here, in a 1978 transcription by Zoltán Kocsis. More flexible than one would expect from an orchestra, it became a forerunner of late Liszt, ever struggling, ever becoming, endless in melody—until, that is, one realised that it was actually taking its cue from earlier Liszt, in the guise of the Sonata into which its close dissolved. We shall never finally disentangle the mutual influence and affinities of the two composers; here was a good reason perhaps not even to try, musical threads all the more dangerously intoxicating with ‘dies süsse Wortlein: und’: Wagner und Liszt.  

In that vein, the beginning of the exposition proper sounded like another chapter in the same story, beginning with Wagner, moving to those shockingly ‘new’ (even now) Liszt scales of the introduction, and new bursting forth in other, neue Bahnen, to quote Schumann on a young composer (Brahms) who certainly did not appreciate this work, allegedly falling asleep (!) when Liszt played it to him. That almost novelistic sense of pages, even chapters being turned was, I think, a particular characteristic of Levit’s performance, Liszt’s supreme Faustian bargain turned almost literally into a nineteenth-century page-turner. The composer’s formal concision can hardly be gainsaid here, but a complementary expansiveness was revealed as the other side to a coin of seemingly endless transition. There was time for grandiloquence as well as for silence; there was space for rhapsodic freedom and constructivism. (To misquote Dolly Parton, it takes a lot of organisation to sound that free.) With Liszt, especially here, several balls will often be in the air at any one time. The odd one may be dropped, but that is part and parcel of his generosity of character. With the structural outline firmly in place—there was no question as to the moment of recapitulation—there was no harm in occasionally pausing to ask a question, or even to admire the view. A divine comedy, a thoroughly Lisztian enterprise, was created before our ears. One had the sense, moreover, that it was a one-off, that a different tale would have been told on another occasion.

 With quiet dignity, the poet spoke (‘Der Dichter spricht’) for a Schumann encore. On a more modest yet not necessarily less eloquent level, Romantic rhetoric held us once again in its sway.