Sunday 27 March 2022

Lamento d'Arianna, Ariadne auf Naxos (Prologue), and Witch (world premiere), Royal Academy Opera, 23 March 2022

Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

Arianna – Sophie Sparrow
Prima Donna – Josi Ann Ellem
Composer – Bernadette Johns
Zerbinetta – Kathleen Nic Dhiarmda
Dancing Master – Liam Bonthrone
Tenor – Ryan Vaughan Davies
Wigmaker – Jacob Phillips
Music Master – Will Pate
Officer – Samuel Kibble
Lackey – Wonsick Oh
Major Domo – Michael Ronan

Jane – Bernadette Johns
Agnes, Troll 3 – Julia Portela Piñón
Interrogator 1 – Wonsick Oh
Interrogator 2 – Ryan Vaughan Davies
Wandering Minstrel, Executioner – Will Pate
Sarah, Sun Witch – Sophie Sparrow
Little Miss Manifest, Troll Mum – Nina Korbe
Green Death Witch – Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada
Troll 1 – Marcus Dawson
Troll 2 – Samuel Kibble

Polly Graham (director)
April Dalton (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)
Hayley Egan (video)

Ensemble singers and actors
Royal Academy Sinfonia
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

Sarah (Sophie Sparrow)
Image: Craig Fuller

Commissioning a new opera for its 200th anniversary, and then staging and performing it with such excellence, are laudable things for the Royal Academy of Music to have done. If only, alas, the world premiere of WITCH, music by Freya Waley-Cohen and libretto by Ruth Mariner, had shown us a superior work than it did. The problem lay at least as much, probably more, with Mariner’s libretto, weirdly devoid of dramatic intent, let alone achievement, but it would be difficult to make claims for Waley-Cohen as a musical dramatist either. 

What is WITCH ‘about’? A bullied teenage girl alone in her bedroom, save for a giant rabbit (I don’t know either), finds solace and ultimately takes action through discovery of a coven of witches on the Internet. Despite attempted disruption by a group of online trolls, they manage to cast a ‘penis hex’ on the world—shouting ‘Hex in the City!—which (here, I quote the programme) ‘aims to cleans the world of toxic masculinity and goes viral’. Meanwhile, another story is sketched—barely sketched, let alone anything more—of a sixteenth century Scottish witch; it may have been discovered by the teenagers online, or may have been referred to entirely independently. That was not clear (at least to me). As the late Anna Russell might have said, ‘I’m not making this up, you know.

The problem is not the worthy intent; doubtless these are issues that could, indeed should, be treated dramatically, though whether an opera is the best place to do so may remain an open question. Perhaps a documentary or, indeed, one of the TikTok-style videos screened in Polly Graham’s inventive, often brilliant staging would be a better place to start. (I remain unsure whether casting a ‘penis hex’ is the most obviously efficacious remedy, but what do I know?) There is little or no attempt to create character, still less character development. There is no dramatic grit, let alone ambiguity. It is essentially a school assembly talk writ large, feeling as though it goes on for ever, though it actually extends for ten minutes or so more than an hour. Waley-Cohen’s contribution has some of what one might consider to be the essentials: different sound worlds for the two centuries, which begin to collide (far more so than in the preachy libretto); a keen ear for musical process, albeit one that struggles, perhaps understandably, to align itself dramatically; and a definite move towards culmination as the ‘hex’ is cast. Set against that, there is likewise little in the way of musical characterisation; vocal writing is often ungrateful to no evident end; and the dramatic function of the orchestra, though vividly present, remains uncertain throughout. I suspect something less inert could have been made out of this, but a series of workshops combined with a few periods of reflection and revision would have been necessary. 

Ryan Wigglesworth led the excellent Royal Academy Sinfonia in an incisive account, as well paced as the work would permit. Pulsating with colour, it had me wonder whether an orchestral piece, perhaps with film, might have been a better option. The orchestra was certainly put through its paces, having earlier given a bright-eyed account of the Prologue to Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, albeit one in which Wigglesworth sometimes seemed a little too inclined to follow the singers, lessening dramatic tension. Given with a wonderful, preceding performance of Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna, directed from one of three theorbos by Elizabeth Kenny with great understanding and infinite flexibility, it was unclear what either was doing alongside WITCH. Connection in general mistreatment of women seemed implied, but surely the Opera rather than the Prologue would have made that point better. (There were doubtless musical reasons for not attempting that.) 

It was also surprising that no real attempt seemed to be made to connect Monteverdi and Strauss. Graham’s direction of each taken in separation had much to commend it, save the strange, distracting cries (‘witch’-like?) emitted at one point by Ariadne’s companions in the Monteverdi. The Lament was otherwise focused and powerful, due in no part to Sophie Sparrow’s stylish and richly expressive performance. Strauss proved full of incident, a cue to plenty of character creation (retrospectively showing up its successor all the more), though there was considerably less in the way of Hofmannsthal. In that connection, some dialogue was delivered so deliberately that translation into English would probably have been the better option. The flashing screens and general stage incident of Witch went a long way to contribute interest otherwise lacking, signs of what might have been—and, who knows, may still be. 

As a showcase for young singing talent, this triple-bill achieved more. Sparrow did much to engage our sympathy not only as Arianna but also as Sarah who became a Sun Witch. Her counterpoart Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada (Green Death Witch) presented an unusually sympathetic Zerbinetta, having us engage with her as a human being rather than metadramatic cipher. (This was, after all, only the Prologue.) Bernadette Johns’s Composer, if sometimes lacking in verbal accuracy, likewise engaged us keenly in her character’s emotional trials, the production’s feminist idea here seeming to be that this was actually a woman in trousers, rather than a ‘trouser role’. It was impossible to know how the rest would have turned out, but Will Pate’s Music Master, Liam Bonthrone’s Dance Master, and Ryan Vaughan Davies’s Tenor all suggested great promise for the Opera that never came. Pate and Johns, moreover, suggested greater emotional depth as the sixteenth-century pair of Wandering Minstrel and Jane than otherwise emerged from Witch. In truth, almost every sung performance impressed. If only half the dramatic material had been stronger…

Thursday 24 March 2022

Alexander Goehr 90th Birthday Concert – Goehr, Richards, and Anderson, Nash Ensemble et al., 22 March 2022

Wigmore Hall

….around Stravinsky, op.72, for violin, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, and bassoon
Emma-Ruth Richards: de Stâmparare, for solo oboe
Goehr: Largo siciliano, op.91, for piano, horn, and violin
Goehr: The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, op.102, for voice, clarinet, and piano (world premiere)
Julian Anderson: Ring Dance, for two violins
Goehr: Combat of Joseph della Reina and the Devil, for two sopranos, mezzo-soprano, tenor, piano, and viola (world premiere)

Héloïse Werner, Emilia Bertolini (sopranos)
Clare Presland (mezzo-soprano)
Joshua Ellicott (tenor)
Nash Ensemble
Alasdair Beatson (piano/director)

Alexander Goehr will be 90 in August; here the Nash Ensemble, longstanding Goehr champions, got in a little early with a celebratory concert including no fewer than two Goehr premieres and three other of his works. Compared to his two ‘Manchester School’ colleagues, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies—John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth being very different cases—Goehr has latterly, perhaps always, had a raw deal in terms of public and institutional approbation. It is never too late to start setting things right, though; and if it is long past time for our opera houses and orchestras to rise once again to the challenge, this Nash Inventions concert will surely have confirmed the faithful in their habit and made a number of new converts. 

The Nash Ensemble premiered ….around Stravinsky twenty years ago in 2002. It is difficult to imagine a more sparkling, witty, and involving performance than that given here. With Stravinsky’s Pastorale at its heart, Goehr ‘remembers and refers to the piece “around” which it is performed’. And so, first we heard rich-toned solo violin (Benjamin Nabarro), in the movement ‘Dushkin’, which had at least a little, I fancied, of Stravinsky’s singular way with the instrument, albeit more rooted in German tradition (Schoenberg and Bach). Stravinsky himself, as automated music box, roaring towards (first version) and out of (second, as heard here) the Twenties, yielded to solo violin once more, this time an ‘Introduzione’, as eloquent as its predecessor, in character both related and different. Its proportions, not simply temporal, but also vertical and horizontal, sounded just right to me, beautifully handled both as work and performance. For a concluding Rondo, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, and bassoon returned. One might initially have thought this Stravinsky, or at least Stravinsky-adjacent, but distance increased as it went on its merry way: not only a neat but an expressive and enjoyable conceit. 

Emma-Ruth Richards’s de Stâmparare received a fine performance from oboist Gareth Hulse. Based on a Romanian folk song, Hora Spoitorilor, it sang, cried, and in the tradition of the doina, seemed to invoke help or solace from beyond. Microtones woven around its (broadly) tonal core, it remained both direct and ambiguous, phrasing lightly deconstructive or developmental. 

Written in 2012, Goehr’s Largo siciliano stands precisely midway, temporally, between ….around Stravinsky and today. It refers, strikingly and surprisingly, to Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, with what I think of ultimately as a respectful lack of respect. Throughout its sequence of variations for piano, horn, and violin, fascinating shadows and echoes of very different music emerge: melodic lines, rhythms, and harmonies all transformed. There is some splendidly gestural music, not entirely foreign to Messiaen, but darker, Brahmsian tendencies and related variegation are more typical. Indeed, the greater connection that struck me to Messiaen was less harmonic, than pertaining to a way of listening to harmony. (Or perhaps that was just me. At any rate, the analysis lectures I heard Goehr give at Cambridge, in which he argued the importance of mixture chords, as opposed to endless ‘growth’ of harmony in the guise of ‘new’ chords, seemed much to the point.) With counterpoint and harmony in fine balance, developing variation propelled us along a path whose transformational treatment of variations put me in mind of Liszt or the Beethoven of the Diabelli Variations. These were but reference points, though; I do not think there was anything so straightforward as ‘influence’. This may not have been serial music, which had long since become too predictable for the composer, but there seemed to me an idea, maybe even an Idea, at work not entirely dissimilar. Through the voices of three highly independent instruments, a whole world of potentialities opened up—and closed. 

Goehr’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba visits the Queen’s own visit to St Anthony in a Flaubert parody from Ulysses. Immediately, its combination of fantasy and the sardonic captivates, indeed even from its purely instrumental introduction. Full of incident and with a keen sense of musical narrative, it is overflowing with Schoenbergian lyricism that satisfies as much as it beguiles. A typically animated and detailed performance from Héloïse Werner, stepping in at very short notice for an indisposed Claire Booth, extended our understanding not only of Goehr but of Molly Bloom, leading us to the calculated disruption of the wake-up call: ‘You are a poor old stick in the mud. Go and see life. See the wide world.’ 

Julian Anderson’s early Ring Dance (1987) for two violins followed. Its grating—in a positive sense—Hardanger fiddling truly dug into the instruments of Nabarro and Michael Gurevich; or rather, they did, in its service. Work and performance served up an arc clearly felt, experienced, as well as observed, its notes worked for and achieved. Whilst it could hardly be considered spectral music, perhaps some of its processes fulfilled a similar function, not unlike Goehr’s transformations for serialism. It is, at any rate, a work newly released by the composer for public performance, and which he considers ‘to some extent … a prototype for everything I’ve composed since’. 

The second of two premieres was of Goehr’s setting, somewhat in the manner of Janáček’s Diary of One who Disappeared, of a Kabbalistic ‘Jewish Faust’ story, presented some time ago to the composer by Gerschom Scholem and latterly translated by Goehr from German intro English. The ‘combat’—a nod to Goehr’s beloved Monteverdi, in the guise of Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda—of a rabbi with the Devil, the rabbi and his disciples setting out to climb the mountain where the Devil and his consort Lilith live, summoning Elijah, angels, and archangels along the way to help, only to be told that help his impossible, and having succeeded, failing through trickery and temptation at the last is told with dry wit yet expressive generosity (so long as one actually listens). A sweet-toned Joshua Ellicott, as the Teacher, was echoed and elaborated at the first by solo viola (Lars Anders Tomter), and latterly the full ensemble in varied, differentiated fashion, modes of not un-Brechtian Verfremdung lightly worn yet richly and amusingly expressive. The Schoenberg of Moses und Aron and smaller choral works stands in the background of the writing for the three disciples when heard together, yet each (Werner, Emilia Bertolini, and Clare Presland) was given plenty of scope for individual, shiftingly cast portrayal. 

These passages of narration, in which roles merged and separated, fascinated as much as the dialectical, rabbinical wisdom at the musical as well as philosophical heart of the work; indeed, the former seemed to emerge from the latter. Each of ten episodes had its own integrity, yet contributed to ascent as a whole. Viola harmonics, as the Angel Sandalphon vanished, echoing collaboration between the two high angels Metatron (loud) and Katrie (pianissimo), and a sense of time occasionally suspended, yet often pressing on furiously contributed to a work of well-judged proportions, leading ironically in the light of where the evening had begun in violin terms, with victory for the Devil, depravity for the rabbi, and intriguing survival for one of the disciple-narrators. ‘Only I remain to tell the tale.’ Make of that what you will—and that seemed to be the invitation. 

Now, please, for a revival of Goehr’s Brechtian masterpiece, Arden Must Die. ENO, are you listening? In time for the fiftieth anniversary of its 1974 British premiere at Sadlers Wells?

Sunday 20 March 2022

Terfel/LPO/Gardner - Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Schoenberg, 19 March 2022


Royal Festival Hall

Mendelssohn: Overture: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, op.21
Brahms, orch. Karl Michael Komma: Vier ernste Gesänge, op.121
Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande, op.5
Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Chaste, yet ravishing, LPO woodwind announced Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture as they meant to go on, combining precision and spirit like the orchestra as a whole. Edward Gardner’s account, sometimes hard-driven in the manner of Toscanini, yet not without flexibility, indeed increasingly so, had a strong sense both of harmonic rhythm and dramatic incident. The (apparently) effortless tension of the development, subsiding into touching exhaustion at its close, attested to fine understanding of Mendelssohn’s structure and form. Then magic was reignited. Above all, it made me smile.

 Bryn Terfel joined the orchestra for Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, singing from memory. The programme note oddly had nothing to say of the orchestral arrangement by Karl Michael Komma. Nor did it so much as mention Komma himself, a Sudeten German composer whose record during the NS-Zeit, writing a cantata to celebrate the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia and a pamphlet ‘against’ Mahler, might have warranted a mention. I say that not to argue for proscription, nor for or against anything else, but silence seemed a questionable tactic. What we heard was a perfectly decent orchestration that lacked the intrinsic interest of true recreation—think, say, of Berio’s Brahms—but permitted the work more readily to enter a large hall. It was not unimaginative, variegated lower strings setting the scene well for the first song, a wandering clarinet solo at the close of the fourth both fitting in itself and testament to wider knowledge of late Brahmsian idiom. If ultimately, it shed no particular light and had me missing the piano, nor did it truly get in the way, though perhaps it encouraged a more hectoring side to some of Terfel’s delivery than might otherwise have been the case.

There was, in any case, no gainsaying the vividly communicative aspect of Terfel’s art, still very much that of a prophetic Elijah, as for instance in the agitated central stanza of the opening ‘Denn es gehet dem Menschen’. Terfel’s attention to detail, with short, sharp crescendo, followed by finely controlled, longer decrescendo, on the preceding ‘denn es ist alles eitel’ was never pedantic, always at the expressive service of his performance. There were other such instances aplenty. A finely shaded ‘Ich wandte mich’ and stentorian ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’ were likewise well judged, as was the change of tone for the final song, still serious yet less dark. Strength in knowledge and in world-weariness too was the order of the day.

Schoenberg would not, I think, have been impressed by the evasiveness of that programme note. Whether he would have been impressed by this performance of Pelleas und Melisande, I honestly do not know. I suspect his response would have depended on the fluctuating condition of his relationship with Richard Strauss. For Gardner’s imperative here, aided by scene-setting, including quotation, in titles above the stage (oddly not used for the Brahms), was very much that of event and incident. A duly questing opening, lines curled as if from a Jugendstil sketch, tending already towards the counterpoint of the First Chamber Symphony, ensured that motivic density registered, For the most part, though, Brahmsian inheritance was not where emphasis lay. Propelled both by the performance’s insistence and by visual cues above, I found myself imagining a silent film, replete with exaggerated, expressionist gestures. The LPO strings ‘spoke’ in almost operatic, or rather Wagnerian, fashion, attesting to their deep experience in that repertoire.

A resplendent phantasmagoria—again, Strauss would surely have been impressed—announced the ‘scene’ at the tower, looking forward also to Schoenberg’s later orchestration of the third part of Gurrelieder. The pool in the castle vaults was stagnant indeed, drawing its aural stench from the world of Götterdämmerung. And there was true pain, in (non-emancipated) dissonance as the lovers bade each other farewell. Tumultuous, terrifying chaos prior to Melisande’s final rest emerged as a dark, even sick transformation of Wotan’s putting Brünnhilde to sleep. The story, for that emphatically is what it was, oozed with malevolence, though not exclusively. It was all very much a youthful reading, far less forbidding than often one hears. That is not to say that it was jejune, only different—and, after all, Schoenberg was young when he wrote the piece. Such may not be the whole (meta-)story of this extraordinary work, but perhaps no single performance can be. It certainly seemed to gain converts to Schoenberg’s cause, which can only be a good thing.

Friday 18 March 2022

Peter Grimes, Royal Opera, 17 March 2022

Royal Opera House

Images: ROH 2022 (c) Yasuko Kageyama
The Boy (Cruz Fitz), Peter Grimes (Allan Clayton)

Hobson – Stephen Richardson
Swallow – John Tomlinson
Peter Grimes – Allan Clayton
Ned Keene – Jacque Imbrailo
Rev. Horace Adams – James Gilchrist
Bob Boles – John Graham-Hall
Auntie – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
First Niece – Jennifer France
Second Niece – Alexandra Lowe
Mrs Sedley – Rosie Aldridge
Ellen Orford – Maria Bengtsson
Bryn Terfel – Captain Balstrode
The Boy – Cruz Fitz
Aerialist – Jamie Higgins

Deborah Warner (director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Luis F. Carvalho (costumes)
Peter Mumford (lighting)
Kim Brandstrup (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Mark Elder (conductor)

London has proved fortunate with recent productions of Peter Grimes (and doubtless with older ones too). David Alden’s 2014 production for ENO and Willy Decker’s for the Royal Opera (in its 2011 revival) both had considerable virtues and received performances. This new staging from Deborah Warner and the performances that brought it to life were nevertheless in a class of their own, showing the Royal Opera at the top of its game.

All three productions will have displeased the Campaign for Real Barnacles, and thank goodness for that. Warner takes us into the dark underbelly of a contemporary, down-at-heel seaside town, with neither room nor appetite for prettified nostalgia for an early nineteenth century that never was (and certainly never was in George Crabbe). I thought of a poorer version of Margate, somewhere perhaps in Essex—and lo and behold, had that confirmed in Warner’s programme reference to ‘some of the extremely poor and socially deprived towns of the Essex coast, namely Jaywick Sands’, testament not to any great acuity on my part but to Michael Levine’s sets, Luis F. Carvalho’s costumes, and to the entire ensemble of Warner’s production, sharply, meaningfully choreographed by Kim Brandstrup. There is poverty here, also reckless abandon; there are drugs, alcohol, and sleaze; there is a ‘community’ that rounds on an outsider and in the violence of that rounding discovers a nativist identity and ‘morality’ that chills and kills. It takes back control, polices its borders, and deals with outsiders in a terrifying march of intimidation, fire, and nihilism. This Borough is UKIP, even BNP, country, in which shirtless neo-Nazis mix with dealers such as Ned Keene, one of the more sympathetic townsmen if ultimately untrustworthy on account of his habit; and bigoted, ‘respectable’ rentiers such as Mrs Sedley. It is not, however, an amorphous mass: not everyone is like that, and everyone has his or her own story. Warner takes immense care, as do all of those participating, every member of the chorus clearly directed individually and coming to life both in that individuality and as part of a deadly, group identity. Not only do Grimes and his apprentices—one hauntingly portrayed as a just out-of-touch aerialist vision—have no chance; nor does Ellen Orford, herself a victim of Grimes’s physical violence. ‘The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.’


There is no sign that Grimes is homosexual, or Muslim, or Polish for that matter; but this is undoubtedly the rough justice that would be meted out to him if he were. It is a similar social tragedy to that one sees in parts of Brandenburg or Saxony, doubtless across the world. But it has a particularly English flavour. They do like to be beside the seaside, and they do not like others, with no place to be there, to attempt to join them. Britten’s fraught relationship to England and Englishness, his (partly) thwarted internationalism, and the parochialism of some of his devotees are set in implied counterpoint, but with the work rather than its critics ultimately setting the terms of examination. It is slightly odd—maybe more than that—that, in the contemporary setting, Grimes’s apprentice should be so young a boy, but even that serves to remind us of another aspect of the ‘Britten problem’, which this contemporary Borough would doubtless address with savage, summary justice. 

There could not, I think, have been a better choice to conduct this production than Mark Elder, who led the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, on as fine form as I can recall, as if a man possessed. He clearly believes in every note of the score and, more to the point, revealed all manner of potentialities I had barely imagined were there. Musical processes are clear and generative, indicative of a serious attempt to address the problems of form that so often bedevil Britten’s music in work and performance. An account of titanic clashes and contrasts spanned, on the one hand, screaming echoes of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth and, beyond it, the Mahler of the Fifth Symphony; and, on the other, passages of translucent beauty that seemed to have all the time in the world, yet are fated to be cut short. Elder’s conducting was urgent, even when spacious, whipping up a sequence of storms of fatal consequence that not only framed, but incited, the action on stage. We were reminded that, here, the sea was a thing of danger as well as livelihood, a theatre of cruelty and redress far more than a picturesque landscape.

Another man possessed was Allan Clayton’s Peter. If I say it was the most beautifully sung account of the role I have heard that would unduly delimit its range, though in many respects it certainly was beautiful—and more youthfully vulnerable than the typical craggy old man. This, crucially, was a performance that dug deep psychologically, that suggested profound consideration of dilemmas and traumas faced by the character, and frankly admitted that not all could or should be answered. I could not help but think of Boris Godunov in Clayton’s final scene; the voice is different, as are music, drama, and almost everything else, yet psychological descent and devastation presented tragic parallels across the divide.

Ellen Orford (Maria Bengtsson), The Boy

Maria Bengtsson gave us a profoundly human, refreshingly unhackneyed Ellen Orford, a force for good whose goodness went so cruelly punished. Her ‘Embroidery Aria’ could not have been more touchingly sung, its difficult intervals navigated with ease and in perfect harmony with the orchestra. Jacques Imbrailo’s Ned Keene offered a fascinating study in ambiguity, perhaps beyond mere good and evil. Powerfully and, again, beautifully sung, so much more lay in the acting: a drug-addled hedonist who exerted a mysterious yet undeniable attraction, not an outside as such, yet never quite to be assimilated. Bryn Terfel’s Balstrode may well be the finest opera performance I have seen from him, fully in command of the role and its possibilities, throughout exuding deep humanity and a wisdom that again set him apart without excluding him. Catherine Wyn-Rogers gave us a world-weary yet lively Auntie of experience, Rosie Aldridge a properly vicious Mrs Sedley, more insidious than John Graham-Hall's nicely buffoonish Bob Boles. There were no disappointments in a strong supporting cast, which seemed to grow out of that minutely observed direction of the chorus: a community of individual and mass imperatives. Choral singing was likewise outstanding, the Royal Opera Chorus on better form than I have heard for a long time, fully engaged in portrayal of Britten, Warner, and Elder’s visions (as well, doubtless, as their own).


This enthusiasm comes from a place of ambivalence toward the work itself. I am not yet persuaded that swathes of the second act in particular are not a little dull, nor that the influence of Wozzeck at the beginning of the third is not a little too close for comfort, ‘Arias’ still seem to stand out awkwardly from the rest, and so on. If you are going to be influenced, though, you will struggle to find a better source of influence than Wozzeck, and not every opera can attain the perfection of Figaro or Tristan. This was an outstanding night of theatre, strongly to be recommended to everyone: to the Britten devotees who will not give two hoots about my reservations; to fellow Britten-agnostics, who may also find previous reactions challenged; and even to those more hostile, whose road to conversion may have its point of departure. Not to be missed.

Wednesday 16 March 2022

Wozzeck, Paris Opéra, 13 March 2022

Opéra Bastille

Images: Agathe Poupeney / OnP

Wozzeck – Johan Reuter
Drum Major – John Daszak
Andres – Tansel Akzeybek
Captain – Gerhard Siegel
Doctor – Falk Struckmann
First Apprentice – Mikhail Timoshenko
Second Apprentice – Tobias Westman
Fool – Heinz Göhrig
Marie – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Margret – Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur
Soldier – Vincent Morell
Actors – Nathalie Baunaure, Fitzgerald Berthon, Andrea Fabi, Manon Lheureux

William Kentridge (director)
Luc De Wit (co-director)
Sabine Theunissen (set designs)
Greta Goiris (costumes)
Catherine Meyburgh (video)
Urs Schönebaum (lighting)
Kim Gunning (video operator)  

Maîtrise des-Hauts-de Seins/Children’s Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Gaël Darchen),
Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Ching-Lien Wu)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Susanna Mälkki (conductor)


Four-and-a-halfyears ago, I saw William Kentridge’s then new Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival. I found myself somewhat nonplussed by its more distanced, alienating aspects, thinking them better suited to Kentridge’s Lulu (seen the year before, at ENO). For whatever reason, I found them less of a problem and, in many respects, less apparent in this move to Paris than I had in Salzburg. Why might that have been? Such a question is necessarily speculative, since one never knows how much one is comparing like with like, but I do not think that invalidates the question. Part of the difference may simply have lain with my reception; having spent more time not only experiencing but thinking about contemporary theatre, musical and otherwise, I am probably now more receptive to more distanced approaches. I was also nearer the stage, which, given a staging that was dark in hue and involved quite intricate video projections, was a definite advantage, probably not to be ignored. But I think this was also a more intense musical and dramatic performance, offering greater emotional and psychological depth, enabling a more productive balance between distance and immediacy, to the benefit of both. 

Connected to that, more strongly than I experienced it before, was the overwhelming presence of war, in this case the Great War, though events elsewhere in Europe were doubtless on many minds too. Social brutalisation—remember Britten’s ‘the more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual’ for Peter Grimes—came strongly to the fore, not as a substitute for individual acts, but as a context and in many respects an intensification for them. This felt more strongly as if it were a drama founded in a military context, rather than having that context uneasily tacked on: tribute, I think, to some very fine dramatic performances. But the first in particular of the tavern scenes also felt more central, its madness and its malice seeping out in all directions, even retrospectively. Here, the haunted weirdness of masks (new resonances for a pandemic world) and puppets seemed to fuse more strongly with a post-Mahlerian musical sensibility: those marionettes from the ‘Rondo-Burleske’ of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony come once again to life; or perhaps better (or at least closer to the truth), to death. Here was an expressionism in which Kentridge’s artificiality participated, danced, and sang. 

Not that this was an especially Mahlerian performance. Mahler’s ghosts were present, of course. How could they not be in this opera? But listening again to that same scene from Claudio Abbado’s Vienna recording, I realise that Susanna Mälkki’s concerns were in many respects quite different. Musical processes came more strongly to the fore through Berg’s closed forms, but with a hint at least of the Neue Sachlichkeit of the Twenties (when, of course, composition was completed, and the work’s premiere given). That psychological depth was present in, to borrow once more from Britten, the turning of the musical screw. Individual lines went their different ways, brought together in harmony and in contrapuntal and/or suspended counterpoint, yet also recognising that, more often than not, there remained a distance (that word again) from Mahler’s world, that this was a world of atonality, which had already suffered the war whose catastrophic progress we saw tracked onstage. Mälkki showed a keen sense of the whole, but also of detail: absolutely crucial in this work. She was warmer, I think, than Vladimir Jurowski in Salzburg, or at least less unremittingly formalist, without taking Abbado’s (or, say, Daniel Barenboim’s) late Romanticism as her model. This seemed not only her Wozzeck, but a Wozzeck designed for this production and these singers. 

Much the same could be said of Johan Reuter’s assumption of the title role: tormented, yes, but very much within a particular context, spatial and historical as well as more conventionally expressionist. Reuter made much of the words, without making too much of them, gauging the level of speech and song unerringly, with apt fluidity and undeniable direction of purpose. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Marie was formidable, flawed, and feisty, never a victim, in a performance that grew out of yet was never confined to the text. John Daszak’s hideously cocky Drum Major, Gerhard Siegel’s mysteriously commonplace (in a good way!) Captain, and Falk Struckmann’s similarly etched Doctor all shone in their different ways. So too did Tansel Akzeybek’s Andres, in what can sometimes seem a lesser role than it is, yet here offered an excellent counterpoint to Wozzeck: what might have been, yet tragically never really would (and would it even have been much better?) One might say the same of Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur’s Margret, vis-à-vis Marie. The whole sorry society was finely portrayed, with a fine eye and ear both to ensemble and individuality, all underpinned by typically excellent playing of heft, transparency, and a myriad of darkened colours from the Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris.

Whether I have answered my original question, ‘why might that have been?’ I am unsure. Attempting to do so, though, has helped structure my response. In a sense, delineating and structuring responses out of chaos is what Berg and his interpreters are all involved with. 

Monday 14 March 2022

Don Giovanni, Paris Opéra, 11 March 2022

Opéra Bastille

Don Giovanni – Christian van Horn
Commendatore – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Donna Anna – Adela Zaharia
Don Ottavio – Pavel Petrov
Donna Elvira – Nicole Car
Leporello – Krzysztof Bączyk
Masetto- Mikhail Timoskenko
Zerlina – Anna El-Khashem

Ivo van Hove (director)
Jan Versweyveld (set designs, lighting)
An D’Huys (costumes)
Isabelle Horovitz (choreography)
Christopher Ash (video)
Jan Vandenhouwe (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris, (chorus master: Ching-Lien Wiu)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Bertrand de Billy (conductor)

The problem with Don Giovanni, or rather with all too many contemporary approaches to it, whether by directors or audiences (perhaps less musicians), is secular liberals’ inability or refusal to acknowledge its nature as a deeply religious, indeed theological work. It does not tie one down to a single possibility, far from it, but simply to ignore that aspect, likewise its delicate, related balance on the cusp of mythology, serves at best to impoverish and delimit its horizons, and more often to render it and them downright incomprehensible. It is all there in the score, of course, at least as much as in the libretto, still more in the transcendent potentiality of bringing the work to our consciousness, into our bloodstream, in performance; yet liberals, as is their wont, think they know better, all too often lapsing into a skin-deep psychological realism with little to say beyond ‘we neither like nor understand this work, yet consider that to be its fault, not ours’.    

There were signs, I think, that Ivo van Hove and his production team had considered this problem, or at least some issues related to it, although at least during this first revival, they were intermittent and somewhat tentative. (It is always difficult to know what might have been there to start with, not only in staging, but in performance too, though by the same taken, I have seen revivals that have marked a distinct improvement on their first incarnations.) There is little sign of sympathy or admiration with Mozart and Da Ponte’s hero/antihero, which is fine; the work, in many respects disarmingly open, is far from demanding it. Likewise, for very obvious reasons, it is more difficult than once it may have been to accept a more Faustian, some might say nineteenth-century, reading. Was there nonetheless a sense of sin, even mortal sin, remaining? I think there was, perhaps most evidently in Christopher Ash’s arresting video projections onto Jan Versweyveld’s set (stylishly taking in a Classical inheritance with modern response). A vision of souls writhing in something akin to Hell did not seem out of place, but grew out of what had been there all along, neither necessitating nor ruling out divine intervention. Distance between Don Giovanni’s actions and the divine, even if it were only what he himself saw as an ideal version of himself, was clear throughout. He could not live up to his promise, instead tending towards sociopathy (although this could have been made clearer). 

Incipient deconstruction of libertinage—is it more of the ancien régime than of any revolutionary challenge to it?—was somewhat obscured, however, by a disinclination to use social (and political) distinction to bring it out. One need not return to an eighteenth-century society of orders, though one might, to do so, but to level most or all distinctions tends, if one is not careful, to present further difficulties of incomprehension, even incomprehensibility. If Giovanni is neither the ultimate product of a diseased system of privileged liberties, nor a Sadeian-Nietzschean herald of liberty who might lead revaluation of our values, then what is he? How does he manage to get away with it? With Leporello appearing more or less indistinguishable from his master—it can work, as for instance with Peter Sellars’s pair of Harlem twins—the assumption seems to be that the not-very-servant like accomplice stays because ultimately he wants to be like him. Fair enough, but why, given that he is little more than a dislikeable and, more to the point, unsuccessful operator? Moreover, Leporello seemed too close to Giovanni in the first place, not only in often identical costume, but also in his behaviour. I had the impression that the Stone Guest scene was intended to address this, but Leporello’s unwillingness to serve, instead throwing food around and acting more like his master might than his master did, failed ultimately (at least for me) to make much sense. It clashed with words and music, without offering anything in the way of meaningful dramatic counterpoint. Perhaps the arbitrariness was the point; if so, it seemed neither a strong nor coherent enough point to have been worth making. 

This is, of course, a musical drama, and it is perfectly reasonable to say that some at least of such matters might be dealt with by musical means. Alas, Bertrand de Billy is not a conductor likely to make any such, or even other, dramatic points. There were times when, to his credit, he acted as a facilitator for outstanding playing from the Paris Opéra orchestra. Its sweetness of tone in every section was greatly appreciated; likewise sterner passages with considerable backbone. The conductor’s direction, however, proved somewhat listless, individual numbers and even phrases often floating in the moment, then stopping rather than closing, leading nowhere in particular. 

The version of the score—whose decision this was, I do not know—was regrettable too. For once, we did not have an unholy mixture of Prague and Vienna (understandable from the standpoint of singers, yet from no one else’s) but rather what was more or less Vienna. Elvira thus had ‘Mi tradì’; ‘Il mio tesoro’ was replaced with the markedly inferior Leporello-Zerlina duet (its staging, which might have been the making of it, sadly half-hearted); worst, we had cuts in the finale, papered over by that jarring new setting of ‘Resti dunque quel birbon fra Proserpina e Pluton!’ You cannot have it both ways, it might be responded; if you dislike composite versions so much, then you cannot disallow Vienna. Perhaps, but my dislike of ‘traditional’ composite versions rests on their dramatic failure (the finest performance can suspend one’s disbelief, but it must be the finest) and not on their lack of ‘authenticity’. The solution is easy: Prague. Yet no one seems willing to take it. 

Christian van Horn gave an attractive performance of the title role, fully at home in its slippery shifts of style and character, though perhaps ultimately a little lacking in its darkness of soul. Was it a little too genial, especially given the production? There was nonetheless much musically to admire, as there was with Krzysztof Bączyk’s Leporello, though having a darker-toned Leporello compared with his master also posed dramatic problems that seemed to fuse with those of the production. Adela Zaharia and Pavel Petrov made for an outstanding seria pair, clean yet purposeful of line, with coloratura that unquestionably meant something, musically and dramatically. (I actually found myself regretting the loss of Don Ottavio’s second aria.) Much the same might be said of Nicole Car, her interpretation of the mezzo carettere role of Donna Elvira affording considerable erotic as well as more dignified pleasures. Mikhail Timoskenko and Anna El-Khashem were fully at home in the less ambiguously earthy pleasures of Masetto and Zerlina (also a strength of the production, if not fully mirrored in the higher social orders). They exuded immediate attraction—and attractiveness—and were all the better for it, as were we. The Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk received great cheers and applause when taking his curtain call with ‘NO WAR’ emblazoned on his shirt. Rightly so, but it was equally right for his excellent performance as the Commendatore, which offered a rich, dark nobility whose political and religious implications might fruitfully have been engaged with elsewhere.

Thursday 10 March 2022

The Golden Cockerel, English Touring Opera, 5 March 2022

Hackney Empire Theatre

King Dodon – Grant Doyle
Prince Guidon – Thomas Elwin
Prince Aphron – Jerome Knox
General Polkan – Edward Hawkins
Amelfa – Amy J Payne
Golden Cockerel – Alys Mererid Roberts
Queen of Shemakha – Paula Sides
Astrologer – Robert Lewis

James Conway (director)
Neil Irish (set designs and costumes)
Rory Beaton (lighting)

Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Gerry Cornelius (conductor)

No one could have known at the time of planning—a couple of years ago, I think—but in current circumstances it was eerie, even uncanny, to sit down to a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s final opera, The Golden Cockerel. Composed in the aftermath of the disastrous Russo-Japanese war and only premiered, following extended disputes with the censor, in 1909 after Rimsky’s death, it portrays a lazy king persuaded once again to defeat in war following claims, once again, of enemy incursions at the borders of his realm. King Dodon and his two sons are, to be blunt, idiots; their advisors, official and otherwise (the Golden Cockerel, brought as an Astrologer’s gift) are not necessarily any better. A foreign queen who conquers the realm through conquering the king’s heart stands a little close to home too. Situations differ, of course, but it would have been strange indeed not to draw contemporary parallels, if only in hope that a cockerel might come to peck Russia’s latest autocrat to death. ‘What will the new dawn bring? What shall we do without a tsar?’ 

I found it fascinating, if not entirely convincing. In Iain Farrington’s extremely skilful chamber reorchestration, one would often not have known—at least up in the gods—that one was not hearing a larger orchestra. Rimsky’s meeting-point between the folkloric and more modernist, Stravinskian tendencies, mediated as so often by darker, Wagnerian roots, both delighted in itself and posed intriguing dramatic questions of its own, not least in combination with Pushkin. Gerry Cornelius’s command of detail and sweep in the score impressed greatly, as did the playing of the English Touring Opera orchestra. If the referential motivic elements of the composer’s writing sometimes seemed a little obvious, that was hardly a fault of the performance. The English translation by Antál Dorati and James Gibson sounded very dated, making the opera sound unfortunately close to Gilbert and Sullivan. Thank goodness we have now gone beyond attention-seeking rhyming couplets. 

Alas, the second act seemed considerably over-extended for its material. Whenever Rimsky comes closer to Verdi—as, for instance, in The Tsar’s Bride—his musical drama becomes less appealing to me, often bordering on the tedious. Overall proportions to a relatively brief work are a little odd, or felt so. That said, James Conway’s colourful yet darkening, subtly militarising staging offered a sense that knowing orientalism must by now offer its own self-critique—which may just offer us hope. The Astrologer, oddly uncredited in the cast list yet ultimately revealed in the biographies to be Robert Lewis, underwent a final revelation on stage as holy man Rasputin to the Queen’s Tsarina Alexandra. They were the only ones who had actually existed, the rest an illusion (as we had been warned, yet had probably forgotten). Make of that what you will. 

Lewis certainly made the most of his ritualistic appearances dramatically and vocally: a memorable assumption. Grant Doyle offered a fine comedic performance, with rich hints of something darker, to King Dodon, as verbally acute as it was centred of tone. Thomas Elwin and Jerome Knox shone, insofar as the work permitted, as the king’s useless, sailor-suited sons, contrasted and complementary. So too did Paula Sides’s Queen of Shemakha with bewitching coloratura and beguiling lyricism. All roles were cast from strength, detailed portrayals from the company at large contributing to a pervasive sense of barbed merriment. Closer interpretation was largely and, I think, fruitfully left to us.

Friday 4 March 2022

LSO/Christophers - Haydn, 3 March 2022

Barbican Hall

The Creation (sung in English)

Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Harry Christophers (conductor)

Forty years ago to the day, the Barbican Centre opened its doors to the concert-, theatre-, and exhibition-going public. The London Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director Claudio Abbado offered the Overture to Die Meistersinger, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (soloist: Vladimir Ashkenazy), Elgar’s Cello Concerto (soloist: Yo-Yo Ma), and Ravel’s La Valse. The current LSO Music Director, Sir Simon Rattle, had chosen his longstanding favourite—and mine—Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, for this celebratory concert, but alas the aftermath of surgery meant that he ceded his place at a late stage to Harry Christophers. I say ‘alas’ for Rattle’s sake, since he would doubtless have loved to be there, but Christophers directed a collegial, eminently musical account of this most life-affirming of works, dedicated by the orchestra to the people of Ukraine. It will surely have lifted many spirits, at least in London, at so dark and terrifying a time. 

The public premiere of The Creation boasted on orchestra of 120, though a chorus of only 60. Here, I think, the numbers were more or less reversed, the chorus somewhat more than the number of Haydn’s players, the orchestra not even a handful more than the number of Haydn’s singers. There is no need to get hung up on such things; it was a different occasion, in a different occasion, for different ears, and so on. But it was gratifying at least to have what would once have been a standard Haydn-Mozart string section (, perhaps increased for a large-scale work such as this, rather than something more parsimonious. There was plenty of mystery and potentiality to the ‘Representation of Chaos’, that extraordinary clarinet solo and woodwind writing more generally relished to the full, the pathos of the final descending flute line pointing to ethical and aesthetic imperatives to create. 

The simple, straightforward effectiveness of ‘and there was Light!’, Haydn’s greatest coup de théâtre, was heightened by the committed weight and clarity of the London Symphony Chorus, here as elsewhere on typically excellent form. For if there were times when I missed the sheer variety of scale (with no larger orchestra) the late Sir Colin Davis brought to this work, there were exceptions, especially on the choral side, the choral section ‘And to the ethereal vaults resound’ a little later on a case in point. There was, moreover, a fine edge, rhythmic and harmonic, to the orchestral playing for ‘endless night’ when, a little before, Uriel told of Hell’s spirits’ fate. The combination of orchestra and chorus was throughout excellent, the contrapuntal clarity of ‘The heavens are telling’ at times revelatory. Haydn’s pictorial instrumental imagery was given its delightful due throughout. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly given his experience in such repertoire, Christophers showed himself particularly alert to Haydn’s neo-Handelian turns, for instance in Raphael’s ‘Rolling in foaming billows’. A wonderful brace of oboes (Olivier Stankewicz and Rosie Jenkins) had me think of Bach, though I think that was more coincidence than direct influence. Here and elsewhere, Roderick Williams was a vivid, highly engaging narrator. Lucy Crowe was more inclined to ornament, sometimes further than one might expect, yet always with sound, stylish reason. Her despatch of Haydn’s coloratura, for instance in ‘With verdure clad’, spun from finest Egyptian cotton, was matched by beautifully centred intonation (and indeed by choral agility in ‘Awake the harp, the lyre awake!’) Her aria, ‘On mighty pens uplifted’ was simply outstanding, ‘cooing’ first coy, then ornamented and joined by LSO woodwind in a flourish of birdsong to have Messiaen eat his heart out. Andrew Staples also offered a communicative, sincere performance, very much in the ‘English tenor’ tradition. 

When all three soloists came together, with or without chorus, they complemented each other well—and, crucially, listened to one another and to their fellow musicians, unselfishly moderated by Christophers as conductor. The trio and chorus ‘Most beautiful appear … The Lord is great’ offered a case in point, though I wondered whether its choral close were just a little too bonny and blithe, lacking in the grandeur both Haydn and Handel deserve yet today all too rarely receive. Similarly, the tempo of the ‘Hymn’ in Part Three suggested a brisk jog around the Garden of Eden rather than the anticipated leisurely stroll. Those three flutes, though, who announced Uriel’s preceding accompagnato, made it abundantly clear why no one would ever wish to leave. Williams and Crowe offered an excellent balance between the knowing and the innocent as Adam and Eve.

Hearing the original English of the bilingual libretto by Gottfried van Swieten sometimes brought me, accustomed to hearing the work in German, a few surprises. (I know the English text well, yet I do not think I have ever heard it performed in concert.) Not only were there obvious differences in phrasing, but shifts in practical meaning too, for instance when ‘bespeak’ (Uriel’s aria, no.24) rather than ‘ihm Liebe’ was repeated. There was no denying, though, the sheer goodness of this work, something we need just as strongly as the war-torn Europe for which it was composed. Let us allow Haydn the last word. In 1801, a Bohemian schoolteacher, Charles Ockl, wrote to him, requesting support after unexpected opposition from the Prague consistory to Ockl’s plans to perform The Creation in church. Haydn replied:

… it was with considerable astonishment that I read of the[se] curious happenings, which … considering the age in which we live, reflect but little credit on the intelligence and emotions of those responsible.

The story of the Creation has always been regarded as most sublime, and as one which inspires the utmost awe in mankind. To accompany this great occurrence with suitable music could certainly produce no other effect than to heighten these sacred emotions in the heart of the listener, and to put him in a frame of mind in which he is most susceptible to the kindness and omnipotence of the Creator. – And this exultation of the most sacred emotions is supposed to constitute desecration of a church?

… it is not unlikely that the listeners went away from my Oratorio with their hearts far more uplifted than after hearing … sermons. No church has ever been desecrated by my Creation; on the contrary: the adoration and worship of the Creator, which it inspires, can be more ardently and intimately felt by playing it in such a sacred edifice. 

Perhaps we can say something similar today for the Barbican and other concert halls. In any case, happy fortieth birthday.


Wednesday 2 March 2022

Pollini: Chopin and Schumann, 1 March 2022

Royal Festival Hall

Schumann: Arabesque, op.18; Fantaisie in C major, op.17
Chopin: Sonata no.2 in B-flat minor, op.35; Berceuse in D-flat major, op.57; Polonaise in A-flat major, op.53

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

No one who heard this concert will forget it. Not because it was billed as Maurizio Pollini’s eightieth birthday concert (a stretch, given his birthday had fallen two months earlier), although the warmth of audience affection, give or take a telephone call or two, was palpable from the outset. It was, rather, on account of the Chopin Second Sonata. The advertised Mazurka, op.56 no.3, did not open the second half; the Sonata did. Its first movement was vehement, immediate, perhaps the result of greater physical effort than once would have been the case, yet if anything all the more moving for it. How it sang too, not so much tugging at the heartstrings as wrenching them. Sentiment, not sentimentality. The exposition’s struggle was greater the second time around. Already, we knew. A grimly inexorable scherzo gave way to relative relief in the trio, though we knew it would not last. While it did, though, we were bade to listen anew: something needed now more than ever. 

The Funeral March was, quite simply, overwhelming. Chopin and Pollini spoke as one, with outstanding clarity, directly to humanity. Sometimes there is a case for words; Pollini has been known to use them from the platform himself, less often than his well-nigh exact contemporary, Daniel Barenboim, yet with similar moral authority. Here, there was no such case. The voice of the human spirit in the central nocturne, a veritable epiphany, rose as if a single survivor from surrounding carnage. It was far from untroubled, and all the greater for it. Nor did time stand still; rather it held us in its sweet embrace, having us believe the moment were on the scale of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, or even that of Götterdämmerung, whose Siegfried had been buried only the night before at Madrid’s Teatro Real, draped in a Ukrainian flag. The ferocious, inhuman finale, quite without pity, terrified as the chill wind whose name and nature we dare not contemplate. In both movements, we knew. Applause was like none other I can recall in the middle of a recital. We knew.

The recital began with Schumann. His C major Arabeske had Bach as fons et origo, immanent, yet subtly inflected, aiding and propelling Schumann’s narrative. The dignity, moral and aesthetic, on which Pollini’s authority is founded was present from the outset. Again, sentiment, not sentimentality, the pathos of the minor-key episodes deeply moving. Half-lights of transition tended already towards Brahms. 

The Fantaisie opened, still more so, in the midst of things. If a whirlwind could be ardent and confessional, it would have been this. Again, emotional and intellectual integrity stood out. Starkness of opposition and alchemy of transition emerged not through sleight of hand, but through understanding that much lies between the notes. Formal challenges, especially yet not only in the first movement, were communicated and lived with relish, not smoothed over. This was a performance of possibilities, not of banal ‘solution’. Already, music spoke and sang as if it had words yet stood beyond them. There was an unmistakeably humanist, even heroic determination to the late Beethovenian line of a second movement that knew it could no longer be Beethoven. It was our lot as well as Schumann’s. It was, moreover, an almost Elgarian nobilmente we heard prior to temporary subsiding of the waves. If every single note were not there, so what? So much lies between and beyond them anyway. The third movement looked back at what had passed; this was the vindication of a seer (or better, a listener). Its emotional arc, founded on perfect harmonic understanding, offered a lesson in humanism as richly satisfying as those of Brahms or Schoenberg. 

An impossibly consoling Berceuse followed Chopin’s Sonata. Rock solid of rhythm, it was yet infinitely pliable. Through the truest of rubato, Chopin’s waters glistened, invited, even seduced. From an A-flat Polonaise of (fatally?) wounded swagger, there emerged a struggle worthy of Beethoven or Liszt, the foe mechanised and monstrous, heroism lying in further nocturnal depths. We knew, as we did in the cruelly if necessarily demanded encore: the G minor Ballade, its clarity of line equal to that of its moral purpose. Carrara marble of Pollini’s youth aurally gleamed once more, yet the depth of suffering was new, of our time alone. Strange realms were visited as if for the first time. In whispered confidence, in aching sorrow, in the proudest of defiance, we knew.

Tuesday 1 March 2022

’20 Sonatas’ – Stefanovich: Bach, Soler, Scarlatti, CPE Bach, Ives, Bartók, Eisler, Hindemith, Scriabin, Roslavets, Janáček, and Ustvolskaya, 27 February 2022

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Bach: Sonata in A minor, BWV 965, after Reincken
Soler: Sonata in C minor, R.100
Busoni: Sonatina seconda
Scarlatti: Sonata in C minor, Kk.158; Sonata in G major, Kk.13
CPE Bach: Sonata in G minor, Wq.65/17
Ives: Three-Page Sonata

Scarlatti: Sonata in C major, Kk.406
Bartók: Sonata, Sz.80
Scarlatti: Sonata in G minor, Kk.450
Eisler: Sonata no.1, op.1
Soler: Sonata in D-flat major, R.110
Hindemith: Sonata no.3 in B-flat major

Soler: Sonata in G minor
Scriabin: Sonata no.9 in F major, op.68, ‘Black Mass’
Scarlatti: Sonata in G minor, Kk.8
Roslavets: Sonata no.2
Scarlatti: Sonata in B minor, Kk.87
Janáček: Sonata in E-flat minor, 1.X.1905, ‘From the Street’
Ustvolskaya: Sonata no.6

Tamara Stefanovich (piano)

Twenty piano sonatas over three fifty-minute-long recitals; avoiding the ‘core’ Classical and Romantic (broadly speaking) repertoire, from Haydn to Liszt; asking why composers might time and time again have returned to this genre, if indeed it can be considered the same genre at all. What would you choose? Why? There are no answers, of course, or rather no definitive answers, only an almost infinite host of opportunities. Such is the embarrassment of riches, usually a blessing but just occasionally a curse, of the piano/keyboard repertoire more generally. Tamara Stefanovich’s selection proved typically imaginative, committed, and both spiritually and intellectually nourishing, as well as an outstanding feat of musicianship and pianism.

The first selection began with Bach. (Does not everything?) Here we heard him in the sonata ‘after’ Johann Adam Reincken’s Hortus Musicus trio sonatas: some distance, perhaps, from what we generally think a sonata to be, but perhaps that was part of the point. No one would deny the glories of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, et al., but they can sometimes obscure other paths, especially earlier ones. Stefanovich left us in no doubt that this was a performance for the piano. (If you want to give a harpsichord performance, surely you should do that on the harpsichord.) Voicing gave the sense of a small orchestra at her disposal, a flute answering an oboe, a cello a viola. ‘Ornamentation’ was shown to be melody. There was declamatory joy, a strong sense of harmonic motion, and throughout a vivid, directed performance, culminating in a splendidly ‘present’ Gigue. Antonio Soler offered a very different voice, with both greater pathos and lightness. Stefanovich’s performance drew one in to listen. Busoni’s Sonatina seconda grew out of its close. Restless, diabolical, or better Faustian, it took us to the edge of atonality in a performance of virtuosity entirely at the service of the music, recalling what we know of Busoni's own pianism. Long-range coherence and incident of the moment were two sides of the same coin. 

Domenico Scarlatti made the first of several appearances, with a finely contrasted pair of sonatas (as we often hear his music). The first notes of the C minor Sonata, Kk.158, sounded truly disorienting, emerging as they did from Busoni. Where were we? In a liminal zone, so it seemed, in which eighteenth-century tonality reassembled itself. Both performances seemed thought out from first principles, from individual materials. What joy there was to be had in hearing the second’s repeated notes (more difficult on the piano than they sound). A sonata by CPE Bach, in G minor, followed. Its opening benefited from the grandest, most magnificent opening to a work of his I can recall, rhetoric harnessed as if to the rise of a velvet curtain. The first movement’s fantasia-like swings of mood and material were disciplined, just about, into a whole, yet never too much. This justly lived on the edge. The central Adagio sarabande, still duly involved, nonetheless offered some sense of relief, its arioso quality finely captured. The sheer strangeness (Sturm und Drang, one might call it, I suppose) of the third movement was again relished, never tamed. From one avant-gardist to another, we moved to Charles Ives’s Three-Page Sonata. Strikingly Schoenbergian language—close, not identical, and only for a moment or two—unleashed a parade of restless, radical, and wry freedom, whose chimes were almost the least surprising feature. The vehemence of disciplined chaos to its close made it almost impossible, had I not seen it for myself, to credit that there were only two hands at work here. 

The second recital was announced by Scarlatti: full of incident and pictorial character and contrast. ‘Percussive’ is a word we often hear used to describe Bartók’s piano-writing. One can understand why, but in reality it begs still more questions. (No bad thing.) For here, in his strangely neglected Piano Sonata, there were such profusion of melody, such variegation in the entirely unfussy weighting of each chord, propelled by rhythm and harmony alike, it seemed more than usually inadequate. A relentless first movement paved the way for a second of equal (at least) emotional intensity. The finale was every inch a finale in its substantive release. Rightly, for the first and only time within a recital, the pianist paused for applause. Returning to Scarlatti, it was fascinating to hear his repetitions and other, lighter obstinacies through the shadow cast by Bartók. 

Hanns Eisler’s opus one brought us fascinatingly close in its first movement to the language of the serial Schoenberg, yet held its distance too: more skittish, Scarlatti an excellent preface. Structure on paper became living form in liquid performance. Prokofiev seemed close at times too, perhaps particularly in the second of the three movements, its line unerringly traced and projected. The care and abandon with which not un-Schoenbergian idiosyncrasies were integrated in the finale typified the performance as a whole. Following an unexpectedly fragrant ornamental flowering from Soler, its harmonies taking a while to get used to after Eisler, we moved to Hindemith’s Third Piano Sonata. In its first movement, siciliano rhythms immediately standing out, they sounded as if formed by their surrounding harmonies. A scampering scherzo and two deliberate yet purposeful movements to follow led us to a sense of hard-won victory. 

Soler opened the third and final instalment: courtly yet capricious, ornamentation speaking of a freedom of which we stand in greater need than ever. Scriabin’s ‘Black Mass’ Sonata suggested dissolution as another, more dangerous form of emancipation, even through the burning fire of Bakunin-like anarchism (very different from Ives’s). There was wayward alchemy, though, and direction to be appreciated looking backwards from where we had come, even if we were uncertain at the time where we were heading. Command of detail was crucial to that greater sweep, just as it was in the dignified pathos of the Scarlatti sonata that followed. The post-Romantic constructivism of Ukrainian Nikolai Roslavets took a different path from Eisler (or Schoenberg) yet could nonetheless be felt as something of an antidote to Scriabin. There were moments of languor, yes, but motivic construction and transformation won out. Once more, the strangeness in context of Scarlatti’s harmonies was to be relished as a pendant.

Janáček’s Sonata, 1.X.1905 could hardly fail to have particular resonance given the state of the world around us. It went beyond that, though, in a moving performance of proud dignity and deeply communicative humanism, fusing the subtle and the direct. Its second movement was more songful, yet no less impassioned, through rather than despite its fragile nerve endings. For the final work of the day, Stefanovich donned black gloves to tackle the immediate yet reflective violence of Galina Ustvolskaya’s 1988 Sonata no.6. More unremitting than Bartók, blacker than anything we had yet heard or wished to hear, it duly bludgeoned, yet spoke of and with an integrity that refused to offer easy answers. Was there, perhaps, a glimmer of hope in there somewhere? It was probably something more equivocal than that. And then it was gone.