Tuesday 31 May 2022

Andsnes/Hamelin - Adams, Schumann, Debussy, and Stravinsky, 30 May 2022

Wigmore Hall

John Adams: Hallelujah Junction
Schumann, arr. Debussy: Six Studies in Canonic Form, op.56
Debussy: En blanc et noir
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Leif Ove Andsnes, Marc-André Hamelin (pianos)


Two-piano recitals look, feel, and are very different from piano-duet recitals. Sometimes we have a mixture, but even then, performances look and sound very different, for obvious logistical reasons. Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin offered four (five, if one counts the encore) works for two pianos, ultimately taking us to the very limits—sometimes, it seemed, beyond—of what is possible, even with two instruments and four hands, in The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s arrangement is actually for piano duet, but Andsnes and Hamelin reinstate some of the lines necessarily missing, at times giving a full orchestra a run for its money. A deservedly well attended, well appreciated concert heated up an otherwise dismal, late May evening. Maybe the gods were exacting revenge for a strange spring rite of unwitting lèse-majesté at Stonehenge.

 First, though, was neither Neolithic Wiltshire nor the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, but Hallelujah Junction, a truck stop on the border between California and Nevada. I am afraid John Adams’s piece does nothing for me. I could find nothing to signal compositional achievement beyond that of a generic, mid-1990s Channel 4 soundtrack, mixed with all-too-obvious ‘Americana’. As for the sentimental pseudo-Romantic harmonies of the central section, I presumed they were ‘ironic’, though perhaps not. The performance, though, was masterly, rhythmic tests passed with flying colours, not least in the final section in which the two pianists finally came into sync with one another, only to fall out again, ‘like a great malfunctioning mechanical player piano’, to quote Edward Bhesania’s evocative note. That I found diverting enough; the rest was evidently admired by most in the audience and enjoyed by both players.

 Adams over, I could breathe a sigh of relief and had no reservations whatsoever. Debussy’s 1891 arrangement for two pianos of Schumann’s Studies in Canonic form for pedal piano rarely disappoints, but here sheer ‘naturalness’ of musical response was second to none. Bach rightly emerged as the guiding spirit of the first, which paradoxically had one hear all that is not Bach all the more acutely. A melting performance, utterly pianistic, would surely have delighted Schumann and Debussy equally; Bach too, no doubt. From this ‘prelude’, greater pathos followed in the second study, its harmonic riches revealed with wisdom and ese. A winningly impetuous third study, harking back to the wide-eyed Romanticism of Schumann’s ‘Year of Song’ five years previously, filled one’s stomach with the loveliest of butterflies. Limpid, heartfelt, and noble in response, the fourth showed, in the building and subsiding of its more darkly involved central section, the truest virtues of such antiphonal performance. The fifth was resolute in a nicely post-Schubertian way, whilst the concluding study proved both developmental and summative: once more, a fine tribute to Bach.

Debussy’s own En blanc et noir opened as if paying brief homage to Schumann, then pressed on beyond. Its first movement offered clarity, direction, pianistic abandon and control, in as finely complementary duo playing as one could imagine—and then some. Tragedy penetrated necessary abstraction in the second movement, dedicated ‘ au Lieutenant Jacques Charlot tué à l’ennemi en 1915, le 3 mars’. Angels (la vielle France) and demons (war, Ein’ feste Burg) did battle, albeit with due ambiguity. This is music, not a tract, and so it sounded here. Anger, though, was barely suppressed, and why should it be? The scherzando, dedicated to Stravinsky, proved more elusive still, all the more so for resting on a rock-solid rhythmic base, above and sometimes beneath which passes all manner of musical entanglements.

 Debussy and Stravinsky gave a celebrated private performance of The Rite in the composer’s duet version. What it would have been to have heard that, though it is difficult to imagine it surpassing what we heard from Hamelin and Andsnes. Whenever one hears a good performance of the piano version, it is striking just how readily the opening bassoon lines, apparently so tied to their timbre, transfer. Who knows what wizardry is involved therein, but it was close to definitively unleashed on this occasion. More flexible at times than is possible (perhaps desirable) for orchestra, the performance lacked nothing in rhythmic solidity where it counted, its primitivism shockingly immanent. So too was clarity that enabled one to hear me manner of things I had never imagined were there, or so I fancied. Passages sounded closer to Petrushka than usual, surely in part on account of the medium. Others emerged hieratic enough to give Boulez a run for his money. Virtuosity took us to its limits and extended them. Yet for all the pounding, there was much delicacy too, and above all melody, which must lie at the heart (yes, the heart) of any Rite. What emerged more strongly than in any performance I can recall was the sheer tragic impulse of the second part, rooted harmonically, the radicalism of Stravinsky’s cellular organisation likewise becoming all the clearer as it progressed. Hamelin and Andsnes made the Rite strange again whilst remaining true to it: surely the ultimate goal of any performance worth our time.

 As an encore, we heard a tango composer by Hamelin himself, perfectly conceived for and realised on two pianos. Catchy and playful, it engaged in Ravel’s trick of having one ask what might lie beneath the beguiling, glittering surface, before immediately turning the joke on us by pointing out the silliness of the question.

Wednesday 25 May 2022

The Wreckers, Glyndebourne, 21 May 2022

Tallan – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Jacquet – Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Harvey – Donovan Singletary
Pasko – Philip Horst
Avis – Lauren Fagan
Laurent – James Rutherford
Thurza – Karis Tucker
Marc – Rodrigo Porras Garulo
Dancers – Rosie Bell, Lucy Bruns, Tash Cru, Sirena Tocco

Melly Still (director)
Ama Inés Jabares-Pita (designs)
Mike Ashcroft (choreography)
Malcolm Rippeth (lighting)
Akhila Krishnan (video)

The Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus director: Aidan Oliver)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robin Ticciati (conductor)

© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

I so much wanted to like this. Ethel Smyth was an interesting, admirable woman. What little of her other music I have heard I have always found at least to be of interest. Her opera The Wreckers is, moreover, an ambitious work, a great statement of intent, matched in many ways by Glyndebourne’s ambition and intent in staging it and by the commitment of those involved on stage and in the pit. None of that, alas, can disguise a signal dramatic failure, whose tedium was surely increased by the frankly bizarre decision to reinstate cuts made for its 1906 premiere. Sometimes cuts can actually make a work seem longer. (Think of Tristan; or rather do not, for the comparison is anything but forgiving.)

Henry Brewster's French libretto is a serious problem: not so much the language as such, though it is no literary masterpiece, as a broken-backed plot, which on paper looks interesting, even suggestive of a Cornish precursor to Peter Grimes. A multitude of incident and apparent conflict notwithstanding, though, it fails to convince. This is partly, I think, on account of so many trees of incident obscuring the dramatic wood. Here lies neither direction nor directness. One loses track—maybe just I did—of who is who, receives little musical help, and finds it difficult to care. Presentation of a host of unpleasant people in the service of a still more unpleasant occupation fails not only to engage, or even to ring true.  There is a message somewhere, but it struggles to emerge.

Smyth’s music is more immediately impressive: at its most structurally convincing when it comes to the choral writing, of which there is much. Even there, beyond being loud and accomplished, it remains anonymous, returning one to the questions of where the drama lies and why one should care. The rest, however, goes beyond mere eclecticism to a banquet of the derivative, all courses served more or less at once, resolving into a strange, indigestible purée of notes. Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Grieg, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Bizet, Massenet; and so it goes on, and on, and on… Lack of a definable voice is one thing; so too is a lack of originality; this score, however, seems never to know where to turn, quite to lack harmonic and often even melodic direction. The third of three acts is probably the most interesting, perhaps not coincidentally the least backward-looking of the three. Maybe this was apprentice work, from which Smyth in other circumstances would have emerged more fully equipped; maybe a revision beyond cuts and greater theatrical experience would have produced something more convincing.

© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith


Perhaps some would have held Robin Ticciati’s conducting responsible; it is difficult to say confronted by an entirely unfamiliar work. My sense, though, was of committed musical direction that was determined to mould the score into something more cohesive, failing through not fault of its own. The LPO sounded possessed with belief, rather like the community of which we heard the words tell, yet never felt for ourselves. So too did the Glyndebourne Chorus, outstanding in every respect. I cannot imagine a better case being made for what is probably the oratorio-heart of Smyth’s writing. Heft, precision, and clarity were impeccable, as were these singers’ acting skills. The vocal cast was largely impressive too, Lauren Fagen and Karis Tucker shining throughout, but especially towards the close, in the two principal female roles, Rodrigo Porras Garulo ardent as Marc, a romantic hero in whom one would have liked to believe.

© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith


The conservatism of Melly Still’s production cannot have helped. I wonder what a director such as Katie Mitchell might have made of material that surely needed to be brought more out of itself, framed, interrogated, were it to have any hope of succeeding. As it is, the staging, half-heartedly ‘modern dress’—as people might have said half a century ago—shows little sign even of drawing basic distinctions between different standpoints. For something in one way so straightforward, it is paradoxically obscure and confusing. Female dancers in Edwardian dress, presumably in some sense signifying the composer, come and go; whatever it is their presence is supposed to contribute passed me by entirely. In a way, this mirrors the work, albeit with less octane and conviction: throw everything in, a shopping trolley included, and see what emerges. It is barely an æsthetic, though, let alone an enlightening one. The only respect in which Still really scores—this should certainly be acknowledged—is in detailed direction of the individuals who came together to make the chorus. 

So there you have it. Musical performances made as powerful a case as is likely to be made for the opera. The greater part of the first-night audience loved what it heard, roaring approval in no uncertain terms. A few more sober souls were simply relieved that it was over. I do not begrudge The Wreckers being afforded this opportunity; how else might we reach any sort of informed judgement? By the same token, I cannot imagine ever wanting to hear it again.

Monday 23 May 2022

Venus and Adonis/Dido and Aeneas, HGO, 20 May 2022

Cockpit Theatre

Venus – Elizabeth Green
Adonis – Conall O’Neill
Cupid – Ralph Thomas Williams
Shepherdess – Hannah Savignon-Smythe
Huntsman – Matthew Secombe
Shepherds – Garreth Romain, Angelo Fallaria, Fabian Tindale Geere

Dido – Katey Rylands
Aeneas – Sonny Fielding
Belinda – Julia Surette
Sorceress – Helena Cooke
Second Woman – Isabelle Haile
Witches – Olivia Carrell, Abbie Ward
Spirit – Hannah Savignon-Smythe
Sailor – Matthew Secombe

Jessica Dalton (director)
Kate Goldie Cheetham (choreography)
Tom Turner (lighting) 

HGOAntiqua Orchestra
Seb Gillot (conductor)

Images: Laurent Compagnon, @LaurentCphotos 
Dido and Aeneas

Two operas from the English dawn of the genre: a winning combination, if not so frequently encountered as one might expect. Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is, of course, universally considered a landmark in the histories both of English music and of opera: ‘Tristan and Isolde in a pint pot’, as Raymond Leppard once called it (and I have probably quoted at least once too often). Blow’s Venus and Adonis, still earlier and more closely tied to the Stuart court masque tradition, will doubtless always be less popular; it has many of its own virtues, though, which arguably emerge all the more clearly when one has such opportunity not only to compare but also to contrast. 

HGO’s Venus, directed by Jessica Dalton, begins aptly enough in the office of a modern dating bureau, an obvious yet telling location for Cupid to initiate his Prologue proceedings, essentially a programme of instruction (as becomes more apparent still in the second of the three short acts). Shepherds and shepherdesses try out, consider, and swap partners—probably inconclusively. Then the action returns to more or less where it ‘should’ be: a mythological setting that is probably ancient, but really could be anywhere, suggesting a ‘universality; that will be part, though only part, of our consideration when answering the puzzling—and puzzlingly little asked—question as to why we are so interested in the art of the past at all, and how it comes to speak to us. Various second-act dances—perhaps more masque than opera, even by this work’s standards—are well choreographed and danced, such as might well have pleased the man who above all had to be pleased: Charles II. Often, less is more; here, something straightforward and stylish eminently fits the bill. 

Venus (Elizabeth Green), Adonis (Conall O'Neill), Cupid (Ralph Thomas Williams)

Questions of performance and meaning are complicated further, of course, by a performing art such as music, indeed perhaps especially so by music, more so than spoken drama, in which we can cling to the fiction—we hardly have an alternative—that our ‘instruments’ remain the same. We do so, to greater or lesser extents, when it comes to voices, but greater controversies issue with respect to other musical instruments. Today, again somewhat puzzlingly, opera appears to have decided upon a mixture of ‘period’ musical practices and more  ‘contemporary’, or at least ‘modern’, theatre. This is not really the place to question that; it is a complex question, and much is a matter of business too, as well as allied pragmatics. What we see and hear is generally said to work, and we (nearly) all want something that works rather than something that does not. Such questions and others, related, are nevertheless worth reminding ourselves of, though, at least from time to time; for surely history interests when it renders strange, as well as when it renders familiar, and these things are likely to change according to what is (and is not) more common practice.   

For Dido, we return to an office. I admit I had not at all gathered Dalton’s concept, prior to reading the programme. Apparently, the action takes place ‘in the halls of a modern political institution, something a little like the UN perhaps, or the EU’, and Dido is a political leader. I am afraid it all looked rather like a provincial sales office to me, perhaps having an ‘away day’. It is probably not worth retelling my misunderstanding beyond that, other than to say that the witches appear to be cleaners, understandably offended by the mess people had made, and that Dido eventually swallows some pills, no pyre in sight. I was clearly not on the right wavelength, yet in retrospect can see a degree of overall framing between the two works, the loneliness of online dating replicated in that of Dido’s suicide and the inability of others to see in time what had happened.   

Dido (Katey Rylands) and Aeneas (Sonny Fielding)

Musically, however, one could enjoy a parade of excellent, increasingly confident young singers, all of them worth our attention, providing a sense of company both in dramatic interaction and in their coming together (some of them) as small chorus in both operas. Elizabeth Green’s Venus and Conall O’Neill’s Adonis were both beautifully sung, with excellent attention to verbal as well as musical matters. Ralph Thomas Williams’s Cupid made for a lively and mischievous cat to set among the pigeons. Katey Rylands and Sonny Fielding offered a Dido and Aeneas who grew considerably within the small confines of Purcell’s operas, the former’s Lament deeply moving in the best of traditions, the latter’s dark tone nicely suggestive of wounded masculinity. Again, verbal and musical acuity were finely matched. A fine ‘supporting’ cast had no weak links; I shall mention Isabelle Haile and Matthew Secombe as singers who especially caught my ear. 

Using his own, specially prepared editions, Seb Gillot led a small ‘period’ band in performances that loved to dance, but also to engage in dramatically generative gradations of recitative, aria, and much that lies between (whether in more Italianate, French, or English styles), as well as in affective tonality (perhaps especially strong in Dido). In Dido, Gillot provides music for much of what has been lost, though not the mythological prologue. The additional music works well, and permits a fuller, speculative experience—as in that of, say, Benjamin Britten’s edition—of what might have been. There is imagination If I was initially surprised to hear an oboe in the Overture, my ears adjusted: so much so that there was at least one moment later on when I could have sworn I heard a wind instrument, only to look and see that a viola had tricked me. There is probably an unflattering name for such an aural condition, but here we should take it to indicated a committed performance whose small scale did not preclude greater and amply realised ambition. The darker harmonies of Dido were certainly present, portraying Venus intriguingly and productively as the more distant from us. Form, vividly apparent, helped accomplish this too. This may not always be the way I hear Purcell or Blow in my head, but it would be surprising if it were. I learned much from listening, which is all I can ask.

I shall be hearing—and seeing—Dido again next month in very different circumstances, as part of a double-bill with Bluebeard’s Castle, directed by Barrie Kosky. There is room for all, and I do not doubt that memories of this performance, as well as others, will frame and inform how I respond to that too. However unfashionable it may be to speak in such terms, Dido and Aeneas is an imperishable masterpiece; every encounter should be a joy. This, in its well-chosen context, was certainly that. As for my misunderstanding of the staging, I shall ascribe it to tiredness at the end of a long week.

Friday 20 May 2022

London Sinfonietta/Cornelius - Varèse, Boulez, Feldman, Berio, and Davies, 18 May 2022

Hall Two, Kings Place

Varèse: Density 21.5
Boulez: Dérive 1
Morton Feldman: The Viola in My Life 3
Berio: O King
Tansy Davies: grind show (unplugged)

Simone Ibbett-Brown (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Cox (flute)
Paul Silverthorne (viola)
London Sinfonietta
Gerry Cornelius (conductor)

The London Sinfonietta’s Couch to Concert programme is intended for ‘newcomers … an exercise programme for the ears that will help you work towards attending a concert of contemporary classical music, and arm yourself with the tools to listen to (and even enjoy!) this genre’. I confess that I have yet to listen to the podcasts, but what an excellent idea. There certainly seemed to be a reasonable turnout in Hall Two of Kings Place; let us hope that some at least of the audience was there for the first time as a result. 

Varèse’s Density 21.5, here performed by Michael Cox, has humanity’s oldest instrument become its newest. Cox offered detail without pedantry, a masterclass in notes becoming music. Variations in vibrato, attack, dynamics, as well as telling phrasing all contributed to overall shape and direction, in a vividly communicative performance that would surely have had many wonder why this music might ever have been considered ‘difficult’. Boulez’s Dérive 1 followed, that opening, generative figure pregnant with potential. Its febrile clarity, married to post-Debussyan languor created and constructed balance and direction before our ears. Endlessly transforming, both free and determined, this was a fine introduction to the Boulezian labyrinth. 

Morton Feldman offered an instructive contrast, with the third of his The Viola in My Life pieces, this for viola (Paul Silverthorne) and piano (Elizabeth Burley). Its introverted intensity put me in mind almost of a passive-aggressive Messiaen (!) More fundamentally, though, its undeniable minimalism emerged as a real aesthetic, not the populist tag of contemporary centrist dads who merely like the sound music makes. Like what had gone, as well as what was to come, it had one listen. 

Berio’s O King was the only piece to open the human voice: older still than the flute, of course. It is difficult, probably impossible, to imagine humanity without it. Mezzo Simone Ibbett-Brown proved utterly in control of her instrument, if we may call it that, dazzlingly so when dovetailing with other members of the ensemble. Differences were revealed too, as they were between other players, ultimately revealed as penumbra to her lament for Dr King. Last up was Tansy Davies’s grind show (unplugged), to my ears more clearly post-Stravinskian than anything else we had heard. Rhythmically insistent, even obstinate, its status as dance music was abundantly clear in this London Sinfonietta performance. Something for everyone, then, which I suspect was a good part of the point.

Thursday 19 May 2022

Mavra and Pierrot lunaire, Royal Opera, 17 May 2022

Linbury Studio Theatre

Parasha – April Koyejo-Audiger
Hussar, Mavra – Egor Zhuravskii
Mother – Sarah Pring
Neighbour – Idunnu Münch
Pierrot – Alexandra Lowe

Anthony Almeida (director)
Rosanna Vize (designs)
Lucy Carter, Alan Mooney (lighting)
Anjali Mehra (movement)

Britten Sinfonia
Michael Papadopoulos (conductor)

Images: Helen Murray / ROH

The Royal Opera’s Young Artists Programme celebrates twenty years with a Linbury double-bill of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Mavra and Pierrot lunaire. It is an odd combination: one of Stravinsky’s less-loved works, a very short opera, with a cabaret melodrama that is no opera, yet is probably its composer’s single most celebrated work. If one tried hard enough, one could doubtless fathom a tenuous connection, but then one could probably do so between anything. Director Anthony Almeida, then, is probably right to have left his guiding thread at little more than surface level, concentrating instead on presentation of two unequal halves. 

All too readily underestimated, Mavra, here given in a chamber arrangement by Paul Phillips, is in many ways emphatically a Russian work. If aspects of Stravinsky’s very particular sound world are necessarily lost—it was not solely on account of where I was seated that my experience was piano-heavy—an imaginative realisation, alluding consciously or otherwise to scores such as The Soldier’s Tale, presents other possibilities. Pushkin, in any case, seems unusually apparent, even, perhaps especially, in a staging that emphasises the formalism of something akin to face. Stravinsky always revels in patterns, in allusion, in parody, and in disjuncture: this has it all, musically and scenically. Colour and ‘look’ are to the fore, part of a surface that may or may not preclude discovery of anything beneath. The drag transformation of officer Vasily into maid Mavra amounts in a Warhol-like way to something, despite its essential nothingness. Is that, perhaps what a host of bin bags tell us? It also engineers a connection of sorts to Pierrot, where Almeida has a woman by contrast turn period androgyne. Indoors becomes outdoors; lighting becomes both alternative lighting (moon) and pitch blackness. Reappearance of Mavra’s cast seemed to me a little more forced, the sign interpreter more animated. Pierrot’s presence early on in in Mavra added little other than mild confusion, at least for me. Thought had been given, though, to an attempt to combine; that was enough, really. 

Michael Papadopoulos, members of the Britten Sinfonia, and an able, alert cast captured well the knowing devices of Stravinsky’s score. It twists and turns, so long as one listens, and provides a splendid counterpoise—it certainly did here—to stage action that continues to surprise in its entirely unsurprising course. April Koyejo-Audiger reminded us, throughout, that whatever the games Stravinsky may have been playing, a Russian heart beat, sometimes irregularly, always metrically, beneath. Egor Zhuravskii offered dislocated bel canto contrast and complement. Sarah Pring and Idunnu Münch navigated with wit the fine line between stock characters and their light deconstruction, Glinka and the 1920s. If there were times when I missed the full instrumentation, the youth of this eternally young work nonetheless shone through. 

Stravinsky must surely rank as one of Pierrot’s most quoted admirers. ‘The solar plexus as well as the mind of twentieth-century music,’ he called it, hailing on another occasion the ‘instrumental substance’ that had ‘impressed me immensely. And by saying “instrumental”, I mean not simply the instrumentation of this music but the whole contrapuntal and polyphonic structure of this brilliant masterpiece’. That came through, clearly, in a performance whose lines, reciter’s included, were supremely well balanced, wandering in tonality as in character. A touch more expressionism might not have gone amiss, but there are many worse things than a somewhat classicising Pierrot. Given its all-encompassing yet contradictory nature, the work doubtless resists a ‘complete’, let alone ‘ideal’, performance. It was nonetheless difficult to imagine Alexandra Lowe’s personal combination of speech, pitch, and gesture being readily improved upon.

If Pierrot took a slightly Stravinskian turn, what could be more contextually appropriate? Not that there was not darkness too, likewise catastrophe and sheer weirdness, but the balance had shifted. There will be other Pierrots, other attempts, as Beckett had it, to ‘fail better’, but this will have made new converts, who, like the rest of us, should prepare to be surprised once again by this ever-surprising chameleon of a work.

Wednesday 11 May 2022

Buchbinder/Gewandhaus/Nelsons - Strauss, 10 May 2022

Barbican Hall

Don Juan, op.20
Also sprach Zarathustra, op.30

Rudolf Buchbinder (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

At long last, London seems to be reopening its doors to visiting orchestras; that is, to orchestras visiting from what we on Brexit-Insel shall presumably soon be referring to as ‘the Continent’ and beyond. Not a moment too soon, as this all-Strauss concert from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra reminded us. The orchestra’s magnificent blend of individual virtuosity, from concertmaster to timpanist, with dark, unhomogenised, ‘old German’ tone showed what we have been missing in the meantime. Andris Nelsons revelled in the sheer capability of his orchestra, perhaps sometimes a little too much—but can we really blame him? Even the Barbican’s acoustic did not sound all that bad. 

Don Juan is quite the curtain-raiser, even for the second half of ‘The Strauss Project’, the first instalment having taken place the night before. (Must everything now be a ‘project’, let alone ‘the project’?) It was that combination of virtuosity, which is of course non-negotiable for the piece, with depth, of precision and warmth, that struck me from the outset. I was not entirely convinced by the extremes of tempo Nelsons brought to it, although if I am honest, I enjoyed the languor even as I knew it was wrong (partly how a younger, sterner, long-since-vanquished me thought of Strauss more generally). And there were always sheer phantasmagoria and phantasmagoria-about-to-be-revealed to be enjoyed too. Soloists too numerous to mention shone without exception, though I simply cannot fail to do so for Henrik Wahlgren’s oboe. And the sense of Lenau’s idealism at the end blazed, even if I could not quite tell you how we had got there. The orchestra itself was the thing; and what a thing it was. 

The Burleske for piano and orchestra I still find puzzling, unclear quite what it amounts to or why, though that is doubtless my fault. It seems mostly to fall under Brahms’s spell, with little sign of the real Strauss, but then it is a very early work. Rudolf Buchbinder brought solid technique to the piano part, though he lacked the magic the initially programmed Yuja Wang might have offered. The splendid dialogues between timpani and orchestra, and timpani and piano, were brought vividly to life by Tom Greenleaves. Once again, the Gewandhaus Orchestra sounded outstanding, whetting one’s appetite for Brahms, as well as more Strauss. The account as a whole was well shaped, with a fine command of detail. If ultimately it felt over-extended, that is surely a matter for Strauss rather than Nelsons and Buchbinder. Rather to my surprise, the latter gave a sparkling account as encore of Alfred Grünfeld’s Johann Strauss paraphrase, Soirée de Vienne. There was now something wonderfully old-school to his pianism; it made me smile. 

Also sprach Zarathustra is a very difficult piece to bring off, so much so that often one can wonder whether the fault lies with the piece itself. Nelsons and his orchestra triumphantly showed that it did not, in what is probably the best live performance I have heard of it. Nelsons’s way with it was rather operatic, or at least highly dramatic. And because the drama was there, so too was the irony, both meaningful in practice rather than mere theory. All too often, the opening sounds stiff; here, by contrast, it gave a sense of being alive, even of vitalism as a Nietzschean principle, that persisted and developed throughout. It was moulded, as Strauss must be—this is not music that plays itself—but unobtrusively, so as to give the illusion of something ‘natural’. Richness and cultivation of solo string tone simply had to be heard to be believed: next stop, the Prelude to Capriccio, it seemed. Its expansion into the entire string section likewise seemed to prefigure that opera’s ‘Mondscheinmusik’. Here, one knew, was a collection of soloists that could t turn into a unified mass at the drop of a hat. Hearing that transformation was itself worth the price of entry, as were those darker-still passages that threatened to turn into Die Frau ohne Schatten. The fugue took its time, but with an air of mystery to it such as I cannot recall; at last, I felt its dramatic sense. Waltzing was so infectious I could actually see members of the orchestra, listening to their colleagues, sway. Nelsons showed a keen sense, moreover, of how Strauss builds the tone-poem motivically, in tandem with harmony and overall structure. There is no room, nor was there in performance, for the either/or here. For there was a sense of joy, not always a characteristic associated with Strauss, that here seemed ineffably as right as it would in Bach, Handel, or Haydn. The comparison may seem odd, but it did not at the time. Nor, I think, would it have done so to Nietzsche. 

Sunday 8 May 2022

Kožená/Staples/LPO/Gardner - Birtwistle and Mahler, 6 May 2022

Royal Festival Hall

Birtwistle: Deep Time
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Staples (tenor)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner (c) Mark Allan 


For many, the greatest English composer since Purcell and the greatest English composer of opera tout court, Harrison Birtwistle died little more than a fortnight before this concert. Even for those more sceptical, or with other candidates, his was a titanic presence not only in English and British music, but in the music of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. With the partial exception of Elgar, here, rightly or wrongly, was the first major composer from this island viewed in his lifetime with equal esteem by the rest of the world. Was anyone ever disappointed by a Birtwistle work? Some were repelled, true, yet they were usually those who knew nothing of music and cared less, wishing simply to strike a reactionary pose. The claim that Britten walked out of the premiere of Punch and Judy seems almost certainly untrue—why would he?—though it does not stop the story being repeated. (I suppose I am at least part-guilty here.) The sheer quality—and individual quality at that—of each work was breathtaking. It was, then, a fitting albeit unexpected tribute, in a programme long planned, to have this concert dedicated to Birtwistle’s memory. 

Deep Time has gone deeper, I think, but Edward Gardner’s performance with the LPO nonetheless gave a good sense of its essence, of ‘how it goes’. A typical and typically unique opening, dark and ominous, growled, formed, developed, layers of geological sediment, both material and metaphorical, beginning to overlap, punctured and once again formed by shafts and shards of light. Processes, ‘natural’ and ‘mechanical’, the latter not a million miles from the clocks as well as the heavier industry of northern historical landscapes, had us ask initially whether the strange yet familiar musical juggernaut passing before us were animate or inanimate: Harrison’s Clocks or Minotaur? Or, as Birtwistle himself pointed out: ‘geologic time,’ as ‘first proposed by the eighteenth-century Scottish geologist James Hutton,’ involving ‘a perpetual cycle of rock erosion, sedimentation and formation for which there is “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end”.’ 

Process, however, and drama—and colour, what colour! Birtwistle and Brahms probably do not have much in common, though their CDs sit close, alphabetically, on my shelves—likewise those of Britten and Boulez, contributing to a host of difficult relationships, sometimes shading into antipathies. Nonetheless, music by Birtwistle and Brahms shares a characteristic in that, though sometimes decried as lacking in colour compared, say, to fantastical creations from French and Russian schools, as soon as one listens, a myriad of colours opens up beneath the surface, in fact coming together to form that surface. In Brahms’s case, I once heard that likened to the magic of a pond: not meant unkindly, far from it. Here, it is a slice of geological landscape and its ecosystem. How does it fit together? It is difficult to say, though hocket appears to provide both glue and dynamism: continuity in discontinuity. Vertical shocks and after-shocks help form its beauty, but as so often, so does the landscape behind: changing, yet probably on account of our shifting standpoint, rather than its. Birtwistle’s memorial for Peter Maxwell Davies, premiered in 2017 by Daniel Barenboim, continued his own endless parade. 

Das Lied von der Erde can be understood, or at least experienced, as a memorial too, though it should no more be reduced to that than should Deep Time. For me—others may differ—Mahler ideally requires a firmer view; it is ‘conductor’s music’ in an emphatic sense, though certainly not only that. It can take many views, from Boulez to Haitink, Klemperer to Bernstein, but here Gardner seemed too ready to act, at least until the final song, as ‘accompanist’. This was a performance, at any rate, that, again until that long, final farewell, sounded very much as song-cycle rather than symphony. Fair enough, one might say; is that not a view in itself? And nowhere, after all, does Mahler call Das Lied a symphony. True, though surely there is an implicit call for greater continuity than we heard here. On the performance’s own terms, though, we heard estimable contributions by Magdalena Kožená, Andrew Staples, and the LPO, and were mercifully not subjected to a perverse standpoint, to a determination to do things to Mahler’s score, which can all too readily prove the obverse side to the ‘personal’ coin. 

Staples opened the cruel (to the tenor) first song not only valiantly, but with great success, a supportive Gardner doubtless drawing on his long operatic experience to unsure that the singer could be heard. If the orchestra sounded at times a little harsh—beyond, I think, the demands of sardonic mood—that was probably more a matter of the Festival Hall acoustic, especially in the Stalls, than a mark of interpretation. Its performance, like that of Staples, was in any case admirably clear and pointed, teeming (perhaps not entirely unlike Birtwistle’s piece) with life/death. ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.’ The difference between ice and fire was mediated on a knife-edge by sweet LPO violins. 

Kožená’s approach, ineffably sincere, unquestionably rooted in the verbal text, had an instrumental quality to it too, especially in the second song, ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’, as if her voice were another woodwind instrument, perhaps a chalumeau, joining the LPO consort. Ambiguity between twin needs for peace and refreshment (‘Ja, gib mir Ruh’, ich hab’ Erquickung not!’) was fundamental, the contrast with a bright-eyed ‘Von der Jugend’ (Staples) clear and meaningful. Nicely etched—one could well-nigh hear the brushstrokes—it was in turn succeeded in contrast by an expressive ‘Von der Schönheit’ from Kožená. A vivid orchestral parade could have been a little sharper, but resonances with earlier works made their point: another ‘endless parade’. Within the song, moreover, Kožená characterised with keen sense of drama contrasts between outer sections and more volatile middle, the steed’s mane tossed in frenzy. Staples and Gardner forged a sense of touching intimacy in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, as if the forest Siegfried had finally attained the capacity to reflect. Throughout, we heard intriguing contrasts and much lovely detail; slightly lacking, whether by default or design, was that symphonic guiding thread. 

The dark opening chords of ‘Der Abschied’ brought, in context, momentary remembrance of Deep Time, but more so, a sense of fate so as necessarily to introduce oboe and other solos. It was time for a long farewell, Kožená’s entry thoughtfully heralded by the arrival of a text message somewhere in the audience. Even that, however, could not stop the sun sinking as flute and mezzo sang. Kožená painted the landscape beautifully, not least the floating moon, ‘wie eine Silberbarke’. It was a world of silver and shadows, of moonlight, like Birtwistle’s very different landscape both physical and metaphysical. With the crucial new vista between ‘letzten Lebewohl’ and ‘Ich sehne mich’, as with subsequent return to darkness, not only did Kožená’s voice bloom, but the performance turned decisively to symphonic mode; via Schopenhauerian metaphysics, fate was proclaimed the order of the day. On that latter turn, the aural sky turned crimson; and so began the inexorable tread to eternal peace. ‘Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.’ And so it felt, woodwind barbs notwithstanding. For this might be death, but it was no longer dark; that had been life. A radiant, deeply moving, final farewell was heard and felt. With the fragile, ineffably touching advent of the mandolin, tears began to flow, reflected in heavenly (celestial) arpeggios from, yes, the celesta. ‘Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen!’ A glimpse, then, of eternity: ‘Ewig … ewig…’.

Tuesday 3 May 2022

Fin de partie, Opéra national de Paris, 30 April 2022

Palais Garnier

Hamm – Frode Olsen
Clov – Leigh Melrose
Nell – Hilary Summers
Nagg – Leonardo Cortelazzi

Pierre Audi (director)
Christof Hetzer (designs)
Urs Schönebaum (lighting)
Klaus Bertisch (dramaturgy)

Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Markus Stenz (conductor)

Images: Sébastien Mathé/OnP

Modernism’s endgame, modernist opera’s endgame, opera’s endgame: all have been proclaimed time and time again. One might say the same for Romanticism, Classicism, sonata, symphony, and other isms and genres. Whatever the truths of the matter—we can no longer justifiably speak in the singular, if ever we could—this first opera by György Kurtág, first heard in Milan in 2018 and now receiving its French premiere, suggests that twilight, however prolonged, has once again proved as productive, as challenging, as illuminating as first dawn or zenith. The owl of Minerva may or may not be spreading its wings; Kurtág may or may not be almost the last modernist standing; opera may or may not be stronger, more varied, more resistant than ever before. These are inevitable and may even be important questions. What matters above all, though, is that Kurtág’s Fin de partie/Endgame emerges, even from a single hearing, a single experience in the theatre, as an unqualified masterpiece.   

Janus-faced, like most—all?—artworks of stature, Fin de partie takes Beckett’s masterpiece, which Kurtág first saw in Paris in 1957, and, in concluding a modernist chapter, perhaps even a book, appears also to open several more. Although it feels very much a finished work, it remains at least in theory a work-in-progress, to which Kurtág might add further ‘scenes and monologues’ from Beckett’s play—or even conceivably from elsewhere, given its second Prologue (the first being purely orchestral) is a setting for Nell, startlingly in English rather than French, of the poem Roundelay. This ‘dramatic version’ of the play, in most respects literal, with the slightest addition here or somehow seems always to have been conceived for music, indeed seems never to have existed without it. Libretto (if one may call it that) instructions are as detailed musically—‘comme une mélodie de Debussy’—as they are scenically, or both: ‘mouvement très lent d’interrogation avec la main gauche esquisse le “et puis” de Gr. C. et Piatti … assez grand changement de ton’. Many thanks are due to the Opéra national de Paris for reprinting it: an invaluable resource for future study and reflection, as well, I hope, as for subsequent preparation.   

The ultimate synthetic distillation, though, is musical—just as one often fancies Beckett’s words to point not only to the limits, the endgame, of language, but to the beginning, the necessity of music. (His Schopenhauerism extended way beyond mere ‘pessimism’, to the truly aesthetic.) Words here are everything—one hears, and hears measured every one—until they are not. That ancient operatic alchemy we trace back at least as far as Monteverdi is once more at work, and Monteverdi—the Monteverdi of the dramatic madrigals and the two surviving late operas in particular—comes to mind among many ghosts of the opera-as-sung-play past. Mussorgsky, Debussy, Berg, Janáček stand prominently among them, as well inevitably—if perhaps more tangentially—as Wagner, Bach (‘not an opera composer, but’), and even Boulez (ditto?) Are these affinities or similarities, or are they actual influences? Does it really matter? It seems both to do so, as we reach the end of the game, but also not. After all, what does matter when we reach the end of the game, that any game, any game? 

For, apart from his own voice—what a strange provision!—that which comes most strongly to mind is another supreme writer of vocal-dramatic music on the smaller scale, whom we yet imagine desiring, wishing, ultimately aiming to bring forth an operatic synthesis. As it was in the beginning, it still is now: Webern. Perhaps not even in Webern have I heard such sustained, certainly not such dramatic, development of intervallic relationships, in themselves and in relation to timbre (probably other parameters too) so as to fulfil the tragic necessity of rebuilding a shattered universe: the same task, yet always different. Every note counts, of course, yet every note is heard and felt, and bears the ultimate weight of tragic and tragicomic existence that we may know it counts. The affinity with Beckett’s language and what some understandably, straining at the bounds, will term in despair anti-literature is clear; but music is no representative mirror, any more than it is in Monteverdi, Wagner, or Webern. Its autonomy, its pairings—here as crucial as any in Bach or Bartók—and so much else continue: in hope, if you like, yet only in the strange sense that Beckett does. Until, I think, the close, when something strange happens, a musical synthesis taking wing and building, such as can often happen almost irrespective of intention. Think, for instance, of Wagner. This is less evidently redemptive, though stirrings of sympathy for Hamm and Clov are not entirely denied. Fin de partie, however, seems to speak or sing of something that might refashion redemptive ideas through shattered glass, shattered lives, the fragmentary challenges of modernity and modernism.


An orchestra used sparingly and with very different balances from that of the Romantic past—a modern ‘ensemble’ writ large—tells us that throughout. Just five first violins and five seconds, against eight violas, eight cellos, and six double basses, and indeed five flutes, six percussionists, two bayans (Beckettian vaudeville movingly transmuted via Sofia Gubaidulina), and so on have seeped into our consciousness, yet rarely if ever together. Mahler haunts, but he cannot live. Conducting, as he did earlier performances in Milan and Amsterdam, Markus Stenz understands or at least appreciates—can anyone ‘understand’?—communicates, and lets that fragility breathe and expire. We all listen, whether something can be said or sung, or not. For what else is there to do? Not listen, of course, but which of us wishes to assume Nagg’s fate? We know there will be no sugar-plum at the end, celesta notwithstanding. 

And yet, music endures, as does theatre—as, perhaps, do literature and drama too. A wonderful quartet of soloists ensures that, as does Pierre Audi’s careful direction, doubtless treading a minefield of what the dread estate, as well as the dedicated composer, would permit. Action/inaction takes place outside the house, but it looks very much as we should expect, without ever feeling expected: post-drama, we might think, of the post-absurd. Frode Olsen, struggling with illness, nonetheless held the stage with a fiercely committed performance as Hamm, holding it all together, in the tragicomic absence of any ‘it’ to hold. Leigh Melrose’s protean Clov, wounded yet spirited, alert and alive, yet quite without hope, struck me as definitive, however illusory the idea. An outstanding artist whenever I have heard him, Melrose may have given his finest performance yet. Hilary Summers offered a masterclass in extracting much from little, as Kurtág and Beckett do themselves. Transformation of a vocal line, through pitch, dynamics, shifting colour said, as with the rest of the cast, the rest of the work, both something and nothing, often in chamber collaboration with an instrument or two from the pit. Crucially, Nell’s death could neither have been more nor less heartbreaking. Leonardo Cortelazzi’s made for a fine sidekick, his Nagg splendidly, pointlessly excitable yet resigned. Steeped, like the others, both in the text and in its twin possibilities and impossibilities, he closed and opened the square that should have been a circle. 

Here, then, is a masterpiece in a way that seems, both modestly and defiantly, not of our age. Many composers would now, quite understandably, tell us such is not their interest. They are not attempting to write works such as Fin de partie and failing, ‘better’ or otherwise. Given the ideological issues at play, we can all understand that. When, however, a work—and this is, emphatically, A Work—such as this comes along, it brooks no dissent. To be there is akin to being there for Gawain (may its composer now rest in peace), for Mittwoch (likewise, on Sirius), maybe even for Wozzeck or for Tristan. Kurtág may or may not have been writing for posterity. Until one of our politicians hastens the final endgame, perhaps tomorrow, posterity will nonetheless hear and listen to Kurtág.