Friday 25 November 2022

The Rake's Progress, Royal Academy of Music, 24 November 2022

Susie Sainsbury Theatre

Tom Rakewell – Ryan Vaughan Davies
Anne Trulove – Cassandra Wright
Nick Shadow – Jacob Phillips
Father Trulove – Hovhannes Karapetyan
Sellem – Samuel Kibble
Baba the Turk – Rebecca Hart
Mother Goose – Georgia Mae Ellis
Keeper of the Madhouse – Duncan Stenhouse.

Frederic Wake-Walker (director)
Anna Jones (designs)
Charlotte Burton (lighting)
Ergo Phizmiz (collage, animation, AI image generation and illustration)
Lottie Bywater (illustration and animation)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Trevor Pinnock (conductor)

Blessed by varied approaches to its staging and performance, The Rake’s Progress seems to remain eternally itself (whatever that might mean, as a sometime Prince of Wales might have put it). Not unlike Stravinsky’s evergreen score, the cleverer and in many respects the more involving the more one knows it, everything may seem to come from somewhere else, and in a sense it does; but equally, in another sense, it does not. It makes for great theatre, almost no matter what, and Royal Academy Opera certainly achieved that, as indeed it did when I reviewed an earlier production here by John Ramster, seven years ago. 

This new incarnation, directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, relies heavily on eye-catching animation (Ergo Phizmiz) and images of present-day London from Downing Street to City towers to (presumably former) local authority buildings in their shadow. In one sense (yes, Janus-faced again), it was not always clear to me what it might all add up to. Another Rake placing London at its very heart, Simon McBurney’s as seen in Aix, for me penetrated deeper. For instance, with cardboard boxes—a very large one being Baba the Turk’s sedan chair—arriving alongside partygoers on Downing Street, I assumed we might have some sort of insight into more notorious parties still; yet instead, we headed somewhere else. The party had moved on—as, of course, so many Covid partygoers urged us to. Perhaps indeed that was the point, for earlier eighteenth-century costumes and Arcadia notwithstanding, this was a Rake for the age of Instagram, chorus members eager to snap pictures of Baba once she had emerged.

The odd thing was that Baba simply seemed to be a celebrity, with no evident reason for notoriety and certainly no beard: a sort of cross between Su Pollard and Lady Gaga. Again, perhaps that was the point. There were plenty of visual jokes, which kept a lively audience amused. And who is to say, after all, that one does not miss the point if one does not remain on the surface level? With boxes strewn across scenes, signs of transitory lives, and bubble wrap emerging ingeniously from them, that certainly did seem to be part, at least, of the point. The melancholy work of Bedlam inmates at the end, refashioning material that once had made up their party clothes, was an excellent touch. 

Stravinsky points both ways, of course; so too, arguably, does Auden. Trevor Pinnock’s conducted a lively and generous account of the score, the Royal Academy Sinfonia sharp, pointed, yet far from inexpressive. Occasionally I missed greater numbers in the pit, but chamber forces had virtues of their own, not least in solo work, where reference to eighteenth-century music(s) in particular truly hit home. The orchestra contributed greatly to the gaiety of the occasion, but also to its poignancy, and not only in the final act. Lost moments of Cosi fan tutte, suspended in musical animation, made their fleeting point almost as strongly as the fatal games of the graveyard scene (for which special mention should go to the excellent harpsichordist Alexsander Ribeiro de Lara). The chorus, very much a collection of soloists, in gesture and musical line, who could yet come together as more than the sum of their parts, was not the least shining light of the evening’s entertainment. 

Nor too were the young soloists, many of them doubtless heading towards careers in whatever remains of the opera business after our Downing Street masters and ‘Arts Council England’ have had their say. Like Stravinsky—Auden too—they may have to emigrate. Good luck to them, if so, if Brexit-Insel continues to treat them as seems likely. Ryan Vaughan Davies was a memorable Tom Rakewell, neglecting neither implied poignancy of situation nor irresistible allure of the moment. Whether one should sympathise or not is perhaps a moot point; it would, however, have been difficult to fail to do so.

Likewise, from other angles, the rest of the cast—who might, after all, on paper seem difficult to like, let alone to love. Cassandra Wright’s Anne combined cleanness and beauty of Mozartian line with the fleshed-out character of his heroines: a combination far from always achieved. Jacob Phillips’s dark and dangerous Nick Shadow involved us, like it or not. Hovhannes Karapetyan’s dark-voiced, seemingly generous-of-heart Father Trulove, Georgia Mae Ellis’s fun-loving yet formidable Mother Goose, and Rebecca Hart’s capricious yet, at the last, deeply human Baba the Turk all added novelty to their roles without departing unduly from what we (fancied we) already knew. Samuel Kibble’s lively Sellem and Duncan Stenhouse’s compassionate Keeper of the Madhouse rounded off a cast with no weak links and excellent interaction. Perhaps, indeed, that was the point.

Thursday 24 November 2022

Gerstein - Busoni and Liszt, 23 November 2022

Wigmore Hall

Busoni: Elegien, BV 249: ‘Nach der Wendung’; Sonatina seconda, BV 259; Berceuse, BV 252; Sonatina no.6 super Carmen, BV 284; Toccata, BV 287
Liszt: Études d’exécution transcendante, S 139

Kirill Gerstein (piano)  

This was a fascinating first instalment to Kirill Gerstein’s three-artist ‘Busoni and his World’ Wigmore Hall residence. Gerstein more than earned his fee, with a full first half of works by Busoni, gently and intelligently introduced from the platform, followed by all twelve of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies. He offered us much to ponder, much to be thrilled by, and much to look forward to later in the season. 

‘Nach der Wendung’, first of the Elegies, takes its leave, as you might expect, from late Liszt. A questing—it is almost impossible not to say ‘Faustian’—piece, it received a duly questing performance. Some writing is more tonal than other; Gerstein clearly communicated harmony and its implications. The quiet radicalism of its passage was conveyed with acute intelligence, whether it wandered into the clouds or down into the rumbling bass. Its introverted vision paved the way nicely for the Sonatina seconda. ‘Tonal oder Atonal?’ as Schoenberg would ask in the first of his Three Satires. Yes, no, or maybe, should probably have been the answer. Its opening bass line here strongly took a cue from Liszt, dissolving into the performing air, floating, resolidifying, and so on. Hearing material that would later find its way into Doktor Faust without the opera’s formal classicism is a fascinating experience. One senses a logic, even if one cannot define it. 

The Berceuse, published separately, is the final Elegie. Gerstein took it a little faster than often one hears it: rather, I think, to its advantage. Built and moulded to considerable emotional effect, it emerged more richly ambiguous than ever. The Carmen-Fantasy, another so-called sonatina, brought virtuosity, even hyper-virtuosity, more strongly to the fore. Layers of music, perhaps of meta-music too, were revealed and corroded, all within the Lisztian model of the paraphrase. Gerstein captured extremely well the piece’s ruminative quality: the composer, post-opera, extemporising on its themes. It was a turbulent, even violent necromancy we heard in the Toccata, its ‘advanced’ language no bar to high Lisztian grandiloquence. One gained an impression of multiple prisms, through music one could never quite pin down. The music from—or ‘to’?—Doktor Faust (related to the strange character, if one may call her that, of the Duchess of Parma) sounded as darkly elegiac and as dangerously sulphuric as I can recall. 

Brighter primary colours were to be heard from the off in Liszt himself. The opening Prelude seemed to strip away a gauze curtain we had not realised was there. Its virtuosic thrills provided quite the curtain-raiser. ‘Paysage’ offered seductive contrast, phrases beautifully leaned into. A Chopinesque—especially in the cadenzas—‘Mazeppa’ well illustrated Gerstein’s fine command of Lisztian rhetoric: foreign to our more cynical age in many ways, and yet relished for what it is. That quality of big-heartedness took us through pieces such as the ‘Vision’ and ‘Eroica’, vividly brought to life in themselves, yet also part of a greater trajectory. So eager can we sometimes be to defend Liszt against his cultivated despisers, we can forget how fine a thing it is simply, or even not so simply, to love his music. Not that there was anything sentimental to this performance; we loved the music through Gerstein’s intellectual as well as technical command. His turning of corners, as if revealing new vistas, occasionally brought Mahler to mind. Gerstein could charm too, as in ‘Ricordanza’. A bravura tenth study brought us to the flower-like harmonic blooming of ‘Harmonies du soir’, whose darker currents and sheer strangeness—surely attractive to Busoni—were certainly not undersold. The final study, ‘Chasse-neige’ was finely etched, seemingly according to a palette created before our ears.

The encore was Bach-Busoni: ‘Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein’. Busoni marks it ‘Molto scorrevole, ma distintamente’. That is unquestionably what we heard.

Andsnes - Vustin, Janáček, Silvestrov, Beethoven, and Dvořak, 21 November 2022

Wigmore Hall

Aleksandr Vustin: Lamento
Janáček: Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, ‘From the Street’
Valentin Silvestrov: Bagatelle, op.1 no.3
Beethoven: Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Dvořák: Poetic Tone Pictures, op.85

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

Leif Ove Andsnes’s performances are always very well worth hearing; this programme, mixing the familiar and unfamiliar was no exception. The first half offered short pieces by Russian and Ukrainian composers, either side of Janáček’s tribute to František Pavlík, a worker killed demonstrating for a Czech university in Brno, followed by Beethoven’s penultimate sonata: however one considers it, and however clichéd this may sound, a sublime song from and to the human spirit and what it might yet achieve. 

Aleksandr Vustin, invited by Andsnes in 2019 to his Rosendal Chamber Festival, in what was only Vustin’s second journey outside Russia, died the following year, an early victim of the coronavirus pandemic. His Lamento, itself inspired by the funeral of a friend and its sounds, is tonal, yet moves in often surprising ways. Opening two-part left-hand writing soon has a right-hand melody soar above—a recollection, I learned later, of a bird that began to sing at the funeral and would not stop. It made for an interesting prelude to Janáček’s Sonata 1.X.1905, ‘From the Street’, its first movement in Andsnes’s performance both precise and suggestive: like work and composer, one might say. Proudly turbulent in its post-Romanticism, passages of its music seemed almost to acquire proto-filmic character, perhaps in slow motion, in remembrance. The composer’s profound national pride sang forth still more directly in the second movement, the stubbornness of his writing, not least in sheer persistence of figures, transmuted once more into a declaration of spirit, made with a fine sense of musical drama.

One of Valentin Silvestrov’s Bagatelles offered cool contrast, behaving (at least I fancied) not entirely unlike Vustin’s piece. The quiet dignity of Andsnes’s performance again made for an interesting prelude to a sonata, this time Beethoven’s in A-flat major, op.110. Its first movement sang with a simplicity both fragile and strong. Welcome, one might say, to late Beethoven. Fractures were often only implied; this was not the most modernist of accounts, nor was there any reason it should be. Yet implied they were. The turn to the minor was communicated with ineffable sadness, yet never mawkishness. Again, this was Beethoven. The scherzo’s gruff humour did not attempt to conceal the difficulties of the trio. The overriding impression was of shocking concision. Mournful dignity characterised Beethoven’s ‘Klagender Gesang’ in the finale, the fugue first offering release and intensification, its voicing to die for: beautiful, no doubt, yet above all truthful. Contrast and complement of material registered and developed throughout, the inverted fugue enabling yet in no sense guaranteeing ultimate triumph. There was, rightly, no easy path.

The second half was given to Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures, op.85: new, I confess to me, and quite a discovery. Andsnes had explored them during lockdown, welcoming the discovery of ‘life-affirming music of the greatest invention and imagination’. Dvořák can occasionally pale alongside Janáček, but not here. This work emerged as a Schumannesque collection, played with affection, characterisation, and acute understanding. Indeed, the scene-setting of its first piece, ‘Night journey’ immediately brought Schumann to mind: not that it sounded ‘like’ Schumann, but in terms of the role it played in introduction, and its vein of fantasy. Andsnes’s communication of the charm and Romantic snares of this night was finely judged indeed. A wonderful procession of characters, scenes, sketches in a strong sense ensued: not unlike a good novel, or perhaps better, a collection of short stories. ‘At the old castle’ haunted. A vigorous ‘Furiant’ put Andsnes’s fingers duly through their paces. Dances of all kinds, goblins and all, invited us in—not always without danger. Exuberance and introspection informed one another across more elevated canvases and earthier songs. Andsnes’s cantabile in the ‘Serenade’ was just the thing, as was his Lisztian grandiloquence in ‘At a hero’s grave’. Fascinating—and nourishing.

Tuesday 22 November 2022

Friend/Daraskaite/Sokolovskis, Cheung - Messiaen, 20 November 2022

St John’s Waterloo

Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Anthony Friend (clarinet)
Agata Daraskaite (violin)
Peteris Sokolovskis (cello)
James Cheung (piano)

Photograph: Matthew Johnson

What a joy to return to a new series of Spotlight Chamber Concerts, itself returning to St John’s Waterloo following refurbishment (and looking like new). Here a single work was on the programme, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, sounding ever more a classic of the chamber repertoire with every fine performance, of which this was certainly one. A quartet of young musicians, clarinettist Anthony Friend (also presiding impresario of the series as a whole), violinist Agata Daraskaite, cellist Peteris Sokolvskis, and pianist James Cheung offered an eminently musicianly view of Messiaen’s work that, rightly, felt no need to dwell one-sidedly on circumstances of composition, leaving space for all to find their own standpoint. Hope, joy, and the mystery of God can take many forms—and frankly, right now, we should be well advised to take what we can.  

The opening ‘Liturgie de cristal’, all four instruments rendering metre and harmony immanenthypnotised, entranced, had one believe. Infinitely flexible within an iron framework, it set the scene wonderfully for what was to follow, whether in affinity or contrast. The coming of the angel who announces the end of time in the following ‘Vocalise’ certainly offered immediate, declamatorily apocalyptic contrast, itself followed by the many faces or melodies of that angel in well-nigh hallucinatory fashion. Their sweetness was both unreal and hyper-real: not unlike the colours of a world created anew after a storm. 

The solo clarinet ‘Abîme des oiseaux’, in similar paradox, seemed to stretch time so as both to have all that in our world and, yet, in that of the piece only just enough (fitting, given the end of time itself announced). In Friend’s performance, it emerged, intriguingly, as an heir to the cor anglaise solo, beyond good and evil, in the third act of Tristan und Isolde, a work whose enraptured victims certainly included Messiaen. A shepherd song, yet sweeter, perhaps even stranger, still more mysterious, it was expertly shaped in performance so as not to sound shaped at all. It was spellbinding, but then so was much else, for instance the twin relief and intensification of the ensuing brief ‘Intermède’. Only after did one have pause to think how tricky it is to write for clarinet, violin, cello, and no piano.

Cheung’s piano returned, of course, for the celebrated ‘Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’ with cello. Unhurried, never dragging, it always moved, seemingly founded on a sense of harmonic rhythm from which all else grew. It was as intense as it was big-hearted, Sokolovskis’s vibrato generous, yet never excessive. The strange unisons of ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’ glistened, gleamed, glowed, and occasionally glowered. 

Such warm precision was felt again, like the rainbows of which the movement told, in ‘Fouillis d’arcs en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du temps’. There was darkness too, yet always colourful darkness, the angel’s swords of fire palpably present without need to underline. The final ‘Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus’ sounded very much a kindred spirit to the earlier ‘Louange’, only this time with violin and piano. Daraskaite’s rich-toned, equally generous playing contributed movingly towards a consolation that came close to passing all understanding.

Saturday 19 November 2022

The Rape of Lucretia, Royal Opera, 16 November 2022


Linbury Studio Theatre

Lucretia – Anne Marie Stanley
Female Chorus – Sydney Baedke
Male Chorus – Michael Gibson
Tarquinius – Jolyon Loy
Collatinus – Anthony Reed
Junius – Kieran Rayner
Bianca – Carolyn Holy
Lucia – Sarah Dufresne

Oliver Mears (director)
Annemarie Woods (designs)
DM Wood (lighting)
Sarita Piotrowski (movement)

Aurora Orchestra
Corinna Niemeyer (conductor)

This new Rape of Lucretia, seen first at Snape, now in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre, fittingly features singers from two young artists’ programmes: Britten Pears and Jette Parker. In many ways, its greatest strength is theirs—and that of the young Aurora Orchestra players too. (We tend to speak of a chamber orchestra here; were this ‘newer’ music, we should doubtless call it an ensemble.) Conducted by Corinna Niemeyer, this was an immediate, urgent performance which, like Oliver Mears’s immediate, urgent staging, was experienced to excellent, arguably heightened effect in a small theatre. For all aspects of production and performance came together to have us believe they had been conceived as one, almost as if a new work: a vindication not only of an opera whose different components can sometimes sit a little awkwardly with one another, but also of the very genre, currently under such devastating attack from the Arts Council. 

Mears’s staging responds to the postwar trauma of the work, bringing it very much into the foreground. I initially wondered whether that might be too much, too one-sided, whether participants in a modern conflict, brutal and brutalised, might find themselves instrumentalised, barely given chance to tell their own tale. That fear proved unfounded, though in this particular case I am not in general without sympathy with calls for greater abstraction or at least historical remove. The more I watched and listened, the more this seemed an entirely justified, indeed illuminating reading of the work. It was, after all, premiered in 1946. Violence, political and sexual—in war, in general too, they are rarely if ever to be dissociated—asked us difficult questions, from different standpoints, letting none of us off the hook. And the cast, crucially, brought this drama, these questions to life. 

Swaggering officers, with their own stories to tell, none the same, were the perpetrators. War did not let them off the hook; it was, after all, their war.  Britten’s pacifism loomed large, if unspoken. Even Collatinus was involved in an initial assault on an unnamed woman, though Junius and Tarquinius were more so, in increasing intensity. There was no doubting the heat of the night in which the rape took place, no denying this Tarquinius’s arrogant, damaged animal power, as Jolyon Lee stalked his prey in words, music, and gesture. We were led, if leading were necessary, to adopt the most troubling of male gazes, perhaps in some sense to share in guilt as well as horror. The servants knew what had happened too, one of the most discomfiting scenes being the morning after, when they could see what must have been, yet resolutely tried to carry on, not to mention it. Doubtless it did not befit their station, but it was also a matter of their trying to cope, as women, in this world. How many times had they seen such things before, indeed been assaulted themselves? Carolyn Holy and Sarah Dufresne brought these characters, here far from secondary, to vivid life in gesture and in voice, as indeed did all the cast in their roles. 

The tragedy of Anne Marie Stanley’s broken Lucretia’s suicide was spellbinding, the savagery of the deed not spared. She took centre stage, of course, but at what cost? As Collatinus trembled—horrified, weakened, and perhaps ultimately destroyed too—in Anthony Reed’s subtle portrayal, Kieran Rayner’s chameleon-like Junius, seized the aesthetic moment, capturing the corpse on camera for further dissemination. For we like to bestow the dubious, quasi-theological honour of sacrificial lamb after the event, once the deed has been done. Too late for Lucretia, as for the refugees fallen in our seas, on our beaches. Photography renders them literally iconic, especially when one can also hymn their tragic beauty. This was a properly disconcerting moment of self-recognition, or should have been. 

Instrumental obbligato lines took us back to Bach, to the cantatas and passions: in the case of oboe towards the close uncomfortably so, given the Chorus’s problematical Christian framing. Mears, for what it is worth, is the first director I have seen to tackle the issue of that framing head on. He did not, I think, offer an answer to the question, but the attempt by Male and Female Chorus to narrate and to explain seemed properly compromised. Were they, at the moment of their prayer of supplication, essentially attempting to convince themselves—and failing? The crisis of this peculiar pair, researchers into crime, perhaps even voyeurs, was increasingly apparent: surrogates in some sense for us, although surely the more ‘active’ participants were too. 

All the while, Britten’s score, its eery repetitions vocal and instrumental, its constructivist tendencies already presaging elements of The Turn of the Screw, held us in its thrall, not as something separate from what we saw on stage, but as driving force and still-more-troubling commentary. The sheer creepiness of what we call ‘fate’, yet which has all-too-human as well as divine and sociopolitical roots, is what Britten conveys so well; so too did his performers here.