Thursday 22 December 2022

Tally of performances attended, 2022

I had a curtailed season this year, on account of illness: last night and tonight should have been my final concerts of the year. No one needed my bronchial insights, I am sure.

As ever, calculation offers a blunt instrument, showing a little more than what has interested me—I cannot go to a performance if it does not take place—but how much more is open to debate; for by the same token, I am unlikely to go out of my way to attend performances of music that does not interest me. Likewise, as in previous years, I have counted one appearance in a programme only, so a Mahler symphony counts for the same as a Schubert song. Anything else becomes too complicated. Operas are both staged and in concert, and include anything treated as an opera in that performance, e.g. Handel’s Theodora and Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire at the Royal Opera House. The apparent oddity of Kurt Weill having one concert and one opera, yet one overall, is owed to The Seven Deadly Sins having been part of an all-Weill programme. 

I added a couple of events I recalled having attended but not reviewed (an all-Mozart concert and Opera North’s concert Parsifal). Lovely to see Xenakis at three concerts, even if they were all on the same day, forming part of a Southbank Centre centenary tribute. It would be lovelier still to see him on three next year, but somehow I doubt it. Wagner tends to do well in years when I visit Bayreuth; had I actually attended the six performances there I had intended, rather than having to cancel two, he would have emerged first overall. As it was, Mozart just pipped him to the post.



7 Mozart
6 Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann
5 Liszt
4 Messiaen, Strauss, Wagner
3 Bartók, Busoni, Janáček, Mahler, Schubert, Xenakis
2 Chopin, Debussy, Dvořák, Elgar, Pavel Haas, Haydn, Ravel, Scarlatti, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams
1 John Adams, Julian Anderson, CPE Bach, JS Bach, Sally Beamish, Berio, Birtwistle, Arthur Bliss, Silvie Bodorova, Lili Boulanger, Boulez, Britten, Byrd, Francisco Coll, Louis Couperin, Tansy Davies, František Domažlický, Hanns Eisler, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Fauré, Morton Feldman, Franck, Goehr, Dieter Gogg, Helen Grime, Reynaldo Hahn, Handel, WH Harris, Henry VIII, Fred Hersch, Hindemith, John Ireland, Ives, Joel Järventausta, Zoltán Jeney, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása, Oliver Leith, Scott McLaughlin, Mendelssohn, Tristan Murail, Parry, Poulenc, Juta Pranulytė, Rameau, Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai Roslavets, Hans Rott, Erwin Schulhoff, Scriabin, Jack Sheen, Valentin Silvestrov, Antonio Soler, Turnage, Viktor Ullmann, Galina Ustvolskaya, Varèse, Aleksandr Vustin, George Walker, Jennifer Walshe, Walton, Webern, Weill, Judith Weir, Wolf


7 Wagner
5 Mozart, Puccini
3 Britten, Janáček
2 Monteverdi, Purcell, Strauss, Stravinsky
1 Bartók, Berg, Bizet, Blow, Laura Bowler, Tom Coult, Delius, Clemens von Franckenstein, Handel, Kurtág, Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saëns, Schoenberg, Ethel Smyth, Tchaikovsky, Viktor Ullmann, Freya Waley-Cohen, Weill 


12 Mozart
11 Wagner
6 Beethoven, Brahms, Janáček, Schumann, Strauss
5 Liszt, Puccini
4 Bartók, Britten, Messiaen, Stravinsky
3 Busoni, Mahler, Schoenberg, Schubert, Xenakis
2 Chopin, Debussy, Dvořák, Elgar, Pavel Haas, Handel, Haydn, Monteverdi, Purcell, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scarlatti, Vaughan Williams
1 John Adams, Julian Anderson, CPE Bach, JS Bach, Sally Beamish, Berg, Berio, Birtwistle, Bizet, Arthur Bliss, Blow, Silvie Bodorova, Lili Boulanger, Boulez, Laura Bowler, Byrd, Francisco Coll, Tom Coult, Louis Couperin, Tansy Davies, Delius, František Domažlický, Hanns Eisler, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Clemens von Franckenstein, Fauré, Morton Feldman, Franck, Goehr, Dieter Gogg, Helen Grime, Reynaldo Hahn, WH Harris, Henry VIII, Fred Hersch, Hindemith, John Ireland, Ives, Joel Järventausta, Zoltán Jeney, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása, Kurtág, Oliver Leith, Scott McLaughlin, Mendelssohn, Tristan Murail, Parry, Poulenc, Juta Pranulytė, Rameau, Nikolai Roslavets, Hans Rott, Saint-Saëns, Erwin Schulhoff, Scriabin, Jack Sheen, Valentin Silvestrov, Ethel Smyth, Antonio Soler, Tchaikovsky, Turnage, Galina Ustvolskaya, Varèse, Aleksandr Vustin, Freya Waley-Cohen, George Walker, Jennifer Walshe, Walton, Webern, Weill, Judith Weir, Wolf

Sunday 18 December 2022

Goerne/Ólafsson - Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, 9 December 2022

Royal Festival Hall

Schubert: Der Wanderer, D 489; Wehmut, D 772; Der Jüngling und der Tod, D 545; Fahrt zum Hades, D 526; Schatzgräbers Begehr, D 761; Grenzen der Menschheit, D 716
Schumann: Meine Rose, op.90 no.2; Kommen und Scheiden, op.90 no.3; Die Sennin, op.90 no.4; Einsamkeit, op.90 no.5; Der schwere Abend, op.90 no.6
Schubert: Des Fischers Liebesglück, D 933; Der Winterabend, D 938; Drei Gesänge des Harfners, D 478
Brahms: Vier ernste Gesänge, op.121

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Vikingur Ólafsson (piano)

Image: Arnaud Mbaki

A marvellous song recital from two great musicians made clear that there is much more to musical life—and life in general—in December than Advent, narrowly considered, although perhaps ultimately there was a light here to be discerned, shining in the greater darkness of mood and content. Whilst it would have been quite a treat to hear either Matthias Goerne or Vikingur Ólafsson, to hear both, in so productive a partnership, was special indeed. I hope it will not be the first of several such occasions. 

There was little light, at least in the sense of hope, in the opening set of six Schubert songs, though there was plenty of chiaroscuro, etched, painted, chiselled—for Ólafsson’s piano playing, one might say all three, at least—to their performance. The opening of Der Wanderer had one in no doubt that this was no conventional ‘accompanist’; the song began, as if the opening of a sonata: with just such purpose, shaded exquisitely and meaningfully, though far from in abstract. This was, in short, tone poetry—and how it elevated still further Schubert’s art. Goerne, in turn, sang of descending from the mountains, the valley dimming, the sea roaring, and that is just what he seemed to do, a descent as dramatic as if it had been staged, accomplished by voice alone. He spoke, or sang, it seemed with the wisdom of ages: a primaeval scene, from which, in the third stanza, an unmistakeable Viennese lilt could yet emerge. 

That attention to text, not only from Goerne but from Ólafsson too, marked every aspect of this recital: not in a pedantic way, but illuminating, alert to what words can accomplish, what music can, and what both can together (as well as to what both musicians can do together). Der Jüngling und der Tod opens with the sinking of the sun, heard and, crucially, felt from voice and piano alike, the latter’s chords almost Lisztian (as also in the preceding Wehmut), yet propelled by Schubert’s easy, almost profligate way with melody. The sweet beauty of death, or Death, could chillingly be felt at its close. Piano line in Fahrt zum Hades was just as crucial to the song’s course as the vocal line, almost as if this were a vocal sonata. And the piano’s response to Mayrhofer’s dread words ‘dein alter Fluss’ said as much as Goerne’s, finely judged rubato and all. Piano figuration and tone again worked together with voice in Schatzgräbers Begehr, the Lisztian chordal future (‘Il penseroso’, perhaps) returning in Grenzen der Menschheit: a special partnership with Goerne’s declamatory reading of Goethe. 

We turned then to Schumann, to five Lenau songs (nos 2-6) from the Sechs Gedichte und Requiem, op.90. ‘Meine Rose’ set the new scene perfectly from the piano: externally fragile, albeit with inner strength and vitality. Vocal delicacy and security contributed likewise in equal measure. Rankings are inane, yet it was difficult not to be reminded, however fleetingly, why sometimes one feels impelled to elevate Schumann even over Schubert as a song-composer. At any rate, here was a different, later, arguably more complete Romanticism. The magic of the postlude is common to both, of course, though there is something particular to Schumann’s artistry here, as we heard in the closing bars of ‘Kommen und Scheiden’. The expectancy of ‘Die Sennin’, the portrait of loneliness as total condition in ‘Einsamkeit’, and the heaviness, physical and metaphysical, in the air of ‘Der schwere Abend’ were all caught to near-perfection. 

Returning to Schubert, Des Fischers Liebesglück bore renewed witness to the partnership, visible and audible, onstage. These were two performances infinitely responsive to one another, with all the resulting subtleties that engenders, but also the unmistakeable directness of purpose. A robbed moment in time, a dynamic inflection spoke volumes—because it was acted on, part of a whole for both musicians and indeed for the audience too. Piano melodies, in whichever voice, in Der Winterabend had the magic of a Schubert impromptu: infinitely touching, and pregnant of so much poetic promise. The three Harper’s Songs from Wilhelm Meister proved in turn ardent, sorrowful and angry, and something close to chamber music with words, line in both parts supremely well judged. 

And line, if anything, proved still more the guiding thread to Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, here sounding as if Schubert and Bach had joined together to prepare a path new, yet old: which, in a way, is very much what they had. (Not to forget Schumann either.) The compelling flow of the first song, ‘Dann es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh’ seemed to recall the world of Ein deutsches Requiem, albeit here the more finely distilled. Its form was grasped and communicated perfectly, third stanza prepared by its two predecessors and incorporating their insights and experience into a true return. ‘Ich wandte mich’ was delivered as if by the Preacher himself, Goerne in his element. The bell-like quality to Ólafsson’s final chord said just as much. ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’ was as dark as the verses themselves; yet, in typical Brahmsian fashion, captured to a tee by Goerne and Ólafsson alike, it revealed a myriad of colours as soon as one truly listened. ‘Rousing’ is perhaps not quite the right word for ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen und mit Engelszungen redete’, but it was perhaps not so far off. It made for a fine conclusion in so many ways, seeming to have the full measure of this extraordinary song both in itself and as the last of four. This was distinguished music-making indeed.

Saturday 17 December 2022

Gloriana, English National Opera, 8 December 2022


Queen Elizabeth I – Christine Rice
Robert Devereuz, Earl of Essex – Robert Murray
Frances, Countess of Essex – Paula Murrihy
Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy – Duncan Rock
Penelope, Lady Rich – Eleanor Dennis
Sir Robert Cecil – Charles Rice
Sir Walter Raleigh – David Soar
Henry Cuffe – Alex Otterburn
A Lady-in-Waiting – Alexandra Oomens
The Recorder of Norwich, A Ballad Singer – Willard White
A Housewife – Claire Barnett-Jones
The Spirit of the Masque – Innocent Masuku

Ruth Knight (director)
Sarah Bowern (costumes)
Corinne Young (wigs, hair, make-up)
Ian Jackson-French (lighting)
Barbora Šenoltová (video)

English National Opera Chorus (chorus director: Mark Biggins)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Images (c) Nirah Sanghani
Frances, Countess of Essex (Paula Murrihy), Queen Elizabeth I (Christine Rice)

Britten’s Gloriana is a strange work, both in itself and considered as a ‘coronation opera’. It is no Clemenza di Tito, idealising, instructing, and even gently warning a king, at least in Mozart’s version, that affairs of state must always have precedence over those of his own heart. Or is it, even if not by intent? The first Queen Elizabeth, as presented here by Britten and William Plomer, after Lytton Strachey, does not exactly prosper by indulging her favourite, the Earl of Essex. It is not, however, difficult to understand why many thought the presentation of an ageing monarch inappropriate as a way to greet the new reign of Gloriana’s twentieth-century successor. In many ways, The Crown has nothing on this—save for superior dramaturgy. If the strangeness of Gloriana’s (verbal) archaisms can be explained, perhaps even understood, the awkwardness of its first act in particular surely would have merited revision, had opportunity presented itself. Plomer certainly did Britten no favours. 

Similar things may be said, though, of many operas. We have what we have, and ENO did it proud, in just the sort of performance the company and its supporters alike needed to hear. Electrified by the moment of the Arts Council’s latest disgraceful philistinism—scrapping its grant altogether and bundling it off to Manchester, without so much as a word of consultation with venues, existing companies, or local government—this felt like a true coming together, to bless a problematical work more completely than may have been the case upon its first outing and, in my opinion, when revived at Covent Garden in 2013, sixty years after its premiere. Martyn Brabbins and the ENO Orchestra proved at least the equals of Paul Daniel and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. If anything, I think they may have been more incisive, still more committed. There was certainly a strong sense of grounding in Britten’s music; one could draw many a comparison with other of the composer’s dramatic music, dating back past Billy Budd and The Rape of Lucretia at least as far as Peter Grimes, yet sometimes also peering into the future. There is not a huge amount that can be done about some of the duller passages, and a masque without dancing is not ideal, but there remained enough at least to intrigue. Ruth Knight’s direction and the ‘concert staging’ in general were obviously limited in what they could achieve, yet as a framework for something considerably more than a concert performance worked well: perhaps something of a model for further revivals, should ENO fare better than Essex in escaping the executioner’s axe. 

There was much to enjoy and admire in the singing. In the title role, Christine Rice offered imperious and internally conflicted as very much two sides to the same Elizabethan coin. Robert Murray’s Essex seemed particularly at home with the particular blend of verbal and musical line required here, not least in the lute songs with which he would seduce his queen. Paula Murrihy proved an affecting Frances, doubtless in part a reflection of the more interesting standpoint of her role, although it remains necessary for an artist to grasp that opportunity—here accomplished in captivating fashion. Duncan Rock, a memorable Don Giovanni, presented a splendidly rutting Mountjoy; if the role fizzles out somewhat, there is very little that can be done about that. Eleanor Dennis’s Penelope complemented him and the other intriguers nicely. 

Earl of Essex (Robert Murray), Countess of Essex,
Charles Blount (Duncan Rock), Lady Rich (Eleanor Dennis)

There was no weak link in the cast, and crucially a strong sense, even in this single performance, of a company coming together as more than the sum of its parts. Two ENO Harewood Artists (Alexandra Oomens and Innocent Masuku) shone, a nice symmetry since Lord Harewood, the second Elizabeth’s cousin, according to some accounts cajoled her into accepting the dedication—and had her and Prince Philip attend a prior dinner-party run-through, at which the royal couple may not have been entirely amused. So too did two former Harewood Artists: Alex Otterburn and the wonderfully spirited Claire Barnett-Jones as a housewife in the penultimate scene. Will someone with power and influence take note? Who knows? Someone certainly should—and fast, before ENO’s death warrant is executed.

Sunday 4 December 2022

Hewitt - Mozart, 3 December 2022

St John’s Waterloo

Fantasia in C minor, KV 396/385f
Sonata in C major, KV 330/300h
Fantasia in D minor, KV 397/385g
Sonata in A major, KV 331/300i

Angela Hewitt (piano)

Image: Matthew Johnson

Angela Hewitt returned to Spotlight Chamber Concerts and St John’s Waterloo with a beautifully prepared and performed all-Mozart recital (to coincide with her new series for Hyperion). A fantasia was followed by a sonata twice over—but not necessarily the fantasia or sonata one might have expected. 

The C minor Fantasia, KV 396/385f, has been rather overshadowed by Mozart’s later fantasia in the same key. There are good reasons for this, among them the earlier work’s unfinished status, though we shall probably never know quite how much Maximilian Stadler’s completion owes to Mozart, and the fact that it was conceived as a movement for violin and piano. It works very well as we heard it here, though—and certainly did under Hewitt’s fingers. Her opening (and Mozart’s) offered a fine sense of ‘preluding’ extemporisation, even tending a little towards the Gothic-to-come (which naturally had roots in what had already come). This was music ‘in search of…’ and eventually it found what it needed, coalescing strongly around the relative major, E-flat, at the close of the exposition. The Sturm und Drang of the development might have come from one of the piano concertos. Above all, this was a rich, spacious performance that was yet full of life. 

The C major Sonata, KV 330/300h, received a detailed, lively performance. The opening of the first movement, and much else in it, can readily sound fussy, but not here. Hewitt’s shading of dynamics and articulation trod that tightrope with security and conviction. There were a few times when I wondered whether greater dynamic contrast might have been in order, not least in the development, but that is more a matter of taste than anything else. Taking the second repeat emphasised the seriousness of Hewitt’s approach; it is difficult to imagine anyone wanting to have done without in context. The Andante cantabile was beautifully sung, at a well-chosen tempo. It went deeper than its predecessor, which is probably right. Hewitt voiced a properly Mozartian sadness for the central F minor episode. I occasionally missed the greater flexibility some pianists might have brought here, but that was not her way, which had an undeniable integrity of its own. That relative straightforwardness certainly paid off one more in the finale: again, not a hint of fussiness, though there is much going on. Hewitt traced a judicious path of detail without pedantry. She also conveyed suggestively and engagingly Mozart’s implied contrasts of solo and tutti.

The D minor Fantasia benefited from a dark, rich opening, Hewitt’s performance imbued with great dramatic immediacy here and throughout. The pianist used silences and phrase endings with great intelligence, just as much as the notes ‘themselves’. The short D major concluding section (almost certainly Stadler) gave the strong impression of originating in what had gone before. 

To follow it with the A major Sonata, KV 331/300i, was a surprise well conceived and executed. Its first movement, the well-known theme and variations, also proved finely detailed: full of variation even before the variations themselves. Once more, Hewitt used the piano to suggest an orchestra beyond it, whilst remaining true to her (and Mozart’s) instrument. This was definitely Mozart, not Mozart-straining-to-be-Reger. Each variation possessed its own character, yet formed part of an intelligently planned greater sequence. One felt (as well as saw and heard) the sheer delight of crossing hands. Hewitt, moreover, offered some light, stylish ornamentation of her own. The second movement emerged in similar spirit: a minuet for piano, not a minuet that happened to be played on piano. Likewise its mellow, euphonious trio, at times but a stone’s throw from Schubert, yet at others distant indeed: always in Mozart’s spirit. The Turkish Rondo seemed in turn to respond to what had preceded it, which is far from always the case. Its ‘Janissary’ style was relished, but as means to a musical, rondo-finale end rather than an end in itself. It was charming, fun, and at times not a little whimsical. 

As an encore, we were treated to the slow movement of the A minor Sonata, KV 310/300d. A direct yet similarly detailed performance included a markedly turbulent central section. Always, the music flowed.

Friday 2 December 2022

Gerhaher/Huber - Schubert, 1 December 2022

Wigmore Hall

Sei mir gegrüsst, D 741
Dass sie hier gewesen, D 775
Lachen und Weinen, D 777
Du bist die Ruh, D 776
Greisengesang, D 778
Schwanengesang, D 957

Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Gerold Huber (piano)

This memorable Schubert from Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber opened with five settings of Friedrich Rückert, well chosen and ordered. Sei mir gegrüsst’s opening piano lilt was taken up just as keenly by Gerhaher, signalling a meeting of musical minds and practice. From the very outset, one might readily have taken dictation, verbal and musical, so clear was every aspect of the performance, that clarity never a goal in itself but means to an expressive end. Unity and variation in an initially strophic setting that then sets out along new paths were equally apparent, inspiring and comforting in similar measure. The almost Lisztian sensibility of Dass sie hier gewesen offered nice contrast, the set’s culmination in a declamatory, richly expressive Greisengesang calling Fischer-Dieskau to mind. No more than anywhere else, though, did one size fit all, a silvery, surprisingly tenor-like reading of Du bist die Ruh finely complemented by Huber’s voicing of harmony and counterpoint. 

Seven Schwanengesang settings of Ludwig Rellstab took us to the interval. The ‘Bächlein’ of ‘Liebesbotschaft’ set the scene and underlay it, in figurative as well as locational terms. A deeply touching ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ took in several moods, not least the proto-Wagnerian; likewise the later ‘In der Ferne’, its world-weariness prefiguring Wagner’s Dutchman, the final stanza deeply—in more than one sense—ambiguous, whispering breezes performing their magic whichever way they or fate chose. Gerhaher’s ardent ‘Ständchen’ really felt like a serenade, in essence and progress, ‘Aufenthalt’ a tragic pendant from the world of Winterreise. The pounding of the protagonist’s heart as the high treetops swayed in the wind had us feel altitude and grief alike. ‘Abschied’, the last of the set, effected after ‘In der Ferne’ a perfect transformation of mood, in a reading both animated and detailed, yet never remotely fussy. 

Six Heine settings followed the interval. A darkly resolute ‘Der Atlas’ offered a fascinating study in pride. ‘Ihr Bild’ proved duly haunting, nothing taken for granted, the miracles of Schubertian modulation heard as if for the first time; likewise the composer’s major/minor oscillation. Prefiguring ‘Die Stadt’ and its chill wind, we found ourselves once again emphatically post-Winterreise. ‘Der Doppelgänger’ went further still, as it must, technically in its ghostly withdrawal of vibrato and much else, yet also emotionally in its defiance. This, quite properly, marked the climax to the entire recital. After that, ‘Die Taubenpost’ worked its charms to perfection, a delightful, lingering goodbye.