Sunday 31 December 2023

Tally of musical performances in 2023 (opera and concert)

Since I am busy at work on my new book project, a two-volume study of the complete operas of Mozart in their eighteenth-century political and intellectual context, it seems fitting to have heard more music by Mozart than by any other composer this year. (For 'rules' on counting, please see my previous post.)  Beyond my top four, Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven, and Strauss, I heard a good range of music from Alkan to Zimmermann and beyond.

19 Mozart

12 Wagner

8 Beethoven, Strauss

7 Brahms, Schumann

6 Bach

5 Schubert, Byrd

4 Mahler, Prokofiev

3 Benjamin, Chopin, Ligeti, Liszt, Ravel

2 Berg, Bizet, Debussy, Dvořák, Handel, Haydn, Henze, Knussen, Puccini, Schoenberg

1 Alkan, Dieter Ammann, CPE Bach, Johann Christoph Bach, JCF Bach, Bartók, Beethoven, Berberian, Berio, Boismortier, Boulez, Busoni, Cage, Chausson, Cherubini, Unsuk Chin, Coleridge-Taylor, Crumb, Duparc, Elgar, Fauré, Francesco Filidei, Grisey, Saed Haddad, Hartmann, Hindemith, Holliger, Humperdinck, Ibert, Janáček, Korngold, Kurtág, Márton Illés, Jolas, Sigurd von Koch, Lachenmann, Edward Lambert, Manoury, Martinů, Messiaen, Mompou, Mussorgsky, Elizabeth Ogonek, Poulenc, Purcell, Rachmaninov, Reger, Reimann, Rossini, Saariaho, Saint-Saëns, Scarlatti, Schmidt, Schoeck, Schnittke, Schoenberg, Schulhoff, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Scriabin, Sweelinck, Tchaikovsky, Telemann, Tippett, Ustolvskaja, Varèse, Vivaldi, Wagner, Weelkes, Weill, Widmann, Wolf, Xenakis, Zimmermann

Tally of concerts heard in 2023

Mozart exchanged second operatic place for first in 2023 concerts. Perhaps no great surprises, save for Byrd's high-placed anniversary showing. (I should be very happy for it to be repeated in other years.) The world's bizarre neglect of the Second Viennese School, even Berg, shows no sign of being reversed, though surely 2024's Schoenberg anniversary will bring some temporary respite.

As usual, I have counted one appearance or twenty in a concert as one. That has its problems, but I am not sure counting every piece, even if it were practical, would be any better. Encores are not included. I have endeavoured to remember performances I attended but did not review, but it is of course possible I may have missed something.

11 Mozart

8 Beethoven

7 Brahms, Schumann

6 Bach

5 Schubert, Byrd

4 Mahler, Prokofiev, Strauss

3 Benjamin, Chopin, Ligeti, Liszt, Ravel

2 Debussy, Haydn, Knussen

1 Alkan, Dieter Ammann, CPE Bach, Johann Christoph Bach, JCF Bach, Bartók, Beethoven, Berberian, Berg, Berio, Boismortier, Boulez, Busoni, Cage, Chausson, Unsuk Chin, Coleridge-Taylor, Crumb, Duparc, Dvořák, Elgar, Fauré, Francesco Filidei, Grisey, Saed Haddad, Hartmann, Henze, Hindemith, Holliger, Ibert, Kurtág, Márton Illés, Jolas, Sigurd von Koch, Lachenmann, Manoury, Messiaen, Mompou, Elizabeth Ogonek, Poulenc, Rachmaninov, Reger, Reimann, Saint-Saëns, Scarlatti, Schmidt, Schoeck, Schnittke, Schoenberg, Schulhoff, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Scriabin, Sweelinck, Telemann, Tippett, Ustolvskaja, Varèse, Vivaldi, Wagner, Weelkes, Weill, Widmann, Wolf, Xenakis, Zimmermann

Tally of operas seen in 2023


A visit to Bayreuth coupled with a Ring in Berlin made this year's operatic victor well-nigh inevitable. Mozart, though, was not so far off, with a couple of live 'firsts': Il re pastore and Ascanio in Alba. A somewhat restricted chronological range too, with no Monteverdi, nor indeed anything before Purcell. As usual, I have included concert and staged performances, and anything treated as an opera (e.g. the Komische Oper's staging of Henze's oratorio, Das Floss der Medusa).

11 Wagner

8 Mozart

4 Strauss

2 Bizet, Handel, Puccini

1 Berg, Cherubini, Dvořák, Bushra El-Turk, Henze, Humperdinck, Janáček, Korngold, Edward Lambert, Martinů, Mussorgsky, Purcell, Rossini, Saariaho, Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky

Saturday 23 December 2023

Argerich/BPO/Barenboim - Beethoven and Brahms, 20 December 2023


Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat major, op.19
Brahms: Symphony no.3 in F major, op.90

Martha Argerich (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus

Seventy-four years ago they met in Buenos Aires. They continue to play together, here in Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, and continue to delight audiences. For my final concert of the year, it was a treat to hear Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, this time – and, I believe for the second time ever – with the Berlin Philharmonic. The warmth of applause at the beginning, let alone the close, offered testament to a special evening. 

Although I have heard Barenboim many times in Beethoven, as pianist, as conductor, and as both, I do not think I had heard him conduct the BPO in Beethoven. Even with him, it offers a different sound from the Staatskapelle Berlin, but needless to say, there was absolutely no rebarbative faddishness to it, whether in tonal quality or tempo. Instead, the opening tutti spoke in a heart-rending beauty of tone in direct line from Mozart, and owing as much in its fundamental harmonic rhythm to Klemperer as to Furtwängler (as has generally been the case in Barenboim’s Beethoven of the last decade or so). Every note mattered—and meant: as noble as the Fifth Symphony or Fidelio, though with requisite lightness of touch. Argerich responded in kind, though not without (quite rightly, as soloist) a certain wresting of initiative that yet always furthered collegial, chamber-music give-and-take. The piano part sang and scintillated, Barenboim and Argerich both bringing particular, complementary gifts to the performance. How a pivot chord from the piano told; how an orchestral sequence built harmonically; and how left-hand bass rumbling led us toward the tonic for the moment of return. The music continued to ‘grow’, not only to develop, throughout the recapitulation, Berlin strings truly digging in, preparing the way for Beethoven’s own cadenza, a missive from the Beethovenian future, lying gloriously beyond the language of the concerto ‘itself’.


The Adagio’s opening tutti, in contrast, complement, and development, was consoling as well as dramatic, a new frame for a new yet related painting. Argerich’s solo grew from within, its ethical subjectivity both singular and in accord with that of Barenboim’s wise narration. Together, their voice, Beethoven’s voice, had one believe – and so one should – that it was the voice of truth, its hushed tones and awe prefiguring the ‘late’ voice of the Ninth Symphony or even the Missa solemnis, piano elaboration nonetheless reminding us of the different nature of this music. Spun from finest Egyptian cotton, it was a sensuous delight as well as a musical necessity. This was the very model of a Beethoven slow movement. The finale was forthright as ever, from all concerning. After Elysian reverie, fun and goodness were to be had back on earth—and how. Like sparks of the divine, they were present in the detail as well as the broader contours, in articulation and acciaccaturas as in the tonal plan, in orchestral syncopation and in Haydnesque conversation. Civilisation matters, perhaps especially in our terrible historical moment, and the wonder of modulation is part of it, as triumphantly displayed here.


A surprise encore came in Schubert’s A major Rondo for piano four hands, D 951, Barenboim taking his seat next to Argerich, their page-turner none other than concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto. Here, in confidences whispered more softly than ever before, was a very different subjectivity, its fragility no less touching, an act of remembrance nonetheless in the here and now rather than an act that was ‘about’ remembrance. Episodes unfolded in their own time, and according to their own necessity. Indeed, time almost stood still, but not quite.


A larger orchestra assembled after the interval for Brahms’s Third Symphony, twelve first violins now fourteen, four double basses now seven, and so forth. Anyone expecting something sedate would have been immediately put to rights, the opening of the first movement not only febrile but angry, albeit quite without the trivial hysteria some, though never Barenboim, seem to think constitutes musical emotion and ‘excitement’. The second group retreated to the world of Schubert’s Rondo; here was music we over-heard, in a dialectical conception of the movement taking us between public and private. All the while, life was to be found in the inner parts, rather as if in a string quartet—or in Wagner. Sinews, honed again on Klemperer and Furtwängler, unleashed still greater anger in the development. This, for me at least, was music for and of Palestine, a musical land of beauty almost ‘occupied’, a heart of darkness terrifying in its truth. The grim determination of the recapitulation, and not only that, would not have been out of place in the composer’s Fourth Symphony. It was not without consolation, but need for that consolation had been immeasurably heightened.

Heard in a veiled dignity that enhanced riches both textual and textural, the Andante possessed a majestic intimacy suggestive somehow both of an expanded string quartet and, at times, of an imaginary ballet, Tchaikovsky closer than one might think. Once again, so much grew, motivically but also harmonically, from those glowing inner parts. Strange dissonances registered a pain both inner and inward. The third movement proved a sad serenade, whose eternally transforming song bore post-Beethovenian witness to the eternal – and eternally troubled – spirit of humanity. Did it meander? Perhaps a little, but not if that be taken to mean lack of clarity as to destination; rather, this was a musical stream, with twists and turns, yet undeniable, directed flow. The subdued opening of the finale only heightened the impact of subsequent bursting of the banks. Again, the Fourth was foreshadowed in darkness, even in tragedy, though that remained only one side of the coin. There was hard-won Beethovenian joy too, if briefly. Stubborn as well as graceful, this was a reading of thoroughgoing integrity, whether in those echt-Brahmsian half-lights, in ghostly reminiscences, or under a winter sun that just occasionally suggested spring might come. Above all, it was a struggle, a necessary one at that.

Monday 18 December 2023

Ascanio in Alba, Oper Frankfurt, 17 December 2023

Bockenheimer Depot

Venus – Kateryna Kasper
Ascanio – Cecilia Hall
Silvia – Karolina Bengtsson
Aceste – Andrew Kim
Fauno – Anna Nekhames
Secretary – Aijan Ryskulova
Bodyguard – Stefan Biaesch
Silvia’s friends – Valentina Ziegler, Isabel Casás Rama

Nina Brazier (director)
Christoph Fischer (set design)
Henriette Hübschmann (costumes)
Jonathan Pickers (lighting)
Deborah Einspieler (dramaturgy)

Vocal Ensemble (recorded)
Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra
Alden Gatt (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Aceste (Andrew Kim), Silvia (Karolina Bengtsson), Venus (Kateryna Kasper),
Ascanio (Cecelia Hall), Fauno (Anna Nekhames)

It is not every day I get to hear a Mozart opera live for the first time. And yet, this year 2023, some time after my first year of opera-going, I have done so twice: Il re pastore at this year’s Salzburg Festival, albeit in concert performance, and now Oper Frankfurt’s new Ascanio in Alba, directed by Nina Brazier and conducted by Alden Gatt. Two to go, but another two ticked off the list—not that I ever wish to hear them only once. 

Ascanio presents its own difficulties for modern performance and reception. They lie not in Mozart’s age – though all of fifteen years old, he already had considerable operatic experience in different operatic genres – as in the nature of the commission and thus, quite properly, his and his librettist Giuseppe Parini’s response to it. The second of his three operas for Milan, Ascanio was the second of two operas commissioned for – wait for it… the 1771 marriage of Archduke Ferdinand Charles, Governor of the Duchy of Milan and a younger son of the Habsburg monarch, Maria Theresa, to Maria Beatrice, daughter of Ercole III d’Este, Duke of Modena, and his estranged wife, Maria Teresa, Duchess of Massa and Princess of Carrara in her own right. Various treaties and agreements were made concerning inheritance, which I shall not detail now, but this was, even by ancien regime standards, a complicated dynastic match, not even originally intended for Ferdinand, but rather for one of his elder brothers, (Peter) Leopold, passing down the line of succession when the latter went instead to Florence in 1765, succeeding his father, Francis Stephen, as Grand Duke of Tuscany (but not as Holy Roman Emperor, the lot of the eldest son and King of the Romans, Joseph, also appointed co-regent to Maria Theresa in the Monarchy). I could go on, and will elsewhere, but the point, now further underlined, is that this was not a marriage concluded for love; it was, like other Habsburg marriages, and as we now should say, a business arrangement. 

This festa teatrale therefore offered, its veil of allegory thin, Venus deputing her son (by the deceased Aeneas) Ascanio to rule the territory of Alba, literally civilising it by turning its pastures into a city, and informing him he would marry Silvia that day. Cupid has already had Ascanio appear in dream form to Silvia, causing her to fall in love with him. (There was a difference here too, since the actual marriage had been arranged when the participants were young children, and the pair did not know each other prior to their nuptials.) The situation, in any case, was a cause for celebration, yet offered little in the way of conventional drama. The most obvious ways in which that might have been achieved were out of the question: Venus’s (Maria Theresa’s) role as mistress of ceremonies who must unquestionably be obeyed could hardly be questioned. Nor was it possible to present some sort of intrigue in which the two ‘lovers’ might initially be thwarted, still less in which they might, however momentarily, have feelings for others. Instead, Venus instructs Ascanio – and never, it seems, does it occur to anyone to disobey her – not to reveal himself to her, leaving the poor girl to believe she is in love with another, whom she meets, until just before the marriage. Silvia will nonetheless do her duty and marry Ascanio, whom she finally discovers to be the one she loves. Cue rejoicing, as both parties have acted as they should, that is according to Venus’s instructions, and will be rewarded both in marriage and in rule.

A modern production might perhaps wish somewhat to deconstruct this and/or to historicise it. Brazier does the former, I think, in respectful, subtle fashion, though I admit to wondering whether she might have gone further. That may have been a matter of my slowness, though, and in some ways it is a relief not to report a sledgehammer attack on a serenata (as Mozart referred to it) whose slender nature might not withstand it. The contemporary setting is corporate, its blue and yellow colour-scheme suggestive either of the European Union (perhaps, in Frankfurt, specifically the euro?) or Ryan Air. I am not sure either was intended, but the insistence and thoroughness of Venus’s ‘corporate identity’ – in the Christoph Fischer’s totalising circular set design there can be no escape – imparted, regardless of intent, such thoughts to me. Otherwise, though, could not Venus/Maria Theresa/dynasticism/corporate power have been made a little more obviously monstrous? Or some other, modern slant on an arranged marriage been presented? A girlish and very pink Silvia, replete with equally girlish and pink girlfriends, was doubtless bringing money into the family/firm’s coffers, but that again had me ask whether an approach taking us back to the eighteenth century, presenting the real plot behind the plot, might have taken us further.


Silvia and her friends

That is not to say we should all have enjoyed a recreation of a Habsburg wedding: a prospect whose denial might have had more than merely financial grounds. But I wondered – and I cannot put it stronger – whether admirable reluctance to mess with the work’s dramaturgy had left us with an updating that neither connected quite strongly enough to the work nor presented us with something whose contemporary relevance, for want of a better word, was as apparent as it might be. Perhaps, though, that is simply in the nature of the work’s challenges, and on reflection, in representing the difficulties faced by creators it has indeed provided food for thought. Might something have been attempted in which today’s Venus aped yesterday’s Maria Theresa, whilst the rest of the world suffered accordingly? Possibly. It is easy, though, to come up with germs of concepts behind one’s laptop on the train back from Frankfurt. The craft of theatre direction is far more than that, and detailed, thoughtful Personenregie, even with what even an ardent Mozartian might concede is not always the deepest of characterisation, was very much on show.

Ascanio and Venus (centre) and Statisterie

For the situation did present Parini and Mozart with a particular opportunity for the titular hero, if we may call him that. In an ‘actual’ opera seria, we should be unlikely to find anyone facing such a problem in the central role. This was not the stuff of a primo uomo, though the musical style may well often be so, at least on the initial surface. This boy, completely under his mother’s thumb and not necessarily through any fault of his own, came vividly to life in Cecelia Hall’s performance. Initially somewhat pallid, of character if not of tone, there was true development here, and both Ascanio’s anguish and subsequent joy, in exhilarating duet with Karolina Bengtsson’s Silvia, stepped out of the confines of occasion and even genre, reminding us that Mozart already had not only experience of writing operas seria and buffa, but also a good amount of affecting sacred music. Bengtsson’s beautifully sung Silvia contrasted and complemented. Her graciousness in light of Kateryna Kasper’s demands as Venus, despatched with imperial precision, might even momentarily – that was all any child, let alone daughter-in-law might hope for – have impressed Maria Theresa. The role of Aceste, priest turned corporate fixer, was stylishly sung and acted by Andrew Kim, agile and clean of line. So too was that of the shepherd Fauno, Anna Nekhames revelling in its often absurd coloratura. All singers were making their role debuts. Choral numbers were recorded, yet had reasonable presence, and there was neither jarring nor disjuncture.


Fauno, Ascanio, Silvia, Aceste, with the orchestra and Alden Gatt in front

That was largely due, of course, to Alden Gatt’s coordination as conductor. Gatt’s tempi were well-chosen, and his command, from one of the two harpsichords, of the small orchestra was unquestionable. If there were a few times when I wished for greater string warmth that may have reflected the acoustic more than the performance. Passages of astonishing psychological acuity – yes, even at this age and in this work – and of sonorous delight from Frankfurt woodwind and horns were in any case numerous enough to be savoured. Everything was in place, and considerably more than that. First nights, in any case, tend to be succeeded by performances that delve deeper, though Ascanio in Alba never had that chance first time around. Continuo playing, moreover, was excellent throughout, recitatives explaining and connecting just as they should.

Just in case you were wondering: those two Mozart operas remaining for me to experience in the flesh are Lucio Silla and Il sogno di Scipione. So, if any enterprising opera companies within my reach would care to help out, I should be greatly obliged. And if a still more enterprising organisation were able to preface Ascanio with the first of the two Milanese wedding operas, Johann Adolph Hasse’s Metastasian Il Ruggiero, designed by the same team of brothers, we should at last have chance to discover how justified posterity’s verdict of definitive Mozartian victory actually was. For now, the verdict of Maria Theresa’s favourite composer, Hasse, stands: ‘This boy will render us all forgotten.’

Sunday 17 December 2023

Eugene Onegin, Komische Oper, 15 December 2023


Eugene Onegin – Günter Papendell
Tatiana – Ruzan Mantashyan
Olga – Deniz Uzun
Lensky – Gerard Schneider
Mme Larina – Stefanie Schaefer
Prince Gremin – Tijl Faveyts
Filipievna – Margarita Nekrasova
M. Triquet – Christoph Späth
Zaretsky – Ferhat Baday
Captain – Jan-Frank Süße
Guillot – Alexander Kohl

Barrie Kosky (director)
Werner Sauer (revival director)
Rebecca Ringst (set designs)
Klaus Bruns (costumes)
Simon Berger (dramaturgy)
Franck Evin (lighting)

Orchestra and Chorus (chorus director: David Cavelius) of the Komische Oper
James Gaffigan (conductor)

Images: Iko Freese /

I first saw Barrie Kosky’s Eugene Onegin, premiered in 2016, in 2019, a few months before the theatres closed. Then it was at the Komische Oper’s permanent home on Behrenstraße. Now, the building having closed for several years for renovation, this latest revival may be seen across town in Charlottenburg’s Schillertheater, conducted by the company’s new music director James Gaffigan. The cast is a mix of old and new, Günter Papendell, Stefanie Schaefer, Tijl Faveyts, and Margarita Nekrasova survivors from 2019, the rest new (at least to me). 

Memory, though, is a strange thing; or rather, ‘memories’ are, since even one’s own will come into conflict with one another. Although I remembered liking what I saw, what I saw on this occasion did not always correspond to my recollections, which may indeed have been of other productions, real or imagined. Much the same might be said of what unfolds here (in many dramas, no doubt, yet it seems or seemed more than usually germane here). For there are certainly misunderstandings, missed opportunities, ‘bad timing’, and the rest in the relationships, not only Onegin and Tatiana’s, of Eugene Onegin. That of Tatiana and Prince Gremin may be an exception; yet if so, it is dependent on the failures of another. It is, in any case, hardly the central relationship; it serves as a contrast to what might have been, an antidote of reality to fantasy. Kosky’s setting the entire action in the same place, with one partial exception, brings with it some loss, not least in the inevitably lesser contrast between public and private, whose portrayal therefore becomes still more a matter for the orchestra. Yet its dramaturgical function here also brings with it considerable gain, anchoring character’s differing understandings, memories, and decisions in Rebecca Ringst’s almost pastoral, outdoor setting that yet takes in threatening woods behind. (It is not as if the libretto suddenly vanishes when all stage directions are not adhered to literally.) Although real enough – it is not abstract – it imparts something of a dream-like quality, in which not only memories but, at least as important, objects bind everything together.


Jam and jam-jars, for instance: when the opera opens, Mme Larina and the nurse Filipievna are making jam, readily eaten by Tatiana and Olga. When Tatiana sends her letter to Onegin, it is inside a jar sent as a gift. And so on, until the close, when it is there in what seems to be the same place: where it all (tragically?) began. There is something would-be bacchanalian to the ball scene, when it takes place outdoors. This, one feels, is as far away from civilisation as these characters, this society, dare travel. And, of course, it leads to the frozen, pointless misery of the duel scene. Onegin, moreover, does not face the decentring he sometimes can. There is plenty of and for Tatiana too, but we feel – and, I think, have suggested to us – more of his miserable wandering, his downward spiral than usual. Helplessly drunk when he arrives for the duel, he shows that it is already too late for him, let alone for Lensky. His early stiffness is probably a self-defence mechanism; at any rate, we feel its relationship to what is to come. All the while, subtle transformations in Franck Evin’s lighting aid the transformations, both gradual and sudden, in the drama itself. And when a room in Gremin’s palace appears, for the first St Petersburg scene, Onegin by now a sad, destroyed outsider, it is only to be dismantled onstage shortly after, in preparation for the ’return’ to a past which may or may not have ‘actually’ existed for the final scene.


Kosky’s conception remains the guiding one. The Komische Oper’s new music director, James Gaffigan, conducting his first production in the role, would appear to have been presented with certain challenges, not least among them caesuras when all stops, hearts included, all falls silent. On this, the first night of Werner Sauer’s revival, Gaffigan integrated these and other ‘givens’ to excellent effect. His reading, like Kosky’s, seemed to gain pace and depth as the evening progressed, the orchestra responding with eagerness to the vision with which it was presented. Almost chamber-like in scale to begin with, its Petersburg grandeur was undeniable, both in itself and in contrast. Choral contributions were likewise as well acted (and blocked) as sung.


Papendell’s Onegin follows and, to an extent, leads that trajectory too. It was a compelling portrayal in 2019 and is in 2023, his brokenness in the third act deeply moving. Ruzan Mantashyan travelled on a different, related journey as Tatiana, convincingly the shy, bookish girl at the outset, very much a woman at the close, albeit one struggling to keep herself in one piece. This she accomplished through musical and gestural means alike—as well as fine costuming (Klaus Bruns) and make-up. If I sometimes wished Gerard Schneider would adopt a less Verdian approach as Lensky, his was an undoubtedly committed performance, greatly superior to what I had heard from another singer four years ago. Deniz Uzun’s extravert Olga was a joy—and a telling contrast with her more complicated sister. Faveyts and Nekrasova at least matched memories of their excellent portrayals last time around: not a bad summary of the evening as a whole. The company may be on the move physically, but not aesthetically, whether that be in direction or quality.

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Mayer/Berliner Barock Solisten/Goltz - JCF Bach, CPE Bach, JS Bach, and Johann Christoph Bach, 11 December 2023


Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach: Sinfonia in D minor, WFV 1/3
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (arr. Albrecht Mayer and Matthias Spindler): Oboe Concerto in G major (after harpsichord concerto, Wq 9)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major, BWV 1048 (early version)
Johann Christoph Bach (arr. Spindler): Lamento: Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte
CPE Bach: Symphony in E-flat major for strings, Wq 122/2
JS Bach: Oboe d’amore concerto in A major, BWV 1055R

Albrecht Mayer (oboe, oboe d’amore, English horn)
Berliner Barock Solisten
Gottfried von der Goltz (violin, director)

It is always time for Bach, likewise for the Bach family, but some times seem still more so than others. Advent is surely one of them, and this Advent seems all the more necessary than ever as a source of hope and light when sorely needed. Here, members of the Berlin Philharmonic, in their guise as the Berliner Barock Solisten, led by violinist Gottfried von der Goltz, were joined by their Philharmonic colleague oboist Albrecht Mayer in a programme of music by Johann Sebastian, two of his sons, and his first cousin once removed, Johann Christoph, described in Sebastian’s 1735 genealogy as ‘ein profonder Componist’. 

First, a fine curtain-raiser: a Sinfonia in D minor by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, JS Bach’s fifth son and only three years old when his father (we think) compiled that genealogy. This short three-movement symphony probably stood closest to CPE Bach of Bach’s other sons, though without his radicalism/mannerism (delete according to taste). It nonetheless offered invention and the occasional surprise, in more-or-less Sturm und Drang mode. In the opening ‘Allegro’, the ensemble offered cultivated, dramatic playing which, as elsewhere in the programme, rightly saw no need for mere ‘effects’. Committed, communicative musicianship, which recognised and demonstrated both the importance and joy of listening to one another, was enough. The slow movement, ‘Andante amoroso’ was announced in veiled, somewhat astringent intimacy, taking its leave from the director’s muting of his instrument. Its aria-like unfolding also suggested an organ piece; indeed, Goltz’s violin tone had something of a viola da gamba stop to it. Vigour and dynamism characterised a finale that was conceived and felt as such. 

Emanuel Bach’s G major harpsichord concerto was here arranged for oboe. If there were times when I was not entirely convinced, they were rare, and one can hardly blame an oboist for wanting to expand his instrument’s repertoire. From the outset, contrasts and mood-swings made the composer’s identity clear, though a rare instance of tentative string entry might have had me wonder. Mayer clearly relished the language and the twists and turns of this first movement, as did the ensemble, the physicality of whose playing had one feel in the best sense bows and rosin flying from their bows. This went ‘down’ all the way to the violone/double bass, Ulrich Wolff’s playing as nimble and expressive as that of anyone else. Another aria-like second movement followed, Mayer splendidly long-breathed, strings varying vibrato for expressive rather than dogmatic reasons. I found the harpsichord registration (a lute stop, I think) distracting, even irritating, but could see others in the audience responding more positively. Dramatic string interjections prior to the cadenza would surely have impressed Gluck. Likewise, in the finale, gestures told, whilst always forming part of a larger picture. Bright, incisive, string playing was matched by Mayer’s perky despatch of his part. It was a fine dialogue, enjoyable and nourishing in equal measure. 

The Third Brandenburg Concerto was given by three violins, three violas, two cellos, one double bass, and harpsichord continuo. Polished and lively, the first movement was a model of chamber-scale performance, wondrous transparency ensuring one could feel the import of every contrapuntal line and its direction. Whatever the virtues of his sons’ music – and they are great – Sebastian Bach cannot help but put them in the shade, his music once again proving so satisfying, engrossing, and yes, inspiring. All contributed equally, listening as keenly as they communicated. A rich harpsichord lead-in from Raphael Alpermann to ‘those’ two chords navigated passage to the finale. This I found a little too hard-driven, however impressive the playing, but it met with an enthusiastic reception. As a surprise ‘encore’, we were given the Sinfonia to ‘Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis’, BWV 21. One of Bach’s most extraordinary most memorable, and indeed most extraordinarily memorable cantata movements, it showed Mayer and Goltz in truly harmonious dialogue, violone pizzicato, bowed cellos, and the rest adding not only harmony and texture, but a glimpse of an entire theology. It flowed like tears, fermatas intelligible and meaningful to all, the drama leaping out as if from the aural equivalent of a stained-glass window. 

Johann Christoph Bach’s grave Lamento, arranged by Matthias Spindler, for English horn rather than contralto solo, against strings and continuo, was very much what it ‘said on the tin’, even before Mayer’s entry. Again, the keenness of unfolding dialogue between Mayer and Goltz (later, others too) was touching. Venetian antecedents were apparent, yet so was a more ‘German’ sense of melodic development. I could not help but think the loss of words here withheld from us a key to understanding; without that, the piece felt a little long, though it remained a rare and welcome opportunity to hear it. 

Emanuel Bach’s E-flat String Symphony came next, continuing and developing earlier tendencies of characterful performances which trusted the score without need for weird, ‘early musicke’ fetishisation, whether of instrument, articulation, ‘rhetoric’, or anything else. Alert, clear, directed, the first movement’s nerviness, present without exaggeration, was carried through into the ‘Andante’ minuet: a splendid surprise, all the more so for eschewing current fashions to take such music far too fast. Here, there was plenty of space for neurotic detail, and it was all the better to swing too. The players may have been relatively few in number, but they knew how to fill a hall with music (as much a matter of conception as of tone or mere volume). Catchy and disorienting, the finale proved just the thing both in its concentration and in the fascination of its plot-twists. 

And so, once more to Sebastian Bach, for the final piece, the (reasonably) well-known ‘return’ of the A major Harpsichord Concerto BWV 1055 to a putative oboe d’amore original. Whether an ‘authentic’ version or not – who cares? – the sheer ‘rightness’ of the music ‘itself’ brooked no dissent. Once again, the satisfaction of its construction, vertical and horizontal in perfect, productive balance in a way never surpassed and rarely matched, left one in no doubt as to the identity of the greatest Bach. That was partly, of course, a matter of the performance too: enlightened, surely, from whatever ideological standpoint (or none). Solo phrasing was so excellent one did not notice it. Tempi were just right, as was the sensitivity of dynamic shading, perhaps especially revealing in the ‘Larghetto’. An ebullient, even declamatory finale, as catchy as any Brandenburg Concerto, was taken quickly, without ever feeling rushed. As an encore, we heard Mayer and the ensemble in ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Handel’s Rinaldo: a nice touch, not only permitting Kristin von der Goltz a wonderful cello solo leading us back from the ‘B’ section, but also lightly reminding us that Bach’s path to greatness is not the only one, tempting though it may be to think so when under his spell. Handel may look ‘less’ than Bach, but he can hold his own, and did here.

Monday 4 December 2023

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Deutsche Oper, 3 December 2023

Hans Sachs – Johan Reuter
Veit Pogner – Albert Pesendorfer
Kunz Vogelgesang – Gideon Poppe
Konrad Nachtigall – Marek Reichert
Sixtus Beckmesser – Philipp Jekal
Fritz Kothner – Thomas Lehman
Balthasar Zorn – Jörg Schörner
Ulrich Eißlinger – Patrick Vogel
Augustin Moser – Paul Kaufmann
Hermann Ortel – Stephen Bronk
Hans Schwarz – Tobias Kehrer
Hans Foltz – Byung Gil Kim
Walther von Stolzing – Magnus Vigilius
David – Ya-Chung Huang
Eva – Elena Tsallagova
Magdalena – Kathrin Göring
Night Watchman – Tobias Kehrer
Apprentices – Agata Kornaga, Freya Müller, Kangyoon Shine Lee, Yehui Jeong, Oleksandra Diachenko, Natalie Jurk, Jongwoo Hong, Thoma Jaron-Wutz, Leon Juurlink, Kyoungloul Kim, Sotiris Charalampous, Simon Grindberg

Jossi Wieler, Anna Viebrock, Sergio Morabito (directors)
Torsten Köpf (co-set designer)
Charlotte Pistorius (co-costume designer)
Olaf Freese (lighting)

Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (chorus director: Jeremy Bines)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Ulf Schirmer (conductor)

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, premiere am 12.6.2022 in der Deutschen Oper Berlin, copyright: Thomas Aurin. (Some roles were taken by different singers.)

In the depths of the coronavirus Great Silence, I mused that its horror would be over, musically speaking, when I had once again heard live three works: Gurrelieder, a large scale work by Richard Strauss, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Why not, say, Les Troyens, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony or Moses und Aron, I am unsure, though the difficulty of hearing Moses anywhere at any time presents its own challenge. It was not so much about individual as representative works, though, so as to be indicative of some sort of resumption of ‘normal’ musical life, rather than tailoring performances to pandemic circumstances. Strauss’s Alpine Symphony I heard surprisingly early on, though I am tempted to say I should still wait for a Frau ohne Schatten (all being well, next year); Gurrelieder came a little over a year ago. Alas, neither was a very good performance, though I felt relief and gratitude nevertheless. Now, at last, came Die Meistersinger, my first opportunity to see the Deutsche Oper’s current production, new last year, from Jossi Wieler, Anna Viebrock, and Sergio Morabito. 

There are good ideas, here: often, if not always, well achieved. That the most overt and complex instance of cultural nationalism in Wagner’s dramatic œuvre should, in the wake of subsequent German history, be a site of controversy, even of discomfort, should not itself be controversial. It is the least of the debts we must continually settle in the wake of Friedrich Meinecke’s ‘German catastrophe’. That this might yet be controversial in ultra-reactionary circles need not detain us. No, of course, Meister does not mean Herr, and anyone claiming Hans Sachs’s call to honour your German masters is concerned with political domination should be taken no more seriously than the Nazis on this; nonetheless, rightly or wrongly – for me, it would be some of the former, and considerably more of the latter – Die Meistersinger has, like so much else, been tarnished by the ‘catastrophe’ and we cannot simply pretend it has not happened. And so, to frame the action with the wood-panelling of a music school that more than hints at a certain conservatoire on Munich’s Arcisstraße, reminds us, for the most part beneficially, of our historical and cultural duty.


The Hochschule für Musik and Theater – if that be what it is – is as prestigious a school of advanced musical instruction as can be found. The building in which it now stands was built between 1933 and 1937 as the Führerbau; if you walk past today, you will see a plaque acknowledging the Munich Agreement, signed there in 1938. What you will not see inside are the Stolpersteine laid down earlier this century; the city of Munich removed them as an alleged fire hazard. The interior may also be familiar – again, I suspect far from coincidentally – to those who have watched Edgar Reitz’s Heimat 2. This is where Hermann and others received their musical instruction and gave many of their performances. Encircling 1968, the hopes it engendered and its bitter aftermath, Reitz’s films inhabit a similar world to that shown here, fashions suggesting (to me) the later 60s or early 70s. Hans Sachs is, of course, in some ways a harbinger of les évènements, though with a healthy does of Schopenhauerian reflection and interpretation that might have given them greater staying power. The hand of historical discomfort is present, then, though it is really up to us, for most of the performance, how much we feel that.

There are shades of Katharina Wagner’s Bayreuth Meistersinger. Not only is this set in a music school and hers an art school; there is some throwing around of shoes, if not so much as at Bayreuth. In this case, that seems, somewhat awkwardly, to be consequent to a realisation that the new setting does not readily permit Sachs to be a cobbler too, yet something at some point must be done with shoes. There are a few other cases where what we see sits awkwardly with what we hear, without proving a productive contradiction. It seems strange, for instance, to have Walther and Eva copulate in two corners of the hall during the chorale, only for him immediately after to apologise, seemingly without irony, ‘Fraulein! Verzeiht der Sitte Bruch!’ Sachs running off with Eva a little while afterwards, having creepily approached her from behind, is at best a bit silly, more Carry On Nuremberg than anything else. The point of gender imbalance and, frankly, violence inherent in the work is better made elsewhere, with female students/apprentices having to resist or endure Magisterial advances, often in full view. Alas, we know only too well now the wrong sort of ‘permissive’ culture that has been nurtured and protected in conservatoire education.


The position of the apprentices and chorus deserves further attention. Since there is no town of Nuremberg here – a different sort of Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg from that of Wieland Wagner – some other solution for the latter needs to be presented. At the close, this, reasonably enough, is the audience for what appear to be final recitals of sharply contrasting quality from Beckmesser and Walther. Earlier on, in place of the guilds, we have what seems to be David’s nightmare, in which the clock (a little too crassly) goes back to 19:33, whose horror is inadequately characterised by ghostly dancing. Likewise, the orgy (free love?) in which the apprentices indulge at the beginning of the second act, though to begin with intriguingly balletic, goes on a bit so as to become frankly tedious. No wonder they slope off in dribs and drabs. Perhaps that is the point, though I am not sure I believe that. More disturbingly, Sachs’s final peroration oscillates between one-sided condemnation and further silliness. His transformation into threatening, at least proto- (or post-)fascist mob leader receives little or no adequate preparation, unless that is why the ceiling lights having been moving around for the entire scene. (It suggests sea-sickness, but I do not think we have moved to the Titanic.) A recurrence of still greater ill-matched dancing may suggest the crowd having fallen under his sway, a warning, but it seems more suggestive of an inability to conclude. This, for me, would benefit from rethinking, as would some loose ends elsewhere.


For the nationalist underpinning and final turn are only one aspect of a multivalent work, whose humanity – yes, one can hear it, and should be unashamed of saying so – ultimately exceeds however one wishes to characterise the above. The idea that a father should seek to award his daughter as a prize in a song contest, even if she may refuse, is of course monstrous, even when we allow for historical difference. But the point, ultimately, is that he does not, and that is Wagner’s doing. We can dispute many issues of gender here; with which nineteenth-century artwork can we not? Yet the pain Sachs and, to an extent, Eva must suffer, and the joy of requited love between Eva and Walther are real and of dramatic consequence. Both, whatever my misgivings concerning surrounding details, are present here. I am not sure the unmistakable sexual element of the former relationship is especially helpful, since its dramatic import is blurred by warnings of abuse elsewhere, but the chemistry between Magnus Vigilius’s Walther and Elena Tsallagova’s Eva is stronger, more all-enveloping, and in its way victorious. That the two elope and do not take part in the concluding minutes, whatever it might mean, seems to me important. Beckmesser does not return either: a relief, for it has surely become too much of a cliché and would have been out of place here. 

Vigilius and Tsallagova both gave strong performances throughout. The former, new to me, is shaping up to be a fine Heldentenor indeed. Golden yet far from unvarying of tone, he also displayed verbal sensitivity and stage presence in equal measure. Tsallagova, whom I cannot recall hearing in Wagner before, proved similarly spirited and adaptable. If there were, understandably, times when Johan Reuter tired a little as Sachs, he soon recovered, and offered a properly complex reading of the character, both for work and production. Philipp Jekal trod the difficult lines of Beckmesserian performance, neither too absurd, nor too dignified, with aplomb: another reading with acute attention to the alchemy of words, music, and gesture. Albert Pesendorfer rarely, if ever, disappoints, and certainly did not here in a big-hearted (bartering the bride notwithstanding) Pogner of great presence. Ya-Chung Huang’s David made much of the uncomfortable bullying and bashfulness his character suffered in this reading, offering fine musical virtues too. Kathrin Göring’s Magdalena was well sung and characterised, as were all of the smaller roles, this group of Masters no mere collective but rather replete with individual voices and temperaments.

After an underwhelming, oddly balanced Overture, thin and dragging, the orchestra under Ulf Schirmer soon got into its swing, all the more impressive in the second and third acts. Without wishing to make any obvious points, Schirmer directed the players (and, more generally, the singers on stage) with inobtrusive understanding and wisdom. If there were inevitably, in a performance of this length, occasional cases of stage and pit falling apart – one unfortunately so in the Quintet – they were soon remedied. Far more noteworthy were a lack of awkward corners and an abundance of musical continuity, very much in the spirit of the work. The chorus was excellent throughout.

A qualified welcome, then, to the first revival of this Meistersinger. Its predecessor was, I think, the last of Götz Friedrich’s Wagner productions to be replaced here in Charlottenburg. I saw it in 2010 and recognise both loss and gain in its replacement. As the work reminds us, though, nothing is for ever and certainly not in art. There was enough here, not least in fine sung performances, to remind me of my love for Die Meistersinger – I shall admit to having shed the odd tear, in the Quintet and in both the Trial Song and Prize Song – and quite how much I have missed it. Work, production, and performances invited us to reflect that we never simply return; nor can or should we ever shed our past. The myth of a Year Zero is as unwelcome as it is chimerical.

Friday 17 November 2023

A Tale of Two Overtures: Hasse, Mozart, and the Habsburgs

First comes the Overture to Il Ruggiero, Johann Adolph Hasse’s – and Pietro Metastasio’s – final work from Orlando furioso. Originally commanded by Maria Theresa for the marriage of Maria Antonia/Marie Antoinette and the French Dauphin, the work's libretto was not completed in time, so it served instead for the 1771 marriage of the Empress's son Archduke Ferdinand Charles, Governor of the Duchy of Milan, to Maria Beatrice, daughter of Ercole (Hercules) III d’Este, Duke of Modena, and his estranged wife, Maria Teresa, Duchess of Massa and Princess of Carrara in her own right. As heiress to four further Italian territories, Maria Beatrice offered an advantageous match for the Habsburgs, and had originally been intended for one of Ferdinand's elder brothers, Archduke Peter Leopold (now Duke of Tuscany and later Emperor Leopold II). Ferdinand and Maria Beatrice had been engaged since childhood, the treaty thereby concluded recognising Ferdinand as Ercole's heir. (The French Revolutionary Wars would prevent Ferdinand from ever succeeding to Modena).


Notwithstanding the connection afforded by Ariosto’s time at the Este court in Ferrara, Ruggiero was held to show neither composer nor librettist at his best. Now gout-ridden and in his eighth decade, Maria Theresa’s old music-master and longstanding favourite composer was eclipsed by the success the following day of a second commissioned opera, from the sixteen-year-old Mozart and Giuseppe Parini: Ascanio in Alba. The two productions had three singers in common: the soprano Antonia Maria Girelli Aguilar, the castrato Giovanni Manzuoli, and the tenor Giuseppe Tibaldi. All were past the heights of their careers, yet seem to have fared better in Mozart than in Hasse. Set designs for both were provided by a team of three brothers: Bernardino, Fabrizio, and Giovanni Antonio Galliari. Hasse’s alleged remark, ‘Questo ragazzo ci farà dimenticar tutti’ (‘This boy will render us all forgotten’), rings with poetic if not incontrovertibly historical truth.

A new production of Ascanio will open next month in Frankfurt; I should be there to review it. Maybe one day an enterprising company or festival will offer the world a second opportunity for comparison and contrast.

Saturday 11 November 2023

West-Eastern Divan Ensemble/Barenboim M. - Hindemith, Carter, Hensel, and Beethoven, 9 November 2023

Pierre Boulez Saal

Hindemith: Trauermusik for viola and strings
Fanny Hensel: String Quartet in E-flat major
Carter: Au Quai for bassoon and viola; Duettone for violin and cello
Beethoven: Septet in E-flat major, op.20

Michael Barenboim (violin, viola)
Miriam Manaserhov (viola)
Assif Binness (cello)
David Santos Luque (double bass)
Daniel Gurfinkel (clarinet)
Mor Biron (bassoon)
Ben Goldscheider (horn)

Images: Peter Adamik

9 November is a date full, too full, of resonance for German history. From the proclamation of the Republic in 1918 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it takes in also the Munich putsch of 1923 and the November pogroms of 1938. At the best of times, whenever they might be, it is impossible not to feel conflicted and at times close to overwhelmed by the imperatives of remembrance; and these, I hardly need add, are anything but the best of times. On the 85th anniversary of what English-speaking countries still refer to as Kristallnacht, although in Germany the term is now generally held to conceal the full horror of what happened that night, even the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble playing Beethoven might have struggled to impart much in the way of hope. Yet somehow, ultimately, these musicians did: not in the sense that they offered a solution to our world’s cruelty, carnage, and apparently irredeemable darkness, whether then or now, of course not. As Daniel Barenboim, co-founder with Edward Said of the orchestra from which this chamber ensemble draws its members, noted in a typically inspiring piece written for the programme, they ‘never intended … [it] to be a political project. It was always a humanistic one, a call against ignorance. It may have seemed like a utopian idea then and perhaps appears even more so today.’

But that they were still here at all, let alone playing, listening and responding was something—and increasingly so. ‘Here, in this building, this utopia,’ Barenboim continued, ‘is alive every day. Our young musicians, whether they come from Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Damascus, or Cairo, work and study under the same roof and learn to listen to each other, in music just as in daily life—something that is impossible in their home countries. It takes courage for them to be here.’ It does indeed, and their courage as well as their broader example offers an example to the audience too, although it is for us, not for them, to lead our struggle to listen rather than merely to hear.


A late addition to the programme was Hindemith’s Trauermusik: in Barenboim’s words, ‘our collective expression of grief, but also of hope’. And so it sounded; so it felt. Indeed, the sadness in the first of its four short movements seemed almost unbearable. Was it ‘there’, in the work, or was it what we brought to it? Impossible to answer, and not the most relevant of questions. Michael Barenboim, leading from solo viola, and a string quartet representing Hindemith’s orchestra inhabited the composer’s universe fully, dignity of craft, ensemble, counterpoint, and harmony, and what they might mean to the fore—and beyond that, the universal musical imperative to listen. Hindemith’s use of music from Mathis der Maler reinforced all the more the importance of witness against fascism, against murderous, antihuman ideology. Crisis tends to reinforce what is essential, if only we will take time to find out. Inner movements’ lyricism in particular grew out of that early material, a necessary, human development. The final chorale, ‘Für deinen Thron tret ich hiermit’, offered not triumph, but modest climax in human fragility. It was met with prolonged silence and, eventually, respectful applause. 

Fanny Hensel’s 1834 E-flat major Quartet was an interesting choice, its first movement, ‘Adagio ma non troppo’, opening again with nobility and dignity. Was the sadness with which it seemed to be imbued…? We have already answered that question, or rather observed that answer there can be none. At any rate, the proportion of time spent in the minor mode seemed fitting. Expansive, without dragging, the quartet, again led by Michael Barenboim, seemed very much to have its measure, subtleties telling without exaggeration. The following Allegretto comes closer to Mendelssohn, though it is perhaps both a little more conventional yet also quirkier. Beethoven too came to mind at times (as he often does in Mendelssohn’s own quartets too). There was scope for considerable virtuosity, well taken, within a collegial framework. An eloquent account of the ‘Romanze’, Barenboim first melodist among equals, again permitted reference to other composers, Mendelssohn and Mozart among them, without ever being reducible to them and their ‘influence’. The finale came as close as anything had yet done to good cheer. Sometimes smiling, sometimes sterner, even vehement, it offered plenty of light and shade in a finely directed performance.


Either side of the interval came two short works by Elliott Carter. Barenboim’s viola and Mor Biron’s bassoon were very much equals in Au Quai from 2002, Carter a still relatively young 93 at the time of writing. A game of post-Webern ping-pong led to almost Stravinskian melodic flowering, not that the music ever sounded ‘like’ either. Instead, it emerged as something akin to a reinvention, as it were, of a Bach Two-Part Invention, and was despatched as well as composed with a good deal of dry wit. For Duettone, Barenboim was joined by the similarly excellent cellist Assif Binness. It is perhaps too easy to romanticise, but this little gem from Carter’s 101st year truly sounded like the distillation of a lifetime’s work, not least with respect to his metrical discoveries and explorations. Within its modest frame – though think again of Webern – it seemed to come close to possessing the weight, contrasts, and journey of a symphony. Every combination of notes, and indeed of other parameters, was both fresh and deeply considered. Here, in two solo lines, was something suggesting comparison with one of Bach’s mirror fugues. 

It is difficult to characterise Beethoven’s Septet without resorting to ‘sunny’, and why try? After all, sun affects us in different ways at different times, and necessarily casts a shadow too. The ‘Adagio’ introduction to the first movement was strikingly expansive, rather as if it were taken ‘after’ Barenboim père, and frankly all the better for it. Neither faster nor slower than it ought to be, the movement as whole offered space for a lightness of touch and responsiveness lying at the heart of ethical and musical challenges alike. Line was present throughout in a performance replete with contrasts and sheer delights. The second movement, taken a little slower than is often the case, again benefited from greater space: heavenly length maybe, heavenly without question. Initially led by Daniel Gurfinkel’s quicksilver, liquid clarinet, it afforded all members of the ensemble opportunities to shine, to support, and as ever to listen and respond. Lilt properly verging on swing, conveyed via excellent textural balance born of such listening and response, characterised the minuet and trio. The ensuing theme and variations, in their transformational variety of instrumental combination similarly proposed a lightly worn moral as well as ‘purely’ musical lesson. Buoyant and in the best sense infectious, the scherzo, led by Ben Goldscheider’s miraculous horn playing, was both directed and collegial. Likewise a finale of stature and character which, like the performance as a whole, never forgot the sheer enjoyment to be had from such music, enjoyment that spilled into an encore performance of the Scherzo from Schubert’s Octet.


To return to Daniel Barenboim’s words in the programme, ‘We must, want, and will continue to believe that music can bring us closer together as fellow human beings.’ For all who continue to believe, there is no alternative.

Friday 3 November 2023

BPO/Petrenko - Mozart, Berg, and Brahms, 1 November 2023


Mozart: Symphony no.29 in A major, KV 201/186a
Berg: Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6
Brahms: Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Image: Frederike van der Straeten

As his wont, Kirill Petrenko, offered readings of three symphonic works with the Berlin Philharmonic that were in many ways refreshing, certainly rethought, beholden neither to hidebound tradition nor to fashionable novelty. First was Mozart’s A major Symphony, KV201/186a, especially interesting to hear in the light of the orchestra’s all-Mozart concert with Riccardo Minasi the previous week. Last played by the orchestra in 1997 (!) under Daniel Barenboim, it was more than time for it to return to their repertoire. Using a slightly smaller orchestra than Minasi (strings to Petrenko elicited warm, stylish playing and a similar display of the virtues of antiphonal violins, nowhere more so than at the opening of the first movement. He was unafraid to make small adjustments to fine-tune the balance in real time, without falling prey to fussiness. Articulation was excellent. Perhaps Petrenko was more concerned with symmetry here than overall dynamism, but that was to change in an excellent account of the second movement. To begin with, I wondered whether the playing might be too delicate, even Meissen-like, but it was a starting point for development, led as much by the miniscule wind section (just two oboes and two horns) as by the strings. The minuet successfully trod the tightrope of courtliness and one-beat-to-a-bar, Petrenko taking care over individual beats within. A slightly awkward non-transition to the trio, which itself relaxed perhaps a little too much in context, could soon be forgotten. Here and in the finale, Petrenko knew when it was unnecessary to conduct, this movement being very much what Mozart specified: ‘Allegro con spirito’, with not a little vigour. 

Musicianship at least as fine was to be heard in Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Petrenko clearly having thought out both their individual and overall progress, communicating them with clarity and conviction to orchestra and audience. The opening of the first may have sounded more ominous and inchoate in other hands, but this reading had its own logic and roots, as much in German Romanticism – not only Mahler, but at times as early as Mendelssohn – as in Expressionist horror. Moreover, its considerable contrasts left a decided sense of having only just begun: just, one might think, as a ‘Präludium’ would suggest. The opening of the second was arguably more mysterious, or at least quizzical, with more than a hint of the world of Wozzeck’s Marie, perhaps even an advance flirtation with Lulu. It certainly danced as Wozzeck can and should, amidst a Mahlerian sense of ultimate danger. Was its close too carefully, even clinically calibrated, at the expense of something rawer and deeper? Perhaps, but if so it was a minor fault in largely the right direction. Balances in this work are extremely difficult both to assess and to communicate, as Pierre Boulez would always aver. The menace of that movement was picked up and developed in the closing ‘Marsch’. It was striking how much here sounded like chamber music—and only because it is. Protean yet directed, this account rightly had rhythm emerge from within, as opposed to being somehow externally applied to melodic and (especially) harmonic material. We expect that in Webern and should do equally in Berg, but it is far from always the case. There was something terrible on the horizon, and suddenly, albeit well prepared, it was well-nigh upon us. By the end, we found ourselves unambiguously in the hinterland, arguably the world itself, of Wozzeck. What occasionally I had found lacking earlier had in most cases been withheld as preparation for that transformation.     

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony could hardly be more central to the orchestra’s repertoire. Since it first performed the work in 1886, conducted by Joseph Joachim no less, there have been recordings from Furtwängler, Karajan, Abbado, and Rattle, as well as a good number of guest conductors. Petrenko himself has already performed the symphony with his orchestra, in 2020; it would be unsurprising if a recording were in the offing before long. This reading was again in some ways unexpected, though coherent and justifiable. Brahms marks the first movement ‘Allegro non troppo’. To my ears, the ‘non troppo’ modification might have been more present, but one can argue endlessly and fruitlessly about such matters. On its own terms, it worked, and that counts for more. A first movement that began (knowingly?) with a translucency that seemed to recall that in the first movement of the Mozart was in some ways curiously bright, even optimistic, for one of the most purely tragic of all symphonies. It had scope to darken, and to play with many shades in between, much of that fulfilled; yet, without sounding ‘wrong’, that was afar from the abiding impression in a reading that again seemed to owe much to Mendelssohn (more, interestingly, than Schumann). Exhaustion at the end of the development, a familiar device of Mendelssohn, could in this respect be heard in new light, preparing the way for a more turbulent recapitulation and, finally, true, desperate fury in the coda, enhanced considerably by the Berlin strings and that timpani roll (Vincent Vogel). 

An uneasy truce was called in the second movement, stentorian opening horn call and softer pizzicato response from the entire string section mediated by woodwind. The reconciliation effected was always fragile, sometimes even fragmenting, yet conceptually and emotionally necessary. The depth of string consolation in the face of attacks upon it was deeply moving, as if the spirit of a single viola had been assumed by that section as a whole, whilst maintaining chamber-like variegation. There was something of the North Sea to the movement as a whole, more full of colours and prospects the closer one listened, without relinquishing its necessarily forbidding nature. The third movement was ambiguous, as doubtless it should be: at times quite brutal, though never monochrome, always highly energetic. Its brief trio section proved almost extreme in its relaxation by contrast. 

The coming of the finale struck a proper note of, if not archaism, then of haunting by the past, at least as far back as Schütz. Bach’s cantatas seemed a constant presence, and perhaps surprisingly, a frighteningly oppressive one. Sébastian Jacot’s flute solo was every bit as desolate as it should be, but nothing was taken for granted. In Petrenko’s hands, this sounded more a sequence of variations (which, of course, it is) than a Furtwängler-like inexorable flow. Moreover, whilst undeniably climactic, it seemed over rather quickly, not so much on account of tempo as relative lightness of touch. It was, then, a somewhat classical finale: not quite the tragic pay-off many of us will have expected, but certainly of a piece with the overall conception.