Wednesday 31 May 2023

Jerusalem Quartet - Mozart, Prokofiev, and Brahms - 30 May 2023

Wigmore Hall

Mozart: String Quartet no.21 in D major, KV 575
Prokofiev: String Quartet no.2 in F major, Op.92
Brahms: String Quartet no.1 in C minor, op.51 no.1

Alexander Pavolvsky, Sergei Bressler (violins)
Ori Kam (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)


A wonderful concert from beginning to end. The Jerusalem Quartet treated Mozart as he should be treated: the players’ tone rich and cultivated. Opening tone would not have been taken for the Amadeus Quartet, yet would surely have been recognised by them. Fineness of tone was certainly no end in itself, though; it enlivened and enabled Mozart’s structures from the first movement onward in coming to life as form. There was rhetoric, where required, but this again was properly integrated, not as far too often a substitute for formal communication. For above all, every phrase was imbued with a sense of life and was formally directed. The cliché of the Classical string quartet as conversation may be too worn by now, but it seemed born anew, rejuvenated by a true sense of the operatic solo, duet, trio, and of course quartet. The Andante breathed the evening air of Mozart’s Salzburg serenades, albeit refracted through a late(r) combination of the vital and the reflective: Così-like, one might say. Kyril Zlotnikov eagerly rose to the regal challenge of Frederick William II’s part: first among equals; or, as his uncle might have had it, first servant of the ensemble. That was all the more so in a stylish minuet, propelled both harmonically and rhythmically, both of the eighteenth century and peering beyond it. Brief withdrawal of vibrato in the finale, for expressive rather than dogmatic reasons, made its point in an account as full of life as I have ever heard. Intimations of Beethoven were clear, emerging from score and performance in the most natural, effortless way imaginable. 

The first movement of Prokofiev’s Second Quartet sounded strikingly folk-influenced, which was not to say folklike (an important distinction, I think, both in work and performance). Origins, putative or imaginary, were relished and yet transformed into something new. Prokofiev trademarks were all there: melodic profusion, side-slipping, even the occasional grotesquerie of old, in a performance that evidently relished the composer, his language, and his individual approach to this hallowed genre. A rapt, even visionary opening to the central Adagio emerged from the intensity of the players’ encounter with the score. The second section’s oddball humour came as release, final darkness offering similarly consequent contrast. The finale likewise emerged out of, yet also in, its predecessor’s shadows, in almost operatic fashion, perhaps filmic too. One could almost see the scenes, of whatever kind, the music might have portrayed—not unlike, say, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Superficial similarities with Bartók served mostly – rightly, in my view – to underline how different his music is. Zlotnikov’s extraordinary cadenza incited a truly impassioned climax from all, before the composer led them on a quite different path – how typical of him – to conclusion. 

Taut urgency, not least in more lyrical passages, was apparent from the outset of Brahms’s First Quartet. One felt his struggle in the first movement and beyond, not least his struggle with Beethoven, motivic and otherwise. This is C minor, after all. The intensity of its close was as if I had never heard it before, prior to subsiding to the uneasiest of peace. There was more rapt, if far from untroubled, lyricism to be heard in Brahms’s second movement. Arguably more idiomatic than Prokofiev’s, it is certainly more typical, if such writing can ever truly be considered ‘typical’. Haunted by a host of German Romantic ghosts, musical and perhaps extramusical, it now placed Schubert first among equals. If that were decidedly ambiguous consolation, the post-Schumann darkness of the scherzo led in the opposite direction, to a chiaroscuro the more wondrous the closer one listened. Its trio offered relief of sorts, yet such relief was immediately complicated, not least metrically, presenting Haydn as an ‘as if…’. Further turns of the screw in the finale ushered in a torrential and ultimately tragic outpouring of absolute finality. 

As an encore, the Adagio from Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor, op.20 no.5, provided sunny contrast, albeit a ray of winter sunshine on the cusp of spring. Poise proved the key, rather than a contrast, to its expressive riches.

Tuesday 30 May 2023

Così fan tutte, Norwegian National Opera, 25 May 2023

Oslo Opera House

Fiordligi – Frøy Hovland Holtbakk
Dorabella – Kari Dahl Nielsen
Guglielmo – Magnus Ingemund Kjelstad
Ferrando – Eirik Grøtvedt
Despina – Eldrid Gorset
Don Alfonso – Audun Iversen

Katrine Wiedemann (director)
Maja Ravn (designs)
Åsa Frankenberg (lighting)

Norwegian National Opera Chorus
Norwegian National Opera Orchestra
Tobias Ringborg (conductor)

Image: Erik Berg

Visiting Oslo for a conference, I was eager to go to the opera if possible, which meant the second night of Katrine Wiedemann’s new production of Cosi fan tutte. Oslo Opera House is just as spectacular a building, setting included, as the pictures would have it. It is beautiful inside too, Norwegian oak trees put to good (I hope sustainable) use in the auditorium, its acoustic as warm as it is clear. 

What, then, of the production and performances? Wiedemann’s central idea seems to me a reasonable one, nothing especially out of the ordinary in terms of an essentially contemporary context, but is ultimately let down by certain details that detract and distract. The central concept is of two young couples starting their lives together, visiting an IKEA store to begin to furnish their new homes (which may be next door to one another, or perhaps that is simply a way of showing them both onstage at the same time). Don Alfonso, the older, wiser employee has seen it all before and decides to put them to a test—just as one would expect. As the drama progresses through the day Guglielmo and Ferrando are bound to follow his directions, we see various urban landscapes—including, puzzlingly, a backdrop that looks far more like a London than an Oslo street—broadly to accompany the time of day: so a trip to a supermarket (or, oddly, a research library), to a night club, and so on. Neither of the oddities mentioned so far especially matters, but they seem typical of a concept that has not really been through, or at least comes across as not having been so. 

The biggest problem, however, lies in the male lovers’ disguise. I initially thought I must be misunderstanding, so unlikely was it that a director would choose to portray then as homeless people. Perhaps this was a local ‘look’ that I was not aware of, or something. But no, disguised in ‘unwashed’ state, they meet Fiordiligi and Dorabella at a metro station, and matters proceed from there. There is no discernible social or political comment here, but various sets of possible implications, none of which it is possible to spin in a non-offensive way. This, I am afraid, needs rethinking, for the fundamental idea of an assembly-kit life, thrown by Don Alfonso’s intervention, has merit to it and surely deserves a better chance, even if the designs are themselves a bit too ‘flat-pack’ for comfort. 

The performances, too, deserve better. A young cast, bar Audun Iversen’s welcome voice of experience as Don Alfonso, threw itself into the intrigue with laudable commitment and considerable results. Frøy Hovland Holtbakk as Fiordiligi and Kari Dahl Nielsen as Dorabella both had the coloratura and knew what to do with it, as well as the ability to spin a fine Mozart line. Loss of one of his arias notwithstanding – this Così was cut to a considerable, even surprising extent – Eirik Grøtvedt tired a little in the second act, but otherwise offered a nicely sung Ferrando. Magnus Ingemund Kjelstad’s Guglielmo was for me the pick of the bunch, his Guglielmo as beautifully sung as it was an animating stage presence. Eldrid Gorset’s Despina was also excellent, without any of the irritations that can sometimes, sadly, accompany performances of the role. 

Tobias Ringborg led the house orchestra in a sensitive, stylish performance—at least beyond an Overture that was both pulled around and hard-driven (all too common in current ‘period’-style Mozart). That the score was thoroughly in Ringborg’s head could be heard as well as seen; whether I agreed with every tempo decision or not, there was always evidence of consideration. It was a pity we did not hear more of the work, but I doubt that was his decision. Quite why, though, the chorus was relegated to tape I do not know: another strange choice on the director’s part, I presume.  

Monday 22 May 2023

London Sinfonietta/Piero, Paterson, et al. - Vivaldi and Grisey, 21 May 2023

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, op.8
Grisey: Vortex temporum

Michael Morpurgo (narrator)
Clio Gould, Oliver Wilson (violins)
Oliver Wilson (viola)
Clare O’Connell (cello)
Jonas Nordberg (archlute)
David Gordon (harpsichord)
Katherine Tinker (chamber organ)
Karen Jones (flutes)

Mark van de Wiel (clarinets)
Paul Silverthorne (viola)
Tim Gill (cello)
Daniel Piero (violin, director)
Andrew Zolinsky (piano)
Geoffrey Paterson (conductor)

All music unfolds in time. Here, two musical works, separated by the greater part of three centuries, in turn explored time’s unfolding. It has become such a cliché to moan about the ubiquity of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that perhaps now it is time, as it were, to welcome it back to the fold. (In any case, apart from telephonic descents into hell punctuated by reminders of the value of our call and eagerness of Corporation X to answer us, we can readily avoid it. I have for years.) It is certainly time to do so if treated to so engaging a performance as this from Daniel Pioro and friends. Comparisons between Baroque music – a well-nigh meaningless term, but anyway – and jazz are overdone, yet here there really was something akin to that spirit of listening and responsiveness on show, Pioro often at most first among equals, sometimes even ready to cede that position, as well as stepping up – and around the stage, as if it visit his colleagues – to the solo spot when the moment seized him. Introduced and punctuated by similarly engaging readings on the four seasons by Michael Morpurgo, this was no ordinary Vivaldi, which is surely the best plan for rescue of these concertos. 

‘Spring’ showed us many things, reminded us of a good few more. The greater prominence assumed by the continuo players, both on account of chamber scale but also their conception both of work and role, marked it from the start, as did Pioro’s camaraderie with his fellow string players. Duetting, trios, jamming: it was all there in the first movement, yet also beyond. If he were more a conventional soloist in the slow movement, such is the material. The third took a folk-like route, Pioro as head fiddler in foot-stomping mood, rock-solid continuo providing rhythmic underpinning. 

Bird-calls of ‘Summer’ came not only from the violin, but also from organist Katherine Tinker’s moonlighting, also prefiguring the world of Grisey. Stormy rumblings and other aspects of the natural world eventually erupted, leaving us with something old and new, known and unknown: perhaps a metaphor for Vivaldi’s cycle as a whole, as well as its modern reception. Jonas Nordberg’s animating presence on archlute for the first movement of ‘Autumn’ again dissolved expectations of genre, writing, and performance. What was Vivaldi here, and what was extemporisation? Why should one care? After the vivid contrasts of the two succeeding movements, ‘Winter’ concluded in vivid pictorial and extra-pictorial fashion. It was still full of surprises, not least an unexpected pedal, above which various solo lines prepared for the final fireworks. 

For Gérard Grisey’s Vortex temporum, Pioro joined the ranks of the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson. If any player were first among equals here, it was pianist Andrew Zolinsky. There from the opening éclat, along with flautist Karen Jones and clarinettist Mark van de Wiel, those instruments’ pulsating sound serving, among other things, to introduce the strings, the piano would close the first movement with a fearsome, ferocious solo. In between, one experienced much of that strange hyper-clarity of sound that seems to come with the best of spectralism. (Like others with serialism, I prefer results to aesthetic.) Out of that, sound itself seemed to re-emerge, transformed and even recreated in the second movement, as we passed from ‘normal’, human time to the ‘expanded’ time of whales. A hypnotic quality to the piano’s descending figure, varied in repetition – dare one say ‘development’? – as enveloped by ensemble penumbra, did indeed suggest Grisey’s titular vortex. 

There and in the third movement, strings elevated us to the world of birdsong and its ‘compressed’ time. They seemed indeed to breathe as naturally as us humans, perhaps more so. Balances, roles, techniques were reinvented before our ears; proliferation remained, unlike that of, say, Boulez, centripetal rather than centrifugal. A universe was not being created, but rather turning in on itself, ‘compressed’. Piero and others had solo moments, but this was even more an ensemble piece, a collaborative effort, than Vivaldi. Or was it? Perhaps it was simply a different way to do something similar, to make music, as indeed we should find in Boulez too. Not only to make music, of course, but to make it interestingly, both as work and performance—and, one hopes, in listening too.

Saturday 20 May 2023

Wozzeck, Royal Opera, 19 May 2023

Royal Opera House

Wozzeck – Christian Gerhaher
Marie – Anja Kampe
Captain – Peter Hoare
Doctor – Brindley Sherratt
Margret – Rosie Aldridge
Drum Major – Clay Hilley
Andres – Sam Furness
First Apprentice – Barnaby Rea
Second Apprentice – Alex Otterburn
The Fool – John Findon
Soldier – Lee Hickenbottom
Tenor Solo – Andrew Macnair
Marie’s Son – Jonah Elijah McGovern

Deborah Warner (director)
Hyemi Shin (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Kim Brandstrup (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Images: Tristram Kenton
Andres  (Sam Furness), Wozzeck (Christian Gerhaher)

Thirty years ago, in Sheffield, a teenage schoolboy saw his first opera in the theatre. It was Wozzeck, directed by Deborah Warner for Opera North. Quite an opera with which to begin, you might say, and indeed in many ways it was, yet why would you wish to begin with something that was not ‘quite an opera’? He knew a little more, though not much, opera not having been part of his childhood or more general homelife, nor indeed of his schooling. Plus ça change… By that time, he had just begun to explore the operas of Mozart, those you might expect: Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. He had also, slightly clueless, speculatively bought a reduced, ‘historic’ recording of Tristan und Isolde from WH Smith and had watched a video, kindly lent by his music teacher, of Die Meistersinger. That, however, was it. He had not yet knowingly listened to music of the Second Viennese School, though that also was suddenly about to change. It is no exaggeration to say that those hundred minutes in the Lyceum Theatre changed his life. 

From 1993 to 2023: an avid (if, born perhaps of that initial experience, selective) opera-goer travelled across another English city for the first night of a new production of Wozzeck, also directed by Deborah Warner, now for the Royal Opera. Full circle? Not really; nothing ever is. Our protagonist has, for better or worse, had numerous experiences, music, dramatic, emotional, and intellectual, since; he is certainly no longer a boy. Yet Wozzeck, which for him ever since has had at least as strong a claim as any to be the single greatest opera of the twentieth century, exerts, if anything, a still greater fascination and admiration, certainly a greater love, than it did then, born of three decades of living with it. How, then, would Warner II fare in circumstances both old and new?

Truth be told, if you spend your time in Wozzeck thinking about a previous production or performance, something has gone wrong (either with you, what is onstage, or both). I did not. In any case, comparisons either with Warner’s first staging or with when I had previously heard Antonio Pappano conduct the work (twenty-one years ago for Keith Warner’s then-new production, in Pappano’s first season at Covent Garden) would largely be meaningless, given the vagaries of memory and my lack of a written record. Deborah Warner in 2023 does not seem to me especially to take a view or standpoint, at least not exclusively. This is not a Wozzeck that (over-)emphasises the brutality of military life and war, or expressionist experimentalism, or any one thing, though many such things are present. The action is already taking place as we take our seats, soldiers (an excellent troupe/troop of actors) relieving themselves in various ways, cleaning up, doing very much what soldiers do in barracks. That establishes an expectation of realism which is not entirely fulfilled, but rather is supplemented, so that as the action develops, as different standpoints are afforded by the work (and probably its creator), we have opportunity to take them too. Everything takes place more or less where one might expect, but there are always refreshing touches of set design, costume, lighting, or detailed Personenregie – let alone the musical performances – to enable us to take a fresh look and listen. The drama unfolds, with great immediacy, yet always it feels that this is ultimately Wozzeck rather than ‘Deborah Warner’s Wozzeck’, whether that feeling, even that possibility, be a fond illusion or otherwise. Different settings for different scenes – no fewer than fifteen of them – present themselves without fussiness or fetishisation: this is a light, enabling, generous realism that can shade almost imperceptibly into other, complementary aesthetics as required. Credit is surely due both to the design team and to the Royal Opera House’s technicians and actors, who accomplished this feat with such apparent ease. Rehearsal surely paid off.


Slightly stylised trees, Cross-like, hint at Wozzeck’s fate, albeit without redemption, but also at a natural world beyond that neither knows nor cares, yet in some sense frames tragedies that lie in stark contrast, being entirely the creation of man. There remains a Romantic desire to escape this miserable world, even if only to Berg’s family estate (Berghof) in Carinthia. Like so much else, though, it is not possible. The blood-red moon and the black, unfathomable lake dominate our vision and consciousness as natural and human boundaries. And finally, in that ultimate, heartbreaking scene of horror: the child turns to the wall in front of which the other children have just been playing, to see painted on it the news they have so cruelly, carelessly delivered. His mother is dead. He turns around and walks off, alone. The drama stops, silence cruelly denied by some idiot’s premature applause—but even that could not quite break the punch to the solar plexus. 

Much of that is, of course, a musical punch. Pappano really seems to be at his best right now. Shortly after thinking his Turandot perhaps the best I had heard from him, I found this Wozzeck at least close to equal, and in ways that surprised me. Without wishing to play that game of illusory comparisons, however tempting, I found this an infinitely more engaging experience than in 2002. Often quite extraordinary orchestral precision, for which one must of course above all credit the orchestra itself, laid bare the framework of closed forms in themselves, their multifarious musical procedures objects of an almost yet not quite Neue Sachlichkeit fascination, but also showed them to be the engines of a dramatic progression that, however Wagnerian it may often sound, is at least as much an alternative to Wagner’s method. There were wrenching, late-Romantic passages, of course, precisely where one would need and expect them, but this was also a musical drama that prefigured Hindemith, Weill, perhaps even Berg’s own teacher, Schoenberg. This was not always a Wozzeck that rose from the bass line, though sometimes it did, but it hinted more than usual at Berg’s later writing, whilst also suggesting an earlier, almost Mendelssohnian Romanticism. Like Warner’s production, it afforded different standpoints, without sounding merely sectional. 

I have been fortunate to see some extremely fine Wozzecks in those years since my first encounter (Andrew Shore on that first encounter included). Christian Gerhaher’s thoughtful, collegial approach, placing himself and his character at the dramatic hub, gaining meaning as much from interaction with colleagues as from his considered yet apparently spontaneous way with the text, has nothing to fear from any of them. His performance, worlds away, as is proper, from the beauties of his celebrated Wolfram, was yet equally well judged. Indeed, I wonder whether it heralds a new chapter in his career. For now, though, it will more than do in and of itself.

Wozzeck, Marie (Anja Kampe)

There was splendid chemistry with his Marie, Anja Kampe. I was about to say ‘we tend…’, but should really only speak for myself: I tend often somewhat to overlook the tragedy of Marie’s death, so overwhelmed am I by that of Wozzeck. Here I felt greater parity, doubtless a matter of Warner’s Personenregie but also of Kampe’s portrayal. (It is more or less impossible for an outsider to distinguish between the two.) This important corrective was brought into further relief by Anna Picard’s excellent programme note on ‘Maria and her World’, whose closing words seem very much to refer to what we saw and heard: ‘She is no Kundry. Neither is she a Judith or the hysterical Woman in Marie Pappenheim and Arnold Schoenberg’s monodrama, Erwartung. Her murder is not dressed up as a form of release for Wozzeck or a point of debate. It is simply a domestic tragedy of a very ordinary, and ever modern, kind.’ Which also brings us back to Gerhaher’s Wozzeck, for his very haplessness – what art lay in that – also contributed to that very non-release, felt (at least by me) more emphatically than I can recall.

Captain (Peter Hoare), Wozzeck

All in the cast contributed to the greater dramatic (and musical) whole, so much as to suggest unusually fruitful close collaboration between all concerned. Sam Furness’s Andres surprised me, not least because I often find myself wondering where the role went, thinking it smaller than I had expected. Not here: this was a character sympathetic to Wozzeck who yet had his own story to tell. Likewise Rosie Aldridge’s spirited Margret, whose spot in the second tavern scene almost had time stand still as the world disintegrated around her. Peter Hoare’s Captain and Brindley Sherratt’s Doctor made a sharply etched pair: guilty, yet not guilty, like all in the world we saw. Well, perhaps not quite all, for it is difficult to find any grounds to absolve the Drum Major, here given an appropriately nasty, bullying, yet finely sung performance by Clay Hilley. William Spaulding's Royal Opera Chorus was on outstanding form too. 

What, then, should a Wozzeck accomplish? There can be no definitive answer, no more than for any artwork in performance. Different productions, different performances, different audiences will all render such categorical statements in vain. If I have learned one thing over the past thirty years, it will be that. That said, if one does not emerge from a performance convinced that it is one of the greatest of all operas – ranking beyond that is a mere parlour game – it will have been in vain. My first experience was not; nor, emphatically was this: a searing and strangely refreshing Wozzeck, which I hope and intend to revisit soon.

Wednesday 17 May 2023

La cambiale di matrimonio, Royal Academy of Music, 16 May 2023

Susie Sainsbury Theatre

Tobias Mill – Charles Cunliffe
Fanny – Luiza Willert
Edward Millfort – George Curnow
Joseph Slook – Johannes Moore
Norton – Duncan Stenhouse
Clarina – Chloe Harris

Sam Brown (director)
Joshua Gadsby (lighting)
Teresa Poças (costumes)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Johann Stuckenbruck (conductor)

Images: Craig Fuller

Rossini’s second opera and his first to be staged, the one-act La cambiale di matrimonio has been given a sparky, polished revival by Royal Academy Opera in the UK premiere of Eleonora di Cintio’s new critical edition. (The world premiere took place last November at the Royal Opera House in Muscat.) A fine team of young performers, ably directed by Sam Brown, made a good case for the piece without (wisely, I think) trying to turn it into something that it is not. Carl Dahlhaus’s far from pejorative claim that there was ‘nothing to understand’ about Rossini’s music, as opposed to Beethoven’s, has come in for a great deal of criticism: much of it seemingly failing to understand the admittedly over-binary opposition Dahlhaus drew. Whatever the truth of that, this farsa comica, to a libretto by Gaetano Rossi, is not the sort of thing one goes to for hidden depths or really for interpretation at all. It is less a case, in that irritating contemporary formulation, of ‘it is what it is’ than, as Dahlhaus pointed out, of being a ‘recipe for a performance’. That is what it received here—and a very good one too. 

Bright designs and zany, sharply executed antics tend to work well in Rossini’s comedies. Here, an initial preponderance of yellow, later joined by other primary colours, set the scene or rather continued it from a similarly perky account of the overture, a vivid curtain-raiser in the hands of Johann Stuckenbruck and the Royal Academy Sinfonia. Indeed, orchestra and singers, conductor and director were splendidly in sync throughout, lightly suggesting that Wagner’s should never be considered the only aesthetic. (For what it is worth, Wagner’s portrayal of Rossini as a purveyor of ‘absolute music’, whilst undoubtedly pejorative in some ways was also admiring, both consciously and unconsciously. It is perhaps better considered as pointing to a fork in the aesthetic road not entirely unlike Dahlhaus’s.) Enough, anyway, of Teutonic musings. The attempt of an English merchant, Tobias Mill, to sell his daughter Fanny to a Canadian businessman Joseph Slook was clearly mapped, with keen eyes and ears for a musical as well as dramaturgical structure and trajectory already prophetic of later Rossini. In a comedy of manners as well as action, English snobbery is mocked, whilst stereotypical portrayals of the foreigner (Canadian rather than ‘American’, as the cast’s spoken cries persisted in reminding the libretto as well as us) are subverted, Slook so appalled by Mill’s actions that he helps unite Fanny and her lover, the bookmaker Edward Millfort and names Millfort his heir. Slook may look brash and act strangely (initially) but his sympathetic character as well as young love win out over old and frankly mercenary ways. The music does not quite all ‘sound the same’, though one can hear why some might say so. The point is surely more that it enables and propels the action in words and gesture; this is not a Gesamtkunstwerk, but nor is it trying to be. 

Charles Cunliffe’s Mill used words (and music) skilfully to create his own predicament. Commanding stage presence did not detract from vulnerability and wounded pride as the story progressed. Luiza Willert’s Fanny was quite outstanding, alert to the tricks of the trade Rossini had already picked up (arguably in some cases created) and how to use them. This is clearly repertoire for which she has a gift. So too does George Curnow, often perplexed (in a good way) yet ultimately victorious as Edward Millfort. Johannes Moore’s Slook truly held the stage, again through a fine blend of words, music, and acting. His journey from larger-than-life foreigner to kindly benefactor was keenly observed and portrayed throughout. Chloe Harris and Duncan Stenhouse similarly both impressed as Clarina, Fanny’s maid, and Norton, Mill’s clerk. Their contribution to ensembles as well as their solo moments underlined that, for all the coloratura, this is an ensemble piece. And that, precisely, is what we saw and heard.

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Agrippina, HGO, 13 May 2023

Jacksons Lane Arts Centre

Agrippina – Astrid Joos
Poppea – Biqing Zhang
Nerone – Katie Macdonald
Claudio – George Robarts
Ottone – Francesco Giusti
Narciso – Hamish McLaren
Pallante – Gheorghe Palcu
Lesbo – Sonny Fielding
Giunone – Lydia Shariff

Ashley Pearson (director)
Sorcha Corcoran (set design)
Alice Carroll (costumes)
Catja Hamilton (lighting)
Douglas Baker (projections)

HGOAntiqua Orchestra
Thomas Payne (conductor)

Claudio (George Robarts), Poppea (Biqing Zhang)
Images: Laurent Compagnon

Cannily marketed as ‘the coronation that goes wrong’, HGO’s Agrippina proved quite the tonic for a May that has still seemed hesitant to acknowledge the coming of spring. Handel’s early opera, written in 1709 for the Venice Carnival, emerged as a considerably stronger work than it did in a starry, somewhat irritating production I saw four years ago in Munich. (Later that year, it came to Covent Garden.) In the small theatre of Jacksons Lane Arts Centre in Highgate, HGO presented a work which, whatever its flaws, cohered and remained open for the audience to bring to it what it would.  

I say ‘whatever its flaws’, because they seemed far more apparent in Munich than in Highgate, so perhaps the flaws lay more with this listener than with the work. Not all the arias are top-drawer Handel; some, in light of the composer’s notorious ‘borrowings’, are barely Handel at all. Few, however, outstay their welcome—or did here, whereas the leaden conducting I heard in Munich led to more than a little consulting of my watch. There, redistribution into two acts had seemed a mistake; here, if perhaps not ideal on paper, it really did not matter in practice and proved an eminently practical solution to a real problem for a modern company, especially one with limited reserves. One must take the genre for what it is, of course, and I doubt I shall ever be convinced that Handel as dramatist is not better deployed in his oratorios, but here the story was told clearly and with intelligence and wit. If I find it impossible to banish Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea from my mind when considering these characters, that is my problem rather than Handel’s. Ashley Pearson and her team’s resourceful production made a little go a long way, projections of social media both conceptually framing the action and marking its progression through time and changing circumstances. Poppea’s following through the power of the image and Ottone’s public esteem on account of acknowledged valour were conveyed with uncanny fidelity through (post-)modern means. Above all, though, the accent in a small theatre lies on Personenregie, and this was keenly, powerfully accomplished throughout.

Agrippina (Astrid Joos), Nerone (Katie Macdonald)

Every member of the young cast contributed to that sharpness of individual characterisation and its place within a greater whole. In the title role, Astrid Joos’s vocal portrayal reminded us that, beyond the scheming, this is a woman fighting with what she has—and who would doubtless be fighting in quite a different way under a different gender dispensation. Biqing Zhang's Poppea presented a similarly rounded portrayal, making her way as she could and, arguably, must. Katie Macdonald captured well the sulky immaturity of Nerone through tone and gesture, deploying coloratura equally well to highly dramatic effect. George Robarts offered a nicely ambiguous Claudio: one never knew quite what to make of him, which was surely the point. Gheorghe Paicu and Sonny Fielding’s sharply etched Pallante and Lesbo, as well as Hamish McLaren’s countertenor Narciso, rounded out the intrigue and its sharply (not in pitch!) shifting terms. For me, though, the more ‘continental’ countertenor of Francesco Giusti as Ottone made perhaps the greatest impression. Fine stage presence was married to a more earthy, even masculine tone and projection than often you will hear, conveying valour and vulnerability in equal measure. Juno’s was very much a guest appearance, perhaps an ‘also starring’ moment. Lydia Shariff a goddess and she knows it—as do the mortals, however elevated, before her. It was a splendid thing to have and enjoy this moment, rather than regret its excision, but then one could have said the same of so much else.

Ottone (Francesco Giusti)

Thomas Payne’s direction of an excellent small band of period instrumentalists both drove and reflected the action. My preference may lie with a modern orchestra, but such were the excellence and commitment of playing here, I could for once quite appreciate the arguments for this alternative. With every player essentially a soloist as well as an ensemble member, there was, moreover, an almost modern sense of music theatre to the enterprise, heightened by proximity of orchestra and stage. For, whatever my particular favourites, this was above all a company effort, company extending beyond those performing to all involved in HGO’s collegial enterprise. As David Conway, HGO’s chairman, said at the beginning, it is here, not in the Arts Council’s absurd vision of opera in car parks, that the future of the art lies.


Ensemble, headed by Juno (Lydia Shariff)

Tuesday 9 May 2023

Keenlyside/Martineau - Schubert, 8 May 2023

Wigmore Hall

Winterreise, D 911

Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

More seasonal than one might expect for early May, Winterreise made for an absorbing close to Wigmore Hall’s coronation weekend (the eve of the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration). Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau were always likely to prove a box-office draw, and so it turned out to be. As for earlier concerts I attended, a large audience made its enthusiasm clear. The British ‘government’ may continue to spurn the arts as much as it does our common European culture; halls, artists, and audiences know and deserve better. 

If it always takes me time to get used to the sound (and pitch) of a baritone in music written for a tenor, that is my problem. Keenlyside’s experience as a guide doubtless underpinned all he did, but one never had the sense he was repeating himself. This was quite an acted performance: not in the sense of plot, but gesture, expression, pacing across the stage, and so on. It makes no sense, at least to me, to be dogmatic about such things; what works works, and this did, a glance or a stare as telling as an accent or a slur. Martineau’s dependability as a collaborative pianist needs no mention from me. His was a quietly – from time to time, rather less quietly – supportive performance, not the sort of Winterreise one hears from a star solo pianist, but one that both responded to and, occasionally, kept in line Keenlyside’s vision. Much was on the swift side; certainly the opening ‘Gute Nacht’ was. And it was largely, though not entirely, continuous too. This may be off the mark, but I felt Keenlyside’s conception and expression of dramatic trajectory was inspired or at least informed by his experience on stage in opera. If it would be a crude exaggeration to dub this a Wozzeck’s Winterreise, it was difficult – why would one try? – not to find and, in this case, to see as well as hear, parallels and connections. 

That opening song, in many ways quite conventionally lyrical, suggested the protagonist’s fate had yet to be sealed, that possibilities remained. At the same time, the final stanza’s turn to the major, only to be cruelly denied at the end, set up a dualism that would progressively be eroded as the journey proceeded. An angry, even hectoring ‘Die Wetterfahne’ made that clear. Focus, or our reception of it, was split, though always within a greater whole. Keenlyside’s controlled delirium in ‘Erstarrung’ was perfectly judged, the closing line ‘Fliesst auch ihr Bild dahin’, had him reach out both in voice and gesture for the image that would melt, should his heart ever thaw. Hallucinatory questioning in ‘Wasserflut’, born of naïveté rather than cynicism, spilled over into ‘Auf dem Flusse’, set against a spareness of piano writing and performance that brought the drama into relief, erupting in a ‘Rückblick’ whose fury threatened to veer out of control, yet never quite did. If ‘Irrlicht’ summed up the Janus-faced impression so far, by turn fresh and damaged, ‘Frühlingstraum’ extended that further to major-minor-uneasy synthesis.    

‘Die Post’ emerged as a mini-drama of its own from a fine singing-actor, the piano speaking as if chorus commentator or even voice of phenomenon against noumenon. The greying of Keenlyside’s voice on referring to the grave in ‘Der greise Kopf’ was an unmistakeable indicator of where we were heading even before the dreadful scene with the crow (‘Die Krähe’). As the piano depicted its circling, the voice told of something more inward, again noumenal. Through the resignation of illusory returns in ‘Im Dorfe’, ‘Das Wirtshaus’, and finally ‘Die Nebensonnen’, it was clear the die had been cast. ‘Täuschung’ embraced that path, solemnised almost liturgically in a moving, well-nigh Bachian account of ‘Der Wegweiser’ and its sorrow. A Papageno destroyed by experience, yet dignified by it, met the organ-grinder in the final song. All the while, the organ-piano played on, oblivious—or was he?

Monday 8 May 2023

Grosvenor - Bach, Schumann, Ravel, and Prokofiev, 7 May 2023

Wigmore Hall

Bach-Busoni: ‘Chaconne’ from Partita no.2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004
Schumann: Fantasie in C major, op.17
Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata no.7 in B-flat major, op.83

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Back to Wigmore Hall, for the second of my three ‘coronation weekend’ concerts there. This evening, it was Benjamin Grosvenor’s turn, presenting a solidly ‘repertoire’ selection of works by Bach (with a little, or more than a little, help from Busoni), Schumann, Ravel, and Prokofiev, and delighting another full audience. 

The Bach-Busoni Chaconne received a stern, granitic reading, alert to its structure and determined to communicate it. The opening statement was presented starkly, almost impassively, as if for organo pleno. It took some time for instrument and pianist to yield. This was definitely Bach – and Busoni – for the Steinway, for its particular colours and capabilities. For there were, ultimately, sections of mysterious liminality, often allied to chromaticism, which gained in that quality by the height of contrast. Grosvenor did not take an easy, nor a well-trodden route, but his performance had its own virtues and rewards, and nothing to prove.

Schumann’s Fantasie opened in similarly forthright fashion, though it more quickly drew back in recognition of one of the many dialectics that lie at the heart of this work. Its first movement was directed, yet with space for digression, communication of structure again to the fore. Integrative tendencies were strong, necessarily so, without flattening difference, motivic integrity quietly coming more and more strongly to the fore. Schumann’s mixture of pride and underlying vulnerability in the second movement’s march theme often puts me in mind, however anachronistically, of Elgar; so it did here, indeed not only of Elgar as composer but also as no-nonsense conductor. Such relative plain-spokenness nonetheless continued to leave room for contrast in the third and final movement. Schumann’s startling anticipations of Brahms’s half-lit futures were given their due, without exaggeration in a patient performance whose patience ultimately paid off. Grosvenor’s path through this difficult, marvellous work was not only successfully presented but vindicated. 

That said, it was in the second half, in which Grosvenor seemed more willing from time and time to let go, that I at least reaped greater rewards. The character of each movement in Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was deeply considered, as was its contribution toward a greater whole. This was not a stereotypically ‘Gallic’ performance, though nor was it unidiomatic; one sensed, rather, that it arose from the notes and from Grosvenor’s desire to act, rather than to impose himself, upon them. A similar directness to that heard in much of the first half characterised the Prélude. Again, it took time to yield, but again it did, subtly—for that was all that was needed. A gently constructivist Fugue followed, the sadness of Ravel’s conception very much growing out of the writing rather than sentimentally applied to it—and thus all the more moving for it. A nicely swung Forlane and an energetically brusque Rigaudon, voicing commendably clear, prepared the way for a Menuet that took its time, benefiting greatly from the space provided. Lightly nostalgic, again not mistaking sentiment for sentimentality, it emerged as the bearer of grief with considerable cumulative power. It and the concluding, exhilarating Toccata, heard very much in the Menuet’s shadow, haunted our present and, one could readily fancy, our past too. 

If there were anger as well as sadness to that pugnacious conclusion, so too was there in the case of another master of the toccata: Prokofiev, in his Seventh Piano Sonata. Here I found an urgency not always so readily apparent in the first half, its virtues notwithstanding. Bold and direct, indeed ferocious, the first movement seemed to recapture the necromancy of the composer’s youth (and indeed of The Fiery Angel). The second movement flowed swiftly, emphasising protean, post-Scriabin qualities that made it sound intriguingly strange once more: rootless in more than one sense. And finally, a toccata on steroids, the celebrated 7/8 Precipitato dash to the close. It was duly relentless, yet not without chiaroscuro that enabled us to hear and, in the white heat of the moment, to feel the composer’s transformation of material.

Sunday 7 May 2023

Levit/Volodin - Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Debussy, and Rachmaninov, 6 May 2023

Wigmore Hall

Schubert: Allegretto in C minor, D 915
Schumann: Arabeske in C major, op.18
Mozart: Sonata in D major, KV 448/375a
Debussy: En blanc et noir
Rachmaninov: Suite no.1 in G minor, op.5, ‘Fantaisie-tableaux’

Igor Levit, Alexei Volodin (pianos)

Two-piano repertoire seems, for reasons I do not fully understand, to appeal more to pianists than to general audiences. The Wigmore Hall was nonetheless full and greatly appreciative for this coronation-day recital from Igor Levit and Alexei Volodin. First, though, we heard two solo items: Schubert from Levit and Schumann from Volodin. 

It was Schubert, in the guise of the C minor Allegretto, who to my ears came off best. A wonderfully ‘sung’ opening phrase somehow managed to sound as if it were responded to by a piano ‘accompaniment’, and so forth, counterpoint proving the means through which the two ‘instruments’ were united. It was a startlingly rhetorical performance whose argument remained coherent, indeed gripping, throughout. And there was an undeniably Schubertian harmonic core to this well-nigh visionary opening. Volodin’s Schumann, the C major Arabeske, began in similarly promising, albeit more conventional fashion. It sounded immediately as one would expect, moments of robbed time and all. Points of detail illuminated rather than distracted. It was, moreover, good to hear the episodes played with due heart on sleeve. My reservations came, however, when they became more wilful, disrupting the overall line. Perhaps, though, that is more a matter of taste than anything else. 

Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos in D major followed. There was much to admire in it, not least a responsorial opening to the first movement that seemed to take off where Levit’s own responsorial Schubert had left us. Tricky balances between contrast and complement were well navigated. Ultimately, though, I found it somewhat unyielding, especially from Volodin, the very opening of the development section a welcome exception. The slow movement was taken with welcome seriousness and attentiveness, though here and in the finale a little more smiling would not have gone amiss. Subtle ornamentation nonetheless proved a welcome addition. There was on occasion a sense of fun to the finale, mostly from Levit, but warmth and affection were in relatively short supply when compared with, say, the hallowed likes of Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich. 

The duo captured well the abstraction of Debussy’s En blanc et noir, without neglecting the first movement’s more obviously ‘poetic’ passages, thereby thrown into greater relief. A due sense of mystery rose in all movements seemingly directly from the keys—and of course the fingers upon them. The dark malevolence of the second movement and a fine sense of aerial suspension in a nonetheless keenly directed closing Scherzando came close to the heart of Debussy’s enigmas, making this unusual work sound more characteristic than is often the case.

Crowning the  proceedings was the first of Rachmaninov’s two suites for two pianos. The opening Barcarolle conveyed from the outset an impression of settled idiom, such that occasional languor could register meaningfully within its bounds. Chopin and Liszt both lay behind the writing, yet one could never reduce what one heard to mere ‘influence’. The two pianists offered an intriguing sense of a more modernist sense of proliferation than that with which we might always associate the composer. Richly Romantic, without indulgence, the second movement was similarly well judged in shape and direction, permitting a sense of the fantastic it is difficult not to stereotype as ‘Russian’ to take flight and form. ‘Les Larmes’ built powerfully and subsided with equal care, founded on a deep-seated sadness that resists verbalisation. The closing ‘Pâques’ showed Rachmaninov in Mussorgskian vein, bells from Boris Godunov sublimated (perhaps not entirely without irony) into celebration of Easter.