Friday 30 June 2023

Stile Antico - ‘England’s Nightingale’: Byrd, Morley, Philips, and Tomkins, 29 June 2023

Temple Church

Byrd: Emendemus in melius
Byrd: O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth; Sing joyfully; ‘Great Service’: Nunc Dimittis
Byrd: Vide Domine afflictionem nostram; Haec dies quam fecit Dominum; Ne irascaris, Domine
Byrd: Retire my soul; Ave verum corpus; Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes; Optimam partem elegit; Factus est repente; Mass for Four Voices: ‘Agnus Dei’
Morley: Domine, Dominus noster
Philips: Ecce vicit Leo
Tomkins: Too much I once lamented
Byrd: Laudibus in sanctis

Temple Music’s William Byrd Festival, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the composer’s death, offers two lectures, three services, and four concerts. Prior commitments mean I have had to restrict myself to two of the concerts, but if the rest is anything like this opening event from Stile Antico, listeners would be well advised to flock to the Temple Church now. Bookended by two Latin motes from the Cantiones sacrae (1575 and 1589 incarnations), the rest of the programme took a broadly thematic tour through Byrd’s life and career, offering four sets: ‘“A good egg” – Byrd, the loyal subject,’ ‘“The caged bird” – Byrd, the Catholic at court,’ ‘“A country nest” – Byrd the Essex Gentleman,’ and finally ‘“Under his wing” – Byrd the “much reverenced master”.’ 

The opening Emendemus in Melius made for a splendid concert introit, Stile Antico’s sound warm and rounded, doubtless assisted further by the Temple acoustic—and, of course, by Byrd’s music itself. Indeed, it was difficult not to believe whilst listening that any composer, even Bach or Mozart, could offer a more excellent balance between harmony, counterpoint, and momentum. Inner points, subtly yet tellingly prominent, proved a thing of wonder in themselves. 

A more overtly Anglican – at least to us, if the anachronism might be forgiven – Byrd was to be heard in the following three pieces. O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth has additional resonances for us, of course, not least in the wake of last year’s departure of the second Elizabeth. It received a fine performance here, again of considerable warmth, with finely judged dissonances, none of which eclipsed a proper sense of direction. Sing joyfully, coming from three decades later in the 1590s, reprised for the baptism of James I’s daughter Mary in 1605, had a smaller ensemble of six solo voices: animated and, yes, joyful, it was finely, not fussily, shaded, for instance on the psalmist’s exhortation to ‘blow the trumpet in the new moon’. The other ensemble members returned for a Nunc dimittis from the ‘Great Service’ with an apt sense of eventide peace, a ravishing surge of light for ‘thy people Israel’, and a warmly enveloping doxology. 

Three Latin motets from the Cantiones sacrae followed: works not for public worship, but private devotion (and connoisseurship). Vide, Domine, afflictionem nostrum and Ne iracaris, Domine, both implicitly comparing the fallen Jerusalem to the condition of the Roman Catholic Church, brought with them a sense of weight, even grief, balancing the latter with not a little defiance. The latter, dark, plaintive, yet illuminated, managed to inform our own very different current causes for grief more than four centuries later, its astonishing harmonies biting as if yesterday, yet never for their own sake, as one might hear in, say, Gesualdo. ‘Expression’ may mean something different today, but one could persuade oneself – Byrd, even, could persuade one – that it was close enough. In between, the Easter Haec dies quam fecit Dominus was relished for its madrigalian style and contrasting brightness of mood and message.

Following the interval, we moved to Byrd’s later years and to music probably written for recusant performance in the Catholic chapel of Byrd’s patron Sir John Petre in Stondon Massey, Essex. To quote Andrew Griffiths’s programme note, ‘The music of Gradualia,’ Byrd’s complete cycle of music for Catholic feasts, ‘could hardly be more different to the Cantiones motets. It radiates confidence...’ First, though, and from a distance, we heard the elegiac Retire my soul, Byrd setting his own words of final reckoning, from his final publication of 1611, the Psalms, Songs and Sonnets. Distance certainly lent enchantment here, not that that was lacking in what followed either. The Ave verum corpus, with its celebrated calls of ‘miserere mei’, their dissonances, and their resolution received a performance both rich and sad, as did the Agnus Dei from the Mass for Four Voices at the other end, its patient unfolding especially fulfilling. In between came a well-judged contrast of praise in the Laudate dominum, a sweet fruit of intimate Marian devotion, Optimam partem eligit, and a breath of fresh, Pentecostal air, replete with animating, transformative joy in the brief span of Factus est repente.  

Music from the next generation brought, as one might expect, both affinity and contrast. Thomas Morley’s Domine, Dominus noster the work of a young composer strongly influenced by the older master, though surely in the line of other English composers too. Its method of unfolding and its dissonances marked the former. Peter Philips’s Ecce vicit Leo showed a Roman Catholic escaped to more favourable Continental climes, its Italianate style very different. Thomas Tomkins’s madrigal, Too much I once lamented, made for a subtle tribute from a small consort (just five voices). The final Byrd Laudibus in sanctis proved a rich, many-voiced song of praise, letting, as its text has it, the ‘harmonious psalteries with fine string sing of Him, … the joyful dance praise Him with nimble foot.’ As an encore, Thomas Weelkes’s Hosanna to the Son of David recognised another fine English composer deceased in 1623.

Thursday 29 June 2023

Woman at Point Zero, LOD muziektheater, 28 June 2023

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Fatima – Dima Orsho
Sama – Carla Nahadi Babelegoto

Lalla Soliman (director)
Loes Schakenbos (lighting)
Eli Verkeyn (costumes)
Bissane Al Charif, Julia König (scenography, video design)
Aida Elkashef (documentary audio fragments) 

Ensemble Zar (taegŭm – Hyelim Kim; accordion – Miloš Milivojevič; recorders, crumhorn, fujara, duduk, kaval – Raphaela Danksagmüller; shō – Chatori Schimizu; kamancha – Faraz Eshghi Sahraei; cello – Hanna Kölbel; keyboard – Samir Bendimered)
Kanako Abe (conductor)

Woman at Point Zero is an hour-long opera by composer Bushra El-Turk and librettist Stacy Hardy, based on the novel by the great Egyptian writer and feminist Nawal El Saadawi. Saadawi’s protagonist Firdaus, whom the author met in Qanatir Prison, becomes Fatma, a sex worker imprisoned for murdering her violent pimp, the latest in a long line of violent, abusive men that began with her father and uncle. Fatma finds freedom in her sentence and, to the bewilderment of her interlocutor, film-maker Sama, does not want it reduced. Instead, she wants Sama to make art, something beautiful, out of it.

The metatheatrical element is clear, meaningful, and nicely open-ended; it unfolds very well im Lailo Soliman's resourceful production. I shall admit to having doubts about certain parts of the work ‘itself’, though perhaps those doubts may at least partly be ascribed to my looking and listening for the wrong things, for wanting the work to be something other than what it was trying to be. The instrumental ensemble, onstage, becomes something akin to a multicultural Chorus, its encounters to my ears some of the most consistently interesting. Cityscapes and other locations, settings metaphysical as well as physical, are conjured up through those encounters, added to by Aida Elkashef’s documentary audio fragments in Arabic. If Raphaela Danksagmüller is especially busy, moving between recorders, crumhorn, fujara, duduk, and kaval, the sounds and blends of taegūm (large Korean bamboo flute), accordion, shō, kamancha, cello, and keyboard work like a dramatic cauldron of ever-transforming brew. 

Vocal writing, notwithstanding highly accomplished and charismatic performances by Dima Orsho and Carla Nahadi Babelegoto seemed to me at times less convincing: often oddly ordinary and slipping between different registers (speech, arioso, song, etc.) in a way that sounded oddly clumsy, although perhaps that was the point. Ultimately, the pacing of Hardy’s libretto may have been at fault here, though it will surely have led many to discover the original novel for themselves. Disinclination to attempt something more traditionally ‘operatic’ must have been a choice, a perfectly justified one; I am  not troubled by such lack of conformity, far from it. Doubtless others will have been less troubled by the flattening use of microphones than I was. That the quick pace, paradoxically, made for quite a long hour, whose ‘beautiful’ creation, to return to Fatma’s urging, seemed largely limited to the instrumental writing nonetheless seemed, on the face of it, a pity. 

This production, by Ghent-based LOD muziektheater, co-presented as part of the Aldeburgh Fetsival and Subbak Festival 2023, has also been seen in Antwerp, Bruges, Aix, and Luxembourg. These Linbury performances, running until 30 June, are part of the Royal Opera House’s fourth Engender Festival, which is certainly succeeding in bringing together a host of voices, from within and without the world of opera.

Tuesday 27 June 2023

Pollini - Schumann and Chopin, 23 June 2023

Royal Festival Hall

Schumann: Arabesque in C major, op.18; Fantasie in C major, op.17
Chopin: Mazurka in C minor, op.56 no.3; Barcarolle in F-sharp major, op,60; Scherzo no.1 in B minor, op.20

Maurizio Pollini (piano)


‘Who is the world’s greatest pianist?’ is a silly question, although human beings have long been prone to ask and indeed to answer silly questions. So long as it remains at the level of the parlour game, it probably does no great harm, though it is unlikely ever to illuminate either. For more than half a century though, Maurizio Pollini has stood as one of the world’s greatest: not merely, or even principally, from the standpoint of technique, awe-inspiring as that long was, but as a musician of penetrating intelligence and insights, committed equally to classical and new repertory. Whether in Beethoven or Boulez, Chopin or Stockhausen, Pollini at his best might occasionally be equalled, yet, allowing for vagaries of taste and opinion, never surpassed. 

More recently, that fabled technique, out of which were born and formed performances of white-hot intensity, has proved more fallible. It has sometimes taken Pollini a little time to ‘get going’ in a recital, though the second half and encores have at least tended to show him still at his best. This Festival Hall appearance, postponed from earlier in the year, offered uncomfortable listening – and viewing – yet ultimately proved a triumph of the human spirit, one that involved audience warmth, involvement, and encouragement too. There were flashes and sometimes more than that of the younger musician alongside the memory lapses. As we progressed towards the end of the recital, aided now by sheet music and a page turner, Pollini showed something far more valuable than the sort of interchangeable, note-perfect feat of virtuoso execution one might hear from some. For those of us who have grown up with him, it was an evening of very mixed emotions, but it was ultimately a chance to remember the journey we have taken with him, how much we have learned from it, and how much we shall continue to do so.

Schumann’s Arabeske suggested Bach led in new clothes into the age of Romanticism. The whiteness of C major sounded pristine, rare, and yet far from vulnerable, possessed of a strength belying so much. Florestan and Eusebius presented themselves and did varied battle throughout the work’s episodes and return. The epilogue in particular was truly touching: light yet decisive in piercing of the heart. The Fantasie opened with a sense of its greater scale and ambition, reference seemingly made as much to the venerable history of the keyboard fantasia as to Schumann’s more obvious points of closer reference. There were passages of high Romantic vehemence when poise returned, though ultimately a performance of the whole was not to be. That setbacks had neither pianist nor audience give up, though, was something in which to take solace and always to remember. 

A plain-spoken Chopin Mazurka in C minor opened the second half, sadness seeping through as it must. Repeated rhythms and chromatic inflections took on greater, metaphysical meaning in context. In the Barcarolle, the waters rose once again, the gondola took flight, and surveyed familiar yet ever-strange landscapes, perhaps for the last time. One never knows—and for that reason should always make the most of what one has. The B minor Scherzo presented tumultuous flashes of old: in part muscle memory, doubtless, for there will always be something of that in any performance. But it was not only that; anger, tenderness, and more came to the surface via a cantilena that was unquestionably the real thing.

Friday 23 June 2023

Debargue - Scarlatti, Chopin, and Alkan, 22 June 2023

Wigmore Hall

Scarlatti: Sonatas in A major, Kk208 and Kk24; in D major, Kk491; in D minor, Kk141
Chopin: Ballade no.2 in F major; Prelude in C-sharp minor, op.45; Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major, op.61
Alkan: Concerto pour piano seul, op.39 no.8: ‘Allegro assai’

Lucas Debargue (piano)

Lucas Debargue has built a considerable reputation, both as pianist and composer, over the past few years. I have yet to hear his own music and this was my first encounter with him as pianist. Much in the first half of this Wigmore Hall recital, devoted to Scarlatti and Chopin, puzzled me, though a large audience reacted with great enthusiasm. It was in Alkan that he seemed most at home to me; or perhaps I should say it was with his Alkan that I felt most at home. For knowing now that Debargue is a composer as well as a performer, my sense that much of the Scarlatti and Chopin edged towards paraphrases, albeit using (almost) all the notes provided, on original works rather than performances of the works ‘themselves’ makes more sense. There is room for many approaches to repertoire and performance, and the polite, disarming way Debargue spoke, at the beginning of the second half, concerning Alkan left one in no doubt concerning his sincerity and dedication.

The four Scarlatti sonatas with which the programme began can rarely – no, never – have sounded like this from any other performer, regardless of instrument. I was intrigued by the beginning of Kk208: it sounded pristine, if often bizarrely deliberate. A sudden crescendo and quick withdrawal of that extra volume offered contrast, even if I struggled to understand why. It was pianistic and rhetorical, to the degree of well-nigh Chopinesque eruption in the bass, if not in a vein anyone might have expected. Its A major companion, Kk24, provided frenetic contrast, until falling into reverie. What I missed above all was harmonic rhythm, often indeed simple rhythm, but perhaps I was missing the point. Kk491 in D major was still highly inflected, though more recognisable and with greater momentum. There was no doubting the beauty of Debargue’s touch here, whether with utmost delicacy or fullness of tone in Scarlatti’s Iberian strumming of guitars. If Kk141 at times sounded more like Liszt or Bartók, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that; all three composers were poets of their instrument, clearly an aesthetic that appeals to Debargue as creative, as much as re-creative, artist. I wished it had settled, just once, so that I could have a sense of where it was going and where it had come from, but again perhaps that was the point. Mahan Esfahani’s immersive harpsichord recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last autumn seemed to me far closer to performance of the works, without in any sense inhibiting interpretative freedom. Likewise Tamara Stefanovich on the piano earlier last year. But as I said, there is room for many. 

Chopin’s Second Ballade began with a greater sense (to my ears, at least) of line, although soon it also began to sound all too manipulated for manipulation’s sake. The idea of letting musical works speak ‘for themselves’ may be a chimera; it may be an undesirable chimera at that. It came to my mind more often, nevertheless, than I might have wished. The C-sharp minor Prelude, op.45, still seemed listless or dreamlike, according to taste, but line was stronger again, as if this were a dark, yet moonlit improvisation. This I could certainly admire, even if it is not remotely how I hear it. With the Polonaise-Fantaisie, there was an undeniable fascination to what Debargue did with it, but a strangely distended reading, whatever the pianist’s evident conviction, left me bewildered. 

The first movement of Alkan’s Concerto pour piano seul, a work I confess to knowing far less well, seemed to me to be played much ‘straighter’ and came as relief. Debargue’s careful-yet-not-too-careful distinction between ‘solo’ and ‘tutti’ helped prepare our ears and minds. More to the point, there was always a sense of where the music had come from and where it might be heading. It was, I think, a more ‘Classical’ as well as ‘classical’ reading and far more to both my taste and understanding. Debargue cared for both the formal outline but also the details that contributed to that outline. He also offered a far more varied palette, and much greater variegation of touch and tone. At last, I felt, here was musical development as I (Teutonically?) understood it. Ultimately, this turned out to be a Berlioz-like Romanticism, albeit for the piano, which worked very well. 

As for the first half, I can well imagine Debargue’s approach appealing more to devotees of, say, Ivo Pogorelich and Khatia Buniatisvili than it did to me, though this seemed far less an ‘act’ than that of either. Even when I did not like and/or understand what I heard, it made me think—and there are worse things that. The encore, Miłosz Magin’s Nostalgie du pays, proved simple yet piquant, a loving contrast to what had gone before.

Sunday 18 June 2023

LSO/Rattle - Jolas and Messiaen, 15 June 2023

Barbican Hall

Betsy Jolas: Ces belles années
Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie

Faustine de Monès (soprano)
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Cynthia Millar (ondes Martenot)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Images: Mark Allan

Simon Rattle’s tenure as Music Director of the LSO has been cruelly cut short by English nationalism. The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, together with Theresa May’s spiteful quashing of a new concert hall project on the grounds that it had been supported by her political enemy George Osborne, ultimately proved too much. And who can blame him, with a family in Berlin? There is only so much fighting one can do. If a great city such as Munich made me an offer, I should be off like a shot. Not that London in general or the LSO in particular has seen the last of Sir Simon; he will return as Conductor Emeritus, not least to continue the Janáček opera series whose Katya Kabanova this January was so resounding a success. The world is grim right now; Britain is grim right now. Perhaps, though, we should not entirely despair. Even in straits as dire as these, the LSO and many of our cultural and intellectual institutions continue to punch far above the weight our miserable, philistine rulers accord them. And a concert such as this, Rattle’s last at the Barbican as Music Director, can still prove the equal, even the envy, of the musical world.  

The first part – one can hardly say ‘half’ when it must have come to about a sixth the length of the rest – was a new work by Betsy Jolas: Ces belles années. Given its first performance the night before, so not strictly a premiere, it proved typical of the composer, arguably typical of the musical and broader culture in which she is rooted, in both proving eminently ‘approachable’ and yet reticent in yielding its secrets. The opening, untuned percussion ceding, or perhaps transforming/being transformed into, the sounds of an orchestra neither small nor large, sounded ominous, harmony either playing a surprisingly ‘traditional’ role or pretending to do so. Whether that were play or something more ‘late’ and reconciliatory remained, at least for me, in the balance. It is difficult, of course, not to think of the work of a composer well into her nineties as ‘late’, just as one did with Elliott Carter at that stage and beyond. (With Carter, one found oneself resorting to ‘late late…’ and eventually simply to ‘most recent’.) But here there did seem, however, obliquely, to be a sense of looking back on a life or lives well lived, perhaps as much a tribute, intentional or otherwise, to Rattle as anything else. There was unease in the petering out of rejoicing: sung words and lines, delivered with laser-like, charismatic artistry by soprano Faustine de Monès, and also orchestral applause and foot-tapping.

Were the soprano’s words, ‘for the occasion and without pretension’, quite so straightforward, even anti-literary, as they might seem? ‘Oh, la joie de ces beaux jours. Célébrons sans cesse ces beaux jours, toutes ces belles années, venez, venez, amenez vos amis. Et toi le tout petit dans ton berceau tu viendras aussi. Et vous là-bas qui passez, venez aussi. Chantons tous ensemble, chantons la joie.’ Perhaps, or was there at least a hint of despair or resignation in having reached this stage, whoever the subject may be, only to fall back on them. Who knows? That may be more a question for the listener than the performer. Not everyone, after all, immediately resorts to Beckett or Mahler. The finely crafted precision of Jolas’s writing is difficult not to stereotype as ‘Gallic’. In a way, why should one try, so long as it does not save one the effort – and rewards – of actually listening. If I found less of an infectious sense of play than I often have with Jolas’s music, maybe I shall just have to try harder—and/or listen differently. I should certainly welcome the opportunity. 

No such doubts here concerning Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, though many have had them over the years, not least Pierre Boulez, first among equals in Messiaen’s galaxy of great pupils. Boulez celebratedly or notoriously performed only the three ‘Turangalîla movements’ out of the complete ten, in a 1973 Proms performance of what he once derided as ‘brothel music’. Some brothel! Whilst in many ways a conductor in Boulez’s own line – Rattle’s exploratory programming and collegiality surely bear Boulez’s stamp – Rattle, not so far as I am aware a composer, has broader and also younger sympathies. Indeed, as Boulez once pointed out, prior to conducting an Olga Neuwirth premiere, whilst it might once have made sense for him to declare Schoenberg dead, that was hardly a pressing concern for Neuwirth and her generation.


There were hints, in a good way, of a Boulezian way in Rattle’s performance here. Further laser clarity, ironically helped by the difficult, dry Barbican acoustic which, miraculously, did not overwhelm, was certainly one of them. One could hear every note, every line, every balance—or at least fancied one could. (There is Klingsor-Ravelian magic to Boulez too, after all.) And there were at times signs of a Boulezian ‘modern classicism’, to borrow from Arnold Whittall, which one does not necessarily expect from Rattle. The final movement, indeed, sounded and functioned far more like a traditional symphonic finale than I can recall, earlier performances by Rattle included. Indeed, the work’s unfolding, pli selon pli if you like, was not only remarkably patient and inevitable; it made perfect sense of form and structure in a way I have not always found from Rattle in Austro-German repertoire.

The warmth, though, even in the Barbican was entirely Rattle’s own—well, his, Messiaen’s, and the superlative performers’. Temperature could cool, as in those three ‘Turangalîla’ movements, but the base line was higher, could rise, and did. (Not that Boulez could not be warm too, but in a different way.) The sheer big-heartedness of Messiaen’s vision, as well as its paradoxically earthy mysticism, reaching for the stars and yet penetrating – certainly penetrating – deeper, did not merely came across; it grabbed one by the throat and anything else that took its fancy. Peter Donohoe’s pianism would have been spellbinding in itself, cadenzas scintillating and plumbing depths that brought affinities to Russian composers such as Mussorgsky to vivid light. As part of this orgiastic rite and riot it was all the more so. Likewise Cynthia Millar’s ondes Martenot: so much more than a strange ‘effect’, akin to a continuo gone rogue, whose duetting and ensembles with all manner of other instruments was quite something aurally to behold. Much the same could be said of Elizabeth Burley on celesta and Zeynep Özsuca on keyed glockenspiel. Melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, and a sheer joy in creation to rival Bach or Haydn were both determined and radically free. There were no soloists here; rather all took their place in a zany cosmology both developmental and static, for no and for eternity, of Messiaenic love.

Both LSO concerts were filmed for future broadcast on Marquee TV and Mezzo; this, the last of the two, was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Saturday 17 June 2023

Hänsel und Gretel, Opera Holland Park, 14 June 2023

Hänsel – Charlotte Badhma
Gretel – Laura Lolita Perešivana
Peter – Paul Carey Jones
Gertrud – Meeta Raval
Witch – Eleanor Dennis
Sandman – April Koyejo-Audiger
Dew Fairy – Charlotte Bowden

John Wilkie (director) 
Neil Irish (designs)
Robert Price (lighting)
Michael Spenceley (movement)

Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Dominic Ellis-Peckham) 
Children’s Chorus from the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School (chorus master: Scott Price) 
City of London Sinfonia
Kărin Hendrickson (conductor)

Hänsel (Charlotte Badhma), The Witch (Eleanor Dennis), Gretel (Laura Lolita Perešivana), 
Images: Ali Smith

It is always a joy to return to Holland Park: to Opera Holland Park, that is, the park itself being available all year around. Sometimes, the sense of it heralding summer can seem wildly optimistic; doubtless it did for those initially sampling the year’s first production, Rigoletto. Now that spring has finally not come, winter having suddenly jumped into summer, the season’s second, Hänsel und Gretel, was able to bask in that long anticipated magic of sunshine and warmth gradually ceding, peacock cries and all, to nightfall for the final act. 

Peter (Paul Carey Jones)

Hänsel, of course, is so magical a work that temptation can be to love it too much. Occasionally during the first two acts, I wondered whether conductor Kărin Hendrickson might be heading in that direction: not that, if I am honest, I mind. Someone taking her time is increasingly rare in music of many kinds, and the last thing one wants here is someone rushing us through the opera’s relatively few minutes. If I were to be excessively critical, I might say that there were a very few occasions when the score felt as if it were on the verge of losing momentum, though I am not sure it ever quite did. Instead, Hendrickson was setting up a considerable and welcome contrast with the antics and resolution of the third act, wrapping things up nicely, having allowed us to enjoy the ride. The City of London Sinfonia played like a little more than ‘fourteen angels’. Though a small band – notably smaller (strings 5:4:3:2:2) than we generally hear, and in a trickier acoustic too – they offered a dynamic and related emotional range to match any. It seemed clear that they enjoyed playing for Hendrickson—and doubtless to play such ‘late-Romantic’, for want of a better term, music too. If we want to hear the Staatskapelle Dresden and Colin Davis, we can go to the recording, but then we shall miss live performance and magical setting. 

Opera Holland Park Chorus

A likeable, characterful cast added much to the proceedings. Charlotte Badhma and Laura Lolita Perešivana complemented and contrasted each other in just the right ways, vocally and gesturally, as Hänsel and Gretel. Paul Carey Jones’s positively Wagnerian Peter was luxury casting indeed; here is a singer who knows how to make his voice carry, even many yards offstage, and yet there is no lack of flexibility, quite the contrary. Meeta Raval’s revealed a lyric soprano with distinct dramatic flair as Gertrud. Eleanor Dennis had a whale of a time as the Witch, in a performance as well sung as it was acted. April Koyejo-Audiger’s Sandman and Charlotte Bowden’s Dew Fairy eagerly took their chances to shine, as did members of the Opera Holland Park Chorus and a children’s chorus from the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School. Above all, this was a collaborative and sustainable performance. 

Gertrud (Meeta Raval)

For better or worse, productions of this work tend to shy away from its darkest subtexts. John Wilkie’s was no exception here. I admit to not being entirely sure what Wilkie’s concept was. Updated to the interwar years, there seemed in the first scene to be an interest in the family’s poverty, albeit an interest not really sustained. Fairytale, dream-like characters had already appeared in the Overture, lending a sense of mystery; their choreographed return at the end of the second act seemed (at least to me) less motivated. I suspect something psychoanalytical was intended. For whilst this was certainly no militantly traditionalist staging, an overall framework eluded me, as did the significance of the Witch peeling off exaggeratedly ‘feminine’ clothing to reveal a ‘masculine’, albeit highly caricatured military uniform. Fascism, I suppose, though more of a Fawlty Towers variety than something more sinister—or meaningful. In any case, she was soon gone. Perhaps that was the point; if so, it was a distinctly odd one. None of this detracted unduly, though, in what remained a lovely yet never too lovely evening,  sampling ideas that might yet be considered a little more seriously and/or magically.

Tuesday 13 June 2023

Così fan tutte, Grange Festival Opera, 10 June 2023

Fiordiligi – Samantha Clarke
Dorabella – Kitty Whately
Guglielmo – Nicholas Lester
Ferrando – Alessandro Fisher
Despina – Carolina Lippo
Don Alfonso – Christian Senn

Martin Lloyd-Evans (director)
Dick Bird (designs)
Johanna Town (lighting)

Grange Festival Chorus (chorus master: Tom Primrose)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Kirill Karabits (conductor)

Guglielmo (Nicholas Lester), Dorabella (Kitty Whately),
Fiordiligi (Samantha Clarke), Ferrando (Alessandro Fisher)
Images: Craig Fuller

To Hampshire and The Grange for the second of what should for me be three productions of Così fan tutte this summer. I cannot yet comment on Munich (Benedict Andrews/Vladimir Jurowski) but Oslo (Katrine Wiedemann/Tobias Ringborg) makes for an interesting comparison. Both had good casts, though if pushed, I should say The Grange had the edge. Though there were a good few things to admire in conductor and orchestra in Oslo, here the wonderful Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and an inspired Kirill Karabits unquestionably offered the superior experience. It was, however, in staging that the greatest contrast was to be found. Whereas Katrine Wiedemann’s production sometimes verged on the bizarre and failed to add up to more than the sum of its parts, Martin Lloyd-Evans trod a highly ‘traditional’ line. Neither seemed to me especially revelatory, though by the same token, neither lacked positive qualities. Ultimately, though, it was difficult not to conclude that both would have benefited from a greater dose of abstraction – or, paradoxically, even historical specificity – so as to penetrate more closely to the (broken) heart of Mozart and Da Ponte’s extraordinary musical laboratory. 

Here, Così is set somewhere on the Bay of Naples – we see advertisements for visits to Herculaneum and Vesuvius – in the eighteenth century. Nothing wrong with that, of course: we do not need a multi-storey carpark for the sake of it. But whereas, say, Oliver Platt’s 2018 production for Opera Holland Park, one of the best I have seen, used that setting to go further, to venture into the work’s exquisite, sadistic cruelty via the commedia dell’arte, this seems content to stay where it is and to offer an often fresh eye for detail within that framework. There is a nice sense of a world beyond, of a tavern in which intrigue takes place, populated by recognisable human beings. There is a definite ear for music, action often carefully choreographed so as to fit rhythm and even harmony: not at all something we can take for granted, however much we should be able to. That, presumably, was a matter for both director and cast; whoever is responsible should be duly congratulated. I was less sure about the second-act portrayal of Fiordiligi and Dorabella as drunk. I can understand why one might wish to resort to some sort of drug to ‘explain’ their actions, but ultimately that seems to me to miss the point of the action (singular). It certainly, however, chimed with the state of some of the audience, newly returned from the long interval, heartily signalling their approval. There was nothing, then, to scare away the horses, which may well have been the intention.

Karabits and the orchestra, however, provided deeper insight aplenty, in a performance that seemed almost to have come from the golden age of orchestral Mozart. It was probably not faultless; what, apart from Mozart, is? But I cannot recall a single slip, which would usually register with stark clarity in so cruel a score. More to the point, tone was warm and variegated; articulation was telling, without drawing narcissistic attention to itself; and line and tempi proved quite without reproach. Karabits’s equally musical and theatrical reading offered great cumulative power and wisdom, and orchestral soloists played like angels. So often, one fears that orchestral Mozart has been lost forever; Karabits and the Bournemouth SO showed this categorically not to be the case. I am usually a sceptic when it comes to harpsichord continuo playing during orchestral passages. Peter Davies’s contribution was, however, a model of its kind: neither exhibitionistic nor impeding, but rather enabling performance and, briefly on occasion, beguiling too.

Don Alfonso (Christian Senn)

Samantha Clarke impressed greatly as Fiordiligi, her performance truly building towards an explosive ‘Come scoglio’. Kitty Whately, also Holland Park’s Dorabella, proved every inch – note? – her equal, yet properly different in character. Their collaborative chemistry was notable, as was that between Nicholas Lester’s Guglielmo and Alessandro Fisher’s Ferrando, both offering finely sung and acted performance, similarly (yet differently!) differentiated. Da Ponte and still more Mozart offer, in a sense, all that is needed here, yet that is arguably only to beg the question.  Christian Senn’s presented a wily and subtle master of ceremonies in Don Alfonso. Carolina Lippo’s complementary Despina was alert and knowing, no mere caricature, ‘Una donna a quindici anni’ a brilliant welcome back after the interval. Even the chorus, sharply directed by Lloyd-Evans, made an uncommonly fine musico-dramatic mark. If one must choose, it will always be the score; in that respect, we could not reasonably have hoped for better.

Monday 12 June 2023

Roger Peltzman, Dedication, 9 June 2023

Marylebone Theatre

Roger Peltzman’s one-man show Dedication is at once a memorial to family murdered in the Holocaust; a reflection on trauma, both that of his mother, who escaped occupied Belgium, disguised as a nun, and his own, of the New York second generation; and a suggestion of how music might help, if never to heal things that are by their nature unhealable, then to live with them. That, I think, is Peltzman’s personal claim; it has helped him or at least been his companion. He rightly does not make claims to universality; a post-Holocaust world has, quite understandably, felt it cannot and/or should not. This is a personal testimony and all the more moving – and stronger – for that.

It is also, of course, a performance: an idea and reality that frame all that we see and hear, and yet which also offer different ways in for different audiences. Dialogue across the decades with the uncle he never knew, pianist and Chopin specialist Norbert Stern, becomes increasingly the focus—or at least it did for me. It moved Peltzman himself to study the piano and ultimately to make a Chopin recording, partly relived onstage in the here and now, in the Brussels hall in which Norbert had triumphed. There is, both he and his teacher were convinced, a passage in which Peltzman’s performance so takes wing that it ceases to be him and becomes Norbert. Of that they were convinced independently. Following that epiphany, we move to filmed footage of the laying down of Brussels Stolpersteine, in Peltzman’s presence, publicly to commemorate the Stern family. We can, of course, never share Peltzman’s trauma, yet perhaps we can begin to understand it—and even begin to understand traumas of our own.

There was no doubting the varied ways it had affected audience members the evening I attended: this is an hour to have one smile, cry, and think, probably at the same time.

Saturday 3 June 2023

Tiberghien - Sweelinck, Bach, Benjamin, Beethoven, and Mozart, 1 June 2023

Wigmore Hall

Sweelinck: Six Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’
Bach-Brahms: Partita no.2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004: Chaconne
Benjamin: Shadowlines: Six Canonic Preludes for Piano
Beethoven: Thirty-two Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80
Beethoven: Twenty-four Variations on Righini’s arietta, ‘Venni amore’, in D major, WoO 65
Mozart: Piano Sonata in A major, KV 331/300i
Beethoven: Six Variations on an Original Theme in D major, op.76

Cédric Tiberghien (piano)

What variation there can be in variation, especially in the hands of do discerning a pianist and musician as Cédric Tiberghien. From Sweelinck to Benjamin, every performance a jewel, this was a recital as enjoyable as it was ingenious and instructive. 

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’ were imbued with an air of melancholy such as is perhaps more likely on the piano than the harpsichord, the gap between our age and Sweelinck’s paradoxically both more and less pronounced. More important, though, were clarity of line and beauty of touch. Ornamentation told, without distracting. The art of variation had been properly announced, Tiberghien’s second variation boasting pinpoint accuracy and rhetorical flair, his third marrying surface nonchalance with deep harmonic understanding. The fifth emerged as if carved from Carrara marble. All the while, harmony and counterpoint wove their magic. 

Little less than a month earlier, I had heard Benjamin Grosvenor in this same hall play Busoni’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne. Now it was Brahms’s turn; and, Busoni devotee though I may be, I must acknowledge Brahms’s as the finer work. I knew, but even had I not, I am sure I would have heard before seeing that this was left-hand only. Brahms’s stroke of genius in confining his transcription to the piano’s left hand liberates the pianist both to sound more like the violin and, in another paradox, also more like itself; or so it sounded here. Tiberghien’s phrasing and touch were both entirely pianistic – what an array of colours! – and yet entirely communicative of Bach’s own conception. The performance could melt in well-nigh Schumannesque fashion too, again without ever veering away from Bach. The advent of D major proved deeply moving, even stirring, which may or may not be quite the same thing; it built wondrously thereafter too. Ultimately, again, harmony ruled. And the return to the minor offered a tragic acceptance that was equally Bach’s and Brahms’s, the final statement of the theme possessed of a nobility that brooked no response. 

George Benjamin’s Shadowlines, written in 2001, is as its subtitle states, a set of six canonic piano preludes. Tiberghien offered finely etched performances, as if presenting a series of musical paintings coming vividly to life before our ears. (‘As if’ may be superfluous.) Process as well as rhetoric, counterpoint as well as harmony, and so much more helped reveal a deeply Romantic imagination at work. Ghosts from the past – Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez, Webern, Stravinsky – could be heard, yet there was never any doubting the individuality of the principal voice. 

Beethoven’s C minor Variations, WoO 80, rounded off the first half. This may or may not be ‘minor’ Beethoven, but who cares? In a performance that took in a host of experience from the balletic to the visionary, revealing at time surprising affinities with Bach’s Chaconne, a new, little suspected world from this pianist-composer opened up before us. Beethoven sang, scowled, and above all developed in variation. As earlier, Tiberghien’s virtuosity was worn lightly and above all musically, just as in the very little-heard early Righini Variations, WoO 65, probably from 1790, published the following year. Here Tiberghien was at his most charming. He drew attention to individual characteristics and possibilities of different variations – leaning into phrases beautifully in the first, the second proving splendidly eccentric – without trying to make them into something they could not be. Many of the anticipated devices of Classical variation technique were there; they never seemed, though, to be mere devices, and even on occasion offered striking anticipations of the future. Syncopations, particular spacing of chords, the structural importance (and orchestral resonances) of certain intervals, and delicious moments of whimsy: all these and more one could enjoy, just so long as one listened. So too were surprises it was difficult not to think of as Beethovenian. 

Mozart’s A major Sonata, KV 331/300i, opens with a celebrated theme and variations, here given with winning flow and lilt, and for the most part a fine cantabile, save when lyricism gave way to something more percussive. The journey as a whole ‘flowed like oil’, to borrow from Mozart’s own recommendation for musical performance, whilst retaining capacity for incident. The turn to the minor offered pathos without exaggeration, duly dignified, whilst the Adagio sounded intriguingly modernistic in its proliferation: Mozart via Boulez, it seemed. A graceful minuet proved similarly full of character and incident, as did its trio: related, yet quite different, almost a variation in itself. One might say much the same of the Rondo alla Turca, here given with deadpan humour and equally well-timed command of agogic accents. Cannily following with Beethoven’s op.76 Variations, whose theme would later be used for the ‘Turkish March’ for the Ruins of Athens incidental music, Tiberghien gave the work as if it were a programmed encore. Its striking concision, redolent of the Bagatelles and some of the sonatas, revealed similarly good humour. 

For an actual encore, we were treated to a transcription – Egon Petri’s, I think – of Bach’s ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ (for which, exceptionally, we surely all use the English form). As Tiberghien remarked in his introduction, transcription is another form of variation. What we heard was as delectable, as poised, and as exquisitely voiced as anything in a programme replete with such delights.