Monday 30 October 2023

Neuburger/Boulez Ensemble/Roth - Debussy and Manoury, 29 October 2023

Pierre Boulez Saal

Debussy: Sonata for flute, viola, and harp
Manoury: Passacaille pour Tokyo
Debussy: Sonata for cello and piano
Manoury: Grammaires du sonore

Jean-Frédéric Neuburger (piano)
Boulez Ensemble
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

Images: Jakob Tillmann

Intelligent and revealing programming is always a joy. François-Xavier Roth ranks highly among those conductors regularly offering it. When married to equally intelligent and revealing performances it becomes all the more a joy, such as in this concert from the Boulez Ensemble, founded by Daniel Barenboim to include members of the Staatskapelle Berlin and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Two ensemble pieces by Philippe Manoury were prefaced by two late Debussy sonatas, the formal implications of which were highly suggestive and felt to be such for the Manoury works. 

First, we heard Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola, and harp, an extraordinary work I do not think I have ever heard live before. The combination may be unusual, but surely is not that difficult to assemble; even if it were, it would be well worth the effort. Hélène Freyburger (flute), Yulia Deyneka (viola), and Aline Khouri (harp) struck an ideal balance from the outset between solo and ensemble. The first movement in particular was possessed of a magical inscrutability through which secrets were gradually revealed, first among them the quiet radicalism of Debussy’s reinvention of the sonata, quite without resort to what would become (arguably was just becoming) neoclassicism. For Debussy’s treatment of material already began to peer forward to Boulez and even to Manoury. The Interlude, somehow both darker and brighter, registered with proper contrast. Debussy’s use of the harp fascinated all the more in performance, as it encouraged the viola and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, the harp to expand their means, and initiated transformations of material and mood. Likewise in the finale, beginning in almost ‘classical’ style before taking other paths, not necessarily sequential: another anticipation of the future, bringing Birtwistle as well as Boulez to my mind.


The piano moved centre-stage to Manoury’s 1994 Passacaille pour Tokyo, for piano and seventeen instruments. A similar reinvention of an old form, albeit with more overt éclat, is here founded upon repetition of a note, first E-flat, to which we feel a need to return and indeed continue to hear even when the actual note of repetition has changed. It offers proliferation in a way that recalls Boulez, as it were, from the other end, without the slightest sense of mere imitation. Jean-Frédéric Neuburger’s insistence on the initial E-flat, varying duration and attack, set the scene for an excellent performance of the whole. Manoury’s music glittered and glistened, never glowering, in a fantastical realm of invention. I had a sense of constant transformation even when, on a single hearing, I could not always tell you how, but the relation of this new passacaglia-idea to the old piano device of a pedal-point (or more than one) became clearer as time progressed, all the while as material was thrilling passed between instruments, like high-speed Webern, though in many more directions. The advent of ‘shadow piano’, played offstage by Kyoko Nojima, was arresting in more than a merely spatial sense. Inevitably, perhaps, it died away on a single pitch, on Neuburger’s piano, but the abiding memory was as much of the delightful friction between repetition, even varying repetition, and persistent transformation above.


Neuburger was joined by cellist Alexander Kovalev for Debussy’s Cello Sonata, a dark, declamatory piano opening both picked up and transformed by cello playing (and writing) combining strength and elegy. Here was another different conception of the sonata, as if to remind us that Liszt’s declaration that new wine demanded new bottles was the afternoon’s motto; in many ways indeed it was. The variety of expressive articulation offered by both players, even within a single phrase, encapsulated not only a marriage of detail and greater sweep but also the concert’s conception of form springing from material. Pierrot-like whimsy and invention characterised the opening of the ‘Sérénade et Finale’. The mutual approach of instruments, for instance through piano marcato and cello pizzicato, prepared the way for a sense of controlled intoxication; that is, there were certainly limits, yet within those limits, a great deal could and did happen. Not unlike Manoury’s Passacaille, one might say.


Barenboim arrived after the interval, with what I assume was the score of the next piece, which he proceeded to follow assiduously seated next to the composer. Manoury’s Grammaires du sonore was premiered by Roth and the Ensemble Intercontemporain last December in Paris. It made a huge impression on me here in Berlin—and, so far as I could tell, on the audience assembled at the Pierre Boulez Saal. A fuller ensemble here seemed not only to reinvent the modern ensemble’s reinvention of the symphony orchestra, but also, more radically, not only to question but magically to cast away its hierarchies in a riot of what went beyond Debussy’s controlled intoxication to post-Boulezian controlled delirium. Here, it seemed, there was a place for all to shine, democratically if you will, one of the first being Nina Janßen-Deinzer on contrabass clarinet, the piece seeming to fulfil or at least to renew a promise serialism had never quite been able to realise. Precision and fantasy were dialectically related, as in Boulez. Particular to the piece rather than a universal (was tonality ever really that in any case?), Manoury’s ‘grammar’ both demonstrated and enabled every note, like every word in a poem, truly to count. The fascination of that idea and the excitement of its putting in practice turned our attention back where it should always have been, to musical notes, their performance, their connection, and our listening. For the expression of musical imagination was both highly dramatic and readily perceptible.

Tuned percussion also brought Boulez, perhaps inevitably, a little to mind, yet Manoury’s writing was quite different: less elliptical, perhaps also freer in its exchanged with untuned fellow citizens. Piano writing and Nojima’s performance were perhaps a little closer to ‘traditional’ expectations than what we had heard in the Passacaille, but that was no failing, no retreat, perhaps rather a sign of confidence in the instrument and its place in the ensemble. Brass, save the Wagner tuba, left the floor and went up to the balconies, ricocheting of notes in a layered spatiality expanding dimensions of the relationship between repeated notes and invention in the earlier work. Strings too seemed liberated by their new role, not as first among equals but simply as equals, scintillating, soulful, and much in between, sometimes merging into other sections in an aesthetic and perhaps not entirely apolitical utopia of sound. One chord seemed almost to approach ‘that’ chord in the Adagio of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. It was probably just my fancy, to be refuted were I to look at the score or listen again; yet, in the construction of a grammar to what Mahler might have considered a new world in itself, perhaps it was not entirely so. Debussy’s rethinking of form was honoured and extended, but above all this world dazzled and exhilarated. Crucially for us all now, it held out the promise of life, of a future, of the reinvention, reimagining, and rebuilding we desperately need: not through a didactic manifesto, but through music's delight in itself.

Sunday 29 October 2023

BPO/Minasi - Mozart, 27 October 2023


Così fan tutte, KV 588: Overture
Symphony no.35 in D major, KV 385, ‘Haffner’
Concertone in C major for two violins and orchestra, KV 190/186e
Symphony no.40 in G minor, KV 550

Noah Bendix-Balgley, Thomas Timm (violins)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Minasi (conductor)

Images: Stephan Rabold

A wonderful concert, this, in which Riccardo Minasi, making his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, showed himself a musician who would not only listen to and learn from the orchestra, but also to and from every musician within it; and the orchestra and its musicians in turn listened to and learned from the musician in front of them. To say I am particular with Mozart would be something of an understatement. I hope that I, as a listener, learned too; I certainly enjoyed the evening greatly. I might have done things a little differently in my head, but so what? The last thing one wants is for music-making to become a ritual, the same the world over. That would be the death of performance. This was just the tonic for a beastly October evening and indeed the horrors of the world around us. 

The Overture to Così fan tutte set the tone, as it were, for the concert with warm, almost indescribably beautiful playing from the BPO (strings, as throughout, Minasi took it fast, yet far from unreasonably so. There was a little woodwind ornamentation, which I did not mind, but some may have found fussy; coming from a woodwind section of this calibre, it is difficult to object. 

The Haffner Symphony followed, timpani prominent, as indeed they had been in the overture, but underpinning the harmony rather than at the expense of others. This was a collegial performance all round. The first movement’s opening would surely have touched even the most reluctant of hearts—and set pulses racing. I could not help but notice the many benefits brought by modern trumpets (as opposed to the ‘period’ versions curiously employed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Andrew Manze a few days earlier, in an otherwise modern set-up). The development section here can all too readily be overlooked; Minasi took it seriously, imparting to it something of its own, albeit related tintà, harmony and counterpoint admirably clear and directed. The recapitulation was upon us before we knew it, yet all had been changed in a performance that married detail and sweep through the most brilliant of orchestral playing. If the Andante was taken swiftly, it worked, and its detail was again unerringly articulated without pedantry. Here, from all contributors, was affectionate understanding. The Minuet was not only one-to-a-bar but a quick one-to-a-bar at that, yet never sounded rush, maintaining both grace and grandeur. Its flowing trio beguiled. Mozart is far less a Presto animal than Haydn, arguably even than Beethoven. In this finale he is, though. Minasi and the BPO showed with ease how one can take it at quite a lick and yet exude grace, humanity, chiaroscuro, and flexibility. Daniel Barenboim, in a rather different way, has shown in his performances of this and other Mozart symphonies exactly the same. The road that will absolutely never lead to Rome is that of dogmatism.


The C major Concertone is a true rarity. I had never heard it live previously, and the BPO had performed it just once before, in Brașov in 1938, conducted by Hans von Benda. (Such information is, by the way, a particular joy of the orchestra’s programmes.) Concertone, should anyone quite reasonably be wondering, is an Italian equivalent, used by Mozart here, for the more common French symphonie concertante, essentially a concerto with more than one soloist, and which in this case has as much in common with the older concerto grosso as it does the contemporary, let alone future, symphony. This is very much the Salzburg Mozart, whose music is in many ways as least as difficult to bring off as that of his Viennese successor, but not always in the same ways. What, in the wrong hands, can sound fussy was here a delight. The sheer profusion of melodic ideas was well served here in a lively and gracious performance, never driven hard. Solo playing, not only from the two violinists Noah Bendix-Balgley and Thomas Timm, but from other members of the BPO, but also oboist Albrecht Mayer (who stood with them), and cellist Ludwig Quant (who doubtless would have done, had he not been a cellist!) was beyond reproach, dialogue and conversation flowing in all directions. Tone was rich but never indulgent, like the finest Egyptian cotton The infectious spring in the step – to mix my metaphors – imparted to the first movement was Minasi’s work and helped propel the music with spirit. Not for nothing is it marked ‘Allegro spiritoso’. 

‘Andantino grazioso’, in character as much as speed, was likewise what we heard in the following movement. There was plenty of space for detail to have its full say, in a reading that breathed the air of a Salzburg summer evening. I could imagine myself at the old, dearly lamented Café Glockenspiel, eating a late, post-performance dinner as musicians played below. Similarly, in the minuet finale, I could almost see the ballroom and be dazzled by it, as if Vienna’s Redoutensaal were both already beckoning Mozart and yet also remained some way distant, this the work of his Salzburg imagination and prhaps occasional visit rather than everyday acquaintance. Here, as elsewhere, the two violinists complemented each other, blending well without losing individual character, Bendix-Balgley almost Grumiaux-like (an ideal for me in Mozart), Timm a little more silver of tone. Mayer, needless to say, was his usual excellent self. The whole orchestra excelled, which is just as it should be. 

Last, we heard the ‘great’ G minor Symphony, its first movement neither forsaking emotion for elegance, nor vice versa; they were two sides to the same coin, showing Schumann’s oft-quoted (and derided) imputation of ‘Grecian lightness and grace’ not so far off the mark as it is generally taken to be. Finely, not fussily, shaded, it also possessed a clear sense of line and trajectory. If not so overtly grounded in harmony as, say, with Barenboim, that necessity was still respected. The shockingly Schoenbergian disorientations of the development disoriented as they should; its moments of fragility frightened, if anything, still more. The same should also be said of the coda. In between, the coming of the recapitulation sounded, quite properly, transformed from initial appearances of its material. Form, then, was dynamic, as it must be. The slow movement flowed gracefully, without skating over anything. Breathtaking passages of inwardness contrasted starkly, indeed with great daring from conductor and players alike, with vehement responses that approached yet never quite reached Beethoven. Were it not for its Schubertian heavenly length, both repeats taken, it might have been even more akin to what Schumann and Brahms would have considered an intermezzo, albeit structurally only ever itself. 

Fast and furious, yet still light on its feet, the Minuet’s insistence sounded still closer to Beethoven—because it is. The trio was lovely, yet just a touch unsteady, its tempo stretched before it had been established. That was a very rare misstep, though, and quite a minor one. Playing remained beyond reproach. The finale, naturally, was still faster and at least as furiously insistent, yet that Schumann Grecian quality persisted. The second group led so ravishingly by first clarinet Wenzel Fuchs, had me especially grateful that Minasi had opted for the second version, with clarinets, of the work. The development showed that form and rhetoric, properly understood, are complementary, not antithetical, Beethovenian strength of purpose uniting all, and perfectly preparing the moment of return, tragic in a way few composers before or since have approached let alone matched. The second repeat was taken, as Barenboim now does too. Both conductors have made sense of something that others do not—and about which I remain a little sceptical ‘on paper’. For Minasi’s ‘recapitulation’ did so much more than recapitulate or repeat; second time around, it proved a ghostly, terrifying experience. 

When Sir Colin Davis became chief conductor of the LSO, he said one of the things he intended to do – and he was true to his word – was have them play more Mozart and Haydn, not only as a good in itself but also for what it would do for the orchestra’s string tone in particular. The Berlin Philharmonic hardly needs help in that department, but all orchestras need to maintain, indeed to extend, their capabilities in this and every other regard. I cannot offhand think of a single symphony orchestra that does not at present at least slightly neglect these composers. All would benefit from doing so, not least since the Western symphonic tradition stands on their shoulders; and if, somehow, they find themselves at a loss for someone to lead them in this music, on this basis they could do far worse than engage Riccardo Minasi as a guest conductor.

Friday 27 October 2023

Carmen, Deutsche Oper, 26 October 2023

Carmen – Aigul Akhmetshina
Don José – David Butt Philip
Micaëla – Maria Motolygina
Escamillo – Byung Gil Kim
Zuniga – Christian Simmons
Moralès – Dean Murphy
Frasquita – Meechot Marrero
Mercédès – Arianna Manganello
Dancaïro – Artur Garbas
Remendado – Kieran Carrel
Lillas Pastia – Dean Street
Mercédès’s daughter – Fatima Hammad

Ole Anders Tandberg (directo)
Erlend Birkeland (set designs)
Maria Geber (costumes)
Ellen Ruge (lighting)
Silke Sense (choreography)

Children’s Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus director: Christian Lindhorst)
Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus director: Jeremy Bines) 
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Ben Glassberg (conductor)

Images from 2018 original production with different cast: © Marcus Lieberenz

Hmmm. I think I could see, some of the time, what Ole Anders Tandberg was trying to do in his 2018 Deutsche Oper production of Carmen. There were some reasonable ideas, some less so, and some that were frankly terrible. Next to Dmitri Tcherniakov’s brilliant reimagining of the work for Aix the previous year, though, this did not really pass muster. If you like gruesome imagery with unfortunate (I assume they were accidental) racist overtones, this may be for you. If not, even something more ’traditional’ is likely to prove a better bet than this. 

The curtain confronting us on entrance to the theatre, sets the tone: a bloody scene, involving what must have been the gouged eye of a bull. Once the curtain rises, the bullring (Iberia, not Birmingham) is centre stage, and proves to be the only setting for the entire thing: either inside, the arena suggestive of an amphitheatre, or outside (as one would expect for the fourth act). Fair enough, except nothing really is done with this. The metatheatrical suggestion turns out to have nothing to it. And whilst we know Carmen involves bullfighting, is it really ‘about’ it? It could be, I suppose, but there is little sign of that here, other than a strange obsession with internal organs (and even that is pushing an association). 

Violence, one might say, is a central theme, though nowadays we tend to tread a little more carefully when it comes to that perpetrated by men on women. Micaëla is sexually assaulted by the soldiers when she arrives, which makes her embarrassing octopus-like approach to Don José at best unfortunate. (I might suggest she was traumatised, but I do not think we go that deep.) More fundamentally, the ‘symbolic’ association of Carmen with a bull is, on a charitable reading, extremely unfortunate. Portraying the Roma community as body snatchers dealing in human organs: well, I shall leave it at that. Don José’s enthusiastic induction at the end of the second act, harvesting Zuniga’s innards I shall let speak for itself; likewise the cardless card scene in which entrails, gingerly approached with white rubber gloves, are not so much consulted as haplessly dangled. 

If anything worse still, the idea of Carmen as an opéra comique is abandoned for what seems to think itself a knowing send-up of grand opéra – why, when the work is not that in the first place? – yet ends up capitulating to Meyerbeerian ‘effect without cause’ far more than it realises. Strange people, presumably symbolic of something or other, march around the stage to no particular effect. Some are in drag, others are children, others are soldiers who excitedly attempt, without success, to have sex with the stadium walls (and are promptly carried off by the bodysnatchers). Choreography, here as elsewhere, is worse than unfortunate. Tandberg’s production, then, is less ‘about’ vulgarity, ‘knowing’ trajes de gitana notwithstanding, and more plain vulgar.   

Given the setting, Aigul Akhmetshina and David Butt Philip emerged with considerable dignity, the musicality and dramatic commitment of their performances impressive throughout. Akhmetshina did what she could to present a proper mixture of pride and vulnerability, in a readily communicative performance Butt Philip seems unable to put a foot wrong right now, readily conquering swathes of the tenor repertoire. I am happy to report that his French is excellent too. Would that I could say the same for Byung Gil Kim’s Escamillo, for which I was lucky to decipher one word in twenty. It was a pity, since his dark tone and stage presence showed promise; but if all one is left for the words is to read the surtitles, then much is lost. Maria Motolygina’s Micaëla was beautifully sung, despite Tandberg’s peculiar conception of the role. Indeed, so was everything else, the well-trained chorus included. My heart went out to its singers for some of the am-dram movement they were required to do: again, presumably ‘ironic’, yet hardly seeming so. 

The faults of the evening lay neither in the singing nor in the pit, where Ben Glassberg conducted an incisive, colourful account of the orchestral score, considerate to singers without bowing to them, aided immensely by keen, responsive playing from the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper. He was not helped by having to stop for all-too-numerous incidents of mid-act applause in what appeared to verge on built-in pauses onstage. I may be too Wagnerian, may Nietzsche forgive me, about this, but such monotonous regularity of indiscriminate applause does no one any good. Nor, I fear, will a barrage of coughing from all quarters, suggestive of an advanced-stage tuberculosis clinic. Surely part of a director’s job would be at least to encourage continuity of action; but then a good part of that job seemed on this occasion to have been missed. Rarely has Andalusia seemed less inviting or less interesting.


Wednesday 25 October 2023

Lisiecki/COE/Manze - Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn, 24 October 2023


Beethoven: Overture: Coriolan, op.62
Mozart: Piano Concerto no.21 in C major, KV 467
Haydn: Symphony no.98 in B-flat major

Jan Lisiecki (piano)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Andrew Manze (conductor)

In some ways, this concert proved a mixed bag, but it was well planned and it came right where ultimately it mattered most. Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture was the weakest of the three performances. The symphonic Beethoven continues to elude not only, it seems, the grasp of most though not all contemporary conductors; this seems often to hold for audiences too, seemingly unaware as they lap up the latest fads of what they are missing. Was ever there a time when we needed Beethoven more? Not since the 1940s when, ironically, such music seemed better able to speak. Listen to Furtwängler in this overture, and the tragic impulse will never have felt more immanent. Alas, justified postwar suspicion of totalities has now degenerated into a weird mixture of circumscribing dogmatism and neoliberal pick-and-mix. 

That, to be fair, was not what we heard here. Andrew Manze comes from the ‘period’ side of the tracks, but his work now is mostly with modern orchestras and he seems genuinely interested to discover what can be achieved with them. Not for him, nor indeed for the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, some perverse and unsuccessful attempt to imitate a ‘period’ ensemble (save for natural trumpets). The COE was handed no vibrato-Verbot; rather it sounded a little bright of tone and lacked, even in a small hall and on a very small stage, heft, strings a somewhat un-Beethovenian We heard great precision, urgency, and a good sense of line; there was certainly none of that unphrased choppiness that passes for ‘rhetoric’ in certain quarters. The clue to what was missing lay in the second group. It did not yield or melt, let alone console; it simply continued, in strangely similar vein. Raised in genuinely non- and even anti-Romantic Neue Sachlichkeit, a conductor such as Klemperer would have had no need to slow here either. Carving into granite rather than channelling Furtwängler’s volcanic lava, he nonetheless conveyed what was at stake. This seemed ‘only’ to be a superior curtain-raiser; at least for poor, Romantic old me, it lacked meaning. 

With Mozart, we were on surer ground. A Mozart piano concerto – more than a Mozart symphony – can unfold dramatically with greater ease from a small orchestra. Much of the writing, after all, truly is chamber music—and there is a sense of chamber music writ large, albeit in combination with symphonism, that is less evident in his symphonies, let alone those of Haydn and Beethoven. Manze is, on this evidence, a fine accompanist, as of course is the orchestra in general, sounding both polished and warm. The orchestra yielded a little more, especially when it came to woodwind passages. And Jan Lisiecki Lisiecki’s singing tone and command of chiaroscuro marked him out as a fine Mozartian as well as a fine pianist. His entry came very much from within the orchestra; he was one of them, primus inter pares, at least to begin with, playing muscular yet sensitive. Balance was excellent throughout; everyone was listening to each other. (Yes, that should go without saying, but does not always.) With that, came a freedom that had eluded the Beethoven performance. The COE strings played as if their lives depended on it; Lisiecki in turn serenaded them as if his did. Ironically, it sounded closer to Beethoven, whilst still very much being Mozart, than Coriolan had. Both cadenzas were unfamiliar to him: perhaps Lisiecki’s own? They slightly nudged the stylistic envelope, whilst remaining faithful in material: very much what one might hope for, surprises well-crafted rather than shocking. And here in the first movement, as elsewhere, Mozart’s major-minor polarity properly told. 

As with the rest of the concerto, indeed the rest of the concert, the slow movement’s tempo was well chosen—and well established. It provided a framework for melody, harmony, and of course deep sadness, as well as twin resignation and joy in its face, all to combine. Piano cross-rhythms tugged at the heartstrings, as did woodwind chromatic inflections. All was greater than the sum of its parts. The finale was characterful, possessed of enough weight without the slightest heaviness. Performance from all was detailed without preciousness. It was, all in all, a lovely performance, to which Lisiecki added some Chopin in its vein. 

Haydn’s Symphony no.98 fell somewhere in between. I could not help but feel it would have benefited from a larger orchestra; this music only sounds close to Beethoven because it is. Playing, however, was excellent throughout; the problem, some might argue, lay with my taste (or lack thereof). I think there was something more to it than that, though, especially in the first movement. What ensued lacked a sense of dialectical necessity, or indeed dialectics at all. There was much to admire, though, the development (perhaps surprisingly, given what I have just said) coming off best, with great clarity and fury, indeed opening with a sense of confusion or even chaos to peer forward to Haydn’s ‘Representation’ thereof in The Creation, as soon to come. Likewise, we heard a fine sense of exultation to the coda, however odd I may find the sound of natural trumpets; it just needed to be more evidently and harder won. 

Manze’s tempo for the Adagio again, quite simply, worked. Perhaps a little faster than once we might have heard, it nonetheless sounded with the character of an ‘Adagio’, never shading in that respect into an ‘Andante’. Colours, not least those of a darker complexion, were well painted. And the movement as a whole developed in a way only the central section of the first movement had. I did not especially care for harpsichord continuo tinkling here or elsewhere, but it is difficult to argue against it in this symphony, given the written-out keyboard part in the finale. That had nothing to do, I should add, with Matthew Fletcher’s sensitive, astute realisation of Haydn’s bass; I just do not find it added much or ever does. The minuet was properly dance-like whilst maintaining both rigour and vigour. Its trio charmed: for me a highlight to the whole performance, strings and woodwind equally excellent. 

Manze knew how to impart movement character once more, this time for the finale: emphatically a ‘Haydn finale’. Variety in articulation was always expressive rather than applied for its own, ear-catching sake. Haydn’s tonal map was well communicated too; a modulation could really be heard and felt in musicodramatic terms. Some, though not all, of its twists and turns might have been more theatrically conveyed—but then I might have complained about exaggeration. At any rate, all was present and correct, and Marieke Blankestijn offered Johann Peter Salomon’s violin part with warm understanding. Fletcher prepared well for his moment in the sun—and then: out of nowhere (at least I had not noticed him arrive on stage) Lisiecki played the keyboard part on the piano, which I had noticed moved to the side of the stage rather than disappeared. It was a true coup de théâtre, as well as luxury casting, and had me forget any minor reservations. I left, as I am sure did those on and off stage, with a smile on my face. Haydn, I have no doubt, would have approved and applauded.

Sunday 22 October 2023

Elektra, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 20 October 2023

Images unless otherwise stated: (c) Jakob Tillmann

Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Elektra – Ricarda Merbeth
Chrysothemis – Vida Miknevičiūtė
Orest – Lauri Vasar
Aegisth – Stephan Rügamer
First Maid – Bonita Hyman
Second Maid, Train-bearer – Natalia Skrycka
Third Maid – Katharina Kammerloher
Fourth Maid – Anna Samuil
Fifth Maid – Roberta Alexander
Overseer, Confidante – Cheryl Studer
Young Servant – Siyabonga Maqungo
Old Servant – Olaf Bär
Orest’s Tutor – David Wakeham

Patrice Chéreau (director)
Vincent Huguet (assistant director)
Richard Peduzzi (set designs)
Caroline de Vivaise (costumes)
Dominique Bruguière (lighting)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Dani Juris)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Markus Poschner (conductor)  

For many of us, she has always been there. Not only ‘there’, somewhere, but there—at the top. It is difficult not to romanticise a little, though it is certainly not her style. She spoke briefly and with customary professionalism: she had had a wonderful career, done what she wanted to, and now it was time to say goodbye. ‘Tschüss.’ And with that, Waltraud Meier – the reason all of us, however avid Straussians we might be, were there – bade farewell to the stage. I saw her last Kundry and her last Isolde. I even heard her Marcellina last year, reuinted with Siegfried Jerusalem as Don Curzio (!) We had just heard and, crucially, seen her final Klytämnestra. 

Like the queen she portrayed with intelligence, dignity, a fresh eye and ear, and as keen a collaborative instinct as ever, this queen of the stage bewitched us once last time—and let us go. The audience, however, did not seem inclined to let her go, however many times the curtain fell. Bouquets continued to fly on to the stage, or sometimes, not quite reaching their target, into the pit. The ensemble – whatever fans might have felt, this was never a solo show – continued to come forward to receive applause. Then, once again, she briefly stepped forward, this time without microphone, to pay tribute to that constant presence in her career and in the musical lives we (felt we) had spent together: Daniel Barenboim. He had been in her thoughts all evening—and in her heart. Letting go is a difficult thing. Like her career, difficult decisions such as ruling Brünnhilde was not the right role for her included, this was supremely well judged and directed, as joyful as it was poignant. She never played the Marschallin, though she had offers; for some of us, at this moment she did. Life, music, theatre, go on. ‘Tschüss.’


The Klytämnestra we saw and heard was not the same as that of 2016 in this same Patrice Chéreau production, nor that (in my case at the cinema) from its incarnation slightly earlier that year in New York, still less that of Salzburg (Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging) in 2010. Chéreau’s production remains impressive in its provision of a frame – literally, in the case of Richard Peduzzi’s set – for human interactions. Fate can take care of itself. It may or may not be something more than the sum total of individual characters and their decisions, but here they are given due weight. And that includes the decisions of those playing their roles. Perhaps inevitably, in this performance the relationship between Elektra and Klytämnestra seemed still more central, more crucial than ever. Yet there was absolutely no grandstanding, indeed little even in the way of grandeur to it. The Staatskapelle Berlin may have prepared the way for a grand entrance, or better provided one, for the woman who emerged was a distressed, even disoriented mother, finding her way according to the text (Strauss and Hofmannsthal) and acting according to the precept that she needed her daughter – it was definitely her daughter, not just some other character – more than the other way around. There was a degree of pride: all that said, she remained a queen. But this was a queen in private, insofar as her attendants would ever permit a private sphere to exist, not in public: a woman compelled to transfer her political wiles to the domestic sphere. Sometimes she came as close to speech than to song: not because she could not sing, but rather because she realised she could speak. She held the stage through artistry, not image; through what she did on this occasion, not through what she had done in the past.


(c) Monika Rittershaus (2016)

Ricarda Merbeth’s Elektra offered an interesting complement, almost a child who retreated into the womb, or rather who would were it still available. That it was not was a large part of the problem—at least in this scene. Elsewhere, hers was a performance that lacked nothing in power yet likewise never forsook the realm of humanity. Vida Miknevičiūtė’s Chrysothemis brought further characteristics of both, as well as her own, into sharp relief: a portrayal as vividly sung as it was conceived. Lauri Vasar’s dark-toned Orest, brutalised, dangerous, and yet with more than a hint of his own fragility and neurosis, was similarly excellent. Throughout a cast that included singers such as Cheryl Studer, Roberta Alexander, and Olaf Bär, each seemed to bring out something new and interesting in another.


If Markus Poschner’s direction of the Staatskapelle Berlin tended often to be fleshing out, even making sense of, a world created by characters on stage rather than creating it – worlds away from, say, Daniele Gatti’s Salzburg cataclysm – that seemed in context at one with this general approach: almost a Kammerspiel. It was certainly not that the orchestra failed to speak, but not only did it owe as much to Mendelssohn as to Wagner, it reacted as much as it delineated. The stars, one our inevitable lodestar, may have been on stage but this proved the most collaborative of dramas. That, surely, was the proper and ultimate tribute. Tschüss.

Friday 20 October 2023

Quatuor Diotima - Ligeti, Lachenmann, and Brahms, 19 October 2023

Pierre Boulez Saal

Ligeti: String Quartet no.1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’
Lachenmann: String Quartet no.3, ‘Grido’
Brahms: String Quartet no.2 in A minor, op.51 no.2

Yun-Peng Zhao, Léo Marillier (violins)
Franck Chevalier (viola)
Alexis Descharmes (cello)

Another splendid string quartet recital in Berlin, to rival or better to complement that I heard last week in a different venue, the Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal, from the Quatuor Ébène. One of the mysteries of the musical world is the seeming inability of French symphony orchestras to match those who might be their peers in German- and English-speaking countries. (In some ways, French opera orchestras seem to fare better.) One explanation I have often heard lies in French conservatoire training, where orchestral performance plays little or no role, neglected in favour of a more or less exclusive focus on solo and chamber playing. That may or may not be the case; certainly no one has ever claimed France lacked excellent solo and chamber musicians. These two quartets, the Ébène and Diotima are a case in point, unquestionably among the finest ensembles in the world, with approaches to music-making that are anything but off-the-shelf, very much their own, and with programming to match. 

Ligeti is being heard a little more than usual during his centenary, but a work such as his First Quartet, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’, would in any case always be central to this ensemble’s repertoire; indeed, a recording was released on Pentatone earlier this year (with the Second Quartet and the earlier Andante and Allegretto). The players immediately conveyed the mood as well as notes of the opening upward slithering, melodies above sounding with Romantic intensity. Bartók’s ghost – Kurtág once called this Bartók’s Seventh Quartet – was often apparent, not least rhythmically—and crucially, in that rhythms were never merely rhythms but rather inseparable from melody. Quicksilver changes of mood, sometimes in transition, sometimes in abrupt cut-off, were vividly characterised: ask someone to guess the marking for the section marked ‘Adagio, mesto’ and that might be just what (s)he would come up with. Silences told in an almost Beckettian fashion, hinting at the necessity yet something at least approaching the impossibility of speaking, singing, or playing freely. Machines came to life. Notes flew off the page with undeniable physical impact. The waltz movement or section emerged with a sardonicism worthy of Prokofiev and, as throughout, such ears for contrasting textures that at times one might almost have fancied a larger ensemble to be playing. The last few minutes brought the piece together and concluded, in an almost ‘traditional’ way, with not only a nod to Bartók but, in their riot of invention, perhaps also to Haydn. 

For all its radicalism, indeed in many ways on account of it, Lachenmann’s Third Quartet could also be heard as taking its place in such a tradition. The Diotima had clearly studied the composer’s notes carefully – without doing so, the piece would surely be unplayable, or at least incomprehensible – whilst also bringing their own imagination and insights. On the one hand, the array of new sounds might give arise to all manner of strange, unworldly associations – extra-terrestrial chatter, perhaps even a game of cosmic table-tennis – or one might, using one’s eyes, less fancifully but with equal incompletion, speak more technically, say of ‘legno flautando whilst moving the bow between the bridge and the left-hand figure’. ‘Gasping’, Lachenmann’s own term, ‘a very strong, almost explosive crescendo up-bow cut off so abruptly by the suddenly intervening application of a left-hand finger to the respective string, lifting the bow at the same time … comparable to a tongue ram on a flute, or a recording of a pizzicato played backwards,’ could not have sounded more like human breath if it had been. Yet not for one moment did this sound as a string of ‘effects’; rather, at-times Stockhausen-like whimsy was projected with Schoenbergian concentration (in more than one sense). And the near silences inevitably brought to mind, without thoughts of imitation, Lachenmann’s own teacher, Nono. Its various sections may not be movements as such, but their structural function was communicated and felt. For if this were almost a textbook case of musique concrète instrumentale, in which one might swear electronics or other means were employed unless one knew they were not, it was highly theatrical too, albeit in the almost classical theatre of the musical imagination. 

With Brahms, so much began; and/or with Beethoven, or Bach, or Monteverdi, or… At any rate, Schoenberg’s now slightly hackneyed yet still necessary ‘Brahms the Progressive’ was represented in an equally gripping account of his Second String Quartet, its first movement febrile and lyrical not only by turn but often simultaneously. Counterpoint, developing variation, and darkly Romantic vehemence when it came gave rise to a not entirely dissimilar sense of metamorphosis such as we had heard in both Ligeti and Lachenmann. A post-Schubertian second movement (the ‘post-’ as important as the Schubert) was no more comfortable than the Ébène’s Schubert had been; the shock of sudden outbursts, themselves owing something to Schubert’s example, was second only to an overarching sense of discovery, tonal areas all possessed of their own character and colour, albeit interconnected. The players captured expertly the unusual character of the third movement, here taking after Mendelssohn as well as Schubert, though with half-lights (perhaps ‘half-darknesses’ would be better?) that could only be Brahms. The central ‘Allegretto vivace’, if close to anyone, would perhaps approach late Beethoven, and so it sounded here. It is tempting to call the sense of purpose in the final movement Beethovenian; certainly, it abounds in dialectical relationships that ultimately strengthen. Equally impressive was the communication of demands both horizontal and vertical, not in some ‘theoretical’ sense, whatever that may mean, but as a temporal drama that foreshadows Schoenberg, Webern, and many others: Brahms the progressive indeed. 

For a refreshing and spirited encore, we returned to Ligeti, to an arrangement for string quartet of the first of his Six Bagatelles for wind quintet.

Monday 16 October 2023

BPO/Hrůša - Dvořák, 13 October 2023


Dvořák: Stabat Mater, op.58

Corinne Winters (soprano)
Marvic Monreal (mezzo-soprano)
David Butt Philip (tenor)
Matthew Rose (bass)

Rundfunkchor Berlin (chorus director: Gijs Leenaars)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša (conductor)

© Bettina Stöß / Berliner Philharmoniker

Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is clearly a favourite work for Jakub Hrůša. Six years ago he conducted it in this same hall, Berlin’s Philharmonie, with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; in 2023, it was the turn of the Berlin Philharmonic. Hrůša has called the piece a ‘wonderful gift’; he, a fine team of soloists, chorus, and orchestra in turn offered a wonderful gift to the audience with this performance. If the work, like many others, is not without unevenness, much of it has the composer firing on all cylinders. At a time when, even by current standards, our world is overwhelmed with grief, it will surely have spoken clearly and directly to many. It certainly did so to me. 

A first movement of quite extraordinary power did so from the outset. Hrůša and the orchestra offered a translucent introduction, elemental without Brucknerising, chromatic descending sequences grief-laden without sentimentality, leading somehow almost magically towards the entry of the chorus, which both emerged from and intensified such feelings, as clear of line as it was full of tone. I cannot imagine the climaxes have ever sounded more shattering. David Butt Philip’s tenor entry similarly grew out of an extended what had gone before. If somewhat operatic, that is the nature of the piece; it became more so with impassioned singing from the full quartet. Hrůša’s formal command was unerring, a crucial matter in a work of this scale. The vocal quartet that followed was naturally more intimate in scale, though no less heartfelt. Splendidly declamatory singing from Corinne Winters had her come into her own, with Matthew Rose an excellent foil, Fasolt-like in sincerity, though building later to quite a fury. 

 ‘Eja mater, fons amoris’ quite properly offered moments where the mood lightened, not least through sheer delightfulness of orchestral playing, though the chorus’s repeated cries of ‘Fac’ were anything but light. There was some much needed choral and woodwind balm in ‘Fac, ut ardeat cor meum’, where it was lovely to hear the organ in softer passages too. But even that came in the shadow of imposing, implacable brass. Harmoniemusik in the following chorus, ‘Tui nati vulnerati’, set the scene for as close as we were come to gambolling lyricism, in Bohemian Brahms fashion, with shades of the darker, mahogany Brahms to come in the opening of the ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’. Butt Philip’s imploring reading and the choral singing shone equally. 

A venerable mainstay of musical crucifixion iconography, sharpened notes made their point in both chorus and orchestra in ‘Virgo virginum praeclara’. One certainly did not need to know or see; piercing could be heard and felt. Likewise in the throbbing pizzicato playing from lower strings, contrasting in almost sadomasochistic fashion with ravishing bowed violins and woodwind, of the duet ‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem’. Butt Philip and Winters blended and contrasted well as required. In the penultimate number, the only truly solo (without chorus) movement, mezzo-soprano Marvic Monreal offered characterful contrast, especially in her lower range. 

The final movement’s uneasy calm from soloists and orchestra paved the way for some truly radiant choral singing when reprising the opening material. Its ‘Amen’ still seems to me a little unsatisfactory as a conclusion to a setting of this poem; Dvořák’s more typically personal style sits a little awkwardly with its import. Ironically, if Rossini in his Stabat Mater at times adopted a jaunty, well-nigh postmodern dissociation from the poem, his writing here seems to me more congruent. There was no gainsaying the performance’s all-round excellence, though, and there are many worse things than being oneself—whether for Dvořák, Rossini, Schubert, or anyone else.

Friday 13 October 2023

Gay/RSB/Jurowski - Telemann, Boismortier, Ravel, Ibert, and Strauss, 12 October 2023


Telemann: Bourlesque de Quixotte, TWW 55:G10
Boismortier: Don Quichotte chez la duchesse, op.97: ballet music
Ravel: Don Quichotte à Dulcinée
Ibert: Quatre chansons de Don Quichotte
Strauss: Don Quixote, op.35

Paul Gay (bass-baritone)
Alejandro Regueira Caumel (viola)
Konstanze von Gutzeit (cello)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowksi (conductor)

Images: Robert Niemeyer

‘Wie klingt “Don Quijote”?’ was the question posed by (and in) the programme to this splendid tour through musical depictions of Cervantes’s would-be knight-errant. To answer the question, we discovered that Don Quixote sounds in various ways, yet always colourfully and, aptly enough, endearingly too. Vladimir Jurowski’s gift for programming, so strong a feature of his time as Music Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, has not deserted him in Berlin. The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Rundfunksinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB) is clearly thriving under his leadership, here in music ranging from Telemann to Ravel. 

Telemann’s turned twice as a composer to Cervantes’s novel, in 1761 writing a one-act opera on an episode from it: Don Quijote auf der Hochzeit des Camacho. (The young Mendelssohn would also turn to this same episode.) This ‘burlesque’ orchestral suite from 1739 takes in different episodes over the course of its seven movements and proved in performance both splendidly enjoyable and vividly theatrical. Its opening French overture might indeed have been the curtain-raiser to an opera of its own, here driven in fine balance between rhythm and harmony. We heard – and may have felt we saw – horses hooves in our hero’s celebrated tilting at windmills, Sancho Panza’s bruising and his donkey’s gallop, dragging and then absurdly accelerating, and much more, the final movement a well-earned sprint to the finish. Well-chosen percussion effects from triangle to tambourine added to the pictorial jollity. 

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier write his ‘comédie lyrique’ Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse on an episode in which Telemann found courtly repose and perhaps a greater emotional depth than elsewhere in his suite. Here we heard only some of the orchestral (ballet) music: the overture, a sequence of march, two tambourins, and second march, and a chaconne. (An old BBC broadcast with splendid cast may be found here for the eighty minutes or so of the entire work.)  Another arresting overture, this time actually written for the theatre, had us all but see the curtain and its rise. Notes and drama, even in this purely instrumental music, fairly flew off the players’ pages. Jurowski and the orchestra, moreover, conveyed the composer’s voice, close in some ways to Rameau yet quite different in others, with great élan, the conductor himself leading from tambourine in the first march. Oboes, bassoons, and harpsichord offered a fine Gallic contrast in the second tambourin. The chaconne proved piquant and full of surprises, from its opening gong stroke onwards. Through its twists and turns of mood and material, Jurowski never forgot this was a single dance; nor did we. 

Bass-baritone Paul Gay joined the orchestra for two sets of songs intended for Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s film starring Feodor Chaliapin. Ravel’s short song-cycle, his final completed work, was written too late for inclusion, but Jacques Ibert’s four songs were sung both in the film and in a recording made by Chaliapin and Ibert. Neither composer sets Cervantes: Ravel opted for contemporary texts by Paul Morand, whereas Ibert’s selection mixed old and new with Pierre de Ronsard and Alexander Arnoux. Both composers, even with small orchestra, Ibert’s (saxophone included) somewhat larger than Ravel, could offer a more varied instrumental palette; yet one could readily fancy one heard something of a ‘French’ ear for colour continued from their eighteenth-century predecessor. Gay presented resolutely unsentimental, communicative performances, relishing the melismata in third of Ravel’s three songs, the ‘Chanson à boire’, in which the composer’s ‘Spanish’ voice comes to the fore one last time, as much as the keen narrative of Ibert’s ‘Chanson à Dulcinée’ and the undeniably filmic qualities of the farewell, ‘Chanson de la mort de Don Quichotte’. 

And so we came to Strauss’s tone-poem, the excellent Alejandro Regueira Caumel and Konstanze von Gutzeit stepping forward as ‘soloists’, yet acting collegially as much as highlighted leaders of their sections. The RSB’s versatility, on show throughout, was certainly evident here, immediately sounding, for want of a better word, Straussian. Jurowski’s way with the score was fascinating, more modernistic, even strangely Stravinskian, than I can recall having heard. Generally brisk and admirably clear, I could not help but feel there was loss as well as gain, but we shall always have Karajan, Kempe, and others to return to when we wish. His trademark formalism certainly paid off in delineation of the work’s variation form and sharp individual characterisation of each episode. In any case, as the mood darkened, the orchestra’s colours, especially from the RSB brass, spoke increasingly for themselves. Quite a storm was whipped up, not only via the wind-machine. In the later duet of two bassoons it was, strangely, Stravinsky who once again came to mind. Woodwind in general were pleasingly rumbunctious. If this were ultimately a somewhat distanced performance, Caumel and Gutzeit notwithstanding, like the rest of the programme, it had me think—and, in a number of ways, reconsider.

Wednesday 11 October 2023

Quatuor Ébène: Haydn, Bartók, and Schubert, 10 October 2023


Haydn: String Quartet in G minor, Hob. III:33, op.20 no.3
Bartók: String Quartet no.3, Sz 85
Schubert: String Quartet no.15 in G major, D 887

Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure (violins)
Marie Chilemme (viola)
Yuya Okamoto (cello)

This was an outstanding concert: three masterpieces of the string quartet repertoire in performances that were not only of the highest quality but also, especially in Schubert’s case, constantly (in a good way) surprising. The Quatuor Ébène, here with Yuya Okamato substituting for regular cellist Raphaël Merlin, is of course one of the world’s leading chamber ensembles; I doubt anyone would question that. But there was absolutely no resting on laurels.

If a Death on the Maiden I heard from this quartet fourteen years ago had announced a Schubert raging against the dying of the light, this G major Quartet took such tendencies further. Not only was this anything but a comfortable, Biedermeier Schubert, it was perhaps the most brazenly modernistic incarnation of the composer I have heard: certainly so when it comes to quartet-playing. There were times when I might have thought this music from a century later, especially coming as it did after Bartók’s Third Quartet, although then I remembered late Beethoven—and appreciated just how much vehement strength of purpose was shared between the two composers. Not that lyricism, whether in the first movement or elsewhere, was absent, but it was never merely lyrical, never a chance for repose. This is not how I should always like to hear Schubert, but that is not the point. Its compelling instability, within an overarching command of form and structure, had it make sense, almost like never before. A disconcerting combination of nervous energy and E minor melancholy characterised the second movement. Ferocious, grandly rhetorical outbursts to rival anything in Winterreise, made their point both in themselves but also, crucially, in relation to the music surrounding them. The scherzo was similarly febrile and full of startling dynamic contrasts. Even its Trio afforded little in the way of relaxation. Deeply ambiguous, heard as if through the haze of an uncomfortable summer night, its dreams seemed to tend towards a delirium carried through into a finale whose tipsy mood swings might charm yet could never console.

That 2009 Wigmore Hall concert had featured the same Bartók quartet. My memory is far too faded to attempt a comparison; suffice it to say that I was mightily impressed on both occasions. The first of its four parts vividly set out a number of dialectical contrasts and connections. Bartók does that, of course, but he needs his players to do so too. This they did in a performance as intent on making every note count as if it had been Webern, though the sheer profusion of melody on offer put me in mind of Mozart and Schoenberg too. The transition to the second part, as to each of the four parts, was splendidly handled: not only convincing but thrilling. Cello pizzicato having incited an infernal dance, themes could be turned upside down, inside out: always themselves, yet always new, a veritable homage to Bach. The ‘Ricapitulazione della prima parte’ again combined the desolate and the welcoming, the ensuing Coda having its mysteries unlocked through recognition that gesture and motivic transformation were dependent on one another, even two sides to the same coin.

First on the programme was Haydn’s G minor Quartet, op.20 no.3. Just as much as in the Bartók that followed, the players ensured that every note and its connections to what had gone and what would follow truly mattered. The freshness announced in the first movement, with a continuous development at least to rival that to be heard in the two later works spoke – and sang – in a Sturm und Drang manner that served as a meeting-point for what, with the broadest brush, we might think of as ‘Baroque’ and ‘Classical’ tendencies. There was no attempt to smooth the dissonances of the Menuetto; rather they registered fully within a euphonious balance that permitted the richness of Haydn’s inner parts to have their say. The slow movement was similarly rich, as it were, in its plain-spokenness, again characterised by something close to Schoenbergian developing variation. A tonal surprise to take one’s breath away such as one might expect from Schubert was as perfectly prepared as it was executed. The finale benefited from a different yet equal variety of intensity, suited to its character and function, replete with unexpected turns that, once heard, could never have been otherwise. The Quatuor Ébène brought all these to life in a vivid theatre of the imagination.

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Kissin/BPO/Luisi - Martines, Mozart, and Schmidt, 6 October 2023


Marianna Martines: Sinfonia in C major
Mozart: Piano Concerto no.23 in A major, KV 488
Franz Schmidt: Symphony no.2 in E-flat major

Evgeny Kissin (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Fabio Luisi (conductor)

Image: Martin Walz / Berliner Philharmoniker

This concert from Evgeny Kissin, the Berlin Philharmonic, and Fabio Luisi brought together three very different works from composers working in present-day Austria. (Mozart, of course, came from Salzburg, which only became part of Austria some years after his death, but he had been living and working in Vienna for some time.) Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto, KV 488, is an imperishable masterpiece, even amongst his piano concertos. Haydn pupil Marianna Martines’s C major Sinfonia proved pleasant, even interesting, to hear, if hardly something to which many would frequently return. As for Franz Schmidt’s Second Symphony, I know it has its devotees, and I was keen to give it a second chance, having heard it a few years ago at the Proms, but on this basis I cannot understand what they hear in it. 

Martines’s piece is a Sinfonia in the old-fashioned sense; in three very short movements, it could readily have been a three-part opera overture. Written for strings, two flutes, two oboes, two horns, and timpani, with continuo provided by harpsichordist Arno Schneider, it lay, as one might expect, on the cusp of what we have come to know, not necessarily helpfully, as the Baroque and Rococo, form lying somewhere between the two, melodic and harmonic language closer to the latter.  The first movement, ‘Allegro con spirito’, is put together from very simple material: scales, arpeggios, and so on. The composer shows keen facility, including that for (slight) modulatory surprise, but there are no more fundamental surprises here. Luisi here and elsewhere kept the Berlin Philharmonic on a tight leash, perhaps a little too tight at times, but such is the way nowadays of most conductors with eighteenth-century music. The second movement, ‘Andante ma non troppo’, is more lyrical, again as one would expect. It unfolded largely according to a predictable harmonic plan, save for one moment which sounded more puzzling than adventurous. The third movement, in triple time, comes close to a minuet, though I am not sure I should quite call it that. It is strangely lacking in harmonic motion, though a contrasting central section (a trio, I suppose) brought some tonal variation. No masterpiece, then, but a welcome opportunity to expand our knowledge of Italianate musical culture in Vienna in the early 1770s. 

Luisi retained a smallish string section for the Mozart, but it sounded warmer and fuller. There is, of course, a slightly larger wind section too, oboes exchanged for clarinets, with two bassoons joining the band, albeit without timpani. The orchestra sounded considerably larger, though, reflecting less constraint. Conductor and pianist opted for a steady tempo: welcome in many ways, yet sometimes tending a little to the foursquare. Kissin proved admirable in his clarity, if at times somewhat deliberate. A little more ‘flowing like oil’ would have done no harm. The development section seemed to suit him better, perhaps a consequence of a more (post-)Beethovenian mindset. Luisi largely seemed content to follow; I could not help but wonder what difference the presence of Kissin’s former collaborator, that supreme Mozartian Sir Colin Davis, might have made. 

Again, the slow movement evinced a welcome disinclination to rush, but also at times a certain ponderousness and lack of lyricism. Climactic high notes, which should breathe the air of the opera house, were too often stabbed at. Lightness of touch and gravity of sentiment can readily go together; indeed, in this movement, they surely must. The Berlin wind, as elsewhere, were well-nigh perfect. In the finale, Kissin better combined steadiness with forward motion; it is all too easy to take this music too fast at the beginning and find oneself compelled to skate over its latter course. Not so here. He might have been more yielding at times, but that is not his way. What did it lack? Ultimately, that sense of magic in every bar that the greatest performances bring to Mozart.

Schmidt’s symphony naturally brought a considerably larger orchestra to the stage. I had no reservations concerning the performance; the Berlin Philharmonic clearly relished its task, playing as if this were a repertory piece, and Luisi conducted it as such, with evident belief, leading a fine balance throughout the work’s three lengthy movements of detail and grand sweep. I only wish it were belief in which I could have shared. The first movement was probably the most convincing, with just enough occasional approaches to more adventurous composers (say, Elgar and Strauss) to hold one’s attention. Yet it could never quite take flight; or rather, when it seemed to do so, it was never entirely clear why. However gorgeous the orchestra sounded – and it truly did – the composer sounded in need of some intensive study of Brahms. 

The second movement, a theme and ten variations, was again well paced and phrased. The theme’s Harmoniemusik again sounded a little like early Strauss, albeit without the memorability or the daring. Variations passed pleasantly enough between strings and woodwind, at one point suggesting watered-down Reger, at another something closer to Mendelssohn (though without his lightness of touch). The fourth brought something a little sterner, the sixth a hint of yearning, the eighth something broader, and so on. It was competent, yet hardly inspired. By the time we reached the final variation, the composer seemed to have run out of steam; and yet… it continued for quite some time. At the end, someone shouted ‘Bravo!’ and others applauded. Maybe they thought or hoped the symphony was over.   

The final movement’s opening counterpoint is well put together, yet again it remained stubbornly unmemorable. If you are going to write in such reactionary fashion, at least write a tune. It sounded like the introduction to a Bach transcription that never materialised. Nor, if I am honest, did anything else much. This was note-spinning at length. If that length had been acquired from Bruckner, how to use it to good effect had not. The end, of course, simply had to include a chorale in augmentation. In the future, I shall stick with Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony, which has its moments, not least in its Adagio, more finely wrought than anything here.