Friday 17 November 2023

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

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


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

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

Saturday 11 November 2023

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

Pierre Boulez Saal

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

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

Images: Peter Adamik

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Friday 3 November 2023

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


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

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Image: Frederike van der Straeten

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

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

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

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

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