Saturday 30 March 2024

Thomanerchor/Reize - Bach, St John Passion, 28 March 2024

St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig

Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245 (first version, 1724)

Elisabeth Breuer (soprano)
Jakub Jósef Orliński (countertenor)
Daniel Johannsen (tenor)
Benjamin Appl (bass: Christus)
Tomáš Král (bass: arias)

Thomanerchor Leipzig
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Andreas Reize (conductor)


At Good Friday Vespers, 1724, in St Nicholas’s Church, Leipzig, the city’s new Thomaskantor, Johann Sebastian Bach, led the first performance of his St John Passion. Three hundred years later, on Good Friday, Bach’s masterwork will return to the same church, performed by the latest incarnation of the composer’s own choir and an orchestra closely related, conducted by the twelfth successor to Bach as Kantor, Andreas Reize. I attended not that performance, but one the previous evening of Maundy Thursday, at the more customary St Thomas’s; it is close enough, I think, to count, without troubling ourselves with complications of lunar versus solar calendars. (For what little it may be worth, the Gregorian calendar had been in use there for a generation.)

Properly enough, the work was given in Bach’s first version of 1724 (strictly, a reconstruction, the score having been lost). It is not so very different from what we usually hear – considerable revisions were made in 1725, mostly reversed in 1749 – but there are a few interesting differences, all of which (I think) had me sit up and notice. The presence of violas d’amore in place of the later muted violins is a case in point. It would be possible to go on at great length about this, and about changes made in the 1730s too, but this is not the place to do so; nor am I a Bach scholar. Details can readily be found elsewhere. Suffice it to say that one of the biggest changes for 1725, loss of the opening chorus, was, Gott sei Dank, not an issue here.

And so, yes, we heard those cries ‘Herr, unser Herrscher,’ less piercing than usual, given the strange acoustic (and seating arrangement) of the Thomaskirche. This is a church, not a concert hall; hearing the performance from the organ gallery above, and not seeing it at all is an unusual experience. It took my ears a good while to adjust, and I suspect it took the performers, even those accustomed to the space, a while to do so too, given how differently it operates with a full audience/congregation. (It is worth adding that this was a concert, not a service, although it was briefly introduced by Pastor Martin Hundertmark.) Whether the extremely fast – I have never heard so fast – tempo adopted by Reize made sense in these circumstances, or indeed any, I am sceptical, but the turbulence and imploring nature of this figurative curtain-raiser eventually came across. When we heard the words ‘Zeig uns durch deine Passion’, it felt as though that revelation was indeed being prepared. Moreover, choral diction here and throughout were, not least given the immense challenges, highly commendable. 

Tempi were in general very fast indeed; this is probably the norm now, though I struggle to understand why. Obsessive fear of ‘Romanticism’ rapidly shades into dampening of message—at least for some of us. The exceptions were interesting. For instance, the choral ‘Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?’ started slowly and accelerated: it certainly made dramatic sense. The moderate tempo to ‘Sei gegüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig!’ was most welcome too, permitting us to hear orchestral detail, in addition to being verbally and dramatically meaningful. Especially in the second part, a greater sense of harmonic rhythm was imparted to such writing, greatly to its and our advantage. As death neared, there was some sense of transformation, of Johannine predestination working its fatal, necessary way. I wondered whether the lack of bite in the chorus in which the high priests tell Pilate the inscription should read not that Christ was king of the Jews, but that he had said he was, was deliberate, an attempt to draw from a sting that now, for obvious reasons, is received problematically. Dramatically, it seemed a pity, but it is understandable. 

Throughout, the Thomanerchor, on home territory in every sense, impressed in what is doubtless a highlight of its year, yet by the same token is very much part of that church year, reliant on and emerging from weekly cantatas. The small solos drawn from its ranks were excellent too. When Reize and the singers drew attention to particular chorale harmonies, underlining subtle yet unmistakable, the effect and consequences were always welcome. Contrast between chorales was also telling. Whether one cared for Johannes Lang’s elaborate organ, stanza-length interpolations between stanzas, would be a matter of taste; on their own terms, they were highly accomplished. Lang even did something similar, albeit more of a lead-in, for the return to the A section in the opening chorus. 

Daniel Johannsen did an heroic job as both Evangelist and solo tenor. At times, quite ‘operatic’ – the first recitative suggested Loge – his approach was always deeply rooted in the text. The words ‘denn es war kalt’ had due, cold bite, for instance, preparing the way for Peter to warm his hands. Peter’s denial and bitter weeping made their point with heightened drama, the following aria (Johannsen’s also) heard in aftershock, yet with continuing bitterness, something akin to ‘Baroque’ expressionism. Benjamin Appl’s Christus was, unsurprisingly, warmer in tone, the natural bloom of his voice well suited to the part, though it varied too, ‘Siehe ist deine Mutter!’ indicative of weariness in a good sense. Bass soloist Tomáš Král presented a fine contrast and complement, his singing beautifully and meaningfully coloured without mannerism, the arioso ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ a particular highlight. Jakub Jósef Orliński sounded more at home, at least on this occasion, in his second aria than his first. There was a ‘purity’ to the second that did not preclude intense, inner drama. Elisabeth Breuer’s bell-like soprano was likewise projected more successfully in her second aria; how the dissonances ground on the word ‘Zähren’ in a fine collaboration with the musicians around her. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was always supportive, though rarely to the foreground. When its strings had opportunity to show their cultivation, they took it, as in the extraordinary bass number with chorus, ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’. 

It was, though, principally the choir’s – and Evangelist’s – evening. And above all Bach’s. There is something both indestructible and infinitely adaptable to his music that will perhaps always remain a mystery, though many have attempted explanation. Even in the case of performances and performance ‘styles’ from which one feels personally distanced, it still miraculously speaks. If we are still here in another 300 years, perhaps even if we are not, Bach will endure.

Thursday 28 March 2024

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Semperoper Dresden, 27 March 2024

Evelyn Herlitzius (Die Amme), Miina-Liisa Värelä (Baraks Frau), Komparserie;
all images © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

Emperor – Eric Cutler
Empress – Camilla Nylund
Nurse – Evelyn Herlitzius
Spirit-Messenger – Andreas Bauer Kanabas
Barak – Oleksandr Pushniak
Dyer’s Wife – Mina-Liisa Värelä
Apparition of Youth – Martin Mitterrutzner
Voice of the Falcon – Lea-ann Dunbar
Voice from Above – Christa Mayer
Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple – Nikola Hillebrand
The One-Eyed – Rafael Fingerlos
The One-Armed – Tilmann Rönnebeck
The Hunchback – Tansel Akzeyebek
Children’s Voices – Nikola Hillebrand, Sofia Savenko, Lea-ann Dunbar, Stephanie Atanasov, Dominika Škrabalová, Michal Doron
Servants – Bryndis Gudjonsdottir, Sofia Savenko, Dominika Škrabalová

Director – David Bösch
Set designs – Patrick Bannwart
Costumes – Moana Stemberger
Lighting – Fabio Antoci
Video – Falko Herold, Patrick Bannwart
Dramaturgy – Johann Casimir Eule

Children’s Chorus (director: Claudia Sebastian-Bertsch) of the Semperoper Dresden
Chorus (director: André Kellinghaus) of the Semperoper Dresden
Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann (conductor)  

Dresden opened its week-and-a-half Richard Strauss-Tage with David Bösch’s new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, premiered a few days previously, then as now under Christian Thielemann’s baton and with an excellent cast. By the very nature of the work, it tends to attract, if not quite only then preponderantly, fine performances; its forces imply a season highlight or festival outing. That said, it has attracted a variety of directorial approaches, some more convincing than others. At the least convincing extreme stands Christof Loy’s arrogant, disdainful, absurdly reductive effort for Salzburg, also conducted (outstandingly) by Thielemann. I am not sure I have seen a production of anything that engaged less with the work in question—although, to give Loy his due, he imperiously announced that he would not, since he did not care for it. Otherwise, some will heighten the work’s ritualistic tendencies, perhaps at expense of its complex symbolism. Some will adopt a Freudian approach. Some – many would say this was true of the work – will prove more perplexing than anything else. Bösch’s has something of these tendencies, whilst for the most part telling the story as clearly as any I can recall.

Oleksandr Pushniak (Barak)

That is far from a bad thing, especially in a work of this complexity, though it immediately raises the question: ‘whose story? Hofmannsthal’s or Strauss’s?’ What, if I am understanding correctly, Bösch does suggest is a contest between two worlds, not so much those of the born and unborn, as between heaven and earth, fantasy and reality, even sleep and waking. Set designs, costumes, and lighting create and contribute to this: a silken world of sheets and dreams leading, via a grim, even grimy portal, to the workshop-cum-living quarters of a modern-day dyer – washing machine and all – and his wife. And so, when both couples are transformed by their trials, so as to find a world of greater happiness in the third act, it is not only one of procreation, but of broader fulfilment, acceptance, and happiness. When all threatens to collapse into bathos with the Emperor and Empress welcoming children who seem to have wandered in from a school play, it is (at least for me) rescued by this broadening of focus. Hofmannsthal’s central ‘message’ – it is surely not the only one, but I do not think we can simply ignore it either – is of course a troubling one to many of us. We can understand it more broadly in terms of valuing life at a time when so many were being lost in the Great War, but we cannot convert it entirely into that. Like it or not, pronatalism is there; so is decided inequality between the sexes; so is heteronormativity; so are many things in which many of us no longer believe. If the two couples meeting again ‘on earth’ as friends for a few drinks might seem banal, then something needs to be done here, and there are surely worse alternatives. 

There are powerful moments: as when – perhaps unconsciously echoing Wagner’s Die Feen, for whose belated first performance the young Strauss acted as assistant conductor – the Dyer’s Wife picks up a baby (doll) and casts it into grisly oblivion. At the beginning of the third act, a television-watching Barak living a separate, miserable existence from his wife in separate, separated rooms, told a powerful tale simply and with great human sympathy. Although I have not seen the film, I could not help but wonder whether flooding the stage with pink – in general, coloured lighting was a great strength – was a reference to the fantasy worlds of Barbie and Ken. A selection of beautiful, youthly, apparently identical apparitions from which the Dyer’s Wife could choose was a nice touch: consonant also with a clue in the libretto. I was not wild about the appearance onstage of a giant falcon, though the kitsch seemed knowing. Likewise some of the video imagery seemed to me superfluous, though I am doubtless speaking as much of my own taste as anything more definite. It is difficult to imagine anyone finding nothing here to spark egngagement, just as doubtless many of us will have our cavils. (The idiot booing at the close was presumably an exception.) Literally breaking up the scene, the turn to ‘reality’ itself a bourgeois fantasy, is a crucial moment, returning us to the ambiguous world of the Nurse, who tellingly also seems broken by the experience. What might have been unduly reductive proves ultimately to question itself – and us – too.

Camilla Nylund (Die Kaiserin) 

What surprised me was how different Thielemann’s reading seemed from that Salzburg performance. Perhaps on account of the oft-noted ‘narrowness’ of his repertoire, which can be exaggerated, he is rarely a conductor to step twice in the same interpretative river. Where once he had gloried in the full throttle of Strauss’s huge orchestra, now he was far more sparing in unleashing it. This was a highly lyrical account, in the outstanding, never-erring Staatskapelle Dresden at least as much as onstage. Much might have been chamber music, though there was also a greater affinity, not unlike Kirill Petrenko in Munich, albeit softer, more soloistic, with the harmonic world of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16. It is here, surely, that Strauss comes closest to Schoenberg, as opposed to vice versa (ironically, given what by now he was saying about the composer to whom, not so long before, he had proved commendably generous). If I missed something of the extraordinary, grinding dissonance Thielemann conjured in his Vienna Philharmonic recording of the Fantasy on themes from the opera, I always do. Here, like the Dyer and his Wife, he had different fish to fry. 

There was an almost Karajan-like sense of line to the performance as a whole, characterised by enormous variation in tempo as well as dynamics. I do not think I have ever heard the close of the first act so beautifully, wondrously drawn out: luminous and, in context, both otherworldly and worldly. It seemed to capture musically the clash between Hofmannsthal’s message, via the Nightwatchmen’s words, and Strauss’s scepticism, adopting that ‘beautiful’ yet, through his Nietzschean materialism, strangely empty ‘holiness’ Strauss tends towards when setting anything approaching the Christian (or even transcendental). One might think of Salome’s John the Baptist here, or a song such as Allerseelen. Yet I found it deeply moving, albeit intriguingly as if it were delivered in a dream-like moment of temporal suspension and/or manipulation. The closed of the second act, often a thrilling, even terrifying climax, here seemed to function more as a summary of what had already happened, the Nurse’s ‘Übermächte sind im Spiel’ delivered in kind. Musical dramaturgy, then, was often unusual, yet never arbitrary. Thielemann had clearly considered his approach carefully.



Miina-Liisa Värelä (Baraks Frau), Evelyn Herlitzius (Die Amme), Camilla Nylund (Die Kaiserin), Tilmann Rönnebeck (Der Einarmige), Oleksandr Pushniak (Barak), Tansel Akzeybek (Der Bucklige), Rafael Fingerlos (Der Einäugige), Kinderchor der Semperoper Dresden

Vocal performances were, of course, part and parcel of all the above, and suggested similarly careful casting in a combination of celebrated exponents and newer comers. I cannot recall hearing an Emperor less strained than Eric Cutler. This doubtless had something to do with Thielemann’s new penchant for orchestral softness and lyricism, but also surely reflected Cutler’s own, more bel canto approach. It put me a little in mind of Boulez casting Chris Merritt in Moses und Aron. His relationship with the Empress, Camilla Nylund, was unquestionably a real one: no mere representation of something symbolic. Nylund rarely if ever disappoints; nor did she here, in a wonderfully human portrayal, that held in reserve great vocal power when called upon, yet impressed equally in more sensitive mode. One might say much the same of Oleksandr Pushniak as Barak and Mina-Liisa Värelä as the Dyer’s Wife, their acting equally impressive—and moving. As for Evelyn Herlitzius, her voice instantly recognisable, her total dramatic commitment hardly less so, I doubt there are many artists who have sung both this and the Dyer’s Wife. This, though, was unquestionably a world and a character she could completely inhabit. Andreas Bauer Kanabas made a strong impression as the Spirit-Messenger. Choral and ensemble parts were all very well taken. There was no weak link, but rather a multitude of musical, dramatic, and musicodramatic strands one could follow: not necessarily so as to answer any questions, but rather to pose a few more. In this work, there are too many conflicts for resolution ever to be an option.

Evelyn Herlitzius (Die Amme)

Monday 25 March 2024

Der Ring des Nibelungen, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 18, 19, 21, and 24 March 2024

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Brünnhilde (Anja Kampe)

Wotan/Wanderer – Tomas Konieczny
Donner, Gunther – Roman Trekel
Froh – Siyabonga Maqungo
Loge – Rolando Villazón
Fricka – Claudia Mahnke
Freia – Anett Fritsch
Erda, Rossweisse – Anna Kissjudit
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Mime – Stephan Rügamer
Fasolt – Matthew Rose
Fafner – Peter Rose
Woglinde – Evelin Novak
Wellgunde – Natalia Skrycka
Flosshilde, Siegrune – Ekaterina Chayka-Rubinstein
Siegmund – Robert Watson
Sieglinde – Vida Miknevičutė
Hunding – René Pape
Brünnhilde – Anja Kampe
Gerhilde – Clara Nadeshdin
Helmwige – Christiane Kohl
Waltraute – Michal Doron, Violeta Urmana
Schwertleite – Alexandra Ionis
Ortlinde, Third Norn – Anna Samuil
Grimgerde – Aytaj Shikhalizada
Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Woodbird – Victoria Randem
Hagen – Stephen Milling
Gutrune – Mandy Friedrich
First Norn – Marina Prudenskaya
Second Norn – Kristina Stanek

Director – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Revival directors – Lilli Fischer, Thorsten Cölle
Costumes – Elena Zaytseva
Lighting – Gleb Filshtinsky
Video – Alexey Poluboyarinov

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Dani Juris)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

Returning to Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Berlin Ring a year after I first saw it, it seems very much the same production: thought-provoking, amenable to almost endless further questioning, and yet, as we reach the denouement, seemingly turning aside: not, I think, or at least not straightforwardly, as George Bernard Shaw accused Wagner of having done in Götterdammerung, on account of succumbing to the ‘love panacea’, but rather from having failed to see its Konzept through. I decided this time to write a single review rather than four instalments, partly so I could make connections between the four parts more readily, not necessarily explicitly, but at least writing with the whole in min. Comparison with what went before last year, with a largely yet not entirely different cast, and a different conductor (then Thomas Guggeis, now Philippe Jordan) is both interesting and, on some level, inevitable, but I shall try to limit 2023 references, so this can be read on its own terms. (I shall re-read my reviews, here, here, here, and here, once this has been written and posted.) Whatever its flaws, this remains an important piece of theatre, and performances were of a high, often outstanding, standard throughout. If we continue to miss Daniel Barenboim, life goes on—and very well too.

Alberich (Johannes Martin Kränzle)

Set in the ESCHE research centre, with an ash appropriately enough at its centre, Das Rheingold does very well in setting up expectations for the Ring as a whole. In some though not all respects, we may safely delete ‘expectations for’. It is difficult not to think of Blake’s ‘Art is the Tree of Life … Science is the Tree of Death,’ nor indeed of the Biblical Tree of Life, as well of course as Wagner’s kindred World-Ash. For this is unquestionably the realm of science, and in the most overtly political of all Wagner’s dramas, one is led – at least I was – to consider the relationship between politics and the natural sciences: in many respects, at least since the Enlightenment onwards, a key question of political and indeed other philosophy. Hegel, notably, is the trickiest figure here, at least for those who, like Charles Taylor, find his ontology impossible to accept; but he is arguably all the more important for that. Whatever else one might say, for instance, of Marx and Engels – to name perhaps the two most important political philosophers of Wagner’s generations – they were anything but vulgar materialists. Dialectical materialism: the clue is in the name. In the following generation, Nietzsche is an equally tricky case, arguably more ambiguous (take his interest, often overlooked, in eighteenth-century materialism) than self-styled Nieztscheans. Such thinkers, and others, inform our response to this world of observation, surveillance, and experimental psychology, in which the first scene physically abuses – and watches – Alberich more thoroughly than any other I can recall. Arguably this is above all Loge’s world, the world of the instrumental reason he seems to represent: that which Adorno and Horkheimer identified as the key to modernity’s deadly dialectic of enlightenment. When Loge gestures to Wotan in the third scene of Das Rheingold that he knows all too well what is going on, but they need to continue to play the game for Alberich’s benefit, the game is truly afoot. And Wotan, quite properly after Erda’s intervention, realises something is rotten in the state of Valhalla. Following the ineffectual yet crowd-pleasing magic tricks of Froh and Donner, he remains alone, in despair, grabbing the once ‘natural’ ash tree, though it is probably too late already. No one else, though, seems to know or care. 

For perhaps the key question as the drama develops is who is in charge, who is running these experiments. It might first seem to be Wotan and the gods, yet ultimately, like serious (non-naïve, non-liberal) political philosophy in general, there seems to be something and/or someone beyond those we thought was ruling the roost. Rousseau’s problem of the Legislator returns—but so ultimately does his inability to answer the questions he set himself in The Social Contract. Questions of agency come to the fore, just as they do with respect to Wotan and his ‘great idea’, announced at the end of Das Rheingold and torn to shreds by Fricka. What are we to make, when we reach Götterdämmerung, of the institute carrying on more or less before, but with still less of an evident chain of command. Frankenstein’s monster, in politics, even metaphysics, as in philosophy? Perhaps. 

Siegmund is an escaped inmate, with a touch both of Ukrainian Zelensky and Russian Tcherniakov to him via Elena Zaytseva’s costumes, Tcherniakov’s direction, and Robert Watson’s determined yet damaged portrayal. (The Ukrainian President is, after all, nothing if he is not an actor.) This we learn via Gleb Filshtinsky’s striking video police report, which accompanies Die Walküre’s opening orchestral storm. And yet, reopening or extending questions concerning scope, authority, agency, and so forth, he is nonetheless under observation by Wotan and Fricka, a one-way mirror from Hunding’s dwelling revealing the god’s Erich Mielke-like office, from which his own brand of state security (failings pointed out unsparingly both by Fricka and, more sympathetically, by Wagner) may be dispensed. Perhaps surprisingly, given the lack of an object for the ring, there is a sword, which in this particular context imparts a sense, if not quite of playacting, then of enforced roleplay (an echo, perhaps, of Tcherniakov’s Aix Carmen).

Siegmund (Robert Watson) and Sieglinde (Vida Miknevičutė)

Forcible return of the Volsung hero to the facility proper, or to more intense observation within, is at least as shocking as, in the previous instalment, Alberich’s not dissimilar bundling off, courtesy of research centre heavies, and approaches Fafner’s horrifying gun-murder of Fasolt. Violence is omnipresent both in the Ring and Tcherniakov’s reading of it, whatever Wotan (‘Nichts durch Gewalt!’) might claim. We might also mention in that breath Wotan’s dragging a hooded – essentially imprisoned and undoubtedly traumatised – Sieglinde back to the lecture theatre, which makes the tentative steps toward childhood play and then full display of father-daughter love between him and Brünnhilde all the more moving, as did magnificent performances from both Tomasz Koniezcny and Anja Kampe.

In Siegfried, there is also much to glean and admire. The thug-orphan-hero’s smashing of childhood toys in the first act has obvious symbolism. So too has his sheer might. Intriguingly, he sees Wotan at the end of that act, through what had once seemed to be a one-way-mirror. Maybe it never was; we may just have wanted to believe that. Or perhaps it is testament to the old order and/or older generation giving way. There is room for different interpretation here. Certainly, Konieczny’s Wotan, previously the loudest – at least at his loudest – I have heard, though that is not to deny his verbal subtlety either, seemed transformed, and not only visually (though tremendous work is done there through costume, make-up, and prosthetics). This Wanderer was old, and we heard it too. So too, far from incidentally, was Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich; their confrontation at the beginning of the second act was one of the deepest I can recall, as focused on Wagner’s poem as any ‘straight’ theatre performance, but with the additional intensity only music, vocal and orchestral, can bring. 

The enclosed violence of something approaching a cage-fight – a lab fight – between Fafner and Siegfried is terrible to behold, though it was a pity for Peter Rose’s Fafner, so powerful and intelligent elsewhere (a fine pair earlier with his namesake Matthew Rose, as Fasolt), to let out his final ‘Siegfried’ seemingly without any recognition of what that name might mean. The experiment on our ‘rebel without a consciousness’, as Peter Wapnewski once called Siegfried, has him gain some of that, though oddly not really fear. (Nor does he have the slightest idea who the Norns are when he passes them: perhaps a missed opportunity to depict change.) It is in the final scene that things really begin to fall apart. Much seems merely silly, the forced laughter of Brünnhilde and Siegfried grating, as if Tcherniakov can no longer bear the seriousness of Wagner’s dramas and just wishes to mock it. It prefigures similar laughter in Götterdämmerung, for instance between Gunther and Gutrune; more seriously, it prefigures the failure of that drama chez Tcherniakov.

Siegfried (Andreas Schager) and Mime (Stephan Rügamer)

Before, though, we turn to the denouement, let us consider the musical achievements, at least those not discussed above. Above all, there is the astonishing achievement of the Staatskapelle Berlin. I am not sure I have ever heard quite so faultless a performance, even under Barenboim. That there were a few instances of tiredness in Götterdämmerung is only to be expected; that there were so few is eminently worthy of note. Jordan’s conducting was extremely fluent, navigating the score almost as if he were Karajan. The sheer elegance of his approach will not be to all tastes, but it deserves serious consideration. Ultimately, I felt there was often, though not always, a degree or two of range lacking, and that Götterdämmerung had a tendency to drag just a little, as if tempi were slightly out of sync with the overall conception. But Jordan’s command of his forces and the sheer excellence of those forces – there was not a single vocal performance that really fell short – was testament to more than Barenboim’s extraordinary legacy, however important that may be. It was certainly the best Wagner yet I have heard from the conductor; it was also just as heartening to hear this great orchestra continue to consign any other Wagner band, Bayreuth’s included, to the shade.  

Some individual performances I have mentioned already. I cannot run through them all, but shall select some highlights. Rolando Villazón’s Loge is always likely to remain controversial, though it seemed to me to have progressed significantly from last year: less bel canto, more Rheingold dialectic. There could be no doubting his wholehearted commitment, nor his thriving on stage. That is surely more important than individual preferences for what a role ‘should’ be. Siyabnoga Maqungo made for a pleasingly lyric Froh. If I felt Claudia Mahnke’s Fricka came more into her own in Die Walküre, that is doubtless as much a matter of work and production than performance as such. She certainly lived and breathed her character’s argument and ruthlessness in its presentation, with none of the misguided recent trend to make Fricka unduly sympathetic (cheered on by commentators who clearly have little understanding of either the drama itself or Wagner’s position). Anna Kissjudit’s Erda remained essential; as with so many exponents of the role, she seems to be a singer who can do no wrong (her recent Ježibaba a case in point). That does not mean we should take for granted the deep beauty and penetrating verbal commitment of her portrayal; we should not.


Kränzle’s Alberich may have been less black of tone than many, but that offered a caution against essentialism, the intelligence of his portrayal showing it is perfectly possible for an artist both to play the forger of the ring in three out of four evenings, yet also to be capable of satisfying the very different requirements of a Beckmesser. Stephan Rügamer’s Mime was every bit as distinguished, thoughtful, and similarly verbally founded a portrayal as one would expect from this fine artist: again never something we should take for granted. Vida Miknevičutė’s Sieglinde was everything one could wish for: vulnerable, yes, yet with great inner strength, blossoming and crushed according to the dramatic requirements of work and production—and René Pape’s brutal, yet beautifully sung Hunding. This is surely more his role than Wotan. 

Andreas Schager’s Siegfried continues to be a significant achievement. If Schager’s voice no longer has the freshness it once did – how could it? – his was a tireless performance, committed throughout in its attempt to show us what both Wagner and Tcherniakov asked of him. Kampe went from strength to strength as Brünnhilde, truly enlisting our sympathy, without ever playing a ‘mere’ victim’. A more distinguished set of ‘other’ Valkyries, some of whom appeared in additional roles, one would struggle to find anywhere at any time. Not only the ‘Ride’ but the crucial scene thereafter, cast from such vocal and acting strength, came to urgent, necessary life such as may only rarely be experienced. (To have such a Wotan, Brünnhilde, and Sieglinde did no harm, of course.) Stephen Milling’s Hagen was another commanding performance, and I greatly enjoyed Victoria Randem’s performance, likewise completely inhabiting the world of the Woodbird. Rhinemaidens and Norns were similarly of the highest standard.

Back, then, to Tcherniakov. It pains me to say, as a great admirer of his work in general, that the perverse achievement of his Götterdämmerung is to have made it so boring. Having seemingly run out of ideas (and/or time?) by the last scene of Siegfried, he goes through the motions here. I presume the lack of observation from elsewhere in the centre signifies something—and one can certainly speculate about what that might be. Given that it occurs before the Norns’ rope snaps, it must have happened either at the end of Siegfried or in between. I have no objection to trying to fill in the gaps; there is no reason the audience should not have to do some work too. The problem is that it becomes difficult to care. Whatever explanations one comes up with, the production seems either to repeat itself, for want of anything better to do, or introduces something arbitrarily new. No basketball so far? Why not introduce it for the hunting scene. Of course, one can argue that such sport is a reasonable masculine equivalent, but it is unprepared at best. The return of various characters, Erda (still played by Kissjudit, rather than an actor) and an elderly Wanderer included, to observe Siegfried’s funeral rites could be touching. It is certainly not an intrinsically bad idea. But amidst a host of apparently ‘new’ characters, presumably from younger generations (although the decor has not changed at all), it is all a bit confusing, even random.


I do not think I have seen a less eventful Immolation Scene, and hope never to do so. Brünnhilde really is parked, if not to bark, then to sing very well. After that, she jumps on top of Siegfried on a hospital trolley, and that is that until a final scene change to follow Hagen’s ‘Zurück vom Ring’ (from offstage). She has packed her bag – it is not quite a suitcase, I suppose, but come on… – and is heading off somewhere to be intercepted by Erda, who offers her a bird. Perhaps there was a fire after all, since the research centre seems to have vanished. For want of anything more meaningful, the words of Wagner’s so-called ‘Schopenhauer ending’ are projected for us to read. If Schopenhauer is being invoked as therapy, this must rank as the weakest, least motivated instalment of Tcherniakov’s often intriguing therapeutic turn. This, alas, seems more, not less, tired on a second viewing. One looks to do more than shrug and say ‘so what?’ at the end of a Ring, all the more so when it had started and, for the most part, continued so well. It is above all a great pity, and not in a Parsifalian-Mitleid sort of way.

Saturday 23 March 2024

R.I.P. Maurizio Pollini (1942-2024)

(Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung)

Maurizio Pollini was a guiding light of my musical life: which is to say, he and his music-making were with me from the moment in my teens when I became seriously interested in music. More, composers and performers alike, are gone now than remain with us; I shall not tempt fate by naming those who are left. One of my very first cassette purchases – it may even have been the first – was his recording of Mozart’s Piano Concertos nos 19 and 23 with Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic. I love it more than I can say. Mozart’s music requires but one thing: perfection. Perfection it receives in what, I suspect, will always be one of my Desert Island Discs. 

In my first London concert, a Prom for which I took the bus up to London and back to Sheffield for a birthday treat with a friend, Pollini was the soloist, again in Mozart, this time in the C minor Concerto, no.24. It was also my first live Schoenberg and Stravinsky (the First Chamber Symphony and Pulcinella, with the CBSO conducted by Simon Rattle). And then, when, as a student, I bought my first ticket for a London piano recital, now taking a return rail journey from Cambridge, it was Pollini: in his beloved Chopin, which by now I knew well enough from recordings, above all those ever-astounding Études and Préludes. What it was, though, to hear him live, as I sat on the Royal Festival Hall stage, incredibly close to the master and his instrument. The technique was of course dazzling, Pollini’s pristine perfection taken by duller souls for a lack of depth or some other such nonsense. I read review after review in which the musical equivalent of the nouveaux riches would lament his technical ability, failing to realise that, like that of any great musician, it was in the service of a musical performance that would have been nothing without it. By now, of course, I knew among other recorded performances that simply astounding DG Originals CD, bringing together two original recordings, of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Webern, and Boulez.


Prokofiev and Stravinsky were no longer in his repertory by the time I heard him, but both the Webern (Variations, op.27) and Boulez (Piano Sonata no.2) I would hear live more than once. One of those occasions combined the two, in a 2006 recital at the Salzburg Festival. It had been advertised, somewhat surprisingly, as an all-Mozart recital, but then it was the composer’s 250th anniversary year. I had longed to hear him in solo Mozart – none of which, so far as I am aware, he recorded – and so I did, in the first half. The second half of the programme, though, he changed to Webern and Boulez, initiating an exodus not only at the interval, not only after the Webern, but unforgivably, during the ice, fire, and elements unknown to this universe of the Boulez. I might have thought I could not admire him any more than I did already; now, however, I did. 

There was so much else, of course, not least the music of Luigi Nono, some of which, quite simply, would not have existed had it not been for his friendship with Pollini (and Claudio Abbado). …sofferte onde serene… I knew it a little from his recording, but to hear it live in London at the Southbank Centre’s courageous ‘Fragments of Venice’ festival in 2007, was truly to hear it for the first time. The last time I did so, at Salzburg in 2019, it was like welcoming an old friend, albeit one who could shock and surprise, as well as seduce, as brilliantly as you could imagine—and then some.

It was an important concert for me in another way too: the first time I had written a programme essay for a Pollini concert. I have no idea whether he would have read it; I am sure he had 1001 better things to do with his time, but a little part of me hopes that he might have done and not found it hopelessly inadequate. (It is perhaps best that I shall never know.) I should like, if I may, to quote the Nono part of that note, not for any intrinsic worth, but simply because in some way, that felt for me to be a moment at which I came closer to Pollini.


Such serenity provides both starting point and goal for the poetic idea of Luigi Nono’s 1976 …sofferte onde serene…. The waves are Venetian, so too is the tolling of bells, almost as if transposed from the Vienna of Schoenberg’s op.19 no.6 [heard immediately before]. Heard, felt and answered from Nono’s home on the Giudecca, those sounds seem, as with Schoenberg’s, not only to say farewell to earlier, angrier compositional and aesthetic tendencies – tendencies that had culminated for Nono in the high-watermark of his politically committed art, the opera Al gran sole carico d’amore – but also to sustain them in distillation, in further development. ‘I could say’, Nono remarked, ‘as Schoenberg did, that, at the conclusion of each work, I wish more than ever to breathe the air of new planets’. It also continued Nono’s artistic collaboration with Pollini, initiated by Como un ola de fuerza y luz (1971–2), although the two leftist musicians had known each other since the mid-1960s. …sofferte onde serene… displayed, as Nono averred, a reduction in the multiplicity of musical material: a new path taken following a period of compositional silence.


That apparent simplification in itself inspired further ‘waves’ – lagoonal and sonic – in collaboration enshrined at the work’s heart, Nono’s purpose amplification rather than counterpoint. Dedicated to Maurizio and Marilisa Pollini, it operates on two acoustic planes: Pollini live and on tape. They merge, realized in the air through artistry of sound direction – first Nono himself; tonight, André Richard. Vibrations, shadows and resonances sustain and transform memories of loss suffered by composer and pianist. Ghosts of other sounds and works in Pollini’s repertoire are honoured and transformed. (Late, Venetian-themed works by Liszt, La lugubre gondola and R.W. Venezia, were performed at the 1977 premiere.) The moment of Schoenbergian hyper-expressivity – sometimes stark, sometimes on the edge of audibility, sometimes even falling into silence –compels active listening. Nono’s politics have not drowned; they are revealed anew in the waters. So as not to confuse the political ‘provocations’ for earlier works with their substance, we must listen, suffering to break musical silence as the composer did, inspired by his pianist and friend as much as by the instrument. Counterpoint and conflict seem conspicuous by their absence, certainly by comparison to Nono’s preceding works. Whether we feel that absence as an integral aspect of the work is an impossible yet necessary question.

Fondazione Archivio Luigi Nono

I could list fond memories aplenty: from the time when Pollini played those Schoenberg op.19 Six Little Piano Pieces as a single encore, one of four, to the five-concert ‘Pollini Project’ series at the Festival Hall, which took us literally from Bach to Boulez. A good number of them will be found on my blog in any case, under the Maurizio Pollini tag. There was the Bauhaus, crystalline surface-perfection of his recording of the op.25 Schoenberg Suite for piano, teeming with energy below, and the Orphic taming of the Furies in the Beethoven Fourth Concerto with Böhm. There were Stockhausen and Sciarrino, Schubert, and Schumann. I should at least mention the transition, or so it seemed, to a ‘late Pollini’, in which the technique was not quite so unwaveringly infallible as once it had been, though it certainly remained (until very late) present. Many felt a greater depth, almost as compensation. I know what they meant, but I think it was an illusion: the same old illusion that meant, dazzled and in some curious cases repelled by technique, they had never heard that depth in the first place now led them to hear it more strongly. There was, though, an instructive and touching element of humanity to the ageing process that came to us listeners as much as to the performer. 

Amidst such reminiscences, the communist Pollini’s unwavering political commitment should not be forgotten. It informed his performance as much as it did the compositional work of Nono—or Beethoven. Advocacy of Nono’s music took him and as Abbado beyond the concert hall and the opera house to the car factories of northern Italy. It would have been easier to glory in the world of ‘star performers’, but that was clearly never somewhere Pollini, however fêted, was ever at home. In many ways, his music-making was always a product of the ‘Years of Lead’ in which fascism, openly backed by much of ‘the West’, threatened to occupy much of Europe once again. Speaking in Bettina Erhardt’s wonderful film on Nono, A Trail on the Water, made after Nono’s death, Pollini recalled one incident in particular:


There was a lot of tension in the air. We have to remember the situation in Italy back then. People were even talking about a possible Fascist coup. There was the example of the colonels in Greece. The fear of a turn towards authoritarianism was serious. After the massacre on the Piazza Fontana in Milan and the bombs, we took it all the more seriously. I think it was the reaction of the whole country that kept it from happening. Back then, I once read, or rather tried to read, a declaration against a hideous atrocity in the Vietnam War when the United States bombed Hanoi and Hai Phong. Several Italian musicians had signed the declaration: Claudio Abbado, Luigi Nono, [Giacomo] Manzoni and the Quartetto Italiano, as well as Goffredo Petrassi, Luigi Dallapiccola. Contrary to all my expectations, at the mere sound of the word ‘Vietnam’, the audience exploded in a kind of collective delirium, which made it impossible to continue my recital. I made several attempts to read this short statement. This was interrupted by the arrival of the police. Eventually the piano was closed and that was that.

He spoke at the protests against Berlusconi almost half a century later too. Maurizio Pollini was a great pianist, a great musician, but above all a great man, a great human being. However unfashionable it may be to say so, for me that shows in his music-making. In recorded form, as in our memories, that will live forever. And we shall be able to tell those younger than ourselves: ‘I heard Pollini.’

Thursday 21 March 2024

The Queen of Spades, Deutsche Oper, 20 March 2024

PIQUE DAME von Pjotr I. Tschaikowskij, Premiere am 9. März 2024 in der Deutschen Oper Berlin,
copyright: Marcus Lieberenz
Countess (Doris Soffel) and Hermann (Martin Muehle)

Hermann – Martin Muehle
Tomsky – Lucio Gallo
Prince Yeletsky – Thomas Lehman
Chekalinsky – Chance Jonas-O’Toole
Surin – Kyle Miller
Chaplitsky – Andrew Dickinson
Narumov – Artur Garbas
Master of Ceremonies – Jörg Schörner
The Countess – Doris Soffel
Lisa – Maria Motolygina
Pauline – Karia Tucker
Governess – Nicole Piccolomini
Masha – Arianna Manganello
Children’s commander – Sofia Kaspruk
Little Hermann – Aleksandr Sher
Little Lisa – Alma Kraushaar
Stage piano – Jisu Park
Old servant – Wolfgang Siebner

Director – Sam Brown
Designer – Stuart Nunn
Choreography – Ron Howell
Video – Martin Eidenberger
Lighting – Linus Fellborn
Assistant directors – Constanze Weidknecht, Silke Sense
Dramaturgy – Konstantin Parnian

Children’s Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (director: Christian Lindhorst)
Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (director: Jeremy Bines)
Statisterie, and Opernballet of the Deutsche Oper
Sebastian Weigle (conductor)  

The late Graham Vick was to have directed this new production of The Queen of Spades for the Deutsche Oper. According to the cast list, Vick laid down the principles for the production, but his successor Sam Brown, charged with bringing the project to completion, alongside designer Stuart Nunn and choreographer (and Vick’s widower) Ron Howell, will necessarily have brought much that his own to the piece. As he says in an interview, ‘I knew that the framework that he’d created provides a lot of room for conceptual freedom. … It may sound dramatic, but Graham’s ideas for PIQUE DAME outside of the equipment died with him. As a director, I have to walk my own path.’ Tempting though it may be to speculate what comes from whom, that is hardly the point. Having noted the situation, it is better to move on to discuss what it is we see and hear.

Chekalinsky (Chance Jonas-O'Toole), Tomsky (Lucio Gallo), Surin (Kyle Miller)

Layering of memory is a particular strength. Tchaikovsky – and his brother and librettist, Modest, as well of course as Pushkin – play with memories of the eighteenth century. That is doubled by the Countess’s memories of her ‘own’, earlier eighteenth century, Mme de Pompadour and all. The Grétry air is another case in point. In this production, without being merely indeterminate or arbitrary, which would defeat the point, further nesting occurs, for instance in the silent film excerpts (from a Russian adaptation of 1916), but also in the dressing and undressing of particular characters at different points, as well as in broader designs. Spanning three centuries – the nineteenth may not be overtly depicted on stage, but it is always present – is not an easy trick to bring off, but it is meaningfully accomplished here. Moreover, it is with us from the start, the opening scene with children’s chorus pointing to much of what is to come. A maltreated child, a social outsider even then, is abused by children and adults alike, only to have a little girl briefly come to him and show a little kindness. It prefigures what is to come, but perhaps it is also a memory. In this opera, though, it is always too late. The cards dealt by fate can never be changed, despite – or because of – their entirely random nature in what is no game of skill. 

Hermann, Countess

The cast acts out this game and propels it with great skill, heightening and extending its outlines in much the same way the production does. Martin Muehle’s Hermann is tireless, anguish-ridden, obsessive, perhaps a little on the Verdian side of Tchaikovsky, but I am not sure it behoves me, as one who speaks no Russian, to be too fussy here. It was above all his journey of catastrophe, and no one could doubt that Muehle grasped his fate and followed it. But it is not only his journey; part of the problem is surely that the characters are heading in different, mutually opposed and uncomprehending directions. Maria Motolygina’s Lisa, unable to escape from her childhood and clearly presented as such, was by the same token beautifully, often heartrendingly sung, her final scene powerful indeed. As expected, Doris Soffel’s Countess stole the show: not only a sterling performance, that ‘ancient’ air included, but one showing her sexual drives to be as strong as ever, perhaps even more so. Perhaps if she too had questioned her obsessions, she might have been happier—but is there any meaning in that ‘perhaps’? Thomas Lehman’s Yeletsky was finely sung indeed, as, in smaller roles, were Karia Tucker’s Pauline, Andrew Dickinson’s Chaplitsky, Chance Jonas-O’Toole’s Chekalinsky, Kyle Miller’s Surin, and many more, up to and including the chorus. Lucio Gallo’s virile, contemptuously masculine Tomsky showed how this singer can still absolutely hold the stage. Raunchy masked-ball choreography from Howell and excellent performances from the dancers not only returned to several questions already posed, but also asked a good number of their own.

Sebastian Weigle’s conducting had its moments, especially during the third act. (The opera was essentially given in scenes rather than acts, the interval given, as is often the case, following the arrival of Catherine the Great in the middle of the second act.) Then it became more idiomatic, conjuring up from the excellent Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper more of a Tchaikovskian sound than had previously been the case. We should not be too essentialist about such matters, but much previously had sounded rather on the Germanic side, albeit with distinctly odd balances, strings in particular notably subdued. A lack of dramatic sweep, without anything obvious put in its place, proved frustrating. 

Catherine the Great (Doris Soffel)

Singing and production continued, though, to offer considerable compensation. Soffel’s reappearance as Catherine the Great suggested she and the Countess were one and the same, her mocking laughter at the end of that third scene echoing the Countess’s ghostly reappearance (dressed as Lisa) to name the three cards. Was this all, then, just Hermann’s fevered imagination? And if so, to put it bluntly, what is the point? What we saw was not so cut and dried as that. Indeed, one of the projector quotations between scenes, from Dostoevsky, considering the nature of fantasy, how it must come close to reality, made that clear. 

If the scales here are tilted towards fantasy rather than reality, more so than any other production I can recall and than I have tended to think of it, then this remains a single production, concentrating fruitfully on a particular standpoint; another will be free to do something else. And it is only limited by it to the extent that almost any standpoint will limit: it enabled and heighted a strong sense of fate, from which not only Hermann, but also Lisa and indeed the Countess wish to escape, yet ultimately knew they cannot—and do not. 

There is, I think, something psychoanalytical to the approach. Certainly everything appears to be built on misunderstandings or downright lies: untruths, at any rate. What Hermann wants does not really exists; what Lisa wants does not really exist; what the Countess has wanted all her life has probably never existed at all. That holds for others too, not least Yeletsky. For all his apparent good fortune, he loses Lisa, and there is no sense of triumph in his final victory over Hermann. That it ends with a third and final death, all three ultimate protagonists departed, seems fitting in a sense that goes beyond Romantic death wish. Perhaps it is here, then, that the fantastic twist properly resumes, bidding us continue to question what we have seen and heard.

Monday 18 March 2024

RSB/Brabbins - Mendelssohn and Stravinsky, 16 March 2024


Mendelssohn: Symphony no.4 in A major, op.90, ‘Italian’
Mendelssohn: Hymne, op.96
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms

Denis Uzun (mezzo-soprano)
Berlin Radio Chorus (chorus director: Philipp Ahmann)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Mendelssohn and Stravinsky might not seem the most obvious bedfellows, but this Berlin Radio Symphony (RSB) concert, originally planned with Andrew Davis but conducted by Martyn Brabbins, offered pause for thought as well as enjoyment. Both composers had fraught relationships either with Wagner or his music—and, by extension, with that strain of musical Romanticism. (Even Liszt, that most generous spirited of composers, could refer dismissively to the ‘opposition’ as ‘leipzigerisch’.) The nature of their (neo)classicism is far from the same, but it offers an interesting perspective, even when the music performed is not so markedly in that mould. One could certainly spill a good deal of ink in discussing the relationship of the two Stravinsky works here to ideas and practice of neoclassicism. That, you will doubtless be relieved to know, must await another day, but such initial thoughts offered a frame through which to hear the works concerned. 

The RSB played Mendlessohn’s Italian Symphony with irresistible élan, string sheen and sunny woodwind a delight throughout. Brabbins was surely on the fast side for ‘Allegretto vivace’, but many conductors are.  Throughout, he imparted a proper sense of development to Mendelssohn’s writing, nowhere more so than in the featherlight counterpoint of the development section proper, though that certainly continued in the recapitulation. There was Abruzzo-like heat too in a reading full of colour and incident, aptly foreshadowing the processional of the second movement, which similarly benefited from transparent textures and a keen sense of direction. A graceful minuet, replete with trio that went properly beyond it in more than one direction, led to a saltarello both disciplined and wild, its contagion as impressive as its chiaroscuro. 

The op.96 Hymne, ‘Three Spiritual Songs’ (as they are known in the version with organ) plus a concluding ‘Fuga’, received a winning performance, mezzo Deniz Uzun and the Berlin Radio Chorus joining Brabbins and the orchestra. Telling detail could be heard without exaggeration, variety in scoring (the opening of the second, an especially lovely ‘hymn’, setting solo voice against woodwind consort) registering in every case. A lively third, with growing sense of jubilation, revealed once again what a fine chorus this is: ideal in weight, balance, and clarity. Much the same could be said of the concluding fugue. 

Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments sounded as seductive and rebarbative as ever, a perfect objet trouvé that find itself somehow chiselled to still further perfection. Apparently ossified lines suggestive of The Rite of Spring were imbued with radically new life, the performance as a whole splendidly alive: a liturgy in itself, to which we were permitted audience if not participation. If Boulez was an ideal interpreter (celebrant?) of this hieratic music, I could not help but think Stockhausen must have loved it too. At any rate, it made for a splendid introit to the Symphony of Psalms, whose similar strangeness registered visually in orchestral layout (famously, no violins and violas, nor clarinets) before a note had been heard. 

It proved another labyrinth, as full of incident in its way, above all in the first movement, as Mendelssohn’s Symphony. Glorious choral sound was well complemented by the orchestra; if there were occasions when the two threatened to go their separate ways, it never quite happened. More to the point, the inscrutability of Stravinsky’s musical devices – utterly characteristic ostinato in the first movement, the double fugue of the second – proved once again to pass all ‘expressive’ understanding, the composer’s ever-surprising ear made musically manifest. What a strange ‘response’ to the text Stravinsky offers in the words from Psalm 150 in the third movement. He would doubtless have said he was not responding at all, but simply setting them. That can readily become play with words, for ‘expression’ here, if hardly Romantic, was no less powerful for being what it was: quite the contrary. Brabbins took the opening daringly slow, providing all the greater contrast with what was to come. Music seeming at times to circle the worlds of the Symphony in Three Movements and even the Circus Polka never seemed remotely incongruous; roots and essence led to a hypnotic, even sanctified close.