Friday, 31 October 2014

Uchida/LSO/Haitink - Debussy, Mozart, and Brahms, 30 October 2014

Barbican Hall

Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.22 in  E-flat major, KV 482
Brahms – Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98

Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

My only worry concerning this concert, as I confided to a friend beforehand, was that, at best my expectations, high as they were, would only be met. As it happened, there was nothing for me to worry about; they were exceeded. Bernard Haitink and the LSO opened with what was perhaps the warmest, most leisurely, most languid performance of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune I have heard –at least that I can immediately recall. Magical both in its panoply of colours and its unhurried progress, its drama was heightened by nagging undercurrents that brought to mind Haitink’s Pelléas and of course his Wagner. The LSO was on excellent form, its harps imparting as much delight as Gareth Davies’s beautifully-shaped, infinitely-flexible flute solo. One could both appreciate the harmonies and sonorities for their own sake, and for their place in the greater scheme of things; one could luxuriate, but actively. Wonderful!

Mitsuko Uchida joined the orchestra for Mozart’s great E-flat major concerto, KV 482. The orchestra she joined displayed in its initial tutti just the right balance of clarity and warmth, Haitink ensuring a sense of the martial that was never exaggerated, ably assisted by trumpets and drums. Uchida’s entry showed her entirely in keeping with the performance; there was not the slightest need for adjustment. Perfectly voiced, beautifully variegated, unerringly phrased, this was distinguished pianism indeed. She was not shy to ornament, whether in this first movement or the others, but the results convinced, indeed drew one’s ear in. This was chamber music writ large, yes, but it was also symphonic: in short, it was just what a Mozart concerto should be. A nicely Beethovenian cadenza (Uchida’s own, I presume) was presented with style and conviction.
As with its predecessor, the slow movement benefited from a finely judged tempo: unfashionably a true slow, but certainly not too slow, movement, and all the better for it. Grave beauty and understated intensity put me in mind of Gluck, although the flowering of lines could only have been Mozart. Uchida’s responses to the orchestra seemed to look forward to the Orphic exchanges in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. Again, the exquisite truthfulness of every phrase shone through. The Harmoniemusik was just as crucial, of course: lifting the shadows so that we might glimpse Elysium. The advent of the hunting finale immediately put a smile on my face: woodwind serenades and the divine ‘simplicity’ of the piano part equally responsible. It mattered too much really to qualify as ‘carefree’, but there was nevertheless proper lightness of touch. The return of the rondo theme brought greater ebullience, in just the right measure. This was surely a performance that would have delighted Sir Colin Davis.

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony had the second half to itself. The first movement emerged forthright in Haitink’s hands, though certainly not unyielding; indeed, it sounded unusually Beethovenian. The LSO strings offered heartrending playing, especially for the longing first subject. Motivic development was admirably clear and meaningful throughout: Schoenberg’s ‘developing variation’ indeed. Counterpoint and harmony showed beyond any doubt that it is not only this work’s finale which is imbued with the spirit of Bach. Inexorable and ultimately awe-inspiring, this was a fine account indeed. The second movement was perhaps taken swifter than usual; at any rate, a sense of urgency did not imply being rushed. The music again offered Beethovenian reminiscence, in this case particularly of the second movement to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. And yet, such a processional retained more than a hint of the Bergian labyrinth in the motivic development of inner parts – which combination situates Brahms pretty well really. Not that there were not ‘late’ Romantic recollections of Mendelssohn and Schumann too – and not only from the woodwind.

The third movement was vigorous, bracingly so, to a certain extent defying expectations set up, yet in no sense incongruous. Beethoven again seemed a guiding presence. It was difficult to tell whether Haitink’s reading were exultant or angry; and that surely was a good deal of the point. Then the great finale, whose modernism, without obviously being highlighted, nevertheless shone through Brahms’s material and its deployment. Webern sounded just as close as Bach. (If only we had more performances of either of those composers at such a level!) The utmost rigour enabled both anguish and sublimity of utterance. Trombone equale and numinous yet desolate flute lines had their individual tales to tell, but nothing distracted from the principal argument. Haitink surprised, however, with a well-nigh Furtwänglerian accelerando at one point, not something I have heard him do before here. Like Furtwängler, Klemperer, and many before him, he continues to rethink the greatest works of our symphonic tradition. And if this were tradition, then it is something worth defending to our dying breaths. Brahms’s final symphony – there is none greater since Beethoven – was renewed, reinvigorated, tragic in every proper sense.



La bohème, English National Opera, 29 October 2014

(sung in English)
Marcello – George van Bergen
Rodolfo – David Butt Philip
Colline – Barnaby Rea
Schaunard – George Humphreys
Benoît, Alcindoro – Andrew Shore
Mimì – Angel Blue
Parpignol – Philip Daggett
Musetta – Jennifer Holloway
Policeman – Paul Sheehan
Foreman – Andrew Tinkler

Jonathan Miller (director)
Natascha Metherell (revival director)
Isabella Bywater (designs)
Jean Kalman, Kevin Sleep (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera
Orchestra of the English National Opera (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis)
Gianluca Marcianò (conductor)

Jonathan Miller’s production of La bohème for ENO, shared with Cincinnati Opera, sits uneasily, at least as revived by Natascha Metherell, between comedy and tragedy. Perhaps, you might say, that is as it should be; there is certainly an element of taste in such matters. However, it seems to me that a highly creditable desire to explore the darker elements – and they are hardly difficult to find! – in Puccini’s opera is somewhat undone by moments closer to farce. The greyness of an imagined Paris inspired by Cartier-Bresson works very well, Isabella Bywater’s designs in themselves a great visual strength, waiting to be relieved by brief, or at least relatively brief, moments of colour. Café Momus makes a particular impression in that respect. However, I could not help but wonder whether some of the things – entrances, concealment, and so on – one sees going on around the sets would be better left unseen. Elements of ‘surprise’ – yes, many of us know the opera all too well, but that is a different matter – are lost, without the ‘workings’ adding anything genuinely new. Still, it is a relief not to have anything too sugary; the last thing Puccini of all composers needs is sentimentalising. Doubtless I have been spoilt by seeing Stefan Herheim’s urgently compelling version on DVD: the only staging of this work that has really revealed anything at all to me. Recommended to Puccini-lovers and –sceptics alike, indeed to anyone who believes that opera can and should be something more than a tired museum piece.

A few more serious drawbacks prevented the evening from having had the impact it might have done. Amanda Holden’s translation started off poorly and, if anything, got worse. It managed both to be vaguely ‘after’ the libretto and dreadfully anti-musical. Italian suffers worse than most languages by translation into English, but the task can be accomplished much better than this. This was a version only for those who might think there is something ‘edgy’ about people randomly singing the word ‘bastards’. But then, perhaps a selfish – or hard-of-hearing? – audience happy to applaud throughout, and indeed before the orchestra had stopped playing at the ends of acts was genuinely enthralled or even shocked by such banalities. Moreover, Gianluca Marcianò’s charmless conducting helped nothing or no one. The first act in particular seemed devoid of life. I struggled in vain to hear anything throughout the evening that would vindicate Puccini’s symphonic ambition. Instead, phrases followed one after another, quite unconnected. The ENO Orchestra, on generally excellent form, both pointed and luscious where permitted, deserved far better.

So too did the cast: probably the principal reason to catch this revival. There was a good sense of ensemble between the singers, which will doubtless only increase as the run progresses. Individually, there is much to admire too. David Butt Philip really presented Rodolfo as a credible character, not a mere opportunity to sing. The conflicts within his soul, cowardice and self-absorption vying with a genuine if ‘poetic’ aspiration towards something nobler, came across with considerable subtlety. Angel Blue seemed slightly stilted to start with, but quickly grew into the role of Mimì. Her vocal allure is by now reasonably well known; it did not disappoint. However, a little more attention at times to words and their implications would have deepened the impression. If George von Bergen was somewhat stiff as Marcello, the other students impressed; Barnaby Rea’s Colline and the Schaunard of George Humphreys helped to create a proper sense of milieu and preoccupation from which Rodolfo could emerge. Jennifer Holloway’s Musetta very much looked the part, but the top of her range proved uncomfortably strident, even squally. Andrew Shore, however, proved luxury casting as Benoît and Alcindoro, vivid portrayals them both.


Sunday, 26 October 2014

Le nozze di Figaro, English National Opera, 25 October 2014

(sung in English, as The Marriage of Figaro)


Count Almaviva – Benedict Nelson
The Countess – Sarah-Jane Brandon
Susanna – Mary Bevan
Figaro – David Stout
Cherubino – Samantha Price
Marcellina – Lucy Schaufer
Doctor Bartolo – Jonathan Best
Don Basilio – Colin Judson
Don Curzio – Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Antonio – Martin Lamb
Barbarina – Ellie Laugharne
Two Girls – Ella Kirkpatrick, Lydia Marchione 

Fiona Shaw (director)
Peter McKintosh (designer)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Kim Brandstrup (movement)
Ian William Galloway (video)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Jaime Martin (conductor)

This first revival of Fiona Shaw’s Figaro production genuinely surprised me. Last time around, it proved, at least in terms of staging, a dismal failure; this time, it is considerably improved. Although there is still too much additional ‘business’ going on, that was toned down, and more often than not, something approaching the drama created by Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, albeit neutered by a bizarre lack of receptivity to social tensions and by Jeremy Sams’s narcissistic translation, is permitted more or less to emerge. There are still, however, problems, too many problems. Do we really need people to don horns at so many points, in order to evoke a spirit of cuckoldry? More seriously, we certainly do not need the revolve to spin around so dizzyingly; and we still have no need of a strange excursion to the kitchen. Most seriously of all, Shaw continues to misunderstand the nature of this most sophisticated of comedies. She does not merely confuse comedy and the comic; she pushes it towards vulgar farce. Barbarina as drunkard and the Count with his trousers round his ankles are unedifying and, more to the point, entirely unnecessary spectacles. And yet, for reasons I am not entirely sure I can identify, the piece as a whole worked better than it had in 2011.

Perhaps that is a reflection of the ease with which the cast seemed to work together. Mary Bevan was the undoubted star of the show, hers a world-class Susanna, her singing as beautiful and as truthful as her acting. (If only we had been able to hear her in Italian!) David Stout’s Figaro made for a winning foil, and more than that in the fourth act, in which, quite rightly, he stood out against Shaw’s prevailing silliness. Unfortunately, the Almavivas were less impressive. There was little or nothing dangerous about Benedict Nelson’s Count, too much of a buffo figure, and on occasion worryingly thin of tone. Sarah-Jane Brandon’s Countess failed to engage one’s sympathies, her acting restricted to stock gestures, and more disturbingly, her vibrato too thick and her tuning too often awry. When one finally felt her role as agent of redemption, that was the orchestra’s doing rather than hers; her two arias seemed at best observed rather than experienced. (That is not, though, to excuse the appalling behaviour of those in the audience who applauded in the middle – yes, the middle! – of ‘Dove sono’, in the pause following ‘non trapassò?’ Would that I had had a machine gun at my disposal.) Lucy Schaufer made the very most of Marcellina, despite the loss of her aria. (Am I the only one to deplore the ‘traditional’ cuts in the final act?) This was as sharply observed and as vividly communicated a portrayal as I can recall, making use of the vernacular to such a degree as to come close to convincing a translation-curmudgeon such as I. Samantha Price’s Cherubino improved noticeably as the evening progressed, her success in presenting his awkwardness as a girl laudable indeed. Special mention should go to Martin Lamb’s thoroughly convincing Antonio: quite inside the role vocally and on stage.

Jaime Martin did a good job in the pit, with the ENO Orchestra generally on fine form: a far rarer thing for orchestras in Mozart than it should be. If there were occasions, most notably in the Overture, in which Martin pushed too hard, they remained the exceptions. Ebb and flow were in general nicely judged, likewise orchestral chiaroscuro. Mozart’s larger structures, such as the second act finale, were for the most part well-paced, those breakneck, would-be Rossini speeds that have become all too fashionable in certain quarters having no place here. One would hardly have expected the profundity of the late Sir Colin Davis, with a lifetime’s experience of the work, but Martin’s achievement in mitigating the worst excesses of Shaw’s production stands worthy of proper recognition.


Friday, 24 October 2014

LSO/Haitink - Bruckner, 23 October 2014

Barbican Hall

Symphony no.8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Nowak)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

This was by any standards an impressive performance, although it did not entirely fulfil my (perhaps unreasonable) expectations. Bernard Haitink is and remains a master Brucknerian, of course, but there were a very few occasions on which tension flagged slightly, although that may have been more a matter of the edition than the performance as such; the two are not straightforwardly disentangled. Moreover, there were perhaps a few more orchestral fallibilities, particularly falling off of phrases, than I might have expected from the LSO, even in so notoriously exhausting a work for the players as this. The congested acoustic of the Barbican certainly did not help either. Finally, I remain to be convinced that this edition of the symphony presents Bruckner to his greatest advantage, above all with respect to the cuts made. I am no fundamentalist about such matters, nor am I a Bruckner scholar, and in general, a great performance can salvage even the most corrupt of editions – think of Hans Knappertsbusch using Franz Schalk in Bruckner’s Fifth! – but I could not help but regret that Haitink had turned to Leopold Nowak from Robert Haas, however distinguished the company Haitink may have joined.

Those reservations out of the way, I can now describe what remained, as I said, an impressive performance. The first movement opened and continued in admirably ‘direct’ fashion: facing ‘it’ in squarely, whatever ‘it’ may be. Those oases of not-quite-stasis, not unlike and yet certainly not identical to Mahler’s later examples, offered remarkable relative stillness. Haitink’s patience always paid off, not least in the build up of apparently Wagnerian figures to distinctly un-Wagnerian ends. Apocalyptic grandeur arose out of the notes rather than being applied to it from without. The final subsiding was accomplished, like everything else, without exaggeration and all the more powerful for it.

The scherzo was alert: full of life, yet telling of death. Both Haitink and the LSO gave the sheer strangeness of Bruckner’s harmony, often overlooked, its full due. Again, that proper sense of the apocalyptic arose from the material. The trio brought with it no metaphysical relaxation, its relative leisure no less disturbing. Indeed, barely have I heard it so unsettling. Yet Haitink did not appear to ‘do’ anything with, let alone to, it; the effect, however much art this may conceal, was of permitting the music to speak ‘for itself’.

The Adgaio opened with a sadness to great for words: again, the work’s sadness, or so it seemed, not a ‘mere’ performance’s. It progressed with a strength that pertained to both. Woodwind told of something different, of something perhaps celestial, something both necessary and yet increasingly difficult to attain; this was the orchestral section that impressed most greatly of all. There was something monastic, in a far fuller sense than the modern, ignorant caricature would have it, to those players’ contribution: a last gasp of the Austrian Baroque, one might say. Strings consoled as they could, but at what point did Bruckner take his leave, or threaten to do so, from his God, or vice versa? That remained an open question, for all the clichés one hears concerning such matters. Silence, without a hint of theatrical prolongation, played its role too, both dramatic and architectural. Towards the close, horns, despite occasional slips, offered the innocence of an earlier German Romanticism: infinitely touching.

The finale undoubtedly opened with defiance. Unstable – especially in this edition? – progress seemed to rely as much upon belief as anything else, though Haitink’s sense of the greater picture could hardly be doubted. One does not, of course, expect the motivic cohesion of Brahms in Bruckner; Bruckner’s very personal handling of form had its own story to tell, and, despite the cuts, did so for the most part admirably. Once again, though one could hear harmonic proximity to Wagner, one felt all the more keenly how important were Bruckner’s purpose and method.


Keenlyside/Ax - Winterreise, 22 October 2014

Wigmore Hall 

Schubert: Winterreise, D 911

Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Emanuel Ax (piano)

I had expected this would be an excellent, thoroughly moving performance, and so it was. Simon Keenlyside is one of our subtlest, most thoughtful, most musical baritones, and so he was here. What took me a little by surprise was the contribution of Emanuel Ax. Perhaps I have been unlucky in my experiences of his playing before, but this impressed me far more than those previous experiences had. Ax brought a strong sense of form to each song, almost as if those forms were musically ‘autonomous’, whilst in no way detracting from, indeed in every way supporting, the ‘poetic’ intent and musico-poetic alchemy. One recognised figures as one might in, say, one of the piano sonatas; one certainly registered the meaning inherent in and, in performance, communicated by every note. There was, in, for instance, ‘Der Lindenbaum’, no ‘mere’ figuration, although the part retained its pictorial element; indeed, the piano playing hinted at the consequences Schubert’s Lieder-writing might hold for the Wagnerian orchestra as Greek chorus.

Back to ‘Gute Nacht’. It opened relatively swiftly, with no room for sentimentality. Clean delivery from both artists worked very much to the benefit of the work, not least in Keenlyside’s ever-excellent diction. An occasional catch in his voice made no difference to the greater picture, in a performance of palpable sincerity. Wonderful touches of detail, for instance a diminuendo on ‘Matten’ the second time around, made all the difference. The artists were not hidebound by tradition, though by the same token they made no effort to be ‘new’ for the sake of it. ’Geforne Tränen’ was taken somewhat slower than usual, at least to start with, giving one pause for thought, but gathered pace, and, like a number of the songs, indeed proved admirably flexible in its progress, in this case setting the scene very well for an impassioned ‘Erstarrung’. Agonising dialogue with an unstable self marked the third stanza of ‘Wasserflut’, albeit of a different variety from the outright expressionism of, say, Matthias Goerne. This was perhaps still more of an interior nature. Ax’s bass line, oppressive without being over-emphasised, transformed ‘Auf dem Flusse’ into an ordeal of the soul, culminating in Keenlyside’s furious vocal climax.

‘Frühlingstraum’ again had one listen anew. The first and fourth stanzas were swifter, blither than one usually hears. Again, flexibility was very much to the fore in Keenlyside’s response to the words. Mood-swings, both vocal and pianistic, were perhaps if anything still greater than usual, especially with respect to the narcotic numbing experienced in the third and sixth stanzas. ‘Wann halt’ ich mien Liebchen im Arm?’ The piano was properly, chillingly silvery in ‘Die Krähe’ – even on a Steinway (as opposed to, say, a Bösendorfer). Here again, Ax’s iron-clad communication of form contributed greatly too, in this case to the turn of maddening; so, of course, did Keenlyside’s verbal response. Webern, unsurprisingly, was relished by Ax in ‘Letzte Hoffnung’, leading to the moment when Keenlyside seared the weeping of ‘wein’’ into our consciousness and thereafter our memories. A parallel madness of domesticity was verbally communicated in ‘Im Dorfe’, heightened, indeed in some cases led, by the obsessive nature of the piano figuration.

The graceful piano lilt of ‘Täuschung’ seemed born, as it doubtless was, of long immersion in Schubert’s piano music; the Moments musicaux came to mind. But there was no doubt that this was something more menacing, hallucinatory. Again, it was the piano that announced a new depth of sadness in ‘Der Wegweiser,’ showing the way, as it were, for Keenlyside in its final stanza to express, now every inch a Wozzeck, his true anguish. There was no unnecessary ‘extremity’, save for in his suffering. The weariness of ‘Das Wirtshaus’ and the final, deeply moving display of virility in ‘Mut!’ followed on with frightening necessity. For me, the only miscalculation was a too-forthright rendition of ‘Die Nebensonnen’, which seemed out of place with respect to work and performance. ‘Der Leiermann,’ however, mesmerised, its final lines summoning up not only the ghost (to come) of Wozzeck, but also of the most tragic of Papagenos.



Friday, 17 October 2014

Uchida - Schubert and Beethoven, 16 October 2014

Royal Festival Hall

Schubert – Four Impromptus, D 935
Beethoven – 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, op.120

Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

This was, by any standards, a challenging programme. Mitsuko Uchida has long been in her element in Schubert, and so it proved again here, though no thanks to external – or should that, with reference to the Royal Festival Hall, be internal? – circumstances. The first of Schubert’s second set of Impromptus was brought to us, at least to start with, in typical Uchida manner. If the delicate passages told most of all – they usually do! – then there was no want of force, not least when it came to the double octaves. It was, nevertheless, the pianissimo writing and performance, and the progress ion therefrom, that really drew us in. There was considerable, though never overstated, cumulative power. And there were plenty of song-echoes in Schubert’s figuration, yet with no doubt as to his singular form here. Alas, a good part of the close to the piece was blighted by the twin interruptions of an alarm and what appeared to be a recorded announcement outside the hall, instructing patrons to leave. No one did, but Uchida, visibly distressed, was forced to leave the stage for a while until things were sorted out. Eventually we were informed that there had been a false alarm.

I wondered whether, when Uchida returned to the stage, she might have started again, but no, she resumed with the second Impromptu. In this particular context, its balm, its consolation were especially welcome. Vulnerability was supremely well judged. There was, moreover, a compelling sense of key relationships and distance. The different lilt of the third piece was equally well captured, its harmonic determination and implications included. It was difficult not to sense an implicit contrast being set up with Beethoven’s handling of variation form after the interval. The second variation was apparently carefree: the qualification of ‘apparently’ just as important as the ‘carefree’. The third variation’s pathos was all the greater for the lack of indulgence (never, in any case, a trait one associates with this artist). There were clean lines, yes, but there was equally great depth of feeling. The final variation hinted at the world of the Trout Quintet, albeit with palpable shadows. Its coda was as lucid as I have heard; and yes, it left the requisite lump in the throat. Finally, the F minor Impromptu was despatched in piquant fashion, seemingly pre-empting Brahms’s ‘Hungarian’ music, yet at the same time like an extended Moment musical, eminently sensitive to Schubert’s own formal imperatives. It surprised, even when one knew it. Despite the interruption, Schumann’s claim that these sets of Impromptus might be considered in some sense as sonatas did not seem so very wide of the remark; this certainly had the quality of a finale.

Uchida seemed reinvigorated, or perhaps better reattuned, following the interval, the theme to the Diabelli Variations splendidly alert. Her performance of the first variation showed itself fully alert to its potentialities, whether ‘purely’ musical or musico-historical: was that a hint of Brahms here, or a presentiment of Die Meistersinger there? Like the Missa solemnis, this is highly dialectical music, not the least of whose dialectics is between the characteristic and the un-characteristic Beethoven. Bass and harmony came very much to the fore in our ears and minds during the second variation, whilst the strangeness of earlier ‘late’ Beethoven, op.111 for instance, reasserted itself in the third, in a sense both reinstated and reconciled – though with what? Not for the first time with Beethoven, Hegel came to mind. As the variations continued upon their way, Uchida showed a willingness to deal with Beethoven’s messiness one might more readily associate with an artist such as Daniel Barenboim; this was certainly a performance that tried to take Beethoven at as many of his own terms as possible, and generally succeeded in doing so. There was, for instance, imperious command of rhythm in the seventh variation, rhythm which was, however, always allied to harmony (a crucial alliance so many contemporary performers seem to forget). There was awkwardness, too, productively so as perhaps only Beethoven can be. Haydn’s peasant moves problematised and – almost – transfigured. At times, Liszt did not seem so very far away.  

‘Late’ disjunctions were definitely felt in the ‘teen’ variations, which came more and more to sound like expansions, exacerbations even, of the Bagatelles. Beethoven’s wondrous imagination intensified its explorations, opening our ears and minds; for instance, the ‘boogie-woogie’ of the sixteenth variation registered in context as appropriate climax and refuge. With dialectics aplenty announcing and working themselves out, even Schoenberg would have seemed faint-hearted by comparison. The mysterious stillness of the twentieth variation – Liszt referred to its sphinx-like quality – was necessarily followed, though certainly not effaced, by fury and exaltation. Leporello duly disconcerted us in the twenty-second variation. Mozart in a different guise seemed to haunt the twenty-fourth, counterpoint and harmony in perfect equipoise. It might be too late for Mozartian paradise, but for a few moments, one at least felt within its reach. Bach too, of course, haunted proceedings.

The pathos and strength of the great slow variations spoke of human dignity as only Beethoven can. Faustian questing had taken us so far, and yet it also seemed only just to have begun. The expansiveness of the thirty-first variation thus proved properly generative, opening up a host of possibilities in a fashion or at least with a consequence not entirely dissimilar from the greatest serial explorations of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, a fugue somehow came to seem the only possible solution. But what a singular fugue! Not through ‘eccentricities’ of performance but through fidelity that yet encompassed Beethovenian imagination. Surely even Liszt would have been proud of the transition effected to the final variation. ‘Delightful’ might seem a strange adjective for the conclusion of such a work, but there was the truest of delights to be experienced here, the mediated restoration both similar to and quite distinct from that effected by Bach in his Goldberg Variations.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

Today is Book Launch Day!

A favourite lecturer at Cambridge would, at least once per lecture, break down into a state of very public self-doubt. Having been discussing Plato's forms or Nietzsche's Hellenism, Professor X would suddenly look up, cradle his head in his hands, and turn to us students, asking, in Woody Allen-like fashion: 'I'm sorry. Am I boring you? Please forgive me. I'm trying to give some impression of the subject, but I fear I'm failing completely.' Needless to say, this display, stage-managed or otherwise, would prove a favourite moment of the lecture, actually encouraging our minds to focus once again. At the risk of boring you with self-repetition, my readers, I hope you will not mind my mentioning that today is the official launch day for my new book, After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from 'Parsifal' to Nono. (Not from 'Parsifal' to Wagner, as I mistyped it the other day, however intriguing that 'progression' might be.) I should like to thank from the bottom of my heart those who have encouraged me, whether early on, or during the past week or so. The interest shown by many of you has been heartening indeed, and even has me think that I might not be boring you after all.
As I have mentioned once before here, my publisher, the Boydell Press, is offering a 25% discount to my readers. For anyone who is interested, please click here. The link also offers a summary of the book's contents. I thought it might also be of interest to reproduce a few snippet, to give a flavour of my concerns.


Wagner as 'purveyor of "Eurotrash"'? Over to you...

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Ensemble Modern - Cerha, Petraškevičs, Schöllhorn, and Schoenberg, 10 October 2014

Wigmore Hall

Cerha – Acht Sätze nach Hölderlin-Fragmenten
Jānis Petraškevičs – gefährlich dünn (world premiere)
Johannes Schöllhorn – sous-bois (world premiere)
Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op.4 

Jagdish Mystry, Giorgos Panagiotidis, Corinna Canzian, Diego Ramos Rodriguez (violins)
Megumi Kasakawa, Patrick Jüdt (viola)
Eva Böcker, Michael M. Kasper (cello)

The Ensemble Modern is an organisation to which we all owe a great debt. Rehearsing an average of seventy new works every year, twenty of which are world premieres, it involves itself in orchestral, ensemble, and chamber concerts, theatre works, dance and video projects. This Wigmore Hall concert fell into the chamber category, although, with eight players in Janis Petraškevičs’s gefährlich dünn, for double string quartet, it was not so distant from the disputed border with ‘ensemble’ territory. The other works were all for string sextet, concluding in what, Brahms notwithstanding, is surely now the most celebrated of all essays in the genre, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

Friedrich Cerha, like Anthony Payne, seems fated to be known first and foremost for his realisation of another composer’s work. And indeed, it is difficult not to think of Berg as a forerunner for much of Cerha’s music, these 1995 movements after Hölderlin included. There is nothing wrong with that; is it possible think of a better model or inspiration? And indeed, what we might consider to be the last gasps of expressionism keep on gasping. The first, slow movement, ‘Fair life! You lie sick, and my heart is/Tired from weeping, and fear is already dimming in me,’ came across as a slow processional, with some high-lying violin writing offering textural contrast.  After its Bergian melancholy, the second movement, responding to the third stanza of the Schicksalslied, as set by Brahms, offered highly rhythmical contrast, the general sense of unease exacerbated by passages of voluptuousness I am again tempted to call Bergian. Terse on the whole, it leads to a brief, inconclusive third-movement attempt to settle, which in turn seem – and certainly seemed, in this fine performance – to set the scene for the scurrying lines of the fourth movement, Presto misterioso. Its lightness registered as almost scherzo-like. ‘The lines of life are different,/Like paths, and like mountain ranges,/What we are here a god can fulfil/With harmonies and eternal joy and peace.’ That inspiration for the fifth movement fulfilled its promise as the beating heart of the work, its sweetness of harmony more than once reminiscent of Messiaen. A highly rhythmical contrast, echoing that between the first and second movements, was offered in the sixth: vehement, even furious at times. I should have defied anyone not to be impressed by the unanimity of ensemble, but such was the level of performance that this simply seemed to ‘be’ the work. Late-twentieth-century Brahms was one thought that came to mind. The slow, seventh movement proved richly expressive: mostly homophonic until a degree of unravelling, presaging what seemed like the new birth of the final movement, with its rapt scurrying. ‘The heart is awake again, but heartlessly/Immense night draws me always.’ If the words seemed almost to suggest Tristan, then the sense of hypnosis did not seem so very distant from Stockhausen.

gefährlich dünn (fragile pieces for double string quartet), by the Latvian composer, Jānis Petraškevičs, is the second piece he had written for the Ensemble Modern, following the 2012 Darkroom. It was definitely for double quartet rather than octet, the two quartets seated as such. Early, rapt – that word again – harmonies provoke intrusions and elicit blossoming of a kind, which does not seem entirely conciliatory. It is a work of considerable intensity and contrast, not least in the audible and visible contrast between those playing with and without vibrato; that intensity and contrast certainly registered strongly in this performance. Repetitions bring to our attention and perhaps also call into question the ‘fragility’ of the pieces, which, through their harmonics and quarter-tones, sing in a tradition of which Cerha and Berg may stand as forerunners.

Johannes Schöllhorn’s sous-bois (as in the French for ‘undergrowth’ or ‘forest floor’) also received its premiere. Is it perhaps an echo of Richard Dehmel’s poem for Schoenberg, and indeed Schoenberg’s response thereto? Here one was led to think that it might be. An arresting, swarming opening set up a contrast, even contest, with silence, employed not necessarily ‘like’ Bruckner or even Mahler, but nevertheless suggestive of the (Bavarian) Alps in which the composer was born. Indeed, more than once, I found myself considering this fascinating work in a post-Mahlerian context: doubtless partly a matter of personal preoccupation, but not, I think, entirely so. For the melancholy one felt was recognisably in such a mould too. There was always a discernible line, even if, at least on a first hearing, I might not be able to explain how. ‘Atmosphere’ there was aplenty, amongst the glissandi, the col legno playing, the tremolandi, the trills, and the other ‘effects’, but they never came across as anything but integral to this progress through the undergrowth, if that indeed be what it is. I should very much like to hear this work again. May we hope for a recording?

Finally, Verklärte Nacht. It had been but a fortnight earlier that I had heard members of the London Sinfonietta give a splendidly modernistic performance of this work at Kings Place. Perhaps inevitably, the programming and the nature of the ensemble tilted this performance also towards what was to come rather than the inheritance from Wagner and Brahms. Yet there was palpable sadness at the opening, in a performance which, like that of the Sinfonietta, gave a strong sense of the six players as individuals, as if members of a quartet. Vulnerable, even halting, this opening contrasted markedly – perhaps not unlike the Cerha movements – with the richness of what to come. Sometimes I longed for a little more expansiveness, but in retrospect I thought the players had been in the right. There were intriguing, far from arbitrary, moments of restraint too. Intonation was not always impeccable, but in context, I was far less distracted by that than I might have been expected; if anything, (relative) imperfection heightened the ‘edge’. And there was no doubting the silvery ‘transfiguration’, imbued with a more than usually powerful sense of musical return. For a performance that refused to treat this as ‘popularly acceptable’ or ‘accessible’, ‘late Romantic’ Schoenberg, we had good reason to be grateful.


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Special offer: 25% off my new book, After Wagner

My new book, After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from 'Parsifal' to Nono will be published this month. My publisher, Boydell & Brewer, has kindly offered 25% off the recommended price to readers of this blog. Please click here for the online flyer, which includes a discount code for any of you who might be interested. I reproduce below the blurb and front cover, which features a scene from Stefan Herheim's Bayreuth production of Parsifal:

This book is both a telling of operatic histories ‘after’ Richard Wagner, and a philosophical reflection upon the writing of those histories. Historical musicology reckons with intellectual and cultural history, and vice versa. The ‘after’ of the title denotes chronology, but also harmony and antagonism within a Wagnerian tradition. Parsifal, in which Wagner attempted to go beyond his achievement in the Ring, to write ‘after’ himself, is followed by two apparent antipodes: the strenuously modernist Arnold Schoenberg and the æstheticist Richard Strauss. Discussion of Strauss’s Capriccio, partly in the light of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, reveals a more ‘political’ work than either first acquaintance or the composer’s ‘intention’ might suggest.
Then come three composers from subsequent generations: Luigi Dallapiccola, Luigi Nono, and Hans Werner Henze. Geographical context is extended to take in Wagner’s Italian successors; the problem of political emancipation in and through music drama takes another turn here, confronting challenges and opportunities in more avowedly ‘politically engaged’ art. A final section explores the world of staging opera, of so-called Regietheater, as initiated by Wagner himself. Stefan Herheim’s celebrated Bayreuth production of Parsifal, and various performances of Lohengrin are discussed, before looking back to Mozart (Don Giovanni) and forward to Alban Berg’s Lulu and Nono’s Al gran sole carico d’amore. Throughout, the book invites us to consider how we might perceive the æsthetic and political integrity of the operatic work ‘after Wagner’.
After Wagner will be invaluable to anyone interested in twentieth-century music drama and its intersection with politics and cultural history. It will also appeal to those interested in Richard Wagner’s cultural impact on succeeding generations of composers.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Philharmonia/Salonen - Berlioz Requiem, 25 September 2014

Royal Festival Hall

Grande messe des morts, op.5

Sébastien Droy (tenor)
Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan Oliver)
Gloucester Choral Society (chorus master: Adrian Partington)
Bristol Choral Society (chorus master: Adrian Partington)
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

It was a little over two years ago that I heard Sir Colin Davis conduct the Berlioz Requiem in St Paul’s Cathedral; it was the last time I heard – or indeed saw – him conduct his beloved and loving London Symphony Orchestra. Irrespective of that hindsight, I found it at the time a magnificent, unforgettable performance, as indeed I wrote, or rather raved, at the time. Life goes on, however, even when it comes to requiem masses. This performance was perhaps never going to live up to the extraordinary nature of that occasion; not only was the greatest Berlioz conductor of all time delivering his valedictory thoughts on the piece, but for once, Wren’s cathedral proved a preferable venue. The Royal Festival Hall was anything but ideal; I could not help but wondering whether a trip, say, to Westminster Cathedral would not have been a good idea. (The problem was not simply a matter of the acoustic, as I shall try to argue below.) Those factors notwithstanding, however, this was in most respects an excellent performance, one which will have doubtless introduced a good few new listeners to this singular work.

The acoustical difference announced itself immediately, with greater orchestral and, perhaps most strikingly, choral clarity. This could almost have been a different work. Performance standards, choral and orchestral, were highly impressive throughout; indeed, just as in St Paul’s, there were no conceivable grounds for complaint in that respect. The ‘Requiem aeternam’ and ‘Kyrie’ benefited from wonderful Philharmonia string playing, especially the expressive vibrato employed and instrumental phrasing (doubtless partly to be credited to Esa-Pekka Salonen too). It was expressive yet taut. This first movement is perhaps not a terribly characteristic movement; the work is arguably not the most characteristic of Berlioz’s œuvre either. Its roots in earlier French music, most of it more or less entirely forgotten by present-day audiences, came through, as did its peculiar novelty. A weird instance of applause following this movement was not, I was grateful, to be repeated.

Cellos and double basses again made a fine impression at the opening of the ‘Dies irae’. Salonen here, as throughout, marshalled his forces very well. Palpable tension as the brass players stood was not entirely fulfilled in reality. I do not think it was any fault of the performance as such, but the effect, despite its deafening, all-too-deafening volume, far too much from where I was seated, paled besides the truer aural perspective and blended sound offered under the St Paul’s dome. Matters were not improved by a telephone ringing as the deafening brass ceased. (Do these people have no shame at all?) Still, there was a very strong impression to be had of the work’s insanity. There was an overwhelming sense of contrast in the following ‘Quid sum miser’: not, quite rightly, repose, but supplication.

The ‘Rex tremendae’ then proved both excitable and exciting. However, it proved a good example of another problem relating to the venue, though perhaps, to a certain extent, to Salonen’s conception. (In truth, it is very difficult to say what exactly was owed to what.) Part of the fascination of this work is its secularism, the strange emptiness at the heart of the work, about which I wrote when discussing the Davis performance. That gains meaning and a truly disconcerting quality when performed not only in a building such as St Paul’s, but also when conducted by a man whose religious and/or philosophical questing is leading him truly to grapple with the difficulties presented by such a work. Salonen was musically very impressive; Davis truly had one think, and experience the implications of crises of faith.

There was relief to be felt thereafter from the a cappella semi-chorus (actually much less than that: probably twenty voices or so) in the ‘Quaerens me’. It was possible to feel a connection with a much older choral tradition, even if the sense of Palestrina were more apparent than ‘real’. Especially memorable was the beautiful halo of sound at the conclusion: ‘Statuens in parte dextra’. The ‘Lacrymosa’ and ‘Domine, Jesu Christe’ have texts I find well-nigh impossible to dissociate from Mozart: my problem, I know. Or at least, it takes a performative wrench to have me forget that greatest of all Requiem settings. Here, Berlioz’s oddness came across strongly, not least the blazing conclusion to the first of the two movements. But it was only really in the second that the anxiety to what is after all an imprecations registered in duly personal – both compositional and theological – fashion.

The ‘Hostias’  benefited from nicely snarling trombones, as well as markedly ‘white’ flutes – and, of course, excellent choral singing. As so often, the ‘Sanctus’ was marred by a tremulous tenor, Sébastien Droy, who was at times somewhat constricted too. A brightly ‘secular’ Hosanna fugue made its point – perhaps a little too strongly. However, the ‘Agnus Dei’ was very impressive, bringing due symmetry with the opening movement. Salonen’s control remained admirable, and there was again delectable menace to the trombones and, more generally, to the bass line. Finally, there came resolution of sorts, though I could not help thinking it more ‘musical’ then ‘theological’ – not so much because Berlioz cannot achieve the latter variety, a point which is at least arguable, but because the performance as a whole never truly engaged with theological issues in the first place.   

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Aimard - Bach, 20 September 2014

Wigmore Hall
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, BWV 846-69

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Having heard Pierre-Laurent Aimard play The Art of Fugue in this very hall a few years ago, I was, despite very mixed feelings concerning that performance, keen to hear this always interesting, ever-thoughtful artist in Book One of the pianist’s Old Testament. Again, my reactions were not uniform, but it would surely be a truly extraordinary performance – whether good or bad – in which they would be. A degree of the heavy-handedness I noted in 2008 manifested itself again, especially earlier on, and especially during the fugues, but it seemed to fade away, as did the state of affairs in which the earlier preludes tended in general to fare better than their companion fugues. Perhaps most importantly, there was a true sense, understated though it may have been, of progress, of a ‘journey’, to try to reclaim a word that has perhaps become clichéd beyond repair. Bach’s tonal cycle in the end amounted in performance to very much more than the sum of its parts, which parts I shall now attempt to summarise.

The C major Prelude was, intriguingly (a nod to its clavecinist roots?), slightly uneven: very different from the almost belligerent presentation of The Art of Fugue. There was a sense of expectancy in what was quite a slow account. Its fugue, by contrast, exhibited an unevenness that came across as a little unsteady; a little pedal would not necessarily have gone amiss here. The C minor Prelude came across in relatively ‘neutral’ fashion, which did not preclude a strong sense of harmonic motion. Aimard’s decidedly non legato approach to the C minor Fugue, however, wanted charm. Much more ingratiating was the C-sharp major Prelude, which also benefited from its prelude-predecessor’s sense of direction. Its companion fugue sounded ‘neutral’ in the positive way of apparently letting the music ‘speak for itself’, however much art may be required for such an impression to take hold. Moving to the tonic minor, there was struck a note of almost nostalgic sadness, harking park to the opening Prelude. There was a stronger sense than in earlier pieces of reimagining, not entirely unlike a more Teutonic Tombeau de Couperin. Rhetorical spreading of chords made their point without overstatement. After a short break to return to the dressing room to collect missing music, Aimard continued with a C-sharp minor Fugue of grave, though decidedly un-Romantic dignity. As often, though not always, in this recital, counterpoint rather than harmony proved the driving force. There was, however, an element of heavy-handedness towards the end, which somewhat marred the impressive earlier sentiment.

D major brought a brisk, lively Prelude and a rather unyielding Fugue, which nevertheless, so long as one could take its underlying anti-Romanticism, had a strong stylistic sense of the Baroque Overture. D minor encouraged greater warmth, or at least less chilliness. There was a sense in the Prelude of a Bach edging at times harmonically toward the slightly surprising destination of a Schubert Lied.  (Or at least, so there was in my aural response!) Oddly, the Fugue seemed a little lacking in the direction which was generally a strong suit for the pianist. Again, the E-flat major Prelude was relatively ‘objective’ in its presentation. Likewise its fugue, albeit with more than a nod to its slightly awkward – in the sense of character, that is – angularity.

Moving to E-flat minor, Aimard confounded expectations. The Prelude unfolded in high-Romantic (or thereabouts) fashion: beautiful, profound, without a hint of self-regard; the Fugue continued in similar vein, with a stronger impression of ‘belonging’ to its Prelude than previous pairs had shown. The E major Prelude and Fugue, by contrast, were themselves nicely contrasted with each other. In the E minor Prelude, I could not help but think that greater legato would have assisted its progress. Aimard’s no-nonsense approach to its Fugue worked well, though, without shading into anonymity. Much the same – the no-nonsense bit – could fairly be said of the F major Prelude and Fugue. The F minor Prelude was taken surprisingly slowly – to its advantage, both in terms of the harmonic implications of Bach’s counterpoint, and yes, its pathos. Bach’s chromaticism in the F minor Fugue benefited in similar fashion: what a relief it was that it and he were given time to speak!

After the interval, Aimard offered a playful yet muscular F-sharp major Prelude: an individual, though not eccentric, reading. The Fugue was more variegated than many of its predecessors, setting a note in general for this second half. It was rock solid, without that in any sense implying dullness. Aimard’s combination of harmonic direction and dynamic variegation was near-ideal in the F-sharp minor Prelude, after which the Fugue was presented in stark, almost desolate fashion, with more than a hint of the Passion settings, not least in the driving force of the continuo-like bass line. The G major pieces scintillated, the G minor Prelude registering all the more thereafter as labyrinthine, suggestive of Berg, though without less to its temporality. Its fugue was forthright, but this was a forthrightness with light and shade. A brisk A-flat major Fugue permitted a sense of broadening out for its Fugue, whilst the G-sharp minor Prelude and Fugue displayed a very well-judged combination of forward direction and chiaroscuro. The Prelude in particular gave an impression of dialogue such as one might more readily find in the Keyboard Suites – though not, of course, only there.

A lively, alert A major Prelude, again with the requisite dynamism of development, led to a Fugue whose non legato style here registered as genuine, meaningful contrast, consonant with its character, rather than interpretative oddity. It almost flirted. I initially thought the A minor Prelude unyielding, and perhaps it was, but kinship with Mendelssohn was perhaps part of the payoff for that. The stark nature of Aimard’s performance of the A minor Fugue was less convincing, its clockwork style missing the piece’s beating heart. Was the B-flat major Prelude a little on the Czerny side? Perhaps, but there was no great harm in giving the fingers such a work-out; Bach’s genius still shone through. A very fast tempo for the Fugue, combined with sovereign technical command, had similar rewards, though something also seemed to be lost.

Swiftly though it may have been taken, however, there was no less of depth to the B-flat minor Prelude, that greater second-half chiaroscuro aiding its passage. The Fugue, by contrast, was quite unhurried, its majesty permitted to unfold without fuss. It was not the most Romantic performance, but it was not anti-Romantic either. Pianistic subtlety, devoid of narcissism, enabled a performance of great distinction. After that, the B major Prelude came as light(-er) relief, with fine but not fussy attention to detail and direction. Likewise its Fugue. The B minor Prelude was taken in decidedly anti-Romantic fashion, not entirely to its benefit, the repeat of the first section coming across as charmless and heavy of hand. As indeed did quite a bit of what followed, although the repeat of the second section was considerably more yielding. So was the B minor Fugue, Bach at his most Bergian, for all that Aimard kept the music moving on in relatively swift fashion – at least until a big ritardando at the close. The long silence of communion at the end told its own tale.