Sunday, 20 May 2018

Madama Butterfly, Glyndebourne, 19 May 2018

Glyndebourne Opera House

Pinkerton – Joshua Guerrero
Goro – Carlo Bosi
Suzuki – Elizabeth DeShong
Sharpless – Michael Sumuel
Cio-Cio-San – Olga Busuioc
Cousin – Jennifer Witton
Cio-Cio-San’s Mother – Eirlys Myfanwy Davies
Yakuside – Adam Marsden
Aunt – Shuna Scott Sendall
Imperial Commissioner – Michael Mofidian
Official Registrar – Jake Muffett
Bonze – Oleg Budurtaskiy
Prince Yamadori – Simon Mechlinski
Sorrow –Rupert Wade
Kate Pinkerto – Ida Ränzlöv

Annilese Miskimmon (director)
Nicky Shaw (set designs)
Mark Jonathan (lighting)
Kally Lloyd Jones (movement)
Ian William Galloway (video)

Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Nicholas Jenkins)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Omer Weir Wellber (conductor)

‘Picture it,’ as senior Golden Girl, Sophia Petrillo used to say. ‘England, 19 May 2018…’ An audience found itself enthralled by the marriage of an impressive woman to a privileged man, impeccable and dashing in his military uniform, from another nationality and ‘race’. They wished her well in this fairytale, investing their hopes, personal and communal, in the success of their union, even as some of their number risked spoiling the party by exploring a little of the history of this meeting of cultures. All the while, the mediating moneymakers – well, they made money. Would it last? Were some of them/us already gearing up to be thrilled by its potential difficulties, failures, even tragedy? From Windsor Castle, then, to the Sussex Downs did not seem too lengthy a journey – I saw signs at Clapham Junction for the latter, as I found my platform for the latter – especially for a festival opening for which the not-quite-so-great-and-good-as-would-have-resulted-in-an-invitation-to-the-reception were naturally out in force.

Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Madama Butterfly, Glyndebourne’s first, has been seen previously on the 2016 tour, but this was its first appearance at the Festival proper, and my first encounter with it. It would be considered reasonably straightforward for most composers, bar the ‘updating’ – must we continue to use that dated word and idea? – to the 1950s, yet for Puccini, who perhaps suffers more than any other opera composer from a surfeit of reactionary stagings, probably marks quite an important step. It is not Calixto Bieito, nor would one expect it to be. What we see, however, portrays the drama, both a clash of cultures and expectations on anything but a level playing-field and a very personal tragedy, with unfailing intelligence and emotional commitment. I liked it – and the stage performances – very much, and responded pretty much how I ‘should’, whilst being provoked to think rather more than I often have been.

What comes across very strongly from the outset is that, whatever the exalted setting – be it a royal castle or an opera stage – and the undeniable personhood of the sacrificial victim, there is something distressingly typical about the story and the social structures that give rise to it. Cio-Cio-San is placed explicitly in a line of geishas, ‘married’ off to their respective ‘husbands’, educated onsite at the marriage bureau by the slide show, ‘How to be an American wife’, a ready source of income for the grubbily venal Goro. (He returns at the close of the first act to count his money.) A neon-lit HOTEL stands next door, for ease of consummation; or rather, the bureau stands next door to it, for ease of commerce. The overweening arrogance of Pinkerton is his personally and culturally: not just the cigarettes he smokes, but his – in context – shocking act of forcing a horrified Cio-Cio-San to toss her bouquet behind her. She does not understand, nor do the girls behind her, who dart away from it. It is cultural misunderstanding, yes, but from a man and a culture – a gender too – which, holding all the cards, have neither need nor wish to understand. Perhaps he does, a little; he too, after all, is ultimately ordinary, nothing special. (Unlike his ‘bride’, he remains that way, resolutely untransfigured, untransfigurable.) There are a few little signs of such, and, in the duet with which the first act closes, he shows her a degree of kindness, or at least of toxic masculine, Yankee concern. He is, however, a colonial tourist and overload – and will remain so. So says the score too, of course, as Puccini subjects the Star-Spangled Banner to further exploration than one might innocently expect. In Madam Butterfly, we are all robbed of whatever innocence we may fondly delude ourselves we possessed in the first place.

The second act, tellingly, shows us an American house, set in a Japanese – or, rather stylised, orientalised ‘Japanese’ – landscape. There is no doubting Butterfly’s – sorry, Mme Pinkerton’s – belief and pride in her new situation, whatever the parlous financial situation of which Suzuki informs her. She smokes American cigarettes too now, or claims to; she proudly offers one to Sharpless, and discreetly chokes on hers. Prince Yamadori was surrounded by Americans as well as ‘natives’, when he paid her a visit: he is the compromising member of a colonial elite one would expect. Much is done with light, much is done with designs, costumes included; she is dressed as an American woman too. Until the end, that is, when to die in honour, she dresses, tragically and yet not without her hallmark pride, as the Japanese woman she has, perhaps, always known herself to be. And her son, little Sorrow, plays with a model of an American gunboat, as he waits for his father – and as his mother kills herself. Throughout, the tragedy is intensely personal and intensely imperialist.

In the title role, Olga Busuioc impressed greatly, especially during the second and third acts, when she seemed more at ease in the role. (This was, after all, an opening night.) As Alexandra Wilson writes in her programme note – and this goes for so much Puccini in general: think what we actually see and hear first-hand in La bohème! – ‘one of the particular strokes of brilliance about the opera is the way in which Puccini manages to trace the development of … [her] personality so vividly and perceptively across the span of a comparatively short opera.’ That needs performative brilliance too, which one certainly received later on, the dynamic scale of her vocal contribution not the least of her dramatic tools. Elizabeth DeShong made for a kindly yet – again – proud Suzuki. If I am rehearsing colonialist stereotypes, what else is one to do in such an opera? Perhaps the best we can hope for is to do so with a degree of critical awareness, unless, that is, we are puritanically to consign this and so many other works to the dustbin of history – and then remain with what?

Joshua Guerrero portrayed Pinkerton to a tee: his easy, false charm, his arrogance, and yet, a hint of the ambiguous, albeit quotidian devil to him too. (The pantomime booing he received was, as ever, deeply regrettable. Can we not put a stop to that, right now, please?) Carlo Bosi made us loathe the shallow evil of the aforementioned Foro, whilst Michael Sumuel did an excellent job as the duly compassionate – up to a point: repeat, up to a point – Sharpless. Indeed, every member of the cast impressed, and contributed to a greater whole; I noted, especially, Michael Mofidian’s Imperial Commissioner, Oleg Budartaskiy’s Bonze, and, as much in stage beaing as in voice – for, as one always rediscovers, she has so little to sing – Ida Ränzlöv’s Kate Pinkerton.

The London Philharmonic clearly relished playing Puccini’s score. (Which orchestra would not?) String sheen and more general tonal allure were not purchased at the expense of incisive drama: quite the contrary. I could not help but wish that it had been given its head a little more often by Omer Meir Wellber, but perhaps that was his point. If he did not always communicate the quasi-symphonic form of the musical work as strongly as he might have done, with a consequent lack of dramatic impetus at times. For the most part Wellber showed himself a good accompanist, more often than not alert to the ebb and flow, often a little reticent and sometimes even sluggish. In Puccini, just as in Wagner and Strauss, the relationship between orchestra and singers is not, or should not be, a zero-sum game: attention paid to the one should heighten our attention to the other. More of that will probably come, though, as the run progresses. This remained, by any standards, an impressive opening night for the 2018 Glyndebourne Festival. For those, moreover, who cared to think, it may have had a good deal still to tell us about our own hopes and fears, about our own prejudices and our struggles, however vain, to surmount them. As Carl Dahlhaus once observed, ‘it is precisely in order to radicalise conflicts — so that “resolutions” are ruled out — that dramas are written; if not, they would be treatises.’

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Lessons in Love and Violence, Royal Opera, 15 May 2018

Royal Opera House

King – Stéphane Degout
Gaveston, Stranger – Gyula Orendt
Isabel – Barbara Hannigan
Mortimer – Peter Hoare
Boy, Young King – Samuel Boden
Girl – Ocean Barrington-Cook
Witness 1, Singer 1, Woman 1 – Jennifer France
Witness 2, Singer 2, Woman 2 – Krisztina Szabó
Witness 3, Madman – Andri Björn Róbertsson

Katie Mitchell (director)
Vicki Mortimer (designs)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Joseph Alford (movement, associate director)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
George Benjamin (conductor)

Girl (Ocean Barrington-Cook), Isabel (Barbara Hannigan), King (Stéphane Degout), Boy (Samuel Boden)
Images: © ROH 2018/Stephen Cummiskey

If Harrison Birtwistle remains acknowledged as England’s greatest musical dramatist since Purcell, then Lessons in Love and Violence may well come to be seen as the work with which George Benjamin mounted his challenge. There is no reason, of course, why such matters should be adversarial, and such is hardly Benjamin’s style, whatever the grisly subject matter of his third opera. He is more someone to knock on the door, enter and delight us with what he brings to the party, without any need to elbow anyone aside. Let us instead rejoice in the creation of another masterpiece, darker and perhaps deeper still than Written on Skin. (Not, of course, that we should forget Benjamin’s first opera either: the wonderful Into the Little Hill.)

As you will doubtless know by now, Benjamin has been reunited with Martin Crimp for this, Crimp’s third libretto, and Katie Mitchell, who directed the excellent first staging of Written on Skin, and who has also worked with Crimp on his other theatrical works, has rejoined the team too. This seems, almost a priori, to have given rise to a degree of ennui in certain quarters. (I have tried to avoid hearing what others have thought about the work, but have not been entirely successful.) One objection seems to have been ‘more of the same’, more or less. I can only presume that the same people would have regretted Mozart’s decision to ‘pursue a collaboration’ with Lorenzo da Ponte after Don Giovanni, perhaps even after Figaro. After all, one often hears the most ridiculous nonsense spoken of Così fan tutte. But there is no reason to be defensive here; I only mention the matter since, for better or worse, it is being spoken of already. Upon leaving the theatre, I hastily typed an ‘instant reaction’ tweet, even, for once, remembering to use the ‘hashtag’: ‘#ROHLessons is a towering masterpiece, its intellectual brilliance and sensual wonders matched, at the very least, by its emotionally overwhelming dramatic path. Drained and satisfied as if by Wozzeck or Katya Kabanova; or, the work that increasingly came to mind, Boris Godunov.’ I have no argument with that almost a day later, and shall try to explain why.

Are such comparisons less odious than ridiculous? Perhaps. Not entirely, though, since I think this is how we often approach new works, not least in so repertory-bound a genre as opera, perhaps especially with a house and company such as the Royal Opera (House). They are far from exact and the tragic trajectory is not the same; here, in the story of Edward II, it is nicely doubled at the end. Essentially we see (and hear) here Edward’s (never, I think named as such) inability to say no to his lover, Gaveston, resulting in the banishment of the clever, unscrupulous politician, Mortimer, who returns, having manipulated the people to his end, to restore himself in something equivalent to a queen’s coup, ridding the court and realm first of Gaveston and then of the king. But the young king, again not named as Edward III, having watched, with his sister, everything unfold, including that violence which is often yet not always subtly hinted at or stylised, turns upon the usurpers and truly becomes king himself.

Boy, Girl, Isabel

Tragedy or restoration? That rightly does not quite seem to be the question, just as that bald outline omits the mess of motivations that characterises this horrible, political world. Much is hinted at, there for one to join the dots, but much is portrayed too. The audience member is, rightly or wrongly, treated as an intelligent human being, a participant, not a consumer of Verdi or other tedious kitsch. It is certainly not so straightforward as portraying a situation in which no one is sympathetic. Rather, as in ‘real life’ – and what, alas, could be more real than our present, not so different high or low ‘political’ life? – motivations are complex, contradictory, and, between characters at least, irreconcilable. Such is surely not the least of the lessons of love and violence that unfold – whether one does not believe in love, as Mortimer, or in violence, as the younger young king does not, yet must. Mortimer, after all, schools him, too, perhaps better than he intended. Likewise, Isabel seems – perhaps is – wronged at the start; we can understand why she, a mother and a wife as well as a queen, acts as she does. Yet she is far from white to start with; in her aestheticism – her love of music and her chilling dissolution of a pearl in acid, a pearl that would have given houses to petitioning subjects – she actually seems a good, or rather deadly, match to her husband, as well as a potential rival to Gaveston. There is horror, too, in her children turning upon her, however deserved that turnaround might be.

But we must return to music, so beloved of these unpleasant people, yet puritanically or sadistically prohibited by the Young King. (Or so he claims: we never quite know the truth of many claims, for who is narrating? We almost seem to know better in the play within a play, that of David and Jonathan, in which Isabel almost literally begins to call the shots, and in the non-musical reprise of such ‘entertainment’ which is threatened, and yet which turns out to be ‘real’, a tortured Mortimer about to be shot dead by the Young King’s sister.) Yes, we must, that too lengthy parenthesis notwithstanding. For it is music that seems – apparently or otherwise – to structure the words and the drama, or perhaps to re-structure them. It is music that creates them, in many ways, regardless of empirical priority. It also creates, and is created by, the situation: its colour, its tensions, its possibilities. ‘It’, whatever it may be, is always, ultimately, about the music; for when the music stops, so does the opera. Perhaps that has always been Isabel’s fear: the fall of the curtain. Mitchell certainly seems to hint at that, but so do Benjamin and Crimp – and, of course, the outstanding cast and orchestra.

Madman (Andri Björn Róbertsson) restrained, Queen, Girl, Boy, Mortimer (Peter Hoare)

Benjamin’s ability to create a sound world has always been one of his hallmarks; in that sense I could not help but think of Janáček and Mussorgsky, both in general and in particular, as mentioned above. Yet, as with those composers, it is certainly not a matter of simply providing atmosphere, a setting, although that certainly is created. Just as Vicki Mortimer’s plush, power-dressing – dressing itself becomes, in true royal fashion, almost a ritual in itself – claustrophobic designs, both for sets and costumes, provide a framework, both to contain and to be broken by the action, so do timbres, often in combination, and harmonies, likewise. There is almost infinite variegation within. The old problem, almost yet not quite Schoenbergian, of reconciling musical antimonies between freedom and determinism, gains new clothes – aural and visual. And the inevitability of the action, at least viewed from the close, of what has happened, takes upon itself an almost Bergian thrust, not least through the characters of and connections between particular scenes. The orchestra follows Benjamin, whether as composer or conductor; or rather, it leads the action with all the confidence and, more to the point, understanding it might once have shown Bernard Haitink in Wagner. And, as with Wagner, still more so with the Debussy of Pelléas, so much action, so much of the truest, wordless action, occurs in the interludes, the transformations between scenes. It is perhaps in those, as in Pelléas, that the stature of Benjamin as a musical dramatist is most immediately manifest.

Or does it? Does the orchestra lead? Do not the singers? Yes, they do too. There is much leadership: too much in the plot, just enough in performance. For song, or at least singing, is crucial to this opera; it is certainly not to be defined as a ravishing, horrifying symphonic poem with voices, although it is perhaps partly that. Benjamin and his co-creators and co-performers refuse the either-or that many of us, seeking for a way in to account for our reactions, would seek to foist upon him. There is drama in melisma: what could be more traditionally operatic than that? There is drama in the entwining and the opposition of melisma? Again, what could take us back more closely to that first zenith of the genre, to Monteverdi? Perhaps the encounter between Isabel and Gaveston, in which she verbally bids him come closer to her, that she might also come closer to the King (who remains distant on stage), is most instructive of all here, for it expresses and creates a musico-dramatic situation more complex than, and still more deadly than, the duet of two baritones so full of sensual delight between the king himself and his lover. Both, and other duets and ensembles, are necessary of course, in the structuring of the drama, just as in the still sorely misunderstood Così. Post-Mozartian Harmoniemusik occasionally seemed to make that point, at least to me; likewise the haunting death rattle avant la lettre emanating from harps and cimbalom, as the Stranger took the King’s life in his cell. The King thought this stranger was Gaveston; so did we, even though he told us he was not, and Gaveston was dead. One could hardly fail to think of the careful, meaningful symmetries of Lulu.

Isabel and Mortimer

And, as with Mozart, although whether through design or through the sheer excellence of these artists on stage, one had the sense that the roles had been written with them in mind. They were, of course, for Mozart, but here, who knows? We are not so much concerned with process, as with each artist having inhabited his or her role. Stéphane Degout’s velvet tones cloaked the impetuous, arbitrary deeds of a weak tyrant, who was also a wronged and wronging man. One made no distinction between role and performance; he simply was the King. So too, and increasingly so, as her role came into focus, was Barbara Hannigan, as his consort. That she played so well in the initial background speaks just as well of her as the display of that extraordinary ability we all know and love – think, for instance, of her Ligeti – to encompass so many modes of vocal delivery within a single line that remains spun from the same silk. Gyula Orendt’s seductive, nasty, manipulative way with Gaveston mirrored and contested the politician’s path of Peter Hoare’s clever, calculating, just as (in)human Mortimer. Not the least of the evening’s performances was the coming of age through politico-emotional stunting of Samuel Boden’s Boy and Young King. Dressed like a boy, he acted unerringly like one too: almost a Prince William, whilst Diana was still around, or shortly after. Ably assisted by his sister, Ocean Barrington-Cook (a mute role), the crown was, again if only in retrospect, his for the taking – once he had learned his deathly lessons. Smaller roles were all very well taken, by Jennifer France, Krisztina Szabó, and Andri Björn Róbertsson: suggestive of a greater number of voices and faces than was actually present, drawn, as it were, as if from an imaginary chorus.

Isabel, King, Gaveston (Gyula Orendt)

For, as in Boris, we observed and felt the people’s grief, feared equally for what we knew to be their largely hopeless future. As the Third Witness had accused the Queen, in a shocking intrusion, orchestrated by Mortimer, into her chamber, the poor had no choice, unlike the decadent rich, to sleep three to a bed. The miracle here was that fury, both external and internal to the drama of princes and nobles, manifested itself through three single voices, an orchestra, and, not least, an endlessly inventive, supportive, and questioning production. Mitchell too did the work the necessary honour of treating it as a mature drama, as she had in Written in Skin; this was not something to be introduced, hesitantly, but to be directed with the critical modernity she would bring to any other work. This may be a quiet operatic manifesto; such, as discussed, is Benjamin’s way. It may even be a manifesto without intention to be a manifesto. Perhaps that makes it all the more convincing, all the more accomplished.

BERGfrühling (4) and (5) – Dvořák, Berg, Schumann, and Schubert, 12 May 2018

St George’s Parish Church, Sternberg, and Alban Berg Saal, Carinthian Music Academy, Ossiach

Dvořák: String Quintet no.2 in G major, op.77, for string quartet and double bass

Berg: Four Pieces for piano and clarinet, op.5
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E-flat major, op.47
Schubert: Octet in F major, D 803

Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Sylvia Careddu (flute), Alexander Neubauer (clarinet), Ariane Haering (piano), Sebastian Gürtler, Régis Bringolf (violins), Subin Lee (viola), Florian Berner (cello)), Rya Yoshimura (bassoon), Peter Dorfmayr (horn), Ivan Kitanović (double bass)

This year’s BERGfrühling closed in style with two final-day concerts: one at the lovely little Parish Church of St George, Sternberg/Strmec (in this part of Carinthia, one is very close indeed to Slovenia), the other back at Ossiach Abbey, now the home of the Carinthian Music Academy. At the former, we heard Dvořák’s Quintet, op.77, the little church full to the rafters. I found a place up in the organ loft, from where I could look – and listen – down to an equally lovely performance. I was struck immediately by the richness and sheer physicality of the string tone, the first movement, like its successors, proceeding at a well chosen tempo, with a fine sense of motivic cohesion and harmonic impetus. It thus perhaps sounded closer to Beethoven than one often hears, and was certainly none the worse for that. Not that ‘Bohemian’ lyricism was lost, far from it. Indeed, ‘local’ dance rhythms and melodies were transmuted into something more universal, nowhere more so than in the scherzo. Darker undertones were given their due, especially by the viola and cello. The melancholy lyricism of the third movement was permitted to speak, even to be savoured, without indulgence. An intangibly – sometimes tangibly too! – integrative finale again relied on motivic cohesion, or rather on its communication to round things off in duly good-natured style. Then it was out of the church for a little tasting of local produce.

Back in Ossiach, Berg, Schumann, and Schubert concluded the festival. I do not think I have heard a better performance of the Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, op.5 than this, from Alexander Neubauer and Ariane Haering, both musicians clearly in their element. The first piece exuded Schoenbergian lyricism, horizontally and vertically: paradoxically perhaps – or not – given its tendency to aphorism. (Schoenberg could write aphoristically too, of course. When he and Berg do, it is striking how little they sound like Webern!) Weighting and tone quality sounded just right, an integral part of the work’s performance. A more fragmentary Busoni – the Busoni of, say, the Sarabande and Cortège – came to mind in the second piece, its line as long, or so it seemed, as those of the Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet heard the previous day, yet endlessly variegated too. The third piece, ‘Sehr rasch’ was sardonic, yet lightly rather than aggressively so: a Mahler movement telescoped, not unlike Webern perhaps in conception, and yet still very different in practice. It was a very different radicalism we heard in the final piece, imbued with an unmistakeably Bergian nostalgia, and yet related nevertheless, almost mystically, to Wozzeck too. Violent and serene, there were dialectics aplenty here.

Schumann’s Piano Quartet seemed to take leave from late Beethoven, prior to release in the exposition proper. If hardly carefree, it nevertheless spoke of joy in its post-Mozartian lot. (Given the key, E-flat major, one can hardly fail to think of certain Mozart works in that same key: KV 482, 493, etc.) Not that we were ever in any doubt that this was Schumann, of course, especially when it came to the piano writing – and performance, but there is perhaps something more Classical, not least in its very particular tension between major and minor, than in much of his music. Beethoven inevitably came to mind in the scherzo, but Mendelssohn too, for its opening proved truly featherlight, whilst lacking nothing in harmonic grounding. Its fantastical paths spoke unmistakeably, though, of a darker, more troubled woodland. Over in the twinkling of any eye, it prepared us for the necessary contrast of the Andante cantabile, ardent lyricism to the fore. A few intonational lapses could readily be overlooked for chamber music with such a heart. The final fizzed as post-Mozartian Sekt: necessary release. There were darker passages too, of course, a battle still to be won, yet we knew that it would be.

Additional woodwind caught one’s ear from the off in Schubert’s Octet. Here, aptly for so welcoming a festival, we found ourselves in the world of superior Hausmusik. The first movement offered space and dynamism. For all that one can and should delight in this music, it needs direction, which it certainly received. Likewise the Adagio never dragged, whilst remaining very much an Adagio in character. There was darkness at its heart, but light too. The scherzo gloried in its evocation of rusticity (not the same thing as rusticity itself!) Like the first trio in the previous day’s Mozart Clarinet Quintet, the trio both relaxed and intensified, Florian Berner’s cello a guiding presence here in its counterpoint. The theme and variations developed with purpose, a rebuke to those – there are still many – who underestimate classical variation form (perhaps excepting the Diabelli Variations). All musicians shone individually, yet, more important still, as an ensemble. There was more post-Mozartian delight, but also pathos and tumult in the minor mode. The strange minuet proved melancholic without exaggeration, preparing the way for the extraordinary introduction to the finale, imbued with foreboding, close to Beethoven, yet never quite to be identified with him. The main body of the movement emerged as if a storm had passed, with the colours one might thereby expect. There were reminders, yes, of what had passed, yet, as with Schumann, it was clear where we were heading. And once we had reached that destination, what was more fitting than to round off with a little Johann Strauss, the Kaiser-Walzer, as arranged by Schoenberg? A delightful end to a delightful festival.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

BERGfrühling (3) – Haydn, Berg, and Brahms, 11 May 2018

Alban Berg Saal, Carinthian Music Academy, Ossiach, 11.5.2018 (MB)

Haydn, arr. Johann Peter Salomon: Symphony no.104, in D major, ‘London’
Berg: Lyric Suite
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, op.34

Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Sylvia Careddu (flute), Alexander Neubauer (clarinet), Ariane Haering (piano), Sebastian Gürtler, Régis Bringolf (violins), Subin Lee (viola), Florian Berner (cello))
Ivan Kitanović (double bass)

We think that we know a broader range of music than ever before, or at least that we can. Everything is there, often at the mere click of a mouse. Perhaps we do. Or perhaps not. So many nineteenth-century households knew Haydn’s, Mozart’s, Beethoven’s symphonies, and many more works, through playing them in piano duet versions. Other domestic chamber arrangements existed too, even at the time of first performance. Johann Peter Salomon’s chamber versions, often highly flexible regarding instrumentation, are a case in point. And Salomon knew the London Symphonies; he had, after all, commissioned them, and brought Haydn to London for that purpose. Indeed, those symphonies have sometimes also been called Haydn’s Salomon Symphonies. The twelfth and final of that set, and the last one of all, remains, of course, his singular London Symphony; it was that which we heard this evening, in Salomon’s arrangement, here for flute, piano, string quartet, and double bass.

Such arrangements tend to be more rewarding for players than for listeners, but it remains fascinating to hear them from time to time, not only as documents of taste, but also, often, for what they permit us to hear in the musical argument itself – if only because we are compelled, or at least invited, to listen differently. The first movement’s introduction proved broad, yet broad as chamber rather than symphonic music: just right, in many ways. The Allegro I perhaps found less convincing as a whole, although it grew on me. It seemed that Salomon allocated a little too much to the piano: fun for the pianist, no doubt, but did it quite work for the listener? Nevertheless, the players understood and communicated its formal dynamism, offering a fine sense of arrival at the close of the development. The Andante walked quickly, which made sense in a chamber version, and was far from inflexible. There was an almost – I stress ‘almost’ – Beethovenian vehemence in the central section, without abandoning its Baroque roots. The minuet again worked well, taken almost as a scherzo. However, I found the finale, especially its drone bass – perhaps surprisingly, given the presence of a double bass – lent itself less well to these particular forces. There were a few intonational slips too.

Berg’s Lyric Suite is, of course, ‘the real thing’, and what a thing it proved here, in work and in performance. We began in the thick of it: in medias res, if you prefer. Unfailingly alert and generative, the first movement set the scene for the explicit – in more than one sense – drama to come. Its successor seemed to partake in the erotic worlds of both Wozzeck and Lulu, whilst remaining quite rightly itself. What especially struck me was the fine command of what Wagner termed the melos of the work: its line or thread. Whispering, scurrying confidences, almost on the cusp of Ligeti, characterised the third movement, whose closeness also to Tristan und Isolde was never in doubt. The rich, mahogany sound of the quartet, married to the delirium of Berg’s argument, intensified that sense of Tristan in the Adagio appassionato. ‘Du bist mein Eigen’ is the celebrated Zemlinsky quotation. Quite. Afterglow lingered, yet not too long for us to regret its passing, greater tension then reignited, leading us necessarily into the motive-led vehemence of the fifth movement: at least as intense, differently so. The final movement sounded just as marked: Largo desolato. Eroticism, Tristan in particular, remained. And then, it subsided, but into what?

Brahms’s F minor Piano Quintet followed. There was much to admire here, much to get our teeth into, and again there was much to be gleaned from the programming, hearing it after both Haydn and Berg. In the first movement, there seemed to me more than a little of Schumann’s Florestan and Eusebius too. Was there a little too much? Did the argument threaten to break down? I was genuinely unsure, and unquestionably benefited from being compelled to listen: to find out, as it were. Brahms is difficult, and should never sound otherwise. That difficulty, to the point of collapse, however manifested itself more clearly, problematically in the rhythmic contradictions of the second movement. The scherzo, no more a joke than in Chopin, proved more successful, at least to my ears – and mind’s ears. Its fury rightly hung over the trio too. The finale offered, again, something of both worlds. Its introduction seemed to pick up where late Beethoven had left off, the Allegro non troppo offering a degree of relief, yet with a keen sense that there remained a long way to go. I enjoyed the danger, the sense of losing oneself, but did it quite add up? Should it have done? Ultimately, did Brahms not need something a little more integrative? I was made to ask such questions, though: no bad thing at all.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

BERGfrühling (2) – Debussy, Webern, and Mozart, 11 May 2018

Alban Berg Saal, Carinthian Music Academy, Ossiach

Debussy, arr. Michael Webster: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, for flute, clarinet, and piano
Webern: String Quartet (1905)
Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A major, KV 581

Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Sylvia Careddu (flute), Alexander Neubauer (clarinet), Ariane Haering (piano), Sebastian Gürtler, Régis Bringolf (violins), Subin Lee (viola), Florian Berner (cello)) 

Continuing to echo, rather to imitate, Schoenberg’s Society for Private Performances, BERGfrühling’s second concert opened not with Benno Sachs’s arrangement of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, but with a version for flute, clarinet, and piano by Michael Webster. It worked very well, I thought, for which much of the credit must of course go to the performers: Sylvia Careddu, Alexander Neubauer, and Ariane Haering. The opening solo goes to the flute, of course; Careddu played it in wonderfully free fashion, as if new, as if without bar lines. She was answered by Neubauer, equally impressive, opening up a fascinating flute-clarinet duet – usually statement and response, but sometimes together – with piano ‘accompaniment’. I am not sure that I did not prefer it to the Sachs ensemble version – or perhaps it was the excellence of the performance.

London buses famously take their time and then appear in twos. Such has certainly been my experience with Webern’s 1905 String Quartet, one of the many works discovered by Hans Moldenhauer after the composer’s death. I heard it for what I think was the first time ‘live’ only this January, from the Hagen Quartet at London’s Wigmore Hall. If anything, I think this performance from members of the Alban Berg Ensemble, resident here at BERGfrühling, was better still. It certainly had me think and think again about this extraordinary early work. (Which, one might well ask, of Webern’s works is not extraordinary? The over-performed Im Sommerwind, perhaps, but that has undeniable charms too.) The first of the single-movement-work’s three sections opened perhaps not unlike it had with the Hagens: still, and yet it moved. Warm yet febrile – an almost unavoidable word with much Webern – this performance had nothing generically ‘late Romantic’ to it. This may not be the Webern of his op.28 Quartet, but it is undeniably Webern.

The players shaped the music’s progress as if it were a repertoire work, which it undoubtedly should be, and perhaps is for them, without taking anything for granted. Schoenbergian tendencies were clear without being overwhelming, thereby mirroring and interpreting the work itself. Then came sweet, yet not too sweet, serenity, which also yet moved. Schoenbergian development soon had the better of that serenity, both in work and performance, furthering a sense of something at least approaching transfiguration (Verklärung). Such was enabled, it seemed to me at least, by a performance that was spacious not in the sense of being slow, but in the sense of an inviting clarity that permitted us to take in the music and its implications: to travel, as it were, with the players, interpreters ourselves. The return to stillness at the close was in essence not a return at all, for this, quite rightly, proved a very different, quite wondrous stillness, finely won.

The Hagen Quartet, joined by Jörg Widmann, had also given us Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in that Wigmore concert. One can never hear that work too often, of course, at least when performed with the distinction it not only deserves but requires. Musical performance is not a competition; at least it should not be. If I give the Alban Berg Ensemble the edge in Webern and the Hagens the edge in Mozart, the important thing is that both offered much – and indeed offered quite different performances. The first movement, not inappropriately for a festival of this name, perhaps evoked spring rather than autumn; there was certainly no hint of sepia, Romantic or otherwise. Perhaps that was partly a matter of our hearing Mozart through Webern, more through programming than performance as such, yet none the less welcome for that – not unlike Christoph von Dohnányi’s revelatory Cleveland recordings pairing the two composers. Developing variation did not, after all, start with Brahms. Neubauer’s liquid tone did not preclude the most alert of musical responses. Indeed, the two incited the other, nowhere more so than in a development section which, with true grit and vehemence, truly developed, before subsiding into a recapitulation in which the old became new.

Serenity, this time more or less unbesmirched, characterised the slow movement. That is not to say that it was without incident, far from it, but that its own developing variation was heard in an almost Wagnerian unendliche Melodie. (The two, as Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern would all show, have far more in common than ‘Brahmsian’ and ‘Wagnerian’ partisans would ever have admitted, or indeed appreciated.) A tone of hushed awe quite rightly drew us in. The minuet flowed swiftly, as if in a single breath. Its first trio relaxed, yet intensified; here, the players seemed to say, is the truly ‘learned’ music. The second trio tellingly mediated between both tendencies. If the finale can readily be taken too insouciantly, we were here reminded that this is serious music, long before the turn to the minor mode. Not that this was unsmiling, but it was perhaps champagne rather than prosecco. Given the location, it was perhaps inevitable that I should think of a mountain lake when we came to the Adagio variation. This was, however, a Lake Ossiach situated in a greater Carinthian landscape, and thus all the more beautiful for it. Before, that is, Mozart-as-not-quite-Papageno rounded things off.

Friday, 11 May 2018

BERGfrühling (1) – Schubert, Weber, and Berg, 10 May 2018

Alban Berg Saal, Carinthian Music Academy, Ossiach

Schubert: Quintet in A major, D 667, ‘Trout’
Weber: Trio for flute, cello, and piano in G minor, op.63
Berg, arr. Martyn Harry: Fragments from ‘Wozzeck’ (world premiere)

Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Sylvia Careddu (flute), Alexander Neubauer (clarinet)
Ariane Haering (piano), Sebastian Gürtler, Régis Bringolf (violins), Subin Lee (viola), Florian Berner (cello))
Ivan Kitanović (double bass)

The Vienna-based Alban Berg Ensemble is hosting its first BERGfrühling (Berg Spring) festival, in Ossiach, home to the Carinthian Music Academy, close to the Berg family estate, aptly enough called the Berghof, where the young Alban would spend his summer holidays. Four out of the five concerts will take place in the CMA’s Alban Berg Saal, a splendid new hall with an excellent acoustic, three with a work by Berg on the programme, the other with a piece by his fellow Schoenberg pupil, Webern; the fifth, a performance of a Dvořák’s G major String Quintet, op.77, will be heard in the parish church of St Georg, in nearby Sternberg. (Whether referring to mountains or composers, the word ‘Berg’ is rarely far away here.)

It was with, Schubert, one of the most indispensable forerunners of the Second Viennese School, that the festival opened, members of the ensemble joined by double bass player Ivan Kitanović for the Trout Quintet. The resonance of that bright A major chord, piano arpeggio included, seemed to announce both ensemble and acoustic in one: as it should be. A cultivated yet clear sound characterised a first movement full of tension, yet never aggressively so, the second group relaxed in the best sense, permitting a further increase of tension to propel us into the serious business of development. Modulations retained, or better revealed, their magic. Harmonic tension built and then exhausted itself, not unlike Mendelssohn, the onset of the recapitulation almost yet not quite imperceptible. A poised, almost chaste Andante sounded in almost neo-Classical style (vis-à-vis Mozart, that is, rather than anything Stravinskian!) It made me listen – and think. And yet, was it not too late for chastity? Such was subtly hinted at too, especially as the movement progressed. A propulsive reading of the scherzo, not without Beethovenian affinities – elective or otherwise – was counterbalanced by a somewhat neutral trio, but perhaps that was the point.

Having seen the wondrous Ossiacher See only that afternoon – the Abbey, now the Academy, stands by the lake – it was especially lovely to welcome the freshwater fish of the fourth movement theme and variations, here characterful, without overstatement. Well seasoned, one might say. There was plenty of time and space left to build, preparing for true vehemence in the minore fourth variation. I loved cellist Florian Berner’s shaping of his melody in the fifth: aristocratic, without aloofness. The final variation took us to the coffee house: where better a place to round off proceedings? The finale seemed, almost likewise, to hint at Brahms, whilst rightly remaining very much of its own time. Our tragedy, as well as its, may well be to be too late for Mozart; yet, as Brahms would counsel, there are sometimes worse things than lateness.

Weber’s trio for flute, cello, and piano, op.63 is an engaging, if sometimes perplexing, oddity. The first movement proved more fantasia- than sonata-like, likewise the finale. It was often not entirely clear what the material was doing where it was, nor how their tonal structure might operate. And yet, even there, there were hints of something darker, more Freischütz-like. The second movement scherzo benefited from nicely sprung rhythms and a pleasing semi-rusticity for its ‘trio’ material. Those two tendencies are more bound together in a single dance – and here, the music certainly danced. A beautifully posed ‘Schäfers Klage’ (‘Shepherd’s Lament’) was the highpoint, subtle in its navigation between Classical and Romantic tendencies – as one must be in Weber, or Schubert for that matter. It is a truly fascinating movement, all the more so in so illuminating a performance as this.

For the final work, we turned to Berg: to the world premiere of Martyn Harry’s arrangement for the ensemble of the composer’s own Fragments from ‘Wozzeck’, echoing the celebrated performances of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. The opening sounded on a knife-edge, between something frozen and molten lava: not unlike Bartók, perhaps. A labyrinth opened up before our ears, making us listen and listen anew, to find our way around something we thought we knew, yet perhaps did not after all. Indeed, for the first two fragments at least, I listened in more ‘abstract’ fashion, less heedful of the plot. Clarinet echoes from Berg’s op.5 Four Pieces led us, via Pierrot lunaire, so it seemed, into a whirling martial vortex: even here, the Captain seemed more an ‘instrumental character’ than reminiscence of a stage performance. The flute sang too, duetting, engaging with other instruments, bringing the ensemble to life – or perhaps to death.

In the second fragment, the viola came to the front: literally, Subin Lee acting as our instrumental Marie. Eloquent, even desperate, she (Marie, the viola, the violist?) remained splendidly collegiate; this was always true chamber music. In some ways, the music’s context within Berg’s instrumental œuvre came to seem clearer, or at least newly, even differently, emphasised. Curiously – in the best sense – enigmatic, it was very much the centre-piece to an aural triptych. Marie confounded us again, or perhaps Berg did, or Harry: surely, in practice as well as in theory, all three did. The drowning music with which the final fragment opens sounded properly hallucinatory, lulling, drawing us in as society draws in future Wozzecks. The ‘D-minor-ness’ of what followed somehow sounded underlined, its richness not quite that of nineteenth-century chamber music: perhaps, rather, of that music remembered, as both cage and liberation for Berg. Alexander Neubauer’s clarinet deputised for the children’s song to follow: childlike or childish? Certainly sardonic. The halt to which the music came chilled, as ever.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Lemieux/OPRF/Petrenko - Takemitsu, Chausson, and Zemlinsky, 4 May 2018

Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie, Paris

Takemitsu: Toward the Sea III
Chausson: Poème de l’amour et de la mer, op.19
Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau

Michel Rousseau (alto flute)
Nicolas Tulliez (harp)
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Vasily Petrenko (conductor)

Paris’s now not-quite-so-new Philharmonie remains a thing of wonder. The approach through the Parc de la Villette is a visual feast, especially on a sunny evening such as I was afforded. Lighting works magic after sunset too. If the public areas outside the hall still seem oddly provisional – presumably they are – the hall itself, now named the Grande Salle Pierre Boulez after the conscience of new music, remains also an acoustical wonder, a feast for the ears. I could not help but think, not least after a recent visit to the Barbican, how desperately London needs something similar – or, dare we hope, better. From May in Paris to May in Downing Street remains, alas, a distance of intergalactic proportions.

Although I had enjoyed my first visit, in October 2015, this concert proved the more consistently illuminating musical experience. For one thing, I am not sure that I had heard any of the three works in concert before. Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea III, for alto flute and harp, made for an excellent opening piece: the sort of programming touch, mixing solo, chamber, ensemble, and larger forces, of which Boulez would have approved. Flute and harp could hardly be a more Gallic combination, yet Takemitsu’s music is rarely quite what it initially seems. This, then, was a garden of delights, not least the opening movement, ‘The Night’, but not all gardens, not all Japanese gardens, are the same. Such music tends to reward concentrated, enlightened listening – what music worth its salt does not?! – such as was enabled both by these fine performances, from Michel Rousseau and Nicolas Tulliez, and the fine acoustic. There was a sense of inheritance from Debussy and Ravel, without in any sense being limited thereby. Shifting of roles between the two instruments came to the fore in the second movement, ‘Moby Dick’, played with twin flexibility and purpose: both necessary when finding one’s way around a labyrinth, however esmall. The closing ‘Cape Cod’ followed, so it seemed, consequentially, without one ever necessarily being able to explain quite how. Silences proved pregnant, as telling as the notes. There was no playing to the gallery here; neither music nor hall required it.

We remained with the sea throughout the evening, Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer our next port of call. Like each of the three pieces heard this evening, Chausson’s work is, surely not coincidentally, in three parts, a ravishing orchestral interlude between the two verse settings: ‘La Fleur des eaux’ and ‘La Mort de l’amour’. Many in the audience were, understandably, disappointed by the withdrawal of Anna Caterina Antonacci from the concert. There was, however, little to regret in the performance we heard from Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Indeed, her rich yet agile contralto offered its own distinctive rewards, which one would have been a fool to spurn. (How often, in any case, does one have the opportunity to hear a ‘true’ contralto?) Her way with the words was impressed just as much as the richly upholstered tone on the low notes.

Rousseau and Tulliez were now joined by their colleagues from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Vasily Petrenko. I was struck – perhaps as an Englishman I would be – by the opening phrase and its seeming affinity to Elgar. Tristan-esque harmonies made their mark, of course, so did the Klingsor-like, fin-de-siècle world of the ‘sauvage’ we both heard and embraced. Chamber music, as in Wagner, proved to be much of the story too, Petrenko acting as much as enabler as director, without shirking his responsibilities in the latter role where necessary. Greater urgency in the third section marked out a fresh start: related, yes, but also perhaps redolent of Nietzsche, in The Gay Science: ‘At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea’. Wagnerism knows no boundaries; nor should it.

Image: Arnold Schönberg Center - Wien

Zemlinsky would surely have nodded assent to that, whether as composer or conductor. Petrenko’s reading of Die Seejungfrau (‘The Little Mermaid’), after Hans Christian Andersen, at least equalled any recorded performance I have heard – with the inestimable advantage, of course, of ‘liveness’. When I hear it I cannot help but think of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, not least since both works received their premieres in the same concert, the final, January 1905 outing for the short-lived Vereinigung schaffender Tonkünstler (‘Society of Creative Musicians’). Neither is an easy work to bring off, yet Petrenko seemed to me very much to have the measure of Zemlinsky’s ‘fantasy in three movements for large orchestra’, especially its very own motivic integrity: not entirely unlike Schoenberg’s, yet certainly not merely to be assimilated to it.

Through that joint inheritance from Brahms and Wagner, the three movements seemed quite naturally, even organically – however loaded those terms may be – to emerge. Would it have mattered if it had been called a symphony? Perhaps not. But it was better called, and performed as, something else. The narrative was very much its own, perhaps not entirely unlike another, more celebrated maritime symphonic poem, by a composer hovering at the edges of the programme: Debussy. The waves of La Mer certainly came involuntarily to my mind at the opening of the second of the work’s three movements. Thinking of the symphonic or tone poem as a genre, work and performance sounded not un-Straussian at some points, yet never – quite rightly, I think – displayed Strauss’s cynical and/or materialist delight in phantasmagoria for its own sake. Zemlinsky, for better or worse, was simply too nice a man and composer for that. He withdrew the work, for whatever reason, after that Musikverein performance. Schoenberg, as ever, bore the violent brunt of the reaction. ‘Reviews were unusually violent,’ he would recall: ‘one of the critics suggested to put me in an asylum and keep music paper out of my reach’. Zemlinsky, however, deserved far more than indifference – as Schoenberg and this evening’s excellent performers knew well.