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.


‘Vienna Revisited’ – Schoenberg and Berg, 18 and 20 September 2014

Hall One, Kings Place

Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op.4
Lied der Waldtaube
Chamber Symphony no.1, op.9

Berg – Seven Early Songs
Schoenberg – Brettl-Lieder

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Alice Privett (soprano)
Chad Vindin (piano)
Members of the Aurora Orchestra
London Sinfonietta
Nicholas Collon (conductor)

‘Vienna Revisited’ has been the title of Kings Place’s mini-festival, ‘curated’ by Nicholas Snowman. I managed to attend two out of the four concerts, missing the Quatuor Diotima (Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Brahms) and the Aurora Orchestra (Webern, Berg, and Mahler). First up was an intriguing performance of Verklärte Nacht by six members of the London Sinfonietta (Clio Gould, Joan Atherton, Paul Silverthorne, Yuko Inoue, Tim Gill, and Jonathan Ayling), a performance which once again confirmed the superiority of Schoenberg’s original sextet version over its later orchestral incarnation. I say ‘intriguing’, since, especially for the sextet version, the spectre of Brahms was far less present than one might have expected, Wagner instead proving more a guiding force in a highly dramatic account, which might almost have been an operatic scene without words. One also had a very strong sense of six individual musicians – coming together, yes, but also with particular things to say. The veiled opening signalled, at least in retrospect, a dramatic ‘extreme’, for wonderfully expressive – not indiscriminate – vibrato was to come. Expressionism beckoned too. Without going to any perversely anti-Romantic extreme, there was great clarity; in some respects, I was put in mind of a Domaine musical recording, supervised by Boulez. Sections were clearly demarcated; one would not always want to hear it like this, but there was a stronger than usual sense both of the poem and almost of something akin to versicle and response. It was almost as if one were reading an illustrated short story. There was moreover, a strong impression given of the character – and meaning – of particular keys and their relationship to one another. An unfortunate instance of electronic interference, just before the final transfiguration, could not disrupt a fine performance.

Sarah Connolly joined a larger Sinfonietta ensemble under Nicholas Collon for the chamber version of the ‘Lied der Waldtaube’ from Gurrelieder. Connolly as soloist offered a wonderful range of colour and expression, her use of words just as impressive as her command of vocal line. Increasing richness of tone marked hers out very much as the ‘mittlere Stimme’ Schoenberg prescribes – even if I continue to love the recording Jessye Norman made with Boulez and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. After a somewhat wayward cor anglais opening line, the orchestra imparted an excellent sense of the febrile quality to this reduced instrumentation, although Collon’s conducting was somewhat fussy, stronger on the paradoxical clockwork element than the equally important late-Romantic profusion.

Collon fared better in the First Chamber Symphony, though the very fast tempo adopted at the beginning – whatever Schoenberg may have prescribed – perhaps proved self-defeating, and I could not help but wish for this, perhaps the sunniest of Schoenberg’s inspirations, to have smiled, Haydn-like, a little more. Expertly performed by old hands, this account was not inflexible, but sometimes a little too moulded by the conductor, at least for my taste. Still, there was incredible virtuosity to be heard, great clarity, and a fine blend of lines, all despatched with an impressive sense of kinetic energy.

The other, short concert I attended two days later, was given by soprano, Alice Privett and pianist, Chad Vindin, with a brief appearance from members of the Aurora Orchestra (Rebecca Larsen, Chris Deacon, and Sarah Mason). Berg’s Seven Early Songs came first. ‘Nacht’ displayed from the outset excellent diction. A slightly deliberate tempo worked very well, permitting detail and decadence alike to tell. And those harmonies, threatening to float, Jakobsleiter-like, into the ether! The paradoxical sense of convivial Einsamkeit was very well conveyed. ‘Schilflied’ struck a lighter note, without losing expressivity; we heard here Berg as heir to Liszt and Wolf. ‘Die Nachtigall’ was passionate, if perhaps a little strident. I wondered whether ‘Traumgekrönt’ might have been a little less deliberate, but it benefited from Vindin’s strong sense of the labyrinthine tendencies, even at this stage, to Berg’s harmonies. ‘Im Zimmer’ showed keen attention from soprano and pianist alike to the shifting moods and registers of the poem, for instance to the crackling fireplace, as well as the music ‘itself’. ‘Liebesode’ was grand, even grandiloquent, as arguably befits the poem, whilst the final ‘Sommertage’, if again a little strident in the vocal line, had a fine sense of the song as a whole.

Schoenberg’s Cabaret Songs followed. ‘Der genügsame Liebhaber’ immediately displayed a different mood: more playful, even ‘acted’, in short that of cabaret. Perhaps the piano was a little more reticent than it might have been, but that would not be a problem in subsequent songs. The mock stridency of ‘Einfältiges Lied’ was captured well by both artists, pictorial elements in the piano part coming across with admirable clarity. ‘Nachtwandler’ had the Aurora musicians join in. Those Musikanten, as the text would have them, did not always blend together so well as they might, but it is a tricky thing to walk on and perform for a single song. The real disintegrative tendencies to what might seem on the surface a simple song received fine, commendably flexible attention in the piano part. ‘Jedem das Seine’ was then taken more slowly, more reflectively than usual: more Romantic Lied, less evident cabaret, after which ‘Mahnung’ registered with proper Brettl-archness. (Weimar culture did not come from nowhere.)  A nicely coquettish account of ‘Gigerlette’ , a lively ‘Galathea’ (with a lightly post-Tristan fourth stanza), followed. Although there were a few slips in the final ‘Aus dem Spiegel von Arkadien’, this remained an impressive recital throughout.

Gluck and Bertoni: Il Parnaso confuso and Orfeo, Bampton Classical Opera, 16 September 2014

St John’s Smith Square

(sung in English)

Apollo – Aoife O’Sullivan
Melpomene – Gwiawr Edwards
Erato – Anna Starushkeych
Euterpe – Caryl Hughes

Orfeo – Anna Starushkevych
Imeneo – Thomas Herford
Euridice – Aoife O’Sullivan
Friends of Orfeo/Furies/Blessed Spirits – Gwawr Edwards, Caryl Hughes, Thomas Herford, Robert Gildon

Thomas Blunt (conductor).

Jeremy Gray (director, set designs)
Fiona Hodges, Pauline Smith (costumes)
Karen Halliday (movement)

Painting of the premiere of Il Parnaso confuso, attributed to Johann Franz Greipel.
The Archduke Leopold may be seen at the harpsichord in the pit, his sisters on stage.

The response, or rather lack thereof, of London's ‘major’ opera companies to the Gluck anniversary has been nothing short of a disgrace. It would not matter, if they deigned to perform his operas the rest of the time, but they might at least have made token amends this year: instead, absolute silence has reigned, whilst the more artistically pressing business of endless revivals of uninteresting stagings of still more uninteresting works by Verdi and Donizetti has continued apace. After all, a season without a surfeit of Traviatas  is no season at all for some houses; it is as if Gluck’s reforms, let alone Wagner’s, had never happened. Bampton Classical Opera, however, has performed a real service, in mounting the first British staged performances – at least that is the claim, and I have found no evidence to the contrary – of Il Parnaso confuso. Performances, especially in this country, of Gluck’s reform operas are so thin on the ground that it seems an almost indecent luxury to see one of his other works. It should not, however, and such works require no apology, simply a hearty welcome – and of course good performances.

This one-act festa teatrale, here performed in tandem with Bertoni’s Orfeo (on which more anon), was composed to a libretto by Metastasio, for performance at Schönbrunn in 1765. For the marriage of the Archduke Joseph, shortly to be Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, to Maria Josepha of Bavaria, Gluck was commanded to write no fewer than three works, the others being a full-scale opera, Telemaco, ossia L’isola di Circe, and a pantomime-ballet, Sémiramis. (If we think his operas neglected, just consider the fate of his ballets, with the partial exception of Don Juan.) The concept of Il Parnaso confuso was that it would be a surprise for the wedded couple, performed by four of Joseph’s sisters and directed from the harpsichord by his brother, Leopold. Were this Strauss and Hoffmansthal we should doubtless all be hymning the metatheatricality of a work in which four of the Muses are suddenly called upon by Apollo to provide an entertainment for Joseph and his ‘stella bavaria’ and hasten to do so, only to find out that the wedding has already taken places and that their services are required not very soon but immediately. Indeed, there are more than shades avant la lettre of Ariadne auf Naxos. (Strauss, far from incidentally, was a great devotee of Gluck’s operas.) That the libretto is by Metastasio, and mocks as old-fashioned and merely conventional earlier Gluck works, written for Joseph’s first marriage in 1752, offers irony aplenty, especially when one considers the shortly-to-be-penned Preface to Alceste, in which the Caesarian Court Poet would find the reformist boot very much on the other foot. Both Gluck and Metastasio show a light, even comedic touch that confounds such expectations as we might generally have today.

Performances did this work – perhaps slight, but far from negligible – proud. Thomas Blunt showed a true, and rare, sense of eighteenth-century style, which is certainly not what many people nowadays think it to be. Tempi were well chosen, orchestral colour within its bounds well balanced, and the singers well supported. The musicians of CHROMA are of course equally to be credited; small numbers notwithstanding, the band, placed behind the stage, never sounded meagre, the acoustic of St John’s Smith Square doubtless proving of considerable assistance. Jeremy Gray’s production offered an Alpine Parnassus, replete with Dirndl, Lederhosen, and beer, which allowed the action – and above all, the music – to proceed without unnecessary interference and yet which, at the same time, provided a witty framing for further metatheatrical reflection, should one have wished to indulge. (The question of Gluck and ‘nationality’ is complex and fascinating.) All of the singers had a good deal to offer, Gwawr Edwards being perhaps my pick of the bunch, the surprisingly difficult technical demands – how did the princesses cope with them? – having little fear for her, but never being a mere end in themselves. She and her sisters, played by Anna Starushkeych and Caryl Hughes distinguished well between their respective roles, without attempting unduly anachronistic ‘characterisation’ in the modern sense. Aoife O’Sullivan’s Apollo sounded perhaps a little strained at times, but otherwise impressed.

The passage from opera seria to ‘reformism’ was neither linear nor uniform, as both the ‘reform operas’ and chronology will attest. Il Parnaso confuso was composed after Orfeo, though I should defy anyone to guess so. Moreover, just as Metastasio’s libretti would be set by a multitude of composers – Mozart had at least forty predecessors, Gluck included, when it came to La clemenza di Tito – Gluck was not the only composer for Ranieri de’ Calzabigi’s Orfeo. Here we heard what was intriguingly billed as the first ‘modern-times’ performance of Ferdinando Bertoni’s 1776 version in the United Kingdom; I can only assume that there must therefore have been an eighteenth-century performance somewhere in this country, and should be grateful for confirmation and details. Doubtless the strangeness would have been greater had we not heard the work in English translation, but even so, it is a slightly odd business hearing a text – even when cut – one knows so well, set to different, yet clearly ‘influenced’ music. The impression is generally of pleasant, perhaps more ‘up-to-date’ music, somewhere between imitation Gluck and Johann Christian Bach, but deeper acquaintance might possibly ascertain greater individuality (or not). It is well-crafted and certainly to be preferred to many of those aforementioned undistinguished nineteenth-century works our houses continue to foist upon us. An exception seemed to be offered by certain odd tonal jumps in the recitatives; without consulting a score, I cannot say whether that was Bertoni’s fault, or a matter of the performing edition. Maybe it would have been too much to hear both Orfeo settings back to back, but it would have been intriguing: an idea for another occasion, perhaps?  

Again, performances were generally impressive. Blunt, clearly a force to be reckoned with, and someone from whom I hope to hear more soon, again led his players in a stylish, committed performance, which enabled parallels with as well as distinctions from Gluck to be drawn. Gray’s modern-dress production again permitted the work to progress without fuss. The lion’s share of the singing is Orfeo’s; here, Anna Starushkeych was a little more variable, perhaps a little tired at times, but nevertheless gave a good sense of what was at stake. Thomas Herford and Aoife O’Sullivan provided very good support, as did the small soloists’ chorus. Charles Burney’s doubts concerning Bertoni’s inventiveness may have been justified, but so, for the most part, was his discernment of a style that was ‘natural, correct, and judicious; often pleasing, and sometimes happy,’ both in work and here in performance.


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Serse, English National Opera, 15 September 2014


(sung in English as Xerxes)

Serse – Alice Coote
Arsamene – Andrew Watts
Amastre – Catherine Young
Ariodate – Neal Davies
Romilda – Sarah Tynan
Atalanta – Rhian Lois
Elviro – Adrian Powter

Nicholas Hytner (director)
Michael Walling (revival director)
David Fielding (designs)
Paul Pyant, Martin Doone (lighting)
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Dominic Peckham)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Michael Hofstetter (conductor)

It was a delight to welcome Nicholas Hytner’s charming, witty staging of Serse, or Xerxes, intelligently revived by Michael Wallingm back to the Coliseum. Some of ENO’s so-called ‘classic revivals’ have stretched the term beyond breaking-point; this, however, does seem to qualify both as a revival in more than name and, in its own way, as a ‘classic’. Having won an Olivier award on its first outing in the anniversary year of 1985, Hytner’s production lightly frames an opera which, if we are honest, has nothing meaningful to do with ancient Persia, in terms of a re-imagined eighteenth century. Images from something akin to Georgian Vauxhall – topiary, newspapers, aristocratic finery – merge happily and without the slightest pedantry with hints at the Enlightenment archaeological imperialism of the British Museum, ‘anachronisms’ such as deck chairs in the park, the anonymised ritual of white-faced courtiers, the celebrated Handel statue in Westminster Abbey, and so forth, to enable our minds and memories to play upon whatever associations they will, without damage to the slight comedy that is the ‘drama’ of the piece and which is really more of an excuse for a fine succession of Handelian melodies than anything else. (That said, the sense of a different æsthetic, not just that of opera seria, but also of the often-unacknowledged experimentalism of Vauxhall, is present too, perhaps especially in the revival.)

Whilst, even in this, one of the strongest of Handel’s operas, it is difficult and would probably be perverse to care about the characters and their actions in the way one would in the greatest of his dramatic oratorios, let alone in an opera by Monteverdi or Mozart, the cast offered not only a generally strong set of vocal performances but, for the most part, more than plausible acting too. Alice Coote seemed to be an audience favourite but, for me, hers was a strikingly mixed performance: at its best very good, especially rich in the lower range, but too often resorting to downright shouting, and with decidedly mixed results when it came to coloratura. Andrew Watts’s coloratura was often found wanting too; I had the sense that he would have been happier in contemporary than Baroque opera. Otherwise, there was little about which to cavil at all. Sarah Tynan’s Romilda was beautifully sung throughout, with a fine sense indeed of how coloratura can, even in Handel opera, strain towards true dramatic meaning. Rhian Lois captured to a tee the character of her scheming yet ultimately insouciant sister, Atalanta, and was just as impressive in vocal terms. Catherine Young offered relative gravity and, again, equally excellent singing as the disguised heiress, Amastre (Amastris here). Neal Davies and Adrian Powter were more than serviceable in the smaller roles of Ariodate and Elviro. Direction of the chorus was finely judged too.

I feared the worst at the beginning of Michael Hofstetter’s account of the Overture. Vibrato-less strings and a hard-driven tempo had me thinking we should be in for something akin to typical English ‘Baroque’ – actually, nothing of the sort – puritanism.  However, within the bounds of what is (sadly) nowadays possible, Hofstetter’s conducting and the ENO Orchestra’s response showed considerably flexibility and an enlightened approach towards musical expression of which I had more or less given up hope. There was not, of course, the rich tone of the old ‘live’ recording (in German) from Rafael Kubelík, with Fritz Wunderlich no less, but the performance compared well with Charles Mackerras (this production, on DVD). Not only was there genuine ‘life’ to be heard in the pit, it sounded like an orchestra rather than a tired end-of-pier band, such as more recently suffered here from so-called ‘specialists’. This work’s particular fluidity of recitative and aria – perhaps harking back to one of Handel’s sources in Cavalli’s version? – was well served, dramatic impetus not, at least after the Overture, being mistaken for the tyranny of the bandmaster. If there were times when a little more warmth would not have gone amiss from the strings, they were fewer than one might have expected. Continuo playing was alert and, again, far from inflexible. ENO could do far worse than ask Hofstetter back in such repertoire – especially when one considers the alternatives.

There will be a broadcast on BBC Radio 3, on 4 October.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Hodges - Debussy, Birtwistle, and Mozart-Busoni, 14 September 2014

Wigmore Hall

Debussy – Etudes, Book I
Birtwistle – Variations from the Golden Mountains (world premiere)
Mozart-Busoni – Giga, bolero, e variazione
Birtwistle – Gigue Machine
Debussy – Etudes, Book I

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

This was a fascinatingly programmed recital, which proved to be more than the sum of its considerable parts. Debussy’s Etudes bookended two Birtwistle works, both splendidly original and full of ‘traditional’ resonance, with Busoni reimagining Mozart (partly, like Birtwistle, reimagining Bach) at the centre. Nicolas Hodges’s interpretations played to and upon the programming, drawing out – and enabling the listener to draw out – connections, rather than presenting ready-made ‘individual’ performances. And, of course, there was the small matter of a Birtwistle premiere in his eightieth birthday year.

The first six Debussy pieces opened with a stark, elemental ‘pour les “cinq doigts”’, its simplicity almost aggressive. Uncertainty invaded, preparing a typical dialectic between opposing yet related tendencies. There was great clarity to Hodges’s performance; this was forthright, even high modernist, Debussy. ‘Pour les tierces’ put the interval in question in the foreground from the outset, permitting elaboration, variation, something akin to discussion. Harmonies, if some way still from the non-functional, were readily apparent as constructions from intervallic material: an obvious contrast with, say, many of the composer’s Préludes. Such was not, of course, always the case; indeed, contest was in good part the thing. The importance of intervals, at any rate, reminded one that Webern was far from the only begetter of Boulez and the post-war avant garde. And then, the third study seemed to take in more of the world of those far-from-superseded Préludes: Debussy – and a good performer – will always question, even confound. Mediæval resonances of the fourth, organum in particular, made their point without a hint of the archaic. In ‘pour les octaves’, Post-Lisztian pyrotechnics combined with modernistic insistence, even at times, glare, seemingly born of the first study, whilst ‘pour les huit doigts’ seemed to take its leave from that first piece’s dexterous explorations: post-Czerny, as it were, though with Liszt not so far away either.

Birtwistle’s Variations from the Golden Mountain – ‘I’ve been listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations a lot recently; I thought it was obvious.’ – received its first performance, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann. It was inevitable, doubtless, but still striking how much the ear found, and was led to find, points of connection with Debussy at perhaps his most ‘abstract’. A generally and, for the composer, unusually slow tempo, following a toccata-like opening flourish, made no difference to the typical yet typically unique senses of mechanism and of its progress and halting. Perhaps that tempo, as well as the instrument, enabled more of a post-Webern pointillistic impression than one often gains from Birtwistle, at least at times. Stockhausen occasionally came to mind in that respect too. There was always, though, a longer, melancholic line, as well as typical outbursts of almost Schoenbergian (op.11) violence, Hodges drawing out mightily impressive sonority from the bass of his instrument.

The second half opened with Busoni’s reworking of Mozart’s extraordinary Schoenbergian Gigue, KV 574 and the fandango – which, for some reason, Busoni dubbed a bolero – from the third-act finale to The Marriage of Figaro. The first gigue section was taken very fast indeed, anything but ‘Romantic’; indeed, it emerged as very much in keeping with what we had heard in the first half. The ‘bolero’ offered relative, but only relative, relaxation, still very much in constructivist, even Bauhaus, mode: most intriguingly so in its Klemperer-on-speed Sachlichkeit. The final ‘variation’ of the gigue material offered an ambiguous, ambivalent response to some of the Lisztian tendencies announced by Debussy. It seemed all over in a flash, leaving one wishing for more – not unreasonably so, in the case of the ever-neglected Busoni.

The 2011 Gigue Machine is, according to the composer, a ‘fantasia in two parts’, its counterpoint ‘linear and sonorous against something else that is very staccato’. To my ears, it sounded, both as work and performance, closer to Stravinsky than Variations from the Golden Mountain, but also in context drew upon the example of Mozart’s – and Mozart-Busoni’s – Gigue as well as Bach. Harmonies, again probably partly as a well-nigh unavoidable consequence of pianistic tradition, sometimes suggested German music from Bach to Schoenberg. And of course, there were the wonderful, machine-like ostinatos so typical and, again, so individual in their reinvention.

Then came the remaining six Debussy Etudes. The seventh sounded as a whirlwind, within which a diatonic heart was permitted, encouraged, or enabled to beat. ‘Pour les agréments’ was, quite properly, more yielding, even charming. Debussy’s famed ambiguity came to the fore once again, though there was nothing remotely fuzzy to Hodges’s pianism. Virtuosity was still required – and received. Likewise in ‘pour les notes répétées’, though I wondered whether we might have heard more at the softer end of the dynamic range. Musical process was at any rate abundantly clear and meaningful. The sphinx-like Debussy came once again before our ears in ‘pour les sonorités opposées’, wonder on show at the exploration of harmonies – and pianistic harmonies at that. Ghosts of Tristan occasionally made themselves heard, but so did premonitions of so much of what was to come later in the twentieth century. A note of whimsy was struck in the eleventh study, albeit underpinned by something wordlessly deeper. Beguiling tone and a willingness always to yield were crucial here. ‘Pour les accords’ was duly climactic, Debussy’s knowingly cruel demands seeming very much to form as well the material as well as to bind apparently disparate earlier tendencies together. As an encore, and with a nod to Birtwistle’s initial intention to call Gigue Machine ‘Bunch of Bagatelles’, we heard Beethoven’s op.126 no.3, structure and apparent simplicity very much to the fore, without precluding sentiment or fantasy.