Thursday, 30 April 2015

EIC/Pintscher - Debussy, Boulez, Robin, and Pintscher, 28 April 2015

Barbican Hall

Debussy – Syrinx
Boulez – Mémoriale (… explosante-fixe … Originel)
Yann Robin – Asymétriades
Matthias Pintscher – Choc (Monumento IV)
Boulez – sur Incises
Boulez – Anthèmes 1 and 2

Sophie Cherrier (flute)
Nicolas Crosse (double bass)
Michael Barenboim (violin)
Arshia Cont and Franck Rossi (IRCAM electronics)
Ensemble Intercontemporain
Matthias Pintscher (conductor)

The Barbican’s Boulez celebrations have not been accorded so high a profile as those in many other European cities. (Click here for a sad report on the dire situation across the Atlantic. The New York Philharmonic, of all orchestras, appears to be ignoring its erstwhile Music Director completely.) Still, each has been welcome, this third, concluding instalment included.

No composer, even Webern, stands closer to Boulez than Debussy. His Syrinx seems to hover presciently over a good few of Boulez’s pieces, his early Sonatine included – and also Mémoriale, which would follow. Sophie Cherrier was the excellent flautist for both pieces. She offered what sounded, lapsing into ‘national’ cliché, a ‘French sound, pure and clear, unencumbered with excessive vibrato. Debussy’s brief solo work thus seemed both to hark back to Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and forward to Mémoriale, which emerged almost as a continuation. In this context, the Ensemble Intercontemporain sounded initially rather as a refraction of the solo part, the ensemble itself emerging into its own identity. Matthias Pintscher ensured a performance that was eminently precise, that precision, like Boulez’s own, never an end in itself, but as a tool of musical expression. This was an exquisite fantasy, of somewhat different, perhaps less sweet, flavour than that offered recently by Karl-Heinz Schütz, the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, but no less welcome. One of the pleasures of such a year – and let us hope that it does not remain a single year – has been to hear different interpretative approaches to Boulez’s music.

Yann Robin’s 2014 Asymétriades followed, Nicolas Crosse the double bass soloists. It was the first time I had heard any of Robin’s music; I hope it will not be the last. Although it is easier to point to contrasts with Boulez’s music, one thing that struck me was how the ensemble sound emerged from the double bass, just as I had heard it do from the flute in Mémoriale. Helmut Lachenmann’s example offered another mental comparison: not that this sounded ‘like’ Lachenmann’s music, but almost as if it presented itself very much ‘after’ the German composer’s deconstruction and reconstruction of instrumental performance. The sounds we heard, doubtless unorthodox to conservative ears, owed much to what some still call ‘extended techniques’, but they registered with such confidence as to render such a term, or indeed such a thought, quite anachronistic. That said, I was astonished to hear some of the sounds I heard coming from the ensemble I saw; I often could not say, on a first hearing, what came from where. If such be a secret of orchestration, then it seemed to have been fully mastered. Asymétriades was as visceral as Mémoriale sounded æthereal; it seemed very much an urban landscape and drama, although it should certainly not be reduced to such terms. Varèse, nevertheless, sprang to mind – albeit with very new means. Fast, frenetic, and not without fun, the work’s asymmetries thrilled and confounded. Insofar as I could tell, the performances were superb, not least that of the astoundingly brilliant Crosse. The EIC is as fortunate to have him as it is to have Cherrier.

Pintscher followed that piece with his own 1996 Choc (Monumento IV). Again, there was great contrast to be heard; whilst not without its structurally defining eruptions, nor indeed the éclat common to Robin and, definitively, to Boulez, this was sonically much more of a tapestry, perhaps somewhat in Boulez’s line. However, the sense of, as Pintscher has put it, ‘camouflaging sounds’ was again a thread in common with the preceding work, at least. It is, he was quoted in the programme as having said, ‘part of my compositional thinking, so that one can never exactly be sure who is playing or whether the sound is coming from.’ It needs, of course, an ensemble of the excellence of that founded by Boulez to accomplish that, just as it does in the alchemy of Richard Strauss; that it received here, in a splendidly incisive performance.

… which brings us to sur Incises. The expansion inherent – and discovered – in so much of Boulez’s material is emphatically a conceptual foundation of the work here, as much visually in the layout for three pianos, three percussionists, and three harps, as in this most beguiling dramatic tapestry. Sounding almost decadently Romantic, the performance never lost its sure structural foundation; it scintillated in the best – and proper – sense. The composer’s sheer delight in the sound of three pianos registered, as if one were hearing a multi-dimensional instrument, and performance – which indeed is part of the point. What one might call Boulez’s toccata tendency engaged with symmetries that were not fearful but apparently fearless: testament to performance as well as to work.

As a welcome post-concert treat, those of us who wished were invited to a performance of Anthèmes 1 and Anthèmes 2 by Michael Barenboim, the latter with IRCAM electronics. I have written recently about a Barenboim performance of Anthèmes 2; this was perhaps still more confident, and certainly had one listening with new ears in new context. It was fascinating to hear the earlier ‘version’, if one may it that, and I think in context one may, and to reflect on the expansion – not unlike that of Incises into sur Incises – of a solo work that inevitably has one think of Bach as surely as Mémoriale does of Syrinx. That, and Barenboim’s excellent performance, certainly heightened structural awareness, whilst the sonic tapestry seemed almost, doubtless misleadingly, to take care of itself. Such, after all, is part of the business of performance; once again, art concealed art and yet never forgot its performative nature, just as Boulez had intended when emphatically returning to electronic music in Répons. More on that, later in the year, from Salzburg…

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Esfahani - Tomkins, Gibbons, Scheidt, Bach, Jones, Kidane, Kalabis, and W.F. Bach, 27 April 2015

Milton Court

Tomkins – Barafostus Dreame
Gibbons – Pavan in G
Scheidt – Also geht’s, also steht’s
Bach – English Suite in D minor, BWV 811
Patrick Jones – Santoor Suite
Daniel Kidane – Six Etudes (world premiere)
Viktor Kalabis – Akvarely, op.53
W.F. Bach – Sonata in E-flat major, Fk.5

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

The Guildhall’s recently appointed Professor of Harpsichord, Mahan Esfahani, gave an inaugural recital, his first at Milton Court, in music by composers ranging from the Elizabethan virginalists to the present day. An ‘English’ emphasis was unmistakeable, even Bach represented by one of his English Suites, that in D minor. Far from that indicating any restriction, the hallmark of the recital was more variety, excellent performances throughout proving the guiding thread. In a typically engaging programme note, Esfahani wrote: ‘In English hands, the harpsichord truly came alive in all its guises – as a marvellously clear vehicle for counterpoint, as an effective imitator of whole ensembles and consorts, as an instrument of great sensuality as made possible by the confluence of various registers and harmonics naturally occurring in the sound made by a plucked string.’ Such was certainly what we seemed to hear on this occasion.

Thomas Tomkins’s variations on a broadside ballad, ‘Barafostus Dreame’ proved as ‘magnificent’ as was claimed in the performer’s note. Compositional and performing virtuosity sounded as one in a splendidly developmental account. Metre was subtly ‘bent’ on occasion, but always, it seemed, with a greater plan in mind, not for its own sake. Above all, there was a real sense of fantasy; it made sense as a performance in its own right, but also as the opening to a programme (perhaps rarer than one might expect). That characteristic ‘English’ melancholy which persists unto Birtwistle and beyond was certainly to be heard in the Orlando Gibbons Pavan. What sounded as if it were an infinitely flexible subdivision of the beat indicated a good deal of art concealing art – again both in work and performance. Samuel Scheidt’s seven variations on the German song, Also geht’s, also steht’s, offered a well-chosen staging-post on the way to Bach: a different voice, yes, even a different accent, but subtlety in technique that seemed also to offer continuation of a line.

Bach’s D minor English Suite completed the first half. In a short spoken introduction, Esfahani offered a way in to some of the composer’s complexities with a strikingly simple – in the best sense – demonstration of palindromic tendencies, both melodic and rhythmic. The opening Prelude initially resounded as if it announce Bach’s French inheritance – let us remember that a hallmark of earlier eighteenth-century German art, especially as understood by contemporaries, was its openness to different national ‘styles’ – but Bach’s undoubtedly Germanic legacy soon manifested itself ever more strongly. In the following Allemande and Courante, Esfahani struck a fine balance between phrases, paragraphs, and the whole, offering plenty of time, though never too much, for Bach’s music to speak in all its glory – and all its necessary complexity. The Sarabande’s proliferation seemed to this listener, doubtless partly on account of so much of his recent listening, to look forward to later Boulez. (If only we could hear some of the younger Boulez’s Bach performances!) The ‘busy’ quality of the first Gavotte was founded upon secure command of line, whilst the second benefited from typically imaginative yet idiomatic registration. The closing Fugue, perhaps in the light of my recently having heard Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, sounded as if a danse macabre. And of course, there were the inevitable labyrinthine presentiments of the Second Viennese School too. A well-shaped account throughout ensured that, once again, we heard that there is no composer less archaic than Bach.

There followed three very much more recent works, two from the twenty-first century, one from the twentieth. Patrick Jones’s Santoor Suite takes its cue, or at least a cue, from the composer’s study of south Indian raga, ‘specifically,’ according to Esfahani, ‘the “gat” (a cyclical, fixed melody)’. In its brief span, roughly five minutes in total, we heard an inventive response both to that world and indeed to the Baroque suite, a nicely, naggingly persistent Courante particularly striking to me on a first hearing. Daniel Kidane’s Six Etudes received their first complete performance. They definitely sounded as studies, for instance in the first piece’s treatment of repeated notes, the intervallic explorations of the second (and not just the second), and so on. A hotel reception bell made an appearance as duet partner (albeit operated by Esfahani’s foot) in the final piece.

Viktor Kalabis’s 1979 Akvarely (‘Aquarelles) seemed, again on a first hearing for me, almost to start, in its first movement, where Poulenc, in his Concert champêtre, had left off, and then, as it were, to run with whatever the composer had picked up. In this performance, I found it impossible to dissent from Esfahani’s view that this was most definitely music for the harpsichord, as opposed to ‘so much modern harpsichord music which seems like the word “piano” has simply been crossed from the title page’. The second piece revelled further in possibilities both musical and instrumental. At one point, it sounded almost as if a response to the celebrated solo in The Rake’s Progress.

Finally, there came a rare opportunity to hear a piece by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. I cannot say that I was entirely convinced, especially in the finale, by its stopping and starting: rhetorical, perhaps, but not with the mastery of the eldest son’s younger brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel. At any rate, this was a brilliantly ‘free’ performance, the slow movement at the work’s heart proving especially eloquent, indeed possessed of considerable harmonic depth.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Jerusalem Quartet - Mozart, Janáček, and Schubert, 24 April 2015

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.14 in G major, KV 387
Janáček – String Quartet no.2, ‘Intimate Letters’
Schubert – String Quartet in D minor, D 810, ‘Death and the Maiden’

Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins)
Ori Kam (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello) 

I wish I were not having to write about this again, but not to mention what happened during the Jerusalem Quartet’s performance of Mozart’s G major String Quartet, KV 387, would be as bizarre as it would be dishonest. It inevitably coloured my response to both the performance of that quartet and the rest of the concert. Once again, protestors at a Jerusalem Quartet concert suddenly, shockingly disturbed performance and listening, by standing up, in this case during the second movement of the Mozart, to shout out their beliefs concerning the Quartet and its relationship to the Israeli state. The players continued to play throughout, which may or may not have been more shocking than if they had been compelled to down their instruments for a while. Eventually, the protestors, only two of them on this occasion, were led from the hall. Yet throughout the rest of the concert, I was on edge – and I cannot think that I was the only person to feel so – lest such an interruption occur again.

I am far from being someone who, whether genuinely or otherwise, believes that somehow music and politics do not mix. Indeed, I have spent a good part of my academic life arguing quite the contrary. Yet I simply cannot bring myself to agree with what happened. I should have nothing against protestors coming to the venue, handing out leaflets, as I have seen them do elsewhere, engaging members of the audience in discussion. However, violently to disrupt a concert in such fashion is, for one thing, extremely unlikely to achieve anything to further their cause; if anything, I should think it likely to turn some members of the audience against it. Moreover, it is, especially if one is listening with the intent that such a concert and such a programme demand, really quite disturbing, even frightening, to experience such a disruption. Of course, no one in his right mind would say that such an experience is in any sense comparable to what many Palestinians suffer on a daily basis. But the players of the Jerusalem Quartet, whatever use may be made of them by the Israeli state, are not simply to be equated with that state, whatever proponents of a cultural boycott might claim. Moreover, it is simply not the case that everyone in the audience is blithely sitting there, unaware of such issues, unreflective and uncaring; one does not have the right to force one’s own response to very difficult questions upon others. I can – and do – respect the arguments that lead some to stay away; there might, however, be more respect shown for those of us who have genuinely tried to grapple with the arguments and who have decided, sometimes with doubts, upon another course of action. It is certainly less than clear to me that, say, British recipients of public cultural funding under New Labour, when the state, much to the consternation of many of its citizens, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, should have been treated entirely differently.

Given that context, my remarks on the performances will be relatively brief; shaken as I was by what happened, I was not able to listen as I should have wished to. The players, insofar as I could tell, offered an admirable performance of the Mozart quartet. Tempi were apposite, permitting joy and melancholy to coexist, indeed to interact, as they should. The first movement seemed, as befits the first of Mozart’s ‘Haydn Quartets’, to take its lead from the elder composer, without overlooking, whether here or later, the almost operatic sensibility that infuses so much of Mozart’s œuvre. There may be Sturm und Drang in the conventional sense in the second movement, but that was quite overshadowed by external events; the beauty of the players’ performance nevertheless remained, rendering the contrast all the more disturbing – in all manner of ways. The slow movement was songful, almost painfully so, yet again it is difficult for me to say more. I was perhaps less convinced by the finale, in which I wondered whether some of the performance strained a little too much towards emphasis of the ‘learned’ counterpoint, rather than letting it speak for itself. But its general thrust was unarguable; and again, given the circumstances, it is difficult to say more.

Janáček’s Intimate Letters received a scorching performance; perhaps it scorched all the more in the light of what had happened. The extraordinary opening lacked nothing in either modernistic exploration or late Romantic passion. Some of the passages in harmonics, viola and cello in particular, sounded almost as if they had come from thirty years later, yet remained anchored in the composer’s own harmonic language. The ardent quality, seemingly believing in every note, of the players’ response to the entire performance had one listen as if it were given – and heard – in but a single, extended breath. Folk rhythms were never mere folk rhythms; ‘effects’ were never mere effects. And the third movement’s climactic confrontation, so clearly inspired by the composer’s love for Kamila Stösslová, yet equally clearly rising above such particularity, proved duly shattering.   

I am not sure I have heard a more furious account of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, though I am not at all sure how much of that was again a product of the circumstances, whether in performance or in listening. If the first movement seemed, to begin with, to look towards Bruckner – I thought in particular of the Ninth Symphony – then, as its workings became more complex, it was increasingly Mahler who came to mind. Great care was taken both to characterise each of the second movement’s individual variations, and yet to give shape to the movement as a whole. If there were hope offered during the turn to the major mode – and that is a big ‘if’ – then it was equivocal hope indeed. A defiant scherzo was founded securely upon harmonic rhythm, as such movements must be, to have their proper import. (Too often, one hears rhythm but little harmony.) The Totentanz of the final movement proved terrifying in any number of ways. I realise that such remarks are at best, excessively generalised, but hope that the reader will understand why, on this particular occasion, I am not able to say much more.

Friday, 24 April 2015

LSO/Peter Eötvös - Boulez and Stravinsky, 23 April 2015

Barbican Hall

Boulez – Livre pour cordes
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
Boulez – Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna

London Symphony Orchestra
Peter Eötvös (conductor)

Although he has not (at least I do not think he has) ever held a formal position with the London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez has been a regular visitor to the orchestra; indeed, I have written more than once on his visits here. Not the least of their collaborations was Boulez’s first Complete Webern (the second more ‘complete’, including many of the works without opus numbers), a recording project which can safely be said to be ‘historic’ in the best sense of forever having changed public understanding of the composer’s work – arguably Boulez’s as well as Webern’s. Now that Boulez’s conducting days appear to be behind him – and if he were only a conductor, he would surely still be considered one of the most significant forces in New Music, as some of us might still, quaintly, call it – it fell to Peter Eötvös to conduct the LSO’s ninetieth-birthday tribute. This was no mere second best, but a fascinating, provocative concert in its own right, in some senses very much in line with Boulez’s own work, in some senses going fascinatingly beyond, even coming into fruitful conflict. Just, then, as it should have been.

First up was Boulez’s Livre pour cordes, which I had heard recently in a very different performance from the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim. Here there was less Viennese sweetness – I suspect that the very different acoustics of Berlin’s Philharmonie and London’s Barbican Hall will have had something to do with that too – and indeed, the opening of the first movement was decidedly un-easy, even neo-expressionist. In general, Boulez’s music here sounded much closer to Webern, in particular to his op.5 Five Movements, and I also found it sounded closer to the original work for string quartet, if still nevertheless impossible to reduce to its origins. Perhaps surprisingly, then, a work for strings sounded more like a work expressly for strings from the LSO than it did even from the VPO. Eötvös shared Barenboim’s taste for musical drama, but here it seemed almost to be ‘after’ Schoenberg’s op.34, Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene.

Too often nowadays, we have cause to complain about performances that treat The Rite of Spring as a mere orchestral showpiece. That is testament in part, of course, to the rise in playing standards; it would be foolish to try to make that opening bassoon solo less technically secure, out of misguided concern for ‘authenticity’, but the tight-rope is now undoubtedly less of a challenge to today’s excellent players, such as tonight’s Daniel Jemison. But it is also a matter of conductors who fail to convey, perhaps even to appreciate, what can and must still shock in this extraordinary score. Eötvös is certainly not one of them; nor was Boulez. However, whereas Boulez, the last time I heard him conduct the work, had tended to reveal often surprising affinities with Wagner, even Mahler, this was perhaps the most brazenly modernistic account I have heard in the flesh. An incredibly bleak, rather slow opening intrigued. Flexibility of tempo, however, led us inexorably towards that necessary – ‘necessity’ was a thought that often occurred to me – teeming of life, which threatened more than it promised hope. Playing was fierce, precise, abrasive in the best sense, but not without melancholy or, especially from the wind, a Petrushka-like ‘Russianness’. Divided violins paid dividends too: not, I felt, out of concern for ‘correctness’, but in order to heighten the strange, utterly compelling sense of chamber-like cooperation and conversation between different sections and indeed different parts within sections. Throughout, Stravinsky’s cellular technique was audibly, meaningfully apparent, emphasising just how different his concerns were from those of the Austro-German ‘mainstream’. What particularly fascinated, was how, delivered as it was, perhaps not coincidentally, with strikingly Boulezian gesture and economy, Eötvös’s interpretation seemed to look forward, not only to late Stravinsky and indeed to the post-war avant garde, but even to the decidedly non-Boulezian Stravinsky of the 1920s and ’30s: Symphonies of Wind Instruments, yes, but also the neo-Classical works. Hiératique, then, to borrow a marking from one of Boulez’s Notations, but not necessarily in the way he meant it. The controlled delirium – a Boulezian idea, if ever there were one – of the ‘Procession of the Sage’ and the weird mystery of the Sage himself were truly shocking: if you will pardon the cliché, it really did feel as if I were hearing the work for the first time.

The Second Part sounded wonderfully world-weary: perhaps, here, there was a little more of the Wagnerian, even Parsifalian, to Eötvös’s reading. (Or perhaps I was projecting; it probably does not matter too much.) The sense hereafter of tragic necessity was overwhelming. Balancing of instruments was quite remarkable; for instance, the strangeness of an early duet for violin and flute, which seemed like an eery, substantially wilder  premonition of something from later in the composer’s career. (It really would be fascinating to hear Eötvös in Stravinsky at his most polemically neo-Classical.) The approach and reality of sacrifice were brutal, hysterical: terrifying. Musical process guaranteed the dramatic feeling of inevitability. And yet, there was room for caprice too. That, as Webern pointed out in The Path to the New Music, is where art comes in, and we should add performance to composition in that respect. ‘To develop everything … from one principal idea! That is the strongest unity… But in what form? That is where art comes in!’

It was something of a revelation to hear Rituel: in memoriam Bruno Maderna in the aftermath of The Rite. It was certainly hiératique again. Melodic lines seemed to find their lineage in Stravinsky as much as in Debussy and Messiaen. They also spoke of and with Boulez’s own voice, seemingly echoing from as far back as the piano Notations, but also looking forward to the orchestral version. The emotional weight was reminiscent of Boulez’s Mahler, never mistaking sentiment for sentimentality, and all the heavier for it. In this great profession of grief, a post-Messiaen processional took its course, again with the utmost inevitability. The LSO players, one felt, could almost, not quite, have managed the performance for themselves; Eötvös wisely restricted his contributions to when they were necessary. There was no more showmanship to his conducting than to Boulez; and yet, in both cases, true ‘individuality’ of conception and voice resounded all the more strongly. Spatial concerns pointed towards Répons; this, one felt, was Boulez and perhaps Eötvös too at their most ‘religious’: quite different from the overt religiosity of Messiaen or Stockhausen, but no less powerful, no less ‘real’. My immediate reaction was to wish to hear the work performed again. Let us hope, then, that this year’s performances will prove no anniversary flash in the pan.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Argerich/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Beethoven and Strauss, 20 April 2015

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.1 in C major, op.15
Strauss – Ein Heldenleben

Martha Argerich (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Sixth time lucky! My most recent attempt to hear Martha Argerich ‘live’ had proved yet another failure; I admit my patience had worn somewhat thin. All could be forgiven, however, after this wonderful performance. So often in concerto performances, one has to fill in much of the solo part for oneself: not that it is not being played, but it does not necessarily cut through the orchestra as it might. There was no such problem here: there was certainly some forceful playing, as befits the all-too-easy (and perhaps a little sexist) ‘tigress’ tag. There were several passages in the first movement I have never heard come across with such clarity and dynamism. Intimacy, however, was just as crucial, not least in the hushed confidences of the slow movement. Here, chamber music, truly ravishing woodwind playing every bit a match for the silken Staatskapelle Berlin strings, was not so much writ large – for one was compelled to listen with the intensity demanded by a late Beethoven quartet, or a work by Luigi Nono – as quiet, triumphant conqueror of the symphonic domain. Listen to Argerich’s repeated notes, her passage work, her voicing, and you forget that they are such: they are music, and sounded as such. And the Haydn-like skittishness with which she played, and played with, the rondo theme was in itself a masterclass in musical re-creation. Articulation, phrasing, character, direction: all have some basis in the score, but go far beyond it. In Beethoven, a performer is no mere executant; his or her duties are far more onerous than that. One must speak for humanity – and here all concerned did just that.

Daniel Barenboim is, himself, of course no mean Beethovenian; all but the wildest-eyed ‘authenticists’ would now recognise him as probably the greatest living Beethoven conductor, whilst his performances of the sonatas are equally distinguished. And this was as true a partnership as one could hope for: not to forget the superlative playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin. (What a contrast with the tired anonymity of the Berlin Philharmonic in this hall a couple of months earlier!) Barenboim and Argerich alike ensured that form was not mere ‘structure’, but properly dynamic, founded upon harmonic rhythm: surely the most crucial aspect of performing any Beethoven work, although far too many conductors seem quite unaware of it. Barenboim’s Furtwänglerian credentials by now need no polishing; he can simply take, acknowledged, what he needs from tradition, above all the crucial ability, long lost by so many conductors, to maintain a line, to hear a movement, a work as a whole, whilst remaining very much of the present; not for nothing is he now also one of our most prominent and distinguished performers of the music of Schoenberg, Boulez, and Carter. The long-standing partnership between conductor and orchestra enables Barenboim to play it almost as if it were a piano – just as he can now play the piano (when he practices) almost as if it were an orchestra.

There followed an extremely generous encore: Barenboim and Argerich in duet for Schubert’s Rondo in A major, D 951. I confess that I do not think I had heard it before, and am not entirely convinced that such music is really ‘concert-hall music’, but then much the same could be said for a good deal of the music we hear in concert. Argerich proved the considerably stronger pianist, Barenboim occasionally skating over passages. (I checked the score afterwards.) But that is to nit-pick: it remained a privilege to hear, and indeed to see, such a musical gathering, to eavesdrop upon shared intimacies. Moreover, the sonority of four-handed Schubert was present throughout: spot on, effortlessly so, or so it seemed. What a pity, then, that an especially thoughtless audience member not only had his mobile telephone go off, but steadfastly refused to turn it off, instead glowering at those who turned to plead with him. A life-time ban would be too good for such a selfish person. Not that those who, all around me, insisted on taking photographs during the Beethoven performance were much better. Some, noticeably, did not even bother to return for the second half.

What a treat they missed, though. ‘Symphonic’ is arguably a word overused, or rather not closely defined enough. For most of us, it is a word of approbation, which signals seriousness, whether in a Strauss tone poem or a Puccini opera, although of course it was not always intended as such when used by Puccini’s critics. However, it is difficult to avoid using it with respect to this performance of Ein Heldenleben, although ‘musico-dramatic’ would doubtless be equally valid, and point to other, related virtues. Barenboim began swiftly; this is surely one of the most difficult, even impossible, of openings, not so much in itself as because it can so readily over-shadow what is to come. Tempi generally broadened as the performance progressed – and deepened. This was a masterly recreation of a score, which in the right hands, as here, becomes just as much a commentary upon memory and indeed recreation itself as Der Rosenkavalier. Incident was not minimised, but it was always integrated – just as in the very different, more conventionally ‘symphonic’ symphonism of Bernard Haitink. The long line was just as important here as in Beethoven, though quite rightly, it was often very different in character. Where Beethoven looks forward, Strauss often, though not exclusively, seemed to look back: this is, after all, the telling of a life that has happened. Daringly slow to the end, as if recalling the slow of the movement of the Beethoven concerto, chamber music was once recreated, indeed almost created, before our very ears. Irony was present – many listeners still seem not to appreciate this, much to the rest of our bafflement! – but it was loving irony. Even the critics could take their place within the grander scheme of things; perhaps they even, on occasion, might have helped.

Here again, the orchestral sound was simply gorgeous. It is difficult not to lapse into well-worn cliché, but I am not sure that I have heard more golden-hued strings, even in Vienna or Dresden. The woodwind section provd equally distinguished in solos and en masse, Strauss’s adoration for Mozart readily apparent even at this stage in his career. (Barenboim himself is, of course, a great Mozartian.) The brass was as mellow as I can recall hearing, even in Barenboim’s Wagner. And the harps! I cannot recall them ever cutting through Strauss’s orchestral textures with such clarity and such warmth: no mere ‘effect’, but musically crucial. The leader's solo passages were as sweet as they were warm, as perfectly phrased as they were imbued with genuine character. Perhaps, like Strauss himself, the performers – and we – did not want the work to end. There are, at least on occasion, worse sins than slight lingering; indeed, in the present case, it is surely written into the work. This, then, was a concert long to remember.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Wisdom of Mr Andrew Clements

I am so far aware of three written reviews of my recent book, After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from 'Parsifal' to Nono plus one spoken review on BBC Radio Three's Music Matters. The first two written reviews have had much positive to say, but have also offered some more critical remarks, all of which have been taken in good humour, whether I agree or otherwise. In particular, Arnold Whittall's comments in his Musical Times review have made me think - as well as value his words of praise greatly. It came to my attention this week that Andrew Clements, a Guardian journalist, had written a less than complimentary review in Opera magazine.

Upon reading a copy of his review, I found it so ill-informed and, worse still, downright lazy that I was tempted to write to the magazine. Wiser counsel (perhaps) prevailed. However, despite my (perhaps better) inclination just to leave what he had written in the silence it deserved, I thought I should offer here a response to some of his claims: not, I can assure you, out of sour grapes, out of wounded amour propre, since I really could not care less what someone like that has to say about anything, let alone about my work, but because it might prove useful to someone, for instance a young or lesser-known performer, someone in less of a position to reply, who has fallen victim to one of his attacks. (Let us remember that he launched a strange attack upon Tara Erraught last summer, claiming that it was 'hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy woman's plausible lover'. What a sheltered life Mr Clements must lead, if he thinks that, this page notwithstanding, all lovers must physically resemble one another!)
Clements opens his review:
It sometimes seems as if academics who specialize in opera would like to have us lesser mortals believe that the form is now extinct in the wild...
I am not quite sure what 'wild opera' would be, but I should rather like to try it some time. The chippy disingenuousness of his contrast between 'academics' and 'us lesser mortals', however, is worthy of comment. It is a contrast entirely of his devising, nowhere to be found in my book; anyone sensible realises that people come to opera, and indeed to pretty much anything and everything, in very different ways. Clements's contrast is presumably intended to put him on the side of readers, against us 'academics', as if we all thought similarly, and as if there were something wrong with taking the time to study something, to inform oneself about a subject before writing on it, as opposed to attending a performance, to which all are of course welcome. Of that sin of informing oneself, as will rapidly become clear, Clements certainly cannot be found guilty. 
Based on the title alone, then, Mark Berry's study ought to be very welcome, except that his title turns out to be almost as misleading as Parker and Abbate's ['A History of Opera - The First Four Hundred Years]. For what is promised as the point of departure for a study of recent music drama actually dominates Berry's argument...
Well, yes, since I am placing what is to come 'after Wagner': quite explicitly so. And I talk at considerable length about why I wish to include Wagner's work itself in that; is it really so difficult to understand why Wagner reception might be of interest to someone, even if only to an 'academic'? Besides, if Clements had bothered to read to the end of the first sentence of my book, let alone to the end of the first paragraph, let alone to the end of the Introduction, he would have found discussion as to why the title was (deliberately) problematical and/or provocative, and indeed discussion of more than one meaning of 'after', not least that meaning 'according to'. By all means, say I should prefer a book to be about something else, though it is perhaps a rather pointless complaint, since someone else  - maybe even you? - could write another book, but there is nothing misleading about what I have done. As for 'almost as misleading as Parker and Abbate...', a friend suggested it should be quoted on the cover of the second edition. If only Clements could be persuaded to add, 'without even trying'.
...even allowing for eccentricity, I'm not sure how Strauss's Capriccio merits a chapter in a book avowedly dealing with 'modernist music drama'...
Oh dear. Well, I shall take Clements at his word, but if he is 'not sure', I am afraid that remains his problem. Strauss has no relationship to modernism? The alleged volte face following Elektra has no relationship to modernism? The knowing self-construction of a work such as Capriccio has no such relationship? Maybe, or maybe not; part of the trouble is that such a term as 'modernism' often serves as an impediment rather than an aid to discussion. But really? Did the reviewer not read any of the material in which I tried, however ineptly, to explain why, in the light of such arguments, I was including this work, not least as (sugared?) grit to the oyster? Perhaps he did; in which case, he should take issue with my argument, rather than pretend that argument there was none. As with so many of his other claims, however, I am led to wonder just how much of the book he actually read. After all, if he did not make it unaided to the end of the first sentence... Doubtless my 'academic' style and pretensions are to blame.

...the now almost forgotten and rarely-performed music-theatre piece that Henze produced at the end of the 1960s, Der Langwierige [sic] Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer
...We all make mistakes, even we 'academics', so I shall pass over Clements's capitalisation of the adjective 'langwierige'. But he objects to my choosing to write about a piece that is 'almost forgotten and rarely-performed'. Quite why, I am not at all sure. 'Almost forgotten'? I suppose it depends by whom. Certainly a number of people to whom I have mentioned my work have been delighted that someone has bothered to write on it, finding it 'rarely performed' but certainly not forgotten. Moreover, part of my motivation has been to try, successfully or otherwise, to shed some light upon works that have not been favoured by the conservatism of opera-house programming.

As for Henze having 'produced' it 'at the end of the 1960s', I wonder whether Clements might prefer the 'after' of my 'misleading' title. Had he bothered to read the book, he might have found the sentence, 'Work began in January 1971.' If I am wrong, then I should certainly be corrected; so too should Henze.

Clements continues:
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that these works have been chosen more to suit the thesis that Berry is trying to propagate than as a useful synthesis of the multiple directions in which 'modernist music drama' actually travelled through the course of the 20th century.

The relationship between subject and object is of course complex; we have Hegel to remind us of that. But yes, of course, I have an argument, which is, I hope, derived from the material, and yet which, also, informs my reading of the material. I make that explicit. In no sense, have I suggested that I am trying to be comprehensive; I have said precisely the opposite, and have given my reasons for doing so. Again, by all means criticise those reasons, but why try to imply that I have given none? Here, as earlier, the introduction of '20th century' is odd; I have not restricted myself to that and, indeed, Clements earlier criticised me for having written also about nineteenth-century matters.

Other leading opera composers of the second half of the century who fit comfortably into the modernist mould are more or less ignored...

Yes, because, as I have said time and time again, I am not seeking to be comprehensive. That is not only a feature and, clearly to his mind, a shortcoming of the book, but part of its very clearly-stated essence. I talk about impossible choices, but also point to the virtues of selectivity. This is not an encyclopaedia, and was never intended to be. Again, why imply that I have not discussed such issues, especially within my discussion of the very business of writing history (on which Clements says not a word). Has he perhaps not read that discussion, or just forgotten it? (I have had him pointed out to me at concerts before. Often he has had his eyes shut; on occasion, I have heard him snore. Perhaps he reads books for review as he listens to performances for review.)

Berio gets a few mentions, with only one of his stage works, La vera storia, mentioned by name (when it is described as a 'meta-opera', whatever that is)...

An opera about opera, perhaps? Delighted to be of help, in any case.'s surprising that he makes no mention of Lachenmann's own 1997 music-theatre piece Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern...

Is it? Is it really? I should have loved to talk about Lachenmann's work, and hope to do so on another occasion, but given that I have explicitly stated that, for the later period covered by my book, I intend to talk about staging rather than composition, can it really be so very surprising? Again, maybe I should have stuck with discussion of works, but I have given reasons for my decision; to pretend that I have not done so is either uninformed or downright dishonest.

Above all, it's often historical context that's missing in his discussions; the sense of any of these works, particularly the more recent ones, being seen within the wider musical landscape in which they were composed.
I am not sure why Clements appears to use a semi-colon there; perhaps my somewhat faint copy of his review has misled me. His claim, however, is truly bizarre. The elision between 'historical context' and 'the wider musical landscape' is odd; it is hardly unreasonable to take in political, social, and wider cultural developments too. Yet the claim that the 'wider musical landscape' is missing is simply untrue. If anything, I think the book might have benefited from less on Darmstadt and more, say, on the Years of Lead.

Nono's work needs also to be seen against the background of the whole European avant garde after World War II for which a wholesale rejection of opera as a genre was initially de rigueur
...Yes, I agree, which is why I offer that background. As I said, I wonder whether I have offered a little too much of it. I cannot help but wonder whether Clements read chapters on Henze and Nono from some other book, if he read anything at all. Take the following words, for example:

Opera would seem an obvious means of bearing such witness [as Nono intended] to  humanity, yet the semi-detached case of Henze excepted, the post war avant-garde had remained suspicious of so apparently tainted a form ... If all along it were suspected by the avant-garde that the 'last opera' was Lulu - itself, significantly, an unfinished work - then the avant-garde took Stravinsky's and Henze's, let alone Britten's, post-war attempts at rejuvenation as explicit confirmation of ... death. It had been as strange a death as that of 'liberal England', holding little apparent justification beyond pointing to the absence of 'viable' new words and ... moribund production values ... Yet the claim seemed as self-evident to its proponents as the symphony's demised had to Wagner. Boulez would change his mind, principally through his collaboration with Wieland Wagner on Parsifal and Wozzeck ... Stockhausen would come round to operatic composition in typically spectacular style, but that development lay some years hence. It was left instead to Nono to break the de facto prohibition on graven operatic images...
There is plenty more whence that came.

The impression of After Wagner as a rather ad hoc assemblage of vaguely connected essays, to which Berry hoped to give a longer life by publishing them in a single volume...Well, if that is his impression, that is his impression. All I can say is that that is not what happened. I acknowledge in the Preface that earlier versions of the chapters on Parsifal and Moses und Aron were first published elsewhere, and state that that was done in order to try out the ideas on which I was working. The book may or may not come across as such an assemblage - my fear was almost the opposite, that I had sometimes hammered home the general argument a little heavily - but if so, that is a failing derived from my incompetence rather than my dishonesty.

...the closing chapters, in which he unblushingly recycles the three reviews of Stefan Herheim's Bayreuth production of Parsifal that he first published on his own website after seeing the production in 2008, 2011 and 2012.
Yes, up to a point - and that is the point of the seventh chapter, although not, I might add, 'the closing chapters'. (There are two more to go.) I take those reviews and consider what might be learned from them in a more general discussion of the production and of the broader issues in the book. I make that perfectly clear, so yes: I am 'unblushing'. They are not, however, recycled, but treated in what I hope, although others might differ, is critical fashion. Why 'three' is emphasised I am unsure; perhaps Clements is fonder of Hegel and/or the Holy Trinity than we might hitherto have suspected. A large point of my point is how the production and my response evolved. I have eliminated unnecessary repetition, or at least tried to do so, and presentation of the reviews remains a relatively small part of that single chapter.

Maybe there is a higher purpose to it all, an intellectual coherence; if so, it's one that I didn't grasp at all.

You said it. At the risk of repeating myself beyond endurance, I shall repeat that the broader argument is clearly spelled out: in the Introduction, in the three 'Preludes', in the chapters themselves. A reader may not like it; (s)he may not agree with it; (s)he is perfectly free to take issue with it. If 'it's one that I didn't grasp at all,' the rest of us will draw our own conclusions.

And finally, Clements's closing sentence, which actually closes his review, so I use the word in the common sense rather than his:
Berry's bundle of 'histories' doesn't constitute a comprehensive History of his subject in any useful sense.

It was never intended to do so - as would have been abundantly clear to anyone who had taken care to read the book. Next from Andrew Clements: In Search of a Sequitur: My Life as a Critic.

A final thought: Andrew Clements is paid for his writing and for his (alleged) reading and listening.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Between Worlds, English National Opera, 11 April 2015 (world premiere)

Barbican Theatre

Shaman – Andrew Watts
Janitor – Eric Greene
Younger Woman – Rhian Lois
Realtor – Clare Presland
Younger Man – William Morgan
Older Man – Phillip Rhodes
Mother – Susan Bickley
Lover – Sarah Champion
Babysitter – Claire Egan
Wife – Susan Young
Security Guard – Ronald Samm
Firefighter 1 – Philip Sheffield
Firefighter 2 – Rodney Earl Clarke
Sister – Niamh Kelly
Child – Edward Green

Deborah Warner (director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Tal Yarden (video)
Kim Brandstrup (choreography)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Stephen Higgins)
Gerry Cornelius (conductor)

An opera dealing with – or at least claiming to deal with – the events of 11 September 2001? I suppose it had to come, but that does not necessarily make it any more necessary. This co-commission from ENO and the Barbican seems, alas, founded upon a bad idea. One can make an opera out of almost anything, of course, but that does not mean that some subject matter is no more or no less suitable than any other. The problem with the highly fashionable – at least in some quarters – tendency to base operas upon recent(-ish) news stories is that, all too easily, their ‘documentary’ as opposed to artistic quality becomes the issue at stake. In the case of the bombing of the Twin Towers, there is also the question of attempting to put oneself beyond criticism, or at least of appearing to do so, by dealing with such portentous subject matter. Or, in the opposite case, of creating a controversy, when someone objects to the choice of subject matter.

But the problem lies more with the specific choices of Nick Drake’s libretto: which, frankly, is dire. What are we told? That some people, with differing personalities and differing personal and financial circumstances, went to work one day, not knowing what was to happen, and never came back. Not much more than that, really. As a friend said to me after the event, there is a reason why disaster films tend not to deal with actual disasters, but will have at least someone surviving. What is an undeniable tragedy in ‘real life’ does not necessarily transfer so well to tragedy on stage. Moreover, the banality of the words – which will doubtless be justified as ‘realistic’ – irritates and, worse than that, bores. There is a limit to how many times anyone wants to hear ‘What the fuck?’ repeated on stage. Snatches of ‘real-life’, if fictional, conversation, are heard from the chorus as well as the ‘characters’, presumably a nod to the celebrated telephone messages left by victims. What on earth the ‘Shaman’ character is doing is anyone’s guess. I assume he in some sense signifies Fate; to start with, I wondered whether we might have a guest appearance from Stockhausen; alas not. Anyway, he spouts gibberish, which at least offers verbal and indeed musical variety, which to some extent is taken up by other members of the cast, especially the Janitor. Then he disappears. That sits very oddly with the work’s ‘realism’, and not productively so. Might it not have been more interesting to deal with the creators of what Stockhausen so memorably called Lucifer’s greatest work of art? Or, better still, to create a more finely balanced, fictional story?

Tansy Davies’s score is better than that. I suppose one would describe it as ‘eclectic’. There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, as Hans Werner Henze put it, writing about The Bassarids, ‘with Goethe under my pillow, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the possibility of being accused of eclecticism. Goethe’s definition ran: “An eclectic … is anyone who, from that which surrounds him, takes what corresponds to his nature.” If you wanted to do so, you could count Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, and Stravinsky as eclectics.’ What I missed, though, was any real sense of musical characterisation, or indeed of sympathy for voices. The score is atmospheric, and has a nice enough line in impending doom, ‘darkening’ in almost traditional ‘operatic’ style, but it tends more towards background, like a good film score, rather than participating in and creating the drama. That, at any rate, was my impression from a first hearing. Rightly or wrongly, music seemed subordinated not so much to ‘drama’, as to subject matter.

Deborah Warner’s production plays things pretty straight. What to do with the actual moments of impact? Stylisation is not a bad solution, so we see pieces of paper fall from the ceiling. Having a Mother sit at the front of the stage, looking ‘soulfully’ into the distance, at the close, risks bathos; but perhaps that is in the libretto. It does no particular harm. Insofar as I could discern, the ENO Orchestra and Chorus were very well prepared, incisively conducted by Gerry Cornelius. The cast is called upon more obviously to act than to display great vocal prowess, but its members all did what was asked of them. Andrew Watts’s counter-tenor Shaman stood out, but then, as mentioned, the role puzzling fizzled out. Susan Bickley’s talents seemed wasted, but as usual, impressed.

So then, I was happy to have gone, but cannot imagine rushing back. Apologists for new (alleged) conceptions of opera would ask where the problem was with that. Must everything, or indeed anything today, be a masterpiece? Well, clearly not everything will be, but I am not sure that I am willing to ditch the work concept or even the ‘masterpiece concept’ so emphatically, quite yet. Besides, this is clearly intended as a ‘work’, not as a ‘happening’, or some such alternative. ENO deserves credit for supporting and performing the work. Perhaps next time around, it will be luckier with respect to the outcome; this was, after all, the company that commissioned The Mask of Orpheus.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Gianni Schicchi and Bluebeard's Castle, Komische Oper, 5 April 2015

Komische Oper, Berlin

Gianni Schicchi – Günter Papendell
Lauretta – Kim-Lillian Strebel
Zita – Christiane Oertel
Rinuccio – Tansel Akzeybek
Gherardo – Christoph Späth
Nella – Mirka Wagner
Gherardino – Kosma Foik
Betto di Signa – Stefan Sevenich
Simone – Jens Larsen
Marco – Nikola Ivanov
Ciesca – Anna Werle
Maestro Spinellocio - Bruno Balmelli
Amantio di Nicolao – Philipp Meinhöfer
Pinellino – Ezra Jung
Guccio – Tim Dietrich
Buoso Donati – Bernd Guthmann 

Bluebeard – Gidon Saks
Judit – Ausrine Stundyte

Calixto Bieito (director)
Rebecca Ringst (set designs)
Ingo Krügler (costumes)
Pavel B Jiracek (dramaturgy)
Franck Evin, Rosalia Amato (lighting)

Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Henrik Nánási (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus

Easter Sunday in one of the most strongly atheist cities in Europe: it must be time for Calixto Bieito’s double-bill of Gianni Schicchi and Bluebeard’s Castle. And whilst it was difficult to find much prospect of resurrection, let alone Resurrection, what an enthralling evening it turned out to be. Both works were premiered in 1918, but beyond that, have little in common, contrast being more the order of the day. But the production, especially its designs, and those too-oft-unsung heroes of the opera house, the stagehands, did a magnificent job in bringing them together – if only ultimately to keep them apart. Performed without an interval, there is only a very short break. Little, apparently, has changed. The curtain rises to reveal the room in which Gianni Schicchi, the Florentine ‘trickster’ has comedically triumphed, following the death of Buoso Donati. Bluebeard and Judit seem initially to have triumphed, only for all to turn inexorably to tragedy.

The first opera fully inhabits an updated spirit of commedia dell’arte, ‘Europe’s oldest tradition of comedy,’ as Bieito comments in a programme booklet discussion. It is difficult to imagine any sense in which the work is fundamentally ‘about’ fourteenth-century Florence; its import is certainly more universal here. There is riotous earthiness, much as one expect from both director and company. So there is in the tradition in which it partakes. And whatever Puccini may have been, he was no prude. A gloriously bad-taste view of modern Italy – Bieito cites the ’60s and ’70s Spanish and Italian films, loved by his father, of Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman, and Alfredo Landa – reigns, but as a frame rather than unwanted determinant, for the equally bad-taste antics of the squabbling relatives. As ever with this director, whatever one thinks of his ideas, there is no doubting the mastery of his craft; everything is clearly as it should be, and indeed there is probably too much to take in on a single viewing, just as there would be in ‘real life’. The filmic – or indeed ‘stagey’ – falling still of the characters in ‘O mio babbino caro’ shows it not as the fly in the ointment I once took it to be, but as a wry send-up of the sentimentality of a tradition that ensnared Puccini at least as much as it inspired him. The notary’s stamping of each clause of the will upon the back of his assistant, and the latter’s outrageous expressions of pain and anal pleasure is but one vignette; Rinuccio’s enjoyment of Lauretta (later clearly tempted by the aforesaid assistant) outside the window before they climb back in is another. You will either love or hate it, but cannot doubt the brilliance of the accomplishment. I found it more enthralling than any other staging I have seen.

At first, one thinks that there will merely be clever re-use of Rebecca Ringst’s set, dark, brooding emptiness substituted for Italian religious tat and ‘valuables’. But the conception is better than that. As the tragedy deepens, as Fate does its terrible work, walls move and new scenes present themselves, the mechanics dealt with superlatively. We do not see what lies behind each door; such would only lead to the gravest disappointment. In that sense, and despite my regret that I had long thought the work stood in little need of staging, this remains theatre of the imagination. Certainly ours, and maybe theirs. Yet we see a good deal of the castle, itself surely an important ‘character’ in its own right, although quite rightly, secondary to the antagonists. The castle is a setting, but also an intensification, of the searing struggle we witness, one of the most compelling psycho-dramas I have ever seen. Sado-masochistic, soaked in blood, a deadly serious game: I am not sure that any description can come close. Suffice it to say that Bieito penetrates to the very heart of what is going on in this extraordinary work, screwing up the tension like none – at least in my experience – before him and never letting go. One small example: the way they hide and exchange clothes, seeking to learn something, yet only adding to the sanguinary descent into madness and beyond. Nothing is added, but somehow the drama is set free.

That would be nothing, of course, without singers able to inhabit the roles as overwhelmingly as we saw and heard. Gidon Saks’s Bluebeard was not especially impressive in purely vocal terms; in a concert performance, one would have thought him underpowered, although his diction was beyond approach. Yet he somehow managed to project above the orchestra, perhaps at least in part by virtue of his stage presence. One felt the terror he felt as much as that he projected; one knew, almost before the text, whether verbal or musical, told us, that he had nobler intentions, yet was incapable of fulfilling them. As for Ausrine’s Judit, no praise could be too high. Hers was a complete portrayal, as distinguished vocally as on stage. She took the role to places I had no idea it could go: this was a woman driven by mysterious forces to do something she knew would end in tragedy, yet had no choice but to do. She exulted, she cowered; above all, she assumed the role – Bartók’s, Bieito’s, and hers – in every sense.


Gianni Schicchi is, of course, far more of a ‘company’ opera, and so it was here. There were powerful performances from the young lovers, an enthusiastic, puppyish Rinuccino, Tansel Akzeybek, and an adult-girlish Lauretta from Kim-Lillian Strebel. Günter Papendell proved wily and victorious in the title role. Everyone else contributed in his or her own way, the zany sum being still more than the sum of its numerous parts. Throughout, Henrick Nánási ensured an excellent contribution from the orchestra. Puccini’s scherzo’s followed by Bartók’s tragedy might sound ironically Mahlerian in the abstract, but it sounded very much of the two composers in the theatre. It was not, however, a performance which stood apart from what we saw on the stage; I heard it simply as part of the drama. That was not least the virtues of this unmissable double-bill (performed, I should note, in the original Italian and Hungarian).


Just published: 'Richard Wagner's Revolution: "Music Drama" against Bourgeois "Opera"'

As part of an ongoing series on the Focaal Blog on 'Music and Capitalism'. Please click here to read.

Berlin Festtage (7) – WEDO/Barenboim: Debussy, Boulez, and Ravel, 4 April 2015


Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune
Boulez – Dérive 2
Ravel – Rapsodie espagnole
Alborado del gracioso
Pavane pour une infant défunte

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

All good things must come to an end – though not, we can now be sure, the recent near-exponential growth of interest in Pierre Boulez’s music. The always-unpersuasive claims about the ‘box office’, ‘elitism’, and so on have, this year, already been shown to be utter nonsense. The Barbican sold out tickets for many of its ‘Total Immersion’ events; here again, a concert in which Boulez’s music made up half the programme sold out. What his music, like that of any other great composer, needs is at the very least excellent, committed performances. That was always Boulez’s claim concerning the music of the Second Viennese School, and how he showed that to be true! Now subsequent conductors are doing the same for his music, no conductor more so than Daniel Barenboim. The greatest Beethoven conductor alive, the founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: that is a ‘name’ who will bring people to Boulez, and indeed one who uncontestably has. My Festtage events thus went out on a high.

First came Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune. Barenboim did not conduct the beautifully played opening solo (others were equally beautiful), simply letting Guy Eshed get on with it. The baton was only lifted for the entry of the orchestra. In a sense, that gesture – and that lack thereof – prepared the way, consciously or otherwise, for the dialectic between freedom and determinism that lies at the heart of so much of Boulez’s work. This was, like Boulez’s VPO recording, a sultry account, almost as if Ravel’s Spanish sun were already risen, but not at the expense of the ambiguity that makes Debussy Debussy, and which may indeed be his most important legacy. I was struck by the difficult-to-pin-down French sound Barenboim elicited from the West-Eastern Divan, translucency not the least of its qualities. Gorgeous string vibrato was equally welcome.

Of all of Boulez’s music, I perhaps still find Dérive 2 the hardest to grasp as a whole. I am in no doubt that the fault lies with me, having no truck with a dismissal I heard in conversation with a distinguished composer, who described it as ‘culinary’ – surely an insult worthy of the young Boulez himself. Barenboim has said he considers it perhaps Boulez’s finest work, and many others are especially drawn to it. My journey towards understanding certainly seemed to be sped up by this fine performance from Barenboim and his players, who exhibited still greater confidence than they had in their Proms account in 2012. Whatever the ‘authenticists’ might say, and no one has been fuller of scorn for them than Boulez, one is far likely to play Beethoven better, once one has the music under one’s skin; the same is true of Boulez. Barenboim’s exposition of the opening material was clear and pregnant with possibility, faithful in the best sense to the work, just like his Debussy or indeed his Beethoven. (How I wish he would conduct Pelléas!) The uncredited marimba player’s early contributions were a particular joy, drawing me in to the musical argument. Michael Wendeberg, whom I heard as piano soloist earlier in the week, was, for all his excellence, very much an ensemble player here, his exemplary contributions clearly drawing on his experience as a member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Counterpoint, though not so much sonority, led me to think of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, of which I have never heard a finer performance than under Boulez here in Berlin. Ebb and flow sometimes seemed to draw more upon the composer’s Debussyan inheritance – or was that perhaps the canny programming? It need not, arguably should not, be either/or. At other times, a more ‘mechanistic’ spirit was manifest, the contrast putting me in mind of Boulez’s early – and, in their orchestral form, ongoing – Notations. A wonderful bassoon solo (Mor Biron) seemed momentarily to evoke the opening of The Rite of Spring, but whilst ‘derivation’ in Boulez’s sense may be the name of the game, there is absolutely nothing ‘derivative’ in the pejorative sense to this work. There is nothing enigmatic to the audible ‘derivation’, and this performance helpfully underlined its achievement. If I still find the work a little daunting, I do so less than I did; and my immediate reaction was that to hear again, preferably immediately, such a performance would bring me closer still.

Ravel’s Spanish works were the material of the second half, just as they had been for the WEDO’s Proms concert last year. The Rapsodie espagnole proceeded in quasi-symphonic style; certainly there was great purpose to the performance, though not in any sense at the expense of sonority and general atmosphere. The ‘Prélude á la nuit’ reprised and extended, made personal to Ravel, the sultriness we had heard in Debussy. It was – and not in an Ann Widdecombe/Michael Howard sense – very much ‘of the night’. The brilliance of the opening of the ‘Malagueña’ was owed in no small part to the excellence of the double basses. A darkened kaleidoscope revealed all manner of riches. Quiet insistence of rhythm marked the ‘Habanera’, preparing the way for a gorgeous celebration of sound in the closing ‘Feria’. Alborado del gracioso received a sparkling performance, colour and rhythm working their Ravelian alchemy. As at the Proms, Barenboim rarely conducted – at least with his baton. Pavane pour une infante défunte was arguably a little too languid at times, but that is to nitpick, for it remained a beautifully played performance. Boléro proceeded on its way for quite some time without Barenboim raising his baton. It was a showcase for the orchestra, but no mere showcase. Most important, the orchestra, if I am to go on the stolen glances between desks, clearly enjoyed itself. As did we; as, I think, did Barenboim. As, I think, would have Boulez. The now-inevitable Carmen excerpts offered brilliant, generous encores.