Monday, 2 March 2015

Baryshevskyi - Scarlatti, Ligeti, Chopin, Messiaen, and Schumann, 2 March 2015


Wigmore Hall

Scarlatti – Sonata in A major, Kk 113
Sonata in C major, Kk 159
Sonata in D major, Kk 96
Ligeti ­– Musica ricercata
Chopin – Mazurkas: in B-flat major, op.7 no.1; C major, op.56 no.2; F minor, op.68 no.4
Messiaen – Three pieces from Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus
Schumann – Piano Sonata no.2 in G minor, op.22

Antonii Baryshevskyi (piano)
 

Many of us fall into an easy, perhaps too easy, dismissal of ‘competition winners’. No one in his right mind would say that winning a competition is anything but a beginning. Moreover, we have all heard plenty of the bland, technically perfect playing, with nothing to say about the music, or indeed the musician, which gives ‘competition winners’ a bad name. That said, it seems perverse and indeed unfair to dismiss the very real achievements, both musical and personal, triumphing in such conditions may indicate. Antonii Baryshevskyi, winner of the first prize and gold medal at the 2014 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition here made an impressive Wigmore Hall debut, which would have been just as impressive whether he had won that competition or not, but for which that experience may well have helped prepare him.

 

It was only in Schumann’s second piano sonata, the final piece on the programme, that I thought in those ‘competition’ terms. It is no mean feat to perform the work with such virtuosity as we heard, but I did not always discern so much beneath the surface. In its first movement, likewise in the scherzo and finale, I did not feel that Baryshevskyi’s Fazioli did Schumann many favours. There was welcome clarity, but the brightness of tone did not always sound ideal. Fluency was undoubtedly impressive. The slow movement, however, was possessed of a characteristic sadness, with a crucial Schumannesque sense of ‘poetry’: songful, yet not maudlin, with kinship to Mendelssohn.


The recital opened with three Scarlatti sonatas. I could not help but wonder whether including one minor-key and/or one slow piece would have offered greater contrast, but what we heard was nevertheless well conceived. The A major sonata, Kk 113, opened in bright, declamatory fashion. Terraced dynamics made their point but there was variegation within too. The C major sonata, Kk 159, showed still more that Baryshevskyi was unafraid to use the full resources – well, more or less – of the modern piano to Scarlatti’s benefit: no attempting to imitate a period instrument here, though there were welcome echoes of the guitar. Hand-crossing was relished, and put to musical as well as technical ends. The Handelian opening of the D major sonata, Kk 96, came with a splendid flourish. Harmonic twists later on were conveyed with proper understanding. If there were times when I thought the pianist’s way with ornamentation might have sounded more idiomatic on a harpsichord, there were others when it emerged in melodic terms to the advantage of his chosen instrument. Repeated notes were mightily impressive in their despatch.


Ligeti’s Musica ricercata was a very welcome choice. This is process music in the best sense; one hears and experiences the implications – whether as pianist or as listener – of the increase in notes: from just the two in the first (and the D is only added to the A in the final bar) to all twelve notes of the chromatic scale in the eleventh. Baryshevskyi’s performance was as full of wit and character as the work itself, and conveyed with evident understanding its nature as a whole. The first piece seemed well prepared by Scarlatti, its crescendi something quite new, magnificently executed by the pianist. One could really appreciate the novelty of a third note in the second piece, which, moreover, truly sounded as Ligeti has it: ‘Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale’. After its high drama, the third piece sounded like the love-child of Scarlatti and Prokofiev, its toccata-spirit unabashed. The ‘Tempo di valse’ piece which followed seemed almost to evoke Chopin’s ugly sister, the ungainliness of its dance predicated on a secure waltz-foundation. The eighth and ninth pieces sounded very much as a Bartókian pair. (The ninth is dedicated to Bartók’s memory.) Rhythm and melody alike in the former sounded very close to the earlier Hungarian master, whilst his dirge- and night-music seemed reimagined in the latter. Toccata-like writing again came to the fore, both in work and performance, in the tenth, whilst it was Bartók, Bach, and of course Frescobaldi who were recalled in the chromatic final piece, the ‘Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi’. It offered a clear, inevitable conclusion, again both as composition and as performance.


Three Chopin Mazurkas opened the second half. For me – and this is unusual – the B-flat piece, op.7 no.1, suffered from too much rubato, it proving difficult to discern a pulse. However, there could be no decrying an identikit, ‘competition winner’ performance; this was clearly a personal response. There was no such problem with the C major work that followed, op.56 no.2. It was far from metronomic; such would be monstrous. There was, however, a strong, even heavy pulse – quite appropriate to the piece – which was then varied tellingly. The F minor Mazurka, op.68 no.4, one of my favourites, again was performed with pronounced rubato, but in winningly ‘old school’ fashion. Baryshevskyi’s Chopin certainly intrigues, from this taster.


In between the Chopin and Schumann came three pieces from Messiaen’s Vingt regards. ‘Première Communion de la Vierge’ instantly proclaimed the ‘right’ sonority, irrespective of instrument. The brightness of its treble was certainly put to excellent use, but the ‘rightness’ was more a matter of old-fashioned ‘touch’ than anything else. Just as important, Baryshevskyi had a fine sense of how Messiaen’s music hangs together and progresses: how it works. His voicing of chords was often exquisite, but never narcissistic; there was always an understanding, or so it seemed, that Messiaen’s theology insisted upon something far more than the hoary construct of ‘absolute music’. Post-Lisztian virtuosity was not, however, to be sneezed at. ‘Noël’ conveyed the ecstasy of the Incarnation well, although there were just a few occasions, especially earlier on, when rhythms might perhaps have been tighter. The echoes of Gaspard de la nuit were well judged, though. In ‘Regard des hauteurs’, that excellent toccata-style once again came to the fore, here well negotiated in terms of tricky metres. I only wished I could have heard more.

 


 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

London Sinfonietta/de Ridder - Haas, Xenakis, Levi, and Vivier, 27 February 2015


Purcell Room

Georg Friedrich Haas – Open Spaces (United Kingdom premiere)
Xenakis – Aroura
Mica Levi – Greezy (world premiere, London Sinfonietta commission)
Claude Vivier – Zipangu

London Sinfonietta
André de Ridder (conductor)
 

This was the first of two London Sinfonietta concerts, collectively called ‘Spectrum of Sound’. The second would take place the following evening, presenting works by Scelsi, Ligeti, Murail, and Haas; I only managed to catch the first. It was, I suppose, encouraging that it sold out – except for those who failed to secure tickets! – but I was a little surprised that it took place in the Purcell Room rather than the next-door Queen Elizabeth Hall, which would have enabled a larger audience to hear an interesting programme.
 

Georg Friedrich Haas seems popular at the moment – at least in certain new music circles. The London Sinfonietta gave a wonderful performance not so long ago of his in vain. This later, 2007 work, written in memory of James Tenney, was the only one to add to the evening’s basic string ensemble. In addition to six violins, two violas, two cellos, and two double basses (all strings ‘retuned’, that is, along microtonal lines), we heard also the excellent work of two stereophonic percussionists. The swarming sounds to be heard throughout the string ensemble at times put me in mind of Ligeti, although I am not sure whether that were ‘influence’ as such, nor whether it would matter if it were. There was revealed, as in in vain, a fine sense of instrumental drama, not least in a great, almost orchestral crescendo. Interest – dramatic in its way – also lies in the ‘shadowing’ of one half of the strings (that is, three violins, one each of viola, cello, and double bass) by the other half, each tuned a sixth of a tone lower. (The composer’s helpful note made this clear.) Open strings, not quite as one might expect them to sound, perhaps resound all the more overtly, or rather might seem to do so, in the new context.


Xenakis’s presence on concert programmes remains all too rare. This most uncompromising of composers never fails to make the strongest of impressions, at least in a remotely competent performance. Here, as throughout, the London Sinfonietta under André de Ridder certainly offered more than that, allowing one to trust in its guidance – always a crucial matter in new music (and I think we can still call a Xenakis piece from 1971 that). ‘Aroura, Homer’s earth,’ to quote the composer, ‘precedes Antikhthon, and represents the sound textures of the earth (the word is from the same root as “area” or “arena” in the Romance languages). The first impression the eyes receives of the earth is of textures, e.g., fields, words, or bare soil; similarly, the first impression the ear receives of sound is of textures.’ As ever with Xenakis, ‘elemental’ very much seemed the apt word for such impressions, however clichéd it might have become. One heard kinship in the swarming, but difference too in the variety of interplay, continuation, and imitation between instruments. Lines interlocked but also seemed to continue determinedly according to their own (would-be scientific?) necessity. There was drama too, perhaps more ‘conventionally’ framed than one might have expected – or perhaps that was a matter of the narrative coherence the conductor and ensemble imparted to their performance. Glissandi, for instance, could considered as a group be considered to generate form, necessarily heard through time – and ‘felt’, as it were, through time, too, given the undeniably visceral nature of Xenakis’s music.   


Following the interval, we heard the world premiere of Mica Levi’s Greezy, the title, according to the composer, denoting ‘a word used to describe a character who shows no remorse, who will do something bad without worrying about the consequences. It’s a kind of “hard core” description of strength through lack of compassion and fearlessness’. The work’s processional quality – Levi herself spoke of it as dirge-like – seems preoccupied with slowing, not just slowness, of time. A pair of cellos seems almost to step back in time, evoking to this listener’s ears resonances of Purcellian viols. The performance as a whole benefited from a splendidly rich string sound from the London Sinfonietta. Perhaps one of the work’s most immediately notable features is a wide oscillating vibrato, to which de Ridder drew attention, inspired, it seems, by the sound of electronic synthesisers.


Claude Vivier’s Zipangu shares with Greezy an opening concerned with what we might consider to be ‘repeated notes’, but which in context had a rather different effect, soon sonically modulating, from that which they might have had in broadly Classical repertoire. Simon Blendis’s virtuosic violin solo, superlatively played, initiated – or at least seemed to initiate, though it was not quite the first instance of such writing – responses from other instrumentalists, within what Vivier considered to be ‘the frame of a single melody’. (Zipangu, by the way, is a name given to Japan at the time of Marco Polo.) Differentiated bowing techniques contribute to the sonic tapestry, through which structure seems both to emerge and to be mediated. A ‘Spectrum of Sound’, then, was certainly what we heard.
 

This concert will be broadcast on Hear and Now, BBC Radio 3, on Saturday 11 April, 10 p.m.

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Indian Queen, English National Opera, 26 February 2015


Coliseum

Hunahpú – Vince Yi
Teculihuatzin – Julia Bullock
Doña Isabel – Lucy Crowe
Don Pedrarias Dávila – Thomas Walker
Don Pedro de Alvarado – Noah Stewart
Ixbalanqué – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Mayan Shaman, Zapatista – Luthando Qave
Leonor – Maritxell Carrero
Mayan Deities (dancers) – Sonya Cullingford, Alistair Goldsmith, Lucy Starkey, Jack Thomson
Tecum Umán – Jack Thomson
Leonor as child – Rosanna Beacock

Peter Sellars (director)
Gronk (set designs)
Dunya Ramicova (costumes)
James F. Ingalls (lighting)
Christopher Williams (choreography)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Christopher Bucknall)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Laurence Cummings (conductor)


As Peter Sellars might enjoin us, ‘Hey, let’s accentuate the positive!’ Or, as his relentlessly hyper-ventilating character, Leonor, might loquaciously, nonsensically have put it, ‘Throbbing through the long, hot, dangerous night, he, o he, that wondrous mixture of virility and divinity, ah, how the thrusting of his white, masculine loins and my ever-flowing beauteous womanhood must maximise and conjoin all that is awesomely towering and breathtakingly divine in river-creating accentuation of the, o, how ecstatic, the majestically positive.’


I had better start again: let us attend to the virtues of this performance. They were entirely musical, and in many cases, estimable indeed. Much to my surprise, after his dry, charmless Messiah for ENO, Laurence Cummings conducted an often richly expressive account of Purcell’s music. There was even, wonder of wonders in this puritanical age, vibrato – more, admittedly would have been welcome – to be heard from the violins. A decent-sized orchestra and well-endowed – sorry, Leonor – continuo group gave as fine a ‘live’ account as I can recall of much of the composer’s greatest music, its chromaticism beguiling and disconcerting in equal measure. The occasional ill-chosen tempo aside – an absurdly rushed Trumpet Tune, if I remember correctly – the music took its time, its melancholy and, on occasion, languor permitted to tell. I am not sure, moreover, that I have heard more committed choral singing of Purcell’s sacred music – what it was doing there is of course another matter – than that from the ENO Chorus, its expressive range pleasingly unconstrained by ‘early musicke’ dogma.


Much of the solo singing was very good indeed too. Lucy Crowe’s soprano brought welcome lyricism, elegance of line, and emotional depth, contrasting with the lighter, yet not slighter contributions of Julia Bullock. The two counter-tenors were more variable.  Vince Yi was accurate, and rather more than that on some occasions, but his voice, especially in its higher reaches, was somewhat thin of tone. Anthony Roth Costanzo struggled with intonation and register earlier on – almost as if he were expecting the music to be sung at a different pitch – but revealed himself later to be the more expressively-voiced of the two. Noah Stewart’s virile yet sensitive – yes, Leonor – tenor had one wishing for more. (We heard nothing at all from him in the first half, although we saw plenty.) I hope that ENO will invite him back for a more musically substantial role. Likewise Thomas Walker, whose stylish contributions were not the least of the evening’s virtues. Luthando Qave was a little woolly of tone.


Had we been treated to a concert of Purcell’s music, that would have been all well and good. Alas, we had Peter Sellars’s intervention to contend with. The programme description ‘unfinished semi-opera in five acts with a prologue by Henry Purcell, completed by Peter Sellars’ was, at least in one way, uncharacteristically modest; for what we had was, the ‘soundtrack’ notwithstanding, entirely the baleful creation of Sellars’s half-baked ‘ideas’. Doubtless they would have been thought daringly post-colonial, and will be praised as such by fashion victims; yet, in truth, there was little of the ‘post-’ to them. There are problems, to put it mildly, with the twenty-first century presentation of Purcellian semi-opera, but I cannot imagine that we could have been worse off with something approximating to the original play, described by Sellars as a ‘bizarre fantasy’. It takes one to know one, I suppose. I can only assume that the spoken texts from Rosario Aguilar’s The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma became more thoroughly lost in translation. What we hear seems in its banality to cater to the lower end of the Woman’s Own market, an irredeemable mixture of very mild soft pornography and tedious 'right-on' platitudes.


Sellars seems to present, although I may have misunderstood, an unthinking mixture of Aztec and Mayan civilisation conquered by the Spanish. The patronising presentation of the ‘Other’ as primitive victims strains toward, never quite reaching, the intellectual coherence and emotional depth of a gap-year student’s attempts to find him- or herself. Of what might interest us about other civilisations there is little, unless one counts a risibly choreographed parody of Mayan mysticism at the beginning, replete, I am sorry to say, with recorded generic ‘jungle’ sounds. There is still less to credit in the gaudy, jumble-sale-style costumes. ‘Foreign’ people are so colourful, and unspoilt, you see. Designs, attractive enough in a one-dimensional, touristic sort of way, are by ‘Gronk’, who ‘since the early 1970s has been using guerrilla street performance, video, film, photography and conceptual art to upstage the mainstream art world and proclaim the outside existentialism of Chicana/or artists.’ At least we are spared the participation of Bill Viola, although we are certainly not spared the ardours of a preposterously long evening: three hours and forty minutes, with one interval. It seems much longer, especially during the second of the two acts, despite its slightly greater dramatic coherence.


Then there is Leonor – who, for the most part, confusingly appears to speak as her mother, Teculihuatzin, lover to Don Pedro (Leonor’s father). It would, I hope, be difficult to find anyone in polite society who would not be utterly horrified by the genocidal acts of the Spanish conquerors. So banal and excitable are Leonor’s interventions, though, that one almost begins to sympathise. Were the squaddies to put her out of our misery, it would unquestionably be a merciful release. I do not know whether the actress, Maritxell Carrero, was simply following orders. However, even if one could overlook the aggravating mispronunciation of words such as ‘lieutenant’, she came across as something close to an ‘amusing’ 1970s caricature of an ‘exotic foreigner’. Perhaps, however, such caricatured North American presentation is creditably true to this Indian Queen, for ultimately, so self-indulgent a show seems concerned with little beyond a director’s self-imposition upon self-righteously adopted ‘causes’. If ‘self’ appears too many times in the preceding sentence, that sorry deed, at least, has not been carried out entirely unknowingly.  

 

 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Pogorelich - Liszt, Schumann, Stravinsky, and Brahms, 24 February 2015


Royal Festival Hall

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième année, S 161: ‘Après une lecture de Dante’
Schumann – Fantasie in C major, op.17
Stravinsky – Three Movements from ‘Petrushka’
Brahms – Variations on a Theme by Paganini, op.35

Ivo Pogorelich (piano)


There are ‘controversial’ pianists, and then there is Ivo Pogorelich. Neither love nor money would have me part with his recordings of Gaspard de la nuit and Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata. However, my two experiences of him as a concert pianist, at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival, and now tonight, have gone some way beyond the merely eccentric; indeed, I am not quite sure I have the vocabulary to describe them. Nevertheless, try I must.


Liszt’s Dante Sonata opened the programme, its opening – ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ – declamatory, although almost metallic in tone. (Throughout the first half in particular, I felt there was something distinctly odd about the regulation of the piano, but maybe it was just Pogorelich’s ‘way’ with it.) There was little in the way of beauty of sound – with Liszt, I always have in the back of my mind Tovey’s observation that here was clearly a man who could not fail but make a beautiful sound whenever he touched the piano – but somehow there seemed to be a sense of truthfulness. Once past the introductory material, Pogorelich’s performance initially seemed subdued, but volume and tempo increased. Then came the great slowing: nothing wrong with that in principle, of course, and it needs to happen. But to something quite so glacial? Phrases, let alone paragraphs, were so distended – a word, I am afraid, which persistently came to my mind throughout the recital – that they stood on or beyond the brink of losing all meaning. Exacerbating a tendency already present, the performance became weirdly fragmentary. Moreover, picking up of tempo did not, sadly, equate to any (re-)gaining of coherence. At least, that is, until, apparently out of nowhere, Mephisto seemed, uninvited, to join us, presaging his final waltz. But where had he come from? Perhaps more to the point, where did he then go? Some of the playing that ensued was, for a brief time, diabolically virtuosic, yet also brutal to the point of charmlessness. I was captivated, somehow, or should that have been ‘captive’?


If the Liszt work had its problems, that was nothing, however, compared to Pogorelich’s performance of Schumann’s C major Fantasie. Never have I heard Schumann sound so – unlike Schumann. Indeed, there were times when, had I not known the work to which the performance was distantly related, I might have guessed the composer to have been one of those cultish nineteenth-century eccentrics such as Alkan. From the outset of the first movement, the thin, bright sound of the instrument seemed less suited still than it had to Liszt. Indeed, oddly, the music often sounded more akin to Liszt than it ever did to Schumann. I longed for something deeper, mellower: ideally a Bösendorfer. And yet, when Pogorelich occasionally yielded, there were proto-Brahmsian half-lights to be experienced, that experience alas proving to be of frustrating brevity. More seriously still, form seemed as elusive as compositional ‘voice’. The torpor into which the movement descended was beyond all other things straightforwardly perverse. When it came to the second movement, the jubilation with which it opened sounded briefly closer to Schumann, although the now-inevitable distortions would soon undo that good, or at least comprehensible, work. At one point, the performance sounded as if it were about to metamorphose into an account of the ‘Great Gate of Kiev’, before Schumann briefly reappeared, only to be replaced with someone closer to Liszt, both in sonority and rhetoric. And so it went on. There was greater yielding in the third movement, but as music, it utterly baffled me. I have little idea about the time on the clock, but it seemed interminable, quite devoid of direction. It unsettled – but not in any way I could begin to consider ‘right’.


With Stravinsky’s Three Movements from ‘Petrushka’ the recital reached its nadir. The ‘Russian Dance’ was bizarrely slow, but also oppressively heavy: rather like a piano transcription of what someone who has never really listened to Klemperer might think one of his more extreme performances to have sounded like. Except, of course, without the sense of form, or line, or indeed of anything else. O for Pollini here! The second movement eventually reached something beyond rehearsal speed, only to lose it soon after, Odd snatches of surprisingly Ravel-like sonority were interspersed with Petrushka on a distant ‘Bydlo’ and passages so distended that they sounded more like random collections of notes and durations. ‘Shrovetide Fair’ sounded as an amalgam of tendencies in its predecessor. Fistfuls of notes, some right, some less so, had me ready to confess to anything: if only it would stop. I half expected Pogorelich’s left hand to quit, citing ‘artistic differences’ with his right. Had it done so, it might well have proved an act of mercy.


Very much to my surprise, Brahms’s Paganini Variations emerged best from the evening’s confrontations. A welcome chaste opening to the First Book almost suggested Neue Sachlichkeit, arguably coming a little closer, if still not very, to Stravinsky than the previous performance ever had. Here, for the most part Pogorelich’s technique was marshalled in a good, mesmerising cause. The third variation really sounded as if Paganini had turned pianist; the fourth and fifth seemed to herald the Second Piano Concerto and to pay tribute to Schumann in a way the Fantasie performance never really had. Weighty turbulence in the eighth was disrupted by a few oddities, but remained recognisably Brahms. Slower tempi, however, brought greater eccentricity, the twelfth sounding like – I really do not know what. The coda, however, was (relatively) back on the straight and narrow, boasting real direction and purpose. Coherence regained was maintained in the first variations of the Second Book. They were not necessarily ‘conventional’, but nor were they merely outré. We even came to hear later on a sense, briefly, of repose that was yet quietly ecstatic. Wonderful! Scampering post-Mendelssohn figures gained diabolical edge – although, I must admit, not always; nor did they always quite scamper. Double octaves, though, had greater depth than they ever had in the Liszt performance. The twelfth and thirteenth variations went so far towards what we might generally expect that they beguiled, rubato and voicing alike not only delightful but meaningful. Following a coda which did – more or less – what it should, I fled, lest there be an encore.




Die Zauberflöte, Royal Opera, 23 February 2015


Royal Opera House

Tamino – Toby Spence
Three Ladies – Sinéad Mulhern, Nadezhda Karyazina, Claudia Huckle
Papageno – Markus Werba
Queen of the Night – Anna Siminska
Monostatos – Colin Judson
Pamina – Jania Brugger
Three Boys – Michael Clayton-Jolly, Matthew Price, Alessio D’Andrea
Speaker – Benjamin Bevan
Sarastro – Georg Zeppenfeld
Priests – Harry Nicoll, Donald Maxwell
Papagena – Rhian Lois
Two Armoured Men – Samuel Sakker, James Platt

Sir David McVicar (director)
John Macfarlane (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Leah Hausman (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Cornelius Meister (conductor)
 

When, a couple of years ago, I last saw David McVicar’s production of The Magic Flute, I was pleased to note that Leah Hausman’s revival direction had brought new life to a staging which, at its previous revival in 2011, had begun to seem tired. In terms of staging, it seems to have perked up further in 2015. Part of the reason, I suspect, must be McVicar’s having returned to direct the revival himself: something I did not pick up on until after the event, but which, in retrospect, certainly told. Not only did the cast members appear perfectly clear what they were and what they should be doing; a considerable amount of movement (typically well planned by Leah Hausman) had been rethought, reinvented. I can be very touchy – many would doubtless say too touchy, but here I stand… – when it comes to Mozart, and regret what seemed to me a shift towards the merely comic. However, if my memory serves me correctly, and this is a production I have watched regularly on DVD too, it was a shift rather than a wrench. Many, in any case, will feel differently, should the widespread enthusiasm for Nicholas Hytner’s old ENO staging, an enthusiasm I never felt in the slightest, be anything to go by. There remains delight to be had in John Macfarlane’s designs; a visual, if less an intellectual, sense of eighteenth-century Enlightenment remains happily present too. At any rate, it is pleasing to see a twelve-year-old production – I shall never forget Sir Colin Davis’s conducting during its initial run – refreshed and reinvigorated.


Cornelius Meister’s conducting had its moments; comparisons with Davis would be pointless. Meister sometimes seemed hamstrung by the (presumably self-inflicted) size of his orchestra, nowhere more so than in an often scrawny account of the Overture. When will conductors recognise the crucial matter of the size of a house in suggesting the necessary, or at least desirable, number of strings? There was sometimes a tendency to rush, too, an especially noteworthy occasion being the merely glib conclusion to the first act; here, Mozart should sound at his most Beethovenian. However, there was orchestral beauty, albeit of a Fricsay-Abbado ‘light’, almost free-floating variety, worlds away from Klemperer, Böhm, or Davis, let alone Furtwängler. Harmony, then, might have been given more of its due. Some of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House’s woodwind playing was truly ravishing; I recall a particularly fruity bassoon line, but there were many other instances. If there were a few disjunctures between pit and stage, there was little that was grievous, and little, moreover, that seemed unlikely to be rectified in the progress of this run of performances.


Toby Spence proved an ardent Tamino, a little darker-hued than we often hear, and certainly none the worse for that. This was the first time I had heard his Pamina, Jania Brugger, but I very much hope that it will not be the last. Her performance balanced dignity and beauty of tone in properly Mozartian manner, her second-act aria an object lesson in pathos without exaggeration. ‘Bei Männern’ was an especial delight, given the participation of Markus Werba as Papageno. I do not think I have ever heard a less than excellent performance from him, and this was no exception. His Viennese way with the dialogue came as balm to the ears; but there was sadness too, as there must be beneath any clowning. Rhian Lois made the most of her role as his intended: an impressive Royal Opera debut. Anna Siminska’s Queen of the Night had the occasional slip, but this is a well-nigh impossible role; there was much nevertheless to admire. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Sarastro presented gravitas leavened by humanity, as did Benjamin Bevan’s Speaker. If the Three Ladies were not always ideally blended, the Three Boys proved delightfully aethereal, Mozart’s tricky chromaticism holding no fears for them. Colin Judson offered character that was more than mere caricature with his Monostatos. (Really, though, there should be a better solution to Sarastro’s line concerning the Moor’s blackness than stopping half-way through, pausing, and resuming later on!)

 

 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, English National Opera, 21 February 2015


Coliseum

(sung in English, as The Mastersingers of Nuremberg)

Walther – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Eva – Rachel Nicholls
Magdalene – Madeleine Shaw
David – Nicky Spence
Hans Sachs – Iain Paterson
Sixtus Beckmesser – Andrew Shore
Veit Pogner – James Creswell
Fritz Kothner – David Stout
Kunz Vogelgesang – Peter van Hulle
Konrad Nachtigall – Quentin Hayes
Ulrich Eisslinger – Timothy Robinson
Hermann Ortel – Nicholas Folwell
Balthasar Zorn – Richard Roberts
Augustin Moser – Stephen Rooke
Hans Folz – Roderick Earle
Hans Schwarz – Jonathan Lemalu
Night Watchman – Nicholas Crawley

Richard Jones (director)
Paul Steinberg (set designs)
Buki Schiff (costumes)
Mimi Jordan Sherrin (lighting)
Lucy Burge (choreography)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor)
 

Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden. Above all, I am thinking of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of Parsifal, sadly revived but once, with estimable conducting from ENO’s soon-to-be Music Director, Mark Wigglesworth, and a fine cast (bar an unfortunate Kundry). The contrast with the Royal Opera’s recent Parsifal – a production that appeared to offer a bizarre tribute to Jimmy Savile, a Music Director quite out of his depth, and a tenor whose replacement with a pneumatic drill would have been more or less universally welcomed – was telling. Here, a Meistersinger production originally seen in Cardiff again proved preferable to Covent Garden’s most recent offering (an especially sad state of affairs at the sometime house of Bernard Haitink). If we quietly leave to one side the most extravagant claims heard over the past fortnight – surely more a consequence of sympathy with and support for ENO in the face of financial and managerial difficulties than of properly critical reception – this proved something to be cherished, something of which ENO could justly be proud: a good, and in many respects very good, company performance.


Edward Gardner’s conducting certainly marked an advance upon his 2012 Flying Dutchman. One would hardly expect someone conducting The Mastersingers for the first time to give a performance at the level of a Haitink or a Thielemann, let alone the greatest conductors of the past; nor did he. Yet, once we were past a fitful first-act Prelude – I began to wonder whether we were in for a Harnoncourt-lite assault upon Wagner! – Gardner’s reading permitted the score to flow as it should. (I shudder in horror when I recall Antonio Pappano’s hackwork – a generous description – at Covent Garden.) If there was rarely the orchestral weight, the grounding in the bass, that Wagner’s work ideally requires, relative lightness of touch was perhaps no bad thing for lighter voices than one would generally encounter. Moreover, Gardner seemed surer as time went on: not an unusual thing in this score, for even so fine a Wagnerian such as Daniele Gatti gave a similar impression a year-and-a-half ago in Salzburg, coming ‘into focus’ more strongly as the work progressed. Moreover, orchestral playing, considered simply in itself, was excellent throughout; a larger body of strings would have been welcome, but one cannot have everything. The ENO Chorus, clearly well trained by Martin Fitzpatrick, offered sterling service in the best sense: weighty where required, yet anything but undifferentiated. Orchestra and chorus alike have prospered under Gardner’s leadership; they are treasures the company and country at large have the strongest of obligations to protect.


What of Richard Jones’s production? Clearly, to anyone familiar with the work of Stefan Herheim, or, from an earlier generation, say, Harry Kupfer and Götz Friedrich, there has again been an excess of extravagant praise. The production rarely gets in the way: certainly a cause for celebration. Yet, by the same token, it has nothing in particular to add to our understanding, however diverting the ‘spot the German artist on the stage curtain’ might be. (I could not help but smile at the mischievous inclusion of Frank Castorf.) A predictably post-modern mix of nineteenth- and sixteenth(?)-century costume could have been used to say something interesting about Wagner’s donning earlier, anachronistic garb (that is, Bach rather than something ‘authentic’). It would need to have been more sharply defined and directed, though; here, it remains on the level of the mildly confusing, or at least incoherent. One has a sense of community, but it is difficult to discern much in the way of the darker side of the work – without which, the light makes less impression, just as its ‘secondary’ diatonicism remains predicated, both immediately and more reflectively, upon the chromaticism of Tristan. I can see why Jones might have opted – at least that is what I think he was doing – to present Hans Sachs as suffering from bipolar disorder, doing an irritatingly silly dance at one point, prior to slumping into depression. Had that been a personal illustration of the Schopenhauerian Wahn afflicting the world more generally, it would have worked a great deal better, though, than an all-too-simple explanation for Sachs’s mood-swings. The translation, similarly mistaking the personal for the metaphysical, certainly did not help: ‘Mad! Mad! Everyone’s mad!’ for ‘Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!’ If that were misleading, though, far worse was the bizarre reference to ‘ancient Rome’ instead of the Holy Roman Empire in Sachs’s final peroration, rendering his warnings meaningless and merely absurd. There is enough uninformed misunderstanding of this scene as it is, largely born, it seems, by Anglophone audiences being unable or unwilling to read what Wagner actually wrote; further confusion such as that is anything but helpful.


Jones certainly did score, though, in his adroit direction of the cast on stage, although much of that credit should certainly go directly to members of that cast. Andrew Shore’s Beckmesser was an unalloyed joy, treading the difficult line between comedy and dignity as surely as anyone was is likely to see today. His diction was beyond reproach, seamless integration of Wort und Ton almost having one forget the problems of translation. James Creswell’s rich bass similarly impressed, having one wish that Pogner’s role might be considerably expanded. David Stout’s Kothner elicited a not dissimilar reaction from this listener. Iain Paterson’s voice is less ideally suited to his role, that of Sachs, but there was no doubting his commitment to role and performance, the thoughtfulness of which offered many compensations. The other Masters and Nicholas Crawley’s sumptuously-clad Night Watchmen were an impressive bunch too. I wondered whether, to begin with, Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Walther was a little too Italianate in style; that is doubtless more a matter of taste than anything else, though, and either the performance or my ears adjusted – or both. He certainly went from strength to strength in the second and third acts, experiencing no difficulties whatsoever in making himself heard above the rest of the ensemble, without any recourse to barking. Nicky Spence’s characterful David – it would, admittedly, be an odd David who was not characterful! – struggled a little with his higher notes in the first act, but, like the cast as a whole, offered a portrayal considerably more than the sum of its parts. I was less keen on Rachel Nicholls’s somewhat harsh-toned Eva, having the distinct impression that her voice was being forced, perhaps on account of the size of the theatre. (But then, Wagner tends to be performed in larger theatres.) Madeleine Shaw’s Magdalene was straightforwardly a joy to hear, as impressive in its way as the assumptions of Shore and Creswell. Again, it was difficult not to wish for more.


So, despite certain reservations, this was a Meistersinger to be reckoned with. On a number of occasions, especially during the third act, work and performance brought a lump to my throat, even once a tear to my eye. That, surely, is the acid test – and it was readily passed.

Monday, 16 February 2015

BPO/Rattle - Lachenmann and Mahler, 15 February 2015


Image: © Monika Rittershaus
 
 
Royal Festival Hall

Lachenmann – Tableau
Mahler – Symphony no.2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’

Kate Royal (soprano)
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
London Symphony Chorus
CBSO Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
 

The British Press – well, a section thereof – has gone into overdrive concerning the visit of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic to London, not least on account of Rattle’s recent sixtieth birthday and his knowing, hugely welcome contribution to the all-too-nascent debate over a new concert hall for London. The coverage neither disturbs nor especially interests me; for me, there are many more interesting cultural events than a cycle of Sibelius symphonies, but, by the same token, it is not an entirely unpleasant change to see mention of Helmut Lachenmann in place of Harriet Harman, her ‘pink bus’, and other such high political trivia. Yes, of course journalistic quality has been at best mixed. A piece in The Observer has its author, pretending to knowledge of Berlin, place Daniel Barenboim at the helm of the Deutsche Oper, call Rattle’s first wife ‘Elaine’, and bizarrely claim that Rattle recorded Sibelius’s ‘symphonies … in Birmingham to a level no one has since achieved.’ Moreover, I initially wondered whether this piece in the Daily Telegraph were an inept attempt at parody, so numerous were its solecisms, so risibly unsubtle its laboured attempts at name-dropping. What else would we expect from our newspapers, post- or, to all intents and purposes, pre-Leveson? However, for those of us who care about music rather than inaccurate tittle-tattle, our principal concern should remain the state of Furtwängler’s old orchestra under its outgoing – if not for a while – artistic director, something that has received little attention beyond wearisome hagiography.


The good, indeed very good news first: Rattle’s commitment to new music remains distinguished, likewise his commitment to interesting, meaningful programming. The more one hears Lachenmann’s music in conjunction with that of the great Austro-German tradition, the more he appears not just as its undertaker, not even just as its eulogist, but also as one of its ablest custodians. No more than his sometime æsthetic antagonist, Hans Werner Henze, can he break entirely free of that tradition; nor, one increasingly suspects, does he wish to. Rattle has previously paired the 1988 Tableau with Kurtág’s Grabstein für Stephan and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; here, we seemed to go beyond Lachenmann’s celebrated affinity with Strauss’s Alpine Symphony to a pairing with Mahler’s Second Symphony which, as a prospect, offered new vistas that were metaphysical as well as physical. That said, my (perhaps fanciful) identification of certain phrases with those in Strauss’s giant tone-poem persisted in this excellent performance from Rattle and his Berlin forces. Hans Zender’s Saarbrücken recording may sound more sharply focused at times, or that may have been a matter of recording versus the Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic, but there was no doubting the ‘sense’ of the piece conveyed.. Post-Messiaen(ic) percussion thrilled. Stillness and resonance – not least Lachenmann’s extraordinary sustained notes – thrillingly accomplished the work of a born dialectician and musical dramatist, the work’s continuities as revelatory as twinkling-of-an-eye shifts of perspective. The large orchestra – not as large as Mahler’s or Strauss’s, but even so – showed Rattle not as someone who miraculously brought new music to Berlin; we hear such nonsense too much, as if Abbado, Karajan, Furtwängler, et al., had not done a great deal in that respect. (It was, of course, the latter who conducted the first performance of Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra with this very ensemble.) But it showed him at his best, as a curator, to use the fashionable modern term, of orchestral and compositional traditions that would die, were they not constantly reinvigorated.

 

 
If the pairing promised much, the performance of the Mahler symphony, long a Rattle ‘signature work’, alas only rarely delivered. Perhaps that long familiarity was part of the problem; Rattle nowadays often seems determined to highlight, to pull around, even to distort, as if he has grown tired of letting works at least appear to speak for themselves, for art to conceal art. The temptation to ‘do things’ must be all the greater with an orchestra such as the Berlin Philharmonic. That said, much of the first movement proceeded well enough, without both the (acoustical?) pin-point precision of a 2010 performance I heard in Berlin’s Philharmonie, but also without the more extreme distortions – at least until the close, when, sadly, any sense of formal unity was casually thrown away. It seemed less a dialectical strategy than a hint, or more, of ennui. Rubato and other tempo fluctuations veered, here and in subsequent movements, between the all-too-predictable – holding back the end of a phrase, then pushing forward – to the unfathomable (‘because he and they can’?) The Ländler’s charms were likewise soon dissipated by persistent lingering. That, despite some unearthly beauty in the woodwind solos. The strings, disturbingly, had a tendency to sound unduly generic, to an extent that even previous performances had not revealed. (Again, maybe the acoustic was partly the villain, but I doubt that it can have been entirely responsible.) The scherzo emerged more listless than sardonic, puzzling distended pauses suggesting little more than perplexity – though whose: the fishes’, St Anthony’s, or ours?

 

Urlicht, however, marked for me the low point. Magdalena Kožená is an artist I have often greatly admired, and I am sure I shall do so again, but her self-consciously ‘operatic’, even blowsy, delivery seemed entirely out of place with Mahler’s (admittedly artful) simplicity. Rattle’s direction of the orchestra seemed determined to divest Mahler’s score of its magic, again of its wonder. Kožená, meanwhile, emoted and wildly exaggerated her consonants. Perhaps that, though, was at Rattle’s insistence, since, in the final movement, I noted similar exaggeration from the chorus, which, despite Rattle’s pedantic, note-by-note direction, otherwise sang very well indeed. Such insistence, if indeed insistence it were, had clearly not extended to Kate Royal’s contribution, much of which may as well have been in Swahili. There were, of course, moments during the finale when the orchestra sounded as impressive, or almost as impressive, as it should, although even then, there was a tendency to sound as if Rattle were turning up the audio volume. But all in all, the sound, whatever its volume (and again, the acoustic almost certainly did not help), rarely sounded grounded; where was the harmonic sense, either of the moment or in the movement’s – and the symphony’s – great span? Daniel Harding’s recent Proms performance had been preferable in almost every way: ideas of its (his) own, yet coming together as a whole that was far more than the sum of its parts. For me, though clearly not for the greater part of the audience, this was a disappointing performance, which edged frighteningly close, and not in a good way, toward incoherence.

 

 

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Hannigan/Uchida/Philharmonia/Salonen - Dutilleux and Ravel, 12 February 2015


Royal Festival Hall

Dutilleux – Correspondances
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major
Ravel – L’Enfant et les Sortilèges 

Barbara Hannigan (soprano, Princess)
Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Child – Chloé Briot
Mother, Chinese Cup, Dragonfly – Elodie Méchain
Louis XV Armchair, Shepherd, White Cat, Squirrel – Andrea Hill
Shepherdess, Bat, Owl – Omo Bello
Fire, Nightingale – Sabine Devieilhe
Grandfather Clock – Jean-Sébastien Bou
Teapot, Arithmetic, Frog – François Piolino
Armchair, Tree – Nicola Courjal

Irina Brown (director)
Quinny Sacks (movement)
Ruth Sutcliffe (designs)
Kevin Treacy (lighting)
Louis Price (video)

Philharmonia Voices (director: Aidan Oliver)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)


Henri Dutilleux’s music has its devotees. I am yet to join their ranks, but had no reason to think this was not an admirable performance of his song-cycle, Correspondances. Following its brief, opening Rilke (in translation) setting, ‘Gong’, ‘Danse cosmique’ offered Barbara Hannigan greater dramatic possibilities, well taken. The Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen provided vivid, often pictorial playing. Singer and orchestra proved tender indeed during the treatment of ‘solitude’ in the oddly-chosen extract from a letter from Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn to Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya. Hannigan’s closing repetitions of ‘toujours’ faded away nicely, as did the orchestra. ‘Gong II’ provided something a little more labyrinthine, even perhaps Bergian, although Pli selon pli this certainly is not. The closing ‘De Vincent á Théo’ brought beguiling sonorities and, in Hannigan’s performance, a stunning vocal climax.


Mitsuko Uchida joined the orchestra for Ravel’s G major Concerto. There were a few occasions when I wondered whether the Philharmonia had had enough rehearsal here, lapses in ensemble uncharacteristic for both orchestra and conductor. Otherwise, Salonen proved general cool but not cold, even though a little more freedom at times might not have gone amiss. Uchida’s playing was a model of clarity, energy, an of course grace. It is all too easy to make Mozartian comparisons here, but they did not seem especially relevant; this was Ravel, and sounded like it. Uchida’s second-movement cantilena was beautifully judged, a product of harmonic understanding as much as her melodic voicing itself. Woodwind solos were exquisitely voiced, with just the right degree of general orchestral languor. The scampering energy of the finale was occasionally hampered by a couple more lapses in ensemble, but the ‘sense’ of the music was there, especially in Salonen’s building of tension. Uchida’s choice of encore was inspired: the second of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, op.19, that repeated major third, G-B, making its point of continuity.


L’Enfant et les sortilèges followed the interval. Salonen’s tendency, especially at the start, was towards fleetness of tempo; there was certainly no hint of sentimentality. Indeed, a keen sense of forward motion was maintained throughout the performance. The action took place on a ‘stage’ surrounding the stage proper, a resourceful semi-staging giving all that we really needed, not least thanks to imaginative animation (for instance, the confusion of the clock) and atmospheric lighting. There was great character and chemistry to be experienced between the singers, François Piolino often stealing the show, whether by himself or in his interactions with others. Chloé Briot presented a convincingly boyish Child, never forgetting – nor did the performers as a whole – that this is not really a children’s opera at all, but an opera about that most adult of preoccupations, childhood. Hannigan, when she reappeared, now as the Princess, was very much a woman in a man’s creation of a supposed child’s world. Scenes were very sharply defined as almost self-contained units; Salonen seemed, at least to my ears, to perceive Ravel’s opera almost as a cinematic dream-sequence. Certain figures recalled the sound-world of the piano concerto, but there was no mistaking the heady atmosphere of the night.

 

Friday, 13 February 2015

Programming Beethoven symphonies


'There is never only one way' are words that should be pinned above every musician's - arguably everyone's - desk. Immediately below, we should probably append Schoenberg's generous 'The middle road is the only one that does not lead to Rome.' The standard presentation of Beethoven's symphonies as a 'cycle' has much to be said for it, although Daniel Barenboim's inclusion at the Proms of works by Boulez proved a stroke of genius. So, assuming that we might have Barenboim - or whoever your preferred Beethovenian(s) might be - at the podium, how else might we programme Beethoven's symphonies? I started considering this parlour game on a railway journey yesterday, and here were my selections, one symphony per (more or less) typical length concert. Doubtless my choices would be different today, let alone tomorrow. Looking back, I see a good deal of Mozart: I might say too much, but there can never be too much. Moreover, there is no Wagner, rather to my surprise. Please feel free to comment or to add your suggestions.


Bonn's greatest son


Bach - Orchestral Suite no.1 in C major, BWV 1066
Mozart - Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor, KV 491
Beethoven - Symphony no.1 in C major, op.21

Mozart - Kyrie in D minor, KV 341/368a
Handel - Music for the Royal Fireworks
Mendelssohn - Kyrie in D minor
Beethoven - Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36

Boulez - Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna
Stravinsky - Requiem Canticles
Beethoven - Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, 'Eroica', op.55

Mozart - Overture: Don Giovanni
Beethoven - Symphony no. 4 in B-flat major, op.60
Haydn - Missa in Angustiis, 'Nelson Mass', Hob. XXII:11

Mahler - Totenfeier
Birtwistle - Endless Parade
Beethoven - Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67

Gluck - Overture: Iphigénie en Aulide
Beethoven - Symphony no.6 in F major, 'Pastoral', op.68
Berlioz - Symphonie fantastique, op.14

Cornelius - Overture: Der Barbier von Bagdad
Rameau - Suite from Les Boréades
Busoni - Tanzwalzer
Beethoven - Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

Webern - Five Movements, op.5
Beethoven - Symphony no.8 in F major, op.93
Webern - Symphony, op.21
Brahms - Symphony no.3 in F major, op.90

Schoenberg - Prelude to Genesis, op.44
Henze - Violin Concerto no.3
Beethoven - Symphony no.9 in D minor, op.125

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Bode/Levit - Schubert, Beethoven, and Rihm, 8 February 2015


Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Abendlied für die Entfernte, D 856
Beethoven – An die ferne Geliebte, op.98
Rihm – Das Rot: Sechs Gedichte der Karoline von Günderrode
Schubert – Daß sie hier gewesen, D 775
Beethoven – Adelaide, op.46
Wonne der Wehmut, op.83 no.1
Neue Liebe, neues Leben, op.75 no.2

Simon Bode (tenor)
Igor Levit (piano)
 

This was an impressive recital from Simon Bode and Igor Levit. Levit’s participation had initially promoted my attendance, but I left equally pleased to have made the acquaintance of this fine German tenor. I cannot say that I find Schubert’s Abendlied für die Entfernte an example of the composer at his most compelling, but it made for a pleasant enough curtain-raiser, its progress nicely undulating – if, that is, hills or other things that undulate can raise curtains. Bode’s head-voice was put to good use in the hopes for blessed peace (sel’ge Ruh) at the end of the second stanza, and Levit made the most of the turn to the minor mode in the third.


Beethoven’s Lieder remain strangely neglected: more, I suspect, a matter of outdated, tedious preconceptions about him supposedly not being a ‘vocal composer’ than anything else. (The amount of nonsense one still hears concerning even Fidelio never ceases to surprise.) An die ferne Geliebte is of course celebrated as ‘the first major song cycle’, but we tend to hear it spoken of more than performed. Bode seemed really to speak to us, his diction beyond reproach. Levit’s voicing showed what a difference it makes to have a first-class pianist in this music. Both musicians offered different ‘voices’, as it were, for different stanzas in the opening song, ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich’. Bode’s brief withdrawal of vibrato in its successor, ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ offered a vision of a very different world, motivated by the text and vindicated in performance. Birds sang under Levit’s fingers in ‘Diese Wolken in den Höhen’, but, echoing the Pastoral Symphony and other Beethovenian evocations of Nature, this was not a vision confined to the merely pictorial. Levit’s transition to the fifth song proved a thing of musical wonder in itself, testament to the command of form one would expect from his solo Beethoven performances. My sole reservation concerned whether Bode shouted a little at the close of the cycle, but at any rate, there was very much a sense of cyclic completion. (Beethoven, of course, helps in that respect!) Later we heard an immediately recognisable ‘earlier Beethoven’ in a performance of Adelaide: echoes of Mozart and Haydn, yet unmistakeably his own man, indeed even with presentiments towards the close of Fidelio. The performance of Neue Liebe, neues Leben proved an object lesson for a fast tempo that was yet flexible and in which the words were never garbled.

 
Rihm’s cycle, Das Rot: Sechs Gedichte der Karoline von Günderrode was quite a revelation, offering an unanswerable refutation of those silly claims one sometimes hears that Strauss (or X) was the last composer of Lieder. The music sounds both of a tradition and yet new: Hans Sachs would surely have nodded approval. For, if the language is in general post-Schoenbergian – it could hardly be pre-! – then there are undoubtedly pullings, sometimes even tonal pullings, towards what came before. The musicians, perhaps Levit especially, made sense of Rihm’s clearly musical forms. His melodic inspiration also came clearly to the fore, Bode seeming equally at home with Rihm’s style. The opening ‘Hochrot’ offers a lengthy, somewhat Henze-like introduction. Nothing prepared us for the shock of a violent piano chord just before the word ‘Tod’, yet it did not seem arbitrary, making ultimate sense in verbal and musical context. ‘Des Knaben Abendgruß’ was just as dramatic, perhaps still more so, Levit’s piano part – and his despatch of it – virtuosic yet highly variegated. The pinpoint precision and sheer physical impact of the piano part in the closing ‘Liebst du das Dunkel’ left one in no doubt as to the calibre of Levit’s technique and musicianship. One really experienced, through the contributions of both musicians, the blood-rush and the pounding of the heart spoken of in the final two lines to the cycle. An inspired decision to pause, holding off applause, and yet to pursue the programme’s course into Schubert’s Daß sie hier gewesen led us initially in a strange yet welcoming no-man’s-land between Rihm and Schubert. Wagner seemed to intervene, not least through the extraordinary Tristan-esque harmonies with which Schubert tantalises in that song.

 

 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Der fliegende Holländer, Royal Opera, 5 February 2015



Images: ROH/Clive Barda
 
 
Royal Opera House

The Dutchman – Bryn Terfel
Senta – Adrianne Pieczonka
Daland – Peter Rose
Erik – Michael König
Mary – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Steersman – Ed Lyon

Tim Albery (director)
Daniel Dooner (revival director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Constance Hoffmann (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)

Chorus of the Royal Opera House (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

 
I wonder whether we need a new way of thinking – and talking – about operatic ‘revivals’. Perhaps the term is more meaningful when it comes to works that have been dead and buried for years, before being rediscovered by subsequent generations. However, when it comes to productions, I cannot help but think that it increasingly obscures rather than aids understanding. Where, after all, has the production been in the mean time? Hades? More to the point, though, I think we tend to underestimate, at least in many cases, the role of the revival director. (The often problematical ‘repertory’ system employed in many German theatres is a different matter; I am thinking here of theatres operating according to what is essentially a stagione principle.) In this particular case, Daniel Dooner seemed to make a better job of ‘reviving’ Tim Albery’s production of The Flying Dutchman than Albery had made of presenting it in the first place. Or was it a matter of a better-adjusted cast? The one does not exclude the other, of course; indeed, the two are not unlikely to have been related.


Steersman (Ed Lyon)



The 2009 ‘premiere’ had greatly disappointed, eschewing Wagner’s interest in myth for a  form of dreary realism, quite out of place and seemingly determined – understandably, I suppose, given its misguided premise – to downplay the figure of the Dutchman as much as possible. It did not make sense and it did not involve. The irritants have not entirely gone away, especially during the third act, in which the drunken antics of the townsfolk – here, it must be admitted, very well portrayed by the chorus and Ed Lyon’s Steersman – still seem to be far too much ‘the point’. But they are counterbalanced and, on occasion, supplanted by a stronger sense of the Dutchman’s plight and its consequences. ‘Revival’ seems something of a misnomer for a hugely beneficial shift of emphasis, unless we mean that the work itself experiences something of a revival – which, I think, it does, at least vis­-à-vis its outing six years ago.

 
The Dutchman (Bryn Terfel)

Bryn Terfel’s performance certainly seems less ‘revived’ than brought to life for the first time. In 2009, he had disappointed perhaps even more than the production. There were still occasional unwelcome tendencies towards crooning, especially towards the end of his first-act monologue. They were occasional, though, and Terfel followed up his excellent Proms Walküre Wotan – almost certainly the best thing I have heard him sing – with a world-weary Dutchman who, moments of tiredness aside, yet had powers of something mysterious in reserve for when the moment called.  This time the words were not only crystal-clear – always a formidable weapon in Terfel’s armoury – but invested with a true sense of dramatic meaning. Adrianne Pieczonka’s Senta was at least his equal in terms of dramatic commitment; arguably, this thrilling, unmistakeably womanly performance went still further. I say ‘womanly’ since this was a reading that seemed thoroughly in keeping with a recent, welcome understanding of Wagner’s earlier heroines to be more than virginal male projections. Peter Rose made the most of Daland’s character: venal, yes, but also looking to the future for his daughter as well as himself. Michael König offered an alert Erik, Catherine Wyn-Rogers a properly maternal Mary. Often threatening to steal the show was Lyon’s Steersman, as fine a portrayal as I can recall: an everyman, perhaps, but one with agency, for which verbal and musical acuity alike should be thanked.



 
Senta (Adrianne Pieczonka) and Erik
(Michael König)

Andris Nelsons’s conducting for the most part brought out the best from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. However, the interpretation as a whole did not seem quite to have settled; I strongly suspect that subsequent performances will impress more. The Flying Dutchman is a difficult work to bring off; despite fashionable claims for overplaying its (alleged) antecedents, it really works best as a whole when viewed, as Wagner would later do so, in the light of his subsequent musico-dramatic theories. Senta’s Ballad may not originally have been its dramatic kernel, but it has become so. Nelsons sometimes seemed unclear which way to tilt, especially during a drawn-out Overture, whose extremes of tempo threatened to negate any sense of unity. There were sluggish passages elsewhere: not hugely drawn out, but enough to make one wonder where the music was heading. The third act emerged tightest, and may well be a pointer to what audiences will hear later in the run. Choral singing was not entirely free of blurred edges, but there was much to admire, and again, I suspect that slight shortcomings will soon be overcome. This remained an impressive ‘revival’, all the more so, given its manifest superiority to the production’s first outing.