Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Grau-Schumacher Piano Duo - Bach-Kurtág, Busoni, and Manoury, 12 October 2015

Wigmore Hall

Bach, arr. Kurtág – Cantata: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106: Sonatina
Chorale Prelude: Alle Menschen mussen sterben, BWV 643
Chorale Prelude: Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 687
Busoni – Fantasia contrappuntisca, BV 256b
Manoury – Le Temps, mode d’emploi (UK premiere)

Andreas Grau, Götz Schumacher (pianos),
Experimental Studio des SWR (José Miguel Fernandez (sound direction), Dominik Kleinknecht (technician))

We do not get to hear music for piano duet or for two pianos nearly so often as we should (although yours truly is already looking forward to a date in March with Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich). There are many excellent works, and if the duet repertoire is often in some respect ‘players’ music’, it loses little when transferring to the realm of public performance; much the same might, after all, be said about the string quartet, or at least Hans Keller claimed so. It was especially welcome to hear a concert in which a major new work, new to these shores at any rate, was performed – and it could certainly not be considered a work for the private sphere.

In the first half, though, we heard two very different sides to the existing repertoire. First, for piano duet, were three of Kurtág’s Bach transcriptions. (I have yet to attend one of his and his wife’s recitals, always having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.) They were well chosen and well played by the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo, treated as piano music, yet retaining their essential – if you will forgive me, just this once, such an ontological assumption – modesty. The Sonatina from the Actus Tragicus might perhaps have been imbued with a greater sense of mourning, but such is of course hardly the fashion today, when we are fortunate to hear Bach played with any manner of gravity at all. The pair of alto recorders sang out beautifully – I am tempted to say rather more beautifully than in ‘real life’ – against a rock-solid ‘continuo’. Two Chorale Preludes once again provoked sadness that this music is so little known outside organ circles; there really is no excuse for any who consider themselves music lovers not to explore its riches. What one can learn from studying the Orgelbüchlein, and what Kurtág undoubtedly must have, his transcription of ‘Alle Menschen müssen sterben’ simple, straightforward, and perhaps all the better for it; that, at least is how it sounded here. The left-hand (in the original) thirds and sixths sounded smooth but not too smooth, as if attempting, and if so successfully, a sense of legato organ-style. The somewhat backward-looking style of ‘Aus Tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir’ showed what nonsense ‘backward’ and ‘forward’ are in Bach’s case, and how irrelevant ‘style’ alone is in any case. Its rhythmic complication, or perhaps better enhancement, of counterpoint shone through clearly and without mannerism.

Busoni was thus well prepared. His Fantasia contrappuntistica was here heard, for my first time, I think, in its version for two pianos. Like, on a much smaller scale, the Fifth Sonatina – as close as I shall get to this extraordinary work as a performer in concert – it marries Bach and Busoni in fascinating and unexpected ways. One can tell the difference, then one cannot; one cares, and then one does not. And yet it coheres with more than a hint of Mephistophelian necromancy; indeed, Doktor Faust came to mind on more than one occasion. So did the still surprising harmonic world of the Sonatina seconda, ‘senza tonalità’, so un-Schoenbergian, a tantalising glimpse of worlds that perhaps have yet to be discovered. There were times when I found the players a little stiff, a little short on magic, but there were others in which neo-Lisztian virtuosity swept all before it. Perhaps it is difficult to know how to approach Busoni’s music; it is certainly some of the most scandalously neglected of the twentieth century. Any niggles I might have had were firmly put in their place by gratitude at the opportunity to hear the workings of this grossly-misunderstood compositional – and musicological – mind.

I did not consult my watch, but I suspect that Philippe Manoury’s Le Temps, mode d’emploi exceeded three-quarters of an hour, and perhaps did not come so very far from an hour. I say that not as a complaint, nor indeed as praise, Webern turning in his grave, but simply to give an indication of its scale. It was written for Andreas Grau and Götz Schumacher, who with the ever-wonderful Experimentalstudio des SWR, gave what seemed to me a hugely compelling performance, its commitment and, insofar as I could tell, understanding palpable throughout. That this is piano music is never in doubt; there is a joy in exploration of the piano, its capabilities, and its sonorities, often old, and occasionally newer (for instance, by placing a finger on strings inside), which speaks just as it does in the music of Liszt or Busoni. The live electronics are just as important; as Manoury puts it, ‘The two pianos are surrounded by four virtual pianos,’ via ‘a very complex system of sound synthesis, signal processing and spatialisation’. The spatial element cannot help but be felt, of course, and how interesting it is to hear that in the Wigmore Hall, but equally, immediately apparent was its musical quality. Some sort of kinship with what I have thought of as the magic squares of instrumental placing in Boulez’s sur Incises suggested itself, although whether that be simply a sign of my own personal preoccupations I cannot say. Across the span of the work, transformations apparently accomplished, according to Paul Griffiths’s note, by means of Markov chains (‘a process in which movements from one state to another are determined by probabilities’), a dialectic was dramatised, in performance as well as work, between relatively simple, irreducible material (perhaps an arpeggio, bringing Répons, unsurprisingly, to my mind, or a scalic figure) and what sounded to me, trying to make sense of what I heard, as complex yet ‘inevitable’ procedures with respect to tempo, texture, structure, and much else. I half expected the players to begin signalling their decisions to one another, as in the second book of Structures.

Indeed, the drama of Manoury’s work possessed a sheer excitement not dissimilar, although – and I do not intend this as a cavil, merely description – it is probably somewhat less concentrated. The possibilities of expansion still inherent in Boulez’s work struck me as, if not entirely, then at least to a greater extent already explored here. The language also sounds more ready to incorporate elements of tonality, perhaps a little after Messiaen, although that I say simply to ‘place’ it, rather than to impute influence. I hope that I shall have opportunity to hear the work, whether from these performers or others, soon, to further an exploration which, for me at least, has only just begun.

Listen to Schoenberg papers online (for two weeks only)

Schoenberg's typewriter

Click here to listen to papers given at last week’s symposium at the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna. They will be available online for a fortnight, so hurry or at least canter, whilst stocks last. They include me on Moses und Aron, a paper which will subsequently be developed into a longer piece, talking more about productions, for the Journal of the Arnold Schönberg Center, and a wide range of other Schoenbergian studies, ranging from a comparison (in the opening keynote lecture) of some of Schoenberg’s religious ideas with those of Karl Barth, again concentrating on Moses, to the role of Marya Freund (admired by, amongst others, Boulez) as performer of his music, from Schoenberg’s ‘public musicology’ as writer of record booklet notes to the reception of his music in Japan.  


Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Sheldon/Kanga - Berg, Schoenberg, Sdraulig, and Lachenmann, 6 October 2015

Performance Space, City University 

Berg – Piano Sonata, op.1
Schoenberg – Das Buch der hängenden Garten, op.15
Charlie Sdraulig – collector (world premiere)
Lachenmann – Got Lost

Jane Sheldon (soprano)
Zubin Kanga (piano)

This was the first of City University’s free evening recitals I had attended, but I doubt it will be the last. Performances of the Schoenberg and Lachenmann works would drag me considerably further than Islington, and they received fine performances indeed. Added to that, a world premiere and a well-loved apprentice work by one of the most well-loved of all twentieth-century composers, there was much to enjoy.

Berg’s early Piano Sonata received a forthright performance from the London-based Australian pianist, Zubin Kanga. It had direction, clarity, perhaps a little less in the way of labyrinthine mystery, but that might also have been a matter of the excellent acoustic of the Music Department’s Performance Space. Even before hearing Schoenberg, Berg’s music sounded here a little more backward-looking, harmonies and their progressions more redolent of Zemlinsky, perhaps, than of the Second Viennese School proper. Perhaps some at least of Berg’s early songs are more fully achieved in themselves. Still, it made an interesting choice as a point of departure.

One of the finest twentieth-century song-cycles, Das Buch der hängenden Garten languishes for the most part strangely unperformed. Quite why is anyone’s guess; one would have thought singers and pianists would be queuing up to perform such a masterpiece. But then, one thinks of Erwartung, a work with which it has much in common, and its comparative neglect too… One obvious difference between those two works is, of course, that Das Buch der hängenden Garten is made up of fifteen ‘individual’ songs, however greater the whole than the sum of its parts. A signal virtue of this performance was the way Kanga and Jane Sheldon emphasised that whole, without neglecting semi-individual character to the parts. Indeed, there was something highly musico-dramatic, in a post-Wagnerian sense Schoenberg surely intended, to the laying out of different options, be they harmonic, rhythmic, different forms of vocal production, etc., and tying them together through motivic interaction. From Sheldon, we heard hushed tones that were hushed, purple, quasi-onomatopoeic, and much more; we heard something closer to speech and we heard snatches of operatic vocalism. Above all, we heard what bound them together, both from her and from Kanga’s alert, often rich-toned pianism. The final song proved a climax in every respect. I only wished we could have heard another performance straight away, or perhaps after the interval.

Instead, though, we heard the first performance of Charlie Sdraulig’s collector, for solo piano. In his brief note, Kanga quoted the composer as having described the work, his first for solo piano, as ‘an individual in a physical environment; an individual re-enacting an exploratory process, staged in pre-defined territories; an individual performing a choreography; an individual’s touch mediated by their listening.’ That all made a certain degree of sense during the performance, but I am afraid I found the tapping of the surface of the keys wore thin rather quickly. Occasional notes were ‘played’, as we should normally understand, and there was certainly an entertaining element of performance art to what we saw and, to an extent, to what we heard too. Perhaps, though, I was just not on the right wave-length.

Not that I have any problem with extended techniques as such, with re-examination of the capabilities of an instrument, with deconstruction and reconstruction of what it does and might do. But Lachenmann’s 2009 Got Lost had all, and more of, the elements of performance art whilst impressing in a very ‘traditional’ way too. In this performance from Sheldon and Kanga, again both excellent, I really gained a sense of the parallels, perhaps even dialectical relationship, between the composer’s deconstruction of his initial texts – Nietzsche, Fernando Pessoa, and a notice concerning the loss of laundry (!) – and some of his musical procedures too. That was probably more intuitive than considered, but listening and indeed performing experience can be mediated in more than one way at different times. Many of the virtues of the Schoenberg performance, not least the array of expression, were apparent once again, renewed, reinvigorated, in a new yet perhaps related context. Expression struck me as something to be considered both in a quasi-Romantic sense and something I might be old-fashioned enough still to call avant-gardist: insofar, of course, as the two are not the same thing, as well as similar. There could be no gainsaying the virtuosity of the performers, but it always seemed focused upon the work and the possibilities it offered. I was reminded of a tribute by Lachenmann to Nono, his teacher, in which the former recalled approvingly the ‘irritation’ experienced by erstwhile colleagues such as Stockhausen at Nono’s having taken up and, yes, preserved ‘the traditional “big” expressive tone, the gesture full of pathos, lyricism, drama and emotion such as has been handed down from Monteverdi, Beethoven or Schoenberg.’

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Kožená/Uchida - Schumann, Wolf, Dvořák, and Schoenberg, 5 October 2015

Wigmore Hall

Schumann – Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart
Wolf – Selection from Mörike-Lieder: ‘Begegnung’, ‘Neue Liebe’, ‘Nimmersatte Liebe’, ‘Das verlassene Mägdlein’, ‘Elfenlied’, ‘Verborgenheit’, ‘Wo find ich Trost?’, Auf ein altes Bild’, ‘Lebe wohl’, ‘Nixe Binsefuß’, ‘Abschied’
Dvořák – Love Songs, op.83
Schoenberg – Brettl-Lieder

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Magdalena Kožená seems to be an increasingly controversial artist. I did not hear the Proms Dream of Gerontius, conducted by her husband, Simon Rattle, but much comment focused upon her assumption of the role of the Angel. Some of what was said then seemed relevant to this recital, especially its first half. I was less troubled by the overt emotionalism of her singing; such matters are to a considerable degree a matter of taste. However, there was an unvariegated stridency to much, although not all, of this first half that I found it difficult to warm to, especially when contrasted with the unerring rightness of Mitsuko Uchida’s piano-playing.

Schumann’s late Geidchte der Königin Maria Stuart are unquestionably a case of ‘less is more’. Not, alas, so here, at least vocally, ‘Abschied von der Welt’ sounding more like a refugee from the opera house, although the declamatory approach to ‘Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes’ had worked better. Uchida’s way with Schumann’s piano writing, however, was in quite a different class, as careful, as meaningful, as connected, as if she had been playing his solo music. Indeed, connections with earlier music – the C major Arabeske, for instance, or indeed, Bach’s 48 – announced themselves straight away. In the final ‘Gebet’, it was the piano harmony that told, encasing – not unlike Robin Holloway’s Reliquary for the same songs – the Queen’s plea to the Almighty, preparing the way for that dreadful, sombre close.

The selection from Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder opened in urgent contrast, at least so far as the piano was concerned, with ‘Begegnung’. To begin with, that was less in evident vocally, but Kožená captured its later cheekiness well. Planning of the sequence impressed too, with a weightier, more metaphysical note struck in the following ‘Neue Liebe,’ ‘Nimmersatte Liebe’ bringing together qualities from both of its predecessors. Moreover, the opening harmonies of the latter song seemed to prefigure some of those to be heard in Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder. Uchida’s piano chimes in ‘Elfenlied’ had one gasp for their melting tone as piano music at least as much as for their pictorial quality, whilst the combination of exquisite sadness and true strength in ‘Wo find ich Trost?’ seemed just right. Kožená by contrast, seemed too ‘public’, at times downright shrill. Musical continuity was once again very much the province of the piano part in the final ‘Abschied’, whose harmonies not for the first time brought Wagner as well as Schoenberg to mind.

Dvořák’s Love Songs and their simpler style seemed far better suited to Kožená. With respect to language, I can say little more than that it sounded right. Doubtless those with Czech would be able to say much more concerning what she did with the words, but my impression was a good deal, without it being too much. There was certainly a far more variegated vocal line in, for instance, ‘V tak mnohém srdci mrtvo jest’ (‘Death dwells in so many a heart’), its final line in particular. Uchida’s pellucid tone for the arpeggios and their variants in the closing ‘Ó, duše drahá, jedinká’ (‘O dear matchless soul’) would have justified attendance in itself.

Shorn of my favourite ‘Nachtwandler’, which requires additional piccolo, trumpet, and snare drum’, Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder nevertheless packed quite a punch. Again, Kožená seemed quite in her element, words, music, words-and-music full of incident, of fun, of ‘life’; Uchida put all of her Schoenbergian experience, lightly worn, to splendid effect. (I cannot for a moment concur with Misha Donat’s claim in his programme note that these songs ‘would be of no more than marginal interest were it not for the fact that out of them grew … Pierrot lunaire.’) The knowing heaviness in ‘Einfältiges Lied’ showed a true meeting of performers’ minds (and the composer’s too). ‘Mahnung’ tilted more towards outright cabaret, Kožená’s voice often coloured by tuning, and not afraid either to shun conventional ‘beauty’ or to speak rather than sing. That tendency was taken still further in the final Schikander aria, a highly ‘masculine’ rendition of certain stanzas and lines not the least of Kožená’s surprises. Janáček’s ‘Lavečka’ was the deceptively simple, profoundly moving encore.


Sunday, 4 October 2015

Wozzeck, Zurich Opera, 2 October 2015

Captain (Wolfgang-Ablinger Speerhacke) and Wozzeck (Leigh Melrose)
Images: Belinda Lawley
Royal Festival Hall
Wozzeck – Leigh Melrose
Drum Major – Brandon Jovanovich
Marie – Gun-Brit Barkmin
Andres – Mauro Peter
Captain – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Doctor – Lars Woldt
Margret – Irène Friedli
Apprentices – Pavel Daniluk, Cheyne Davidson
The Fool – Martin Zysset
Soldier – Tae-Jin Park
Marie’s Son – Laura Missuray

Zurich Opera Chorus
Philharmonia Zurich
Fabio Luisi (conductor)

The greatest opera of the twentieth century? Without a shadow of a doubt, which is strange, given a century overflowing with operatic masterpieces. I have never been to a performance of Wozzeck that has not left me reeling, even when miserably conducted by Antonio Pappano; this visit from the Zurich Opera, giving its new production in concert, was no exception. It was, despite the indisposition of the anticipated Christian Gerhaher as Wozzeck, at least as strongly cast as any I have heard, and benefited not only from excellent playing from the Philharmonia Zurich but, of course, its presence on stage rather than in the pit.

One reservation, which I shall get out of the way first: the conducting of Fabio Luisi. Luisi’s career is a mystery to me. I heard him once, as a short-notice stand-in for Christoph von Dohnányi, give a truly excellent performance of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony; such success has never in my experience been repeated. (Perhaps it was Dohnányi’s performance the orchestra was really giving?) Otherwise, it has been workmanlike performances without exception. I suppose it takes some degree of skill to have the audience in no doubt where every bar line falls, but Luisi’s bar-to-bar approach and seeming inability to go beyond a purely literalist communication of the notes on the page are really not enough for Wozzeck, not enough indeed for any score.

That the orchestra’s playing was of such a consistently high standard throughout, from cultivated chamber-like playing to shattering climax (d-Moll!) offered considerable compensation, not least because in such a concert setting, one appreciated Berg’s closed forms and their astonishing musical invention all the more. That Wozzeck is, amongst so many other things, as great a musical masterpiece as Pierrot lunaire has never, in my ‘live’ experience as opposed to studying the score and recordings at home, been quite so utterly apparent. Indeed, I could not help but wonder whether Stravinsky might just as readily have chosen Berg’s score as the ‘solar plexus of twentieth-century music’. Nevertheless, it remained a pity not to have a more imaginative, probing conductor, who could have turned the musico-dramatic screws, or even shown some appreciation of what and where they were.

The loss of Gerhaher turned out to be no loss at all. Indeed, although I was certainly curious to hear what a voice of such beauty would have made of the role, I cannot believe that the dramatic achievement of Leigh Melrose’s portrayal could possibly have been superseded. Melrose’s Wozzeck in English remains unforgettable, like much else from ENO’s brilliant Carrie Cracknell production. Here, he showed that, in the original language, his match of verbal and musical acuity with first-class acting – yes, although this was a ‘concert’ performance, much of what we saw as well as heard was in character – could, if anything, penetrate still deeper. Much nonsense has been spoken, probably more often written, about Fischer-Dieskau’s allegedly too ‘intellectual’ assumption of the role. One needs a mind to be able to understand and to communicate the darkest, most profound reaches of Berg’s – and of Wozzeck’s. This Wozzeck was as thoughtful and as sensitive as he was downtrodden and, ultimately, angered. Melrose’s appearance in Francesconi’s Quartett at the Linbury Theatre also remains lodged in the memory; quite why Covent Garden does not offer him a role on the main stage is a mystery to me.

Wozzeck’s final confrontation with Marie was not the least of the moments when tears involuntarily came to my eyes. (Inevitably, the final scene was the most gut-wrenching of all.) Gun-Brit Barkmin offered an equally fine portrayal of her role. Her Chrysothemis in Semyon Bychkov’s Proms Elektra last year gave British audiences an inviting taste of her artistry. This all-enveloping performance, from siren (anticipations, not least in the Louise Brooks ‘look’, of Lulu?) to terrified, guilt-wracked victim, unabashed sensuality and genuine maternal protectiveness in complex coexistence and conflict, lived both in the moment and in Berg’s astonishing depth of character development.

The cabaret-duo of Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke’s Captain and Lars Woldt’s Doctor, high camp never at the expense of solid musical values, was at least as fine as any I have seen. They really should have their own ‘spin-off’ work. Brandon Jovanovich offered a Drum Major as repellent and yet as alluring in his masculinity as any I can recall too; the sheer power of his vocal delivery had all quake before him. Every member of the cast contributed to a greater whole; here, the advantages of having rehearsed and performed on stage prior to performance were abundantly clear. Last but not least, I must mention the astonishing heft and clarity of the choral performance, again doubtless benefiting from not being dispersed around the stage. Echoes of Weber, turned horribly sour, can rarely have been so disturbingly apparent.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Pelléas et Mélisande (arr. Annelies van Parys), English Touring Opera, 1 October 2015

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Arkel – Michael Druiett
Geneviève – Helen Johnson
Golaud – Stephan Loges
Pelléas – Jonathan McGovern
Yniold – Lauren Zolezzi
Mélisande – Susanna Hurrell 

Oliver Townsend (designs)
Mark Howland (lighting)
Bernadette Iglich (movement)
Zakk Hein (video)
James Conway (director)

Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Jonathan Berman (conductor)

In a better world, or even the same world with better audiences, the proportion of performances given by our opera houses of Pelléas et Mélisande and La traviata would at the very least be reversed. As it is, we find ourselves forced to make a virtue out of the relative rarity of performances of a work all consider to be a towering masterpiece. We are grateful when they come, and perhaps treasure them all the more. We are, or at least should be, especially grateful when a touring company with financial resources far more limited than our great opera houses, stages Pelléas, all the more so when it does so with such success. Once again, then: hats off to English Touring Opera!

Debussy’s opera is given in an arrangement for chamber ensemble by Annelies van Parys. One could, if one wished, spend the time wishing that one had the Berlin Philharmonic and Karajan, but that would seem a pointless pursuit. What strikes, with respect to a sound that is decidedly un-Karajan-like, although no closer, say, to Abbado, Boulez, or, for that matter, Désormière, is how much it convinces on its own terms. Balances are different, and perhaps not always at their optimum, wind instruments inevitably coming more to the fore without the cushion of massed strings. By the same token, however, solo strings sometimes evoke the Debussy of his chamber music, not least the String Quartet. One hears lines differently and yet, at some level, the same. Malevolence still stretches its fungal tentacles; elegance that is never ‘just’ elegance remains (as so often, when speaking about this work, one is tempted to lapse into French, and say demeure instead).

Two scenes are omitted entirely: a pity, perhaps, although I missed them far less than I should have imagined. Director James Conway takes the radical step of reintroducing words in spoken form at the end of the first ‘act’ (part way through the third). Golaud’s warning to Pelléas in some ways chills all the more for being spoken. Perhaps that is founded on the knowledge of what we ‘should’ be hearing, perhaps not, but I found it an elegant and dramatic solution.

In such circumstances, it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to distinguish too strongly between instrumentation and performance. However, the playing of the Orchestra of English Touring Opera seemed to me throughout as alert and as sensitive as anyone could reasonably have expected, perhaps more so. What was being asked of these solo musicians was no mean task, and they played with the excellence we have come to expect. Jonathan Berman’s conducting was another strength. If I say that, for the most part, I barely noticed it, I do not mean that negatively. The ebb and flow of Debussy’s score rather seemed – and ‘seemed’ is surely the operative word here – to take care of themselves, with only occasional awkward corners, which may well be smoothed as the run progresses. One would not expect such a performance to be a ‘conductor’s performance’ as from those great names of the past I mentioned earlier; this was more a matter of subtly enabling and, yes, leading a company effort. In that and much else, it proved a great success.

Conway’s production emphasises, especially in the designs of Oliver Townsend and lighting of Mark Howland, the suffocation of the fin-de-siècle environment from which Pelléas springs. Light use of video (Zakk Hein) enhances rather than distracts. Characteristic wallpaper and costumes remind us that the castle here is as important a ‘character’ as it would be some years later in Bluebeard’s Castle, an opera which owes much to Debussy’s example. Longing for escape in nature and, perhaps, Tristan-esque oblivion may be vain but it is no more real for that. It is striking how much can be done with a single set and clever, well-achieved shifts of lighting: what will clearly be a necessity for touring here takes on unifying, escape-denying, imaginative virtue of its own. There seems, moreover, a hint at least of the road to the Poe opera Debussy would never complete.

I really have nothing but praise for the singing. The cast worked very well together, more than the sum of its parts, which in itself was considerable. At chronological extremes, Michael Druiett and Lauren Zolezzi convinced as ancient Arkel and young Yniold. Arkel’s ambiguity – what really is the nature of his fondness for Mélisande? Is that even the right question to ask – came through very strongly; so too did the boyishness of Zolezzi’s portrayal. Geneviève’s letter-reading generally makes a fine impression; that is no reason not to praise it again when it does, as it did with Helen Johnson. Susanna Hurrell’s Mélisande seemed to hark back in its light, bright quality to early assumptions; she achieved, for me, just the right balance between what might be self-assertion and discomfiting willingness – inability to do anything else? – to act as a blank canvas for male projections. In her first scene, I thought of Kundry; later, I found myself thinking of Lulu. Jonathan McGovern’s Pelléas initially came across with striking, almost but not quite child-like naïveté, and developed into something that was perhaps no more grown-up, but equally striking in its self-absorption: more pathological than one often sees, and all the more intriguing for it. The wounded masculinity of Stephan Loges’s powerfully-sung Golaud, quite contrasting in timbre, was a singular dramatic achievement both in its vocal essence and its dramatic consequences.  ‘Perhaps no events that are pointless occur,’ Arkel says. If a production has succeeded, one’s reply will most likely be ‘perhaps’. And indeed it was.

Pelléas et Mélisande will be performed again in London on 3 October, and will travel to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape, and Exeter. For more details from ETO, click here.


Sunday, 27 September 2015

BBC SO/Oramo - Mahler, Symphony no.3, 24 September 2015

Barbican Hall

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Trinity Boys Choir (chorus master: David Swinson)
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)

No orchestra benefits from the dreadful acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall; given the frequency of its Proms performances, no orchestra therefore suffers so much from that acoustic as the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In a work of the scale of Mahler’s Third Symphony, the Barbican might seem to offer the opposite problem. There were times when the hall did feel a little on the small side, the acoustic becoming unduly congested, but for the most part, this performance from the BBC SO and Sakari Oramo convinced, both on its own terms and those of the hall.

There was certainly a good sense even at the very opening of the first movement of how Mahler prolongs, twists, transforms phrases to afford motivic and other development over its great span. (One can perhaps overemphasise the length of the work: great by symphonic standards, true, but hardly by those of Wagner, to whom Mahler perhaps owes most of all.) The dryness of the acoustic permitted us to hear a good deal of instrumental detail, not least the notes in downward glissandi, and in general militated against a soft-centred, generic ‘late Romanticism’ which tends to sentimentalise Mahler and assimilate him to quite the wrong sort of imagined Vienna. I could, for instance, imagine the sound having elicited an admiring nod from Boulez. Echoes of the Second Symphony and presentiments of what was to come (‘O Mensch!’ in particular) were readily apparent. What to make of them? Perhaps that was for us to decide. For the performance of the marching music was well judged in its ambiguity. ‘false optimism’ would be too pat; there was something here perhaps beyond conventional meaning, or at least verbal meaning. Later, of course, the material took a considerably darker turn and properly chilled, its roots in imagined village revelries and urban militarism notwithstanding. ‘Politics in a new key?’ Perhaps. Aspirant musical cinematography, its metaphysical underpinning, and provoked reflections did not, however, work against structure; one could certainly perceive the wood for the trees. That structure was rather infused with formal dynamism as well as local colour and flavour.

I had a few doubts concerning the second and third movements, which did not, I think, entirely avoid a sense of lingering a little too long, of sprawl. Otherwise, however, there was some beautiful moments – and not just those of wondrous hush. The second movement was unusually acerbic: no unduly cloying sweetness here, which is not, of course, to say no sweetness. There was more than a hint of the Totentanz. Perhaps detail slightly overwhelmed the whole, especially towards the end, but when compared to the mauling Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic gave this symphony a few years ago, this was a model of cohesion. The third movement opened as bracing in its – an inevitable metaphor, now – mountain air as Webern’s music. However, countervailing and/or differing forces ensured the multi-dimensionality of the drama – and of our response.

Karen Cargill brought the appealing nature and character of her voice to sound as one with the nature and character of the music in the fourth movement: not just colour, depth, and vibrato, but her use of the words, with respect to meaning and also to their musical quality. Orchestral stillness surrounded them and yet, as Galileo might have said, the music moved – in more sense than one. The fifth movement was appropriately child-like, although certainly not childish. Mahler’s alienated soul rarely permits the unmediated, however much it might long for it. . The Trinity boys offered not only very impressive diction but also a splendidly ‘Continental’ sound: more St John’s than King’s. Cargill was able here to show a more urgent side to her Lieder-singing, hers a dignified and illuminating performance.

Dignity was also the watchword of the final Adagio, especially its opening. The acoustic was not ideal for climaxes but did not too seriously detract either. Oramo offered a warm, rich account, the BBC strings and later other instruments giving a wonderful impression of chamber music writ large, almost as if this were the String Quartet Mahler never wrote. The music was chaste and yet suffused with longing, simple yet complex, private yet public: yes, one could certainly think of this and feel it as ‘what love tells me’. This truly sounded, and I can think of few greater compliments, as if it were Mahler’s voice speaking. But might not the audience have allowed us even a second or two of space for reflection before applause?

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Royal Albert Hall, Cameron's Britain, and Franco's Spain

The Royal Albert Hall is one of London's most recognisable buildings, not least on account of its granting a home to the BBC Proms each summer. A monument to the Victorian age, though certainly not a model of good acoustics, its management now appears to have resolved to take Victorianism a little too far, indeed to go beyond a parody of Victorian industrial relations. Despite a majority vote (73% of the employees taking part) for union recognition, a vote which took place on terms agreed between management, the conciliation service, ACAS, and the union in question, BECTU, the RAH management has now reneged, refusing to recognise the union to enable collective bargaining. This truly appalling state of affairs coincides unhappily with new anti-trade union legislation from the government, parts of which David Davis MP, the Conservative MP for Howden and Haltemprice, has likened to something from Franco's Spain. The Royal Albert Hall needs to reconsider, lest its patrons consider, indeed more than consider, a boycott. Perhaps performers might think in such terms too?

(For more details on the dispute from BECTU, click here.)

Monday, 21 September 2015

Ehnes/Armstrong - Bartók, 18 September 2015

Wigmore Hall

Rhapsody no.1, BB94a
Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, BB28
Hungarian Folk Tunes from For Children, BB53, arr. Szigeti and Bartók
Violin Sonata no.2 in C major, BB85

 James Ehnes (violin)
Andrew Armstrong (piano)

I doubt one can ever have too much Bartók; I have certainly never felt any such thing, and did not in this recital of music for violin and piano, two instruments which owe him so much, the piano, if anything, still more than the violin. Listeners often have very strong views about the ‘right’ way to perform his works; indeed, a friend of mine who was present, was less than keen on these performances, very much preferring what I might call a traditionally ‘Hungarian’ manner of playing, although that description clearly begs more questions than answers. I increasingly find myself intrigued by alternatives, not that I should wish to forsake the fire of acknowledged classic performances. Bartók, like any great composer, is for the world, and frankly, the last thing we need in any aspect of our lives is more nationalism. (As for the present political situation in Hungary…)

At any rate, I enjoyed this concert. I have very unhappy memories of playing the piano part in a performance of the first Rhapsody, my recital partner and I falling out of sync for a good few bars, as the music sped up, sounding out of control in quite the wrong way. (I had wanted to play Webern, but anyway…!) Needless to say, this was a far more satisfactory performance. James Ehnes has a classically golden tone, varied when necessary, with a wide range of dynamic contrast, all put to good use here. There were times when I found Andrew Armstrong’s pianism a little reticent, a little too much of an ‘accompaniment’, but given my disastrous showing, I am not inclined to be unduly harsh. During the second, ‘friss’ section, things gathered pace infectiously, Ehnes’s harmonics and crossing of strings especially impressive, the musicians’ partnership real and convincing.

The 1903 E minor Sonata is a fascinating piece. Very little sounds like the mature composer’s works, just as in many of his early piano pieces, some of which I have played with greater success – I think! – than the Rhapsody. One hears a little Strauss, certainly, doubtless a kinship, perhaps kinship rather than influence, with Ernst von Dohnányi, and there are certainly Brahmsian connections too, but to my ears, it is Liszt to whom Bartók often comes closest. Structure never quite becomes dynamic form, but this is an apprentice work, and there is much to delight and intrigue. Here, the harmonies in particular seemed relished, especially in the first movement, Romantically marked ‘Allegro moderato (molto rubato)’. Ehnes and Armstrong seemed keen to point out, or maybe this just emerged naturally, the closeness of some of Bartók’s writing in the slow movement to Brahms in ‘Hungarian’ mode, although even here, Liszt – whose contribution to ‘Hungarian’ music is still often misunderstood – shone through. And the finale danced nicely, if not quite convincingly. Perhaps another performance might have made something less sectional of it, but I think the problem lies more with the work than with how we heard it performed. This was an absorbing opportunity, nevertheless.

The ‘Hungarian Folk Tunes’ from For Children, as arranged by Szigeti and Bartók, made for a characterful introduction to the second half. There is a great deal of variety to be heard here, a variety which came across in winningly unforced fashion. The balance between folk tune and composition was finely achieved throughout. I should happily have listened to such music for much longer.

The principal dish, however, was the second numbered violin sonata, an unquestionable masterpiece – and that is how it sounded here, very much a kinsman to the string quartets. Although the work is ‘in’ C major, its extended tonality – or whatever one wants to call it, and the question is a real one – makes at many times the stronger impression. Ehnes and Armstrong strongly integrated what could readily sound as ‘efects’ into the trajectory of their musical performance. One heard the formal difference between a sonata born of old forms and happy to employ them and one which triumphantly recreated its own form before our ears. Sonata form? Yes, if one will, but one which takes Lisztian formal compression perhaps to an extreme beyond Schoenberg and yet which never makes that compression seem the point. Armstrong’s voicing of chords reminded me at times of the Piano Concertos – and of a fine performance of them at that. Ehnes’s line was equally impressive throughout, clearly projecting expression through the music rather than viewing it as something to be ‘added on’. As a touching encore, we heard the early A major Andante Bartók wrote for Adila d’Arányi, then the object of his affections, its late Romanticism providing just the right sort of contrast.

La grotta di Trofonio, Bampton Classical Opera, 15 September 2015

(sung in English, as Trofonio’s Cave)

St John’s, Smith Square

Aristone – James Harrison
Dori – Aoife O’Sullivan
Ofelia – Catherine Backhouse (sung)/Marieke Bernard-Berkel
Artemidoro – Christopher Turner
Plistene – Nicholas Merryweather
Trofonio – Matthew Stiff
Ladies’ Maid – Triona Adams

Jeremy Gray (director, set designs)
Triona Adams (movement)
Vikki Medhurst (costumes)

Paul Wingfield (conductor)

The best and most important production and performance I have seen yet from Bampton Classical Opera, on its annual visit to St John’s Smith Square! I cannot have been the only member of the audience seeing a complete Salieri opera for the first time; to say that it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. I had previously heard a few operatic excerpts, some of his sacred music (treated with all the respect it deserves by Riccardo Muti) and some instrumental music. La grotta di Trofonio emerged, with the usual caveats concerning a first hearing, not only as a work I should happily hear again, superior to many operas in the dread repertoire, but as a musical achievement not so far off the operas of Haydn. (Any regular readers will know that is no idle compliment from me.) The Gluckian side of Salieri, about which we hear more often, is considerably less in evidence, but this is a comedy, and Salieri marshals his resources accordingly.

Indeed, it is the symphonic Haydn who comes immediately to mind in the Overture, its slow, mysterious Introduction, swiftly put to side by high yet directed spirits, having, in a display of long-term musico-dramatic thinking, sown the seeds for the mysteries of Trofonio’s cave. Over the work’s two acts, a full Classical orchestra engages the mind and the senses to a degree I should never have imagined. Vocal writing is at the least accomplished throughout, and often rather more than that. Ensembles are perhaps a particular revelation, reminding or informing us that both the genesis of opera buffa and its musical modernity are a more complicated story than many would have us believe. What we lack, you may not be surprised to hear, is what we lack in Haydn: depth of characterisation and of emotion, a hint of those musico-dramatic epiphanies which change one’s life forever, etc. And, like many operas, it goes on longer than it need, especially in the second act. (You see how hard I am struggling not to mention someone else by name.)

The plot is easily dealt with. A father, Aristone, is – unusually! – happy with his two daughters’ choice of suitors. They enter Trofonio’s cave, emerge, following his incantations, with their personal qualities reversed: bookish to fun-loving and vice versa. The reversal is reversed, but then the daughters, tempted into the cave, suffer the same fate. After similar incomprehension, their reversal too is reversed. A wedding can be prepared. You might think there a similarity with a certain libretto of Lorenzo da Ponte (which Salieri actually began to set); I couldn’t possibly comment.

This revival, almost certainly the first British production, is the project of Gilly French (the English translation is also hers) and Jeremy Gray, who also directs and provides set designs. There is no attempt to offer the depths that the opera itself lacks. What might seem simply to be of the surface for a certain opera whose premiere came not so much as five years later, in 1790, also at Vienna’s Burgtheater, proves well suited to the different nature of Salieri’s collaboration with the far-from-unintellectual Giovanni Battista Casti (whom many of us will know both from Prima la musica e poi la parole and its role in the genesis of Strauss’s Capriccio). Action moves to 1910; I know, because I was the lucky recipient of a dated ‘Downton Abbey’ wedding invitation during the performance. That seems to be a favoured period of the company – attractive, doubtless, to the English country-house opera scene, and also easy to dress, but here, in its Importance of Being Earnest atmosphere, perhaps particularly appropriate. Trofonio’s cave is the TARDIS: make of the time-travelling what you will. It is decidedly unclear whether the Tom Baker-clad Trofonio himself should be a charlatan (a few years later, someone might have offered a Mesmerist slant) or someone who enables self-reflection. Does the one exclude the other? Such invitations and ambiguities are anything but heavy-handed interventions; indeed, they are present in the work, whether intentionally or otherwise. Most importantly, they offer one space to think beyond the bare bones of the plot. (You might be surprised how many people complain about misogyny and a lack of ‘realism’ in one Ferrarese entertainment, how many take it at its librettist’s apparent word.)

The playing of CHROMA under Paul Wingfield was nothing short of magnificent, aided by the excellent acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square. I cannot recall a single tempo choice that did not convince, and the array of musical colour, not least in the woodwind section, showed quite why a young composer from, say, Salzburg might have chosen to make his living in Vienna. The orchestral contribution was not the least, indeed was arguably the greatest, musical offering of all, given the scale and ambition of Salieri’s writing.

Moreover, the cast would have graced any house. As Aristone, James Harrison made much of the musical and verbal text, providing a crucial anchor of stability, but never dullness, as identities switched around him. Matthew Stiff proved an engaging, properly ambiguous agent of disruption as Trofonio; his invocation of the spirits, bolstered by an able chorus, had me thinking of Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor.  Nicholas Merryweather and Christopher Turner proved equally successful in both of their personalities, offering as much character, generally born of subtlety in vocal colouring, as such an opera permits. Likewise Aoife O’Sullivan as Dori, in her transformation from fun-loving daughter to would-be Platonist, her brightness of tone never wearing. We should have heard Anna Starushkevych as Ofelia, but visa problems – is this not a country to be proud of? – prevented the Ukrainian mezzo from travelling, so instead we were treated to a collaboration from the side-of-stage singer Catherine Backhouse and the centre-stage acting of Marieke Bernard-Berkel. It was no distraction at all; indeed, there was arguably an intriguing dramatic alienation – think of the subject matter, assumption of different personas – to be had from the situation. More to the point, perhaps, Backhouse’s short-notice performance showed her to be an excellent artist, rich of tone and admirably clear of diction, and Bernard-Berkel’s stage presence proved equally impressive.   

No, of course it is not an opera by you-know-who. It is an opera by Salieri. The action remains largely on the surface, but does not prevent one from thinking further for oneself, and arguably invites one to do so. There is none of the agony, indeed none of the greatness in any respect, of Così fan tutte – all right; I shall finally name it and him by name – but if we are to restrict ourselves to the level of Mozart, then survivors will be well-nigh non-existent.  Bampton Classical Opera has done La grotta di trofonio and Salieri proud. May our opera houses take note. Alas, I shall not hold my breath; after all, is not another revival of La triviata a more pressing artistic requirement?

Thursday, 17 September 2015

R.I.P. Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015)

Dido and Aeneas and other works by Purcell, OSJ/Lubbock, 15 September 2015

St John’s, Smith Square
Chacony in G minor 
Arias and duets:
Music for a while; Sweeter than roses; My dearest, my fairest; If music be the food of love; Bonduca’s song; Sound the trumpet; Evening hymn; Hark the echoing air
Penelope Appleyard, Hannah Davey, Anna Shackleton (sopranos)                   
Ellie Edmonds (mezzo-soprano)
Johnny Herford (baritone)
John Heley (cello)
Howard Moody (organ) 
Dido and Aeneas
Dido – Francesca Saracino
Aeneas – Johnny Herford
Belinda – Hannah Davey
Sorceress – Charlotte Tetley
First Witch – Anna Shackleton
Second Witch – Ellie Edmonds
Second Woman – Penelope Appleyard
Spirit – Rachel Crisp
Sailor – Mitesh Khatri
OSJ Ashmolean Voices
Orchestra of St John’s
John Lubbock (conductor)
A delightful concert of music from the English Orpheus, the composer whom I unhesitatingly consider the greatest between Monteverdi and Bach. Indeed, I know of no greater piece of instrumental music before Bach than Purcell’s Chacony in G minor. Its searing dissonances and overwhelming marriage of formal dynamism and musico-dramatic development all spoke here with unexaggerated yet unquestionable power. Four players, one to a part, showed that larger forces are no absolute requirement. The excellent acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square, certainly assisted. (What a relief to be spared the Royal Albert Hall!) Inner parts, in particular, resounded with richness, but always directed richness. Shading was beautiful – and yes, goal-oriented too.
Following that splendid ‘overture’, we heard five young singers in arias and duets from various Purcellian sources. Johnny Herford’s Music for a while benefited, as did the other numbers, from organ continuo playing (Howard Moody) that was imaginative without exhibitionism. Herford’s vocal decoration was likewise; his rendition of ‘drop, drop, drop, …’ did everything it should. In Sweeter than roses and Bonduca’s song, Penelope Appleyard displayed a winning match of the plaintive and expertly-negotiated coloratura. Sound the trumpet, in which Appleyard was joined by Hannah Davey, had a swift, finely balanced performance, whilst Anna Shackleton displayed a ‘whiter’ voice in Evening hymn. Ellie Edmonds’s richer mezzo lacked nothing in flexibility in If music be the food of love.
Dido and Aeneas: well, if it is not the finest opera between Poppea and Idomeneo, then I should clearly resign my job forthwith. This ‘Tristan und Isolde in a pintpot’ (Raymond Leppard) rarely, if ever, ceases to amaze; it certainly did not here. Its inexorable musico-dramatic tragedy, its vocal and harmonic mastery, and not least a fine performance worked their magic once again. John Lubbock’s tempi were well suited to the work and each other; his orchestra, again one to a part, belied in richness and commitment such apparent ‘restriction’. The choir sang well, its off-stage echoes a particular highlight, but the closing chorus proved equally impressive. The simplest of stagings permitted Purcell’s drama to ‘speak for itself’.
Francesca Saracino had, in the first act, occasional instances of hesitancy, especially in the falling off of phrases, but she acted well – a highly expressive face a boon here – and grew in tragic stature. If she did not overwhelm the cast as some great Didos of the past have done, that was no loss; indeed, it permitted greater depth of characterisation. Hannah Davey’s Belinda had a couple of unfortunate fallings out of sync with the orchestra, but recovered well and continued to display the virtues we had heard before the interval. Aeneas is a tricky role, perhaps not entirely unlike Don Ottavio: how does one present a strong characterisation of a culpably weak character? One can, of course, but verbal and musical subtlety should come to the fore, as they did with Johnny Herford. Charlotte Tetley’s Sorceress was quite mesmerising, her stage presence splendidly allied to vocal resources. Special mention should go to Mitesh Khatri’s spirited, engagingly flirtatious Sailor. I hope – and am sure – that we shall hear more from many of these singers. And how wonderful, even if for one night only, to have Purcell rescued from the clutches of ‘authenticity’!


Monday, 14 September 2015

Antonacci/Sulzen - Poulenc, 14 September 2015

Wigmore Hall

La Dame de Monte Carlo
La Voix humaine

Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)
Donald Sulzen (piano)

Quite an opening to my 2015-16 Wigmore Hall season! For this lunchtime concert, Anna Caterina Antonacci and Donald Sulzen performed the piano version of Poulenc’s La Voix humaine, preceded by his final, not dissimilar vocal work, La Dame de Monte Carlo. Both have texts by Cocteau; both are far less conventionally ‘melodic’ than one would expect from this most melodic of composers; both are monologues intended for Denise Duval, portraying women on the verge, at least, of breakdown.

La Dame de Monte Carlo is anything but an easy way in for a soprano. Antonacci was herself, or rather the woman whose persona she assumed, from the very outset, always very well supported – and more than that – by Sulzen. ‘C’est joli de dire: “je joue”. Cela vous met le feu aux joues et cela vous allume l’œil.’ It was a gamble indeed, and it paid off. Moreover, it did have our eyes light up, as she so seductively span out the end of the phrase. Likewise we saw her ‘feathers and veils’ (‘mes plumes et mes voiles’), or rather thought we did, as she raised her arm. There was no doubting the singing actress here. Pauses told as much as words, for instance after ‘Et ils m’accusent d’être sale, de porter malheur dans leurs salles, dans leurs sales salles en stuc.’ There were a sadness and a defiance here that spoke, in Cocteau’s words, of the ‘lamentable story of an old, abandoned, miserable floozy’, and yet went beyond what one fancied words alone might have accomplished. The final ‘Monte Carlo’, upon the woman’s resolution to throw herself into the sea there, was operatic in the very best sense, as was the dryness of the piano response. The French ‘sec’ inevitably sprang to mind.

The main course inevitably encompassed a wider variety of emotions. Initially seated next to a table, on which an orange telephone as stylish as her performance was placed, Antonacci was in character from the moment she sat down. The fascinating tonalities and almost Schoenbergian motivic development of the piano part set the scene, but there was no doubt whose show it was. ‘Tu me connais, je suis incapable de prendre sur moi’ had a splendid sense of irony, whether with respect to the character or the metatheatricality, all the more so since it was delivered with passion rather than irony. Ghosts from Poulenc’s past and present seemed to haunt the performance, although there was little of the carefree. Harmonies from Dialogues des Carmélites assumed new resonance, as did the common notion of fear: ‘Peur? Non, je n’aurai pas peur … c’est pire.’ It almost certainly was worse, since here there was no sign of Divine Grace. Again, the ‘Allô’ when Antonacci feared she had been cut off spoke of real fear, not something assumed. This was great acting as much as anything else. Even the downpour outside and consequent darkening of the light seemed perfectly timed for the ‘production’. And the speech-like writing proved beyond doubt, just as it would have done had she been singing Monteverdi, that recitative can be at least as expressive as aria. Audience reaction was as warm as one would have expected.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Prom 73: VPO/Bychkov - Brahms and Schmidt, 10 September 2015

Royal Albert Hall

Brahms – Symphony no.3 in F major, op.90
Franz Schmidt – Symphony no.2 in E-flat major

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

I should have been fascinated to hear the following evening’s Vienna Philharmonic Prom, with that orchestra performing The Dream of Gerontius under Sir Simon Rattle, not least since I am always interested to hear non-English orchestras in Elgar. One cannot do everything, however, and I was keen to hear Semyon Bychkov with the VPO in Brahms and intrigued to hear an early-twentieth-century for the first time, whether live or recorded.

Brahms’s Third Symphony opened in grand fashion, preparing the way – at least in retrospect – for considerable scaling down and subsiding in a serenade-like second group. Bychkov’s tempi were flexible. There was one point at which I wondered whether he were slowing too much, but otherwise I was convinced. The first movement’s development section had a real sense of new departure, and an urgent one at that. Reaffirmation in necessarily transformed circumstances was the hallmark of the recapitulation. On the whole, Bychkov emphasised the often-downplayed turbulence and darkness of this work. The opening material of the second movement sounded nicely ‘late’, even archaic, recalling Brahms’s profound study of early music, but Brahmsian method soon informed us in no uncertain terms who was in charge. And how gorgeous those Viennese violins sounded! I liked Bychkov’s questing way in the third movement. There were no easy answers in what is perhaps the most obviously ‘personal’ movement of all. Alas, as in between every movement, we suffered half-hearted applause from a strange few. Please, stop it! The finale also benefited from a notably dark reading, sounding ambivalent even by Brahms’s standards. (That is surely one of the respects in which he comes closest to Mozart.) The brass sounded wonderfully resigned. Immediate applause clearly frustrated Bychkov’s wishes – and most of the audience’s. If one were actually listening to the music, that is the last thing one would want without a moment of reflection.

I am afraid I found myself somewhat nonplussed by Franz Schmidt’s Second Symphony. I certainly do not begrudge it a first Proms performance, and, insofar as I could tell from a first hearing, Bychkov and the VPO gave an excellent account of it. However, for the most part, it seemed to me over-extended for the material, which in itself did not grab me as it clearly did many others. Perhaps the fault was mine; I shall give it another try, especially since many people whose judgement I respect, not least Bychkov, think very highly of it. (He describes it as ‘magnificent’.) I was a little at sea with respect to how the first movement hung together, not least with an odd intrusion from what sounded like the world of Eric Coates. There were some attractive Straussian sounds in the orchestra. Bychkov likened them to Daphne, which, independently, I had thought too; however, Schmidt’s symphony (1911-13) came first. To my ears, the orchestra veered between ravishing and slightly patchy, but I think that might have been an oddity of the acoustic. (It is so difficult to tell in the Albert Hall.) The strange ending: well, perhaps Schmidt fans can explain to me its peremptory nature. The second movement, a theme and variations, offered the VPO woodwind ample opportunity, definitely taken, to excel. It seemed to me more successful, if undeniably conservative, even reactionary. The strings too seemed quite at home in what sounded like often treacherous yet always idiomatic writing. (Schmidt was a cellist.) However, the movement went on – and on. Again, I was not sure that I always understood where the third and final movement was going. Sometimes, as indeed earlier, I was put in mind of a slight caricature of Max Reger. Conductor and orchestra clearly relished what they were playing, though. As I said, the problem may well have been mine and I shall try again.

As an encore, which, somehow I guessed, perhaps with the following night’s Prom at the back of my mind, we heard ‘Nimrod’. I am afraid it made me wish we had heard the Enigma Variations or an Elgar Symphony instead. Here the VPO sounded at its most golden; Bychkov directed its progress subtly, allowing the music, as the cliché has it, to ‘speak for itself’, which generally takes a great deal of understanding as well as self-control. Maybe I should have been better off with the Elgar Prom after all.