Monday, 1 September 2014

Prom 59 - BBC SO/Bychkov - Elektra, 31 August 2014

Images: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Dame Felicity Palmer as Klytemnestra
Royal Albert Hall

Elektra – Christine Goerke
Chrysothemis – Gun-Brit Barkmin
Klytemnestra – Dame Felicity Palmer
Orest – Johan Reuter
First Maid – Katarina Bradić
Second Maid – Zoryana Kushpler
Third Maid – Hanna Hipp
Fourth Maid – Marie-Eve Munger
Fifth Maid – Iris Kupke
Overseer – Miranda Keys
Young Servant – Ivan Turšić
Orest’s tutor – Jongmin Park
Aegisth – Robert Künzli

Justin Way (stage director)

BBC Singers (chorus master: Paul Wiegold)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

Anti-Strauss sentiment, Strauss-scepticism, call it what you will: it still runs high. In some ways, that is not a bad thing: the ‘case of Strauss’, which I have written about before and which I shall discuss further in a chapter of my new book, to be published next month, is complex and fascinating, and is certainly not to be resolved with a one-liner here or an affirmation or otherwise there. Strauss’s æstheticism, perhaps ironically, given its insistence upon the value of art as art, leads us to greater consideration of æsthetic questions than the work of many other composers. That holds even when, perhaps particularly when, one is not of a prosecuting party ranging from Karl Kraus (‘certainly more of a stock company [Aktiengesellschaft] than a genius’) to Stravinsky  (‘I would like to admit all Strauss’s operas to whichever purgatory punishes triumphant vulgarity. Their musical substance is cheap and poor; it cannot interest a musician today.’) However, even those who disdain much of Strauss’s later work – often, to my mind, for less than convincing reasons – will admit their admiration for Elektra. It may not be many people’s ‘favourite’ Strauss opera, but most, I suspect, will consider it his greatest. Adorno, who went to the extreme of claiming that ‘everything that follows Rosenkavalier  is either applied or commercial art,’ and who, in my view, quite wrongly, even took Strauss to task for the ‘entire final section of Elektra, [in which] banality is dominant,’ admitted the opera to a line of development ‘from Tristan to Elektra to Schoenberg’s Erwartung’.


And so, whilst in principle it was somewhat depressing that the Proms elected to perform the three most popular of Strauss’s operas for his anniversary season – surely if we were to hear, for instance, Friedenstag anywhere in this country, it would be here – it was difficult, both in principle, and certainly in practice, with so fine a performance, to object too strongly, or indeed at all. Justin Way’s semi-staging worked as well as it had for the Proms Ring last year. Often, though not slavishly, following Hofmannsthal’s explicit directions – Elektra and Klytemnestra did ‘stand eye to eye’, and to very good effect – it permitted the work to ‘speak for itself’, although in any case it generally does in full stagings, which tend perhaps more strongly to resemble one another than do those of any other opera that springs to my mind.

Semyon Bychkov, the Maids, and the Overseer

As with that Ring, the orchestra took centre stage, the BBC Symphony Orchestra on excellent form throughout. (The occasional moment of tiredness towards the end can readily be forgiven for any orchestra.) And likewise, we were fortunate indeed in the choice of conductor: Daniel Barenboim for the Ring; for Elektra, Semyon Bychkov, who was, if memory serves me correctly, the first conductor I heard in this work. Yet that should not be taken, any more than it had with a Ring that included Nina Stemme and Andreas Schager, to imply a downgrading of the vocal element. In proper Wagnerian style – and in this, if avowedly not with respect to metaphysics, or the lack thereof, Strauss remained a Wagnerian through and through – the various elements of the performance, even in a minimal staging, strengthened one another.


That could be heard in the first scene, in which a very nicely differentiated group of maids interacted with flickering intensity with conducting which really did emphasise that clichéd taking after Mendelssohn’s fairy music. The foresight of the Fifth Maid, Iris Kupke, was experienced as much in performance as in work. Miranda Keys’s Overseer was again well differentiated, though not exaggeratedly so, from the ‘mere’ maids. And then, in what might call the ‘interlude’ in which Elektra emerges from the house, Bychkov ensured that Strauss’s waltz writing disconcertingly reared its head and pointed ahead.


Christine Goerke’s Elektra announced herself in deeper voice than one often hears: more feminine, less harpy, though so certainly not lacking in volume where necessary. Sepulchral trombones complemented her lament, intensifying those baleful calls of ‘Agamemnon’ that were to follow. Throughout her lengthy soliloquy, Bychkov conjured up – and the BBC SO delivered – a truly Straussian orchestral phantasmagoria, in colour and in harmony. ‘Agamemnon! Vater!’: the orchestra sent shivers down the spine. But equally compelling was the tenderness from Goerke and orchestra alike, never more so than after ‘zeig dich deinem Kind!’ A daughter’s affection may have been twisted but, on one level, it remained childishly simple. Rhythmic and melodic details, for instance the baying of the dogs, both made their point in themselves and, when it came to material to be developed later on, sowed their musico-dramatic seeds with both mystery and expectant, Fatal clarity.

Gun-Brit Barkmin as Chrysothemis
The following scene, with Chrysothemis, was interesting. Elektra’s blood-curdling ‘spaltete dein Fleisch’ stood at one extreme. The flowering, in more than one sense, of Gun-Brit Barkmin’s Chrysothemis intrigued, if anything, more still. During her first lines, I wondered whether Barkmin would prove a little underpowered, even anonymous. But, as a panoply of woodwind colour to rival the composer’s ‘Indian summer’ worked its queasy magic, it became clear that this was a sister who would grow into her role at the crucial point: the voicing of what, in context, seems her very weird – or is it very ‘normal’? who knows any more? – obsession with child-bearing. Thereafter this was a woman indeed.


A woman indeed of a different nature is Klytemnestra. Her orchestrally-voiced arrival sent shivers down the spine, enhanced or perhaps ‘realised’ by Felicity Palmer’s splendidly grande-dame procession. If Palmer’s voice is vocally not what it was, it frankly mattered not a jot. But whilst this extraordinary confrontation worked itself out in words and singing, the orchestra broadened our terms of musical reference. You, yourself are a goddess, Elektra told her mother. What, then, did it mean to hear apparent echoes of Siegfried’s ‘Forest Murmurs’? Well, there is honesty in the German forest, but there is also redress, as Mime would find to his cost. The malevolent replanting of those Wagnerian seeds was suggestive, whether coincidental or otherwise. Fafner-like brass deepened the very real agony and sickness we heard from Palmer’s magnificently attentive outlining of that ‘Etwas’ which had fallen upon her. As for the intensity and sheer volume with which Goerke despatched ‘ich steh’ da und seh’ dich endlich sterben’ and likewise ‘der jauchzt und kann sich seines Lebens freun!’ What can one say other than superlative? Perfectly matched, by the way, by the orchestra as they stood, in that aforementioned scene, ‘eye to eye’.


Brittle, sardonic, orchestral mock-heroism ‘accompanied’ the appearance of the Young Servant. Sheer orchestral depravity ‘beautifully’ captured, in all its bizarre mixture of sincerity and insincerity, Elektra’s hymn to her sister’s female form. And finally, the relief of Orest’s arrival: not quite the first male voice but, my goodness, it sounded as if it were! Johan Reuter’s delivery of this difficult role brought bluff anger rather than the more ‘intellectual’ approach of a Matthias Goerne. There is room for both, but here, Reuter felt ‘right’. The final recognition hit as it should: a truly shattering dissonance on Elektra’s ‘Orest’ would be followed up by too beautiful remembrance of her former self, bathed in a narcissism that seemed almost literally, or at least verbally, skin-deep.


I do not know whether Palmer delivered her own off-stage scream. Whoever did it deserves mention in her own right, for it vied with the orchestral response – and Goerke’s truly terrifying steely response: Triff noch einmal!’ No compassion here, thank you. Again, Strauss’s insidious waltzing proved thematically, dramatically pregnant in the scene with Aegisth (a competent but less than exciting Robert Künzli). Rosenkavalier seemed less around the corner than already present as, following Elektra’s strange courtesies, he entered the house.

Christine Goerke as Elektra

Somehow, the voices of the BBC Singers seemed more than usually akin to Elektra’s voices in a psychological sense. It was probably partly a matter of not seeing the singers, perhaps also a matter of the acoustic. Whatever the reason, it added an interesting, appropriately psychoanalytical deadliness to the final events. The insincerity, in context, of C major may here have been Strauss’s – and Bychkov’s, and the orchestra’s – crowning achievement. To speak, as Adorno did, of the discontinuity ‘between the wildness of most of Strauss’s music in Elektra and its blissfully triadic conclusion’ seems at the best of times wilful. Blissful? About as much as Handel’s use of the major mode in the ‘Dead March’ from Saul. After a brief period of ‘release’ with a ‘true’ operatic duet between the sisters, there came the final dramatic bludgeoning. And Elektra fell as shatteringly on stage as she did in the orchestra.


Friday, 29 August 2014

Prom 57 - Swedish RSO/Harding: Mahler, 29 August 2014

Royal Albert Hall

Symphony no.2 in C minor

Kate Royal (soprano)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
Swedish Radio Choir (chorus master: Peter Dijkstra)
Philharmonia Chorus (chorus master: Stefan Bevier)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor)

This was, all told, an impressive performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony from Daniel Harding, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, their soloists and choruses. Harding’s direction avoided egotism without becoming faceless, plotted Mahler’s narrative with a keen sense of drama that came nowhere near the vulgar theatrics we too often hear in this music, and, no mean feat this in itself, managed soon enough to rise above the Royal Albert Hall’s dreadful acoustics, in a performance that balanced instruments as well as competing dramatic imperatives.

The first movement opened with fine attack from the Swedish cellos and double basses. String tone did not always sound so full in general, but that was probably a matter more of the aforementioned acoustic, to which my ears soon adjusted. Harding attended to detail, whether in terms of dynamic contrasts or rubato, without the mannerism of undue micromanagement. Woodwind were nicely pungent, brass splendidly militaristic, but just as important, indeed probably more so, was the sense of awe and unease in those extraordinary Mahlerian liminal zones. This was not a case of rehashing a performance of a work many of us have perhaps heard too often, at least in mediocre performances or worse; it drew us in to listen. Vistas, both physical and metaphysical, opened up, often subtly, but without shying away from grander gestures, well prepared, when necessary. If there were a few occasions when, in abstracto at least, I might have favoured slightly more gradual shifts of tempo, the well-nigh Wagnerian cut and thrust largely compensated; indeed, I thought more than once of Wagner’s semi-serious desire for an ‘invisible theatre’. There was no denying that a musical mind was at work here – and that is more important than whether everyone might have completely agreed with every decision. In the recapitulation, material sounded properly changed in the light of what had gone before. There was nice violin portamento to savour too: not self-regarding, but still a delight. Rarely have I heard the downward scalic harp passages so charged with menace; Boulez’s performances of this work came to mind.

What a pity, then, that an ill-mannered section of the audience decided to talk through the silence that should have followed. Surely, aware of Mahler’s intentions or no, the sign that Harding had sat down rather than left the stage, ought to have given a clue. In any case, the second movement proceeded with a winning lilt, rubato again well judged, and warm strings. A flute as pure as a mountain spring intervened and made its point. There was a lovely sense of a serenading band writ large, though actually not so very large, rendering turbulence all the more eruptive when it came. Pizzicato strings evoked suitably spooky marionettes – yet with good nature too: this was no mere house of horrors.

Timpani announced the third movement attacca, in spirit as well as in the letter. Artlessness and artfulness, innocence and guile were splendidly balanced in the twisting turns of what many of us now unavoidably think of as this pre-Berio (Sinfonia) river. Sardonic woodwind helped; so did a fine sense of irony that Harding and his players never sought to overplay. The fishes were relished, but so was the preacher: perhaps a shade here of Ecclesiastes as well as St Anthony of Padua? And crucially, good musical values, not least clarity and direction of counterpoint underlay such ideas. The music sounded more Bachian than we often hear – and to good effect. Not that dreams and phantasmagoria were neglected, but they made their point all the more strongly with countervailing tendencies given their due. Thematic connections with music that had gone and music that was yet to come were apparent and meaningful throughout.

In ‘Urlicht’, Christianne Stotijn proved straightforward but never simplistic. Words were crystal clear. The brass response to her opening line sounded as if an ambivalent chorale or even equale: was this death or something else that was heralded? As so often with Mahler, either/or misses the point. The Wunderhorn character of the ‘song’ was not forgotten, but rather sublimated in its new context.

The finale emerged ‘naturally’, art concealing art, from its predecessor, whilst also audibly sowing thematic seeds for what was to come. There are, of course, many dissimilarities here with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but the similarities registered rather strongly, again being permitted to make their own point instead of being underlined. Once more, drama came to the fore, but without sacrificing the more ‘purely’ musical dynamism of form. (The dichotomy is false, but nevertheless merits an occasional heuristic mention.) The interplay between the (otherworldly?) off-stage band and on-stage musicians was truly disconcerting: death and resurrection are, after all, no easy things. Hesitant steps thereafter did not want for awe, finally preparing the way for the chorus’s entry, for the re-entry of the word – and perhaps even for the entry of the Word? We could not be sure, and that, surely, is Mahler’s point. Kate Royal’s diction was initially poor, sounding more akin to an operatic ‘vocalise’ than to the Lieder-like contribution of Stotijn, but, to Royal’s credit, Stotijn’s return had her improve her game considerably. In any case, the Swedish Radio Choir and Philharmonia Chorus were on fine form; one could have taken dictation from them. If I say that the rest took care of itself, that would of course be an exaggeration, but it flowed so ‘naturally’ – that word again – from what had been prepared that it almost seemed to do so. And that chord on ‘Gott’ sent shivers down the spine, as it must.

What a pity, then, that a loutish minority did its best to ruin things by denying even the briefest of silences, competing instead to issue the first farmyard noise in response. Such selfish exhibitionism has as little place in a Mahler audience as in a Mahler performance.



Saturday, 23 August 2014

Booklet note for Karajan EMI reissue (II) - Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms

Haydn - Die Jahreszeiten
Beethoven - Missa solemnis in D major, op.123
Brahms - Ein deutsches Requiem, op.45
In our allegedly ‘historically-informed’ times, it has become unfashionable to laud Herbert von Karajan’s work in Classical repertoire. So much the worse for fashion. From Mozart’s divertimenti to Haydn’s oratorios, much of his finest work is to be found here. Karajan’s recordings of The Creation – especially that made with the Berlin Philharmonic, but also, more for connoisseurs, that with the Vienna Philharmonic – have long been esteemed by all but the most dogmatic authenticists. His account of The Seasons, however, like the work itself, has tended to be obscured by the shadow of its admittedly sublime predecessor.  Berlin Philharmonic outings had not been frequent; Karajan’s 1972 performances, after which this recording was made, were his first and last, though he had also conducted the work in Aachen, in 1938, his chorus master the legendary Wilhelm Pitz, later of both Bayreuth and the Philharmonia Chorus. Indeed, since a 1944 cathedral performance conducted by Rudolf Lamy, the Berlin orchestra had given the work only once, under Fritz Weisse (1966); subsequent performances have taken place but once a decade: Hans Hilsdorf (1987), Wolfgang Sawallisch (1998), and Sir Simon Rattle (2003).

Karajan’s large-scale approach stands far truer to Haydn’s intentions and inspiration, born of giant Handel commemorations in London, than what we tend to hear today. The ferocity of the brass in the opening to ‘Spring’ might come as a surprise; it makes good pictorial as well as proto-Beethovenian sense. Winter harshness must be banished, before spring might be welcomed: the beguiling Berlin oboe, clarinet, bassoon soloists preparing the way for the ravishing tones of Gundula Janowitz. The picturesque fares well throughout, Karajan resisting the temptation, all-too-frequent for many conductors in this music, to underline it, whilst imparting not only the desired grand scale but also, more importantly, harmonic understanding and drive that can well be described as symphonic, the oratorio rightly understood in the context of the ‘London’ Symphonies and the late masses. Werner Hollweg and Walter Berry, the other soloists, make up a typical Karajan solo consort, well supported by the Deutsche Oper chorus. ‘Supported’, though, is hardly the right word: these singers are participants, not least in the final number’s joyous, yet hardly portentous, Resurrection of the dead. Karajan, his chorus, the Berlin wind players show themselves alert to the resonances with Die Zauberflöte when the holy mount crowned by a canopy appears, peace and tranquility enthroned. Haydn’s use, echoing Handel’s Israel in Egypt, of a double chorus, for what appears to be the first time in his œuvre and is unquestionably the last, offers exultance in performance too. One can only regret that Karajan did not perform more of Haydn’s choral music; of the masses, he seems only to have conducted the Nelson, and that in 1959, for Vienna’s commemoration of the composer’s death 150 years earlier.

The other two works in this collection received multiple Karajan recordings and performances. Karajan gave Beethoven’s Missa solemnis throughout his life, his first performances again in Aachen and again with Pitz, in 1937, his final thoughts delivered at the 1986 Salzburg Festival. There is a true sense of majesty to the present recording, in many ways quite different from Karajan’s earlier EMI recording, in which he had approached the throne of the Almighty – and Beethoven – almost as supplicant, conscious of the gulf separating God – or composer – and man. Here, Karajan apparently speaks in something approaching the first person. The opening of the ‘Credo’ sounds hewn not of the aural granite we often, quite rightly, hear invoked for Klemperer, but of marble. ‘Marmoreal’ is often employed, quite mysteriously, as a reproach; here Karajan puts his fabled and increasing fondness for orchestral beauty to good dramatic use. What detractors might call ‘gloss’ offers its own mystical self-justification, consonant both with plausible reading of the work and of Beethoven’s conceivable ‘intentions’. There is quasi-operatic drama too: the soloists’ stabbing cries of ‘Crucifixus’, and, punctuating Thomas Brandis’s sweet-toned ‘Benedictus’ violin solo, imploring solo and choral calls of ‘In nomine Domini’. Perhaps Karajan’s and his orchestra’s experience in Italian opera plays a part too. Yet the notorious cries of war, vocal and orchestral, in the ‘Agnus Dei’ are anything but melodramatic; that brutality which occasionally, for some, disfigures Karajan’s orchestral Beethoven here chills as it must. And ultimately, if Karajan is not necessarily the first choice of many as exemplar of humility, the listener may nevertheless well find himself humbled through experience of often-exquisite majesty: the beauty of holiness?

This recording of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem stands in a still-longer tradition. Karajan’s final performance would be in Salzburg, in 1988, just a year before his death; for his first account, we once again return to Aachen and Pitz, fifty-two years earlier. Karajan conducted the work there four times before the outbreak of war, after which he would return to it in Vienna, in preparation for his first recording, also on EMI, to be heard elsewhere in this series. Here, as earlier, the recording is definitely of its time – which is not intended in any sense as an adverse criticism. Performance and recording alike announce a plusher sound than in the first recording. As with Haydn, we hear Brahms in the light and shadow of his symphonies – and Karajan’s conception of them – but there is thoroughly musical drama, triumph and consolation, in both. There is no need for histrionics in ‘Denn alles Fleisch’. Cumulative power speaks for itself: well-rehearsed, yes, for there can never be any doubting Karajan’s consummate professionalism, but not manicured. Solos are sung by a radiant Anna Tomowa-Sintow, who would be Karajan’s new Marschallin, thereby following in the footsteps of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in both Brahms and Strauss, and with the equally rounded tones of José van Dam. This recording then, maintains tradition in the form of the Wiener Singverein and, of course, the Berlin Philharmonic, yet also looks to the future, even to the end: two movements from a work he cherished would be performed at the Vienna Philharmonic’s Karajan Salzburg memorial concert on 30 July 1989.

Booklet note for Karajan EMI reissue (I) - Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Strauss

Bach - Mass in B minor, BWV 232
Brahms - Ein deutsches Requiem, op.45
Beethoven - Missa solemnis in D major, op.123
Ah perfido, op.65
Fidelio, op.72: 'Abscheulicher! ... Komm, Hoffnung'
Mozart - Ave verum corpus, KV 618
Strauss - Vier letzte Lieder

The early Philharmonia Orchestra (featured on the greater part of these recordings) was an extraordinary band. That holds not only for its superlative players, but also with respect to the conductors with whom it worked and, of course, for its presiding eminence, Walter Legge, producer of all the recordings in this set. To be recording with Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, and Otto Klemperer, amongst others, would be more than noteworthy for a long-established orchestra, let alone for one just founded. There are many, moreover, who account the period covered here to have been perhaps the finest, most consistent, in Karajan’s lengthy, prolific recording career.

Take the lithe, even blithe, opening to the ‘Gloria’ of the B minor Mass, Karajan’s sprightliness quite different from Klemperer’s granitic splendour. The ‘Cum Sancto Spirito’ fairly whizzes by, more Don Giovanni-like champagne than full-bloodied claret, let alone something more Thuringian or Saxon, whilst the angelic throng’s ‘Et exspecto resurrectionem’ seems to strain towards the world of the Mannheim rocket. Not that grandeur lacks entirely; one hears, even sees, the swing of the censer in the ‘Sanctus’, as much a product of expertly-judged harmonic motion as mere ‘weight’. And, if it is not the abiding characteristic of this performance, mystery is nevertheless present: consider the leisurely yet intense ‘Benedictus’, blessed by Manoug Parikian’s violin, hinting perhaps at Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. The Philharmonia’s wind soloists sound as euphonious – just listen to Dennis Brain’s horn obbligato in the ‘Quoniam’ – and often as perky as they do in their Mozart opera recordings made at this time with Karajan; if hardly neo-Classical, there is little claim to Romanticism here.

Even the Wiener Singverein sounds streamlined. Hearing Karajan conduct the Mass in Vienna in the Bach anniversary year, 1950, Toscanini was moved to dub it the best choir in the world. This recording captures Karajan’s dual focus during these years: solo movements recorded in London with the Philharmonia, choral movements with the conductor’s ‘own’ choir in Vienna. Bach may be said to have assembled rather than composed this setting; Karajan and EMI did likewise. Recording and technology always fascinated Karajan – but ultimately as a means to musical ends. That is what we hear here, as ever with the finest vocalists, Marga Höffgen’s contralto in particular a reminder of an almost-lost age of Bach performance, likewise Kathleen Ferrier’s contribution to the additional excerpts. Karajan’s ‘modernity’ remains open rather than restrictive.

Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem was recorded in post-war Vienna at the same time as Strauss’s great elegy, Metamorphosen. Karajan’s was the first recording of the latter; it is perhaps more suprising that Brahms’s humanistic message of grief and consolation had not previously been recorded in full. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf would later recall: ‘It was very special. Certainly, we were remembering those whose lives had been lost.’ Wotan himself, Hans Hotter, works with Brahms to suggest not only that the souls of the righteous may be with the Lord, but also to question that claim. Karajan in some respects offers the other side of the coin. His Vienna Philharmonic, admittedly weighty in expression of loss, increasingly offers a consoling orchestral warmth quite different from, say, the unvarnished, even atheistic ‘truth’ toward which Klemperer, again with Schwarzkopf, would later strain with the Philharmonia.

The Missa solemnis receives a deeply felt reading, also conceived in terms we might characterise above all as ‘musical’. That is not to say there is nothing of the metaphysical, but rather that those glimpses into the beyond – alternatively, those epiphanies visited upon us – arise through score and performance rather than determine them. Of our Philharmonia trio, Furtwängler never recorded the work; though he spoke of it as Beethoven’s greatest, he came to find it un-performable. Klemperer’s wrestling with Beethoven’s angels – and dæmons – has long been the ultimate recorded recommendation. Karajan, however, offers a genuinely intriguing alternative – again, in many ways preferable to his subsequent recordings. There is no shortage of intoxication, whether humanistic or divine; the opening of the ‘Gloria’ might be a moment of symphonic or indeed operatic exultation. And what control Karajan exerts over his forces! Not so as to mould them unduly, but so as better to express – or should that be execute? – his conception. The imploring, ineffable sadness, even desolation of the ‘Agnus Dei’ registers equally. Nicola Zaccaria makes a powerful contribution too here, ‘operatic’ maybe, but in a good sense, similarly the more typical ‘Karajan soloists’ who join him: Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda. We struggle less in an overt sense than with Klemperer, but Beethoven offers consolation too; there is unquestionably room, even need, for both. If there is less defiance in the ‘Dona [nobis] pacem,’ is it wrong to present here a heavenly throng rather than a shell-shocked earthly choir? The Viennese chorus certainly does its persuasive best, as does the rich-toned yet ultimately angelic Philharmonia; the Kantian gulf between divine and human remains unbridgeable.

And yet, hearing Schwarzkopf in particular towards the close, is there not something of Goethe’s eternal feminine drawing us upward? Karajan, though not wont to speak in metaphysical terms, nor indeed to make his music in them, was no more uncultured than the composer whom he so resembles in many ways: Richard Strauss. If there were never a better-read composer than Strauss, and certainly none more in thrall to the soprano voice, Karajan emerges quietly, even modestly, in similar vein, with more than a little help from Schwarzkopf, the partnership ever-attentive to words and music. The Fidelio excerpt emerges as human, Romantic, possessed of a sincerity Karajan’s – and Schwarzkopf’s – detractors would never allow; likewise the splendidly post-Mozartian rendition of Ah! perfido. Mozart’s Ave, verum corpus is treasured as liturgical foretaste of heaven, and is that not precisely what this unearthly music is? Finally, the Four Last Songs receive a performance in which conductor and soloist prove magnificently complementary, never contradictory; Schwarzkopf’s verbal acuity heightens Karajan’s equally Straussian orchestral revels, and vice versa. ‘Im Abendrot’ presents a sunset none will be able to resist; and why would one try?

Friday, 22 August 2014

Prom 46: WEDO/Barenboim - Mozart, Adler, Rouston, and Ravel, 20 August 2014

Royal Albert Hall

Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro, KV 492: Overture
Ayal Adler – Resonating Sounds (UK premiere)
Kareem Rouston – Ramal (UK premiere)
Ravel – Rapsodie espagnole
Alborada del gracioso
Pavane pour une infante défunte

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Images: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The times could hardly be more tense with respect to ‘external’ politics and the lands in which the young musicians of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra live. Who knows what discussions take place amongst them? However, they certainly played – and looked as though they were playing – together not only as an orchestra but as friends; the warmth of their embraces at the end of the concert told its own story. This year, we had not Beethoven and Boulez, but music with Spanish associations (the Figaro Overture and Ravel), alongside the British premieres by an Israeli and a Syrian composer.

Daniel Barenboim is of course one of our very greatest Mozartians. I could find no fault with the Overture, nor had I any wish to do so. It simply sounded as Mozart should: perfect. Quicksilver, without being harried, sunny without complacency, this reading showed once again Barenboim’s crucial attention to the bass line, thus to harmony, thus to form. (I still find it extraordinary how many conductors seem entirely uninterested in such matters, as if they were somehow optional extras!) The Divan players articulated Mozart’s magic beautifully as Barenboim attended, inobtrusively, to the longer line.

Yal Adler’s Resonating Sounds refers, in the composer’s words, ‘to an echo, or a reminiscence of sound, lingering after the cast chords slowly fade away. This sonic image opens the work as the whole orchestra plays an immense cluster, followed by a delicate string section of transparent melodic fragments in a high register.’ That is certainly what we heard at the beginning, from a considerably enlarged orchestra. Now it was time for the WEDO to display precision of a somewhat different kind, but also orchestral fantasy. Although the opening is generally led by strings, other instruments join, with a considerable role for percussion, both tuned (including piano) and untuned. Trombone slides make there presence felt, alongside a barrage of other colouristic effects, often, in Adler’s words, ‘merging and melting into one another’.

Kareem Rouston’s Ramal, also first performed this year, takes its name from one of the sixteen (pre-Islamic) metres used in classical Arabic poetry, each of which, according to the composer’s helpful explanation, is made up of ‘multiple variations of the verb fa’al, which means “to do”’. The variation of the ramal metre used in this work translates into the musical metre 8/8 – 7/8 – 5/8 – 7/8, thus providing a structural framework, added to (by rests) and later contracting (taking away those rests). Ramal has a very different opening from Adler’s work: furiously rhythmical (as one might expect from the foregoing), though quickly subsiding – or not really, since tension is maintained throughout. The metrical play has at times an almost post-Stravinskian effect. Again, there is a keen sense of fantasy, whether in fast or slow sections. ‘Although the work is not programmatic in its design,’ Rouston writes, ‘its emotional drive and changing metres reflect the unsettled state of the world, specifically the devastating current situation in Syria’. A keen sense of that came across from work and performance.

For the second half, we moved to Ravel. Rapsodies espagnole opened with a fine sense of atmosphere, enabled by Barenboim’s balancing of his musicians. Spacious, pregnant, the ‘Prélude à la nuit’ had its colours and harmonies tell without indulgence. The ‘Malagueña’ was precise, yet one could feel the heat, whether at climaxes or in sultry languor. The ‘Habanera’ was nicely dreamlike, yet again retained necessary precision; this was certainly not to be mistaken for Debussy. In a vivid ‘Feria’, one could almost see, feel, breathe the celebrations. Alborada del gracioso combined urgency and grace. Perhaps its opening was a little brash compared with, say, Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but the comparison is doubtless unfair. In any case, there was plenty of magically pp playing to draw one in. Ravel as modernist was apparent throughout, not least in the hints, perhaps more, of La Valse-like desolation in the central section. Pavane pour une infante défunte received a relatively fleet reading, though not unreasonably so: such is unquestionably preferable to making a meal out of it. Occasionally I wondered if it were a little too restrained, but again that is preferable to erring in the opposing direction. Barenboim let his players do the work for much of Boléro, confident in their abilities so as to leave them un- or barely conducted. Clockwork precision remained, the tension added to in a good way. It was inexorable and, yes, hypnotic; there was at least the illusion of orchestra with music.

Barenboim sitting out the final Carmen encore 
As I suspected, partly because I had heard an all-Ravel second half to a concert Barenboim gave in Berlin a couple of years ago, Carmen provided four short encores, the last of them again without conductor. The passion and character had one wishing to hear more – and we did, but from something else: an Argentinian tango (for woodwind, brass, and percussion), learned from the orchestra’s recent visit to Barenboim’s country of birth. The concert was, of course, broadcast live by BBC Radio 3; ‘highlights’ –an insult born of the BBC’s decision to excise new music from television broadcasts – will be seen on BBC Four on Friday 29 August at 7.30 p.m, the works by Adler and Rouston thus being available only on iPlayer.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Salzburg Festival (7) - Der Rosenkavalier, 17 August 2014

Images: © Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

Grosses Festspielhaus

Die Feldmarschallin Fürstin Werdenberg – Krassimira Stoyanova
Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Günther Groissböck
Octavian – Sophie Koch
Herr von Faninal – Adrian Erőd
Sophie – Mojca Erdmann
Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin – Silvana Dussmann
Valzacchi – Rudolf Schasching
Annina – Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Police Officer – Tobias Kehrer
The Marschallin’s Major-domo – Franz Supper
Faninal’s Major-domo – Martin Piskorski
A Notary – Dirk Aleschus
A Landlord – Roman Sadnik
A Singer – Stefan Pop
A Milliner – Alexandra Flood
A Vendor of Pets – Franz Gürtelschmied
Leopold – Rupert Grössinger
Lackeys/Waiters – Won Cheol Song, Franz Gruber, Friedrich Springer, Jens Musger
Lerchenauischen – Florian Boberski, Kiril Chobanov, Manuel Grabner, Helmut Höllriegl, Boris Lichtenberger, Christian Schläpfer
House Servant (Mohammed) – Liviu Burz 

Harry Kupfer (director)
Hans Schavernoch (set designs)
Yan Tax (costumes)
Jürgen Hoffmann (lighting)
Thomas Reimer (video design)

Salzburg Festival and Theatre Children’s Chorus (chorus master: Wolfgang Götz)
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst (conductor)

Sophie (Mojca Erdmann) and Octavian (Sophie Koch)

Harry Kupfer’s production of Der Rosenkavalier is without a doubt the most thought-provoking of the stagings I saw at this year’s Salzburg Festival. It intrigued me during the first act, though I was not really sure how I felt about it; it grew on me during the second, and had won me over by the third. That seems to be a deliberate strategy, conducted in tandem with a gradual blossoming of colour from the severe near-monochrome of the early twentieth-century (time of composition) Marschallin’s palace to the more colourful inn of the third act, with certain carefully colour making its point in between. All around, photographs – untrustworthy memories – of celebrated Viennese landmarks from the Kunsthistorisches Musuem to the Prater make their point concerning recollection and reimagination. What I felt was missing was a further layering from an imaginary eighteenth century in which Hofmannsthal – if not necessarily Strauss – so painstakingly sets the action, but I learned to live with that, and again, by the time of the third act, had quite forgotten about it. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned there too.


For pretty much all of the action one would (rightly?) expect is present and correct, except not necessarily quite as one might initially have expected it, not the least of this opera’s lessons. A particular strength of Kupfer’s production is its light insistence upon the work’s metatheatricality, less overt than, say, Ariadne auf Naxos or Capriccio, but still important to its layering. One certainly has a good sense of the Marschallin as director, and indeed as fallible narrator/director. Are the snapshots hers, as might be suggested by the arrival of her extraordinarily – deliberately so – car at the end of the third act? What are the implications for agency here? Is she still in control? And what might that mean for Octavian and Sophie, here directed – and played – as a much stronger woman than one generally experiences?

The Marschallin (Krassimira Stoyanova)

The case of Sophie is especially interesting, since I admit that, in purely vocal terms, I did not find Mojca Erdmann’s portrayal especially inviting, hearing more of an Olympia than a Sophie, a strangely mechanical rendering at times. Yet, somehow, it worked, and the strength of character came across more strongly than I can recall. For once, it was quite possible to understand why Octavian might have made the choice he did. Sophie Koch’s portrayal of the role is well-known and did not disappoint on this occasion, the opera’s play with gender as captivating as ever. Krassimira Stoyanova presented a dignified Marschallin: no vulgar playing on the heart-strings here, and probably all the more moving for it. Moreover, her careful attention to the words could usefully be aped by certain more fêted exponents of the role. Günther Groissböck worked hard to present a less caricatured Ochs than one often suffers. What remained of caricature was probably ineradicable: a pity, but there is only so much one can do with the part. Groissböck’s was an uncommonly subtle reading, though, again born of laudable attention to the text. (It is perhaps a pity, though, that Kupfer seems to want to have Sophie having made up her mind against him from the very start; a little more contest and development would not necessarily go amiss.) To start with, I thought Adrian Erőd’s Faninal a little dry in tone, but that soon ceased to trouble me; perhaps I was just imagining it. The supporting cast was not always of the highest quality, but then there is a huge amount to cast here, and much, by the same token, was impressive. Rudolf Schasching’s coarsely sung Valzacchi was a rare true disappointment; Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s Annina was much more characterful. Roman Sadnik’s Landlord – intriguingly, though probably coincidentally, dressed and even very much looking like the owner of Triangel, the restaurant outside the house – offered a particularly vivid portrayal, whilst Rupert Grössinger (and Kupfer) made considerably more of Leopold, Ochs’s son, than is generally the case.

Ochs (Günther Groissböck)

The performances were originally to have been conducted by Zubin Mehta, who had to withdraw on medical grounds. Franz Welser-Möst was a generally efficient, if not exactly inspiring, replacement, the exception to efficiency lying in an inordinately drawn out close to the first act. (I thought it was never going to end, and I am rarely opposed to slower tempi.) It was certainly not a warm reading, but that to an extent married well with the production, especially earlier on. A little more whipped cream would not necessarily have done any harm, and there were perhaps a few more discrepancies between pit and stage than one might have expected. Still, there was much to savour, and to think about, both from production and from the performances on stage.


Salzburg Festival (6) - Fierrabras, 16 August 2014

Images: © Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus
Florinda (Dorothea Röschmann) and the chorus

Haus für Mozart 

Fierrabras – Michael Schade
Emma – Julia Kleiter
Eginhard – Benjamin Bernheim
Florinda – Dorothea Röschmann
Roland – Markus Werba
Charlemagne – Georg Zeppenfeld
Boland – Peter Kálmán
Maragond – Marie-Claude Chappuis
Brutamonte – Manuel Walser
Ogier – Franz Gruber
Two Young Ladies – Secil Ilker, Wilma Maller
Moorish Captain – Helmut Höllriegl
Knight – Michael Wilder

Peter Stein (director)
Ferdinand Wögerbauer (set designs)
Annamaria Heinreich (costumes)
Joachim Barth (lighting)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)

We owe the Salzburg Festival – and Alexander Pereira – a considerable debt for staging Fierrabras. Dedicated to the memory of Claudio Abbado, whose celebrated Vienna production with Ruth Berghaus, marked a milestone in the fortunes of Schubert’s opera, this new production will surely have opened new ears to the work’s considerable virtues, as well as to its undeniable shortcomings, upon which it is not unreasonable to look with a little indulgence. Schubert, after all, never had the chance to hear Fierrabras performed, despite a commission from the Kärtnertortheater, and despite its staging having been advertised. (The ‘failure’ of Weber’s Euryanthe seems to have been a factor in dissuading the theatre’s director, Domenico Barbaia, from staging another new German Romantic opera, likewise the perennial Viennese problem of Italian singers having supplanted Germans. Look at the Vienna State Opera today, and wonder at the proportion of nineteenth-century Italian opera on the menu!) Indeed, although excerpts were heard in concert in Vienna in 1835 and 1858, the opera would not be staged until 1897, in Karlsruhe – and then in a version in which both words and music were ‘revised’, the latter by Felix Mottl.


This production was originally to have been conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. His replacement by Ingo Metzmacher will doubtless have been a matter of sadness for some, though certainly not for me. I can happily do without speed bumps, arbitrary caesuras, and the like. In Metzmacher, Schubert certainly found a committed advocate, both in words – in a fascinating programme note – and in the pit. If there were moments when I felt the lack of something grandeur, perhaps recalling at least subconsciously the wondrous symphonic Schubert of the morning before, from the Vienna Philharmonic and Riccardo Muti, then not only would it be curmudgeonly to cavil; one could also make an argument that something a little more modest was truer to this particular work, whatever its ‘heroic’ trappings. (Not that I necessarily should subscribe to such a claim, but it is not inherently implausible.) At any rate, once past a slightly plodding account of the overture, which sounded more exciting in Metzmacher’s prose description, the conductor’s ear for harmony and its dramatic implications proved invaluable. He seemed most inspired by the passages which, I later read, he considered most inspired of all: for instance, the music for the Moorish princess, Florinda, perhaps above all in the melodrama at the end of the second act, ‘a passage that climaxes in the unfathomable,’ though, one might add, not unusual for Schubert, ‘key of E-flat minor’. For Metzmacher, although ‘much ink has been spilt over the question whether Schubert was ever really able to write an opera,’ this melodrama would leave no one entertaining ‘any doubts on the matter’. It was certainly fortunate in the playing of the VPO, old hands in Schubert, if not necessarily in his operas.

So long, then, as one does not expect the Schubert of his greatest songs, or indeed of the chamber and piano music, one has no real need to be musically disappointed. One of the oddities of much of the music is how, whilst one can believe the composer to be Schubert, it does not sound so very much like much of the rest of his œuvre. Likewise, so long as one does not expect Mozartian characterisation, the drama can be dealt with – at least on that level. Its Orientalism is undoubtedly problematical for a modern audience, but that may prove a spur to interesting stage direction. (I shall leave that matter just for the moment.) We should, moreover, consider this an interesting early work, had Schubert lived longer. Of course, we have what we have, and there is no point in performing something on the basis that we are sure the composer would eventually have written something better, but it is perhaps a particular reason for charitable reception in this case. The work as it stands is in any case a manifestly better work than many from the same period, and indeed from later, which continue to hold the stage. Less than top-drawer Schubert remains infinitely preferable to any Donizetti or Verdi.

Florinda (Dorothea Röschmann), Eginhard (Benjamin
Bernheim), Roland (Markus Werba), chorus 
Fierrabras was also fortunate in the cast assembled, albeit with one unfortunate exception. In many operas, such a failure in the title role might have been catastrophic; here, however, the cast is large, and the opera is not so closely focused upon the good and faithful Moorish prince accepted into the ranks of his erstwhile Frankish foes. Salzburg’s enthusiasm for Michael Schade remains a mystery, though. True to form, and even given the most charitable listening, his singing proved a trial: unpleasant of tone and often hectoring. (To think, Zurich had Jonas Kaufmann!) No such complaints, however, concerning the rest of the cast. Georg Zeppenfeld proved a stentorian Karl/Charlemagne, ably surrounded by a throng of excellent knights: Benjamin Bernheim’s touchingly lovelorn Eginhard, Markus Werba’s virile yet thoughtful Roland, and Franz Gruber’s attentively sung Ogier. Peter Kálmán offered a suitably dark-voiced Moorish king, Boland; the problems with the role are not his fault. Perhaps even more impressive were the women, Julia Kleiter’s lyrical Emma presenting winning contrast with Dorothea Röschmann’s brilliantly hochdramatisch Florinda. Choral singing was excellent too.

Fierrabras (Michael Schade), Eginhard, and Emma (Julia Kleiter)

Other than Schade, the principal problem lies with Peter Stein’s production. Whatever has happened to him? I have heard tales, all of them rueful, of his recent stagings, but admit to wondering whether they might have been exaggerated, or at least to whether there might be more to salvage. Alas not. The stage business often resembles a well-budgeted school play. There are cod-mediæval costumes and flimsy backdrops, which most would have thought so ludicrous that they must be intended to be sent up, or deconstructed. And that is about it. Of deconstruction there is not a sign. There is certainly no attempt to address the ‘Orientalist’ problem. Does Stein really think it does not matter? One shudders to think how he might approach The Merchant of Venice. It may be an all-too-obvious route, but a setting in the contemporary Middle East would surely have offered more opportunity for reflection than this. Watching Stein’s staging seems less a matter of viewing through a time warp, than of capitulation to those who think that productions of the past were simply a matter of ‘pretty’ stage design and costumes. There is no denying the drawback of the staging, but at least one was free to imagine what might have been, or what might yet be. The music was the thing, and it was well served.


Salzburg Festival (5) - Don Giovanni, 15 August 2014

Images: © Salzburger Festspiele / Michael Pöhn
Haus für Mozart

Donna Anna – Lenneke Ruiten
Donna Elvira – Anett Fritsch
Zerlina – Valentina Nafornita
Don Giovanni – Ildebrando d’Arcangelo
Leporello – Luca Pisaroni
Commendatore – Tomasz Konieczny
Don Ottavio – Andrew Staples
Masetto – Alessio Arduini

Sven-Eric Bechtolf (director)
Rolf Glittenberg (set designs)
Marianne Glittenberg (costumes)
Friedrich Rorn (lighting)

Ronny Dietrich (dramaturgy)

Philharmonia Chorus Vienna (chorus master: Walter Zeh)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

Why, o why, is it apparently so difficult for directors to come up with a vaguely coherent staging of Don Giovanni? Why, moreover, do so many of them seem so uninterested in, even contemptuous of, the work? It is an opera of such overflowing richness that one would have expected directors to be spoilt for choice when it came to options for staging. Instead, we find ourselves almost always faced with an incoherent mess.

Such is certainly what was served up by Sven-Erich Bechtolf. Bechtholf’s production is probably not quite so bad as London’s twin nadirs of Francesca Zambello and Rufus Norris, but it is difficult to say anything much more positive than that. This year’s Salzburg Festival’s Great War theme – are we not all fed up with such commemorations already? – seems to receive a nod in the updating, but to what end beyond that I cannot say. Similarly the bizarre hotel setting, which makes a nonsense of so much in the work. The closest attention to Da Ponte, let alone to Mozart, seems to be in retaining some vestige of class distinction in presenting Zerlina and Masetto as hotel staff. Beyond that, the opera seems of little interest to Bechtolf. Of religion, let alone of sin, there is nothing – unless one counts the occasional and, in context, quite nonsensical reapparances of the Commendatore as a porcine devil. People dart in and out of hotel rooms and occasionally strip to their underwear in the reception area. Whether comedy be intended is unclear; it certainly is not achieved. Still less is anything approaching tragedy. As for the ending, in which Don Giovanni is still there, chasing after another maid, what is supposed to have happened? Nothing, apparently – which actually is not so very far off the mark. An existentialist conception of Don Giovanni, if that be what this is, is fine in principle, if somewhat partial; but, like any other conception, it needs pursuing coherently. It really is not worth saying any more. Bechtolf’s Così fan tutte, whilst far from perfect, was much better than this; we await next year’s Figaro with trepidation.  

Musically, matters were much better. If Christoph Eschenbach did not rise to the heights of Daniel Barenboim in Berlin – by far the best conducted performance of this work I have ever heard – then he nevertheless rose above the rank incompetence and/or sheer perversity we are generally fated to hear. (I really cannot be bothered to compile a list; it would rival Leporello’s in length, if not in excitement.) There was not a single instance in which tempi were objectionable. They were generally well related to one another. And crucially, Eschenbach knew how to draw a fine sound from the Mozart orchestra non pareil, the Vienna Philharmonic, which in turn deigned to play as it can and should. There was not the Furtwänglerian intensity that Barenboim brought to the drama, but there was plenty of light and shade and, that rare thing, an impression that it was being permitted to speak more or less for itself.  Interventionist continuo playing may not be to everyone’s taste, but it did little harm, and indeed livened up a good number of the more hapless moments of stage direction.

Don Giovanni (Ildebrando d'Arcangelo)

Ildebrando d’Arcangelo made for a brilliant Don Giovanni, insofar as he was permitted to do so. (Why, at one point, did he suddenly have to dress up in the guise of a 1970s gameshow host? At any rate, the Jimmy Savile hint, doubtless coincidental, was not pursued.) Characteristically dark and flexible of tone, d’Arcangelo’s was a smouldering portrayal, which captured to an unusual degree his character’s quicksilver changes of mood and circumstance. Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello was an excellent sidekick, possessing agency in his own right, yet subordinate (again, insofar as Bechtolf’s direction permitted, etc., etc.). Both showed great facility with words, music, and their alchemy. Lenneke Ruiten and Anett Fritsch had their moments as Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, though intonational difficulties were not entirely absent. Andrew Staples sounded a little out of sorts as Don Ottavio; perhaps it was simply an off-night. In any case, despite some less than mellifluous sounds, his dramatic intelligence shone through. Valentina Nafornita and Alessio Arduini made for a characterful, indeed sexy, couple as Zerlina and Masetto. Only Tomasz Konieczny’s surprising unsteady Commendatore really disappointed. The cast, then, mostly did what it could, as did Eschenbach and the orchestra; the fault lay squarely with Bechtolf.