Monday, 5 December 2016

Book Review: Joy H. Calico, 'Arnold Schoenberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw" in Postwar Europe'

My review for H-Net German may be read by clicking here.


Here are Maximilian Schell, the European Community (as it then was) Youth Orchestra, and Claudio Abbado, along with a score to follow:





And here is a programme note I wrote for the Proms last year.




MCO/Uchida - Mozart and Bartók, 29 November 2016


Royal Festival Hall

Mozart – Piano Concerto no.17 in G major, KV 453
Bartók – Divertimento
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.25 in C major, KV 503

Mitsuko Uchida (piano/director)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra



‘Yes, of course I’m here,’ I tweeted a few minutes before the concert, with a picture of the programme and performers. Two Mozart piano concertos from Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, with the Bartók Divertimento in between: give or take a piece by Schoenberg, I could hardly have asked for more. Perhaps, then, my expectations were unrealistic, for I found myself a little disappointed by the performance of the G major Piano Concerto, especially its first movement. I was impressed that Uchida had rethought, sometimes quite radically, the approach I recall from her celebrated recording with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra. However, I was not entirely convinced. It was partly a matter of coming to terms with the Festival Hall acoustic, I think, in so intimate a performance, but it was not only that. Nevertheless, intrigued and slightly nonplussed is surely better than bored by the ‘same old’.
 

The orchestra opened crisply, stylishly, but sounded a little undernourished in the opening tutti. Uchida was, I think, faster, certainly more impish, than in her ECO recording. There is nothing wrong with that, but her non legato passages struck me as odd: I could not work out why they were being played as they were, although she certainly had me listen – and puzzle. Phrasing remained beyond reproach, though, and the chamber quality to the performance as a whole had its advantages. Indeed, the concerto sounded very much the companion piece to the Piano Quintet, KV 452, with which, if I remember correctly, was the coupling for that concerto recording. Only occasionally was a fuller orchestral sound unleashed, but Uchida was – interestingly – considerably more muscular in her approach to the recapitulation. The cadenza offered an amalgam of the different tendencies we had heard, for better and for worse. I liked the lessening of string vibrato at the opening of the slow movement, as if launching an operatic accompagnato – which, in a sense, it is. Various wind soloists and ultimately the piano soloist responded with greater warmth; however, I was nevertheless quite taken aback – positively – by the frankly Romantic minor-mode playing, whether overtly passionate, or more innig. This and the finale were, for me, far more involving. They both seemed to benefit also from a more settled, more juste, tempo. (Both are often taken too fast.) The finale’s particular character, Papageno chafing at the bit, was conveyed with that crucial sense of effortlessness. Classical variation form, too often the butt of ill-considered denigration, was vindicated in the best way possible. Piano and flute sforzandi seemed to hint at Beethoven; again, I do not remember hearing the passages in question played like that before.
 

Uchida withdrew for the Bartók, played standing (save for the cellos), directed from the leader’s desk by Matthew Truscott – and very well too. The first movement announced a variegated, energetic (in the best sense) approach, yielding nicely at times, in almost Viennese style. There was again a happy sense of chamber scale, without in this case ever sounding remotely underpowered. The slow movement opened inwardly, mysteriously, not quite glacial, but not quite the contrary either. Its contours were well traced, with a keen sense of drama on offer throughout. There were many gradations of relative thawing and outright contrast to be enjoyed. Idiomatic, never clichéd, the ‘Hungarian’ qualities to the performance of the finale sang out, yet never dominated unduly. The relationship between solo and ripieno playing was very much at the heart of the MCO’s music-making. Bachian contrapuntal lessons had been well learned, so as to emerge as agents of liberation – just as they always should be. There was menace too, and more than a hint of bitter irony.
 

Amongst smaller-scale recordings of what I have long thought of as Mozart’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, I have long admired that from Alfred Brendel, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and the late Neville Marriner. Again, I was taken by surprise quite how different Uchida’s performance here was: more rhetorical, although always directed towards its tonal goal. Trumpets and drums seemed to have emboldened the MCO strings too. Oscillation between tonic major and minor was rightly at the heart of the performance; Charles Rosen would surely have approved. The measured tempo was well chosen, providing plenty of space for the musical argument to unfold, and to be dramatised. There was not perhaps quite the dramatic conception of a Daniel Barenboim here, but there is more than one way to play a Mozart concerto; Uchida’s ‘incidental’ flights of fancy were not to be slighted, and here seemed better integrated. The cadenza offered hints of Beethoven, all to the good in this ‘imperial’ work. Uchida’s slow movement offered ‘chamber’ contrast. Mozart was cherished, heartrendingly so, but never suffocated, in this garden of late, yet not too late, delights. An unexaggerated dialectic between fragility and ebullience characterised the finale. What could be more Mozartian? Uchida again proved perhaps surprisingly mercurial, rhetorical too. Whatever my doubts about the first concerto, this was a delight to the last.

 

Thursday, 1 December 2016

La finta giardiniera, Royal College of Music, 28 November 2016


Britten Theatre
 
Violante/Sandrina – Josephine Goddard
Belfiore – Joel Williams
Anchise – Richard Pinkstone
Arminda – Ida Ränzlöv
Ramiro – Katie Coventry
Serpetta – Harriet Eyley
Roberto – Julien van Mellaerts
 
Harry Fehr (director)
Roxana Haines (assistant director)
Yannis Thavoris (designs)
John Bishop (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)

Royal College of Music of Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)


I saw my first Finta giardiniera close to eight years ago, at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre. In between, I have also been fortunate enough to see a very different staging, indeed a more or less total reimagining of the work, from Hans Neuenfels, in Berlin. Now, it was back to the Britten Theatre for a new staging. Not too bad, then, for a work that hovers on the fringes of the repertory – although how absurd that a work fully the equal of any of Haydn’s operas is still so relatively neglected, if not quite so scandalously neglected as Haydn’s works themselves. Three cheers, though, to the RCM, for another splendid evening, and for placing such faith in this lovely work!
 
Harry Fehr’s production is ‘based on one which was first presented at the 2013 Buxton Festival’: slightly odd wording, but anyway. The important thing is that it is fresh, lively, abidingly theatrical. It does not explore the depths that Neuenfels did in his Pforten der Liebe; there is little, perhaps no, sense of the darkness of love, nor indeed of the German director’s fantasy. By the same token, though, it avoids the tendency towards preciosity of the previous RCM production (Jean-Claude Auvray). A moneyed, contemporary Long Island setting works well and, quite simply, looks good. Yannis Thavoris’s excellent designs are resourceful in their suggestion of broader social milieu, but also provide elegant framing for the action. For my taste, Fehr perhaps overplays the farcical element; there were certainly times when I wished the production would calm down, just a little. On the other hand, a work very much, I think, in the tradition of Carlo Goldoni arguably brings Mozart closer than he had previously come, or would come again, to the world of Rossini. I just do not think it is that close, and should have preferred something that engaged with the surely undeniable presentiments of Così fan tutte. (On the other hand, when one thinks what Così often must endure…) In any case, all is smartly, slickly accomplished – and it offers a fine showcase for the young singers.
 
Fortunately, there was not much in the musical performances that approached Rossini. (However much I may differ from the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt with respect to what I want to hear in Mozart, I certainly share with him that vehement opposition he voiced to any tendency towards unvariegated breathlessness.) Michael Rosewell’s reading did not draw especial attention to itself. Tempi were judiciously varied; perhaps a little more variety would not have gone amiss, but I am being ungrateful. The spirited playing of the orchestra only occasionally had me miss the sound of a slightly larger band (strings a parsimonious 6.5.4.3.2), but that may well have been as much a matter of acoustics. Jo Ramadan’s harpsichord continuo proved supportive, exhibiting none of the irritating exhibitionism one often hears today (especially on the fortepiano). Orchestral solos were well taken throughout; if one does not miss the clarinet in Mozart, one must be on the right track.
 
The disguised marchioness herself, Violante/Sandrina, received a likeable performance from Josephine Goddard, integrity of character at the heart of her reading. Joel Williams’s cavalier, not a little devilish Belfiore would clearly return to her, and he did. The sparkle of his eminently musical performance was matched, at the very least, by Ida Ränzlöv’s Arminda, dressed to kill (not quite literally, although one would not necessarily have been surprised) by Thavoris. Richard Pinkstone’s tenor contrasted enough from Williams’s to suggest difference of character; his subtly more buffo (never too much) demeanour confirmed it. (There are considerable distinctions of social order in Mozart’s writing, even this early; almost the only thing this opera lacks is the later delineation and depth of individual character.) If Pinkstone’s Anchise, splendidly contrasted to this summer’s outstanding Hänsel und Gretel Witch, thereby attested to considerable versatility, Katie Coventry’s Ramiro confirmed her gift, already shown by her Hänsel, for the mezzo trouser role, both in timbre and demeanour. Such alertness and social awareness extended to the pair of servants rounding off the cast: Julien van Mellaerts’s affable Roberto and Harriet Eyley’s knowing Serpetta, very much in the line of Pergolesi. Ensemble was tight throughout, permitting different lines to tell and yet also to combine. Such is the essence of this opera; it was equally the essence of this performance.


Tuesday, 29 November 2016

For Aleppo

It is not enough, not nearly enough, but I do not know what to say. Other than: a world that allows such barbarism is quite beyond redemption. In his particular way, perhaps Strauss, deeply flawed human that he was, knew that too.


Friday, 25 November 2016

Storm Large/Hudson Shad/BBC SO/Gaffigan - Korngold, Weill, et al., 23 November 2016

Barbican Hall


Korngold – Symphony in F-sharp
Walter Jurmann – Veronika, der Lenz ist da
Dimitri Tiomkin – High Noon: ‘Do not forsake me, O my darlin’’
Weill – A Touch of Venus: ‘Speak Low’
Weill – Klopslied
Jurmann/Bronisław Kaper – A Day at the Races: ‘All God’s Children Got Rhythm’
Weill – The Seven Deadly Sins

Storm Large (singer)
Hudson Shad
BBC Symphony Orchestra
James Gaffigan (conductor)

In the world’s present parlous state, Brecht (Weill too, perhaps) speaks to us more clearly, more sharply than most. Donald Trump could pretty much have sprung from the pages of Mahagonny, or indeed The Seven Deadly Sins. The fine performance of that masterly ballet chanté which was the necessary performance in this BBC Symphony Orchestra performance. The rest I could pretty much take or leave, although there were clearly admirers in the audience.
 

When first hearing Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp (in the BBC Philharmonic recording with Edward Downes), I rather liked it. It must have been years since I had last heard the piece; I cannot say that I had missed it greatly, and indeed found it something of a bore on this occasion. It was a well-enough upholstered bore, yet I did not find the material justified the length. In the first movement, it took a while for the orchestra to achieve a good balance, although the Barbican acoustic should probably take some blame for that. (Thanks to the Government, by the way, for scuppering the plan for a decent concert hall in London!) James Gaffigan went to considerable extremes of tempo, but held the movement together pretty well. A certain cinematic quality to its progress was not inappropriate, nor was a certain sonic similarity to the ‘heroic’ Prokofiev of the Fifth Symphony. Transitions were well handled in the scherzo, though ensemble was not always so precise as it might have been. I liked the languorous quality to its trio; Gaffigan’s tempo, however, sometimes brought the music to near-standstill. A Brucknerian quality was apparent in the slow movement, which received a warmly neo-Romantic reading, not lacking in necessary malice. The finale proved colourful, but a well-paced performance could not disguise its excess of repetitions.
 

The second half opened with a number of close-harmony pieces from the American group, Hudson Shad. I am not convinced that concert-hall listening is really quite right for such music: perhaps they would be better off in a bar, with drinks and chatter. (But then, I was never able to understand Cambridge choirs’ enthusiasm for them; I longed to hear more Byrd instead…) My patience for Kurt Jurmann’s hit Veronika, der Lenz its da was limited indeed, but others seemed to enjoy its ever-so-mild camp. Likewise the other Jurmann song, and the two contributions from Dimitri Tiomkin. ‘Speak Low’ from A Touch of Venus served to reinforce my prejudice that Weill’s music lost almost all interest upon emigration across the Atlantic. The short Klopslied, however, was recognisably the work of Busoni’s pupil, albeit with a healthy dose of surrealism thrown in. The gentlemen did not overplay it, thereby letting its anarchic wit speak for itself. It was a real find (for me, that is).

 

For The Seven Deadly Sins, Gaffigan and the orchestra returned, joined by Storm Large, a singer with real presence, indeed real star quality. For a performance in English (the translation by Auden and Kallman), one is better putting out of one’s mind the world of Lotte Lenya. That was surprisingly easy, for Large, ably accompanied, made the work very much her own, in a subtle, sharply observed, finely enunciated performance. She could act, but did not need to draw attention to the fact, just as she could sing and dance, again without any need for underlining. The shedding of her overcoat spoke volumes; so did the chill of those spoken Anna II statements: ‘Right, Anna’. With a wind-heavy band that sounded just right, with Gaffigan unfailingly adopting tempi that sounded equally right, and with just the proper sense, from time to time, of a little rhythmic drag, Weill permitted Brecht to speak. Dance rhythms pointed to Weill as ironic heir to Mahler. Much orchestral material reminded us that this was the composer of that magnificent Second Symphony. (What a pity we had not heard that in the first half instead! Or indeed the Violin Concerto.) Hudson Shad were on excellent form too, their ‘Family’ often sounding very much of a Neue Sachlichkeit world, the bite of Brecht’s text – ‘Shameless hoarders earn themselves a bad name’ – drawing blood. The exploration of sins had a properly cumulative effect as far as ‘Envy’, after which the Epilogue proved a further study in alienation. They were going home to Louisana, to that little home beside the Mississippi. ‘Right, Anna!’



Sunday, 20 November 2016

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Royal Opera (cinema broadcast), 15 November 2016



Royal Opera House (viewed at Curzon Mayfair)


Hoffmann – Vittorio Grigòlo
Four Villains – Thomas Hampson
Olympia – Sofia Fomina
Giulietta – Christine Rice
Antonia – Sonya Yoncheva
Nicklausse – Kate Lindsey
Spalanzani – Christophe Montagne
Crespel – Eric Halfvarson
Four Servants – Vincent Ordonneau
Spirit of Antonia’s Mother – Catherine Carby
Nathanael – David Junghoon Kim
Hermann – Charles Rice
Schlemil – Yuriy Yurchuk
Luther – Jeremy White
Stella – Olga Sabadoch


John Schlesinger (director)
Daniel Dooner (revival director)
William Dudley (set designs)
David Hersey (lighting)
Maria Björnson (costumes)
Eleanor Fazan (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Evelino Pidò (conductor)


Oh dear! One might travel far before seeing so dramatically inert a production of anything. ‘Revived’ – hardly the mot juste here – by Daniel Dooner, pretty much the only saving grace accompanying this ancient staging by John Schlesinger was the news that it will be its last. In vain did one seek for irony. Offenbach’s taste and wit, it seemed, had been paid off, with a generous settlement. Indeed, one sensed that one Manhattan-based master of ‘settlements’ and theatrical criticism would have approved, together with his chums in the bizarre ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ group. As for the edition used, the less said the better, but imagine the outcry if Bruckner performances were still being given in the Schalk ‘versions’, perhaps with a few odds and ends thrown in for the hell of it. This, as Mahler would have put it, was tradition as Schlamperei.
 

For the designs – there is nothing more to the production, certainly no hint of a critical stance, let alone a Konzept – speak of vulgar ostentation. Although ostensibly set when it ‘should’ be, earlier in the nineteenth century, this looked more like a Second Empire recreation, albeit one that had seen better days. The Palais Garnier is a thing of wonder; if you are going to do ‘style of Napoleon III’, then go all out for it. This, however, is not; it is merely tedious. If the æsthetic aspired to Donald Trump, it ended up being more minor West End musical. If ‘lavish’, for some unfathomable reason, is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Offenbach, then I suppose you might have liked this, but surely anyone would have baulked at the bizarre, am-dram over-acting of some members of the chorus. Perhaps that was a matter of cinematic close-up, but it was at best an occasion, well-taken (unfortunately) for laughter. At any rate, for an evening that dragged so, I was grateful to be seated in the comfort of the Curzon Mayfair rather than squeezed into the Royal Opera House’s Amphitheatre.
 

That it dragged was also the fault of Evelino Pidò’s leaden conducting. There was no lightness, no air, no direction, just endless plodding through. Offenbach’s musical drama – and I am far from convinced he is at his most successful in this work – is a delicate flower. The score simply sounded suffocated.
 

At least the singing was better. Vittorio Grigòlo’s untiring commitment put me in mind of Roberto Alagna, although vocally, Grigòlo was certainly more secure than his mercurial counterpart can sometimes be. Stylistically, his voice and manner are perhaps not ideal, but there was much to be enjoy. (As you will have guessed, I took what I could.) Kate Lindsey impressed greatly as Nicklausse, in a stylish, equally committed performance. She can act too, and did. Christine Rice’s Giulietta brought a touch of vocal opulence. It was neither unwelcome nor inappropriate, tempered as it was with taste, quite unlike its scenic equivalent (For her act, Schlesinger seemed to have in mind, quite without irony, or indeed without eroticism, the world of ‘vintage’ soft porn. Again, laughter ensued.) Sofia Fomina handled the challenges of Olympia’s coloratura with ease, and portrayed the very particular acting challenges of her doll’s role convincingly. Sonya Yoncheva’s Antonia was sincere enough, but it sounded as if she would have been happier singing Verdi. Catherine Carby’s brief appearance as her mother brought much needed relief. Thomas Hampson’s performances suggested that his voice is now seriously beyond repair. Not only, as one might have suspected, did the lower notes lie awkwardly for him; so did many at the top too. Smaller roles were taken well; David Junghoon Kim’s Nathanael caught my ear.


As theatre, though, this was strictly for those who like to applaud scenery. And even they might have preferred to check into a certain Washington hotel for the real thing.


Thursday, 17 November 2016

London Sinfonietta/Furrer - Furrer, FAMA, 11 November 2016


St John’s, Smith Square

Isabelle Munke (actress)
Eva Furrer (contrabass flute)
EXAUDI (chorus master: James Weeks)
Sophie Motley (staging advisor)
London Sinfonietta
Beat Furrer (conductor)
 

Premiered in 2005 at Donaueschingen – how reassuringly modernist that sounds! – Beat Furrer’s sound theatre piece has now, finally, reached London. First performed in a large ‘box’, in which about 300 audience members were seated, the musicians outside, the speaker/actress moving within and without, it must have sounded – and indeed looked – very different from its incarnation at St John’s, Smith Square. There was here, of course, no question of opening and closing the walls and celings, but instruments and choir still moved around the audience, making use of the balcony too. If a work is not to remain entirely site-specific – in any case, the box apparently no longer exists – then it will need to take on new life. That goes for Parsifal as much as for the Monteverdi Vespers, for FAMA as much as for Nono’s Promoteo.  
 

Besides, one can imagine; as Wagner, Nono, and doubtless Monteverdi would tell us, imaginary theatre is often most powerful of all, or at least differently powerful. A young woman, her roots in Arthur Schnitzler’s Fräulein Else, will adapt in the theatre of our imagination, but will and should remain a stranger to herself, looking in dramatically as well as physically. She will still find herself eventually in the house of Ovid’s Fama, ‘entirely of sounding ore, resonating ubiquitously it hurls back in imitation what it hears,’ but it will always be for us to construct that house, as well as to make it resonate, perhaps visually as well as aurally. Whether I quite managed to do so on first acquaintance, I am less than sure, but deepening acquaintance, in something worth acquainting oneself with, will always be a Beckettian case of failing better. I should certainly like the opportunity to do so again.
 

One of the most arresting, even fantastical, passages for me came with the opening Latin ensemble. The sense of fantasy – not in the debased, modern usage – was as much instrumental as it was vocal, and in any case the border, in the best music-theatre tradition, was far from clear. Highly rhythmical, colourful exuberance played intriguingly with this particular acoustic. The London Sinfonietta and EXAUDI, both on typically outstanding form, were certainly not especially large of number, the latter only eight, but the ‘scale’ of work and performance sounded much larger. At times, one might have been forgiven for hearing a full-scale orchestra rather than ensemble, even if one should accept that distinction. A sense of falling away, of dissolution, more than once put me in mind of Wozzeck; but that was perhaps just my finding my bearings.  Swimming against the tide as the instrumental music sometimes seemed to be, Isabelle Menke’s role as speaker took different routes, sometimes connecting, sometimes at odds. At any rate, and not only because it opens with ‘ich höre das Feuer,’ it proved equally incendiary, paving the way for further musico-dramatic development – if I may borrow so Classical a term – in the wordless second scene.
 

An intriguing reinvention of recitative as well as Sprechstimme was suggested in the third scene, a pulsating instrumental tapestry both backcloth and participant. Instruments came close to speech, and vice versa. A quite different sound-world and sensibility were experienced in the short fourth scene. I do not think it was just the Italian language that made me think of Nono and Sciarrino, although that doubtless did no harm. A whistling riot of sound seemed to encapsulate the concept both of scene and work. Oh! Vi doveva pur essere, sulla terra di tutti i dolori, un giardino profondo, lontano, silente… One found the silence of that garden in sound, in music, not in silence: a liminality, perhaps, one might compare to Fama’s house. That sense of the numinous could be traced, albeit in different form, into the fifth scene. It was almost pictorial, at times, but the ‘almost’ was as important as the ‘pictorial’. Post-Romantic? Doubtless; for we all are, are we not? The experience remained fresh, though.
 

In the sixth scene, interaction between actress and contrabass flute solo (the excellent Eva Furrer) stood on the boundary between an acting ‘two hander’ and a post-operatic duet. Are not such confrontations, reinventions, always at the heart of music theatre? Ominous, antiphonal trombones inevitably brought resonances from the past in the seventh, before the final, eighth scene for ensemble, in which the music, the drama seemed to subside, open-ended. It struck a note that came close to, without ever quite ‘being’, or being capable of reduction to, tragedy.
 

The performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for subsequent radio broadcast (date as yet unknown).

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Lulu, English National Opera, 9 November 2016

Coliseum


Lulu (Brenda Rae) and Dr Schön (James Morris)
Images: Catherine Ashmore
(sung in English)

Lulu – Brenda Rae
Countess Geschwitz – Sarah Connolly
Dresser, Schoolboy Waiter – Clare Presland
Painter, Second Client – Michael Colvin
Dr Schön, Jack the Ripper – James Morris
Alwa – Nicky Spence
Schigolch – Willard White
Animal Tamer, Athlete – David Soar
Prince, Manservant, Marquis – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Theatre Director, Banker – Graeme Danby
Fifteen-year old girl – Sarah Labiner
Girl’s Mother – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Artist – Sarah Champion
Journalist – Geoffrey Dolton
Dr Goll, Police Commissioner, First Client – Rolf Higgins
Servant – Paul Sheehan
Solo performers – Joanna Dudley, Andrea Fabi 

William Kentridge (director)
Luc de Wit (associate director)
Sabine Theunissen (set designs)
Greta Goiris (costumes)
Urs Schönebaum (lighting)
Catherine Meyburgh, Kim Gunning (video)

 

ENO’s new Lulu proved another triumph for the company: just what ENO should be doing; just, indeed, what ENO is for. Will the cabal of management consultants and the Arts Council – or, as it insists on calling itself, sans article, ‘Arts Council England’ – listen? No, of course not. Their priorities, as they have shown time and time again, and with increasing vindictiveness, are quite different. Whoever met a neo-liberal artist or, indeed a neo-liberal art lover? (How I wish the translation had not left ‘Jungfrau’, or ‘Virgin’, tactfully in the German original…) One might, I suppose, quibble, whether ENO needed a new production; Richard Jones’s excellent staging might well have received another outing. (It should certainly have been staged more regularly than it was, but that, I suspect is more a comment on opera audiences than on artistic design.) But ENO did not mount this by itself; it performed us ‘citizens of the world’ a signal service by granting us the opportunity to see this much-discussed William Kentridge production, already seen in New York and Amsterdam. To say we should only have one, is akin to saying that because we have heard Daniel Barenboim play Beethoven, we have no need to hear Maurizio Pollini. It is the language of enemies of art, of accountancy; worse still, it is the language of those journalists determined never to miss an opportunity to find fault.  


Joanna Dudley, Lulu, and Schigolch (Willard White)

I shall admit to having been puzzled by some of the discussion I overheard. More than once I heard people complaining about there having been too much going on, even ‘sensory overload’. Have such people, I wonder, ever seen a Stefan Herheim production? More to the point, did they not think of how visual layering, the interaction between layers, between the visual and the aural, might actually be the point, a point very much in keeping with the work? What I saw was actually a relatively conventional, but highly theatrical telling of the story, enhanced, questioned, developed by an extension of its painterly imagery both in expressionistic drawings and film – an exhibition of Kentridge’s art may be seen presently at Whitechapel – and in the alluring yet sometimes ironic commentary, still very much in allusive ‘period’ style, by the silent artists, Joanna Dudley and Andrea Fabi. It was not remotely too much; indeed, like Berg’s score, it left me wanting more. This blackest of comedies gained in darkness – this was the night following the US election, something readily observable on almost every face in the house – and in sophistication of comedic response. I began to think of Berg’s musico-dramatic roots in Mozart and Wagner, in particular, and also of what he had in common with Strauss, another heir to that exalted pair, yet one far too little thought of has having much in common with the more overtly ‘progressive’, yet perhaps equally ‘nostalgic’, Berg.

 
Lulu and Geschwitz (Sarah Connolly)

Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting of the score, superlatively played by the ENO Orchestra was, of course, crucial in that respect. As Boulez, at work on the three-act premiere, once observed, ‘It is not so much the use of symmetry as the exploiting of multiple musical forms that is one of the most complex and attractive features’ of the music. Rather it in the confrontation between what Boulez broadly considered to be characteristic Mozartian number opera and the continuous – to which, I might add, increasingly symphonic – forms of Wagner that Lulu, in a different, or at least more complicated, less overt, way than Wozzeck will best find its performative voice. For Boulez, ‘The great advance from Wozzeck to Lulu lies in the fact that, although the scenes are still separated by interludes, there is now no “passage” between them.’ He found himself, unsurprisingly, especially attracted by the ‘fusion between continuity and formal separateness’. That, I think, was very much what we heard, and perhaps also what we saw, or at least what was suggested by what we saw, here. An especially fine woodwind section could not help but bring Mozart to mind: not just the Mozart of Così fan tutte but the composer of the wind serenades too. It was not for nothing that, in one of his final recordings, Boulez returned to Berg’s Chamber Concerto, coupling it with the Gran partita, KV 361. Melodies, harmonies, audibly generated before our ears by Berg’s endlessly fascinating compositional processes, and yet audibly as ‘free’ as they were ‘determined’, tantalised, instructed, informed, criticised, rather as the drawings, films, words, actions did before our eyes. This was no mere mirroring; it was mutual enhancement and elucidation, a new path through the Bergian labyrinth.



 

An excellent cast was necessary too, of course, and an excellent cast we had. Brenda Rae, who so greatly impressed me in the Bavarian State Opera’s Schweigsame Frau – now there is an interesting Strauss-Berg comparison to consider – shone at least as brightly as Lulu. The canvas on which we more or less uneasily project our fantasies of Lulu was no more empty than the changing visual decoration of the set, but, amidst, or perhaps beneath, the despatch of the coloratura and the seduction of the more conventional melodic line, there was a fine balance struck between nihilism and defiant character. Sarah Connolly’s Geschwitz certainly had the latter in spades; if I have seen and heard a stronger, more compassionate performance from her, I cannot recall it (which seems unlikely). If James Morris’s Dr Schön was at times a little stiff, there was certainly authority to be felt there, and his way with the words was especially admirable. Nicky Spence’s Alva struck another fine balance, in this case between the ardent and the cowardly; again, an admirable way with words and music projected ambiguity without easy, or perhaps any, answers. Willard White’s Schigolch was less caricatured, less repellent than one often experiences; such ambiguity was also decidedly a gain. There were no weak links, and a host of splendid character performances, artists such as Michael Colvin and Sarah Labiner particularly catching my ear. At least as impressive, though, was the ensemble work. In the Paris Scene, one might almost have thought this a crack new music ensemble, such was the clarity and confidence with which the lines were projected and with which they were interacted. It might almost have been a rehearsal for, or a response to, Strauss’s homage to his adored Così in Capriccio.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Samling 20th Anniversary Concert, 8 November 2016


Wigmore Hall

BrittenA Charm of Lullabies, op.41: ‘A Cradle Song’; ‘The Nurse’s Song’
WarlockMy Sweet Little Darling
SchubertWiegenlied, D 498
IvesThe Children’s Hour
SchumannLieder-Album für die Jugend, op.79: ‘Marienwürmchen’
PoulencLa Courte Paille; nos.4-7
SchubertLicht und Liebe, D 352
LisztTre sonetti di Petrarca, S 270/1: Sonnets nos 104, 47
Quilter Five Shakespeare Songs (set 2): ‘It was a lover and his lass’
BrittenThe Foggy, Foggy Dew; Soldier, won’t you marry me?
SchubertSchwanengesang, D 957: ‘Kriegers Ahnung’
SchumannDer Soldat, op.40 no.3
WolfDer Soldat I and II
FauréLes Berceaux, op.23 no.1
PoulencBleuet
BarberI hear an army, op.10 no.3
Liza LehmannNonsense Songs from ‘Alice in Wonderland’: ‘Fury said to a Mouse’
BolcomTwelve Cabaret Songs: ‘Amor’
BrahmsO wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück, op.63 no.8; Alte Liebe, op.72 no.1
BarberThe Secrets of the Old, op.13 no.2
CoplandTwelve Poems of Emily Dickinson: ‘Going to Heaven!’
SchubertNachstück, D 672; Der Tages Weihe, D 763

 
Kiandra Howarth (soprano)
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
David Butt Philip (tenor)
Benjamin Appl (baritone)
Andrew Foster-Williams (baritone)
James Baillieu (piano)
Ian Tindale (piano)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
James Garnon (actor)


The Samling Artist Programme has nurtured the careers of many a young artist, both singers and pianists (or, if you will, accompanists), gathering them together (apparently, gathering, collective, even assembly are possible translations of the Norse ‘Samling’) with an array of senior artists. Part of that programme is an annual showcase at the Wigmore Hall. For its twentieth anniversary, Samling Artists from 2000 (Andrew Foster-Williams) to 2016 (Kiandra Howarth) took the stage, joined by Malcolm Martineau (one of those senior artists or ‘Leaders’) and the actor, James Garnon. Thomas Allen, Samling’s Patron was to have joined the assembled company, but flu put paid to that, and thus to an ensemble from Sullivan’s Trial by Jury. I cannot comment on every single song, but hope to give a flavour of what was on offer in this particular showcase.



The programme traced the ‘seven ages of man’, prefaced by Garnon’s engaging reading from As you like it’s ‘strange eventful history’. Two songs from Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies (Kathryn Rudge and James Baillieu) opened ‘Infancy’, Baillieu’s piano making much of the harmonic affinity of the Blake ‘Cradle Song’ with the world of The Rape of Lucretia, Rudge captivating in the a cappella opening of ‘The Nurse’s Song’. Her mezzo-soprano voice here and elsewhere proved both rich and variegated of tone. The post-Mozartian simplicity of Schubert’s Wiegenlied was well captured by Kiandra Howarth and Malcolm Martineau, paving the way for ‘Childhood’. Benjamin Appl seemed not to come truly into his own until later in the recital. Although Ives’s The Children’s Hour was beautifully sung, he missed a certain lightness of touch. Four songs from Poulenc’s La Courte paille were more successful. They were shared between Howarth and Rudge, the former seemingly relishing a more absurdist side, the latter more seductive.
 

When we reached the stage of ‘The Lover’, David Butt Philip joined Howarth and Ian Tindale for Schubert’s Licht und Liebe. Tindale proved equally alert rhythmically and harmonically. The ardent quality of Butt Philip’s singing carried into an unapologetically Italianate rendition of Liszt’s first Petrarch Sonnet. Vocal passion was matched in Baillieu’s piano playing of that and the second, for which Howarth returned, to give a similarly dramatic performance. I cannot claim to care much for the music of Roger Quilter, but Rudge and Appl gave a charming performance.
 

A welcome change of mood – Britten folksongs are really not for me – came after the interval with ‘The Soldier’. Following a reading from Henry IV, Part I, Andrew Foster-Williams was heard for the first time, with Baillieu, in Kriegers Ahnung. A greater depth was immediately announced, carried into an especially commanding performance (now with Tindale) of Schumann’s Der Soldat, sadness and anger in compelling balance. Appl seemed much more at home in two soldier songs from Wolf’s Eichendorff-Lieder, using the words to excellent effect. Another highlight, not just of this section, but of the concert as a whole, came with the Rudge-Martineau performance of Fauré’s Les Berceaux, its sadness deeply felt. Honesty and integrity of feeling were equally apparent in Butt Philip’s Poulenc Bieuet. Stylish, never mawkish, he impressed just as much as he had in the very different music of Liszt. Much the same might be said of Foster-Williams, in Samuel Barber’s Joyce setting, I hear an army.
 

‘The Justice’ was missing the aforementioned Sullivan number, so was confined to a charmingly despatched Liza Lehmann song (Butt Philip/Tindale) and a cabaret song by William Bolcom: not my thing, I am afraid, although Howarth was very much in her element. Lugubrious Teutonophile that I am, I responded more warmly to ‘Old Age’ and Brahms. Foster-Williams and Bailliue gave an unexaggerated, deceptively straightforward performance of O wüßt ich doch den Weg zurück, Rudge and Martineau displaying depth to match that of the Fauré song in Alte Liebe. Rudge’s Barber song, The Secrets of the Old, captured the idiom perfectly: an equally fine performance, again well supported by Martineau. Much the same might be said of Howarth and Tindale’s sincere, aware Going to Heaven!  
 

Our revels now were ended, as the final Shakespeare reading reminded us. ‘Oblivion/Second Infancy’ opened with a fine performance of Schubert’s Nachtstück from Appl and Martineau. With beautiful vocal shading, Appl offered ample consolation for the misery of dotage. A heartfelt consecration of the day (Des Tages Weihes) concluded proceedings, with a well-matched performance form Howarth, Rudge, Butt Philip, Foster-Williams, and Baillieu. It seemed fitting to leave to the echoing strains of a Schubertiade.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Igor Levit - Beethoven, 7 November 2016


Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata no.5 in C minor, op.10 no.1
Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor, op.49 no.1
Piano Sonata no.20 in G major, op.49 no.2
Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, op.54
Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, op.57, ‘Appassionata’
 

With this, the third instalment of his Beethoven series, Igor Levit showed no sign whatsoever of running out of steam. How could so thoughtful a musician, when such riches remain in store? Instead, the experience proves a cumulative privilege.
 

With the C minor Sonata, op.10 no.1, Levit – and Beethoven, or should that be the other way around? – immediately impressed in differentiating from the obvious Mozartian model (KV 457); likewise with the unity of melody, harmony, and rhythm (in no particular order, that being the point). As a Schoenberg scholar, I found my thoughts directed to this as an instantiation of what Schoenberg might have called the Idea; as a Wagner scholar, I thought of the melos; I thought, above all, though, of Beethoven. That concision which so often, although certainly not in the Third Piano Concerto, seems to accompany Beethoven in C minor was as striking as ever in this first movement exposition, and indeed in the movement as a whole. The ambiguous shock of the chord opening, or rather unleashing, the development seemed to ask, at so fraught a time for our world, whether Beethoven offered hope or damnation. (He will always ultimately offer the former, but we must listen, not always our strongest suit.) Mozart hovered more clearly over the return to the minor mode as the recapitulation drew to a close, but those final two chords could only have been Beethoven, richly, dramatically played as they were here.
 

It was that heart-rendingly post-Mozartian Beethoven who spoke first of all in the Adagio molto. Levit transformed what we might think of instrumental-turned-vocal-turned-instrumental rhetoric into something of rare magic indeed, ever founded upon harmony. The movement’s luxuriant, even ecstatic unfolding was perfectly voiced; one might have wished it would go on for ever, therein lying much of its poignancy. A will-o’-the-wisp quality to the finale almost suggested Schumann, but the goal orientation was clearly that of Beethoven, born of Haydn. It was furious, and yes, Prestissimo: rightly unsettling, and yet not without humour.
 

The first of the op.49 sonatas opened with a statement again post-Mozartian in character. Poised, dignified, this first movement put me in mind of Pamina. (Perhaps it was the key, that of ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’, but I do not think it was only that.) I even fancied I heard a nod or two to imaginary Bach Inventions. The second of the work’s two movements brought Beethoven as heir to Haydn once again to the fore, not least, within a few bars, the heir who simply would not wait his turn. There was an exquisite, loving boisterousness to Levit’s performance here, its ‘character’ spot on, gruff humour and all.
 

The G major successor piece, op.49 no.2, also opened in post-Mozartian mode, initial assumptions treated similarly here. This first movement’s particular character and affinities shone through without exaggeration, teasing rubato to the point, touch to die for. Repeated notes were merely one case in point. The second movement’s lilt, which both is and is not that of the Septet’s Minuet, was unerringly judged. Again, at least for me, it was the pain of both proximity to and distance from Mozart that sang most movingly of all, even when the method owed more to Haydn.



Tightness of rhythm struck me at the opening of the F major Sonata, op. 54. Not because it was exaggerated or even underlined, but because it is so often underplayed. Again, the movement’s very particular character came to the fore. It is perhaps too easy to call it ‘quirky’, although there is surely an element of that. Those syncopations, however, could not help but make me smile. Moreover, a tendency towards proliferation even suggested a touch of Boulez. I am not sure I have ever heard so clear a connection, as well as contrast, between the sonata’s two movements. It was almost as if tendencies within the first movement had received a shake of the kaleidoscope – and, voilà! Sui generis this extraordinary second movement rightly remained, a lance thrown far into the Schummanesque, even Lisztian future.



Finally, we heard the Appassionata. The expository function of the opening materials was clear, yet also generative. (Liszt’s B minor Sonata seemed not so very far away.) The welding together, or rather communication of a Beethovenian unity always present, is where artistry comes in; so it did here, as mysterious as it was undeniable. Progress through the first movement proved, rightly, both straightforward and complex, Levit’s variety of the tragic impulse reminiscent of the younger Pollini. The slow movement flowed almost unassumingly, although never without gravity. Profundity was revealed, so it seemed, through the material, not imposed upon it. Variation form made its own nature and impetus felt, the proliferating spirit of the first movement reinvented before our ears. Precision and tragic impulse were very clearly two sides to the same coin in the finale. Even here, the spirit of Mozart, the Mozart of the Fortieth Symphony, was far from vanquished. Command of line and projection of character proved equally remarkable, likewise voicing, limpidity, and depth of tone. Passagework, if one may use so apparently banal a term for this music, sounded as if it were both at the service of the work and yet also liberated by it, Beethoven’s genius bursting at the seams. This was a great performance of a great work.

 

Monday, 7 November 2016

A Warning against Fascism: Henze's 'In memoriam: The White Rose'


As the xenophobic fascism of Theresa May, Nigel Farage, and the Daily Mail, amongst others, cements its icy, murderous grip upon the United Kingdom, as the world looks on in terror at the prospect of the United States electing Donald Trump as President, here is a moving, seven-minute musical tribute to earlier victims of fascism. 'Lest we forget' is now monstrously insufficient, for we forget daily in the very act of intoning a trite phrase that now means less than nothing. Let us stop forgetting right now; more to the point, let us act decisively against this drift further and further into barbarism. Herewith, Hans Werner Henze’s written introduction to this fascinating, moving piece, and his own recording with the London Sinfonietta:


Winter 1964-65, while at work with the composition of The Bassarids, I wrote this work as a contribution to the Congress of the European Antifascist Resistance, held in Bologna in March 1965. I chose the occasion to remind audiences of one of the groups who attempted open resistance to the Nazi regime inside Germany. This movement was called 'The White Rose' and the same name appeared on the numerous antifascist leaflets composed by their founders, the students Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willy Graf, and the Munich University Professor, Kurt Huber. The movement began its activities in 1942 in Munich, but quickly spread to other important cities and gained a membership number of more than a hundred. A year later the founders were arrested, tried, condemned, executed. They defended themselves with great courage and died proudly for their ideas.

My work in their honour is a double fugue, and obviously inspired by and composed in the sense of Bach's Musical Offering structures.



Friday, 4 November 2016

Mavra and Iolanta, Guildhall, 2 November 2016


Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall

Ibn-Hakia (Joseph Padfield), Iolanta (Elizabeth Skinner), and King René (David Ireland)
Images: Clive Barda


Mavra
Parasha – Anna Sideris
Vassili – Dominick Felix
Mother – Jade Moffat
Neighbour – Bianca Andrew


Iolanta
Iolanta – Elizabeth Skinner
King René – David Ireland
Marta – Jade Moffat
Brigitta – Marho Arsane
Laura – Chloë Treharne
Bertrand – Bertie Watson
Alméric – Eduard Mas Bacardit
Ibn-Hakia – Joseph Padfield
Vaudémont – John Findon
Robert – Daniel Shelvey
 

Kelly Robinson (director)
Bridget Kimak (designs)
Declan Randall (lighting)
K. Yoland (video designs)


Chorus and Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Dominic Wheeler (conductor)
 

The Guildhall has shown typical enterprise in programming: two very rarely staged one-act operas in an intriguing double-bill. As I never tire of pointing out, much of the best London opera is to be found in our conservatoires. This term, we have already had an outstanding Royal Academy Alcina; later this month, we shall hear La finta giardiniera at the Royal College.


Any mild disappointment here was occasioned only by Stravinsky’s Mavra itself. I do not begrudge, indeed I wholeheartedly welcome, its staging. Although the Philharmonia recently performed it, I was unable to attend, and I have never previously had the opportunity. If there is a weaker work by the composer in his maturity, I am delighted to say that I have forgotten it. (I might dislike Orpheus, but I recognise its craft. Even Jeu de cartes has a good deal more going for it.) Describing it, as a short buffa work at the cusp of his Ballet russes and neo-Classical tendencies, makes it sound more interesting than it is. It does not overstay its welcome, perhaps, being so short, but the motoric elements here really do sound as if the composer is on auto-pilot. At best, one might find a passing correspondence with L’Histoire du soldat, even Petrushka, but it is trivial stuff really, with a trivial story, concerning a pair of lovers who trick the girl’s mother into accepting her hussar into the house as a new domestic servant.

 
Parasha (Anna Sideris) and Vassili (Dominck Felix)

Here, it was given, as the composer preferred, in the vernacular. Vocal performances were all spirited, well attuned to the trickiness – here, somewhat pointless trickiness, I tend to think – of Stravinsky’s writing. Anna Sideris and Dominick Felix proved agile of voice and on their feet. Jade Moffat and Bianca Andrew offered fine ‘character’ support as Mother and Neighbour. Solo and ensemble demands were navigated readily, in lively combination to the considerable amount of stage action required of them by Kelly Robinson’s updated (1960s?), production. Bridget Kimak’s colourful designs engaged the eye, and if there was not a great deal to the staging beyond what one saw, it is not clear that there could have been. There were a few occasions on which orchestral rhythms and ensembles might have been tighter still, but under Dominic Wheeler, the uneasy marriage of clockwork and Russian colour in its last, equivocal hurrah generally came across well. I shall leave the final word with Stravinsky, writing to his publisher in 1969, imploring him to publish the work: ‘Of course the music is not and will never be a success and there may be no demand or justification for printing it; and if I say that worse music than Mavra is performed you may say that better music is also not performed. Still, I would like to see the work in print.’

Neighbour (Bianca Andrew) and Mother (Jade Moffat)
 

Iolanta, by contrast, has great music indeed, fully worthy, at its best, of the composer of Eugene Onegin. I noticed far less the run-of-the-mill quality of some exchanges than I had in such exalted surroundings as the Paris Opéra earlier this year, which is surely tribute to impressive performances indeed. There, in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s searching staging – somewhat slow-burn in Iolanta itself, but cleverly paving the way – the opera had been paired with The Nutcracker, as indeed had been the case at the latter’s premiere in 1892. In a programme note, Robinson noted that both plots are – I should, more cautiously say, might be considered – ‘variants of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale’. I wish, then, that the two stagings were more obviously connected, drawing out connections rather than leaving it at that. That said, there was much to admire in Iolanta in itself, updated to a modern hospital ward, the princess awaiting her awakening under the watchful – and not-so-watchful – eyes of her nurses and some impressive-looking medical equipment. As in the opera itself, it is not entirely clear to what extent, if any, the Moorish doctor, Ibn-Hakia, plies anything other than the psychological tools of his trade, although an operation certainly takes place here at the right time. Video projections and lighting work powerfully later on, both to illustrate, simply yet unforgettably, the blinding first light and the all-important presence of the eye. Iolanta’s? God’s? We seem free to choose.


Vaudémont (John Findon)
 

Most importantly, space is permitted for an excellent cast to work Tchaikovsky’s wonders. The central pair of lovers both proved impressive indeed. Elizabeth Skinner faltered on one occasion, yet otherwise proved moving and generous of spirit. Her portrayal of the princess’s blindness was unerring; no one could have failed to be on her side. John Findon, as Vaudémont, was, quite simply, outstanding. His ardent tenor was just the thing, rising thrillingly above the orchestra – remember how young these singers are! – and yet capable of considerable subtlety. Their Russian, like that of the rest of the cast, seemed to me excellent too: I certainly managed to follow its meaning (without, alas, any real knowledge of the language) when the surtitles failed. David Ireland’s King René was another generous, keenly observed portrayal; there was no doubting his love for his daughter and consequently his plight. All of the singers acted well as a company, listening to each other and responding in kind. Eduard Mas Bacardit, Bertie Watson, and Daniel Shelvey offered, to my ear, particularly fine performances, but there was not a weak link in the cast.

Robert (Daniel Shelvey)


I occasionally wondered whether the orchestra might be too small, but it rose to the occasion at the great climaxes, showing instead that Wheeler, ever attentive to the score’s ebb and flow, had been keeping it down, emphasising, perfectly reasonably, chamber tendencies, or at least possibilities, within.