Thursday, 2 July 2015

Sampson/Heath Quartet - Bach, Musto, Webern, and Schoenberg, 1 July 2015

Wigmore Hall

Bach – Chorale Preludes: ‘Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier,’ BWV 731; ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr,’ BWV 662; ‘In dulci jubilo,’ BWV 608
John Musto – Another Place (world premiere)
Webern – Langsamer Satz
Schoenberg – String Quartet no.2, op.10

Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Oliver Heath, Cerys Jones (violins)
Gary Pomeroy (viola)
Christopher Murray (cello) 

Bach goes more or less unerringly well with music of the Second Viennese School. Three Chorale Preludes, arranged for string quartet, did not, however, seem to have any obvious connection with the song cycle, Another Place, by John Musto, which here received its first performance. (Nor did works by Schoenberg and Webern.) Treated on their own terms, though, they were welcome to hear. Bach from a string quartet often seems to offer a slight element of friction, perhaps because it is so ‘Classical’ an idiom at heart: does one ever fail to think of Haydn or Beethoven? I remain to be convinced, for instance, that the Art of Fugue finds its most natural home here. By the same token, however, Bach is too great to be constricted by such matters, and the Heath Quartet offered an intriguing balance, despite my initial doubts concerning minimal vibrato, between modernity and the sonorities of certain Baroque organ stops. More than once, I fancied I heard an echo of an 8’ Gamba. ‘Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier’ was taken at a sensible tempo, speaking, as the useful cliché has it, ‘for itself’. There was indeed something winningly self-effacing about all the performances. Great clarity was achieved; harmonic tension was productive, without being exaggerated. The quasi-serial expansiveness of ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’ had me wish it would continue for eternity. ‘In dulci jubilo,’ however odd it might sound on the hottest day of the year, was, by contrast, experienced in the twinkling of an eye.

Musto’s new work sets verse by Mark Strand, father of the dedicatee, Jessica Strand. Paul Griffiths’s programme note tried gamely to discern a Schoenbergian connection: ‘The soprano in Schoenberg’s Second Quartet discovers, was we will hear, the “air of another planet”; in this new work …, she finds “another place”, which seems to be a place out of this life.’ If you like. Aside from a certain busy-ness of counterpoint in the first movement, I failed to discern anything more. No matter: whilst I cannot say that the songs made a great impression upon me, they were well enough put together, provided one could take a language which, at its most adventurous, seemed to extend little further than Britten or Weill. The second, ‘Another Place’, offers a passacaglia one can hardly miss: certainly several times less oblique than that of Pierrot lunaire. Likewise, the 5/8 dance of the following ‘XVIII from Dark Harbor’ and pictorial representation of a heartbeat therein announce themselves without subtlety, though not without effect. Performances were throughout committed. As I have repeated perhaps too often before, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like.

Webern is certainly the sort of thing I do like. His early slow movement for string quartet received as fine a performance as I can recall, enabling me almost to see, let alone hear, early twentieth-century Vienna. It was ‘late Romantic’ in the best sense, ushering in, as well as waving the fondest of farewells: not just gorgeous, but tastefully gilded. Tempo was admirably flexible, founded upon sound structural understanding. Kinship with Verklärte Nacht was abundantly clear, especially when a motif passed furiously between the instruments. Vibrato was – well, put it this way: not for Norringtonians. But there was great variegation with respect to dynamic contrasts, which were yet always integrated into an expansion of what Schoenberg would have called the Idea. Even the relative gaucheness of the young Webern could hardly have proved more lovable.

I am not sure I have heard a bad performance of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet; there was no question of this performance breaking that particular mould. The first movement was already heading in that direction, whilst remaining of our own – or rather, 1908’s own – planet. The contrapuntal complexities of the First Quartet and First Chamber Symphony, and the latter’s joy (if here, ever turning to F-sharp minor melancholy) soon came to mind. It was salutary to hear Schoenberg sounding more radical than Webern. Brahmsian intensity was palpable throughout; so also was the possibility of themes we heard taking on life beyond their present tonal moorings. (The same can also, of course, be said of many of Brahms’s themes.) Flexibility and harmonic understanding again provided a sure context for the unfolding musical drama.

The second movement seemed to take us a step closer. (I know that I am speaking teleologically, perhaps unduly so, but it is difficult to avoid doing so in this work, and I am not sure I see the point in trying.) There was certainly a great deal of pent-up intensity in both the material and its unfolding. Again, it was the sureness of integration – of melody, harmony, and rhythm – that signalled the excellence of the Heath Quartet’s performance. That quotation actually had me laugh, so startling did its humour, if humour it be, prove. The closing bars were incendiary.

Harking back to the opening of the concert, the opening bars of ‘Litanei’ sounded almst as if they were from a Bach Chorale Prelude, albeit with a touch of Beethovenian ‘Muß es sein?’ With Carolyn Sampson’s entry, almost but not quite bell-like, ghosts of Romanticism assembled, as they (not quite correctly) believed, for one final conference. Twin ecstasy and nostalgia relating to that assumed parting of the ways thrilled, as did Sampson’s mini-Kundry-ish downward leap. Strings briefly reminded us of what, tonally, was at stake.

The ‘air of another planet’ never fails to brace, to invite, even to seduce; nor did it fail here. So we were brought to the moment of transition, which, I am not afraid to admit, elicited a tear from my eyes. With those words, necessary release came – without, or so it seemed, the slightest of effort. And how ambivalent the following cello line sounded, testament to the meaning of both work and performance. Thereafter, there came exploration, ever firmly to what had gone before, and yet with early freshness of discovery recaptured. Moonlight silver and vocal conviction sounded with unerring conviction. The players, however, quite rightly reminded us that, ultimately, this remains a string quartet – and what a string quartet!

I had not anticipated an encore, let alone two; nor would I have anticipated the choices. The second of Britten’s Three Divertimenti and an a cappella performance of The Ash Grove – as Sampson told us, her favourite folk song – proved just the unexpected ticket, in their different ways.

Philharmonia/Dohnányi - Bartók, Mozart, and Beethoven, 28 June 2015

Royal Festival Hall

Bartók – Divertimento
Mozart – Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola in E-flat major, KV 364
Beethoven – Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Lawrence Power (viola)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor) 

The Philharmonia’s closing concert of the 2014-15 season showed no sign of winding down, not that one would expect such from a conductor such as Christoph von Dohnányi. This was not the most ‘Hungarian’ of Bartók performances, but it was well considered, and, like any composer worthy of the name, Bartók does not benefit from being defined in nationalistic terms. The first movement offered alert, sometimes even febrile string playing. Climaxes and contrasting intimacies were very well shaped, rhythms not without a tellingly ominous quality. A broad emotional range, then, was traversed, as in the slow movement, whose contours were equally intelligible throughout. In the finale, the solo intrumentalists sounded especially impressive, quite beyond reproach. Counterpoint was admirably clear in a performance which, rightly, looked back to Bachian inspiration without ever losing sight of the composer’s inimitable voice.

Judging by the frequency of performances he has conducted of Mozart’s great E-flat major Sinfonia Concertante, Dohnányi is very fond of the work – and, frankly, who could fail to be? Its greatness, likewise, did not fail to announce itself from the orchestral tone and direction in the opening tutti. ‘Authenticity’ might never have happened; instead, solid, unfashionable, musical virtues were the order of the day. The Philharmonia’s evenness and beauty of tone during a long crescendo were certainly of a golden age. Arabella Steinbacher and Lawrence Power proved equally intelligent, sensitive, and gracious. Mozart is never an arena in which to attempt point-scoring, and it was never attempted here, but there was nothing bland to the performance either; the score was simply, or not so simply, treated with the respect it deserves. Chamber-like collaboration between the soloists was exemplary. Both of them took on, rightly, more of a solo voice in the Andante, which, as a whole, sounded ineffably sad, though never inappropriately bitter. A swift tempo for the finale worked well too; this was Apollonian Mozart, which yet did not lack anything in depth. (As Nietzsche put it, the Greeks ‘were superficial – out of profundity!’ Well, not quite like that, but anyway…) Mozart’s symmetries and his formal dynamism came together as only so fine a performance of his music can possibly suggest.

Nowadays, conducting Beethoven convincingly seems as tall an order as doing so for Mozart. It is good, therefore, to report that Dohnányi passed the test with flying colours – perhaps because he had nothing to prove. The first movement’s introduction offered both weight and delicacy. Although slightly on the slow side for what many are used to today, it was certainly none the worse for that. Crucially, every note sounded necessary. (That ought to go without saying, but alas does not.) Whilst it is doubtless fanciful to think of this too emphatically as Klemperer’s old orchestra, the thought would not quite leave me alone. Dohnányi’s handling of the transition to the exposition was that of an old (in the nicest sense!) pro: almost imperceptible. And then, came true exhilaration; there was no mistaking the vigour in the Philharmonia’s playing, nor its freshness. Form was dynamic, as it must be, and yet so rarely is. Double basses sounded duly weird and goal-oriented in the celebrated coda. When the movement had come to a close, I found myself astonished at its concision, almost as if it had been the first movement of the Fifth. The second movement flowed with a typical lack of showiness, although I could have done without an intervention from mobile telephone. Inevitability – difficult to describe, but impossible to mistake – was the properly Beethovenian characteristic, bar that intervention from another world. The music seemed to encompass tragedy, without being narrowly defined by it. Rhythm offered absolute security for the movement’s foundations, upon which composer and performers could build. The Scherzo was very fast, without sounding harried, its Trio providing relative relief, but no drop in tension. How was that possible? In a word: harmony. Joy won out in the finale, although this was no easy victory. Tradition, not as mere Mahlerian Schlamperei, but understood in a properly Catholic, developmental sense, also proved a victor. So too did Beethoven.

ORF SO/Meister - Bruckner and Messiaen, 23 June 2015

(with apologies for having fallen a little behind...)


Bruckner – Mass no.3 in F minor
Messiaen – L’Ascension

Ruth Ziesak (soprano)
Janina Baechle (mezzo-soprano)
Benjamin Bruns (tenor)
Günther Groissböck (baritone)
Wiener Singakademie
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Cornelius Meister (conductor)

I have long thought that Bruckner and Messiaen would do well to be programmed together – at least when the length of their works permits it. Roman Catholic devotion in an increasingly secularised world, not least in musical terms, is of course an important point in common, but their frequent eschewal of conventional thematic development in favour of repetition of blocks of material suggests something more, and perhaps more surprising too. Ten out of ten for programming, then, and I am pleased to report that the performance turned out to be highly impressive too.

The very opening bars of Bruckner’s F minor Mass – grander, perhaps more grandiloquent, than its predecessors, perhaps trying a little too hard to attempt an impossible reckoning with Beethoven’s Missa solemnis – showed that we were in excellent Bruckner hands with respect to conductor and orchestra alike. This might have been the opening of the first movement of a symphony, Bruckner’s preoccupying building-blocks as ever to the fore from the outset. Intriguingly, the drooping phrase-ends ends seemed to hint at Elgar, whose music would surely benefit from more Viennese outings (not that I have forgotten the forthcoming VPO/Rattle Gerontius at the Proms). Choral ‘Kyries’ following continued, intensified, and yet also brought major-mode hope, the Wiener Singakademie on as fine form as the ORF SO and Cornelius Meister. Günther Groissböck ‘s resounding first ‘Christe’ seemed to issue almost from Beethoven’s world, whatever the problems of Bruckner’s would-be emulation later on. This movement’s a cappella passages sounded flawless, deeply felt, before the musi sank back into darkness.

The ‘Gloria’ proved equally impressive, starting out as if bells were ringing in Heaven itself. Meister’s command of rhythm and harmony seemed to me every bit the equal of celebrated past recordings, even Jochum’s. Contrast with imploring intoning of the word ‘peccata’ was telling, as again were Beethovenian parallels, not least from a gorgeous woodwind section. With that in mind, there were an appropriate sense and scale of struggle towards the close. The ‘Credo’ responded in properly titanic – symphonic – fashion, again with splendid contrast, not least in the sweetness of the violin, viola, and tenor (Benjamin Bruns) solos upon reaching ‘Et incarnatus est…’.  ‘Et resurrexit…’ sounded as a veritable earthquake, almost Bachian: certainly as powerful, if simpler, and of course with well-nigh Wagnerian means. No easy route was taken thereafter, ensuring that the victory upon ‘Et exspecto…’ inspired as if that to one of the greatest Bruckner symphonies.


The ‘Sanctus’ was grand, turning to exultance, whilst the ‘Benedictus’ exuded tenderness and warmth, especially from the outstanding string section. It had the depth of one of the composer’s symphonic Adagio movements – just as it should. Groissböck’s tonal richness was especially welcome here; alas, the shrillness of Ruth Ziesak, here and elsewhere, offered a rare blemish to the performance as a whole. Nevertheless, it was a minor blemish upon the leisurely but always-directed progress shaped by Meister. The poignant falling lines of the ‘Agnus Dei’, echoing the opening, proved equally moving, prior to a triumphant close, to which even the most hardened of Bruckner-sceptics would surely have submitted.


L’Ascension sounded different immediately, a ‘French’ soundworld – however much of a construct that might be – announcing itself unquestionably. This was also a different sort of slowness as Messiaen’s ecstatic voice began its progress, harmonies still more gorgeous, devotion still more intense. ‘No room at the inn for doubt!’ composer and performance appeared to be telling us. For me, as a sometime organist, the orchestral version still sounds as a transcription – but who cares? I certainly did not, and indeed listened with new, or at least refreshed, ears. ‘Alléluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel’ offered opening material that was sinuous yet implacable, melismatic orchestras alleluias inveighing, perhaps even seducing. And then, awestruck, we seemed to approach and yet to remain hopelessly distant from Whomever it might be in Heaven Himself. Echoes of Ravel hinted at something sultry, although, needless to say, Messiaen’s eroticism remained of a very different nature. This, I know is the Messiaen some find difficult or impossible to take, but not I. Swooning Alleluias were heard from the next movement’s ‘trompette … [et] cymbale’. Orchestra and conductor kept rhythms tight, without precluding occasional relaxation. Again, the sonority sounded convincingly Gallic. More importantly, there was a true sense of cosmic drama, perhaps even of an unintentionally comic variety when the cymbals clashed in almost Hollywood-like climax. Ensuing counterpoint issued forth with genuine panache. The final ‘Prière du Christ montant vers son Père – the first piece of Messiaen I played, all too many years ago – was taken very slowly, as it must be. Soaked in ecstatic vibrato, this really seemed to capture something of the almost-beyond. Moulded exquisitely, the movement nevertheless retained surprising, refreshing simplicity in a model account.


Saturday, 27 June 2015

Cardillac, Vienna State Opera, 22 June 2015

Cardillac (Tomasz Konieczny)
Images: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Cardillac – Tomasz Konieczny
Daughter – Angela Denoke
Officer – Herbert Lippert
Gold Dealer – Wolfgang Bankl
Cavalier – Matthias Klink
Lady – Olga Bezsmertna
Police Officer – Alexandru Moisiuc

Sven-Eric Bechtolf (director)
Rolf Glittenberg (set designs)
Marianne Glittenberg (costumes)
Jürgen Hoffmann (lighting)


Is there at present any more unfashionable composer than Hindemith? Tippett perhaps runs him close, but I can think of no one else. Little has changed in that respect since I lamented this situation upon the Paris Opéra’s 2008 revival of Cardillac by André Engel. It is all the more welcome, then, that Vienna should not only stage but keep in its repertoire this wonderful opera, here given, as seems generally now to be the case, in its original, three-act form rather than Hindemith’s 1952 four-act revision for Zurich. (We miss, then, the performance within a performance of numbers from Lully’s Phaëton and the greater, post-Mathis der Maler sympathy accorded to Cardillac as artist.)

Daughter (Angela Denoke) and
Officer (Herbert Lippert)

Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s staging is probably the best I have seen from him. I opened my Paris review – bear in mind this was still the Gérard Mortier era of blessed memory – by saying, ‘Perhaps only Paris could turn in so stylish a production of the terminally unfashionable Hindemith.’ Bechtolf does not do so badly either, his stylisation fitting and lightly questioning the work too. The crowd scenes in particular benefit from carefully clockwork choreography, as if responding to the large timepiece (surely a more general nod to ETA Hoffmann, author of the original short story, Das Fräulein von Scuderi), and the black-and-white, top-hatted designs. The crowd both acts as a mob and retains, perhaps intensifies, its weirdness: not inappropriate for a Neue Sachlichkeit treatment of a German Romantic story. Sexual congress is again both plausible and stylishly removed from the merely representational. The realm of the master goldsmith himself offers powerful visual contrast – gold as much the order of the day here as in a later Schoenbergian orgy – and yet retains quirky, choreographed connection, as the action passes between different worlds. The work of Rolf and Marianne Gilttenberg as designers is very well fitted as frame and incitement to the exaggerated and musically-conceived, or at the very least musically-consistent, movement that ensues.  

For Hindemith’s motoric, extremely anti-Romantic conceptions of Bach – think of the Kammermusik transformed into opera – rightly came to the forefront here of our musico-dramatic attention. There were times, especially during the first act – all three acts were given, wisely, without an interval – when I missed the final degree of dry precision from the orchestral playing, but in general, Michael Boder’s conducting impressed, especially his handling – and the orchestra’s execution – of climaxes. Moreover, a relative relaxation of anti-Romanticism arguably held its own rewards, in preparing the way for the Officer’s compassion and, perhaps, whetting the appetite for a hearing of that later Zurich version. The Vienna State Opera Chorus’s contribution was excellent throughout, a credit to its chorus master, Thomas Lang.

Lady (Olga Bezsmertna)
Tomasz Konieczny offered a properly complex portrayal of Cardillac, permitting us to be torn between horror at his murderous narcissism, unable to permit his masterpiece to be owned by another, and his strange, increasing dignity as a craftsman. Vocal and stage presence were communicated as one. Angela Denoke, also Cardillac’s daughter in that Paris revival, gave quite the best performance I have heard from her in some time: lyrical and ever-meaningful verbally. As ever, she acted the role with passion and commitment. Herbert Lippert’s Officer struggled a little too often with Hindemith’s demands, but shared that sense of dramatic commitment. Olga Bezsmertna’s Lady showed true star quality. A member of the Vienna ensemble, she had me wishing her role offered more for her to sing. Wolfgang Bankl, Matthias Klink, and Alexandru Moisiuc all convinced in their roles. More Hindemith, then, please – in Vienna, but elsewhere too.


Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Birtwistle: The Corridor/The Cure, Royal Opera, 18 June 2015

 Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Woman (Eurydice)/Medea – Elizabeth Atherton
Man (Orpheus)/Jason, Aeson – Mark Padmore

Martin Duncan (director)
Alison Chitty (designs)
Paul Pyant (lighting)
Michael Popper (choreography)

London Sinfonietta
Geoffrey Paterson (conductor)

Outstanding in pretty much every way – just what an opera house should be doing, in this case in collaboration with Aldeburgh and the London Sinfonietta. Although The Corridor was premiered in 2009, with the same cast, this was my first encounter; and The Cure had been given its first performance but a few days earlier, again in Aldeburgh. The two chamber operas could clearly work separately, and I hope that they will, in conjunction with any number of other works; in tandem, however, there are all manner of connections one may make, whether as performer, director, or audience. Agency, not least female agency, is but the most obvious, although that is not to minimise its importance. Identical instrumentation (violin, viola, cello, harp, flute, clarinet) and, in this case, an identical cast, served to strengthen unity, but also to allow us to consider what is different.

The Corridor takes us, once again, to that foundational musical myth so beloved of Birtwistle, that of Orpheus. But a moment – his turning back, wondering why Eurydice is not by his side – and then a lifetime’s reaction. David Harsent and his composer have us ask whether Eurydice in fact ever really wanted to leave Hades. She was lagging behind and Orpheus wonders where she has gone, turning around involuntarily. Love and tragedy are expressed in their laments following the event, but did they ever have a chance, second time around? She interacts with the players in Martin Duncan’s straightforward, powerful staging, not unlike one of those increasingly popular stagings of Bach’s Passions. Birtwistle’s score steers a fascinating path between tight rhythmic cellular writing and something more capable of subdivision, even perhaps rubato (or at least homage to Monteverdian freedom?) Stravinsky versus Schoenberg, we still might say. Or rather, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

Birtwistle’s love of antique wildness exhibits itself once again: a reinvented antique wildness, not born from our paltry knowledge of ancient music, but something far more powerful. But there is no sense that we have heard this all before, for we have not. Fourths and fifths seem to speak to us from the age of organum – and beyond. The harp – what writing he has always offered for that instrument! – is no stranger to calamity, to catastrophic caesura. Vocal lines, in impassioned performances by Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Atherton, speak again of the invention that comes with longstanding assurance. Everything draws in – and makes us rethink what we thought we knew.

The Cure was conceived explicitly as a companion piece. Here, in the words of the excellent conductor, Geoffrey Paterson, the six solo instrumentalists of a work that had come close to ‘secular oratorio, for much of its duration’ coalesce ‘into a mini orchestra whose endlessly varied colouristic possibilities are at the service of a viscerally operatic scenario’. As ostinato builds up climactically, but never predictably, we reach the (again surprising) climax of a tale adapted by Harsent from John Gower, who in turn had adapted it from Ovid. Medea and Jason having returned to Colchis with the Golden Fleece, Jason offers to give ten of his years, that his father, Aeson, might regain some youth. Medea uses her magic instead, but did Aeson, partially transformed, actually want to be rejuvenated?

Again, then, we are made to think, and rethink. Birtwistle’s ritualistic response to Harsent’s ritual spells screws up tension – both conventionally and unconventionally. Duncan’s staging, with Alison Chitty’s typically primæval yet modern designs, again draws us in to a work that seems to take its cue perhaps more from the Birtwistle of The Minotaur than the composer of The Mask of Orpheus. Circles, numbers, and their properties: verbally, musically, scenically, they have us recall Gawain, yet also remind us that this is a different myth, a different response. The performances from all concerned seemed to me beyond reproach. Padmore and Atherton had us forget they had even appeared on stage before; Padmore even had me wonder whether it was indeed he singing both Jason and Aeson, so differentiated were his responses. Atherton's wild dignity struck just the right note. in every respect. 
My immediate reaction was to want to hear both works again. Then, doubtless, like the works themselves with respect to earlier tellings of their myths, my responses would both deepen and change. These are both chamber operas we shall need to hear again and again.


Friday, 19 June 2015

Spitalfields Festival: Polyphony/CLS/Layton - Haydn, J.C. Bach, Mozart, and Handel, 16 June 2015

St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch

Haydn – Symphony no.101 in D major, ‘The Clock’
J.C. Bach – Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, WC 41
Mozart – Symphony no.4 in D major, KV 19
Handel – ‘Dettingen’ Te Deum, HWV 263

Ashley Riches (baritone)
City of London Sinfonia
Stephen Layton (conductor) 

This final Spitalfields Festival concert promised a taste of ‘Georgian London – Global Metropolis’, each of the works being written for eighteenth-century London (well, perhaps in the case of the Mozart symphony), although at different times. There was much to enjoy, even if, as a whole, the programme worked somewhat awkwardly. I could not help but wonder if Stephen Layton would have been better off programming another choral work, and losing one or two of the orchestral pieces, since his strengths undoubtedly lie in the former realm.

For that reason, the greatest work on the programme, Haydn’s Symphony no.101, fared least well. The first movement’s introduction had an air of mystery, albeit with decidedly low vibrato: that, despite an acoustic that ought to have alleviated the worst of ‘authenticke’ excess. That acoustic rendered the Presto exposition proper too much of a scramble, fine detail too often lost. There was little in the way of sonata form dynamism. Perhaps surprisingly, the slow movement fared better: characterful, with meaningfully darker passages well integrated. The minuet, alas, failed to smile, and its trio failed even slightly to relax. Still, the nature of the material and many of its implications were clear. The finale was certainly fast yet somehow remained ponderous; like so much of what we had heard previously, it lacked the life that great Haydn conductors such as Jochum, Klemperer, or Davis brought to this music. The City of London Sinfonia’s woodwind proved a euphonious joy throughout.

We do not hear much of Johann Christian Bach’s good-natured if somewhat interchangeable music. Layton presented an affectionate reading of this Sinfonia concertante, in which again the CLS wind proved excellent soloists indeed. The first movement was welcoming in spirit, even before the soloists entered. Shortcomings, such as they were, related more to the work itself. A siren following on from the final note offered amusement. It was a relief not to have the Larghetto taken absurdly fast, as is increasingly the norm in such music. Instead, it seemed imbued with the spirit of the outdoor serenade, even looking forward to Mozart. Much the same could be said of the closing Minuet, stylishly and warmly performed.

I am reasonably sure that this was the first time I had heard Mozart’s Fifth Symphony in concert. Layton and the CLS proved alert in the first movement, possessed of a winning, if small-scale, swagger. A sense of the exploratory was certainly apt. The slow movement might have exuded greater warmth – we felt distant indeed from Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic – but spoke sensibly enough for itself. Youthful ebullience characterised the finale, although balances were less than ideal. It was difficult, moreover, to discern much affection for the composer and his work in Layton’s merely efficient direction.

No such reservations for Handel’s ‘Dettingen’ Te Deum. Ashley Riches and Polyphony made their mark magnificently, in vocal contributions as incisive as they were sonorous. Georgian militarism – John Brewer’s Sinews of Power – was announced loud and clear, trumpets and choir responding to and inciting one another. Handel’s borrowings amused rather than irritated. An excellent command of rhythm was proportionate with harmonic development. Expectations were aroused and fulfilled. This, at least, proved a thrilling, resoundingly musical conclusion not only to the concert but to the festival as a whole.

The Queen of Spades, English National Opera, 9 June 2015


(sung in English)

Hermann – Peter Hoare
Count Tomsky – Gregory Dahl
Prince Yeletsky – Nicholas Pallesen
The Countess – Dame Felicity Palmer
Lisa – Giselle Allen
Pauline – Catherine Young
Chekalinsky – Colin Judson
Surin – Wyn Pencarreg
Chaplitsky – Peter van Hulle
Narumov – Charles Johnston
Governess – Katie Bird

David Alden (director)
Gideon Davey (designs)
Wolfgang Goebbel (lighting)
Lorena Randi (choreography)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Stephen Harris)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Oh dear! What a maddeningly inconsistent director David Alden is. Or is he maddeningly consistent, his productions suiting some works, or perhaps better, some swathes of the repertoire, better than others? His ENO Peter Grimes was a brilliant reassessment of a work that is weaker than partisans allow; it engaged with Britten’s opera at a level deeper than most have dared. This Queen of Spades barely engages with Tchaikovsky’s opera at all. I cannot help but conclude that high Romanticism – call it what one will – is really not Alden’s thing. He exhibits no sympathy for any of the characters, nor for their predicament. He seems to have no interest in the plot, not even to deconstruct it. All we have is a tiresome parade of clichés, as if designed to rouse the ire of operatic ‘conservatives’ and nothing more. Dark glasses, piles of chairs, flippantly unmotivated cross-dressing, a ragbag assemblage of costumes from different periods (the Kruschchev era (?) meets something older, though not of course Tchaikovsky’s brand of Mozartiana, and with no real sense of interplay), a hospital ward, extras who are not extras but are treated as such until they are not, party guests with animal masks: all these and more put in their mandatory appearances. Contemptuously tossed bank notes might make a point, but it is all but drowned under the frenetic, meaningless goings on. Is there a hint that the Countess is a gay icon, even a drag queen? Perhaps, but it is taken no further. And why does the clock never reach twelve, even when we are told that it does? This audience member was long past caring. My fear was that everything lay in Hermann’s – or rather Alden’s – tortured, or careless, mind. What a novel idea! If you despise the opera and everything surrounding it quite so much, if you really think it so clichéd that you have nothing to add beyond further cliché, might there not be a degree of integrity in leaving it to the care of another director?

The orchestra, however, sounded terrific, as it generally does now, especially under Edward Gardner. Precision, weight, delicacy: all were present. If only Gardner’s prowess as an orchestral trainer were matched by insight into the score. His conducting was often stiff, save when he accelerated too quickly. There were moments of repose, not least in the realm of Mozartian parody (which Gardner clearly esteems more highly than Alden), but there was little to indicate a longer line. Continuity was fractured less than on stage, but Tchaikovsky needs more than that. The chorus was on fine form too, its virtues – and its acting, however misplaced – every inch the equal of the orchestral performance.

ENO also offered a splendid cast. Peter Hoare proved an unusually thoughtful Hermann, his detailed attention to the text (that is, to words and music) exemplary throughout. Giselle Allen’s Lisa provided a near-ideal mixture of, or perhaps better confrontation between, coldness and warmth; her confidante, Pauline (Catherine Young) mirroring and to an extent extending such qualities on her smaller scale. What on earth Alden was thinking of in her case, I hardly dare consider. Felicity Palmer retains the most formidable star quality; her Grétry aria was as moving as anything we heard. For once, a degree of stillness! The richness of Nicolas Pallessen’s baritone proved a welcome luxury in the role of Prince Yeletsky. Despite the absurdities of the production at large, there was always a proper sense of interaction between all on stage; almost all excelled. What a pity, then, that the director seemed determined to undermine, even to negate, such manifest virtues.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Ein Landarzt/Phaedra - Guildhall School, 8 June 2015

Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Landarzt – Martin Hässler

Aphrodite – Laura Ruhi-Vidal
Phaedra – Ailsa Mainwaring
Artemis – Meili Li
Hippolytus – Lawrence Thackeray
Minotaur – Rick Zwart

Ashley Dean (director)
Cordelia Chisholm (set designs)
Mark Doubleday (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (movement)
Dan Shorter (video)

Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Timothy Redmond (conductor)

Once again, many thanks are owed to the Guildhall School for courageous programming, fully vindicated. A double-bill of Henze operas, neither of them straightforwardly designated as such by the composer, surely offered one of the most enticing offerings in London for quite some time. Henze’s early, short radio opera, Ein Landarzt, presents a number of problems, not least of which might be: how should one, or simply should one, stage a ‘radio opera’ at all? Premiered in 1951, it is, as Henze recounts in his autobiography, Bohemian Fifths, ‘a word-for-word setting of Kafka’s short story of the same title’. Martin Hässler’s performance proved deeply impressive, in attention to words, text, gesture, and their marriage. It doubtless helps to be German, but that is only the beginning. Indeed, as conservatoire presentations go, this must have been one of the most challenging (for the artist) I have heard. Yet there was no gainsaying Hässler’s achievement, in what might consider almost a whimsical (or not) male-voiced Erwartung, with more than the odd backward nod to Schubert.

Whether it really benefits from staging, I am not sure. Henze certainly had no problem with it being presented in that way; one such performance was staged by Madeleine Milhaud. However, the production here did not really seem to me to add up to much beyond the scenery; perhaps concert (or indeed radio) performance remains preferable. There were a few tentative moments from the orchestra – hardly surprising in such a score – but for the most part, the young players offered a committed performance, firmly directed towards its denouement by Timothy Redmond. In any case, Hässler’s marriage of language, musicality, and stage presence offered ample rewards. At the end, we remained properly unsure whether anything had ‘happened’ at all, or whether the doctor’s difficulties were of his own imagining.

The 'concert opera', Phaedra was first heard in London at the Barbican in 2010. It is a measure of this Guildhall performance that, not only did I find it not wanting by comparison with a British premiere from the Ensemble Modern and Michael Boder, I actually found myself considerably more involved. Perhaps that was at least in part a matter of better acquaintance. (I have certainly heard a great deal more Henze since then too, partly on account of my academic work.) But in 2010, I had wondered whether a slightly irritating cleverness in Christian Lehnert’s libretto might actually be offset by full staging. Probably, would be the answer, because now the question never presented itself. Nor did my suspicion of a little note-spinning on Henze’s part. I am, then, more than happy to offer a mea culpa.

Reenactment and ritual proved generative: not quite as in Birtwistle, for the composers are very different, but presenting interesting parallels, for all the title might (misleadingly?) edge us towards Britten or the French Baroque. Ashley Dean seemed very much to have saved his best for this opera. The ruined labyrinth of the first act (‘Morning’) asks more questions than it answers: less, as so often, proves more, even when dealing with complexity. A surprising transformation into a modern operating theatre proves just the thing for the ‘Evening’ of the second act. Hippolytus eventually arises from the efforts of the divine medical team, though no one will ever be quite sure what happened, the drama finally broken down – not unlike the images we have earlier seen on screen – into dance.

Just occasionally, there were a few slips and imprecisions on the orchestra’s part, although this was a fine performance by any – not just youthful – standards. Henze’s love of flickering colours and their transformation – again I thought, whatever he himself might have made of this comparison, of Strauss’s Daphne – shone through, as full of dramatic propulsion as harmony and rhythm. Redmond’s direction again proved sure, indeed more than that: vital. Lawrence Thackeray’s tenor led the way, navigating Henze’s often difficult lines and tessitura with greater ease than one perhaps has any right to expect. Meili Li’s countertenor Artemis brought due strangeness to the endeavour, blurring boundaries as that final dance blurs events and motives. Laura Ruhi-Vidal and Ailsa Mainwaring offered proper contrast, considerable range and differentiation of colour employed to sometimes searing dramatic effect. The sonorous bass of Rick Zwart’s Minotaur signalled that he would also have made a compelling Landarzt. (He and Hässler were alternating roles on different evenings.) My immediate reaction was that I really needed to see everything again, to piece more of the work together. I suspect that that is part of the point: we think we can, yet it remains fragmentary. A performance, however, needs to remain purposeful, compelling: this unquestionably did.



Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Intermezzo, Garsington Opera, 6 June 2015

Images: Mike Hoban
(sung in English)

Garsington Opera House

Robert Storch – Mark Stone
Christine – Mary Dunleavy
Anna – Ailish Tynan
Franzl – Louis Hynes
Baron Lummer – Sam Furness
Notary – Benjamin Bevan
Notary’s Wife – Sarah Sedgwick
Stroh – Oliver Johnston
Commercial Counsellor – James Cleverton
Legal Counsellor – Gerard Collett
Singer – Barnaby Rea
Fanny – Alice Devine
Marie – Elka Lee-Green
Therese – Charlotte Sutherland
Resi – Anna Sideris

Bruno Ravella (director)
Giles Cadle (designs)
Bruno Poet (lighting)

Garsington Opera Orchestra
Jac van Steen (conductor)


Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’ Well, only if you take as given the increasingly untenable assumptions some ‘major’ opera houses trumpet concerning their audiences – and perhaps not even then. That Birmingham Opera can sell out Stockhausen immediately and that the Royal Opera House – by any standards, a different animal – can sell out operas by Benjamin and Birtwistle puts paid to lazy talk and should put paid to lazy programming, though does so far less often than should be the case. If one takes as one’s core lazy listeners, consequences will follow; if one leads, and especially if one acts upon widespread thirst for modernist repertoire, broadly conceived, other, better consequences will do so. Strauss, it might be countered, is a different matter again, and perhaps he is. But he is hardly unpopular, and if many people have not heard Intermezzo, despite a recent staging at Buxton, then grant them an opportunity such as Garsington has.

An excellent performance was given by the Garsington Orchestra – only once, early in the second act, did I sense a little tiredness – under the baton of Jac van Steen. The conductor’s deep knowledge and understanding of the score, of its post-Ariadne idiom, of its opportunities and challenges had been displayed in my interview with him; it was displayed just as clearly here. Everything was in its place, as it must be; Strauss at his most unsparing allows no room for error. The orchestral interludes put me a little in mind of the ‘closed forms’ of Busoni and Berg, whilst very much retaining their own character. It was perhaps most of all, though, Strauss’s economy, which yet never denies his love of musical proliferation, that shone through. Not a note is wasted; nor was it in performance.

The cast proved persuasive advocates too. Mary Dunleavy’s vocal security was matched to a subtle reading of Christine’s character that extracted her from the realm of patronising, even misogynistic caricature: no mere ‘shrew’ here, but a credible woman of strengths, weaknesses, above all agency. Mark Stone made a powerful impression as her husband, perhaps the closest of all Strauss came to a self-portrait. (The creator of the role wore a mask so as to make him resemble the composer all the more closely. As Norman del Mar observed, this was a ‘striking volte-face after Strauss’s anxieties over the Young Composer in Ariadne’.) One could have taken dictation, verbal as well as notational, from most of his crystal-clear performance: Lied writ large in the best sense. Sam Furnes’’s Baron Lummer offered a well-judged mixture of vocal allure and immaturity of character. Ailish Tynan’s perky Anna proved just the right sort of knowing, informed servant. In a fine company performance, other singers to stand out included Oliver Johnston’s finely sung – and acted – Stroh, Gerald Collett’s equally impressive Legal Counsellor, and Benjamin Bevan’s honourable Notary. Everyone, however, made a considerable contribution.

Bruno Ravella’s production takes the work seriously, on its own terms, and succeeds accordingly. Giles Cadle’s resourceful set moves us in and out of a Garmisch-style villa, modern (to Strauss), without being avant garde. There is always a strong sense of who everyone is, and why he or she is acting in the manner we observe. The card game is, as the conductor observed to me, wonderfully, knowingly realistic; such understanding could hardly be feigned. The crucial element of communication and its speed – the telephone, the telegram, Strauss’s pace of conversation delivery – offered an excellent example of musical performances and production acting as one.

One can speak of the plot being trivial, if one wishes. (I suppose one can speak about anything if one wishes, so that was an especially meaningless claim!) But some of that seems to be snobbery; would we think differently, were these gods, or indeed from another class, ‘higher’ or ‘lower’. In his original Preface, replaced when the score was published, Strauss not unreasonably claimed to break genuine new ground in the variety of everyday life he had brought to the stage; Hindemith and Schoenberg would follow suit in Neues vom Tage and Von heute auf morgen. Still more to the point, though, (high) bourgeois domesticity matters to those involved in it; it certainly matters to the little boy caught at the centre of marital dispute and potentially breakdown, as countless children, sleepless with worry at raised voices downstairs, will tell you. (Young Louis Hynes deserved great credit for his portrayal of that difficult role, here rendered more difficult still.) Now Intermezzo is not essentially ‘about’ that, although I think it is more concerned with it than, say, Elektra is; but a subtle yet perceptible shift in that direction from the production did no harm in opening up the work.

Only one gripe, really: it was a great pity that the opera was sung in English, and that Andrew Porter’s translation was the version used. Given surtitles, there really is no need; Strauss really does not sound right in translation, still more so as here, when odd words remained in German, the contrast jarring. Moreover, accents tended to slide – or at least to slide more noticeably to an English ear. But, as ever with Strauss, in the battle of Wort with Ton, there was little doubt which would emerge victorious. This was a far from insignificant victory over Strauss’s critics, Garsington’s latest estimable contribution to a hero’s after-life.


Sunday, 7 June 2015

Il trittico, Opera Holland Park, 5 June 2015

Michele – Stephen Gadd
Giorgetta – Anne Sophie Duprels
Luigi – Jeff Gwaltney
Frugola – Sarah Pring
Tinca – Aled Hall
Talpa – Simon Wilding
Soprano Amante – Johane Ansell
Tenor Amante – James Edwards

Sister Angelica – Anne Sophie Duprels
Princess Zia – Rosalind Plowright
Abbess – Fiona Mackay
Monitress – Laura Woods
Mistress of the Novices – Kathryn Walker
Sister Genovieffa – Johane Ansell
Sister Osmina – Kathryn Hannah
Sister Dolcina – Rosanne Havel
Nursing Sister – Chloë Treharne
Alms Sisters – Anna Patalong, Sarah Minns
Novices – Naomi Kilby, Ellie Edmonds
Lay Sisters – Rebecca Hardwick, Chloe Hinton
Child – Matteo Elezi

Gianni Schicchi – Richard Burkhard
Zita – Sarah Spring
Lauretta – Anna Patalong
Rinuccio – James Edwards
Gherardo – Aled Hall
Nella – Elin Pritchard
Betto – Simon Wilding
Simone – William Robert Allenby
Marco – Ian Beadle
La Ciesca – Chloe Hinton
Spinelloccio – Henry Grant Kerswell
Gherardino – Barnaby Stewart
Buoso – Peter Benton

Martin Lloyd-Evans, Oliver Platt (directors)
Neil Irish (designs)
Richard Howell (lighting)

City of London Sinfonia
Stuart Stratford (conductor)

Time was when many felt compelled to ‘make allowances’ for ‘smaller’ companies. Now, more often than not, the contrary seems to be the case, instead apologising for their elder and/or larger siblings: ‘But of course, it is far more difficult for House X, given the conservatism of its moneyed audience,’ as if House X might not actually attract a different, more intellectually curious audience by programming more interesting works. At any rate, there is now no more need, if ever indeed there were, to ‘make allowances’, and it is difficult really to consider a company with such extensive programming as Opera Holland Park to be in any meaningful sense ‘smaller’. This new production – reusing its 2012 Gianni Schicchi – of Puccini’s complete Trittico may well be the best thing I have yet seen and heard at Holland Park.

Yet again, any reservations I might pre-emptively have held in abstracto concerning a small-ish orchestra (the outstanding City of London Sinfonia, strings 6:5:4:3:2) vanished within a few bars; the acoustic may sound unpromising in an unpromising performance, but in one such as this, with truly excellent conducting throughout from Stuart Stratford, there was no problem whatsoever. Dynamic contrasts and continuities could hardly have been more powerfully – and sensitively – communicated. Climaxes were shaped with unfailing conviction, matched, one felt, with as true an understanding as Puccini’s own of the dramatic ebb and flow. Indeed, the importance of rhythm, and its inextricable alliance to increasingly adventurous harmony, was projected in Il tabarro as almost a symphonic poem of the Seine itself – were that not woefully to underplay the role played by Stratford’s splendid cast. The post-verismo (if in fact we are post-) darkness of the score, lit by shards one might relate to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, or Debussy, but which one would be quite wrong to consider in any sense derivative, told of a Paris both distinct from and yet related to La bohème, Puccini’s self-quotation playful acknowledgement rather than necessity, so deeply imbued with style and meaning was the musical account.

Different colours, different sound-worlds presented  themselves in Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, the tragic noose tightening inexorably in the former, all the more powerfully for its radiant feminity (from which Poulenc surely learned so much in Dialogues des Carmélites. I initially hardly felt like hearing the latter, immediately following the tragic denouement of Suor Angelica. Performance put me right, the revels now begun of a scherzo as full of zest and the comedic complexities of commedia dell’arte as the Petrushka score that more than once came to mind. Nothing was permitted to outstay its welcome, ‘O mio babbino caro’ for once a genuine moment of well-natured self-parody rather than a would-be reversion, in which members of the audience may sit back and ‘enjoy’. Indeed, Dante’s great comedy itself seemed to loom over the enterprise as a whole – just as, in very different circumstances, it had over Calixto Bieito’s brilliant Berlin double-bill of Schicchi and Bluebeard’s Castle earlier this year.

The casts were also as fine as I can recall from OHP, perhaps even finer still. Even given a certain amount of duplication, the number of singers involved is large, so as often put a strain upon one of those ‘larger’ houses. Here, no one disappointed, and the whole, as the well-worn cliché has it, was considerably greater than the sum of its parts; indeed, there was a real sense of company, such as one is more likely nowadays to find in relatively ‘smaller’ circumstances. Anne Sophie Duprels convinced equally in the conflicted roles of Giorgetta and Suor Angelica, her musical and dramatic focus and shaping every inch the equal of Stratford’s. Stephen Gadd and Jeff Gwaltney had one believe just as strongly in them and their plight in Il tabarro; it may not be a lengthy opera, but these felt like fully drawn characters, and the ‘smaller’ parts offered much of great interest too. So did those in the other two operas. Other singers to stand out – although it hardly seems fair to do anything but repeat the cast list – were a vehement, Rosalind Plowright as La Zia Principessa, nobler than the convent hierarchy, but possessed of similar, ruthless, yet perhaps ultimately more conflicted coldness. Family lines exert their own pressure, as we should shortly be reminded in Gianni Schicchi. Richard Burkhard’s protean Schicchi, Sarah Pring’s slightly but not too outlandish Zita, and Anna Patalong’s beautifully sung Lauretta headed a cast of true depth in that final instalment.

As night fell, the qualities of the three productions declared themselves in different ways; that change in light – and temperature – proved especially telling during the course of Suor Angelica. Neil Irish’s arched backdrop for Il tabarro, commenting yet expanding upon the ruins of Holland House, moved to the foreground for the laundry – inevitable thoughts concerning convent repression there – in Suor Angelica and the bedroom for Gianni Schicchi, laundered clothes serving dual purpose in the two latter operas. There was, however, no attempt to force the three operas closer together than that; they told their own stories, and we made connections as we would. Martin Lloyd Evans (Il tabarro and original director of Gianni Schicchi) and Oliver Platt (Suor Angelica and revival director of Schicchi) respected the works, which in turn seemed to respect them for it. Movement and designs were in keeping with the dictates of the action, scenic and musical alike, keenly observed without drawing undue attention. The tragedy and comedy of human existence were the focus, from pit and stage alike.