Thursday, 21 May 2015

Strauss's Intermezzo at Garsington: Interview with Jac van Steen


Image: Ross Cohen/Herzberger Artists
 
 
Last year’s Strauss anniversary year – 150 years since his birth – offered, at least in the United Kingdom, a typical number of opportunities and frustrations. We heard a good number of excellent performances, not least a superlative Frau ohne Schatten from the Royal Opera and Elektra at the Proms, both, far from coincidentally, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. A fine Macbeth from Mark Elder and the LSO notwithstanding, there was not, though, so much in the way of rare, or even rarer, Strauss. For that, one would have had to travel further afield, or indeed – I should apologise for having slipped into ‘Fog over Channel: Continent Cut off’ mode – have been there in the first place. However, two eagerly anticipated treats for me this year will be Garsington Opera’s new production of Intermezzo and Die schweigsame Frau at the Munich Opera Festival, both works I shall see for the first time on stage.

Intermezzo has never fared well in this country, partly, I suspect, on account of unfounded fears concerning the speed of its dialogue. (If that be a problem, then so surely should it be in Der Rosenkavalier.) It came to Edinburgh in 1965, Glyndebourne in 1974, Buxton more recently still in 2012. Now a company that has long prided itself in Strauss performance has opted to perform it, staged by Bruno Ravella and conducted by Jac van Steen, whom I spoke to following rehearsals in East London. I began by asking why he thought the work, for which, following an initial approach to Hermann Bahr, Strauss wrote his own libretto, had been so neglected.

JvS: Let me start at the end of the answer. For me, it’s a challenge to prove that it is worth programming this opera more often. The reason I can only guess; it is not a symbolic, metaphorical opera with many layers, like those with libretti by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which also have so much psychology, so much Freudian background. This opera with very domestic action stands, in the Strauss repertoire, pretty awkwardly. Also, if you look to the title, it isn’t a Traviata: it isn’t called Christine.

MB: Or Ariadne, Salome, Elektra, and so on…

JvS: Exactly. What happens is that in Intermezzo, he opens a new path for conversational style in twentieth-century music, which is, in the early ‘20s, a very courageous thing to do. In the meantime, we have heard so many musical works that combine a play and opera that it becomes difficult to take seriously something so trivial as a change of names [a mistaken conclusion Christine draws from a letter written by her husband, the composer Robert Storch] to be the cause of a great fuss in Robert’s life. But the score is so brilliantly written that I want to convince everyone that it is worth listening to and programming it more.

The other reason I think it is so little performed is that it is so hard, so demanding, for everyone: all the singers have very difficult roles. The orchestra has an even more difficult role; it plays very sophisticated themes played against many other themes. So I try to find my way through the score to make most of it possible to understand; meaning, we worked very hard on understanding of the words. Not because it is in English, but because of the conversational style Strauss asks for.

We perform it in English, not in German, but it is set in a German parlando style, so now we have to adapt that style in translation, and then to back to Strauss, and discover what did he want this or that theme to sound like … so we discover that we need another word.

MB: … because it doesn’t work; it doesn’t sound as it should.

JvS: Exactly. The music is always number one.

MB: Which is interesting, given that the general idea is of a conversational piece. But then we see similar relationships in so many of the greatest opera composers when they ascribe greater importance to the poem: Wagner, Monteverdi. And there is Janáček too, who, in this case, we should think of as a contemporary.

JvS: Yes, indeed. Strauss took a lot of time over this work. For instance, he was on tour with the Staatskapelle Dresden. They had three weeks of touring in South America. If you go on tour, if I go on tour, I need a very good book and a good number of scores, because you are not there as a tourist but you have so much spare time. If you go to Buenos Aires, you have the atmosphere, but you are not a tourist; you do not go out because you know that, in the evening, you have to perform. So I imagine that he had so many creative ideas at this time. Of course, his life was composing, but at this time, his hobby was composing too, because he was there to conduct. He could ask himself: how can I make this character, how can I shape this theme? And I think that’s a special joy that composers feel. …

I’m very lucky in having a fantastic cast of singers and an excellent, thoughtful director, who is very sensitive to the text. He’s a very musical young man, who is very detailed, as detailed as Strauss is; and he makes the set and the setting so detailed that the combination of what you see and what you hear really fits together like it should, but as – let’s be honest – it does so rarely. And working every day six hours on that score must reflect a bit of the fun Richard Strauss had when he was in his hotel room in Buenos Aires. Performing a beautiful Strauss concert in the evening and then returning to write something very bright and intelligent.

MB: Also a little like the card games he so loved, which we see here in the opera. His love of skat, whose rules I’ve never been able to understand.

JvS: Yes, when we started to discuss the piece, he flew to Holland and came to my house. We had two lovely days and we said we’d play the game. I tried and it didn’t work, because it is so difficult. This is not a one-evening thing. But Bruno, he took a morning with the five card-players and explained the rules of the game. Not out of an idle desire to show off, to show how well he knew the rules, but to show the musical fun that Strauss knew in all of the biddings, the mistakes that colleagues make,  all of which is in the music. They did that all morning. … What you see on stage now is the official game as Strauss wrote it out. It’s not just Figure 25: someone puts his hand down, and so on. They actually play the game. Someone loses a great deal of money, for example, and the audience will see that it means something, and that we have a lot of fun in playing the game.

MB: So it will convince?

JvS: Yes, it will convince. It’s not only performing as an actor and giving your hand because you are told to do so, you are playing the game, and during that game, you are singing your line. It’s one of the hardest scenes in the whole piece. Five people talking with each other, against each other, over each other, through each other, and as a conductor, you have to cue them all in. But as long as they do what Strauss writes, then it works.

MB: There’s a lesson there then?

JvS: Very much. There is no room for improvisation and that is the motto of the whole opera. I don’t let them improvise, and then it sounds like you and me sitting here talking about the opera, having a good conversation with music.

MB: Do you find the shortness of the scenes, their almost filmic – silent filmic – quality, followed by orchestral interludes, a difficulty?

JvS: I understand your question but I try not to see it as a problem. What I did, as a parallel to the director playing a game of skat without music, I did the opposite. I asked the singers not only to learn their own parts but … to learn the orchestral, instrumental liaisons between the parts. Sometimes just one beat, sometimes [and then he sang] a short motif, the Eternal Love theme, maybe four bars in the orchestra, to avoid this short-breathed conversational, cinematographic, cartoon-like style.

MB: … which can be a big problem.

JvS: It can be a very big problem. You then do not see the whole story. So what they do is now, the moment they stop singing [in rehearsals: the orchestra had yet to join them at this point in the rehearsal schedule], they sing in their heads the music from the orchestra. They will sing a clarinet line and carry it on until they sing once again. That helps out, so the conversational, short motif-style has a much longer line behind it. It’s all chopped up into pieces, but we try to convince by having the orchestra as a vocal part, and the vocal parts as an instrumental part. And Strauss is such a genius, that if you understand that trick, then it is all doable. Then the enormous mountain that singers initially have to climb – all this jumpy music: ‘where am I?’ – is part of something else. So long as you understand that process, it is doable. Ok, it takes a bit more time than Traviata, a bit more time than Tosca, but it is doable.

MB: What you say makes it sound a bit like Webern, where if you take notes pointillistically, in isolation, they mean nothing at all, whatever Stockhausen and certain others might have said. The moment you hear the line moving between different parts, then it’s like Mozart.

JvS: Yes, exactly. I did a lot of Webern earlier on in my career; now I seem to be asked more to do Bruckner and Mahler. But I’m convinced that you must respect the tradition – and then I’ll come back round to Strauss too – of Mahler, of Strauss, of Wagner, in Webern too, and don’t treat it as a note which is difficult to pitch, because unless you have perfect pitch, you can only work it out…

MB: … by interval…

JvS: … by interval. What I do with Strauss too is respect tradition, in that Strauss was a fantastic Kapellmeister, a fantastic conductor, so what you hear in the score is the relationship with Strauss’s role as Kapellmeister. It’s like the game of skat my director played: my assistant and I, we have tried to find the quotations that come from the repertoire of German opera houses. We come to Freischütz; we come to Forza del destino; we obviously come to Nozze di Figaro. It’s in the score; it’s a bit hidden, but it’s in the repertoire. And if you respect that tradition, respect that it is an opera composer writing a conversational piece, with the opera that he conducts in the back of his head, then you really get somewhere. It would be a fantastic quiz: to see who could pick out fifty quotations. Not five, not fifteen, but fifty! But what happened eventually, as we did this, my assistant and I – he’s a very intelligent young man, so he wanted to go further, to find another one, which I hadn’t, and so did I; I’m pretty ambitious – was, one evening, we came to a passage, and we said: ‘What is that? It’s absolutely a quotation, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes, it is. Shall I look it up?’ ‘Yes, look it up, and play it.’ ‘I can’t find it anywhere.’ And then we have walked into the trap that we are treating Richard Strauss – not Heldenleben or Also sprach Zarathustra, but Intermezzo – as a quotation. It’s archetypal, and we couldn’t think which opera it was from; suddenly we realised that it was the music in which one of the male characters talks about Christine – F minor, the key – now we think we have a quotation, but it is from the work itself. It has become part of us. … The writing is almost Mozartian. If you look at the manuscript for Nozze di Figaro, you don’t see a line to which he then added a harmony. It’s all one. That’s what Strauss does as well.

MB: And of course no one loved Mozart more than Strauss did.

JvS: And I’m sure there are more things in Nozze di Figaro – not just the motifs, the tunes that you and I can sing – to be discovered musically. I conducted the work a lot, and I made a tonal clock: I connected, as with seventeenth-century Affekt, which feeling he related to a certain tonality. Strauss is exactly the same. G minor is for her, when she’s bitchy. A-flat major is when they are in love. And it’s all the same sort of pattern as Nozze di Figaro. …

And then, of course, there is the descriptive quality. As you know, Strauss can orchestrate the opening of a door.

MB: That pictorial element: you can almost see what is happening on stage, just by hearing the score. Just as much as you can in Till Eulenspiegel or the Alpine Symphony.

JvS: In my Weimar years, I did a lot of Strauss, because he was there and everybody was very proud of Wagner, Liszt, Strauss having been in Weimar. I was the twenty-fifth Kapellmeister. And through doing that you understand the quality of the handwork, of how to write for an orchestra. He knew exactly what was good for the instruments, and what was possible, and how to go a little bit further…

MB: … to extend its capabilities just a little. The level of craftsmanship is something I always find astonishing in Strauss. He’s probably the only person who could have revised Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration.

JvS: Very true. And this opera is set for a very small orchestra. I only know Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and Divertimento – of course Ariadne is not so big, either – which need so small an orchestra. Frau ohne Schatten – it needs a gigantic orchestra. Intermezzo needs only Beethoven’s orchestra. It’s so abundant in its instrumental writing. I’m looking forward to working with the orchestra at Garsington, because for them, it is really tough. The London orchestras are very good: they can play anything. So now my task is to give them the fun that we have already had over the last four weeks. … There’s one thing that is always very special in Garsington: they have a Mozart and Strauss accent to the festival. I hope that the audience will not be afraid of the unknown aspect, and that we can convince, once you are inside, that you will have a fantastic evening: socially, Nature, the great music. …

What I would like is for the audience to feel what we did yesterday. We were all moved, almost to tears, when Christine declared her love to Robert. She sings six minutes of the most gorgeous music.

MB: That reconciliation is something quite special. As you were saying, the plot is trivial, but the relationship at this point doesn’t seem entirely unlike that of the Figaro Count and Countess – although responsibility is somewhat differently apportioned. It’s as if they’ve been dragged into the 1920s, have lost their titles, and have become a bourgeois couple; after all, Strauss calls the opera a ‘bürgerliche Komödie’, doesn’t he?

JvS: Very true. Everyone says that, in the opera, Strauss is giving his wife [Pauline, on whom Christine is based] a very bitchy character, but she has great love for him, and incredible respect. And, although she was a singer, she wanted very much to be a countess in life. They lived at the very height of Munich society. Strauss was a world star.

MB: That whole world of Thomas Mann…

JvS: …and Hofmannsthal, and so on. I think also of Prague, now, where I have a relationship with one of the orchestras. If you go to Prague and know that Alban Berg was there, Mahler too: they were all there: cultural centres with music of composers they loved to play every day.

MB: Mozart and Don Giovanni too.

JvS: Of course! Strauss is like that in Munich, Vienna, Dresden. All of these cities with such a rich tradition in opera. Prague had three opera houses, playing every evening.

MB: And so close to Dresden too, where this opera was first performed. One realises that when one visits, and sees the road signs, even the restaurants. Much more so than in much of the rest of Saxony, Leipzig for instance.

JvS: It’s a very interesting area. And in the 1920s, after the First World War, so alive! I love that era: I do a lot of Stravinsky, a lot of Alban Berg, a lot of Strauss.

MB: Schoenberg too?

JvS: Yes, although I’ve never done Moses. It’s very high on my list, but you need a good house that will let you do it, and I’m free on the market.

MB: The sort of work a Music Director will keep to him- or herself, then, as a statement?

JvS: Very much so. And as a guest, it is more the other repertoire.

MB: It would be wonderful to do Von heute auf morgen too, which is not entirely unlike Intermezzo with its ‘modern’, bourgeois plot. A similar dynamic, also a Zeitoper.

JvS: And the Hindemith opera, which resembles it a bit too, with a divorce situation…

MB: … Neues vom Tage.

JvS: That’s it. This conversational style has a very short history, but a very interesting one. With Pierrot lunaire, Schoenberg took Sprechstimme so far, but the 1920s offered something different, which we still know far too little.

Intermezzo at Garsington should offer a splendid opportunity for many of us to put that right.



 

Monday, 18 May 2015

Liebeck/Apekisheva - Messiaen, Prokofiev, Fauré, and Stravinsky, 17 May 2015


Wigmore Hall

Messiaen – Thème et Variations
Prokofiev – Violin Sonata no.1 in F minor, op.80
Fauré – Violin Sonata no.1 in A major, op.13
Stravinsky – Divertimento

Jack Liebeck (violin)
Katya Apekisheva (piano)
 

There was much to enjoy in this violin and piano recital, although Jack Liebeck took a while properly to get into his stride, his intonation and depth of tone proving somewhat variable earlier on, especially during Messiaen’s early Thème et Variations. The Theme suffered most in that respect, although there was nothing to fault in Katya Apekisheva’s despatch of the piano part. In the first variation, she offered a splendidly ‘hammerless’, post-Debussyan account, bells verily tolling and resounding. Later spikiness seemed to presage aspects of the Prokofiev sonata that would follow. The fourth variation seemed to point to Messiaen’s often overlooked Franckian inheritance in a properly full-blooded performance from both players. Indeed, the piano part seemed closer than usual to Messiaen’s organ writing. The final variation offered a taste of quintessentially Messiaenic ecstasy, notwithstanding an unfortunate slip by Liebeck.


Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata proved more consistent. The first movement revealed what we might think of as the ‘emerging chaconne’ quality of the opening theme and its consequences. This was a dark, rich-toned, yet variegated performance, the piano part astutely layered. The ghostly closing material disconcerted: the piano rock-solid, the violin casting proper doubt upon alleged certainty. Liebeck’s intonation again wavered during the second movement, but not really to the detriment of its character. Apekisheva’s performance was splendidly big-boned. Her opening una corda flurries in the third movement seemed to look back again to Debussy, as if the snow really were dancing. The violin melody that emerged above was nobly and sweetly sung. There was a winning sense of contrapuntal battle and of fun between the instruments in the final movement, before the sombre close paralleled that to the first movement. Darkness of mood and quality of musical invention worked in tandem.


Fauré’s First Violin Sonata opened the second half. From the opening of the first movement onwards, it sounded like what it is: a freer, subtler, far less obvious, precursor to the better-known Violin Sonata of César Franck (a wildly overrated work). For me, this early work is one of Fauré’s most attractive, but then I have yet to ‘get’ several of his later works, which many people whose judgement I greatly respect consider his finest. Liebeck and Apekisheva achieved an excellent balance between ‘Romantic’ ardour and hints of something cooler, subtler to come. Lightness of touch did not deny emotional weight. Motivic unity was clear without any need for (Franckian) underlining. The scherzo was especially pleasing, a light-footed impression of Gallic homage to Mendelssohn. Various tendencies were united in the finale, which yet remained true to its particular character.


Stravinsky’s Divertimento completed the programme, again in an excellent performance. The strangeness of the composer’s writing for violin registered, albeit without undue exaggeration. Here, of course, it is mixed with the strangeness of his response to Tchaikovsky. Rhythmic and melodic ghosts of The Soldier’s Tale danced in the Danses suisses, Stravinsky’s changes of mood and character very well handled. The ‘Russianness’ of the Scherzo seemed to evoke Petrushka’s Shrovetide Fair’; indeed, ballet was, quite rightly, the order of the day thereafter. Liebeck and Apekisheva showed themselves quite at home with the composer’s technical and musical demands alike.

 

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Richard Uttley - Bach, Matthew Kaner, and Beethoven, 7 May 2015


St John’s, Smith Square

Bach – Partita no.4 in D major, BWV 828
Matthew Kaner – Dance Suite (world premiere)
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.28 in A major, op.101


This was a splendid moment of light on an Election Day which… (Well, fill in the gaps: clearly the results pleased some!) In a lunchtime recital at St John’s, Smith Square, Richard Uttley offered excellent, truly thoughtful performance of works by Bach and Beethoven and the world premiere of Matthew Kaner’s Dance Suite, gently revealing dance-like affinities between them, as well as undoubted differences in method and character.


The Ouverture to Bach’s D major Partita had a bright, declamatory opening, followed by much convincing dynamic contrast. Clearly founded upon Bach’s harmonic plan, there was, moreover, a great deal of simple (!) joy to be heard and felt. The Allemande was noble, yet yielding, melody and counterpoint in fine balance – and/or dialectic. Alluringly labyrinthine, it set the situation perfectly for the Courante to come. A gently, subtly affecting Sarabande was another highlight, the Minuet a light preface to a brilliantly committed Gigue.


The two dances as yet making up Matthew Kaner’s Dance Suite are, in his words, ‘very contrasting’, a Mazurka and a Sarabande. I say ‘as yet’, because Kaner plans to add other movements in the future, including ‘a more whimsical and playful Gigue’. Bell effects in the high treble are a remarkable feature of the Mazurka. Rhythmic inflections clearly have some roots in Chopin – how could they not? – but there are hints of other Eastern European composers too, as well as Debussy, without ever quite sounding ‘like’ them. There is – and in Uttley’s performance was – a keen sense of fantasy true both to instrument and genre. The Sarabande is slow, yet moves. Harmonies always intrigued: sometimes familiar, sometimes not. I shall be very keen to hear more! Kaner’s claim of having ‘tried to allow myself to embrace the works from the canon that I feel drawn to, rather than attempting to completely reinvent the medium’ seemed to me spot on.


Beethoven’s A major Sonata, op.101, is no rarity, but I think I have heard it less frequently over the past few years than the later ‘late’ sonatas. Absence certainly made the heart grow fonder, but so did this estimable performance. Melting tone was lavished on the opening of the first movement, but never for its own sake. Chords were as finely weighted as in the Kaner Dance Suite; Uttley never forgot that this is piano music. Rhythm and harmony were held in equally fine balance. The tempo was quite daring in its leisurely nature, yet utterly convinced. Splendid contrast was effected in the second movement. March rhythms were certainly part, but only part of that; harmonic understanding was just as crucial. Its trio offered a long line in the tradition of a Bach dance; the motivic working out could only, however, have been Beethoven’s. The slow movement was gravely beautiful in its eloquence, Beethoven revealed at his most Romantically innig. Bachian and Beethovenian lessons had clearly been well learned in the finale, which offered release, but also struggle yet to come. Form was properly dynamic. Beethoven’s greatness and sheer humanity were celebrated, reaffirmed.

 

Britten Sinfonia/Hannigan - Mozart, Stravinsky, and Haydn, 6 May 2013


Barbican Hall

Mozart – Idomeneo: Overture
Stravinsky – The Rake’s Progress: Act I, Scene 3
Haydn – Symphony no.49 in F minor, ‘La Passione’
Mozart – La clemenza di Tito: Overture
Mozart – Concert Aria: ‘Bella mia fiamma, addio!... Resta, o cara’, KV 528
Stravinsky – Pulcinella: Suite

Britten Sinfonia
Barbara Hannigan (soprano, conductor)
 

A concert from Britten Sinfonia and Barbara Hannigan boded well – and more than fulfilled expectations. Programmed around the idea of ‘Stravinsky and neo-Classicism’, it was not in any sense didactic, but highly enjoyable, whilst at the same time giving opportunities for thought: in my case, reminding me that what I tend more often to think of Stravinsky aping, or rather inventing, ‘neo-Baroque’ manners is not always so.


The opening Overture to Idomeneo fairly took my breath away. Post-Gluckian grandeur and gravitas were from the outset the order of the day. Mozart’s hints of Salzburg luxuriance remained, albeit subordinated to dramatic purpose. The Britten Sinfonia may have been smallish in size, but it did not sound so. Hannigan’s direction was reassuringly ‘traditional’, for want of a better, less misleading word; but for the double-dotting, this might almost have been the late Sir Colin Davis at the helm, and I can give no greater praise than that. Splendidly grainy woodwind made their characterful presence felt. How I longed for the rest of the opera to follow!
 

But instead, a scene from The Rake’s Progress followed on immediately. Affinity or difference? We could decide, and indeed, the either/or, as so often, was found wanting. Perhaps perversely, perhaps with justification, I found Stravinsky, in the opening woodwind lines, all the more strongly himself, even perhaps closer to The Rite of Spring, than ever. Hannigan’s vocal crescendo – yes, she sang and conducted – put me in mind of what one hears from Jonas Kaufmann at the beginning of the second act of Fidelio. I am not sure I have heard a more sparkling despatch of ‘I go, I go to him’. Moreover, what can sometimes seem mere clever words here had true dramatic import. And what a difference antiphonally seated violins made too.

 
This may well have been the first time I have heard a live performance of Haydn’s Symphony no.49, ‘La Passione’, but then the same might be said of far too many of his symphonies. Surely no great composer, with the possible exception of Webern, is more hideously treated by modern concert life. The wait was certainly worth it, the first movement grief-laden, a true wordless drama, which of course is precisely what it should be. Excellent command of the longer line had one hearing forward to later Haydn works – I thought in particular of the Seven Last Words – and indeed beyond. Kinship with the composer’s Stabat Mater was also evident. Sturm und Drang characterised the second movement. Urgency was never mistaken for the merely hard-driven. Harmony remained at the root, if the pun may be forgiven, of all that transpired, expected or unexpected. The third movement remained dark in its onward trudge, its trio but a fleeting relief. In the finale, we went back, or rather forward, to Sturm und Drang. Motivic working seemed already to presage the Paris Symphonies. A splendidly full-blooded performance, not least from the strings, made me hungry for more Haydn from these superlative artists.


Mozart’s Overture to La clemenza di Tito opened the second half. It was noble and, yes, grandly neo-Classical. (Of all Mozart’s works, this has long seemed to me the most worthy of that tag.) Again, weight and drama encouraged, indeed incited each other. Counterpoint was wondrously clear – these players are the match of any of our symphony orchestras! – and, crucially, was despatched with a fine sense of direction. This was a thrilling, absorbing account: again, I am delighted to say, quite the best I have heard since Sir Colin. I cannot help but wonder whether Hannigan should turn her thoughts to conducting a Mozart opera. She certainly has the voice and agility for singing one of the plum roles, as the performance of Bella mia fiamma, addio! made clear. (Hannigan has sung Fiordiligi, but I, alas, have yet to hear her do so.) The Britten Sinfonia strings were wondrously alert, as this lovely aria, woodwind from Elysium, made its way through typically extreme chromaticism to resolution. A taste in miniature of things to come? Let us hope so.


Finally, the Pulcinella Suite; I dare say to ask for a vocal contribution would simply have been too greedy. The Overture was an object lesson, especially from soloists, in the illustration of Paul Griffiths’s memorable observation that Pulcinella is less a composition than a ‘way of hearing’ – although, as so often with Stravinsky, one could with almost equal justification argue quite the contrary. There followed a Serenata that was graceful to a degree in its slightly wistful lilt. In the sequence thereafter, I occasionally, to my surprise, found a slight want of the utmost rhythmic definition, but colours remained both bold and subtle. By the time of the Tarantella, there was certainly not the least slackness. Mozartian Hamoniemusik seemed more strongly echoed in a number of movements than I could recall previously hearing. (Hannigan did not always conduct.) The strange apotheosis of the final movement resonated in startling fashion; nor was it rushed. It made for a splendid conclusion to a splendid concert.
 

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Röschmann/Uchida - Schumann and Berg, 5 May 2015


Wigmore Hall

Schumann – Liederkreis, op.39
Berg – Seven Early Songs
Schumann – Frauenliebe und –leben, op.42

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano) 
 

The Eichendorff Liederkreis seems to become still more wonderful with every hearing. That is in large part, of course, a measure of its stature; however, in this case, I think it was also a measure of its performance. Dorothea Röschmann and Mitsuko Uchida gave a wonderful performance, as heart-rending as I have heard and probably more so than any I have heard with respect to the piano part. Uchida is universally recognised as a great Schumann pianist, yet even so, I was taken aback at how newly minted the music sounded. Every note had a purpose, yes, but the longer line, both within songs and with respect to the cycle as a whole was unerring. That was never at the expense of character, of incident; indeed, the relationship between moment and work could hardly have been better projected. Thus, for instance, the Bachian counterpoint of ‘Auf einer Burg’ offered up all manner of possibilities: pictorial (the castle and the ‘alte Ritter’), musico-historical, and connections with other Schumann works (the Arabeske, the Schumann works for pedal piano). Yet this was not in any sense a one-woman show. Dorothea Röschmann’s dramatic soprano ensured there was nothing of the drawing room to the performance. All manner of colours were employed, at the service of the text, yet in no sense hidebound thereby. Eeriness, sorrow, even occasional joy and ecstasy: all were present, all were vividly communicated. The sheer beauty of ‘Mondnacht’ had to be heard to be believed: I am tempted to say that Röschmann and Uchida more than gave Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch a run for their money, although the comparison is doubtless meaningless. As Mahler’s early songs seemed to draw ever nearer in spirit, the concluding ‘Frülingsnacht’ reminded us that we remained in an earlier Romantic age, with concerns and rapture very much its own.


Moving to Berg in the second half, it was striking how much one heard of Schumann and Brahms, although these ‘early songs’ are by no means mere juvenilia. In the hands of such artists, though, such was context rather than overweaning influence; there was no doubt that this was the ‘real thing’, nowhere more so than in the extraordinary, opening ‘Nacht’. Uchida’s treatment of Berg’s harmonies and their interaction with formal concerns – at this stage, he was almost entirely a song composer, perhaps presenting the prospect of a new Hugo Wolf – captured perfectly both their early twentieth-century ‘moment’ and the prospects of a Bergian future some at least of these gems genuinely offer. The use of the whole-tone scale in that first song, for instance, had it sound as radically voluptuous – or voluptuously radical – as I can recall. And twelve-note writing seemed not so very far away by the end. Röschmann expanded further the vocal palette on which she drew, or perhaps from which she could paint. Again, the balance struck between almost, but not quite, ‘operatic’ lines and detailed response to the words was admirable. I should love to hear her in more Berg.


It is doubtless too easy a claim to say that Frauenliebe und –leben benefited from two female artists; it benefited from excellent performances. And yet, gendered concerns can hardly be banished completely, given Adelbert von Chamisso’s text. What I can say is that the falling of the veil, the self-withdrawal of the closing ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’ pierced my heart more than I can recall. Uchida’s exquisite handling of the postlude was the final blow, of course, with abundant resonances from across the cycle and indeed beyond it. But that would have been nothing without earlier preparation, both in that final song and throughout the cycle. Röschmann conveyed excitement, contentment (a difficult task), joy, really everything for which she was asked. Once again, there was little distinction to make between the two parts: this was a true partnership, one I felt privileged to have heard. Yet, if only as a just consequence of the greater importance Schumann allotted to the piano part, not least structurally, it seemed that Uchida’s formal grip – and fantasy – led the way.

 

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Virtues of Things, Royal Opera, 2 May 2015 (world premiere)


Ellipsis (Fiona Kimm), Peg (Robyn Allegra Parton), Eames (Paul Curievici), Selby (David Stout)
Images; Stephen Cummiskey/ROH


Linbury Studio Theatre

Selby de Selby – David Stout
Ellipsis de Selby – Fiona Kimm
Peg de Selby – Robyn Allegra Parton
Eames – Paul Curievici
Dr Gravid – Richard Mosley-Evans

Bijan Sheibani (director)
Giles Cadle (designs)
Matt Haskins (lighting)

Aurora Orchestra
Richard Baker (conductor)


A good number of recent shorter operas, particularly those performed in this country, made a stronger impression with their libretti than their scores. Glare, performed in the Linbury just a few months ago, was a case in point; so, I think, was The Virtues of Things. The former work is highly plot-driven, more after the manner of a television drama than we tend to expect.; this is somewhat different, a welcome stab at a contemporary operatic comedy, but one whose words, by Sally O’Reilly, seem to get in the way of musical setting, which in turn, or perhaps even fundamentally, never seems able to free itself enough of those words. Maybe I am hopelessly outdated in thinking that a libretto should provide space for music and not attempt too much on its own, but this opera seems to offer some confirmation. The relationship between Wort and Ton has, of course, been the concern of many a treatise, and indeed a good few operas, but this work in three short acts, about eighty minutes in total, seemed rather too lengthy for its material. Capriccio it is not. I could not help but wonder whether it might have been better at about half the length, paired with another, contrasting work, as happened last year, in the first such collaboration between the Royal Opera, Aldeburgh, and Opera North: The Commission and Café Kafka.




A traditionalist prop-making company, the de Selby family Business, is imperilled by illness, Parabola having fallen ill (the same illness will soon strike the other senior designer, Ellipsis), and then by the visit of a technologically-minded freelance replacement, Eames. There are some interesting enough observations upon the nature of stagecraft; should one, for instance, start with something naturalistic and generalise, or the other way around? But the thrust eventually seems to concern significance, in a more or less semiological sense. Ellipsis – yes, the clue, it would seem, lies in the name – reacts in absurdly strong fashion to the props and their meaning. Increasingly, the family seems incapable of distinguishing between art and reality, snatches of different operas on which it has worked appearing and taking over, until all fall down – and a bemused Eames departs.


The problem, as hinted above, seems to be that there is little space left for music, or at least that little space is created by it. Matt Rogers’s score is perhaps at its strongest in the broader distinctions it offers, the quasi-bureaucratic tidiness of the first act gradually disintegrating in parallel to the family’s minds. Instrumentation – string quintet and wind quintet – puts one in mind of an ensemble approaching, although not quite reaching, that of, say, Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, and indeed, in the excellence of performance offered by the Aurora Orchestra and Richard Baker, there is something of that brilliance. Was that a deliberate nod towards Schoenberg’s score in the first act, when ‘complexity’ was discussed; or was it just my imagination? I am genuinely not sure, though I was intrigued by the thought itself and by the ambiguity of my response. Otherwise, however, the setting remains, at least for my taste, a little too closely tied to the needs of the words, rarely if ever breaking free and thus offering the prospect of higher conflict and/or integration. It is difficult, moreover, to perceive anything much in the way of affection or consideration for voices. Again, the words, it seems, take precedence.


 


Within the frame of Bijan Sheibani’s sharp direction and Giles Cadle’s resourceful designs – an excellent, properly naturalistic workshop, transformed by the action and, at the end, by Matt Haskins's striking lighting of the opera, The Virtues of Things – the cast did an excellent job. David Stout’s steadfast, honourable traditionalist and Fiona Kimm’s increasingly unhinged, often scene-stealing Ellipsis vied against Paul Curievici’s splendid stage and vocal presence, Robyn Allegra Parton’s often-high yet sometimes challengingly low soprano veering towards the youthful attractions of the latter, at least earlier on. Richard Mosley-Evans’s quack doctor did a fine turn too. Diction was excellent throughout. I simply wish there had been more of interest in the vocal and indeed in much of the instrumental writing.


Further performances will take place at the Linbury (5. 6 May), the Britten Studio, Snape (9 May), and the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds (15 May).

Saturday, 2 May 2015

King Roger, Royal Opera, 1 May 2015



Images: ROH/Bill Cooper


Royal Opera House

Archbishop – Alan Ewing
Deaconess – Agnes Zwierko
King Roger – Mariusz Kwiecień
Edrisi – Kim Begley
Roxana – Georgia Jarman
Shepherd – Saimir Pirgu

Kasper Holten (director)
Steffen Aarfing (designs)
Jon Clark (lighting)
Luke Halls (video)
Cathy Marston (choreography)
John Lloyd Davies (dramaturgy)
 
Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)


At last, Szymanowski’s masterpiece, King Roger, has reached Covent Garden. With one, sadly predictable, exception, it receives excellent treatment too. What a joy it is to see staged here a work, which, like Janáček’s bizarrely ignored operas, is no longer than it need be, and so handsomely repays attention in every minute of its mere ninety. (Incidentally, placing an interval after the second act was surely a mistake; this is a work considerably shorter than Salome or Elektra, and nothing was gained by having to step outside for half an hour.)

 
Kasper Holten’s production is relatively straightforward, but none the worse for that. Save for gentle costume updating to the time of composition, it is difficult to imagine self-styled ‘traditionalists’ having anything much to worry about. A gigantic King Roger’s head, in different states, inhabits the centre of the stage. Are we to understand that the conflict between Apollo and Dionysus is entirely within his head? Probably not; surely there remains some important element of the social. However, a reminder that this is, amongst other things, his conflict is no bad thing. Oppressive, patriarchal Orthodoxy surrounds the realm of the personal in the first act.

 


In the second, the head turns around so as to reveal, if  not strictly speaking, the inner palace courtyard of the libretto, then something pretty close: royal quarters, in which books – is that, ultimately, whence these dangerous ideas come? Nietzsche, perhaps? – are prominent. In the basement are writhing bodies, refugees from Tannhäuser’s Venusberg – which, in terms of the work, musically as well as conceptually, is very much what they should be. Cathy Marston’s choreography did little for me, I am afraid, but having recently endured again the absurdly excessive dance of Sasha Waltz’s Tannhäuser, there was relief for me to be had in lesser intrusion.



The third act, rightly, presents ruins, both social and personal. The head has been destroyed under whatever new dispensation it is the Dionysian Shepherd offers. Not for the first time, I thought of Henze’s The Bassarids in Christof Loy’s Munich production. The dangers of this brave new world are clear, for, not only have the erstwhile faithful blindly followed their new master, they blithely throw a few surviving books upon the pyre. To destroy culture is cheap, as inconoclasts from Alexandria to Rupert Murdoch to ISIS have known all too well; the cost is crippling. Mere hedonism is not the way forward; the blinding light at the end – here as simple and as striking as in Mariusz Treliński’s production, which I saw in Edinburgh in 2008 – shows that another path for Roger, and for us, will not be easy; it may not even be right. We need, however, to try. If, sadly, as in Treliński’s staging, Szymanowski’s overt homoeroticism is played down, then there are other ideas well worth pondering: not hammered home, for such tends not to be Holten’s way of operating, but more open-ended, which seems quite apt for the work and, in particular, for its unresolved, perhaps irresolvable, conclusion. After all, the final C major chord is no more convincing as affirmation than that in Elektra; the Shepherd’s strains remain.





Antonio Pappano’s conducting proved somewhat disappointing, although he certainly seemed aware of the difficulties of balance within the orchestra and for the most part steered a judicious enough path in that respect. However, if not so bedevilled by stopping and starting as his Wagner, Pappano’s account nevertheless seemed incapable for the most part of rising above the indifference of mezzo piano, to misquote Pierre Monteux. The orchestra here is defiantly post-Wagnerian, at least as much a character as anything we see on stage; here, despite some truly excellent playing, Pappano reduced it to mere accompaniment. There was too much of a tendency to meander, too: a hostage to fortune to those who would claim Szymanowski’s world amorphous. It is not, but it requires a more comprehending conductor to present to full advantage its golden tapestry in motion.

 
Choral singing, however, was excellent, from, to quote Stephen Downes’s excellent programme note, that ‘majestic, awe-inspiring chorus’ onwards. Indeed, in that’ Byzantine Sanctus sung in harmonies that evoke archaic primitivism and power,’ the basses – a sizable extra chorus had been enlisted – offered a highly convincing impression of their Eastern European confrères. Weight and sensitive diction were, throughout, shown to be anything but opposing tendencies. Renato Balsadonna and his singers deserve great credit, not least for discretely posing the question of to what extent we might consider this work a staged oratorio. It is a tendency rather than an identity, but a worthwhile tendency to raise, especially given the subject matter.



The cast was excellent too. At its heart stood Mariusz Kwiecień’s Roger. Although an ailing Kwiecień sounded – if only relatively – a little tired at the end of the second and third acts, that in no way detracted from the thoughtful heroism of his portrayal. It is a role with which, of course, he has a lengthy association; indeed, on this occasion, it seemed made for him, so close were his identification and projection of the King’s conflicting voices. This was certainly not a Roger, even when unwell, who stood in need of Pappano’s quenching the fires of Szymanowski’s orchestra. The rest of the cast seemed no more in need of that. Saimir Pirgu offered an alluring, properly dangerous, ultimately yet prematurely triumphant Shepherd, whom many would have followed. The alterity of his Lydian-inflected music, deliberately non-developmental, ‘an enclosed, complete and self-referential musical system’ (Downes), made its dramatic point strongly, even without the overwhelming orchestral contribution that might have been present. Georgia Jarman’s Roxana certainly seemed clear why she was doing so, yet not without affection for her consort; one sensed that she would like to have included him. Her second-act aria was as ravishingly sensual as anyone might decently – or indecently – have hoped. Alan Ewing, Agnes Zwierko, and Kim Begley all distinguished themselves in the smaller roles. Old Szymanowski hands and newcomers alike should hasten to the Royal Opera House.

 

Thursday, 30 April 2015

EIC/Pintscher - Debussy, Boulez, Robin, and Pintscher, 28 April 2015


Barbican Hall

Debussy – Syrinx
Boulez – Mémoriale (… explosante-fixe … Originel)
Yann Robin – Asymétriades
Matthias Pintscher – Choc (Monumento IV)
Boulez – sur Incises
Boulez – Anthèmes 1 and 2

Sophie Cherrier (flute)
Nicolas Crosse (double bass)
Michael Barenboim (violin)
Arshia Cont and Franck Rossi (IRCAM electronics)
Ensemble Intercontemporain
Matthias Pintscher (conductor)

The Barbican’s Boulez celebrations have not been accorded so high a profile as those in many other European cities. (Click here for a sad report on the dire situation across the Atlantic. The New York Philharmonic, of all orchestras, appears to be ignoring its erstwhile Music Director completely.) Still, each has been welcome, this third, concluding instalment included.


No composer, even Webern, stands closer to Boulez than Debussy. His Syrinx seems to hover presciently over a good few of Boulez’s pieces, his early Sonatine included – and also Mémoriale, which would follow. Sophie Cherrier was the excellent flautist for both pieces. She offered what sounded, lapsing into ‘national’ cliché, a ‘French sound, pure and clear, unencumbered with excessive vibrato. Debussy’s brief solo work thus seemed both to hark back to Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and forward to Mémoriale, which emerged almost as a continuation. In this context, the Ensemble Intercontemporain sounded initially rather as a refraction of the solo part, the ensemble itself emerging into its own identity. Matthias Pintscher ensured a performance that was eminently precise, that precision, like Boulez’s own, never an end in itself, but as a tool of musical expression. This was an exquisite fantasy, of somewhat different, perhaps less sweet, flavour than that offered recently by Karl-Heinz Schütz, the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, but no less welcome. One of the pleasures of such a year – and let us hope that it does not remain a single year – has been to hear different interpretative approaches to Boulez’s music.

 
Yann Robin’s 2014 Asymétriades followed, Nicolas Crosse the double bass soloists. It was the first time I had heard any of Robin’s music; I hope it will not be the last. Although it is easier to point to contrasts with Boulez’s music, one thing that struck me was how the ensemble sound emerged from the double bass, just as I had heard it do from the flute in Mémoriale. Helmut Lachenmann’s example offered another mental comparison: not that this sounded ‘like’ Lachenmann’s music, but almost as if it presented itself very much ‘after’ the German composer’s deconstruction and reconstruction of instrumental performance. The sounds we heard, doubtless unorthodox to conservative ears, owed much to what some still call ‘extended techniques’, but they registered with such confidence as to render such a term, or indeed such a thought, quite anachronistic. That said, I was astonished to hear some of the sounds I heard coming from the ensemble I saw; I often could not say, on a first hearing, what came from where. If such be a secret of orchestration, then it seemed to have been fully mastered. Asymétriades was as visceral as Mémoriale sounded æthereal; it seemed very much an urban landscape and drama, although it should certainly not be reduced to such terms. Varèse, nevertheless, sprang to mind – albeit with very new means. Fast, frenetic, and not without fun, the work’s asymmetries thrilled and confounded. Insofar as I could tell, the performances were superb, not least that of the astoundingly brilliant Crosse. The EIC is as fortunate to have him as it is to have Cherrier.


Pintscher followed that piece with his own 1996 Choc (Monumento IV). Again, there was great contrast to be heard; whilst not without its structurally defining eruptions, nor indeed the éclat common to Robin and, definitively, to Boulez, this was sonically much more of a tapestry, perhaps somewhat in Boulez’s line. However, the sense of, as Pintscher has put it, ‘camouflaging sounds’ was again a thread in common with the preceding work, at least. It is, he was quoted in the programme as having said, ‘part of my compositional thinking, so that one can never exactly be sure who is playing or whether the sound is coming from.’ It needs, of course, an ensemble of the excellence of that founded by Boulez to accomplish that, just as it does in the alchemy of Richard Strauss; that it received here, in a splendidly incisive performance.


… which brings us to sur Incises. The expansion inherent – and discovered – in so much of Boulez’s material is emphatically a conceptual foundation of the work here, as much visually in the layout for three pianos, three percussionists, and three harps, as in this most beguiling dramatic tapestry. Sounding almost decadently Romantic, the performance never lost its sure structural foundation; it scintillated in the best – and proper – sense. The composer’s sheer delight in the sound of three pianos registered, as if one were hearing a multi-dimensional instrument, and performance – which indeed is part of the point. What one might call Boulez’s toccata tendency engaged with symmetries that were not fearful but apparently fearless: testament to performance as well as to work.


As a welcome post-concert treat, those of us who wished were invited to a performance of Anthèmes 1 and Anthèmes 2 by Michael Barenboim, the latter with IRCAM electronics. I have written recently about a Barenboim performance of Anthèmes 2; this was perhaps still more confident, and certainly had one listening with new ears in new context. It was fascinating to hear the earlier ‘version’, if one may it that, and I think in context one may, and to reflect on the expansion – not unlike that of Incises into sur Incises – of a solo work that inevitably has one think of Bach as surely as Mémoriale does of Syrinx. That, and Barenboim’s excellent performance, certainly heightened structural awareness, whilst the sonic tapestry seemed almost, doubtless misleadingly, to take care of itself. Such, after all, is part of the business of performance; once again, art concealed art and yet never forgot its performative nature, just as Boulez had intended when emphatically returning to electronic music in Répons. More on that, later in the year, from Salzburg…


Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Esfahani - Tomkins, Gibbons, Scheidt, Bach, Jones, Kidane, Kalabis, and W.F. Bach, 27 April 2015


Milton Court

Tomkins – Barafostus Dreame
Gibbons – Pavan in G
Scheidt – Also geht’s, also steht’s
Bach – English Suite in D minor, BWV 811
Patrick Jones – Santoor Suite
Daniel Kidane – Six Etudes (world premiere)
Viktor Kalabis – Akvarely, op.53
W.F. Bach – Sonata in E-flat major, Fk.5

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
 

The Guildhall’s recently appointed Professor of Harpsichord, Mahan Esfahani, gave an inaugural recital, his first at Milton Court, in music by composers ranging from the Elizabethan virginalists to the present day. An ‘English’ emphasis was unmistakeable, even Bach represented by one of his English Suites, that in D minor. Far from that indicating any restriction, the hallmark of the recital was more variety, excellent performances throughout proving the guiding thread. In a typically engaging programme note, Esfahani wrote: ‘In English hands, the harpsichord truly came alive in all its guises – as a marvellously clear vehicle for counterpoint, as an effective imitator of whole ensembles and consorts, as an instrument of great sensuality as made possible by the confluence of various registers and harmonics naturally occurring in the sound made by a plucked string.’ Such was certainly what we seemed to hear on this occasion.


Thomas Tomkins’s variations on a broadside ballad, ‘Barafostus Dreame’ proved as ‘magnificent’ as was claimed in the performer’s note. Compositional and performing virtuosity sounded as one in a splendidly developmental account. Metre was subtly ‘bent’ on occasion, but always, it seemed, with a greater plan in mind, not for its own sake. Above all, there was a real sense of fantasy; it made sense as a performance in its own right, but also as the opening to a programme (perhaps rarer than one might expect). That characteristic ‘English’ melancholy which persists unto Birtwistle and beyond was certainly to be heard in the Orlando Gibbons Pavan. What sounded as if it were an infinitely flexible subdivision of the beat indicated a good deal of art concealing art – again both in work and performance. Samuel Scheidt’s seven variations on the German song, Also geht’s, also steht’s, offered a well-chosen staging-post on the way to Bach: a different voice, yes, even a different accent, but subtlety in technique that seemed also to offer continuation of a line.


Bach’s D minor English Suite completed the first half. In a short spoken introduction, Esfahani offered a way in to some of the composer’s complexities with a strikingly simple – in the best sense – demonstration of palindromic tendencies, both melodic and rhythmic. The opening Prelude initially resounded as if it announce Bach’s French inheritance – let us remember that a hallmark of earlier eighteenth-century German art, especially as understood by contemporaries, was its openness to different national ‘styles’ – but Bach’s undoubtedly Germanic legacy soon manifested itself ever more strongly. In the following Allemande and Courante, Esfahani struck a fine balance between phrases, paragraphs, and the whole, offering plenty of time, though never too much, for Bach’s music to speak in all its glory – and all its necessary complexity. The Sarabande’s proliferation seemed to this listener, doubtless partly on account of so much of his recent listening, to look forward to later Boulez. (If only we could hear some of the younger Boulez’s Bach performances!) The ‘busy’ quality of the first Gavotte was founded upon secure command of line, whilst the second benefited from typically imaginative yet idiomatic registration. The closing Fugue, perhaps in the light of my recently having heard Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, sounded as if a danse macabre. And of course, there were the inevitable labyrinthine presentiments of the Second Viennese School too. A well-shaped account throughout ensured that, once again, we heard that there is no composer less archaic than Bach.


There followed three very much more recent works, two from the twenty-first century, one from the twentieth. Patrick Jones’s Santoor Suite takes its cue, or at least a cue, from the composer’s study of south Indian raga, ‘specifically,’ according to Esfahani, ‘the “gat” (a cyclical, fixed melody)’. In its brief span, roughly five minutes in total, we heard an inventive response both to that world and indeed to the Baroque suite, a nicely, naggingly persistent Courante particularly striking to me on a first hearing. Daniel Kidane’s Six Etudes received their first complete performance. They definitely sounded as studies, for instance in the first piece’s treatment of repeated notes, the intervallic explorations of the second (and not just the second), and so on. A hotel reception bell made an appearance as duet partner (albeit operated by Esfahani’s foot) in the final piece.


Viktor Kalabis’s 1979 Akvarely (‘Aquarelles) seemed, again on a first hearing for me, almost to start, in its first movement, where Poulenc, in his Concert champêtre, had left off, and then, as it were, to run with whatever the composer had picked up. In this performance, I found it impossible to dissent from Esfahani’s view that this was most definitely music for the harpsichord, as opposed to ‘so much modern harpsichord music which seems like the word “piano” has simply been crossed from the title page’. The second piece revelled further in possibilities both musical and instrumental. At one point, it sounded almost as if a response to the celebrated solo in The Rake’s Progress.


Finally, there came a rare opportunity to hear a piece by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. I cannot say that I was entirely convinced, especially in the finale, by its stopping and starting: rhetorical, perhaps, but not with the mastery of the eldest son’s younger brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel. At any rate, this was a brilliantly ‘free’ performance, the slow movement at the work’s heart proving especially eloquent, indeed possessed of considerable harmonic depth.