Monday, 31 March 2014

Matsuev/LSO/Gergiev - Scriabin and Liszt, 30 March 2014

Barbican Hall

Scriabin – Symphony no.1 in E major, op.26
Liszt – Piano Concerto no.2 in A major, S 125
Scriabin – Symphony no.4, The Poem of Ecstasy, op.54

Ekaterina Sergeyeva (mezzo-soprano)
Alexander Timchenko (tenor)
Denis Matsuev (piano)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

It is not every day one hears Scriabin’s First Symphony, and that is no bad thing. Valery Gergiev’s exhumation with the LSO was not without interest, but ultimately it is at best a mediocre piece, which long outstays its welcome. That said, the occasional opportunity to hear such a work – Gergiev is performing all of Scriabin’s symphonies with the LSO – is worth taking, even if the performance were not on the level of, say, Riccardo Muti’s Philadelphia recording. The first movement was properly languorous – an almost unavoidable word here – and, yes, ‘perfumed’. It meandered along its way, but one could take solace, not for the last time, in a beautifully-played violin solo from Roman Simovic. Wagnerisms one could spot in isolation, but they lacked the Master’s direction or development. Wagner and late-ish Romanticism made their mark again in the second movement. One sensed that Gergiev might have traced a clearer path, had his head not been so often buried in the score, though by the same token, whatever might have seemed to be the case, it was not his first encounter with the work. That said, awkwardness and novelty, even a degree of originality, came through. But there was nothing here to counter Pierre Boulez’s claim that the most interesting Scriabin lies in his piano music. The third movement glowed and swelled: more like a warm bath than anything more invigorating, but no matter. Brahms, however, this certainly is not. There is perhaps something more traditionally ‘Russian’, even reminiscent of Tchaikovsky (bad Tchaikovsky, though) to the writing of the scherzo. Rhythms were nicely sprung, and a familiar vein of (quasi-)orientalist fantasy was mined to pleasing enough effect. Ridiculous applause marred the pause before the fifth movement, as the soloists walked on. They proved excellent in the finale, Ekaterina Sergeyeva splendidly rich-toned and centred, Alexander Timchenko ardent, tending even toward the ecstatic. Beautiful wind solos, shimmering violins, brass as resplendent as the voices: Gergiev’s forces gave this paean to art a committed performance, the conductor clearly far better suited to Scriabin than, say, to Mahler. The fugal writing still sounded forced, the ending ultimately oddly conventional, but that was not the fault of the performers. It was a pity, especially in what must to most have been an unfamiliar work, that Andrew Huth’s booklet note should have said so little about the music and nothing at all in any detail; there were plenty of words available, but alas they were not well chosen.

Liszt came as a great relief following the interval, all the more so given the excellence of Denis Matsuev’s performance, well supported by Gergiev and the LSO. The opening was taken quicker than usual, as would be the following, thunderous despatch of the Allegro agitato assai section, but both tempi convinced. Matsuev offered from the start a classically Romantic Steinway tone, awe-inspiring in its clarity and its depth; I am almost tempted to use the word ‘glamorous’. One can imagine this going down a treat in Rachmaninov, and if there have perhaps been more searching interpretations, this nevertheless thrilled – not a quality to be taken for granted. Matsuev’s piano-cello duet with Tim Hugh offered a delectable example of the chamber music the composer is erroneously claimed rarely, or even never, to have written; like Wagner, Liszt’s tendency, though not an exclusive one, is to incorporate chamber music into works for larger forces. (Consider how much even of Götterdämmerung may be considered in that light.) The LSO’s woodwind here and elsewhere offered mellifluous support. If the vulgarity of the march transformation was relished rather than mitigated, that is a perfectly reasonable response. And if glissandi may not quite have scintillated as they did with Richter, they were still mightily impressive.

In The Poem of Ecstasy, Gergiev’s habitual moulding was for once not out of place; in a sense, the more narcissistic the better here. (Not quite true, I know, but anyway…) But there was purpose too, amidst the sultry languor. Playing, whether solo or tutti, was exquisite. A welcome air of Debussy stopped one suffocating entirely, but one almost welcomed the prospect of such suffocation. Strings were voluptuous, and the LSO brass excelled itself, not least in Philip Cobb’s excellent, vibrato-laden solos, as ‘Russian’ a sound as one is likely to hear from a non-Russian orchestra. The orchestra veritably shuddered, coming close to explosion. A real organ would have been welcome, but its lack is one of the prices one pays for performances in the Barbican. Nevertheless, this remained an excellent performance, one most likely to be welcomed on CD before long.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Josefowicz/Novacek - Schubert, Stravinsky, and Kurtág, 27 March 2014

Milton Court Concert Hall

Schubert – Violin Sonata in A major, D 574
Stravinsky – Duo concertant
Chanson russe, arr. Samuel Dushkin
Kurtág – Tre pezzi, op.14e
Schubert – Rondo in B minor, D 895

Leila Josefowicz (violin)
John Novacek (piano)

First experiences can prove misleading. Schubert’s A major Violin Sonata, D 574, received a disappointing performance, at least so far as Leila Josefowicz was concerned, but the rest of this recital proved a far more exhilarating experience. Tempi were well chosen in the Schubert, the first movement combining, as the composer requested, Allegro and moderato. John Novacek offered mellow piano tone, as close as a Steinway – a Bösendorfer is surely preferable here – can come to what sounds ‘right’ for Schubert. Josefowicz’s tone, by contrast, varied in seemingly arbitrary fashion, sometimes silvery, sometimes richer, but often quite out of tune. Rhythms were well sprung in the scherzo, which benefited from greater intensity. However, intonational difficulties were all too apparent in the trio. The Andantino flowed well, though again Josefowicz struggled to stay in tune; perhaps surprisingly, the double-stopped passages were not a problem. Novacek, however, offered a supportive bedrock. The finale revived the scherzo’s rhythmic thrust, though the players proved perfectly capable of relaxing too.

It was as if a new violinist had come onstage for Stravinsky’s Duo concertant – and so it would remain. The opening ‘Cantilène’ was properly astringent at times, but also passionate where required. Once past a few difficulties in the opening bars, Josefowicz’s tuning would never again prove a problem. Novacek’s piano part proved motoric, though not aggressively so; wisely, aggression was saved for later. The first ‘Eglogue’ received a wonderfully cool opening, a miraculous ‘Russian’-sounding thaw ensuing. By now, Josefowicz’s playing was not only virtuosic but very well ‘centred’. ‘Eglogue II’ showed again that, beneath ice-cold neo-Classicism, there continued to bear a decidedly Russian heart. (French?) Baroque ghosts added a splendid twist through piano ornamentation. The ‘Gigue’ was spar and spiky, the aggression of Stravinsky’s mechanisms seeming to work itself out of its own volition. Finally came a beautifully statuesque ‘Dithyrambe’: neo-Classical in a more literal sense, if we consider an imagined ancient Greece (via Winckelmann?) rather than Mozart. There was heat, though, in the coolness.

Following the interval, Samuel Dushkin’s arrangement of the ‘Chanson russe’ from Mavra offered a very different perspective upon Stravinsky: catchy and, yes, songful, with a flavour I am almost tempted, however inaccurately, to call ‘gypsy’. It made for a slightly odd introduction to Kurtág’s Tre pezzi, save for their shared origins in vocal music. No matter: here the performances were again excellent. The first, ‘Öd und traurig’, offered a calm evocation of lineage from Webern, in a beautifully-controlled performance. Webern again came to the fore in the shard-like opening to the second, ‘Vivo’, though the ensuing violence was perhaps more Bartók-like. In reality, the language is of course very much Kurtág’s own – and so it sounded. A frozen landscape in which, again, every note counted was traced in the third piece, ‘Aus der Ferne’. Tuning, I might add, was impeccable throughout: crucial in the expression of those utterly haunting harmonies. As for those Webern-like sighs, whether in a single part, or passed between violin and piano, they spoke volumes.

I opened by saying that first experiences could prove misleading. Having had an unhappy experience with a performance earlier this month of Schubert’s B minor Rondo, I cannot say that I was looking forward to this, especially given Josefowicz’s problems in the first Schubert piece. However, these players gave as convincing an account as one might reasonably have hoped for. It is no masterpiece; it goes on for far too long, is frankly episodic, and is not free of note-spinning. (Extraordinary to think what else Schubert was writing in 1826!) But in a tauter, grander, generally more idiomatic performance, it could still be enjoyed. It needs the kind of abandon heard here and therefore made a winning end to a mostly distinguished recital.


Nash Ensemble/Kok - Birtwistle, Carter, and Adams, 26 March 2014

Wigmore Hall

Birtwistle – Fantasia upon all the notes (2012)
Carter – Enchanted Preludes (1988)
Esprit rude/Esprit doux (1985)
John Adams – Shaker Loops (1978)
Carter – Mosaic (2004)
Birtwistle – The Moth Requiem (2012)

Nash Ensemble
BBC Singers
Nicholas Kok (conductor)

A funny programme this: not the combination of Harrison Birtwistle and Elliott Carter, for they provided refreshing, invigorating contrast, but the presence of John Adams’s Shaker Loops, which really did not seem to have anything to do with either, and whose poverty of invention sounded all the more glaring in such august company. I am not sure how long it lasted, but it seemed interminable; waiting for the music to start proved a futile experience. Doubtless whatever objections one may level will be countered with an all too easy ‘but that is the point’. ‘Process music’ is all well and good – well, perhaps – in theory, but this does not even have the courage to be truly unbearable, in the ‘Yes, I’ll confess, just please let me out’ mode of Philip Glass. It seems more soft-centred, more pandering, and yet ultimately there seems at that centre to be nothing but a vacuum. The seven string players – two violins, two violas, two cellos, and double bass – of the Nash Ensemble could not be faulted in the incisive commitment of their response under Nicholas Kok. How on earth one keeps one’s concentration in such conditions I do not know. Still, at least it was good to be reminded of the æsthetic nullity of music too insubstantial even for a Michael Nyman soundtrack.

Enough of that! Birtwistle’s 2012 Fantasia upon all the notes, for flute, clarinet, harp, and string quartet, was given its world premiere by the Nash Ensemble, also at the Wigmore Hall. Its title does not refer, as one might have expected, to Purcell, but rather, in Bayan Northcott’s words, ‘hints at how, each time the harpist shifts a pedal between sharp, natural, or flat, a new scale is set up, and … how a shifting sequence of harp modes can interact with and guide the harmonies of a surrounding ensemble’. That said, there remains a typical, if somewhat intangible, evocation of an older England: real, not sepia-tinted, all the more moving for it. And beyond that, there is a still more typical sense of the archaic, Birtwistle’s sound world – the phrase may be clichéd, but here seems unavoidable – announcing itself unmistakeably at the very opening. Ghosts haunt the machine: is that a hint of Ravel’s Daphnis? (The work was commissioned by the Nash Ensemble and the Wigmore Hall, to fulfil Amelia Freedman’s desire for a companion piece to Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro.)  There certainly seem to be points of contact with, though not necessarily derivation from, Birtwistle’s own Punch and Judy and, of course, Stravinsky. But the ecstatic climate sounded here, again in an exemplary performance, as very much part of a post-Minotaur world. The final unwinding returns us ambiguously to a world of earlier mechanisation: almost like a parody of Webern.

Carter’s Enchanted Preludes for flute and cello followed, thereby sounding more mercurial, even flighty, though certainly substantial. It emerged as a true duet (not unlike Bach’s fascinating, strange BWV 802-5 pieces). Shifting of mood, for instance to slower material, adorned with cello harmonics, was highly accomplished. And the composer’s own genius in transformation of material shone through throughout – redolent, perhaps surprisingly, of Liszt. Esprit rude/esprit doux, for flute and clarinet, was written for Boulez’s sixtieth birthday. It sounds closer to Boulez – not just in the instrumentation, but also in the clarinet’s apparent announcement of reconciliation between Stravinsky and Schoenberg: Pierrot and Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Again, it proved a real duet, in a truly haunting performance.  

Following Adams’s piece and the interval, Carter returned with Mosaic, for flute, oboe, clarinet, harp, string trio, and double bass, another Nash Ensemble commission. Perhaps the presence of the harp could not fail to evoke the Stravinsky of Symphony in Three Movements, yet that haunting was again not simply a matter of instrumentation, but also of musical mechanisms. Soon, however, the material and its development takes a very different path. One sensed, even without necessarily knowing precisely what they were, the guiding presence of the ‘unusual developments in harp technique … too infrequently explored in recent times’ by Carlos Salzedo, whom Carter cited as an inspiration. Bursting with invention in more than one sense, Bach and Haydn did not seem so very far away either. Full of magical twists and turns, new vistas, there might also perhaps be sensed a distant kinship with the world of Romanticism. And, even if less overtly than Birtwistle, Carter also imparts – again, keenly realised in this excellent performance – a sense of unfolding drama. Instruments may sometimes be imagined almost to be characters, sometimes as narrators, sometimes as expression of character and narration. And yes, in the panoply of tesserae-like sounds, a mosaic was constructed – whether entirely or no – before our ears. Wonderful!

Birtwistle’s The Moth Requiem, for twelve female singers, three harps, and alto flute, was premiered in Amsterdam, coming to the Proms last year. I must have been away, for I cannot imagine that I should otherwise have missed it. At any rate, it received a highly accomplished performance. Interested in the mysterious beauty of moths from his teenager years Birtwistle offers a magical lament, which appears both to summon up childhood and yet also to touch upon death. A list of moth names – Scopula immorata, Depressaria discipunctella, Leucodonta bicolaria … – coexists with, is confronted by The Moth Poem (2006) by Robin Blaser, librettist for The Last Supper. (John Fallas, in his programme note, made a telling connection with the a cappella interludes from that work.) The nocturnal ‘moth in the piano’ makes itself felt, yet we are haunted by a melancholy induced by knowledge of the deaths of a number of those species. The alto flute, here played by the excellent Philippa Davies, seems almost to echo – whether intentionally or otherwise – the fairy world of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yet, whatever the fantastical element, the hieratic, incantatory, perhaps surprisingly homophonic choral writing is at least equally important, once again expressing an archaic sense of loss. It is – and, in performance, was – one of the most striking acts of remembrance I have heard in quite a while: not, perhaps, entirely removed from the world of Stockhausen, or at least our memories thereof. Moreover, in its once-again-undefinable sense of ‘Englishness’, spirits one might have thought less than kindred – Britten, Vaughan Williams – seem also intangibly to incorporated into backstory and present. At the end, we had experienced both the sadness of loss and the exhilaration of experience.


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Die Zauberflöte, Opéra national de Paris, 25 March 2014

Opéra Bastille

Tamino – Pavol Breslik
First Lady – Eleonore Marguerre
Second Lady – Louise Callinan
Third Lady – Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Papageno – Daniel Schmutzhard
Papagena – Regula Mühlemann
Sarastro – Franz-Josef Selig
Monostatos – François Piolino
Pamina – Julia Kleiter
Queen of the Night – Sabine Devieilhe
Speaker – Terje Stensvold
First Priest – Michael Havlicek
Second Priest – Dietmar Kerschbaum
First Armoured Man – Eric Huchet
Second Armoured Man – Wenwei Zhang
Three Boys – Soloists from the Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw

Robert Carsen (director)
Michael Devine (set designs)
Petra Reinhardt (costumes)
Martin Eidenberger (video)
Peter van Praet and Robert Carsen (lighting)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Patrick Marie Aubert)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

This, the 408th performance of The Magic Flute (or La Flûte enchantée) at the Opéra national de Paris, had a good number of virtues, the greatest of which was the quality of the soloists. Pavol Breslik was an ardent, honey-toned Pamino, as impressively ‘natural’ – however that much may be a case of art concealing art – an actor as a singer. He sounded and looked every inch a prince, however keen Sarastro may have been to remind us that he is more than that, ‘ein Mensch’. Julia Kleiter seemed made for him as a Pamina. She did not put a foot wrong, again as convincing dramatically as musically. And the acid test: ‘Ach ich fühl’s’ moved as it should, Mozart’s ambiguous, ambivalent chromaticism both agonising and reconciliatory. (How Beethoven and Wagner must have wished they could accomplish that, yet of course their greatness lay in good part in dealing with their coming too late to be able to do so.) There is surely no better Sarastro treading the world’s stages today than Franz-Josef Selig. It is tempting to take for granted the ‘fit’ of his voice, his way with words, his command of musical line, and most crucially, his alchemical blend of words and music, yet one should not. All were on fine display on this occasion, though ‘display’ is quite the wrong word really, given a performance of winning humility, goodness even. Sabine Devieilhe impressed as the Queen of the Night. There is often something that trips up performers of this role; here there was a phrase toward the end of her first aria, in which intonation suffered. It is a well-nigh impossible role, though, and elsewhere Devieilhe acquitted herself very well, the brightness as well as the accuracy of the principal notes in her second aria especially noteworthy. Daniel Schmutzhard’s Papageno had no need to fear comparisons with the most accomplished portrayals. His was a touching assumption, in which once again a great deal of solid musicianship lightly underpinned dramatic conviction. Moreover, his delivery of the dialogue – in this performance, a major strength across the board – may have been the strongest I have heard, an aspect which can sometimes let down the very greatest of singers. Regula Mühlemann made for a spirited Papagena, François Piolino a quicksilver, unusually un-caricatured Monostatos, and Terje Stensvold a winningly sincere Speaker. The Three Ladies and Three Boys were all excellent too, the latter being called upon, prior to singing, to display what seemed to me to be creditable footballing as well as vocal skills. What a joy it was, though, to have so secure a reading from boy trebles.

Philippe Jordan’s conducting certainly had its moments, though the hard-driven yet sleek Overture was not one of them. (It sounded a bit like second-rate Karajan, albeit with too small an orchestra.) Tempi in general had clearly been well considered, though some seemed a little too studied in their ‘difference’; likewise the welcome flexibility afforded some numbers. ‘Bei Männern’ was taken daringly slowly, yet worked, a true feeling of wonder engendered. There were other occasions, however, when there was more than an impression of listlessness, the music floating away into the ether rather than being founded upon its bass line. Jordan’s evident desire for intimacy may or may not have been misplaced – there is a great deal of Beethoven here, as great conductors such as Böhm and Klemperer knew – but it certainly sounded misplaced in the vast Bastille theatre, where larger forces and a less precious approach would have assisted. Arguably, some of the voices, however, well sung, were on the small side too; it was difficult to resist the conclusion that this was a work, or at least an approach, better suited to the Palais Garnier. Orchestral playing considered on its own terms was generally of a high standard. Choral singing was decent rather than inspired, but there was nothing to complain about in that respect.

What of Robert Carsen’s production, first seen last year at Baden-Baden? I wish I could speak with greater enthusiasm, but cannot help but wonder whether this is now a case of a director who is doing too much. Too often a general ‘stylishness’ pervades the stage, and whatever this work, with its array of social, religious, ethical reference, may be, it has nothing to do with mere fashion. Video accomplishes little beyond its mere presence. Indeed, the forest scene, with occasional waving of branches in the wind, proves alienating in a non-productive way; what is wrong with an old-fashioned backdrop? The only occasion on which it adds something was in the huge projection of Pamina’s face, constantly changing, as Pamino sings the Portrait Aria, but even then, one is tempted to ask: so what? Fire and water are far more convincing, some of the most convincing – and indeed straightly portrayed – I have seen, likewise the lighting in general. There is a degree of messing around with the dialogue, and indeed the ordering, but nothing too grievous, and there are sections – for instance, that pertaining to Monostatos’s blackness, here certainly not a matter of skin colour – to be heard that nowadays one generally finds cut.

Then there is Carsen’s big idea, of which I had initially given up hope. The Queen of the Night and Sarastro are on the same side; indeed, the members of Sarastro’s order turn out already to be nicely paired up with women. Initially, I thought the idea merely silly, and was certainly irritated by the two ‘leaders’ kissing each other at the beginning of the second act. But it has some mileage, not least in dealing with the alleged ‘problem’ – actually it is no such thing, if one understands the narrative as progressing according to Tamino’s, and our, consciousness – of the changing portrayal of the ‘dark side’. Here there is none, and everyone – even Monostatos, somewhat wearisomely comforted and converted by Pamina in the final chorus – joins in the final rejoicing in the light. A more critical approach, though, to the implications of such unity would have been welcome. Is it not, perhaps, a dangerously totalitarian prospect? Alas, politics and, more broadly, ethical considerations are more or less entirely absent. Rather than take the easy road of redressing alleged misogyny – for the most part, it is a matter of mistaking the views of characters for those of creators – why not look critically at the work’s heteronormativity, here actually bolstered? A desire for inclusion, in itself neither objectionable nor incomprehensible, remains generalised and disturbingly free of context: liberalism in a nutshell. Ultimately, chez Carsen, style occludes rather than instantiates idea.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Collins/Brodsky Quartet - Mozart and Brahms, 19 March 2014

Hall One, Kings Place

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major, KV 581
Brahms – Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op.115

Michael Collins (clarinet)
Daniel Rowland, Ian Belton (violins)
Paul Cassidy (viola)
Jacqueline Thomas (cello)

This was a delightful concert from beginning to end, Michael Collins and the Brodsky Quartet imparting seemingly effortless musicality to their performances of the Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets, never, so far as I recall, putting a step wrong. There were no mannerisms, just good and, in the best sense, old-fashioned musicianship. The opening Allegro of the Mozart work sounded with that almost impossible-to-define and yet equally impossible-to-ignore ‘lateness’ of the composer’s ‘late’ works, haunted by beautiful and – crucially – meaningful chiaroscuro. (From 1789, it is not actually so very ‘late’, but anyway…) The tempo here, as elsewhere, sounded just right, so that one did not even notice it. There was profusion of melody, of course, and what melody! In perfect balance, however, there was to be heard decidedly ‘late’ counterpoint, Mozart by now having utterly subsumed the examples of Bach and Handel into his own writing. The development proved quite scintillating, allowing all players to shine. And there were sensual, quasi-operatic delights to be had too, especially during the recapitulation: duets between Collins and Daniel Rowland perhaps especially beguiling.

Is there a more heart-stopping melody than the opening theme to the slow movement? It was treated here to that most difficult yet crucial of tasks: a performance of simplicity that belied artistry. However, it would be nothing without Mozart’s extraordinary harmonies, and they were voiced, their progress traced, to perfection. And again – those duets! Here they seemingly prefigured La clemenza di Tito. There was a sweetness that can only really be termed celestial; and yet, there was equally a longing that was very much of this world, whether we think of it as sexual or as a longing for the beatific vision. The minuet again sounded with ‘lateness’, not the least of whose exceptional passages are in the first, strings-only trio – which yet sounds quite different from Mozart’s writing for string quartet as such. There was throughout an air, refracted, of the outdoor serenades of old: now more fragile, more painful. The finale benefited from well-nigh flawless command of pulse and rhythm, never forced. There was minore tragedy to be heard, with wonderful, unexaggerated flexibility, and a delectable account of the slow variation. What a pity some idiot did his best to ruin the performance by clapping during the penultimate bar. By some miracle, he failed to do so.

The first movement of the Brahms quintet announced the voice of someone who might have wished to be Mozart but who knew all too well that his historical position, amongst other things, would not permit that: ‘lateness’ in a different and yet not entirely dissimilar sense. Textures were thicker, though not too much so. The fury of Brahms’s earlier years coexisted with later serenity. All dialectics? Well, yes: this is Brahms, after all. The cello sounded properly more prominent. Tone was richer overall, though with some beautifully hushed moments. The Adagio was songful, at times uneasy; yet, however involved Brahms’s writing became, the players ensured that his songfulness remained. Torment and solace, then, though sometimes one might well have asked, ‘which is which?’ And the Schubertian heavenly length: one would not have wished it any other way. There was a nicely questing, intermezzo-like mood to the third movement. Contrasts were skilfully integrated into its all-too-short whole: a telling contrast with the expansiveness of its predecessor, time advancing. Integration was very much to the fore in the finale too, including telling integration of tendencies within the work as a whole. That is hard Brahmsian work, but infinitely worth the toil. We heard a performance that was weighty in the best sense, certainly not ponderous, and with plenty of light as well as shade.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Elspeth Brooke, The Commission, and Francisco Coll, Café Kafka (London premieres), Royal Opera, 17 March 2014

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Craftsman/Man 3/Gracchus/Policeman – Andri Björn Robertsson
Silversmith/Man 1 – Daniel Norman
Daughter/Woman – Anna Dennis
Pope/Surgeon/Man 2 – William Purefoy
Girl – Suzanne Shakespeare

Annabel Arden (director)
Joanna Parker (designs)
Matt Haskins (lighting)
Dick Straker (video)
Pete Malkin (sound engineer)

Richard Baker (conductor)

Man 2 (William Purefoy), Woman (Anna Dennis), Man 1 (Daniel Norman), Girl (Suzanne Shakespeare)
Images: © ROH - Stephen Cummiskey

These two new one-act operas had been given their first performances on 14 March at Snape Maltings; three days later, they came to London, where they will be performed three times, before moving to Leeds’s Howard Assembly Room for a performance there. That reflects the excellent idea of having Aldeburgh, the Royal Opera, and Opera North jointly commissioning and sharing productions on an annual basis. Much as one might regret the language in which the statement, ‘Nurturing Opera Makers of the Future’ is couched, for instance, ‘The motivation is that in recent years this middle-scale opera sector has changed,’ the commissioners’ hearts are doubtless in the right place. They rightly point to the sad demise, for which our political masters bear heavy though not sole responsibility, of companies such as English Opera Group, Kent Opera, and Almeida Opera; let us hope that this initiative continues to bear fruit as it did here.

Craftsman (Andri Björn Róbertsson)
It was interesting to note that the programme suggested composers and librettists as creators of equal stature, billing ‘Elspeth Brooke and Jack Underwood’, and ‘Francisco Coll and Meredith Oakes’. Such seems to be part of an ongoing tendency. Though we are not likely any day soon to return to the eighteenth century, when Metastasio would be billed above the legions of composers who set his libretti, it is interesting to note the increasing literary claims advanced, far from unreasonably. Certainly in the case of The Commission, my attention was more or less equally divided between Underwood’s libretto and Brooke’s music, the former based upon a poem from Michael Donaghy’s 1993 collection, Errata. It is well suited to musico-dramatic treatment, the tale of a Craftsman’s revenge upon the wealthy Merchant he holds – we never learn whether this were actually the case – to have abused and killed his brother. Brooke’s setting is resourceful, written, as indeed are both operas, for small instrumental and vocal forces, but in this case supplemented by certain electronic sounds. Jazz is one clear reference; indeed, in a brief composer’s note, Brooke credits Miles Davis’s soundtrack for the Louis Malle film, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. But the sonorities of cimbalom, mandolin, and accordion also make their mark, as does repetition of what I suppose one might call motifs, that repetition acquiring genuine dramatic impetus that takes it beyond minimalism. Perhaps the vocal writing is less distinguished; for me, at least on a first hearing, it did its job, but did not seem especially inspired by voices as such. However, I am loath to say more than that, given that this was a first hearing, and it is more than possible that my ears were at fault. Moreover, the sense of transformation, when the Silversmith’s Daughter finally finds her voice suggests very real genuine musico-dramatic ability; the contrast was clearly (part of) the point.


Café Kafka offered a bracing, sardonic contrast – one to which I admit I responded more readily, but again, that may be more about me. Meredith Oakes may now, I think, be forgiven that doggerel reduction of The Tempest for Thomas Adès, since this offers a genuinely provocative treatment of, in her words, ‘the vertigo and intoxication people feel not just from trying and failing to understand the world, but also from trying to deal with the actual details of their own and other people’s behaviour’. The point is made more than once that the search for coherence may be in vain: a point we should at least consider, even if it prove well-nigh impossible for us as humans entirely to acquiesce. Two men and two women’s flirtations and conversations in a café attempt and fail to make sense of their lives, when suddenly the mood and tone change (as well, in this case, as the excellent lighting: Matt Haskins), and, in the words of director Annabel Arden’s synopsis, ‘Into this hermetic world comes the inexplicable figure [from a Kafka short story] of the Hunter Gracchus who died a long time ago, but whose death ship cannot truly cross into the realm of death.’ Francisco Coll’s score is bright and angular, rhythm and instrumentation working in often scintillating tandem. Here undoubtedly is a major talent, as was also suggested a couple of years ago at a London Sinfonietta performance of his Piedras. Vocal writing and differentiation were for me more readily apparent here, and a similar degree of resourcefulness, albeit of quite different nature, was undoubtedly apparent.

Arden’s stagings did, so far as I could tell, very well by the works. The smartness of sets and actions for Café Kafka was especially welcome, lending a skilfully ‘empty’ credibility to the loneliness and incomprehension of modern social life. Richard Baker and the players of CHROMA were excellent throughout, their incisiveness in the latter opera suggestive almost of lengthy acquaintance with a repertory work rather than a second performance. The singers did an excellent job too. Andri Björn Róbertsson’s dark-toned – and dark of character – Craftsman was well-matched by his scene-stealing transformation from barman into mysterious Gracchus. Anna Dennis proved equally adept in the transition from unintelligible to communicative daughter, and thence to the new world of Coll’s opera. Suzanne Shakespeare’s vocalism in the latter very much matched the éclat of the instrumental writing. Daniel Norman and William Purefoy did fascinating, dramatically credible masculine battle there too, contrast and blend between Norman’s tenor and Purefoy’s countertenor not the least virtue of these performances, nor indeed of Coll’s score, the composer’s willingness and ability to write for voices in duet proving especially refreshing.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Gerhaher/Huber - Schumann, 15 March 2014

Wigmore Hall

Myrten, op.25: ‘Freisinn’, ‘Talismane’, ‘Aus den hebräischen Gesängen’, ‘Venetianisches Lieder’ I and II, ‘Aus den “Östlicken Rosen”’, ‘Zum Schluß’
Liederkreis, op.39
Die Löwenbraut, op.31 no.1
Kerner-Lieder, op.35

Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Gerold Huber (piano)

No surprises here in one sense: an excellent recital from start to finish. And yet, such excellence cannot but surprise at a deeper level. Christian Gerhaher has a well-nigh perfect combination of vocal beauty and verbal intelligence. His longstanding partnership with Gerold Huber is clearly a meeting of minds and sensibilities; indeed, there were times when I felt I was almost hearing a single musical voice as opposed to two partners.

Gerhaher and Huber opened their recital with seven songs from Myrten. The free-spiritedness of the opening ‘Freisinn’ was communicated from the very opening, rhythms finely sprung, the second stanza properly going deeper, but not too much so. Subtlety of shifting moods was characteristic of the set as a whole, indeed the recital as a whole, another case in point being the understated sadness in the third stanza of ‘Talismane’: ‘Mich verwittren will das Irren; doch du weißt mich zu entwirren.’ ‘Aus den hebräischen Gesängen’ was more intense, yet remained variegated, aching for consolation its overwhelming characteristic. Huber’s handling of the crucial balance, or perhaps better dialectic, between harmony and counterpoint put me in mind of Schumann’s Arabeske, op.18. The two Thomas Moore songs (translated by Freiligrath) benefited from telling rubato, in perfect tandem with verbal stresses. Both musicians, not just Huber, created that unmistakeably German evocation of Venice in the rocking rhythm of the first – and the colours, the colours at Gerhaher’s command…! Much the same could be said of the final two songs, both by Rückert. ‘Rapt’ is doubtless an overused word, but it might have been coined to describe the performance of ‘Zum Schluß’ – and, of course, the song itself.

The op.39 Liederkreis followed, ‘In der Fremde’ offering plangent, late Schubertian tones: here we seemed to hear a response to Winterreise. How the dissonances told, again quite without exaggeration, the overriding impression of painful beauty. Likewise in the ensuing ‘Intermezzo’, bringing quite a lump to the throat, the syncopated defiance of its second stanza judged to perfection. ‘Waldgespräch’ peered forward towards Mahler, albeit with a different, Romantic form of alienation. This was the ebullience of an intellectual who wanted the forest, but would never quite be at home there. Huber’s piano part was every bit as sharply etched in ‘Die Stille’ as Gerhaher’s vocal line; as ever, they seemed to be of one mind and voice. ‘Mondnacht’ evinced a kinship with the night of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht: one truly felt its agonising beaurt. Eichendorff’s ‘sternklar’ really was the word for it. A sense of discovery, including that of things yet to come, characterised ‘Schöne Fremde’, followed by the intimate sadness of age(s) in ‘Auf einer Burg’. An intense yet fleet ‘In der Fremde’ was followed by ‘Wehmut’, the voice-leading in the piano epilogue painfully exquisite. However, all was not beauty, or not straightforwardly so: Gerhaher’s withdrawal of colour for the final line of ‘Zwielicht’ duly chilled. The hesitations of ‘Im Walde’ finally led once again to the pain of expectancy – and the expectancy of pain – in ‘Frühlingsnacht’.


Schumann makes a valiant effort with Die Löwenbraut, but I cannot account it one of his great songs. Nevertheless, the suavely prowling lion in the left-hand and the lingering coldness of the ‘letzten Kuß’ made their mark. The rest of the second half was devoted to the twelve Kerner songs of op.35. Especially notable earlier on were the Nazarene beauty of ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’!’ and the shining moon of the piano treble in ‘Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes’, tinged with melancholy. Rock-solid rhythm ensured the resounding success of ‘Wanderung’, the piano part almost seeming generative of the poem itself, rather than vice versa. The ardent quality to the final stanza proved heart-stopping. ‘Stille Liebe’ was simply lieblich, and ‘Frage’, yes, questioned as it should. Gerhaher’s shaping of the vocal line in ‘Stille Tränen’ would have impressed deeply in a purely instrumental sense; married to his verbal acuity, it proved unforgettable. The closing ‘Alte Laute’ showed again the necessity of pain, every bar imbued with the sense of life slowly passing. ‘Und aus dem Traum, dem bangen. Weckt mich ein Engel nur.’ ‘Requiem’, op.90 no.7 offered an apt, duly moving encore.   


Die Frau ohne Schatten, Royal Opera, 14 March 2014

Michaela Schuster (Nurse), Emily Magee (Empress)
Images: © ROH/Clive Barda
Royal Opera House

Nurse – Michaela Schuster
Spirit Messenger – Ashley Holland
Emperor – Johan Botha
Empress – Emily Magee
Voice of the Falcon – Anush Hovhannisyan
The One-Eyed – Adrian Clarke
The One-Armed – Jeremy White
The Hunchback – Hubert Francis
Barak’s Wife – Elena Pankratova
Barak – Johan Reuter
Serving Maids – Kathy Batho, Emma Smith, Andrea Hazell
Apparition of a Youth – David Butt Philip
Voices of Unborn Children – Ana James, Kiandra Howarth, Andrea Hazell, Nadezhda Karyazina, Cari Searle, Amy Catt
Night-Watchmen – Michel de Souza, Jihoon Kim, Adrian Clarke
Voice from Above – Catherine Carby
Guardian of the Threshold – Dušica Bijelić

Claus Guth (director)
Christian Schmidt (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Andi A. Müller (video)
Aglaja Nicolet (associate director)
Ronny Dietrich (dramaturge)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

Magnificent! Following the first night of this new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, I quipped that I could forgive an opera house anything for musical performance at this level, whether orchestral, vocal, or, in this case, both. Dread memories of Christof Loy (Tristan and Lulu, here in London, still more his unspeakable Salzburg travesty of Die Frau) made me wonder afterward whether I had shown undue clemency, but no: almost two days later, I am still reeling from the impact of so extraordinary a performance, one which no house in the world could conceivably improve upon, and which I doubt could even be matched. For whilst Claus Guth’s production had many virtues, which I shall come to a little later, it was Strauss’s astonishing, still widely misunderstood, score which, rightly, had pride of place. If any performance, anywhere in the world, does more for his cause in this anniversary year, I think I shall find myself in need of a new vocabulary of superlatives.

Above all, I must commend Semyon Bychkov and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. The very first time I heard this work was in 2001, the final outing of John Cox’s Royal Opera production, with celebrated designs by David Hockney; Christoph von Dohnányi’s conducting of the orchestra remains one of the finest I have heard of a Strauss opera. Then, I found myself lost in admiration both for his and for this orchestra’s achievement. Bychkov proved himself every inch Dohnányi’s equal; indeed, I am not entirely sure that he was not surpassed. No matter: it is not a competition. Bychkov’s command of the orchestra was nothing short of awe-inspiring. If in retrospect, the first act seemed seemed a little on the expository side, then that is surely a reflection of Strauss’s writing. Patiently building up not only the dramatic tension but the motivic material from which the score would truly, ravishingly blossom, Bychkov showed himself possessed in equal measure of an ear for colour so acute as almost to rival Boulez – now imagine a FroSch from him! – with the deepest of structural understanding. Horizontal and vertical presentation of the score offered in conjunction with voices and staging a three-, even four- dimensional performance  to rival that one sees in one’s mind when hearing Karl Böhm on CD. And if the Covent Garden did not sound quite with Böhm’s Viennese sweetness, it had phantasmagorical qualities all of its own: the refreshment of a true rival rather than the flattery of imitation. More than once, I found myself thinking, doubtless heretically: Klangfarbenmelodie! Strauss’s uncomprehending disdain for the ‘atonal’ Schoenberg notwithstanding, we did not stand so very far from the world of the latter’s op.16 Orchestral Pieces. Bychkov’s ear for combining musico-dramatical tension in the combination of sonority and harmonic tension ensured that we must think of him as not only an excellent, but a great Straussian.

Falcon, Emperor (Johann Botha), Empress


And then – the singing! That earlier Covent Garden performance had also marked my first encounter with Johan Botha. He proved at least as remarkable more than twelve years on. This Emperor, as mellifluous as he was vocally powerful, sounded every inch a Siegfried, and a golden age Siegfried at that. (If indeed such an age ever really existed.) Emily Magee had a few moments of relative fallibility, but by any reasonable standards, her Empress was an impressive achievement, all the more so given the wholehearted dramatic commitment offered in conjunction with the purely vocal. Elena Pankratova was making her Royal Opera debut as Barak’s Wife; hochdramtisch singing of the highest order was to be savoured here, her climaxes at the end of the first and second acts sending shivers down the spine. If Johan Reuter’s Barak at first sounded a little plain, that may as much have been character-portrayal as anything else; his performance grew into something genuinely moving, testament to the potential greatness of, as it were, Everyman (to borrow from Hofmannsthal’s future). As for Michaela Schuster’s Nurse, her offering of musical and dramatic malevolence – tonality on less the pre- than the post-Schoenbergian brink, though never beyond it – would have been an object lesson in itself, even had it not been heightened by such stage presence and intelligence. Smaller roles were almost all impressively handled, David Butt Philip’s attractively voiced Apparition perhaps especially worthy of note. The only disappointment was the tremulous Falcon of Anush Hovhannisyan. Renato Balsadonna’s Royal Opera Chorus was, as expected, excellent throughout.


Guth’s staging, first seen at La Scala in 2012, presents the Empress in a sanatorium, Christian Schmidt’s stylish designs highly evocative of the time of composition. Our heroine is, one might say, hysterical in every sense. To begin with, she – and we – are somewhat unclear concerning the boundaries of reality and dream. Is Freud being channelled or satirised? Unclear, and all the better for it, which renders the very ending, in which it appears ‘all to have been a dream’ something of a disappointment. That said, much of what we see in between is riveting. With the best will in the world, some of Hofmannsthal’s symbolism upon symbolism – The Magic Flute really is best left alone – can seem unnecessary; it certainly seemed – and seems – to do so to Strauss. Yet the poet’s idea of transformation gains a fair hearing, or rather viewing, and there is a proper sense of the mythological, even the fantastical, to the dreamed world we enter, never more so than at the spectacular close to the second act, Olaf Winter’s lighting crucial here, and the craggy opening of the third. Those problematical echoes of Tamino and Pamina’s trials are presented with greater visual conviction than I can previously recall – and indeed greater conviction than one often sees in productions of the ‘original’. The sheer weirdness but also menacing sense of judgement emanating from a courtroom of strange creatures close to the end not only testifies to imagination and its possibilities but also to the misogynistic pro-natalism, from which, try as we might, we cannot ultimately rescue the opera. By contrast, Loy in Salzburg arrogantly declared that the work did not interest him and made not even the slightest attempt to deal with it. It was the sort of thing that might appeal to those who do not care for Strauss, or indeed Hofmannsthal, in the first place, though even they would most likely have been bored to tears with the banal ‘alternative’ narrative presented. Guth, for the most part, successfully treads a tightrope between presentation and interpretation.

A good staging then, and a truly outstanding musical performance. My first act upon returning home was to visit the Royal Opera House website, to buy myself another ticket. Hear this if you can. The performance of 29 March will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, at 5.45 p.m.


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Boulevard Solitude, Welsh National Opera, 13 March 2014

(sung in English)

Milton Keynes Theatre

Armand des Grieux – Jason Bridges
Manon Lescaut – Sarah Tynan
Lescaut – Benjamin Bevan
Lilaque père – Adrian Thompson
Francis – Alastair Moore
Lilaque fils – Laurence Cole
Mr Man – Tomasz Wygoda

Mariusz Treliński (director)
Boris Kudlicka (set designs)
Marek Adamski (costumes)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Bartek Macias (video)
Tomasz Wygoda (choreography)

Welsh National Opera Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Harris)
Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Lothar Koenigs (conductor)

As I took the unlovely walk towards the theatre from the railway station, up Midsummer Boulevard, I began to wonder whether I was the victim of a hoax. Was the claim that the Welsh National Opera would be staging Boulevard Solitude in Milton Keynes simply a way of sending up the absurd pretension of the street-naming in this most notorious of England’s ‘new towns’? Whatever would I find when my long march came to an end? The answer proved to be: a first-rate performance of Henze’s first full-scale opera, in a rather impressive, small but not too small, municipal theatre, boasting friendlier staff than I can recall encountering in any opera house, large or small.

Indeed, though I have not seen so very many of WNO’s productions, this was undoubtedly the finest in my experience. A few frayed moments aside, the orchestra showed itself well matched to Henze’s protean, eclectic idiom(s), Lothar Koenigs’s direction equally adept. Each scene was well characterised, whilst a sense of onward progression was maintained throughout. Whether the echoes of Lulu – near-plagiarism or tribute, according to inclination? – or the strains of Stan Kenton-like jazz, each style had its due in a performance that winningly conveyed the sheer exuberance of Henze’s youthful explorations.  After the Hanover premiere in 1952, a journalist compared Henze with Judas Iscariot; 500 marks had allegedly been the price for betrayal of German art. Here one heard renewal, not afraid, Stravinsky-like, to use rather than venerate tradition, yet in that use nevertheless manifesting a truer respect than the pieties of misplaced nationalism. Already, moreover, one hears –and in performance, heard – the unwillingness of the composer to settle for serialist orthodoxies, twelve-note writing not only interspersed with frank diatonicism, whether parodic or relatively unmediated, but also, Berg-like, dramatising its own working out. The dramatic contrast between Schoenberg and Stravinsky expressed in, say, Der Prinz von Homburg sounds, if anything, more adventurously, certainly more freshly here.  

Mariusz Treliński’s production works impressively in tandem with score and performance. The chic emptiness of Boris Kudlicka’s sets, occasionally visited by cinematic flashes  and clashes, not least thanks to Felice Ross’s skilful lighting, convincingly evokes the mood of background and foreground and the dubious ‘modern’ atmospheres of railway station and hotel bar comings and goings, permitting the central tragedy to speak for itself, growing out of that setting. One can perhaps make too much of the filmic quality, whether of work or staging, since this remains very much a theatre piece, but it was certainly present. Indeed, as Henze would write in his autobiography, Bohemian Fifths, this ‘was a subject that had suggested itself to me … [partly] as a result of Henri-Georges-Clouzot’s recent film, which was set at the time of the French Resistance and starred Cécile Aubry’. I wondered to start with whether Treliński was focusing too much on Manon and not enough on Armand, but then reconsidered: to an extent, that is what Henze does himself, allowing Armand to emerge from the depths of the story’s pre-history as anti-hero rather than being imposed upon it from the outset.  

The cast was excellent. Jason Bridges portrayed movingly and sensitively the descent of Armand into seasonal and metaphorical winter. Well supported by Koenigs and Treliński, the sudden rush as Armand did his first line of cocaine packed quite a punch; so too did the plaintive moments in which Bridges had him rise above mere self-pity. Sarah Tynan made for an excellent Manon, those Lulu echoes ever-present and yet not overpowering; this was not simply a tribute act, but a woman with at least a degree of agency of her own, even vis-à-vis Benjamin Bevan’s suitably thuggish Lescaut. The rest of the cast did far more than make up the numbers, the Lilaques (Adrian Thompson and Laurence Cole) nicely contrasted yet sharing the benefits of financial and social privilege, both spoken and unspoken. Alastair Moore offered an intelligently sung and acted Francis.

The British premiere took place at Sadler’s Wells, in 1962; I therefore assume that would have been given in English too. After a minute or two, I more or less forgot that I ‘should’ have been hearing the work in Grete Weil’s original German, such was the conviction of the performance. Three cheers, then, for WNO!


Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Le Docteur Miracle, Pop-up Opera, 10 March 2014

Images: Jenny Dale

Drink, Shop & Do, London

Laurette – Aurélia Jonvaux
Silvio/Pasquin – Robert Lomax
Véronique – Sarah Champion
Le Podestat – Benjamin Seiffert

Darren Royston (director)
Clementine Lovell (producer)
Fiona Johnston (co-producer)

Elizabeth Challenger (piano)
Maria Garzon (musical director)

Just two or three minutes from the sterile new ‘piazza’ in front of the renovated King’s Cross Station, the delightful café/bar, Drink, Shop & Do offered an equally delightful resuscitation of Bizet’s one-act Le Docteur Miracle. It may not be especially characteristic – the eighteen-year old Bizet was skilful, but no Mozart or Mendelssohn – but it certainly fulfils the terms of Offenbach’s 1856 competition for his own Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens. In the end, the judges were unable to decide between Bizet’s offering and that of Charles Lecocq, awarding a shared first prize to both. They then alternated in performance – eleven in total – after which Le Docteur Miracle seems to have gone unperformed until 1951.


Given its brevity, Pop-up Opera hit upon the inspired idea of framing it with music from The Pearl Fishers and Carmen, the latter’s excerpts providing a lovely ‘trio of desserts’ in which audience participation was encouraged, but which also offered opportunity for the soloists to present rather different operatic credentials. All of them sang well throughout. That Achilles heel of so many performances, poor French pronunciation and style, was not an issue here. Moreover, one could hear and understand every word of the French text, enabling the silent film-style projections to offer a witty gloss upon proceedings rather than merely translate. Robert Lomax’s finely-sung Silvio was ardent within limits, true to his character rather than trying to turn it into something that it was not. Aurélia Jonvaux’s Laurette was perhaps the most stylishly sung performance of all, married to lively, quicksilver acting ability. Sarah Champion perhaps came into her own more in the Carmen dessert, but that it is at least partly to be attributed to the nature of her role; she certainly displayed a gift for stage conspiring. Benjamin Seiffert’s Mayor offered beautiful darkness of tone a pleasingly, though not exaggeratedly, smouldering presence, and last, but not least, an impressive turn as flautist. There seems every reason to expect that all of them will go far, likewise the indefatigable Elizabeth Challenger, granted the vital, often thankless task of playing the piano reduction.   

Clementine Lovell’s production – she will also sing Laurette in alternate performances – updates the action so as to take advantage of mobile telephones: sexting and the like. A tiny space was well utilised, and doubtless will be in other venues. With so small an audience and the performance taking place at such close quarters, there is ample scope for interaction. This was undoubtedly my first opera in which I was both personally serenaded as ‘Capitaine’ and given a quick shoulder massage, for which many thanks should go to Jonvaux and Lomax respectively. The helpful programme offers a far better synopsis than those of many major houses. A delightful evening, then, highly recommended.

For details concerning subsequent performances, in other London locations and beyond, please click here.