Thursday, 22 December 2016

Two million visitors!

This seems quite incredible: 2 million visitors* since I began writing here in 2007. Doubtless some of were mistakes, some were spammers, etc.; a few would have been yours truly before I learned how to stop myself being counted. That must still leave a good number from others, from you – without whom this would be a still stranger form of madness. Thank you all for your loyalty, support, and in many cases friendship. This has been a truly horrendous year, heralded by the death of the man who gave this site its name, Pierre Boulez, the very conscience of New Music. Let us hope that music and thinking about music will continue to offer us some sort of solace and provocation. We shall need it.
But no gloom just for a minute: thank you! Please listen...

* I am informed I should have said 'page views', which actually seems a reasonable correction (not least since that is what the sign actually says!) You see how clueless I am about such things...

Esfahani - Bach, 21 December 2016

Wigmore Hall

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

What could be more capable of lightening our darkness on the longest night of the darkest year most of us have ever known, perhaps even of defending us from some of its perils and dangers, than the music of Johann Sebastian Bach? Mahan Esfahani’s searching exploration of the fathomless Goldberg Variations – one of the few Bach keyboard works of which I stood so much in awe and trepidation that I never dared touch, let alone learn it – certainly did a great deal to offer solace and nourishment, intellectual and spiritual.

The Aria, flexible, though never for the sake of mere flexibility, imparted a fine sense of a storyteller, a narrator: ‘Once upon a time’, or ‘Es war einmal’. Already, by the second variation, we heard the truth of Bach’s plan as outlined by Esfahani in his excellent programme note, by turns scholarly and winningly speculative. The first of ten groups of variations – genre-piece, virtuous piece, canon – was clearly upon us, even if we had not yet heard that first canon at the unison. One of the many strengths of the performance was that that truth related equally to the work and to its interpretation: not in a bald, formalistic sense, but so as to liberate the musical imagination. Indeed, the Canone all’Unisono might have been subtitled ‘The Joy of Canon’; for no one, not even Haydn, does joy better than Bach. (Just think, if you doubt me, of the opening of the Gloria and Sanctus to the Mass in B minor.)

As the variations unfolded, we heard lines intertwine, as if they were solo singers in a cantata, or a pair of oboes or other obbligato instruments. Such connection occasionally had me speculate about ‘meaning’, but not for too long, lest I miss the ‘purely’ musical drama. Formal, rather than expressive kinship, with Scarlatti’s keyboard music came to mind too. More than once, I thought of the earlier, apparently less complex world – relatively speaking – of the Brandenburg Concertos, and indeed of the later world of Max Reger’s transcriptions of those works. Sometimes, especially at moments like those, I could have sworn I heard a third hand; I did not see it though.

Dance rhythms enabled connections, then: across and beyond the keyboard repertoire. They played an equally important role structurally, delineating the narrative – and narrative was very much a strength here, I think – of the performance. So too, though, did the canonical writing. The Canone alla quarta spoke with a perfection worthy of Mozart, or perhaps better, suggested why Bach’s music, although not necessarily this very work, proved so transformative for the later composer.

And those harmonies! This is not ‘just’ counterpoint, as if the opposition ever made any sense whatsoever in Bach, or indeed in most great music… Mozart would surely have relished, just as Esfahani did, the turns to the minor mode, to his special key of G minor, and the chromaticism unleashed. The ‘black pearl’, as we shall always know it, post-Landowska, seemed to renew its mysteries before us. Registration, tempo, rubato, no one component, nor indeed their combination, seemed quite enough, splendidly navigated though all those interpretative challenges were, to explain the alchemy not only heard but experienced. (We must, as the soloist told us, be active, not passive, as listeners, just as we must be active to transform the world around us.) A labyrinthine Bach who looked to Berg, a ‘Bach The Progressive’ in an almost Schoenbergian sense, a ‘Bach The Subjective’ in an Adornian yet not-Adornian sense: all those and more recomposed the work before our ears. This heightened, ‘special’ quality was not only apt but necessary.

Relief thereafter ran through Esfahani’s fingers – and our hearing of them. Yet soon, a quality of proliferation, reminding me how much Boulez revered Bach, took on its own, not always relieving life. There was an almost Brahmsian satisfaction to the ‘Quodlibet’; its good nature suggested a different musical future, that of Haydn’s sonata forms, which might initially seem to have eclipsed Bach’s music, but not for long. The return of the Aria, though, was, quite rightly, both return and nothing of the sort. It framed, like the return of our tale to the world of the storyteller himself; it was the same, and yet different. There was here, in Bach’s music, I think, both a glint and a tear in the eye. ‘Die Zeit,’ as a distinguished lady once said in not entirely dissimilar mood, ‘die ist ein sonderbar Ding.’


Monday, 19 December 2016

For Berlin

March, this year

October, this year. A Schöneberg café

Znaider/LSO - Mozart and Tchaikovsky, 18 December 2016

Barbican Hall

Mozart – Violin Concerto no.1 in B-flat major, KV 207
Mozart – Violin Concerto no.4 in D major, KV 218
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36

Nikolaj Znaider (violin/conductor)
London Symphony Orchestra

Nikolaj Znaider and the LSO will be giving three concerts of Mozart (violin concertos) and Tchaikovsky (symphonies), of which this was the first. A recording of the concertos is in the offing; it was to have been conducted by that supreme Mozartian, Sir Colin Davis, but will now be directed by Znaider himself. I say ‘directed’, but Znaider was for the most part content to leave the LSO, here very much chamber size, to play without interference. There was, to both concerto performances, a fine sense of collegiality, of chamber music, Znaider certainly the soloist in the sense of having the solo line, but in no sense assuming any position of superiority. Occasionally, I felt the music’s darker emotions a little undersold, notably in the slow movement of the Fourth Violin Concerto, but for Apollonian Mozart, this would today be difficult to beat.

The first movement of KV 207 brought spruce, variegated playing from all concerned. Znaider’s conception drew one in rather than striving to impress. (What does he have to prove, anyway?) The bass line offered a firm foundation and occasional, winning nudges. Phrases were well-shaped without sounding moulded: I could imagine Sir Colin smiling benignly on the performance. Lightness of touch certainly did not preclude depth of feeling here. Every scale, moreover, perhaps especially in the orchestral strings, was full of life, no mere figure. The Adagio was taken relatively swift, and was light on its feet too, but not, I think, too much. There was much beneath the beguiling surface, that surface boasting wind chords from Elysium itself. What can sometimes sound rather slight material in the finale was simply treated musically, with no attempt, thank God, to do something to it. This movement emerged effortlessly as a cousin, an equal to Mozart’s symphonies of a similar vintage. It was characterful, all the more so for not being in hock to someone else’s character.

The Fourth opened just as fresh, if anything more so. Znaider and the LSO are clearly not in the business of offering generalised Mozart, for this performance was alert to the work’s specific character, its increased sophistication. Slight agogic accents made their point very well, quite without mannerism. The rapport the soloist had with other front desks would have been palpable, even if one had not seen the visual signs. (Violins and violas were, by the way, all standing, not a practice I can imagine Davis having adopted.) The slow movement, as previously mentioned, was certainly Andante, certainly cantabile, but lacked something in the way of Mozartian shadow. The finale, though, showed playing alert to Mozart’s rhetoric, without permitting ‘mere’ rhetoric to dominate. Hints of Gallic, courtly complication were welcome, the drones very much part of that world rather than an opposing force. Le Petit Trianon, perhaps, or Il re pastore?

Znaider’s good relationship with the orchestra was just as apparent in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which he conducted again from memory. It would be difficult to say that there was anything out of the ordinary with respect to interpretation, but he and they offered a brilliantly played ‘central’ performance, which only occasionally stood in need of a firmer helping hand. The LSO brass offered harshness of opening Fate, to be assuaged (a little, at least) by the warmth of string response. I liked the general solidity to the performance, which was not to say that it was inflexible, far from it. Some, however, may well have preferred something more mercurial. Znaider’s ability to find plenty of space for the music, to remain faithful to its spirit and letter, nonetheless made a welcome change for me. And what a glorious full orchestral sound it was, even if the Barbican’s acoustic reminded us poignantly of London’s desperate need, now denied by our political masters, for a new hall.

Depth of string tone, not always a strength of London orchestras, was again a great advantage in the second movement, as was woodwind colour. Kinship with ballet was apparent, without collapsing the symphony into something which it is not. There was some magical, hushed playing to be heard too, full of suspense, maybe even tentative hope. Predictably splendid pizzicato was to be heard in the third movement: not splendid for its own sake, though, for it was always directed, and kept on commendably tight (not too tight) rein by Znaider. The music actually sounded strikingly modern, which in many ways it is: consider Stravinsky’s love for Tchaikovsky. There was an equally splendid piquancy from the LSO woodwind, pointing towards Petrushka, the brass not irrelevant here either. It was Eugene Onegin, however, that came most strongly to mind, another kinship seemingly acknowledged and enjoyed.

Taken attacca, the opening of the finale brought a smile to my face, but not for long, for there remained darker forces at play. There was something, quite rightly, ambiguous about the rejoicing we heard – not unlike Tchaikovsky’s own conception, quoted in the programme: ‘If within yourself you find no reason for joy, look at others. Get out among the people … find happiness in the joys of others.’ Onegin was now in Petersburg. What was certainly not in doubt was the magnificence of the LSO’s playing – and not just when extrovert.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Zurück vom Ring! 2016 tally for opera etc.

No further operatic plans for 2016, so here is my tally for the year. The 'etc.' indicates that I have included not only concert performances but other borderline cases, including music theatre. Beat Furrer's 'sound theatre' piece, FAMA, arguably does not belong here at all, but never mind; I thought it would be good to include it. It seems we have a pretty clear winner for the year (always helped by a visit to Bayreuth). The Deutsche Oper's Strauss-Wochen helped Richard the Second share joint second place with Mozart. An especial delight for me is to see Gluck placed so high; more to the point, it has been a privilege to have heard four Gluck performances this year.

As in previous years, I have only allowed one score per composer per event, so Il trittico counts for one, but so does Il tabarro. In the case of Stephen Oliver's 'completion' of L'oca del Cairo, he shares the honours with Mozart.

Wagner 16

Mozart, Strauss 8

Puccini 5

Gluck, Janáček 4

Humperdinck, Tchaikovsky 2

Kim Ashton, Thomas Adès, Thomas Arne, Gerald Barry, Beethoven, Berg, Bizet, Britten, Chabrier, Peter Maxwell Davies, Debussy, Dvořák, Enescu, Beat Furrer, Handel, Hindemith, Mascagni, Stephen McNeff, Stuart McRae, Martinů, Mussorgsky, Offenbach, Stephen Oliver, Purcell, Rameau, Reimann, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rossini, Mark Simpson, Weill 1

Click here, for the sake of comparison, with results from 2013-2015.

Concerts and an overall tally will have to wait until the very end of the year.

Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera, 17 December 2016

Royal Opera House

Images: © ROH. By Catherine Ashmore

Die Feldmarschallin, Fürstin Werdenberg – Renée Fleming
Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Matthew Rose
Octavian – Alice Coote
Herr von Faninal – Jochen Schmeckenbecker
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin, Noble Widow – Miranda Keys
Valzacchi – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Annina – Helene Schneidermann
Police Inspector – Scott Conner
The Marschallin’s Major-domo – Samuel Sakker
Faninal’s Major-domo – Thomas Atkins
Italian Singer – Giorgio Berrugi
Milliner – Kiera Lyness
Innkeeper – Alasdair Elliott
Notary – Jeremy White
Animal Seller – Luke Price
Doctor – Andrew H. Sinclair
Boots – Jonathan Fisher
Noble Orphans – Katy Batho, Deborah Peake-Jones, Andrea Hazell
Marschallin’s Lackeys/Waiters – Andrew H. Sinclair, Lee Hickenbottom, Dominic Barrand, Bryan Secombe
Mohammed – James Wintergrove
Leopold – Atli Gunnarsson
Hairdresser – Robert Curtis
Baron Ochs’s Retinue – Thomas Barnard, Dominic Barrand, Nigel Cliffe, Jonathan Fisher, Paul Parfitt, Bryan Secombe
Musicians – Andrew Macnair, Andrew O’Connor, Luke Price, Alexander Wall
Coachmen – Thomas Barnard, Nigel Cliffe, Jonathan Coad, Christopher Lackner
Dancers, Actors, Child Singers

Robert Carsen (director)
Paul Steinberg (set designs)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes)
Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet (lighting)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

If Der Rosenkavalier subtly counsels us against nostalgia, walking us through our own constructionism and that of others, layering further experience and memory, real, imagined, or more likely, somewhere in between, this new Royal Opera production unwittingly offered something of a countervailing argument. As we are now so wearily aware, the United Kingdom’s cultural inferiority and isolation are likely only to increase over the coming months, nay years, of Maying. Very few will care; of them, many will decamp to what was once quaintly known as ‘the Continent’; others will not unreasonably seek a degree of refuge in other, actually better times. Only the truly ignorant, of culture and of history, would hold out any hope for this miserable island’s prospects, having ‘taken back control’. Likewise, for all the gloss we saw, far less often heard, on stage, only those ignorant of operatic life ‘abroad’, and indeed in earlier years here in London, would fail to feel, at best, regret.  


Trailed unofficially as Renée Fleming’s farewell to the Covent Garden stage, the production suggested that it was not before time. Fleming has never been much of an actress, although she retains an undeniable presence. (Big, expensive costumes doubtless help, especially in the third act, but it is not just that.) There were, to be fair, moments in which she danced along to the (somewhat fitful) waltzes in the first act, but otherwise, there was little beyond generalised and sometimes downright inappropriate facial gestures. Her inability not only to project but even to sustain her lines, hardly helped by perversely dragging tempi from Andris Nelsons whenever she set foot on stage, made for a sad experience indeed, however much the fans may have oohed and aahed at her wardrobe.

The Marschallin (Renée Fleming), Sophie (Sophie Bevan)

Nelsons was at least as much at fault. He has conducted the opera before, but it often did not sound like it, the performance suggestive of a superior run-through, even sight-reading. Having opened in strangely aggressive fashion, he ground the first act to a halt. Once the Marschallin’s retinue had been dispersed, the remainder felt like an act, and a tedious one at that, to itself. Whether he were responding to Fleming, or somehow trying to highlight her aurally, I do not know; it certainly did not work. Too often, phrases were simply left hanging, even disintegrating. If the second act and earlier sections of the third – infernal cuts notwithstanding – marked a great improvement, listlessness was again the order of the day, as we drew ever so gradually to a close. Time was – yes, I know stopping the clocks will not help us – when the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House could sound not unlike one of its great ‘Continental’ cousins. Perhaps it still can, under, say, Semyon Bychkov. However, it is now well-nigh impossible to ignore the long musical decline of the house since the departure of Bernard Haitink. There were a good few moments of glorious sheen, but there was a good deal of scrappiness too. Viennese idiom, such as it was, too often sounded forced. Go to Dresden, to Berlin, to Munich, even, on a good day, to Vienna, go indeed to many a smaller German theatre, to hear what this score and others can sound like. And listen to a conductor such as Christian Thielemann, almost always at his best in Strauss, to hear how infinite flexibility can, indeed must, be married to a sense of the whole; or listen to the great conductors of the past, to Karajan, to Krauss, to Kempe, to the Kleibers, perhaps even, if feeling truly adventurous, progressing to a conductor whose name did not begin with ‘K’.


What of the rest of the cast? Alice Coote’s Octavian was a bit of a loose cannon (with apologies to the extravagant World War One recreations chez Faninal). At her best, she offered a spirited, rich-toned performance; at other times, there was a distinct lack of focus. Whether the relative lack of refinement dramatically were Coote’s or director, Robert Carsen’s idea, it was not, I am afraid, a good one. Matthew Rose’s Ochs was much better: less the boorish oaf, more the slightly, but only slightly, past-his-sell-by-date country cousin, who could still summon up a soupçon of charm when he made the effort. Sophie Bevan’s Sophie was very much in line with (welcome) contemporary fashion: her own woman, with agency, no mere annoyance. Her vocal performance was not bettered and rarely approached by others on stage. All, however, should be thanked for their excellent diction; Hofmannsthal’s words could always be clearly discerned. (That goes for Fleming too.)

Ochs (Matthew Rose)

Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Faninal seemed oddly subdued, at least vocally; I wondered whether he would have been happier in a smaller house. It was a pity to hear coarseness creeping into Giorgio Berrugi’s rendition of the Italian Singer’s aria, but the many, many ‘smaller’ roles were generally well taken, Perhaps the most noteworthy for me were Helene Schneidermann’s cleverly scheming Annina, Alasdair Elliott’s outrageous Innkeeper as transvestite Master/Mistress of Ceremonies, and Scott Conner’s calm, confident Police Commissioner. (One might well understand why the Marschallin departed with him rather than with Faninal, although I am not sure that it made a great deal of dramatic sense here.)


Carsen’s production is a frustration, and not only because it runs dangerously close to his earlier staging, for the Salzburg Festival, although divergences often intrigue; such layering of reception is surely not inappropriate for such a work. However, the first and second acts seem – not in a knowing way – to rely too much on former glories, coming across as attempts to make a former, sharper production look different. (Did those I heard loudly praising Carsen know his earlier production? I have my doubts.) Designs from Paul Steinberg and Brigitte Reiffenstuel, however impressive in themselves, are made to do too much of the work. The note of ambiguity concerning where, or rather when, we are during the second act, is, however, an excellent touch. Are we gearing up for war, uniforms and indeed the aforementioned weaponry ever-present? Or, are we to understand from the field medical assistance afforded Ochs, that we are now in its midst? The trench movements of Ochs’s retinue (on leave?) certainly suggest so. Alternatively, might this be an imagined future from the Marschallin’s comfortable 1911?


The third act sets its impressive seal on such ruminations, or at least the first half of it does. Initially, it too seems as though it might follow earlier Carsen too closely, but wisely, no attempt is made to replicate the extraordinary Salzburg visual spectacle of multiple brothel rooms (nor, indeed, the horse). We seem to have moved, or imagined ourselves, into the 1920s, to a world in which sexual ‘decadence’ and ‘depravity’ (for those of a ‘Brexit’ disposition, in any case) run riot, whilst still recognisably, increasingly so, a projection from where we began (and indeed may still 'be'). Octavian’s, or rather Mariandel’s, forwardness, is perhaps the most intriguing development. Where she ‘should’ be a (relatively) innocent victim, here this ‘virgin’ promises to take Ochs to places he may never have dreamed of, or at least would rather not have done. The already fascinating sexual politics of the opera take another twist, such as would surely have shocked the straitlaced Benjamin Britten, who apparently disapproved of its ‘lesbianism’ (!)

Alas, the rest of the act, whether knowingly or otherwise, simply offers relative withdrawal, as it were. A large stage and a large bed are its focus, Octavian and Sophie rather unnecessarily beginning to further their acquaintance. The parallel created with the opening scene need surely not be presented with quite such heavy-handedness.At the very close, it seems as though we shall truly return to Salzburg, where a gunshot frighteningly heralded the coming of war. (That production stayed where it was, rather than peering into the future, as Carsen does here.) The reappearance of cannons, seemingly pointed at a drunken Mohammed, suggest something similar, but instead they misfire (perhaps an all too telling metaphor), soldiers falling bathetically to the ground themselves, and the liveried servant continues along its way. I think I can discern a point being made here, but it is not made very clearly.

Mohammed (James Wintergrove)

Another baffling aspect relates to, what seems to be a kleindeutsch rather than an Austrian setting. (The message of the paintings we see, visual art so often a Carsen device, is ambiguous.) I am afraid I found myself baffled by visual references to the ‘other’ Kaiserreich and its successor republic. The antics of the tavern seem very much of Weimar. Even the Grecian frieze of the Faninal mansion looks more Berlin than Vienna. (To my, perhaps vulgar eyes, it does not look so very nouveau riche, more akin to a Wilhelmine museum room.) Is a point being made about Strauss’s native Bavaria, perhaps even Strauss himself, having made the ‘wrong’ choice? If so, it remains obscure. There is, all considered, simply too much that is either too obscure or too obvious, suggestive, rightly or wrongly, of an unwelcome degree of directorial haste.


In many respects, then, this proved a missed opportunity, laced with tantalising hints of how much better things might have been – might still be, if only they/we were to get our act together. It could have been far worse; perhaps it might improve during the run; and yet… It was, one might say, a ‘soft Brexit’ Rosenkavalier, albeit with hints of our Poundland Fürstin Resi’s ‘red, white, and blue’ variety. Note to directors: do not, under any circumstances, accept my Konzept. It will neither end nor even start well.


Saturday, 17 December 2016

Piemontesi - Mozart, 15 December 2016

Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata no.4 in E-flat major, KV 282/189g
Piano Sonata no.12 in F major, KV 332/300k
Piano Sonata no.5 in G major, KV 283/189h
Piano Sonata no.15 in F major, KV 533 & 494

Francesco Piemontesi (piano)

I shall deal with the first ‘half’ – that is, the E-flat major Sonata and the first movement of KV 332/300k – quickly, since, thanks to a stray electronic device, it was not really possible to assess, or indeed to enjoy, Francesco Piemontesi’s performances. (It is not something on which I wish to dwell, but I could hardly write about the concert and not mention it.) The first movement of KV 282/189g went relatively undisturbed. It sang as a true Adagio, imbued with a sense of the luminous, even numinous; this was, we rightly felt, special music, conveyed with (mostly) chaste passion. Harmonic surprises told without exaggeration. The first Minuet had a spring in its step, the second contrasting of its own nature, the subtlest of rubato aiding its way. Alas, the closing Allegro’s performance seemed compelling, but it became almost impossible to tell. There was certainly just as varied a palette of articulation and dynamics. Lively, and characterful, the F major Sonata, KV 332/300k, sounded as if it had come straight from the world of opera buffa, albeit with a few more seria moments. I was struck anew by the extraordinary concision of the development section, but already a high-pitched noise was rendering the performance unlistenable, and, more to the point, the pianist visibly disconcerted. Despite a gestural plea from him and a second verbal request from the Director, John Gilhooly, to check hearing aids, our own and those around us, interference continued. It was decided to bring forward the interval: a pity, but undoubtedly the right thing to do in the circumstances.

The second ‘half’ opened in an atmosphere of increasing relief (in more than one sense). The slow movement of the F major Sonata, with which it began, flowed nicely; more ‘Classical’ than ‘Romantic’ in conception, without underselling its seductive beauties. Piemontesi very much had the measure of Mozart’s string-like writing in certain of the left-hand passages. The composer’s written-in ‘ornamentation’ proved melodically generative in itself. Allegro assai is Mozart’s marking for the finale – how I struggled with this, many moons ago, for my Grade 8! – and Allegro assai it was, in a highly yet not excessively rhetorical reading. It was recognisably of a similar operatic world to the first and second movements.

We returned, then, to the earlier Mozart, to the G major Sonata, KV 283/189h. Overflowing with melody, the first movement benefited greatly from due attention to the twin gestural and structural roles of motivic offshoots of those melodies. A fruitful tension between twin beauties, pristine and more complex, performed a similar role in the ensuing Andante. Likewise in the finale. Perhaps it is not an entirely successful work, at least when judged by the standards of the fully mature composer, but even its problems fascinate, ensnare, especially in a performance such as this. Piemontesi’s suggestions of the orchestral tutti were well judged, as was the sense, once again, of opera seria (Lucio Silla, perhaps?)

The second of the F major Sonatas we heard received perhaps the finest performance of all. In the first movement, its Bachian lessons learned, loved, absorbed into a tonal and dramatic universe as all-encompassing as that of Shakespeare, we heard a command of line such that primacy of melody could both be reinstated and, vis-à-vis the harmony beneath, subtly questioned. Balance was the thing in the counterpoint, just as it should be. I initially found the Andante a little on the cool side, although there was no doubting its poise, nor its clarity. Greater volubility came with the development’s minor mode – how could it not? – and its extreme chromaticism, such frightening intensification making retrospective sense of what I had first doubted. The recapitulation’s flirtations with the future, Webern in particular, were relished as further development, for there was no doubting the profundity of either work or performance. After such Mahlerian intensity, the rondo finale necessarily struck a very different note. (The split Köchel numbering reflects its earlier composition, as a stand-alone piece, albeit in need of considerable revision for inclusion here.) It was definitely alla breve, its particular lightness of touch neither denied nor underlined, although the mysteries of its episodes ensured that victory was not too easily won; the music, rightly, retained its sense of enigma.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Britten Sinfonia - Webern, Uduman, and Schoenberg, 14 December 2016

Wigmore Hall

Webern – Four Pieces for violin and piano, op.7
Sohrab Uduman – “Dann klingt es auf…” (London premiere)
Schoenberg, arr. Steuermann – Verklärte Nacht, op.4

Thomas Gould (violin)
Caroline Dearnley (cello)
Diana Ketler (piano)

Lunchtime concerts present an attendance problem. Had my teaching (though certainly not my university!) term not come to an end, I should most likely not have been able to hear this Wigmore Hall concert. That would have been a great pity, since it offered just the right sort of reinvigoration I needed for the afternoon. Whatever the reasons, it was sad to see so small an audience, but no matter: the box office has nothing to do with artistic concerns. Schoenberg, of all composers, knew that very well, when founding his Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen. I shall draw a veil over his prohibition on critics; or rather, I shall deflect it, trusting that I qualify as a Schoenberg scholar too…

It was with Eduard Steuermann’s arrangement of what, sadly, remains perhaps the composer’s most popular work, Verklärte Nacht, that the concert closed. Here, the opening was given to piano (Diana Ketler), cello (Caroline Dearnley) responding as if that were how we always heard it, violin (Thomas Gould) likewise. D minor sounded all the more obsessive, somehow, in this re-scoring, as if a Brahmsian pedal-point were being further underlined. (Maybe it is the strength of the piano bass?) Richly Romantic tone was offered from all, especially the strings. The narrative form of Richard Dehmel’s poem seemed especially to the fore, structurally determinative, not just pictorial, in a reading that was highly dramatic, highly rhetorical. Gurrelieder, quite rightly, did not seem so very far away. Too sectional? No, I do not think so; there is more than one way to perform the work, and motivic integrity was never in doubt. Moreover, Schoenberg’s harmonies always seemed, again rightly, on the verge of vertical and horizontal disintegration: Tristan and late Brahms working together as well as in conflict. Occasionally, the arrangement brought, perhaps paradoxically, congestion at climaxes. On the whole, though, I was struck by how little I missed the original. The new instrumentation sometimes brought, to my ears, an almost Gallic (or perhaps Flemish!) air. The piano could suggest shimmering strings surprisingly well; in the bass, it offered something new, but no less welcome. I was especially intrigued by the ability of both Gould and Dearnley to give what were, originally, first violin/first cello and second violin/second cello parts different ‘voices’. The closing section, save for a few bars which probably defy transcription, sounded duly fulfilled, even transfigured.  
Another of Schoenberg’s pupils opened the concert. Gould and Ketler gave a spellbinding performance of Webern’s Op.7 Pieces. Violin harmonic, answered by piano chord, somehow incited a melody somewhere between languor and sadness, yet ever-changing. In reality, especially in this first piece, any description of either work or performance would pertain at best for one note or one interval. A passionate, late Romantic response came in the second: Brahms ultra-distilled. Such an array of colour was to be heard. Later playfulness eventually – ‘eventually’ is relative, in Webern! – returned us, sonata-like, to the ardent quality of that earlier material, although it was not, of course, a ‘mere’ return. The violin opening to the third seemed to point us towards Nono, the piano clearly joining up the notes; however much Stockhausen may have learned from Webern, there was a great deal he did not learn, or did not want to. A nineteenth-century inheritance sounded stronger still in the fourth and final piece, suggestive of a sonata finale. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say, that at its close, I felt as though I had heard a work far longer, at least equivalent to a sonata by Brahms.   

In between Webern and Schoenberg-Steuermann came not quite the premiere of Sohrab Uduman’s “Dann klingt es auf…”, for that had taken place in Norwich on 9 December, but its first London performance. The title comes from a Hildegard Jone poem, used in Webern’s exquisite Second Cantata. (Now when shall we hear a performance of that in London, or indeed anywhere else?) ‘Shimmering colours’, suggested by the title, looked both forwards and backwards. In context, at least, the opening had something of a sense of a much ‘busier’ version of the opening of Webern’s set of pieces. There was, throughout, a true sense of three voices, interacting in all manner of ways; indeed, the transformation of such interaction – Uduman refers to ‘fusion and disentangling of the contrasting timbres of the piano and strings’ – seemed to lie at its heart. So too, however, did some sense of narrative, even if it could not be put into words (and why should it be?) Sections within its ten-minute span seemed not unlike those we should hear in the Schoenberg. A sudden slowing, without letting up of tension, suggested something akin to a slow movement, in a Liszt-Schoenberg tradition (movement within a movement); or perhaps that was just my idiosyncratic way of making sense of a new work. Material was still being developed, it seemed, from what had gone before, and would continue to be; transformation, another Lisztian concept, seemed a not entirely inappropriate way of considering what may well have been quite a Romantic journey from darkness to light. The piece was played with all the confidence, none of the staleness, of a repertory stalwart. Three cheers, once again, to the ever-enterprising Britten Sinfonia!

The Winter’s Tale, The Hermes Experiment, 13 December 2016

Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone

Images: Cathy Pyle

Leontes – William McGeough
Hermione – Sadie Parsons
Polixenes, First Gentleman – Robert Willoughby
Paulina – Louisa Hollway
Mamillius, Camillo, Antigonus, Officer, Second Gentleman – Christopher Adams
Perdita/Soprano – Héloïse Werner
Florizel – Stephen Williams (clarinets)
Anne Denholm (harp)
Marianne Schofield (double bass)

Kim Ashton (composer) 
Nina Brazier (director)
Sophie Mosberger (designs)
Damian Robertson (lighting)
Hanna Grzeskiewicz and Héloïse Werner (co-producers)

Much of the most interesting art of our time seems to ask questions of us rather than to answer them. Sociologically, there are doubtless many reasons for that, many of them blindingly obvious if we pause to consider the world around us. (And who amongst us is not doing that at the moment?!) That is certainly my experience of most recent worthwhile opera (theatre, more broadly) staging. Our lot, whether we like it or no, is metatheatrical, and a good deal of other meta-things too. On the whole, I like it; I certainly value it.

In that spirit, this new ‘musical reimagining’ of The Winter’s Tale from The Hermes Experiment asked questions of itself and of us, not least concerning genre. I had been expecting an opera of some sort; that was certainly not what I got. We heard an hour’s worth of Shakespeare’s text, very well delivered, well acted too, with music. Rarely were words and music opposed, although sometimes they were. There were elements of song, but more often, boundaries between words, music, and gesture (I always seem to fall back upon Wagner at some point), between actors and musicians, between most components present or believed to be present, were questioned, blurred, negated, perhaps even, dare I suggest it, transcended.  

Polixenes (Robert Willoughby)

Adaptations have long been part of Shakespearean reception; there would be little reception to speak of without them. Garrick’s Florizel and Perdita is an obvious example here; (semi-)opera-lovers will immediately think of Purcell’s Fairy Queen. There was no pastoral, but so what? No one was claiming this to be a performance of the ‘original’; insofar as I thought of what this ‘was’, or perhaps better of where I might locate it, somewhere between a version with incidental music and a (mostly spoken) cantata-cum-music-theatre-piece might have come closer than many attempts. But I did not really spend my time trying to locate what I saw and heard. I took it, I hope, for what it was, and enjoyed it, my Shakespearean appetite whetted rather than sated. When contrasted with the bizarre Glyndebourne-Royal Opera House Macbeth opera, I know which I found more involving, by a country mile.

Kim Ashton’s name was given as composer, but not in the traditional top billing, for this seems to have been a genuinely collaborative effort. I was put in mind of Schoenberg’s futuristic vision of studios at musical work: ironic, given his emphatic self-understanding – ours too, surely – as Teutonic, Romantic ‘genius’. Here, however, there was nothing ironic, nor falsely modest. As Ashton himself explained in the programme, ‘My position as ‘composer’ of the piece is precarious: while my name appears at the top of the score (a compilation of instructions, including only sparse musical notes), the music is as much by The Hermes Experiment as it is by me, since most of what you will hear is being improvised live, according to musical shapes and behaviours agreed in advance.’ That would only work, at least in the sense that it did here, with excellent preparation, for which director, Nina Brazier should, I presume take a good deal of credit too, likewise everyone else involved.  

Hermione (Sadie Parsons) and Perdita (Héloïse Werner)

For instance, again to quote Ashton, ‘The “folk song”,’ which certainly had that air, ‘in the second half is a case in point – particularly since it is the first tonal piece I have ‘composed’ in about 15 years!’ (As Schoenberg admitted, there were still good tunes to be written in C major, although this was not, if I remember correctly, in C.) ‘When someone suggested that a folk song would suit one scene well, the soprano Héloïse [Werner] sketched out its opening melody; I then fleshed this out into a rough whole; finally Héloïse, Anne [Denholm] (who plays it later on the Harp) and I all tweaked it here and there until I no longer remember who was originally responsible for which note.’ The darkness of the bass clarinet and its interjections made their points, not necessarily translatable into words; so too, did the harmonic – and melodic – resonances of the double bass.

Similarly, actors came close to music – do they not always, in Shakespeare? – and in some cases, definitely crossed any such a boundary. The inability to handle Shakespeare’s verse – there are many ways, of course, but there are also failures – is the bane of many a contemporary Shakespeare performance. Not here, for all conveyed both its beauty and its meaning, Robert Willoughby perhaps my favourite in the former respect. William McGeough offered a subtle portrait of wounded masculinity as Leontes, Sadie Parsons an intriguing voice (Hermione) whom we wanted to believe, and whom we knew we were correct to believe, but who could yet sow some of that doubt experienced by Leontes. I could go on, but it was a company effort, symbolised perhaps, by Héloïse Werner’s wordless soprano – a voice from beyond in more than one sense, I think – becoming Perdita. Likewise, instrumentalists (the other members of the Hermes Experiment all outstanding) were called on not only to employ extended techniques but also, music-theatre-style, to participate in the ‘dramatic’ action.


There was, then, a particular, one-off sense of enchantment to the night’s proceedings. I shall not say ‘more, please’, since that would seem rather against the spirit of what was seen and heard; I was, though, delighted to have been there.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Levit - Beethoven, 6 December 2016

Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor, op.31 no.2, ‘The Tempest’
Piano Sonata no.11 in B-flat major, op.22
Piano Sonata no.3 in C major, op.2 no.3
Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor, op.13, ‘Pathétique’

Igor Levit (piano)

You could probably write this yourselves now: well, the essential thrust, with a good few purple adjectives tastefully discarded. Contrarians would find something ‘different’ to say for the sake of it, but 2016 has had quite enough of contrarians, thank you. Suffice it to say that this was another outstanding Beethoven recital from Igor Levit, with a good few challenges to any preconceptions, whether concerning work or pianist, not least in the comparatively neglected op.22 Sonata.

The Tempest, though, opened in surprising fashion too. It always sounds exploratory, or at least always should. I am always put in mind – I think I have probably quoted this before – of Carl Dahlhaus’s Nineteenth-Century Music contrast with a melody from Les Huguenots:

By the criteria of Italo-French music, Beethoven’s movement does not have the slightest claim to a musical idea worthy of the name. What his work is based on is not a thematic — much less melodic — ‘inspiration’ so much as a formal concept: the arpeggiated triad … The opening, seemingly an introduction, can be viewed in retrospect as an exposition. … If one extreme of music is the melodic ‘inspiration’ [to exemplify which, he quotes that Meyerbeer melody], limited to a few measures and with the form functioning merely as an arrangement, the other would seem to be the almost disembodied formal process emerging from a void.

So it mysteriously did here, a world created before our ears, ex nihilo, with that creation ongoing, continual. Telling rubato, almost improvisatory in quality, was of course anything but arbitrary, ever grounded in Beethoven’s harmony. Levit’s playing was wondrously clear, without the slightest loss to ‘atmosphere’. (Think, perhaps, of Boulez’s conducting. If you do not know his Beethoven Fifth, greatly admired by Sviatoslav Richter amongst others, do rectify that omission!) Rhetoric formed structure, and all the while that arpeggio, those arpeggios acted as Prospero (perhaps Caliban too on occasion?) Recitative took us into the world of late Beethoven, every note impregnated with meaning, seeming almost to prepare for, as well as to contrast with, the post-Mozartian arioso of the slow movement. Relished, even adored, quite rightly, creation of melody was hard work, yet not without fancy, even fantasy. It was almost, at times, a Bagatelle writ-large, and not necessarily an early one. This, I thought, was an undeniably modernist Beethoven, after which, will-o’-the-wisp Romanticism came with the finale as another welcome contrast; so too, did a vehemence that seemed to hint at Chopin and Liszt. Beethoven sounded possessed, increasingly so, with all his trademark obstinacy. The end was almost a void: perhaps a return, yet not quite.

The B-flat Sonata, op.22, opened in dazzling, insistent fashion, with an air of detachment I found unsettling. It is an odd piece, but I am not sure I have heard it sound – let alone thought of it – quite so odd before. Haydn on acid? How, though, I wish I could play a single bar of the left-hand part like that! The first-movement development was mysterious, the recapitulation quite the agōn. I was quite unsure what to make of the whole, but am sure that I shall never think of it quite the same way again. The slow movement sang with all the joy and regret of a valiant attempt to recapture the lost world of Mozart – until, that is, it did something different, when once again I felt a whole world of nineteenth-century music stretching out before me. It was increasingly ecstatic, as those two tendencies combined, interwove, all with unbroken line. The minuet was more capricious than one often hears, full of (ambiguous) character, its trio more furious, almost frighteningly so. The (faux-)naïveté of the finale’s post-Mozartian stance was itself played with, rendering the movement all the more mysterious. Contrast, when it came, registered with properly Beethovenian shock, almost as if I had never heard it before. Was there reconciliation? Almost, but not quite: if we are honest, modernity, Beethoven’s as well as ours, no longer permits that.

Almost nonchalant, whimsical even, the opening of the C major Sonata, op.2 no.3, announced its debt to Haydn, before announcing its Beethovenian ingratitude: such sforzandi! A little Mozartian glee completed the trinity, with Mozart also clearly the progenitor of the minor-mode material. The particular variety of humanism was of course Beethoven’s – and his interpreter’s – own, even at this early stage. Ripe lyricism was relished; harmonic muscles were flexed, a whole tonal universe lying in front of us. This was unquestionably a young man’s music, yet the development gave a taste of things to come, not least rhythmically. Harmonic direction was confirmed here, intensified in the recapitulation. Likewise humour. I was struck by the Schubertian (I suppose I should say ‘proto-Schubertian’) characteristics, melodic and harmonic, of the slow movement, characteristics I do not think I had noticed before. Much, of course, is a common debt to Mozart, but even so… And then, once again, echt-Beethovenian shock: shock in sublimity and humanity. We heard a strikingly mature variety of Beethovenian gruff humour in the scherzo, wryness too. The piano articulation so necessary to convey that was almost, yet not quite, a joy in itself. The finale was not dissimilar, yet possessed of its own particular ‘character’ – an idea to which I returned again and again, throughout the recital. The music responded to Mozart, yes, but was never to be mistaken for another’s writing. Imagining the music under one’s own fingers, however incompetent, it ‘felt’ like Beethoven. It was wonderfully playful, and playful in its sense of wonder.

How to make the Pathétique sound new? Not by doing things to it, but by playing it with burning belief. (The same goes, I might add, for listening to it, reading it, thinking about it.) The music was sculpted with a fine sense of musical drama, Michelangelesque, even: Il penseroso? After which, the exposition ‘proper’ – but is it? – came as release, albeit intensification too. The development sounded, felt, as if another rocket, its tonality ensuring the flames were of a different hue. It was a miracle, or so it seemed, how quickly we returned: such is art. And the recapitulation proved, quite rightly, to be a second development. The slow movement was imbued with simple songfulness, or so it seemed, for nothing is ever quite so simple as that, whatever Winckelmann might have had us believe about the Greeks. A heightened sense of the special quality to this material reminded us why it has long been so loved. Music is often, if not always, celebrated for a good reason. The finale blew in like an icy wind, which never failed to take us by surprise, however much we might thought we ‘knew’ it. C minor was always going to win, but there were other worlds to survey, even to enjoy. The brusqueness of the conclusion, neither too much nor too little, was spot on. Onwards, then, and upwards…

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Cavalleria rusticana/Sancta Susanna, Opéra national de Paris, 3 December 2016

Opéra Bastille

Images: Julien Benhamou /OnP

Santuzza – Elina Garanča
Turiddu – Yonghoon Lee
Lucia – Elena Zaremba
Alfio – Vitaliy Bilyy
Lola – Antoinette Dennefeld

Susanna – Anna Caterina Antonacci
Klementia – Renée Morloc
Old Nun – Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Maid – Katharina Crespo
Knight – Jeff Esperanza

Mario Martone (director)
Sergio Tramonti (set designs)
Ursula Patzak (costumes)
Pasquale Mari (lighting)
Daniela Schiavone (assistant director, Cavalleria rusticana)
Raffaella Giordana (choreography, Sancta Susanna)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: José Luis Basso)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Carlo Rizzi (conductor)

Two operas: one rather better known to the operatic public, but neither to me personally. I tried (perhaps that was the problem?) with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, yet felt rather nonplussed. There was nothing especially to ‘mind’, but the work left little impression beyond its strange pacing (dragging almost interminably, then abruptly concluding, or at least finishing). Somehow, it came across both as crude and bland. I heard dashes of undigested Wagner, devoid of context, washed up amongst mildly Verdian debris. Every so often, Mascagni seemed to aspire towards Puccini, yet barely left the starting block, falling time and time again on mere cliché, and failing to achieve anything of interest melodically, harmonically, orchestrally. Characterisation seemed minimal, the drama, such as it was, situational. As for the story, such as it was, would it not have embarrassed a 1980s television mini-series? I had been curious to discover what the fuss was all about; in a sense, I am all the more curious now, since I really did not ‘get it’. ‘Some of my best friends’, but not, alas, me…


If Mascagni’s opera would have seemed more suited to a ten or fifteen minutes scena, Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna left me wanting more: always a good sign. The final part of his Expressionist triptych (Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, and Das Nusch-Nuschi come first), it is much more my sort of thing, I suppose. Musically, it comes perhaps as close to ‘atonal’ Schoenberg as Hindemith would ever do: more than once, I was put in mind of Die glückliche Hand, even Bluebeard’s Castle, especially in terms of orchestral colour, but perhaps harmonically too. Subject matter – a convent riven by sexual frenzy and demonic possession – has certain points of contact with Erwartung, perhaps, and more generally with other contemporaneous musical explorations (mostly, of course by men) of female sexuality, but more obviously with Prokofiev’s later Fiery Angel. Hindemith certainly has no aspirations to the so-called athematicism of Erwartung, though, quasi-autonomous musical form already gesturing, from within its Expressionist cloak, to the Neue Sachlichkeit future.


What do the two works have in common? Very little, I think, although I suppose one might make some generic ‘religious’ claim. Mario Montane, perhaps mistakenly, made little or no effort to link them. An awkward five minutes or so (following curtain calls!) in between, house lights still off, did not help, audience members not unreasonably uncertain what to do (apart, that is, from some Hindemith foes who made a dash for it). It was not entirely clear to me whether the Cross seen in his Sicilian Church was supposed to be in some sense the same as that witnessed so strikingly in Sergio Tramonti’s design for the crypt or other underworld beneath the convent. At first, Montane’s Cavalleria rusticana seems highly conventional, but there is a greater degree of abstraction than one might first guess, much done with comparatively little, rescuing the work somewhat from its vulgar realism. A definite emphasis upon the menacing power of the village crowd, seated in judgement, is welcome too. (I thought of Peter Grimes.) The fun is really had to be had, though, in Sancta Susanna. The action initially takes place in a ‘window’, securely embedded, or so it seems, within a larger structure, which begins to fall to pieces – as, well, Susanna’s defences do. Nightmarish giant crucifixes, a huge insect (made up of a highly skilled movement team, well choreographed by Raffaella Giordana), and the past and present of nuns writhing on the Cross, tread with delicious ambiguity the line between sympathy and Gothic horror.

The orchestra of the Paris Opéra sounded sumptuous, with a splendid sheen but plenty of depth in the Hindemith too. Carlo Rizzi seemed perhaps more at home in Mascagni; I should not have minded a little more formal delineation in the Hindemith. Nevertheless, his exploration of orchestral colour there was greatly to be welcomed, and the climactic moments were viscerally exciting. Choral singing and blocking were well handled throughout.


Elina Garanča sang beautifully as Santuzza in the Mascagni, line impeccable, although there was a certain coldness to her performance that perhaps militated against the possibility of much emotional involvement. Yonghoon Lee’s excellent Turiddu was quite the peacock, also quite the mummy’s boy: just, I presume, as he should have been. Dramatic toing and froing between Anna Caterina Antonacci, every inch the queen of her stage, and Renée Morloc was gripping, reminding us that there is much to be pieced together from Hindemith’s vocal lines, not nearly so fragmentary as they might initially seem. Controlled frenzy was the order of the day, but never too controlled. All other parts were well taken. If only, though, Sancta Susanna had been presented with a more appropriate companion piece or pieces, though, whether Hindemith’s own or something more tellingly related or contrasted. Next time…