Sunday, 17 December 2017

BPO/Thielemann - Beethoven, Missa solemnis, 14 December 2017


Mass in D major, op.123 (Missa solemnis)

Luba Orgonášová (soprano)
Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano)
Daniel Behle (tenor)
Franz-Josef Selig (bass)

Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Philipp Ahmann)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

There are musical works at which, in awe, one strain’s one’s aural neck – and then there is the Missa solemnis (no need, just like the Ninth Symphony, to say whose). It has its detractors; so does Fidelio. However, their accusations, in both cases, seem founded on gross misunderstandings of what Beethoven was doing. Ultimately, they perhaps even add to the works’ stature: almost unquestionably so, I think, in the case of the Missa solemnis. Its extreme difficulty is both the point and not the point. As with all late Beethoven, indeed pretty much all Beethoven, dialectics ensure that difficulty and simplicity, rupture and wholeness, so on and so forth, are not just banally ‘connected’, but inconceivable, conceptually let alone performatively, with one another.

Performance: there’s the rub, or perhaps the greatest rub. I have noticed that, with many honourable exceptions, it is singers who are most likely to condemn those works of Beethoven that include voices. (It is surely an error to name them ‘vocal works’, a mistake that gets close to the heart of the matter.) If you want concessions, to your personal taste, to your ease of performance or listening, concessions to anything really: Beethoven could hardly be less your man. It is not ‘about you’, as the modern slogan has it. And yes, I know very well that I am drawing upon, thinking and writing within, the Romantic myth of Beethoven, of the towering, glowering genius. Such knowledge, whether we like it or no, is the essence of our modern and/or post-modern predicament. Guess what, though? The myth happens to be true. The enigmatic quality and the extreme difficulty are integral to the work; in the complexity of its attempted, impossible mediation between subject and object, they are, just as in Hegel (well, more or less ‘just as’), doing the work of Geist (Spirit), of God, of history, of whatever we want to call it, or It. Calling the Missa solemnis a ‘concert work’ is at best misleading, despite its actual – as opposed to envisaged – performance history. It is not only a sacred work, but a resanctification of, through serious reckoning with, the Mass itself – and not only its text. Reactionaries will not like that, but so what? Nor does Geist.

Performance, however, is not, as it were, the only rub. The business of aesthetics, of reflection upon art, almost immediately, even immanently, arises with this work. Such is modernity – and is this not most likely Beethoven’s most modern work of all? I have long entertained the fantasy – and who knows: sometimes fantasies are realised – that the Missa solemnis in particular and perhaps Beethoven in general would be my retirement job. (Let us leave aside the sad reflection that retirement itself will doubtless remain a mere fantasy for those of us betrayed and destroyed by the ‘Brexit’ generation.) I certainly do not feel remotely prepared to tackle it yet. In that respect, I both take heart and become ever more fearful from Furtwängler’s decision no longer to perform it. Like Beethoven himself – and surely we ought to afford his view a little respect, Wellington’s Victory notwithstanding – Furtwängler thought it Beethoven’s single greatest work, yet considered its challenges too great for him or indeed anyone else ever to be able to realise. And if Furtwängler, surely the greatest recorded Beethovenian of all, thought so…

Furtwängler’s view has overwhelmingly, tragically, been proved correct. I cannot, of course, claim to know all recorded performances of the Missa solemnis, let alone all other performances. Of the recordings as such (as opposed to performances that have survived on recording) only Klemperer’s 1966 version for me really confronts its challenges head on and emerges with credit. (One can hardly say ‘surmounts’ them; no one surmounts Beethoven’s challenges, or if (s)he does, that is perhaps the most lamentable fate of all.) And, perhaps perversely, although I should like to think in some sense dialectically – well I would, wouldn’t I? – I had, before this performance from Christian Thielemann and Berlin forces, attended only one performance in the concert hall. True, they do not necessarily come along so very often, but nor are they so rare as that might imply. I had not wanted to risk a mediocre, let alone a poor, performance: bad enough in symphonic Beethoven – what is more soul-destroying than thinking ‘pointless’ and-or ‘meaningless’ to a performance of the Fifth Symphony? – but somehow even worse here, for it might end up sounding like what its detractors think it does. I had chosen my single performance well: Colin Davis, shortly before his death, and with mortality seemingly, even at the time, hanging over Beethoven’s grand reckoning not only with the Mass but with God Himself. It was a performance I shall never forget – and again, like Klemperer, that is part of the problem for whatever comes after. It may, it would seem, also be (re)listened to on YouTube, but I have never felt the desire to try – and doubtless to fail – to repeat an unrepeatable experience. (Indeed, although I have offered a link to the review, I do not yet even wish to re-read it.) And the thoughts it gave rise to, seemingly spanning the entirety of musical and theological history, or doubtless I flatter myself…

Apologies for having spent so long, relatively speaking, concerning my own thoughts, or attempts at thoughts, about the work rather than the performance. (Believe me, I could have gone on for much, much longer; I almost thought myself retired.) They seemed necessary, though, not even merely advisable, to explain how I heard Thielemann’s performance – or perhaps, to those who gained far more from it, how I did not hear it. Or perhaps I too was avoiding a confrontation. It seems somehow almost unforgivably banal to move to saying ‘it had much to admire, yet…’. And yet, that is what I must do; for, despite many very real virtues, the sheer excellence of all performing forces the greatest among them, I was left almost entirely cold. Was that another turn, as it were, of the Adornian dialectical screw? I thought I had truly grasped the work, however fleetingly, and then had not? Maybe a little, but not really, I think.

Thielemann clearly knew the work, or the notes, and what he wanted from it, or them. He was conducting from memory. Moreover, he clearly knew exactly how to get what he wanted from those uniformly excellent performers. Any criticisms I shall make are in no sense criticisms of them. One might have thought that a musician who, not unaggressively, positions himself as a standard bearer of the great German tradition would have been in a good position to communicate the mysteries of this work. There is, of course, no single tradition, though. And whilst I have in the past admired Thielemann’s Beethoven greatly – his recordings with the Philharmonia, for instance – his more recent Beethoven, still more so his Wagner, seems to have been filtered through a materialist conception that might work for Strauss, and often does work for him, magnificently, but which cannot really cope with the meaning(s) of works by Beethoven and Wagner. We can certainly applaud the need not to say the same thing over and over again, or indeed merely to imitate the past; but that does not mean that an alternative, simply by virtue of being an alternative, has any of the answers.

The full, warm sound of the Berlin Philharmonic at the opening of the Kyrie augured well: not entirely unlike Thielemann’s Philharmonia Beethoven; perhaps also with a certain kinship to the Klang of Leonard Bernstein’s Concertgebouw recording; not much at all in common with the sound of any of Herbert von Karajan’s intriguing multiple attempts at reckoning with the work (see, for instance, here and here), although perhaps at another level – deeper or shallower? perhaps both? – not so distant conceptually from Karajan’s approach. Militant authenticists would not have liked it, but who cares? And the bounds of the movement – perhaps the only one that has recognisable bounds – were well chosen; I was put in mind of an observation from Joseph Kerman to the effect that this was the only part of Beethoven’s setting that had no hyperbole. (I cannot recall his precise words, and do not have them here with me to check, so I hope that I shall be forgiven for distortion, misattribution, or even downright invention!) Moreover, whilst, from observing Thielemann, one might have feared an overly moulded performance, it did not – at least not here – sound like one. And if one had a problem with what it looked like, one could also, as with Bernstein, close one’s eyes. (Even Karajan did not, of course, do that for works with chorus when conducting them.) There was, moreover, a fine sense of a ‘natural’ – however constructed that might have been – tread to the movement’s progress. Beethoven, quite rightly, was not to be hurried; nor was he to be static. Individual soloists versus the ‘mass’ of the chorus sounded in balance, and dramatically rather than banally so. It did not ‘sound like’ Haydn, but perhaps still belonged in a similar conception to his. Beethoven as (sort of) Haydn? That is hardly unreasonable, especially here.

The rest of the Mass does not, of course, and rarely if ever did Thielemann seem quite to know – not that I think he was not trying – to portray, to dramatise that. The breakneck speed of the opening of the Gloria was surely an attempt, far from unreasonable, to do that – but what does reason, at least Enlightenment reason, have to do with this work? Superlative playing from the orchestra and superlative singing from the chorus impressed, as did the extraordinary clarity of what one heard: bassoons beneath the chorus, for instance. It ‘worked’, I think, but something was missing. The beating Larghetto heart of the movement arguably did not, Thielemann seemingly struggling to establish a basic pulse, although the woodwind solos predictably ravished in a materialist fashion. Even once the pulse had settled, though, it all sounded a little too glamorous. There was, though, a welcome sense of decision to follow: there can be no argument with either Beethoven or Whoever Stands Above Him; or alternatively, there can, but it will fail. Such good work, very sadly, was largely undone by a preposterously indulgent Luftpause before ‘in glora Dei Patris’. What might work – might – in Thielemann’s Meistersinger ‘Wach auf!’ does not work here; it came across as mere egotism. Just because you can do something, it does not follow that you should. Following that, perhaps not inappropriately in situ, came weirdly operatic ‘Amens’. Beethoven as Verdi? No thank you.

Still more is at stake in Beethoven’s Credo, both statement of and struggle to believe. Here, alas, there was far too little sense of struggle. Tension was built up admirably in the first section, very controlled, even controlling, but that is not to be disdained; we hardly want a free-for-all. It was, again, mightily impressive. ‘Et incarnatus est’ brought Palestrina, increasingly adorned, to the stage, not unlike an aural representation of a Gothic church, decorated by Rococo successors. Egotism once again, however, brought a bizarrely prolonged silence between the ‘Crucifixus’ and ‘Et resurrexit’ sections. Perhaps this is unfair, but it was almost as if Thielemann wanted to dare the audience not to fidget, or even to applaud. What followed was highly theatrical – one may argue about whether it should be, but it is not an outrageous conception – without ever conveying any real sense of theological, or other, meaning. Neutrality as opposed to neutralising tendencies doing batter with subjectivity in the material and its development? Beethoven as sewing pattern? Again, no thank you.

That tendency to draw out ‘preparations’ – not in a liturgical sense – was again to be heard in the Sanctus as we approached the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ section. Alas, it sounded more like a trick of the trade than a reading or communication of the text. There was no gainsaying, though, the outstanding level of execution. Warmly cultivated playing from concertmaster, Daniel Stabrawa – I wish violinists would not stand as if concerto soloists for this – was greatly to be admired, but did this feel in context as if it represented, even embodied, the descent of the Holy Ghost? Oddly, the music of the ‘Benedictus’ section sounded closer than I could recall hearing before to Die Zauberflöte. Beethoven as Mozart? Well, we can argue about that.

Darkness, even if again of a somewhat materialist conception, rightly haunted the opening of the Agnus Dei. Franz-Josef Selig’s solo seemed to speak with something close to perfection of both that darkness and the humanity that might emerge de profundis. A comparison with Sarastro would be indicative, but only if it involved contrast too: there is nothing of a noble yet flawed character to the music here. (The flaws obviously, I hope, refer to Sarastro, not to Mozart!) Once more, although Thielemann often looked as if he were about to pull the music around, he did not do so unduly; indeed, the sternness with which he conducted the Berlin strings was greatly to be admired in terms of potential meaning as well as executive accomplishment. There was no doubt that we were all, worthless sinners, to be on our knees here. The longed for unambiguous major chord, when it came, was treated to what I thought of as ‘fleeting length’: not indulgent, now, but provocative in a better, productive sense. What never quite materialised, though, was the cosmic scale to the later sounds of this movement. It was as if we had returned to the world of the Kyrie; even the terror of war sounded as if heard a little too much from afar, or even as a near-visual, ‘beautiful’ representation.

I was not overwhelmed, then, either by this microcosm, or by Thielemann’s Missa cosmogony. I do not doubt, and certainly do not mean to call into question, that he had considered what he was doing. Perhaps it was just not for me. I am not sure, though, that it was for Beethoven – whatever we mean by that – either. Still, it made me think, if more afterwards than at the time. I was led to think even about what it meant not to have been made to think. And then I returned to Adorno, and with the unquestionable egotism of a mere fallen human being, to something I had written in my first book (on Wagner’s Ring), towards its close:
Adorno was quite justified to claim that serious consideration of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – perhaps the most enduringly enigmatic musical work yet written – could only result in its Brechtian alienation, in rupturing ‘the aura of unfocused veneration protectively surrounding it’. One of the greatest problems with respect to the Ring is that such rupture has become well-nigh impossible. To be aware of this is only a beginning, but better than nothing. We should remain grateful that the enigma of the Ring pales besides that of Beethoven’s work. If we could understand why Beethoven set the Mass, we should, Adorno claimed, understand the Missa Solemnis. Understanding why Wagner wrote the Ring and beginning to understand the work itself suddenly seem less forbidding prospects.

Until, then, (impossible) retirement…

Friday, 15 December 2017

Hänsel und Gretel, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 11 December 2017

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Gretel (Elsa Dreisig) and Hänsel (Katrin Wundsam)
Images: Monika Rittershaus

Peter – Arttu Kataja
Gertrud – Marina Prudenskaya
Hänsel – Katrin Wundsam
Gretel – Elsa Dreisig
Witch – Jürgen Sacher
Sandman – Corinna Scheurle
Dew Fairy – Sarah Aristidou

Achim Freyer (director, designs, lighting)
Geertje Boeden (assistant director)
Petra Weikert (assistant designer)
Sebastian Alphons (lighting)
Jakob Klaffs, Hugo Reis (video)
Elena Garcia Fernandez, Larissa Wieczorek (dramaturgy)

Children’s Chorus of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (chorus master: Vincenz Weissenburger)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Sebastian Weigle (conductor)

The first performance of Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera, Hänsel und Gretel, on the night before Christmas Eve, 1893, in Weimar, was conducted by Richard Strauss. The work’s second staging, in Hamburg, in September of the following year, was conducted by Gustav Mahler. It reached Berlin, this very house, then home to the Royal Court rather than the State Opera, the following month, and has belonged to the world ever since. Alas, that very popularity and a strange, seemingly related, insistence on presenting a tale of child abuse with sugar coating have tended to lead to the opera’s underestimation, or at least to insipid presentation, even non-interpretation. What, after all, is a fairy tale, if it is not an invitation to interpretation, for children, for adults, for all? For those to whom the Brothers Grim(m) were something a little more interesting than Eric and Donald Trump Jr, this would be mind-numbingly obvious; alas, audiences being what they often are…

Hänsel, The Witch (Jürgen Sacher), and Gretel

Achim Freyer does not penetrate so deep as LiamSteel in his Royal College of Music staging; when I saw that, I more or less instantly realised it was the production for which I had been waiting much of my adult life. (Yes, as I never tire of pointing out, much of the best London opera takes place in our conservatoires.) But nor does he try to; his concerns are different. He is certainly not pandering to reactionary ‘tastes’, in the manner of Adrian Noble in his Vienna Disneyfication. Where Freyer excels, as, at his best, he always does, is in the creation of a world, both childlike and perhaps not. I say ‘perhaps’, since who is to say what is ‘childlike’ and what is not, or indeed what its opposite might be. Is that, again, not part of the essence of fairy tales? Clowns are present, of course; there is that undeniable element of Freyer house style, but why not? It does not look, like sometimes his staging have, as merely more of the same, or one size fits all; nor does it feel like it. The sense of theatre is keen, not without framing, for instance when the wondrous flick of the lighting switch opens the metaphorical story book at the opening, yet without ever seeming pleased with itself, or too clever-clever. Children, of whatever age, do not like that; often they are right not to do so. We never see the ‘real’ Hänsel and Gretel, or rather the ‘real’ singers, not really, for their masks cover their faces several times over. But what is ‘real’? And what is ‘real’ here? Perhaps the plot interests Freyer less: a pity, I think, but he has other concerns. And the dream-like sense of proceedings, if only in retrospect, acquires a more darkly, yet also brightly, sense of the political and its possibilities, with a final unveiling of the sign ‘REVOLUTIO’. Unfinished business, or a joke? Dreamers or anti-dreamers, from Novalis to Brecht, may – or may not – have their say. Life with Freyer, life in many fairy tales, is a circus; yet think of what a circus, that theatre of cruelty, of the absurd, of society and anti-society, involves, suggests, incites.

If only the musical side of things had lived up to those possibilities. Sebastian Weigle’s conducting was, alas, throughout Kapellmeister-ish in the negative sense. ‘Light’, as if attempting a demonstration that Mendelssohn were not worth listening to, almost entirely without Wagnerisms, let alone the kinship with Strauss Christian Thielemann in that Vienna performance had imparted, rightly or wrongly to the score, the greater sin of Weigle’s reading was listlessness. I do not think I have ever heard the first act drag so; nor have I heard the music sound less magical. Weigle is certainly no Strauss or Mahler. It would be a hard task indeed to have the Staatskapelle Berlin sound bad in this music, and it did not; but this great orchestra was sadly undersold throughout, achieving a few moments of wonder despite, not on account of, its conductor.

It was not a vintage night for singing either, although Elsa Dreisig sparkled as Gretel. Katrin Wundsam sometimes sounded rather harsh as Hänsel. Marina Prudenskaja and Arttu Kataja sang well enough as their parents, likewise Jürgen Sacher as the Witch, but perhaps needed something more in the way of inspirational musical leadership – I shall never forget Colin Davis in 2008 – to lift their performances to something more memorable. There was hope, though, that in a subsequent revival, not only better conducted, but perhaps more engaged with the possibilities hinted at by Freyer, something more than the sum of the parts might emerge. That hope is, after all, the fuel on which opera houses, especially houses now reborn such as this, should burn.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

L'incoronazione di Poppea, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 10 December 2017

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Images: Bernd Uhlig
Nerone (Max Emanuel Cencic), Poppea (Anna Prohaska)

Fortuna – Niels Domdey
Fortuna, Damigella – Narine Yeghiyan
Virtù – Artina Kapreljan
Amore, Valletto – Lucia Cirillo
Amore – Noah Schurz
Nerone – Max Emanuel Cencic
Ottavia – Katharina Kammerloher
Poppea – Anna Prohaska
Ottone – Xavier Sabata
Seneca – Franz-Josef Selig
Drusilla – Evelin Novak
Liberto, Lucano – Gyula Orendt
First Soldier, Lucano – Linard Vrielink
Second Soldier – Florian Hoffmann
Tribune – David Oštrek
Nutrice – Jochen Kowalski
Arnalta – Mark Milhofer

Eva-Maria Höckmayr (director)
Jens Kilian (set designs)
Julia Rösler (costumes)
Olaf Freese, Irene Selka (lighting)
Mark Schachtsiek, Roman Reeger (dramaturgy)

Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin
Diego Fasolis (conductor)

The Staatsoper Unter den Linden is now reopen for good. That re-reopening, as it were, has taken place with two new productions of two favourite works of mine: Hänsel und Gretel (which I shall also review shortly) and L’incoronazione di Poppea. I wish I could offer a wholehearted welcome to this production of Poppea, not least as my final instalment in rather a wonderful Monteverdi year, the highlight of which was surely an RIAS Kammerchor Vespers, conducted by Justin Doyle (see also interview here). Eva-Maria Höckmayr’s production offers, alas, little in itself, almost a non-production, whilst the musical performances were somewhat mixed.

Let us start, however, with the good news, which was very good news indeed. In what I believe was her first role in a Monteverdi opera – madrigal performances and much other early music notwithstanding – Anna Prohaska truly shone in the title role. She can certainly act, and did, called on, like much of the cast, to be onstage for an almost absurd proportion of the evening. There was, then, no doubting her stage presence; but nor was there any doubting her vocal presence. Never forced, ever audible, increasingly imbued with darker, richer tones than I recall when first hearing her, without any sacrifice to clarity and cleanness of line and words, Prohaska surely offered a performance that would have made anyone wish to hear her again, whether in Monteverdi, Nono, or somewhere in between. Her Poppea, moreover, was no one-dimensional schemer, no mere sex-kitten, although she certainly offered plenty in the way of allure and manipulation; this was a woman reclaiming a woman’s role, certainly not apologetic, yet unwilling simply to have as a male projection – be that Monteverdi’s, Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s, ours – might have her act.

Seneca (Franz-Josef Selig), Nerone

Her leading men, as it were, also offered intelligent, multi-dimensional performances. Max Emanuel Cencic’s Nerone was occasionally a little on the squawky side, yet only occasionally. Otherwise he judiciously, even provocatively, balanced the character’s vanity and sexual allure, for if Poppea is to be more than merely a male projection, then surely the other characters, male and female, need to come more into their own. Ottone is, more often than not, a thankless role – almost a Don Ottavio for the seventeenth century. Xavier Sabata, though, gave him depth and greater ambition and nastiness of his own than one often encounters – without that diminishing his helplessness in the arms of Fate. Jochen Kowalski, who has had a long, distinguished career not only as a countertenor, but as a countertenor in Berlin, tended, alas, to suggest that that career should probably draw to a close. Perhaps it was just an off-night, but here he was barely capable of singing countertenor at all, proving more successful when giving up that good fight to sing instead as tenor. He still had stage presence; for the most part, that was all.

Rather to my surprise, Katharina Kammerloher’s Ottavia proved variable, less sure – or indeed beautiful – of line than most performances I have heard from her. Franz-Josef Selig, as ever, offered a thoughtful performance as Seneca, alert to the character’s irritating side – not only as seen through the eyes, or heard through the ears, of Nerone and Poppea. Evelin Novak’s Drusilla impressed too, as did Mark Milhofer’s deliciously camp – yet crucially, eminently musical – Arnalta. Gyula Orendt rose above his announced ailment to give notable performances, which doubtless could have been finer still, as Liberto and Lucano. Most of the smaller roles were well taken, often by members of the company. Quite why children were engaged to double the gods in the Prologue I have no idea; moreover, whilst it is certainly a tall order to ask children to sing Monteverdi at all, let alone on stage, the audience probably deserves to hear voices that are vaguely capable of remaining in tune.

Poppea, Ottone (Xavier Sabata),
Amore (Lucia Cirollo)

Diego Fasolis made heavy, unvaried weather of the score. Many current ‘Early Music’ clichés were present, including the irritating addition of ‘colourful’ percussion. It was a relatively large band for Monteverdi in all: nothing wrong with that in principle, but it did have me wonder why we were hearing period instruments. I do not think I have heard a more dully conducted account, closer to a failed attempt to copy Nikolaus Harnoncourt than to something livelier, whether at the ‘period’ or – one can but hope – the Leppard end of the spectrum. Might it not, moreover, have been an occasion to look to a composer’s realisation of the score, say Krenek’s or Dallapiccola’s, or to commission a new one? The Staatskapelle Berlin would certainly have been a vocal sight for sore ears, much of what we heard resembling – although it certainly is not – acres of dullish recitative. Why, moreover, in this version credited to Fasolis and Andrea Marchiol, did we hear material interpolated from elsewhere, such as L’Orfeo? It was hardly ‘authentic’, in any sense, offering little more than a longer evening. Poppea is not a short opera; here it felt far longer than it should.

As for Hockmayr’s production, I struggled for the most part to find one, beyond a cursory nod to a threadbare metatheatricality that has degenerated into mere fashion. From Jens Kilian, a single, undeniably impressive golden set, with intriguing geometrical possibilities – circular and otherwise – promises much, as does Julia Rösler’s ‘punkish Renaissance-Baroque’ costumes, Nerone and Poppea perhaps more, yet not entirely, contemporary (to us). I had the sneaking impression, though, however erroneous, that the singers had largely been left by Hockmayr to get on with it. There is, at least for me, no obvious concept, other than the characters being all as bad as each other: hardly original, and actually rather dull. Yes, they all have their flaws; neither Ottone nor Ottavia is a paragon. There is surely room for greater differentiation, though, differentiation which need not lead to moral judgement. And so, in the final scene, Poppea’s sudden trauma at her elevation, unforgettably portrayed by Prohaska, seems to come out of nowhere. Likewise the frankly silly twist that has Nerone wander off with Lucano. Yes, of course the two are close, and will remain so, sexually and otherwise: the orgy has shown us that. But surely to have Nerone already opt so obviously for another rather than to remain omnivorous seems little more than an unprepared cop out. Perhaps Hockmayr had thought this all out and either it did not come across very clearly, or I was missing something. Perhaps.

Puccini's Toaster, The Old Maid and the Thief and Cabaret Songs, 22 November 2017

Apologies for the lack of a proper review. I have been very busy, both with work and other matters, and never found the time to write one. I wanted, though, to mention this excellent evening at the Tangoloft in Wedding (Berlin). Caroline Staunton directed Gian Carlo Menotti's Old Maid and the Thief intelligently and resourcefully, with a neat metatheatrical framing to deal with the work's frankly problematical treatment of gender. The cast proved excellent, musically and dramatically, as did Rebecca Lang's score reduction (quite a miracle!) and musical direction. It was a wonderful treat, moreover, to have an array of cabaret songs after the interval. For me, the highlight was Reuben Walker's Eisler, but that was as much a matter of the material itself as the performance, for all singers shone, as did the outstanding pianism of Kunal Lahiry. At this remove, I am loath to say more than that, lest my memory play tricks, but strongly recommend following the fortunes of this enterprising company. I am sure it will not be the last time I report back from one of their performances.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Barenboims and Soltani - Beethoven and Borowski, 19 November 2017

Pierre Boulez Saal

Beethoven: Piano Trio in E-flat major, op.1 no.1
Johannes Boris Borowski: Piano Trio (2013)
Beethoven: Piano Trio in D major, op.70 no.1

Michael Barenboim (violin)
Kian Soltani (cello)
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Recently seventy-five years young, Daniel Barenboim is returning his attention to Beethoven’s chamber music – as well as turning and returning his attention to much else. The music of Johannes Boris Borowski is one of those newer focuses of attention. Borowski’s Encore was first performed earlier this year at the Pierre Boulez Saal by Barenboim and the hall’s resident Boulez Ensemble. Now, with two fine young musicians, violinist Michael Barenboim and cellist Kian Soltani, the elder Barenboim presented two of Beethoven’s piano trios – the rest are to come – alongside Borowski’s 2013 work, written originally for the Trio Steuermann.

This was, I think, my first encounter with Borowski’s music. It certainly made me keen to hear more, and indeed to hear the Piano Trio again. Typical caveats for a new work (to me) apply: I have not seen a score, and am basing my account entirely upon a single hearing (and performance). Written in a single movement, lasting about a quarter of an hour, Borowski’s Trio emerged as somewhat in the Schubert-Liszt-Schoenberg tradition of encompassing at least a sense, if less overtly than those composers, of traditional movements within. It certainly sounded as a work in itself, not one movement in need of anything else. My ear – the Boulez Saal’s ‘thinking ear’, I hope – was especially caught later on by a haunting passage, seemingly ‘led’ by the cello, often with harmonics, which paved the way for what sounded akin to a ‘slow movement’ section, save for its placing at the close. ‘Placing’ is not quite the right word, given the possible implication of contrivance, for it proved very much a fitting conclusion and, in its way, a ‘return’, with all the musical connotations that might bring.

For there was there to be heard a return, albeit transformed, to the material of the very opening, whose intervals had announced themselves – I think – of fundamental importance to the progression of the work as a whole: not unlike Webern, perhaps, for they proved generative in a thematic, even melodic sense, even on this first hearing. The sound-world was not Webern’s; why would it be? It was darker, perhaps, at any rate recognisably, if you will forgive the aesthetic affront, post-high-modernist (by which I certainly do not mean postmodernist). All three instrumentalists listened and responded to each other as their parts suggested or demanded; this was played above all as ‘chamber music’, rather than ‘new music’. Echoes, transformations, and repetitions of figures between instruments could thus be experienced much – well, at least in part – as one might have done with Beethoven or Haydn. The considerable technical demands for violin and cello in particular were fearlessly and, above all, musically navigated. As I said, I look forward to hearing the piece again – and more by Borowski.

Prior to that, we had heard the first of Beethoven’s works in the genre, indeed his op.1 no.1: the Trio in E-flat major. The very first bar spoke of a young composer, his music full of what can only, if bathetically, be described as ‘life’. Barely ‘Romantic’ at all – surely rather less so than late Mozart or late Haydn – this was nevertheless unmistakeably Beethoven, ‘influences’ notwithstanding. The performance, both of the first movement and beyond, was ‘stylish, yes, but as an integral part of work and performance: not, as so many ‘authenticke’ brethren would seem to think, as something to be applied to the notes. Balance, which so many of them would claim, quite without evidence, to be ‘impossible’ on modern instruments, never proved an issue at all. The expansive, even on occasion slightly stiff, qualities of Beethoven’s early structures were minimised, form properly dynamic, developmental modulations in particular relished.

The three instruments (and their players) were especially winningly differentiated in the slow movement, taken at a tempo that seemed just right to accommodate, or better navigate, its competing demands. Daniel Barenboim proved fully equal to the apparently opposed demands of simplicity and complexity, so typical of an early Beethoven slow movement. Michael Barenboim was not afraid to sound a little rougher, where the music suggested such an approach. The surpassing elegance of Soltani’s cello tone was yet never an end in itself. A sprightly, good humoured, even skittish scherzo followed, the trio more relaxed, and considerably more intimate. One was compelled to listen: all the better. The invention implied and unleashed by that almost bizarre opening phrase of the finale – bizarre, until one appreciates, if only retrospectively, what it is suggesting – quite rightly never found itself normalised. If there were a few oddities of balance in this movement, there was nothing too grievous, far more simply, or not so simply, to enjoy.

The so-called ‘Ghost’ Trio, op.70 no.1 – to my mind, a singularly unhelpful nickname – was heard in the second half. This was unquestionably, and with just cause, a very different Beethoven: master of all he surveyed, master of more than we mere mortals could ever survey, and yet more profoundly human than all of us too. There were points of reference to the early work we had heard, but the musical sublimity – an idea essentially defined by Beethoven’s music – was something quite different. Not that this was an unduly reverential performance, nor indeed a reverential performance at all. The composer’s intense developmental concision characterised what therefore proved – again, nothing applied to the music – a thrilling first movement.

There was no doubting the Romanticism, however defined or understood, of the slow movement. It rarity, in every sense, sang as unmistakeably as anything in the composer’s late œuvre. Rapt, sublime – yes, I know I am repeating myself – this offered the (dialectical?) contradiction of a ‘perfect dialectic’, between the simple and the complex. Whatever one fancied to have become impossible after Mozart’s death, for a few minutes sounded not only once again possible but close to realisation. Arioso or scena? Ultimately, rightly, this movement was simply itself. First and foremost, the performance of the finale possessed the character of a finale. It offered release after the slow movement, yet tension aplenty of its own too. Nevertheless, something of the spirit of the father, indeed the inventor, of the piano trio remained: Haydn lived. What invention here, then, both in work and in performance!

Sunday, 19 November 2017

RSB/Hrůša - Dvořák, 17 November 2017


Stabat Mater, op.58

Simona Šaturová (soprano)
Elisabeth Kulman (contralto)
Steve Davislim (tenor)
Jan Martiník (bass)

Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Rustam Samedov)
Schola of the Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Benjamin Goodson)

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša (conductor)

For whatever reason – I could speculate on a few, but shall not do so here – many, if not all, large-scale choral works from the nineteenth century seem to have fallen out of fashion, perhaps especially in Britain. Brahms’s German Requiem will surely always have a following, and rightly so; but I have managed to hear Elijah – formerly, at least to the Victorians, ‘“the” Elijah’ – precisely once, and St Paul never. Nor had I ever heard Dvořák’s Stabat Mater before in concert. (As for the following Verdi’s Requiem has, it can only be accounted for by the following mysteriously acquired by the rest of his regrettable œuvre.) It was a delight, then, to hear such a fine performance from the Berlin Radio Choir and its ‘Schola’, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSB), and Jakub Hrůša. Even if I had my doubts about some of the solo contributions, they were largely on matters of taste rather than anything more fundamental.

To ascribe grief – and ultimately, consolation – in such a musical setting straightforwardly to personal circumstances will usually be to sentimentalise; artistic creation is never, thank God, quite so straightforward as that. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the sequential loss of his three children may have had some connection with what Dvořák wrote, even though it goes far beyond that, to what we might at a pinch – before deconstruction sets in – still consider a (more) universal message. His setting is certainly an unusually powerful, focused work for a composer whose unevenness and, sometimes, formal inadequacy are often skated over by apologists of nationalist and other hues. (That hapless Seventh Symphony, for instance, whatever its incidental pleasures!) At his best, Dvořák is excellent indeed; all too often, however, he is not at his best. He comes at least close to that best here, I think, and often indeed reaches it.

Its opening sadness – first, those extraordinary repeated F-sharps, the sharp sign a longstanding piece of musical crucifixion iconography, then a crucial, as it were, descending figure – registered not only powerfully, but, in a dynamic sense, dramatically. Icy or, better, cold – since it is certainly human – that descending orchestral figure grew ever more intense with every sequential or developmental reliving of its pain. Here, as often in this work, Dvořák proves more ‘symphonic’ than in any of his symphonies, or at least more consistently so – with, as ever, the great exception of the deservedly popular Ninth. Or maybe, I began to wonder, given the distinction of the performance, it was just that I had not heard Hrůša conduct them. The music seeped into, formed the foundation, motivic and dramatic, for the first movement (choral and soloists): soft at first, building to beautifully shaped climaxes, without merely determining it. Indeed such was the distinction of the choral singing, words and notes equally well projected, that one had the retrospective sense that the words of the poem had determined the music of the introduction too.

Alas, soprano Simona Šaturová’s first entry was, quite frankly, weak, and both the tenor (Steve Davislim) and bass (Jan Martiník) proved rather ‘operatic’, in an almost Verdian way, for me. Only Elisabeth Kulman’s predictably excellent way, rich of tone, thoughtful of words, seemed in keeping with the rest of the performance. Davislim and Martiník sang very well on their own terms, though, and I can only presume that Hrůša had no problem with those terms either. It does one no harm, in any case, to listen to performances of high quality that do not correspond to how one instinctively, or indeed otherwise, hears a work in one’s head. In that sense, only Šaturová was disappointing, and she improved as the work proceeded. If her vowels were odd, and her consonants often indistinct, in her later duet (‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem), her line was much cleaner by then.

A great strength to Hrůša’s reading was that there was always a strong sense of the work as a whole, just as in a symphony. Individual movements, or numbers, or whatever we want to call them, were sections of the poem, not poems in themselves. And so, the second movement Quartet followed on, related to, intensifying, certainly not repeating the mood of its predecessor. Even if I did not always care for the style of the solo singing, the RSB’s playing was second to none, not least the sweetness and warmth of the strings. (Czech music is no better served by ascribing some birth right to ‘national’ orchestras, than English music is. Who, after all, is better with Elgar today than Daniel Barenboim?) Fundamentals, in the harmonic and a more general sense, were always well taken care of: generative, again just as they would be in a symphony. The following chorus continued in similar vein: which, again, is to stress ‘continued’, with the kinship and difference that implies. The cries of ‘fac’ were every bit as ‘dramatic’ as one could have hoped for, not least since they were presented in context, no mere ‘effect’.

Different characters were to be heard in the following movements: never unnecessarily contrasted, but likewise never quite drawn from the same colours. Brahms, for instance, haunted the tenor solo and chorus, ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’, but in the orchestral sound itself, orchestral and textures themselves simpler, yet undeniably radiant. As the work progressed, transformation, even perhaps transfiguration, crept upon us. It was difficult to say precisely where or when: doubtless as it should be. Hrůša’s control of large-scale structures proved just as un-showily impressive as it had earlier this year when I heard him conduct – magnificently – the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

The neo-Baroque character of the penultimate movement, the solo contralto ‘Inflammatus’ was for me very much a highpoint – both of work and performance. Compassion here seemed very much to the fore, both for Kulman and the orchestra. Perhaps unsurprisingly by now, but certainly not to be taken for granted, Hrůša proved masterly in binding together the work in its final quartet and chorus. It was not merely a recognition of reappearance of earlier material, but of its developmental quality; contextual difference spoke just as strongly as similarity. There was ambiguity, quite rightly, at the close: exultant, yet not unalloyed. That one could – and this listener, at least, did – read back into what we had heard before. This, then, was an excellent concert; I was sad only to have had to miss the bonus concert of a cappella works scheduled immediately afterwards.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

BPO/Koopman - Bach, 27 October 2017


Mass in B minor, BWV 232

Yetzabel Arias Fernandez (soprano)
Wiebke Lehmkuhl (contralto)
Tilman Lichdi (tenor)
Klaus Mertens (bass)
RIAS Chamber Choir (chorus master: Justin Doyle)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Ton Koopman (conductor)

Theodor Adorno: how I wish we could have heard your thoughts on this concert. In his 1951 essay, ‘Bach defended against his devotees’, written in the wake of the commemorations of the bicentenary of Bach’s death, Adorno so sharply characterised the reactionary delusions and disingenuities of musical ‘authenticity’ that one might well have thought that would have been the end of that. Except, of course, that it was not; we had barely reached the end of the overture. Vast swathes of repertoire have been entirely colonised, placed off-bounds to modern orchestras in the maniacal name of an ‘authenticity’ so self-contradictory that a five-year-old could instantly demolish its claims. And yet, so it continues. It was, then, with great interest that, two-thirds of a century after Adorno’s essay, I approached the rare opportunity of hearing the Berlin Philharmonic in the B minor Mass.

Not, alas, that this was a large-scale, ‘symphonic’ performance. (‘Symphonic’ is an especially silly word here: as if Klemperer or Jochum approached Bach as they did Beethoven…) The opening of the first Kyrie was, rather to my surprise, not at all brusque, although the chamber-scale of the forces – not small by contemporary (to us) standards, although certainly small by Adorno’s – immediately struck me, not least given the size of Berlin’s Philharmonie. After the tempo change – call that Largo?! – however, Ton Koopman’s approach proved both glib and metronomic: not unlike his strangely uncompelling way with the organ. A plea for divine mercy? Forget it. Perhaps a request for afternoon tea, although even that might have been to impart too much meaning. And therein lay the real problem. The musicians playing and singing were nearly all excellent: the Philharmonic, the Berlin Radio Choir, and at least two of the vocal soloists. But they were directed by someone who seemed not just to have a decidedly peculiar sense of what the text of the Mass might mean; he seemed to have none whatsoever. And here, as throughout the work, he simply took the piece one archly articulated phrase at a time, giving no indication of a longer line, let alone a unified conception. Even dynamic contrasts were minimal – and, when they were to be heard, weirdly arbitrary. The following ‘Christe’, then, however beautifully sung by Yetzabel Arias Fernandez, might on Koopman’s part have been computer generated – or, to return us to the 1950s, ‘sewing-machine Bach’. The second ‘Kyrie’, the clarity of choral lines remarkable in itself, sounded as a mere pendant.

Parts of the ‘Gloria’ fared better. The first section was hardly profound, and suffered from fussy articulation, but it more or less looked after itself. Moreover, much to my surprise, the ‘Et in terra pax’ section relaxed properly, even daringly, as did the ‘Gratias’. And yet, whilst instrumental obbligato parts were all very well taken (Emmanuel Pahud on flute, for instance), most of the vocal solos likewise – Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s ‘Qui sedes’ an object lesson in sounding imploring without sentimentality – there was never any sign of an overall conception. When musicians were allowed to get on with it, they generally did very well indeed; often, however, they seemed circumscribed. To return to Adorno’s essay, one could hardly avoid the suspicion that the sole concern of Bach’s ‘devotee’ was to ensure that ‘no inauthentic dynamics, no modifications of tempo, no excessively large choirs and orchestra’ should be employed. Is that your idea of Bach, I wanted to ask? Bach’s scoring of genius in the ‘Quoniam’ told properly, the bassoonists shining just as brightly as the horn player; it was a pity, here and later, that Klaus Mertens sounded so dry of tone, and that he faltered so audibly at one point. His tenor colleague, Tilman Lichdi fared better, but his light instrument – or performance – was put in the shade by Arias during their duet. The Cum sancto Spiritu’ was, to no one’s surprise, taken at breackneck speed. Whilst the choir acquitted itself with distinction, the question that lingered was: ‘why?’

Following the interval, an almost aggressively domesticated ‘Credo’ – without the ‘almost’, it might ‘almost’ have been interesting – signaled little more than the sense that the conductor might have a train to catch at the end. Everything sounded as if it were surface; that Bach might have held beliefs, even held them to be eternal truths, that we might need in some sense to reckon with that, with them, seemed never to have been considered by Koopman. If your vision of Resurrection is in pastel, then the ‘Confiteor’ and what immediately followed might have been for you. The ‘Sanctus’ can rarely have sounded less like the swing of a censer, Koopman unwilling to let go, stopping it at the end of every phrase so as to permit it to move another few inches. As for his decision to play the organ himself for the ‘Benedictus’, it added a disconcerting sense of the listless, of the merely meandering, but is that what the coming of the Holy Ghost should signify? Following a bar-to-bar, highly laboured ‘Agnus Dei’, very well sung on its own terms, an effort towards mild grandeur was made in the closing ‘Dona nobis pacem’. It was unclear, though, where it had come from, or what it might denote.

‘They say Bach, mean Telemann,’ was one of Adorno’s most devastating charges. Bach was being reduced to the level of a generic ‘Baroque’ composer. (Telemann devotees should feel free to choose someone else; there are more than enough to choose from.) The problem with Koopman was not that he said Bach yet meant Telemann; he did not seem to mean anyone or anything at all.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Aimard - Anderson, Benjamin, Ligeti, Kurtág, Stroppa, Carter, and Messiaen, 26 October 2017

Pierre Boulez Saal

Julian Anderson: Sensation (2015-16): ‘Toucher’
George Benjamin: Shadowlines: ‘Tempestoso’ and ‘Very freely’ (2001)
Ligeti: Études: ‘Der Zauberlehrling’ and ‘Entrelacs’ (1994, 1993)
Kurtág: Játékok: ‘Passio sine nomine’ (2015)
Marco Stroppa: Miniatura estrose (1991-2001): ‘Passacaglia canonical in contrappunto policromatico’
Carter: Caténaires (2006)
Messiaen: Catalogue d’oiseaux: ‘La Rousserolle effarvatte’ (1958)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

If it would be an exaggeration to describe this as a recital of music that ‘belonged’ to Pierre-Laurent Aimard – music, surely, belongs to us all – then it would be a pardonable exaggeration, whose purpose and meaning were clear. Here were pieces, mostly drawn from larger works or collections, with which Aimard has a particular connection, and with which he could – and did – speak not only with great authority but with eminently thoughtful musicality. Nothing was taken for granted; indeed, the music spoke both with the freshness of the new and the understanding of a grounded repertoire.

I wish I could feel the enthusiasm so many friends, colleagues, fellow musicians and music-lovers clearly feel for the music of Julian Anderson. That includes, clearly, Aimard, who gave the premiere of Sensation at Aldeburgh last year, and here extracted from it, in what he believed to be its German premiere, the second movement, ‘Toucher’. I have never actively disliked any of Anderson’s music, but rarely have I discerned much beneath an often attractive surface. Perhaps that is the point; I am not so sure. At any rate, this piece, conceived, in Anderson’s words, ‘with particular emphasis on the French tradition of the jeu perlé – playing of great lightness, speed and clarity – of which Pierre-Laurent Aimard … is such a brilliant exponent,’ made for an impressive pianistic opening. It sounded as if conceived more or less in a single, dare I say melodic, line, with certain additions or elucidations, often chordal, around it. The chords certainly sounded very ‘French’, Messiaen in particular coming to mind in some of the harmonies.

George Benjamin’s Shadowlines, from which we heard here the fourth and fifth movements, followed: another work of which Aimard had given the first performance. This emerged very much as a re-examination, more to my taste, even perhaps to my understanding, of canonical procedures, thereby offering our ears and minds as much vertically as horizontally. It seemed, in performance as well as in the work ‘itself’, that not only had polyphony been reinstated, but so too had its typical dialectic between freedom and organisation. Or perhaps that is just someone speaking who has been spending too much time with Schoenberg recently. At any rate, the piano writing (and playing) had an intriguing sense of the Germanic too it as well: far from exclusive, or even predominant, but unmistakeable, at least to these ears. Aimard clearly relished its complexities; so too did I.

Aimard’s collaboration with Ligeti verges upon the ‘legendary’: (not, of course, in the sense that it did not happen!) Aimard gave the premieres of many of the composer’s later piano works, these two Études included. What immediately struck me, both in no.10, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, and no.12, ‘Entrelacs’, was the ‘finish’ to what we heard, again both as work and as performance. This, one felt, was a mastery, compositional and performative, worthy of, say, Ravel. If the first offered something of a connection to the Anderson piece, its emphasis perhaps in a broad sense ‘melodic’, the metrical transformations and layering of ‘Entrelacs’ seemed both to speak of kinship with and difference from Elliott Carter (still to come). The energy was impossible to resist – and why on earth would one try?

I suspect that, by now, you can guess who gave the 2015 first performance of Kurtág’s ‘Passio sine nomine’, from his compendious Játékok. He seemed to do it proud again here in Berlin. I was especially struck by a certain obstinacy, an almost religious truculence – although was that a thought elicited by the title? – a Credio quia absurdum, both to the material and to the performance. All that Bach the Kurtágs have played sounded with something I am tempted to call immanence.

Aimard gave the premiere of Marco Stroppa’s Miniature estrose in 1995; a second premiere, of the completed version, was given by Florian Hölscher in 2000. Here, Aimard’s performance of the ‘Passacaglia canonical in contrappunto policocromatico’ seemed very much to make use of the Pierre Boulez Saal – there, of course, is another composer to whom Aimard could hardly have stood closer! – as an instrument in itself. (How very different it must have sounded in that premiere at the Opéra Bastille!) The almost whispered intimacies and indeed the entire dynamic range sounded very much a product of the hall as well as of the keyboard. So too did their interaction with other parameters, and with other, more malleable aspects of the music. The sheer beauty of work and performance shone through.

Ever youthful, the work of Carter ended the first ‘half’; here we heard the composer at 102. In Caténaires, we heard once again consummate mastery. I thought of Ligeti’s ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, and perceived – if sometimes only just – a penumbra of polyphonic possibilities surrounding what is, for Carter, as Aimard explained, an unusually un-polyphonic work. The composer indeed spoke of having ‘become obsessed with the idea of a fast one-line piece with no chords’. Was it perverse for me to have heard it that way? Perhaps, but nevertheless I did. Truly, though, its energy sounded as music for the age of computers, even of the Internet.

Aimard did not, of course, give the first performance of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux; Yvonne Loriod did, in one of Boulez’s Domaine musical concerts. His association with all concerned, however, is strong and deep, and so it sounded here. Aimard’s recording of the complete work will be released next year. This performance of the vast ‘La Rousserolle effarvatte’ (‘The Reed Warbler’), at about half an hour, offered quite the calling card. More than that, it seemed, whether this were the illusion of performance and programming or something more, to unite and indeed to develop many of the tendencies we had heard earlier, whilst remaining of course very much itself. No one else could have written this music! The opening, as much for the different sonorities heard simultaneously as for their pitches, sounded as if performed with three hands. Admittedly, I could not see the keyboard, but I am reasonably sure that it was not. Through the violent eruptions, the silences (what silences!), the different colours (whether one actually ‘sees’ them or no), the luscious harmonies, the obstinate rhythms, the undeniable religious mysticism, and of course the birdsong, both a singularity of voice and a multiplicity of voices seemed to assert themselves – and to express a joy in being, in music-making that penetrated to the essence of Messiaen’s art. Everything sounded refracted through, not just related to but derived from, everything else. Perhaps ‘total serialism’ had not passed after all; it had simply, or not so simply, reinvented itself.