Sunday, 25 September 2016

Endellion Qt - Haydn, Bartók, and Beethoven, 23 September 2016


Wigmore Hall


Haydn – String Quartet in F major, op.77 no.2
Bartók – String Quartet no.3
Beethoven – String Quartet in F major, op.59 no.1, ‘Razumovsky’


Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza (violins)
Garfield Jackson (viola)
David Waterman (cello)

There could be no complaints concerning the programming of this Wigmore Hall concert from the Endellion Quartet: three of the greatest string quartets yet – and, we can safely assume – ever to be written, two F major masterpieces by founding composers of the genre sandwiching Bartók at his most radical.


Haydn’s final completed quartet came first. There was no denying the motivic integrity and integration of the material, whether in the first movement or later on. However close the music might be to Beethoven’s chronologically, and even if there are moments, phrases, which, taken out of context, might be taken for the work of the younger composer, context is all in the work, and so it was in performance too. The development section said all that needed to be said, no more, no less, and indeed that was very much the impression over all, the civilised concision perhaps as suggestive of Brahms, albeit without the pain of his ‘lateness’, as of Beethoven. The Menuetto, a scherzo in all but name, rightly emerged as something stranger than expectations of either might suggest: quite unique, even looking forward in that respect to Bartók’s reinvention of dance forms. At the same time, it still very much was that dance it seemed to be, whatever we might elect to call it. The trio drew one in to listen, again quietly underlining its one-of-a-kind status. If late Beethoven beckoned, that was only because Beethoven continued to owe Haydn a considerable debt. The Andante flowed, sadly at times, albeit without self-pity (never Haydn’s thing), and, as ever, brimmed with invention. Haydn could – and did – continue to surprise us. He did so still more in the finale; the compulsion to originality he is said to have ascribed to isolation at Esterháza endured. There was no self-conscious brilliance to the playing of the Endellion Quartet – perhaps, at times, something a little more brilliant might have been no bad thing, and there were a few intonational slips – but the brilliance of the work was never in doubt.

 
Bartók’s Third Quartet followed. In the Prima parte, the opening’s involved intricacy and, yes, sheer strangeness registered, if not so strongly as in more intense performances. Again, there were a few intonational issues, but they were soon resolved, and a Bartók in somewhat Bergian guise, refreshingly, intriguingly so, emerged. Not for long, though was the music to be pinned down in that, or any other, manner, for Bartók’s genius here is so protean as to resist being confined by affinity or simile. Like Haydn, as it were. The Seconda parte began with apparent intimations of later Bartók: driven by rhythm, of course, yet just as much by melody; and at least as much by musical process. The same might be said of the Ricapitulazione della prima partie, in memory of what the material had, and had not, been. Greater tension would, I think, have benefited the performance here; I should not wish to exaggerate, though, for there was no waning of attention. The Coda received a committed, even fiery performance; this was so much more than a mere tail-piece, invoking inevitable comparisons with Beethoven.

 
Beethoven himself was to be heard in the second half, with the first Razumovsky Quartet, a work at least as great as any other ‘middle-period’ Beethoven, of any genre and for any forces. The Endellion Quartet immediately sounded a notch or two more committed, at least in retrospect, the intensity I had missed sometimes in Bartók and Haydn very much present as the first movement opened, in medias res. There was a greater physicality to the playing, a greater sense of the crucial importance of every note and its placing, a greater tonal richness too, though never for its own sake. The counterpoint of the development was both clear and intense; crucially, it developed. So too, just as crucially, did the recapitulation. Not that there was no room therein to enjoy the view; the second group sounded exquisite; it was not, however, only exquisite. Everything mattered in the second movement too. Rhythm only made sense in relation to melody and harmony, and so forth; perhaps that is, on reflection, another way of saying that, again, the material developed as it must. The slow movement I found less successful. I wished it might calm down a little, the unremitting intensity (too much vibrato, unrelieved?) making it difficult to attain the distilled simplicity required. One certainly heard its complexity, but structure remained a little elusive. Tuning was not always what it might have been. The mood of the finale, by contrast, was very well captured, its complexities and simplicities alike. Perhaps some of Beethoven’s surprises were a little underplayed, but that is preferable to exaggeration. There was no doubting the players’ commitment and understanding here.

 

Così fan tutte, Royal Opera, 22 September 2016


Royal Opera House

Dorabella (Angela Brower) and Fiordiligi (Corinne Winters)
Images: ROH/Stephen Cummiskey




Ferrando – Daniel Behle
Guglielmo – Alessio Arduini
Don Alfonso – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fiordiligi – Corinne Winters
Dorabella – Angela Brower
Despina – Sabina Puértolas
 

Jan Philipp Gloger (director)
Ben Baur (set designs)
Karin Jud (costumes)
Bernd Purkrabek (lighting)
Katharina John (dramaturgy)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

Dorabella, Ferrando (Daniel Behle), Guglielmo (Alessio Arduini), and Fiordiligi


At last: something at the Royal Opera to replace Jonathan Miller’s slapstick onslaught on Così fan tutte, not only the most sophisticated, most profound of Mozart’s operas, but the most sophisticated, most profound opera of all. (At least, that is how I feel at the moment.) It broke my heart to hear Colin Davis, conducting the greatest musical performances of the work (2007 and 2012) I have ever heard and am ever likely to hear, undermined at every juncture by Miller’s antics. Alas, the good news is not unmixed. It rarely is, of course; however, once again, we see and hear a split between music and production: not, I think, a productive mutual questioning, but just a dissociation. The fault, I am sorry to say, lay squarely with the production, although it was compounded by different – both valid, but undeniably different – conceptions of the work from conductor and singers. I suspect that some issues will be resolved as the run proceeds, but it is difficult to imagine that they all will be, especially when it comes to Jan Philipp Gloger’s production – although, paradoxically, I suspect that the lively young cast might even salvage something from that once the director is out of the way.

 

My sole previous encounter with Gloger’s work had been at Bayreuth. A weak irrelevant Flying Dutchman did not augur well, but everyone deserves a second chance. Even in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, I found ‘too many instances where the action, especially for a relatively small theatre, was on too small a scale properly to understand, or was simply, at least to me, obscure. I had the sense that there was a better production waiting to break out.’ Much the same might be said about this Così fan tutte, save that, in a larger theatre, especially from the Amphitheatre, some of the problems of scale are amplified. In both productions, one has a sense of a good idea or two, anything but original, indeed seen in many other stagings of the work in question, obscured by both a director who thinks his production is far cleverer than it actually is, and by a certain lack of basic theatrical craft, the designs, impressive though they may be, being made in the absence of anything else, to do, or to try to do, far too much of the work for themselves.

 

The production begins, reasonably enough, if in wearisomely clichéd fashion, with an attempt to set up its metatheatrical stance. During the Overture, a cast in ‘period’ dress – presumably a ‘traditional’ production in our here and now – takes its bows in affected style. There is an element of welcome surprise when our real cast, apparently members of the audience, rushes into the Stalls in fashionable, contemporary – to us – dress, and replaces that on stage. From the audience reaction, anyone would have thought such an idea had never been attempted before, whether in Così or anything else. Members of the audience – one of the worst-behaved, alas, I can recall – seemed to find that all utterly hilarious, in well-nigh uncontrollable laughter because some people walked through the stalls of a theatre whilst others were bowing on stage. They need, I think, to get out a little more; perhaps, dare I suggest it, they might acquaint themselves with some less derivative ‘modern’ theatre, in and out of the opera house, if they think there is anything daring in what they saw here.


Guglielmo
 

Anyway, in another ‘borrowing’ from other recent-ish productions, Don Alfonso, who has been on stage all along, and who, for reasons unclear to me, remains in ‘period’ dress, is revealed as director of both ‘old’ and ‘new’ productions. The play’s the thing. It is one way, not a new way, as many seemed to think, to address the perceived ‘problem’ with the work. Our Ferrarese ladies and their nobles play roles in the theatre, in a number of different settings – the public area of an (our) opera house, a Brief Encounter railway station, a somewhat dated cocktail bar, the Garden of Eden, the costume department of the house, etc. – and thus suspend the alleged need for ‘suspension of disbelief’, perhaps the most tiresome operatic cliché of all.


 

I am far from convinced that the intricacy and overt artificiality of Da Ponte’s and still more Mozart’s work, that very artificiality permitting the most profoundly human predicament to come, unflinchingly to the theatrical fore, need such ‘help’, but that need not have mattered. The problem, to reiterate, is that, especially during the first act, the designs are more or less made to do a good deal of the work that stage direction should be doing. When we come to a potentially fruitful inversion of roles, as in the Garden of Eden, it comes across as hapless, not as transgressive or alienating. It is one thing, often a good thing, to have the audience do some thinking for itself – not much chance here, given the loud applause from far too many in the middle of Despina’s ‘Una donna a quindici anni’: can they not hear the music has not returned to the tonic? – but not at the expense of doing one’s job as director. Otherwise, we should all simply sit at home with a score and/or recording, and imagine the work for ourselves. (We often do, of course, but that is not really what a visit to the opera house is for.) The final emendation, spelled out in glitzy letters above the stage, to Così fan tutti does no harm, is perhaps welcome, but again would gain in strength with something more than a scenic flourish.

 




Semyon Bychkov’s reading of this most wondrous of Mozart’s scores grew in stature as the evening progressed. No, it was not Colin Davis, but we have to accept, alas, that he is no longer with us. Bychkov’s conducting offered, at its best, an intriguing alternative, although, in the first half hour or so, some of the tempo variations sounded a little arbitrary and the sensuous quality of the music was occasionally undersold. There were no ‘period’ affectations, though, and as Bychkov hit his stride, the laudable flexibility he had always shown felt more ‘natural’ – however artificial a construct that, like the onstage drama, might be. I heard some people complain of ‘slowness’ and can only presume them to have been ignorant of the varied performance history of the work. Very little was ‘slow’, in any meaningful sense, but it was varied, and deeply considered. The lamentable alternative is to make Mozart sound like Rossini; that is a straitjacket we can all do without.  
 

Despina (Sabina Puértolas)


More of a problem was that the singers did not always, again especially in the first act, sound attuned to Bychkov’s understanding. They sounded as though they would have been happier in the swifter, less contemplative performance, impressive on its own, very different terms, which I had heard last month in Salzburg, conducted by Ottavio Dantone. Indeed, the Guglielmo, Alessio Arduini, offered the common link between the casts. I wrote then of an assumption that was ‘proud, assertive, flawed: just as he should be, whether vocally or in stage manner,’ and much the same might be said here; Arduini is a fine performer, not just a fine singer. Daniel Behle proved an estimable successor to Salzburg’s Mauro Peter, similarly honeyed of tone, ‘Un‘aura amorosa’ as so often a highlight. Corinne Winters mostly impressed as Fioridilgi, the coloratura well despatched, although her lower register was occasionally found wanting. The clarity of Angela Brower’s Dorabella was often married to a subtle richness of tone that was most welcome. Johannes Martin Kränzle took to his role as master of ceremonies with commendable enthusiasm and equally commendable musico-theatrical results. The fussiness of the half-baked concept was not his fault. Sabina Puértolas proved a spirited Despina, attentive to vocal as well as theatrical concerns (which is not always the case). Alas, there remains some way to go before different strands of production and performance come together.




Thursday, 22 September 2016

Mozart’s Symphonic Development: Return to and Escape from Salzburg



(This essay was first published in a 2016 Salzburg Festival programme.)



Symphony No. 28 in C major, K. 200/189k
Sinfonia concertante for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and orchestra in E-flat major, K. 297b/AnhC 14.01
Symphony (Overture) No. 32 in G major, K. 318
Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425, ‘Linz’ Symphony

Hieronymus von Colloredo, 1775



That Mozart had an uneasy relationship with Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo is well known. Colloredo’s Enlightenment reforms, condemned by many as crypto-Lutheran, did not go down well in Salzburg, just as the slightly later, often similar reforms of Joseph II would meet resistance in the Habsburg lands. In some respects, music suffered, whether at the Archbishop’s court or in the Cathedral that had once been Biber’s playground. However, curtailment of some ‘official’ musical activities led, in some instances, to greater opportunities elsewhere in the city, for instance in the founding of a private orchestra by Colloredo’s nephew, Count Johann Rudolf Czernin. And so, although Mozart (his father, Leopold, still more so) kept at least one eye upon possibilities in Vienna, his compositional activity, especially during the early years of Colloredo’s rule, was impressive both in quantity and in quality. Whereas symphonic composition had hitherto been for the most part something Mozart had done outside Salzburg, between Colloredo’s unpopular election in March 1772 and the end of 1774 Mozart wrote at least seventeen symphonies. Many of these works he thought of highly enough to perform in Vienna many years later. Indeed, one might think of much of the rest of Mozart’s symphonic career, at least as far as the Linz Symphony, as a tale of returns to Salzburg and subsequent escapes therefrom, or vice versa.

 

Mozart’s Symphony no.28, in C major, was probably one of the last, most likely composed in November 1774, possibly the previous year. As was the case with most of the symphonies of 1773 and 1774, the work benefited from a relatively large wind section (two oboes, two horns, two trumpets). What we consider prophetic should also be seen as typical. The city as whole, more so than the court orchestra itself, was well off for woodwind players; a commentator such as Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart noting ‘especially distinguished’ performers in the city. Moreover, woodwind performers, generally trained to play more than one instrument, would often double. Their solo excursions in this symphony are already highly individual, almost operatic: for instance, the horn writing in the minuet. Strings, of course, nevertheless provided the backbone.




 

In four movements, this is a symphony on the grand, public scale that C major often suggested to the composer. The Allegro spirituoso opens with a descending, declamatory C major arpeggio, lest we stand in any doubt. Terraced dynamics hark back to an earlier age; the pristine, ornate delicacy of piano strings’ response is very much Mozart’s own. It is some time before he leaves the tonic, moving, as expected, to the dominant for the second group; note here the duetting oboes; in Mozart, the symphony is rarely distant from the opera, and vice versa. Tonal disorientation at the onset of the development seems to peer far into the Mozartian chromatic future, yet also signals thoroughgoing theatrical command. The F major Andante sets pairs of oboes and horns against muted strings with typical operatic style. Following a swift yet sturdy reinstatement of C major in the Minuet, it and the ensuing Trio offer chromatic surprises aplenty within its modest – at least to post-Beethovenian ears – frame. Dislocations in the extraordinary finale are generally of a different nature, Mozart’s ability to elicit and to intensify tension through variation of phrase length strikingly mature, not least for an eighteen-year-old. High spirits are hard won in this sonata-form movement.

 

Yet, the composer, as we know, proved restless. We now move forward to one of Mozart’s most celebrated excursions from Salzburg: to Paris in 1778, in fruitless search for employment. Much ink has been spilt on the subject of the embattled Sinfonia concertante for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and orchestra, K 297b. We know that Mozart composed a work for flute, oboe, horn, and bassoon for a visit from Mannheim wind players to the Concert spirituel series in Paris, where such works were highly fashionable, but that work’s relationship to our Sinfonia concertante is unclear. Some scholars have dismissed it out of hand; some have thought it ‘genuine’, whatever that might mean. Robert Levin has, in his book-length study, argued, taking his leave from Samuel Baron and Barry S. Brook, that the orchestral part is not Mozart’s, but rather a nineteenth-century reconstruction; nor, Levin argues, is the first-movement cadenza. Changes have been made to the solo parts too, he believes, changes made without reference to the missing orchestral parts. Levin has offered his own reconstruction, which looks likely to prove as controversial as whatever the nineteenth-century manuscript may be that Otto Jahn discovered in the 1860s. Richard Maunder concluded his highly critical review of Levin’s Who Wrote the Mozart Four-Wind Concertante? with the words: ‘I fear that the answer to the question … must be: we don’t know, but the evidence suggests it wasn’t Mozart.’ Maunder suggested a nineteenth-century wholesale forgery. Is there perhaps something of JC Bach (or school thereof, in which we should surely consider Mozart anyway) here? The Neue Mozart Ausgabe, not unreasonably, places the work in a supplement, alongside other ‘doubtful or spurious’ works. Does it matter? Yes and no; it depends, as is always the case, on what our primary motivations might be. Is there music of high quality here, music too good to have puritans snatch it from us? Undoubtedly. Let us for the moment, then, leave on one side issues of attribution and authenticity, work in the spirit of Mark Everist’s admirable Mozart’s Ghosts and consider the riches of what we have. They were impressive enough, after all, for conductors such as Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, and many others, to record the work.




 

The writing for woodwind inevitably has us think of Mozart’s later operas. Wes should also, however, recall the Salzburg precedent mentioned above, the established importance for Paris of the sinfonia concertante as a genre, and certainly not least, the demand of concert audiences and performers for concertos from every instrument, witnessed by Pierre-Louis Ginguené in his 1791 Encyclopédie méthodique: ‘Instrumental performance has now reached so advanced a state of perfection that there is no instrument which cannot claim to shine in a concert. … The flute, the oboe, and the clarinet, have long had their concertos. Even the horn has concertos, and the sad bassoon has not foregone that advantage. I have heard the nephew of the great [Johann] Stamitz play concertos for the viola; concertos for the violoncello have made the reputation of more than one famous artist, and concertos have now been composed for the double bass.’ Whether in the opening movement, with its ‘triple exposition’, first orchestral, then twice with soloists, in the elegant and serene Adagio, or the deliciously catchy, unquestionably ‘operatic’ theme to the finale and the beguiling progress of its ten (highly Parisian!) variations, there is surely at least as much for us to enjoy here as there was for early audiences – whoever they may have been (or not). It is up to us whether we pick up on the details that seem to ring truest, or those that might seem to jar; as for the puzzle of all three movements having been written in the same key, E-flat major, let us leave that too for another day.

 

Mozart’s return to Salzburg from Paris in January 1779 seemed happy at first; yet, whilst having gained additional duties (and money) as court and cathedral organist, greater exposure, however unpleasant at times, to the musical world beyond Salzburg made it unlikely that he would linger in Salzburg long. Colloredo was unimpressed by the amount of music Mozart was writing for other occasions, arguably in contravention of a narrow reading of his contract. The one-movement G major ‘Symphony’, K. 318, was one such work. It bears witness to his time in Paris, written, unusually for Mozart, in the style of an opéra comique. Its first section, marked ‘Allegro spiritoso’, combines with formal balance and a keen sense of drama directional liveliness and grandeur. Following a charming Andante interlude, which not only delays the expected recapitulation but permits Mozartian woodwind balm to work its healing magic, the final Primo tempo section reverses the ordering of first and second subjects, again offering more than a hint of the opera house.




 

Speaking of Mozart’s ‘earlier’ symphonies, ‘even the Linz,’ Charles Rosen claimed that ‘Mozart … had striven for brilliance rather than majesty’. On the contrary: this symphony, as surely as Webern’s Passcaglia, op.1, with which Christoph von Dohnányi once so revealingly paired it, offers a typically Mozartian, typically Classical, rejection of the either/or. Rosen should have listened to Otto Klemperer. Donald Tovey was closer to the mark arguing that it ‘ranks with the supreme last triad of symphonies, the great concertos, and the great quartets and quintets, as one of Mozart’s most perfect instrumental works’. Written for a concert on the way back to Vienna, following another unhappy return to Salzburg, this time to introduce Constanze to Leopold, the Linz Symphony is in the ‘full’ four movements and offers a first-movement introduction of a grandeur, if not necessarily a compositional method, we perhaps more readily associate with Haydn and Beethoven’s symphonic work.




 

The work’s development sections (first, second, and fourth movements) are concise, even terse, by Mozart’s standards, let alone those of later composers. Tovey’s comparison with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, with respect to the place the work takes in Mozart’s personal development of symphonic style, is intriguing and, I think, revealing, rendering the Prague Symphony analogous to perhaps the Fifth and/or Sixth, which seems about right. That, again, however, is really a question for another day, save that Mozart’s œuvre, always the work of a young composer, even when, unlike the Linz, it is ‘late’, tends always to invite the question: ‘what if…?’ For the moment, let us marvel at Mozart’s melodic profusion and thoroughness of thematic working in the first movement; the emotional depth – trumpets and drums signalling a new slow-movement solemnity – of the second; the well-nigh perfect marriage of Viennese minuet ‘chivalry’ and ‘feminine’ Trio charm in the third; and, last but not least, the energy with which a thematic abundance at least similar to that in the first movement carries forward the finale to its head-long, apparently effortlessly developmental conclusion.

London Mozart Players/Shelley - Mozart, 21 September 2016


St John’s Smith Square


Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466

London Mozart Players
Howard Shelley (piano/director)

 

For the first of these lunchtime Mozart Explored concerts at St John’s, Smith Square, the London Mozart Players had offered the audience the opportunity to choose which of Mozart’s piano concertos – from those already performed in the series – would be played. We are all Romantics now, so perhaps it is no surprise that the D minor Concerto won. Howard Shelley first offered a few thematic pointers: not really an analysis, nothing contextual, more in the manner of old-fashioned (not that there is anything wrong with that) ‘musical appreciation’. Then we heard – perhaps ironically, given my musing as to why this concerto might have been chosen – a performance that tended to stress Mozart’s Classicism as opposed to his incipient Romanticism.



The virtues of Shelley’s – and the orchestra’s – approach were immediately apparent. There was nothing remotely murky to the lower strings at the opening to the first movement. Precision was married to dramatic power, the two shown to be dependent on each other, not fuzzy antitheses. There was pathos too, whether from angelic woodwind or sighing violins. The almost vintage ‘Classicism’ of Shelley’s tone upon entering put me in mind of earlier (often English) pianists, Ian Hobson one who came to mind (if only because a cassette of his was one of the first Mozart piano concerto recordings I owned). There was nothing of the ‘historically informed’ to what we heard, but nor was there anything of, say, Daniel Barenboim’s grander, more Furtwänglerian approach. Weighting of notes, of phrases was always considered, never pedantic. It was not an unyielding reading, perhaps most notably when it came to the second group’s reiteration of the tonic minor during the recapitulation, but the basic pulse was always clear. Sometimes I missed the fire of a Barenboim, but one cannot have everything in a single reading. The Beethoven cadenza, however, whilst given with great dignity, sounded more different from the rest than it might have done in a more ‘Romantic’ performance of the work as a whole: nothing wrong with that, but it attested to a somewhat different conception of Mozart.
 

Again, to continue with our too-easy typology, the slow movement sounded more ‘Classical’ than ‘Romantic’. Its performance was possessed of a quiet, yet far from cold, dignity and integrity – not so quiet, of course, during the (relatively) tempestuous central episode, which retained admirable clarity. Shelley offered some light piano ornamentation. Counterpoint and melody were held in good Mozartian equipoise during the finale. It was a dramatic reading, which yet did not jettison the virtues of what had gone before. Hummel’s cadenza – Shelley is quite a Hummel enthusiast – was interesting to hear, although I found it much as I find Hummel’s music in general: lots of passagework, a little more ‘Romantic’, no great depth. (Give me Beethoven any day!) The D major coda inescapably has one think of Don Giovanni, albeit without the cynicism or alienation of its final scene; so it did here. We were treated to an accomplished traversal of the finale to the Jupiter Symphony as an encore.

 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Wagner, 'Regietheater', and the Importance of the ‘Singing Actress’: From Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient to Waltraud Meier


Waltraud Meier as Isolde at Bayreuth (dir. Heiner Müller; cond. Daniel Barenboim)



(This is the text of a paper given at this year's OBERTO conference at Oxford Brookes. Click here for a report on the conference as a whole.)


I should like to start with the twenty-first century, before returning (as I seem to have been doing all my academic life) to Wagner, before tracing my way back to our own time. We all, I suspect, have strong operatic memories: our first time, no doubt (I have always been inordinately proud, and inordinately ready to bore people with this fact, that my first opera in the theatre was Wozzeck), but also particular moments in performance, whether of staging, of singing, of conducting, of some or all three of those, and more. I certainly remember the first time I heard – and interestingly, saw – Waltraud Meier on stage. It was as Ortrud at Covent Garden, in 2003. For whatever this might be worth, I remembered nothing of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Lohengrin, despite it being my first; I was – in retrospect, at least – surprisingly impressed by Valery Gergiev’s conducting; but it was Meier, perhaps above all in the first act, who provided my abiding memory. There is an irony there, in that Ortrud has precious little to sing in that act. What struck me – in my memory, continues to strike me – was the extraordinary presence she had on stage, despite the paucity of vocal, let alone solo vocal, work. I had not even heard of her at the time, but as soon as she stepped on stage, I could not take my eyes off her. She did not seem to play a role; she simply was Ortrud, a feeling I have had many times since in performances she has given – and indeed in performances other similar ‘singing actresses’ have given. This was already a fully formed character, one with dangerous, indeed seductive charisma. I felt rather as I did as a child watching wearily predictable cartoons: it was the supposedly evil character who, for once, I wanted to win. In a way, of course, she does, this being a tragedy; or rather, Lohengrin does not win. She certainly won in the memorability stakes.

Meier as Waltraute, again at Bayreuth (dir. Kupfer; again cond. Barenboim)

Now back to Wagner, but first to one of his greatest inspirations, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient. Schröder-Devrient was, for a period of about twenty years, from the mid-1820s, perhaps the most celebrated German operatic soprano. She was the daughter of a celebrated actress, Sophie Schröder, and interestingly, made her first stage appearances in spoken theatre, before making her operatic debut, at the tender age of sixteen, as Pamina in 1821. Wagner knew her principally from her work in Dresden, but she had an international career, across German speaking countries, and indeed beyond, in Paris and London too. It seems that the claims of vocal flaws – the English critic Henry F. Chorley wrote of the ‘barbarism’ of the ‘false school’ of ‘nature-singing’, ‘a more absurd phrase was never coined by ignorance conceiving itself sagacity’ – were not groundless. Stephen Meyer, who has looked at the Dresden parts for Halévy’s La Juive – conducted by Wagner himself, who always greatly admired it – has found coloratura simplified and even eliminated in order to accommodate her voice. Chorley complained, ‘What [Guiditta] Pasta would be, in spite of her uneven, rebellious, uncertain voice – a most magnificent singer – Madame Schroeder-Devrient did not care to be.’ That, apparently, was a consequence of German antipathy towards ‘grace, taste, and vocal self-command … the characteristics of the Italian method.’ (Just in case you thought it was only we Teutonophiles who could sometimes be slighting about other traditions…)

However, other critics – often, but not always German – lauded her as what we have come to know as a ‘singing actress’. Reviewing her 1828 performance in Weber’s Euryanthe, Ludwig Rellstab was kinder to her voice, but was nevertheless clear that the voice in itself was not the thing:

Madame Devrient possesses the purely musical gifts of a singer, namely, voice and the school of solfège, only to a moderate degree, although her talents are always worthy of praise. Yet she has brought the art of declamatory song and its connections with exceptionally effective drama to a level seldom otherwise attained. At many times, she shows herself a worthy daughter and student of her mother, whose tragic art was recognised and honoured throughout Germany.

One may note there the phrase ‘purely musical’: Wagner would persistently lament the degeneration of opera into something purely musical, or the realm of ‘absolute’ music. Such was the vapid realm – for him, that is – of Rossini’s vocal display, or worse. Rellstab, in an article on Schröder-Devrient for the 1834 Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, compared her to those ‘singers [who] almost never achieve a truly artistic performance, because they have prioritized a completely superficial, mechanical training of the singing organ.’ Wagner, in his 1872 essay, On Actors and Singers, which he dedicated to her memory recalled:

I have time and time again been asked whether her voice were really so remarkable, since we glorified her as a singer—the voice being all people seem to think about in such a case. It constantly annoyed me to answer that question, for I fought against the thought of the great tragedian being cast into the same group as the female castrati of our opera. If I were asked again today, I should answer in the following manner: ’No! She had no “voice” at all; but she knew how to use her breath so beautifully, and to let a true womanly soul stream forth in such wondrous sounds, that we thought neither of voice nor of singing!’



 
Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, 1804-1860 


Wagner’s Schröder-Devrient conversion experience, or at least his retelling of it – he portrays it with quasi-religious fervour – upon hearing, and of course seeing, her for himself took such ideas further. In Mein Leben, he wrote of a ‘miracle … coming to us [in Leipzig] from Dresden,’ in 1829, a miracle which ‘suddenly have a new direction to my artistic sensibility and one which was to prove decisive for a lifetime’. He went on to explain:

This was a brief appearance as guest star by Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who stood then at the pinnacle of her career, young, beautiful, and ardent as no woman I have since seen on the stage. She appeared in Fidelio.

It is, perhaps, worthy of note that Wagner should praise her female beauty in a trouser-role. Indeed, a feature common to many descriptions of the singer was her androgynity (which was arguably, at this time at least, more often considered with respect to men than to women, however illogically!) Wagner continued:

 



When I look back across my entire life I find no event to place beside this in the impression it produced on me. Whoever can remember this wonderful woman at that period of her life will certainly confirm in some fashion the almost demonic fire irresistibly kindled in them by the profoundly human and ecstatic performance of this incomparable artist. After the opera was over I dashed to the home of one of my friends to write a short letter in which I told her succinctly that my life had henceforth found its meaning, and that if ever she should hear my name favourably mentioned in the world of art, she should remember that she had on this evening made of me that which I now vowed to become. I dropped this letter at Schröder-Devrient’s hotel and ran wildly off into the night. When I came to Dresden in 1842 to make my debut with Rienzi and could often visit the home of this artist, who was amiably disposed towards me, she once surprised me by reciting this letter word for word, for it appears to have made an impression on her, and she had actually preserved it carefully.
… I wanted to write a work that would be worthy of Schröder-Devrient.

That is quite a testimony from the 1860s, looking back. The only problem with it is that Wagner, whether misremembering or falsifying the past, seems to have substituted this alleged visit in Fidelio for a visit five years later, in 1834, in which Schröder-Devrient actually sang in an Italian opera, Bellini’s Romeo und Julia (as it was known in German translation). Whatever the actual truth of the matter, she mattered enough for him to rave so long after the event and for him to grant her a place in his operatic development that could hardly be more honoured. Her Leonore was famed, in any case, Schröder-Devrient as early as 1822 having achieved great renown for having shouted rather than sung her defiant ‘Töt erst sein Weib!’ (‘First kill his wife!’) Wagner wanted to trace his lineage, not just in Beethoven but in Beethoven’s interpreter – and a female, singing and acting interpreter at that. Interestingly in that respect, Anno Mungen has pointed out, Schröder-Devrient was praised for her ‘feminine’ eroticism, but also in ‘masculine’ terms, for her ‘genius’.

Schröder-Devrient went on to create three Wagner roles: Adriano (Rienzi), Senta (The Flying Dutchman) and Venus (Tannhäuser). That was quite a range, from trouser role, to Romantic dreamer, to goddess of love and proprietor of the Venusberg. She was well remunerated: better than Wagner himself was in Dresden, her salary of 4000 thalers compared to his 1500 as Kapellmeister. This, moreover, was a time when Wagner was making his name not only as a composer – and a German composer, at that – but was in some sense creating the role of the opera director as we understand it today.

First performance of Tannhäuser, 19 October 1845. Joseph Tichatschek as Tannhäuser and Schröder-Devrient as Venus.


For instance, Wagner’s 1847 Dresden production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide revealed Wagner not only as conductor but as imaginative editor and composer, a musicologist of sorts. He even composed a new ending, returning beyond Racine to Euripides, ridding Gluck’s work of what many have viewed as its disappointingly conventional concluding marriage between Iphigénie and Achille. From such direct experience sprang theoretical writings such as Opera and Drama, in which the importance of an actor’s Gebärde (gesture) features strongly, far more strongly than many Wagnerians acknowledge – or perhaps wish to acknowledge. Wagner would certainly be today excoriated as a purveyor of so-called ‘Eurotrash’ in some quarters, those very quarters – of course – that would ‘protect’ his works against – well, against people such as Wagner. On which note, I should like to quote a little of his own retelling of that production and its circumstances, again from Mein Leben:

The first external claim on my attention in this new year (1847) was the production of Iphigenia, wherein I had to prove myself as a stage director as well; indeed, I was even obliged to lend the most urgent aid to the scene-painters and the machinists. Since the scenes in this work were strung together clumsily and without apparent connection, I had to find new ways to enliven the staging, for the problem seemed to me to lie largely in the conventional treatment of such scenes prevailing at the Paris Opera during Gluck’s time. … The outcome of the whole thing was favourable beyond expectation, and even the management was sufficiently amazed at this exceptional popular success of a Gluck opera to take the initiative and add my name to the posters from the second performance onward as the author of the adaptation. This put the press on my heels at once; but this time, I must say, they did me justice almost entirely: only my treatment of the overture, the sole piece form this work with which the critics were previously familiar from the traditional feeble renditions, aroused any great objection.


Schröder-Devrient was, I think, at the very least a contributor towards Wagner’s conception of opera as drama, in which, less ironically than dialectically, the greater seriousness afforded to what, analytically if not necessarily dramatically, we might call ‘non-musical’ elements, actually enhanced the importance of what we might call, with a similar reservation, the more purely ‘musical’ elements of the work. For instance, in trying to penetrate to the heart of what opera as drama might actually be, he wrote in that book of ‘the unspeakable thing which the orchestra can express with the greatest definition, and indeed, in union with another unspeakable thing – with gesture.’ It was something at which speech could only ‘hint’, but which was to the eye what the orchestra was to the ear.

And so, let us return to someone who might in some senses be considered the Schröder-Devrient of her time. There are differences, of course. No one would speak in such terms of Waltraud Meier’s vocal abilities. On the other hand, many would say that ‘the voice’ is definitely not the thing in itself. I indeed already have. One often hears, moreover, that her presence on purely audio recordings does not come across; one notices, in ‘purely’ vocal terms, imperfections. We need, we are told, to see her on film, or better still, in the theatre. She is – this is a phrase often employed, and I have done so myself – a ‘stage animal’. Meier, moreover, is known above all as a Wagnerian singer; other important roles include those in an emphatically Wagnerian tradition, for instance Klytämnestra in Strauss’s Elektra – and yes, Leonore in Fidelio. She is also a singer, or a singing actress, who has happily – and sometimes unhappily, I should admit – worked with directors who stand very much in Wagner’s own tradition of what we have, rightly or wrongly, come to know as Regietheater. This is certainly not an artist who wishes just to ‘stand and sing’, or, in the older, still less flattering formulation, to ‘park and bark’.

I mentioned her 2003 performance in Lohengrin. Interestingly, when that Moshinsky production was revived at Covent Garden six years later, without her, albeit with strong musical performances – more musical, though, than musico-dramatic’ – I noticed the production far more strongly, and not to its advantage. Having recently seen Stefan Herheim’s brilliant new production at the Staatsoper in Berlin probably did not help, but even bearing that in mind, it was not an impressive experience. I wrote at the time, reviewing it myself:

‘Traditionalists’ might, I suppose, like this lifeless pageant, in which absurd Christian and pagan totems are wheeled on and off, a risible combat scene makes one wonder about – but finally decide against – comedy having being intended, and the direction of the chorus is more or less limited to walking on and off and having each member cross himself. ... Most productions, I admit, would look tired, were they revived after more than thirty years, but I cannot imagine that this had anything to offer even in 1977.

Then, the following year, 2010, I saw Meier again in the role, this time at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. The production was actually older still, being that Götz Friedrich had created in 1990. If it were hardly avant garde, after numerous revivals, it held its interest well, and I found that, unlike Moshinsky’s production, it did not detract from the performances on stage; quite the contrary, it assisted them, Meier’s included. Despite a problematic Lohengrin, I found much to admire, and crucially, to make me think about, in tandem with the staging, and, I think, in tandem with that first encounter. Like Wagner, I remained under the spell of the singing actress, although I am pretty sure that, in my case, that first encounter actually took place.

… Waltraud Meier, who was, astonishingly, making her house debut. Ortrud has always been one of her finest roles, the tessitura fitting her voice extremely well, and the dramatic demands bringing the best out of her on stage. She can hold an audience in the palm of her hand even when silent. So it proved here. The malevolence in Ortrud’s character – Wagner spoke with disgust of her as a ‘female politician’ – is offset by a clear sense of conviction in the justice of her cause. Moreover, there is, in Friedrich’s production, an interesting possible twist at the end; it is perhaps suggested that the new Führer, Gottfried, may have fallen under her spell. With Meier in the role, one should certainly not write off Ortrud.


So far, so good; but what has that said, other than that Meier is a fine singing actress, who might have certain things in common with another fine singing actress of the past? Perhaps not very much, but I should like, in conclusion, briefly to consider one further staging, which made me think about just the matters I have been discussing here. Ironically, it was one which Meier herself (according to an interview) seems not to have liked herself, but there was no sense whatsoever of that on stage, her performance as committed as ever. I speak of Peter Konwitschny’s Munich Tristan, which I saw last year. Her two performances, of which I saw, marked her farewell to the role of Isolde, one of her most celebrated of all. I gushed somewhat, as I think did everyone in the theatre. I also returned to some of those preoccupations I have mentioned above, some of which I think, like Wagner with Schröder-Devrient, I can trace back to that youthful encounter:

We came, of course, at least most of us did, above all for Meier. It is a tribute to the performance and production alike that she did not overshadow but indeed flourished. It would be unduly perverse, though, to overlook her contribution. Over the years in which she has sung Isolde, she has offered many, developing virtues, whether related to production, musical performance, or even the stage of her career. Here, everything seemed in more or less perfect balance – or, better, fruitful dialectic. Attention to words was second to none, likewise stage presence. Sustaining of a vocal line, however, was equally impressive. Suffice it to say, she did not play Isolde; she was Isolde.


I was also set to think, however, not just about Konwitschny’s fascinating production, but about the work ‘itself’, or rather not the work itself, rather the work as it existed in its complicated relationship with performance and production. What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That might seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem – though do they only seem? – to recognise, of that celebrated ‘und’. Yes, Tristan is just a shortened title, so we should not necessarily read anything into the disappearance of Isolde, but, whilst we clearly value both lovers and both singers portraying those lovers more or less equally – great Tristans perhaps more so, given their ridiculous rarity – it struck me as perhaps particularly perverse to have been referring to my seeing Tristan at the Munich Opera Festival, when, like so many in the theatre, I had been going especially to see and hear Waltraud Meier. I began to wonder whether I should actually have said I was off to see and to hear a work called Isolde. I did not, of course, but asking myself the question raised all sorts of other questions in my mind, concerning tradition, performance, production, both specific and general. The singing actress with whom I had had not just a formative operatic experience but a lengthy association as audience member since had again engaged my mind as well as my emotions, had brought me closer to a Wagner both authentic and authentically inauthentic; she had contributed to what Wagner, in Opera and Drama, still in thrall to the example of his own singing actress, had called the ‘emotionalisation of the intellect’. 

Receiving applause as Isolde in Munich, 2015


Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Eighteenth-Century Classicism: Tradition and Innovation. Mozart and Beethoven


(This essay was originally published as a programme note for the 2016 Salzburg Festival.)

 

WOLFGANG A. MOZART • Symphony no. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543
WOLFGANG A. MOZART • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra no. 3 in G major, K. 216
LUDWIG V. BEETHOVEN • Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21

 

Surprisingly little is known of the circumstances of composition and performance of Mozart’s final three symphonies, traditionally seen, somewhat disrespectfully to Haydn, as the most glorious of eighteenth-century summatory symphonic statements. We know that they were written within a six-week-period during the summer of 1788, perhaps for autumn subscription concerts ‘in the Casino’ on the Spiegelgasse in the centre of Vienna, which may or may not have taken place, or perhaps with a visit to London in mind; the one does not necessarily exclude the other. Posterity has nevertheless made them its own, although the 39th, lacking either the minor key of the 40th, or the finality and the nickname of the ‘Jupiter’ has, for no good reason, slightly lacked the popularity of its two successors.



It is the only work of the three to open with a slow introduction, its E-flat major grandeur presaging the summatory magnificence of Die Zauberflöte. Lavish woodwind writing, bearing the hallmarks of serenade and operatic experience alike, not to mention that of the piano concertos, underlines and indeed enhances the harmonic tension, whose release marks the lighter, almost buffa-like onset of the exposition proper. ‘Lightness’ is in many respects deceptive; it performs the role of an operatic foil, incomprehensible without what has come before and what will come after. The almost-text-book quality of the sonata form thereafter might seem conventional – until one listens. Here we discover, if ever we doubted it, that Mozart’s sense of balance, of formal adventure, of development, of return will always surprise us; the devil and angel are in the detail. As Donald Tovey so admirably put it, ‘The composer … is not the man who, having got safely through the exposition, turns with relief to the task of copying it out into the right keys for the recapitulation; but he is the man who conceives the exposition with a vivid idea of what effect it will produce in the recapitulation.’



If the slow movement, in A-flat major, the subdominant, lacks a development section as conventionally understood, that is only because development continues throughout the recapitulation; such is the ‘developing variation’ Schoenberg discerned in Brahms and in his own music, and for which he worshipped Mozart. So much for ‘conventional understanding’; all is transformed by what has come before. ‘Lack’, however, is quite the wrong way to think about it; Mozart here conceives, as Tovey might have put it, the themes with their variation in mind, not least the dark, stormy transition to the second group, and the complexity of the harmonic journey from and to the tonic key. Here the tonal system stands before us like a Newtonian universe to be navigated; Mozart is our sure yet adventurous harmonic (and enharmonic) guide. The aristocratic grandeur of the Minuet recalls Mozart’s adorable ‘occasional’ dances for Vienna, yet its woodwind luxuriance marks it out as something still more. Of that greater profundity there can be no doubt in the Trio, which transports us to a serenaders’ Elysium, even to the pleasure-in-pain sado-masochism of Così fan tutte.

 

Thematic economy marks the finale, its second theme a development of the first, without the slightest hint of melodic parsimony: Mozart the master conjurer surprises us whether his hat contains a single rabbit or twenty. It seems over in a flash, quicksilver operatic resolution both superficially similar to and yet, in Mozart’s particular brand of theatrical ‘characterisation’, quite different from that to a Haydn finale. The kinetic energy experienced in the first movement and, before it, in the character of Don Giovanni, is intensified and runs its firework-like course; it fizzes like the champagne traditionally consumed in the nobleman’s ‘Finch' han del vino’, and what a vintage this is!

 

All five of Mozart’s violin concertos were composed in 1775, perhaps intended for the leader of the Salzburg court orchestra, Antonio Brunetti; both Mozart and Brunetti certainly enjoyed playing the works. The Third, in G major, composed in September of that ‘violin year’, is generally held, and not without reason, to mark a step forward from its two predecessors; at any rate, it has long proved popular with soloists and audiences alike. As ever with Mozart, indeed as we have just seen (and heard), there is a strong affinity with the world of opera. Although the fully ‘mature’ operatic composer had yet to burst forth in Idomeneo, he was already on the cusp, with La finta giardiniera and Il re pastore his most recent essays in the genre.



The virtue of operatic ‘surprise’ – think, looking forward, of the disguises, concealments, and sudden appearances of Le nozze di Figaro – is certainly to be heard in the G minor Andante interpolation to the rondo finale and indeed in its folksier (cunningly-placed inner-part drones and all) successor episode. Moreover, the opening theme of the first movement Allegro is taken – and, of course, developed – from Il re pastore, composed for a Salzburg visit the previous year by Archduke Maximilian Francis. Performance, we should remember, was almost always the raison d’être of a Mozart work, however much, as with those final three symphonies, we may wish to claim them for posterity. There is an exploratory-without-experimentalism sense to this Allegro, almost as if the composer wished to visit as many keys as the material would decently allow, but no more. Classical propriety was never a restriction to Mozart; instead, it tended to offer a compositional spur, with which he might then offer us the rarest of aural sweetmeats. His ear for wind colour never deserts him, whether here or in the aria-like, D major slow movement, whose cantilena sounds all the more exalted set against muted orchestral strings. Alternation between oboes (first and third movements) and flutes (second), horns heard in all three, suggests that orchestral players might have doubled parts, a common Salzburg practice, especially in the court orchestra. (That, you may be relieved to hear, is unlikely to be imitated by even the wilder reaches of contemporary ‘historically informed performance’.)




Whereas Mozart’s symphony was conceived as part of a very eighteenth-century ‘set’ and the concerto had at least become part of one by default, the symphony was, by the time of Beethoven, already something more singular, more ‘Romantic’ even. Brahms, keen to distinguish between novelty and ‘inner value’, remarked in 1896 that, although Beethoven’s First Symphony had offered a ‘new outlook […] the last three symphonies by Mozart are much more important!’ We may or may not agree; few of us, whilst acknowledging the debt owed – and repaid – to Mozart and Haydn in Beethoven’s symphonies, and not just his earliest symphonies, would deny also the novelty apparent here from the word go – or rather, from the celebrated opening in the ‘wrong’ key, or rather with a C major dominant seventh chord foreign to the tonic key, whose emphatic statement requires a struggle of its own rather than be presentation as a mere given.


The ‘right’ key, C major, may well have been chosen with Mozart’s Jupiter and Haydn’s Symphony no.97 in mind, with, to quote Elaine Sisman, ‘the purpose of homage, of placing himself within a tradition, laced with one-upmanship, and casting the result in the most brilliant conventional and instantly recognisable of eighteenth-century symphonic modes: the “C major symphony” tradition with its trumpets and drums and “ceremonial flourishes”.’ At any rate, triumph in Beethoven is always hard won. The simplicity of the opening theme, echoing perhaps that of the opening movement to Mozart’s E-flat Symphony, following the tension of their respective introductions, is already called into question by the sequence at its close, in which the exposition’s goal already seems set. ‘It is the opening,’ wrote Tovey, ‘of a formal rather than of a big work,’ a nice distinction reinforced when we think of it in Mozartian context, but also a distinction against which Beethoven struggles. The concision of the development is perhaps more Haydnesque than Mozartian, but the splendour of the coda, whilst owing much to eighteenth-century rejoicing, is already on a scale we might acclaim as Beethovenian.

We return to the F major in which the symphony allegedly opened for the Andante, its opening theme as playful as anything in the music of his great predecessors, its courtly quality undeniably post-Mozartian, yet also seemingly straining towards greater ‘weight’. Haydn’s inspiration looms large, not least from trumpets and drums (reminiscent of the late Masses as much as the symphonies); and yet the abiding memory remains that of the opening theme. It is a score-draw, then, between Mozart and Haydn, albeit with Beethoven himself firmly in the lead. The scherzo-in-all-but-name, which Beethoven still describes as a minuet, is perhaps the most unambiguously ‘Beethovenian movement’. There is Romantic mystery, moreover, in a trio which Tovey saw, ‘with its throbbing wind-band chords and mysterious violin runs’, as foretelling ‘Schumann’s most intimate epigrammatic sentiments’. Perhaps; to these ears, the Harmoniemusik is more a tribute, touchingly earnest, almost literal, to Mozart. There is no need, of course, to choose one or the other; a fine performance will likely suggest both. The expectancy sensed in the introduction to the finale is, rightly, of quite a different nature from that to the first movement. Here is a skittishness that takes Haydn as its starting-point, but only a starting-point; here, perhaps more clearly than in previous movements, the echt-Beethovenian role of rhythm (not just syncopations, but certainly them) and harmony in supporting, surprising, propelling each other is the order of the day. The timpani part alone makes that dynamically, explosively clear.



And so, with this work, written in 1800, the final year of the eighteenth century, we hear as good a candidate as any for Beethoven bidding that century and its careful balance of tradition and innovation a fond, if less than final, farewell. Haydn would offer one last great C major triumph the following year, with his oratorio, The Seasons, its libretto by Beethoven’s symphonic dedicatee, Gottfried van Sweiten, although Haydn’s countervailing Romanticism is perhaps still greater than that of Beethoven’s at this stage. The next time Beethoven would conclude a symphony in C major, in his Fifth, the musical world around him, shaped to an almost incredible extent by him, would seem very different indeed.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Theatrical Symphony and Symphonic Theatre: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven



(This essay was originally published in a 2016 Salzburg Festival programme.)

Theatrical Symphony and Symphonic Theatre

 

JOSEPH HAYDN • Symphony no.49 in F minor, Hob. I:49, “La Passione”
WOLFGANG A. MOZART • Symphony no. 25 in G minor, K. 183
JOSEPH HAYDN • Overture to azione teatrale, L'Isola disabitata, Hob. XXVIII:9
LUDWIG V. BEETHOVEN • Symphony no. 4 in B-flat major, op. 60

 

The nicknames of Haydn’s symphonies are at least as arbitrary as any other musical nicknames, few of them holding even the slightest claim to ‘authenticity’. They have often helped popularise particular symphonies, whilst helping leave others in relative obscurity, yet the homely implications of the ‘Hen’ or the ‘Clock’ have tended to further a patronising myth of genial, ‘Papa’ Haydn, denying the composer the true measure of his radicalism and historical stature. The so-called La Passione Symphony, no.49, in F minor, presents a somewhat different case; however ‘inauthentic’, its title has at least suggested something to be taken with Sturm und Drang seriousness. However, it seems, as Elaine Sisman revealed in a 1991 article (‘Haydn’s Theater Symphonies’), that the title refers to the particular circumstances of a Holy Week performance in Schwerin in 1790 rather than to the work itself. 



The ‘traditional’ view certainly seems to chime with the work’s Baroque near-archaism: Haydn’s final essay in the slow-fast-slow-fast sonata di chiesa form, likewise with the relentless march of F minor, the minuet’s F major trio offering only momentary relief. Sturm und Drang characteristic – syncopation, counterpoint, ‘profundity’ of expression – seem undeniable. HC Robbins Landon, very much in this tradition, described the work as ‘dark-hued, sombre – even tragic’. Sisman’s research, however, has suggested a very different provenance and thus perhaps interpretation; a Viennese source calls the work ‘Il Quakuo di bel’humore’; a theatrical context seems likely. Sisman argues that the celebrated ‘rapid-fire repeated notes and imitiations of the second group’ in the Allegro di molto ‘achieve a light-heartedness that belies the “tragic” minor-mode associations, and recall [the composer, Georg Joseph] Vogler’s remarks about the importance of rhythm in the mood-defining attributes of comedy and tragedy’. Waggish Quaker – at least on the surface – or Christ crucified? How to reconcile? Should we try? Sisman rightly points to discrepancy between compositional intention and appropriation of a symphony or a movement therefrom, also to a ‘substantial disparity in contemporaneous views’ of Haydn’s language, his ‘broadly dramatic style … designed to serve a variety of ends’. We might conclude that the tragicomedy of Haydn’s symphony’s is more all-embracing, even Shakespearean, than condescending ideas of ‘geniality’, occasionally interrupted by ‘seriousness’, would ever have permitted. We can, perhaps should, still hear Passion-like onward tread in the first and third movements, grief-laden, wordless drama(s); likewise Sturm und Drang leaps, disjunctures, even violence in the second and fourth. Let us do so, however, on account of the music and its performance rather than the nickname – and let us not forget the theatre entirely, which, after all, is no stranger to tragedy.





Tragedy is, of course, indelibly associated with Mozart’s so-called ‘little’ G minor Symphony, no.25, just as it is with its ‘great’ successor in the same key, no.40. There is no need to deny a ‘special’ quality both to Mozart in the minor mode – this is, after all, his first minor-key symphony – and indeed to Mozart specifically in G minor. Albert Einstein called it Mozart’s ‘key of fate’: his equivalent, if you like, but also his contrast, to Beethoven in C minor. If Romanticism colours that judgement, that need not be a bad thing, although it is always worth, as with Haydn, interrogating lazy assumptions. As Wolfgang Hildesheimer noted, the ‘game of key speculation … is fruitful and open to all; everyone can play and, by sharing his experiences, can consider himself a winner.’ Let us then, play the game, albeit without claim to interpretative exclusivity.
 

Sturm und Drang syncopated outbursts play their role here too; indeed, they are the very opening material of the Allegro con brio (a marking more readily associated with Beethoven than with the seventeen-year-old Mozart). So does an important, even prophetic, role for bassoons, no longer ‘just’ part of the basso continuo. Chromatic disorientation, just as we experience in the first movement of its first-movement successor in the ‘great’ G minor Symphony, marks the onset of development here too. Bearing in mind Haydn’s symphony, though, as well as Mozart’s operatic experience and future, there is eighteenth-century theatricality as well as Romantic promise in the plunging diminished sevenths of this movement. So too, is there, in the songfulness of the slow movement, its E-flat major consolation in keeping with the expressivity of the ‘love aria’. (Mozart had just written Lucio Silla.)  Muted violins heighten the sense of emotional bonds almost, yet not quite, burst. There is almost neo-Classical austerity in the stark unisons of the Menuetto, the G major Harmoniemusik of its Trio serving as an all-too-brief vision of another, brighter, warmer world, but it is to G minor that we return for the tragic vehemence of the finale. There is no Beethovenian journey from darkness to light here, it is as if Gluck, in his Orfeo ed Euridice, had been able to dispense with the wretched operatic convention of the lieto fine (happy ending). Jens Peter Larsen was probably right to caution against viewing the work, Romantically, as ‘self-confession’; yet, if we take that caution on board, why not, at least a little?


 

There is no questioning the theatrical origin of the Overture, also in G minor, to Haydn’s L'Isola disabitata. The only Metastasio libretto set by Haydn, this 1779 opera opens with an orchestral movement veritably breathing the world (now past – or future?) of Sturm und Drang, although let us once again remind ourselves that our æsthetics are not necessarily to be identified with Haydn’s. The starkness of the opening Largo material recalls in (very) slow motion, albeit unknowingly, that of Mozart’s Minuet, preparing the way, as is the general manner of Haydn’s introductions, for the musical theatrics of the vehement G minor symphonic storm, which leaves our two sisters, Constanza and Silvia, abandoned on a desert island. A curtain-raiser, then, to a curtain-raiser: who says that Haydn, when compared to Mozart, lacks a sense of theatre?




Lack of ‘theatricality’ is an absurd accusation that long bedevilled reception of Beethoven’s Fidelio, some commentators unable to accept that the opera’s concern is freedom itself, or at least the highest bourgeois instantiation of that idea, rather than Mozartian characterisation. That said, there is no denying the symphonic sublation of the ‘merely’ theatrical in Beethoven’s symphonic and operatic work. By the same token, however, the Fourth Symphony, just as much as any of its still-more-celebrated companion works, shows that the relationship between symphony and theatre is properly dialectical. Taking its leave from Haydn, and yet also showing its distance, the B-flat minor introduction to the B-flat major first movement is dark, spacious, flowing in a fashion, which, if Wagner had been more sympathetic to this work, which he rarely conducted, might have suggested: ‘Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit’: ‘Here time becomes space’. Just as it had done, we might add, in Haydn’s ‘Representation of Chaos’ for the opening of The Creation. It is in this symphony as a whole, Donald Tovey argued, that ‘Beethoven first fully reveals his mastery of movement. He had already shown his command of a vastly wider range of musical possibilities than … Mozart or Haydn … But now he shows that these [new] resources can be handled in such a way that Mozart’s own freedom of movement,’ which we might with equal justice call symphonically theatrical or theatrically symphonic, ‘reappears as one of the most striking qualities of the whole’. It has sometimes been said that, in this movement, Beethoven’s melodic gift, however extraordinary, is placed firmly at the service of rhythmic propulsion. Analysis and performance alike will reveal that there is no such hierarchy; one is inconceivable without the other, and above all without the grounding of harmony. Just one instance, in which the timbral, often neglected in Beethoven, plays a crucial part in all these respects: listen to his use of the timpani, as theatrical as it is structurally dynamic. Whilst the development section declines for some time to leave the rare, distant key of B major, timpani B-flats urge the music on, enabling and underlying the orchestral crescendo through which the point of return will eventually come. Not, however, as soon as we might have been led to expect, for struggle and suspense have work yet to do.



 

The second movement is in rondo form, the leisure of its Adagio-progress both contrasting with and seemingly necessitated by the neo-Haydnesque ‘“spin” of the whole [first] movement’ (Tovey again). Ghosts of the musical past – the Eroica, late Haydn – haunt its sterner moments, yet inescapably Beethovenian humanity in the present always wins through, or will do in a comprehending performance that takes Beethoven’s dialectics as a musico-theatrical invitation. Teleology, Beethoven’s fabled ‘goal orientation’ is just as strong as in the first movement; means are both different and yet strongly related. The scherzo – in form, if not in name – is a successor to the heroic funeral games of the Eroica, the apparent primacy of rhythm again enabled, indeed intensified, by the equal primacy of melody and harmony. Beethoven’s abridgement of the final scherzo repeat elicited these words of praise from Tovey: ‘Never have three short bars contained more meaning than the coda in which the two horns blow the whole movement away.’ That is precisely how it feels.

 

If Schumann’s perception, however well-meaning, of ‘a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants’ belittles this symphony as nicknames do those of Haydn, it is perhaps not entirely wide of the mark in pointing to the continuing relevance of Haydn’s humour. That is nowhere more so the case than in the finale. It is not a perpetuum mobile, although its opening suggests that that might be what we are in for; there is rather a Shakespearean quality, taking leave from both Haydn and Mozart, and which ought also to have attracted Wagner’s attention. The apparently tentative slowing down, just before the close, of the movement’s principal theme teases us and our expectations; music breathes the air of ‘all the world’s a stage’, albeit of an aural, invisible theatre. To return to Tovey, ‘Those who think the finale of the Fourth Symphony “too light” will never get nearer than Spohr (if as near) towards a right understanding of the Fifth, however much they may admire it.’