Sunday, 22 January 2017

Lohengrin, Opéra national de Paris, 21 January 2017

Opéra Bastille

King Henry the Fowler – René Pape
Lohengrin – Jonas Kaufmann
Elsa – Martina Serafin
Friedrich von Telramund – Wolfgang Koch
Ortrud – Evelyn Herlitzius
King’s Herald – Egils Silins
Four Brabantian Nobles – Hyun-Jong Roh, Cyrille Lovighi, Laurent Laberdesque, Julien Joguet
Four Pages – Irina Kopylova, Corinne Talibart, Laetitia Jeanson, Lilla Farkas

Claus Guth (director)
Christian Schmidt (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Volker Michl (choreography)
Ronny Dietrich (dramaturgy)

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

Claus Guth seems to me a frustratingly uneven director: much better than being a bad or mediocre director, of course, but even so. This Lohengrin, first seen at La Scala (although not by me) under Daniel Barenboim four years ago, now replaces Robert Carsen’s Paris production. I am afraid I was left bemused, even baffled, by much of what I saw. There is nothing especially objectionable to it – unlike, say, Guth’s Salzburg Fidelio, also starring Jonas Kaufmann – yet nor does it, for me at least, reach anything approaching the heights of Guth’s Salzburg Figaro (preserved on DVD) or his recent Berlin Salome. Sad to say, I found it rather dull, reliant entirely upon the music for any dramatic effect, although I did wonder whether there were a point I was missing.

As is fashionable, the staging is updated to the time of composition: the mid-nineteenth century, albeit with no obvious indication of the revolutionary upheavals in which Wagner so celebratedly immersed himself. Whoever this Lohengrin may be, he does not seem to be Bakunin, or Feuerbach. There is something insistently restorationist – whether post-1815 or post-1848/9 – to the impeccable dress uniform of King Henry. The costumes more generally, especially the women’s chorus black (why are they apparently in mourning at a wedding?), perhaps speak of the 1850s and social reaction, but I am not sure that it especially matters. Christian Schmidt, designer of both sets and costumes, certainly provides a handsome frame for the action (although something decidedly peculiar happens in the first half of the final act).  Is there something of the contemporary ‘absolute artist’ to whom Wagner referred with reference to this hero in particular? Perhaps. Lohengrin when he arrives, is in a somewhat ‘arty’ state of (relative) dishevelment, frilly shirt hanging out, waistcoat, yet no coat. There is a very nineteenth-century-looking upright piano on stage (upturned, presumably significantly, in the third act), but that seems to be more Elsa’s province than his. His arrival, suddenly revealed by the parting of the crowd, is very odd, foetal position adopted; indeed, his damaged progress throughout, at times unable to walk in even the most tentative of straight lines, seems to continue from that, although again, I cannot even really hazard a serious guess as to why. Great play is made of his archaic (earlier-century?) silver horn too.

The girl Elsa and her brother, Gottfried, appear on stage from time to time. Is she dreaming this? It seems unlikely: Lohengrin and Lohengrin are hardly the stuff of girls’ dreams. Is the woman recollecting something from her childhood, perhaps even feelings of incestuous love for her brother? Perhaps, but if so, it seemed very unclear to me, and had little obvious relationship to anything else we were seeing. The setting for the opening of the third act is an enlarged version of some fauna we have previously seen near the piano, in what had then seemed to be a palace courtyard. Now it has become a kitsch (I presume deliberately so) creation of Nature, replete with a pool in which Lohengrin, having taken his shoes and socks off (they were also off when he arrived), can walk around and delicately splash his bride. The colours resemble those of a woodland scene in which the photographic colour filters have been increased to eighty per cent or so. I presume it is some sort of dream sequence, at least in part, and that there is some sort of Freudian concept at work more broadly, but I am afraid to say that I remain largely at a loss.

The actual music, then, rather than the scattered musical hints onstage, was the thing. There was some occasional string scrappiness in the first act, but otherwise some wonderful orchestral playing, a rather unusual oboe sound (putting me in mind of Lothar Koch) notwithstanding. Gold rather than white was the colour that came to mind from the violins, but that was fine with me. Ebullient brass nevertheless managed to blend. Philippe Jordan mostly had the measure of the work’s structure. If he did not manage to build and convey neo-Furtwänglerian arcs in the way Daniel Barenboim does in this music, there is to a certain extent, and Jordan rarely overstepped this, a case for bringing to the fore the derivations (which Wagner admitted to Schumann, albeit concerning the libretto) from earlier operatic forms too.

Ears were of course focused on Kaufmann, not least given his recent illness. His opening phrase was unfortunate, almost grey in hue, but that, I think, was a consequence of the director’s placing him in that foetal position, on the ground, turned away from the audience. Maybe it was even part of the directorial Konzept, although it would have made more sense (to me, anyway) as Florestan. If he sounded a little careful at times, that was understandable, and there were no real grounds for complaint, even at the sternest level of criticism. The Grail Narration was where it all came together: rapt, indeed spellbinding, of delivery, as if searching for an answer not to be found (which, one might say, is very much part of what Lohengrin is doing here).

Martina Serafin’s Elsa was something of a trial when on trial. Squally and uncertain of intonation, she improved considerably in the second and third acts, convincing in her kindness to Ortrud. Evelyn Herlitzius’s account of that role was in the class of Waltraud Meier, perhaps vocally still wilder, although never unacceptably so. Her anger at the close was the stuff of nightmares – in the best sense. (What Guth had in mind of her visually here seemed more odd than anything else, slow-motion agony coming across more as ‘stagey’ than tragic.) René Pape’s Henry the Fowler was typically beautiful of tone, which is to say very beautiful indeed, lest that sound complacent or a faint compliment. Wolfgang Koch, Bayreuth’s recent Rheingold Wotan, gave a demonic performance of Telramund; he may ultimately have been led by Ortrud, but he was anything but a cipher, and clearly had his own inner battles to fight. Egils Silins impressed with clean, intelligent delivery as the King’s Herald, his tone of no little beauty too. Choral singing, of great importance to this opera, was mostly excellent, indeed pretty much entirely so following some occasional, quite forgivable slips in the first act. José Luis Basso is clearly doing a good job in training his Paris chorus.

Well worth hearing then, perhaps even seeing. You might even be able to explain what you see to me.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Written on Skin, Royal Opera, 18 January 2017

Royal Opera House

Agnès – Barbara Hannigan
Protector – acted by Christopher Purves, sung by James Cleverton
First Angel/Boy – Iestyn Davies
Second Angel/Marie – Victoria Simmonds
Third Angel/John – Mark Padmore

Katie Mitchell (director)
Vicki Mortimer (designs)
Jon Clark (lighting)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
George Benjamin (conductor)

I hope that you will forgive me for offering this just as a diary item, certainly not as a proper review. I have been very busy this month and continue to be, and was also quite jet lagged on this occasion, so was not nearly so alert as I might have been There were things I might have added to my reviews both of the previous outing of this Royal Opera production and the recent outstanding concert performance at the Barbican, both conducted by the composer. It remains a masterpiece, though, and I hope my earlier thoughts (linked to above) might be of interest to some of you. Lohengrin, the one 'canonical' Wagner opera I did not see in 2016, will come tomorrow, with one Jonas Kaufmann in the title role...


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Le grand macabre, LSO/Rattle, 14 January 2017

Barbican Hall

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Triumph of Death

Piet the Pot – Peter Hoare
Amando – Ronnita Miller
Amanda – Elizabeth Watts
Nekrotzar – Pavlo Hunka
Astradamors – Frode Olsen
Mescalina – Heidi Melton
Venus, Gepopo – Audrey Luna
Prince Go-Go – Anthony Roth Costanzo
White Minister – Peter Tantsits
Black Minister – Joshua Bloom
Ruffiack – Christian Valle
Schobiak – Fabian Langguth
Schabernack – Benson Wilson

Peter Sellars (director)
Hans-Georg Lenhart (assistant director)
Ben Zamora (lighting)
Michelle Bradbury (costumes)
Nick Hillel (video)

London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

Gepopo (Audrey Luna); Simon Rattle conducting the LSO
Production images: John Phillips/Getty Images

Breughelland is never far away. It certainly was not in the 1970s, when Ligeti composed the first version of his opera. For many of us, though, it has rarely felt closer, or at least not for a long time. A friend, Antonio Orlando, whom I met in the interval, mentioned the BBC film Threads, and we shared our experiences of something which, seen at our respective schools, changed us forever. Seeing it in the early 1990s, nuclear war became a far more terrifying, far more real prospect, even though its likelihood may well have been receding. It felt all the closer to home to this South Yorkshire schoolboy, since its harrowing portrayal of nuclear holocaust was set in Sheffield, amongst buildings – and their rubble – which he knew rather well: for instance, the ‘Egg Box’ Town Hall extension, which, I now learn, has long since been torn down in a typically English fit of anti-modernist philistinism. Now the United Kingdom has its first Prime Minister to have declared openly that she would use nuclear weapons, and the world – well, the world has Donald Trump.


Such thoughts would seem, not unreasonably, to have been on Peter Sellars’s mind when coming up with his concert staging of Le grand macabre. What we lose in sheer madcap surrealism – highly relatively speaking – we gain in contemporary immediacy: swings and roundabouts. In any case, there is nothing more blackly surreal than the mad idea of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), which one still hears from time to time from Internet and, alas, real-life sociopaths such as [complete according to political taste]. And so, the first two scenes take place at a nuclear conference in London and Berlin (the two venues of staging); having it relate to ‘clean’ nuclear energy brings a frightening, post-Chernobyl, pre-Hinkley Point C twist of its own. If the world, that of Breughelland and our own, needs an Angela Merkel, she is not even slightly evident here, as we flounder and err in identifiably post-Dr Strangelove territory. Excellent video imagery from Nick Hillel portrays the self-congratulatory world of our political leaders, plots the history of nuclear testing and worse, closes in on the devastation of the post-apocalypse. The congress of Astradamors and Mescalina takes place entirely online, despite their seating next to each other (very much of our virtual age). We make connections as we will, each of us different, but there is much to set our teeth into. I was less sure about the separation of Amando and Amanda, but perhaps I was missing something.
Peter Tantsits (White Minister), Joshua Bloom (Black Minister), Prince Go-Go (Anthony Roth Costanzo)

At the heart, of course, is the LSO, on world-class form here under its Music Director Designate, Simon Rattle. Whatever the vagaries of many of Rattle’s recent performances of Classical and Romantic repertoire, he has always been in his element in complex modernist and contemporary scores. So it was here, his orchestra-to-be fearless in its precision, sardonic in its wit, and not without tenderness when suggested (although how seriously should one take it?) Excellent though the ENO performance I saw and heard seven years ago may have been, this seemed to me in quite a different league. (Perhaps it was just a matter of my greater receptivity; my memory is not so sharp to be able to know for certain.) The orchestra, with a nod to music theatre, is dressed so as to suggest that its members are conference delegates. Its role as commentator, even as satirical Greek Chorus, is thereby heightened, whilst that of the actual chorus, joining us in the hall itself rather than on the stage, has us identify with its plight – just, one might say, as in Threads.


And at the heart of that heart, as it were, is Ligeti’s extraordinary score. Not unlike the brutalism of the surrounding Barbican Estate, which seems to become the more magnificent as it ages, or, if one will, is classicised, the music’s contemporaneous inventiveness becomes, like that of a reborn Haydn, all the more revealing upon closer acquaintance. This felt like a masterclass in informing us that the late 70s and early 80s saw the flourishing of all forms of resistance to neo-liberalism as well as the tightening of its iron grip from which we, frightened as well as hopeful, are only just beginning to liberate ourselves. A combination of instruments here, a turn of phrase there, a suggestion concerning what might be absent as well as what might be present: all these and so much more create allusions to a whole history not just of opera (Monteverdi onwards) but symphonic and other music(s) too. Ligetian parody, for instance in the ‘Collage’ with which Nekrotzar (The Donald? Or the force behind him? Or is that to look for the Wizard of Oz?) makes his entry, has a heart and a musical impetus of its own. There, the Eroica bass line’s treatment subverts a Beethovenian message that perhaps can no longer be ours, much as we need it; yet, at the same time, the dancing upon its ruins, the effort once again to construct, perhaps offers the hope of renascent humanity. And yet, the brilliantly hollow ‘moral’ – surely a homage to Don Giovanni and The Rake’s Progress – ensures that the Ligeti whose family had been lost in Auschwitz or, in his mother’s case, had survived it, has the last and darkest laugh of all.

Piet the Pot (Peter Hoare) and Astradorms (Frode Olsen) sit on a bed and Prince Go-Go (Anthony Roth Costanza) hides underneath it, whilst Nekrotzar (Pavlo Hunka) stands at the camera, about to usher in the apocalypse.

To praise thosee vocal performances deserving of praise would be to write out once again the cast list – not, of course, to forget the outstanding London Symphony Chorus. Peter Hoare’s abilities as singer and actor proved triumphant once again, as Piet the Pot. Whatever my doubts concerning Sellars’s portrayal of them, the duo of Elizabeth Watts and Ronnita Miller made for formidable music-making, their voices contrasted in colour yet more than capable of blend. Pavlo Hunka’s Nekrotzar was blackly bureaucratic, if that makes any sense (one might perhaps ask that of the opera itself in similar vein!) There was something that seemed both to go to the heart of the character, and yet also to show that there is no heart – and not only in a sentimental sense. Audrey Luna’s coloratura proved properly stage-stopping. I was also very much taken with the depth of tone and sheer sassiness of character to Heidi Melton’s Mescalina. Peter Tantsists, as the White Minister, revealed a finely honed tenor new to me; I hope to hear more. Last but certainly not least, Anthony Roth Costanza’s Prince Go-Go proved almost painfully beautiful of counter-tenor tone, the unearthliness tempered from time to time by something suggestive of more temporal (quite appropriately) concerns. If ever, though, a cast, indeed a performance and a production too, were more than the sum of its parts, it would be this. Shall we now enjoy the end times?


Saturday, 14 January 2017

LSO Chamber Orchestra/Antonini - JS Bach, WF Bach, CPE Bach, Telemann, Haydn, 13 January 2017

Milton Court Concert Hall

JS Bach – Orchestral Suite no.1 in C major, BWV 1066
WF Bach – Symphony in F major, F 67
CPE Bach – Symphony in G major, Wq 182/1
Telemann – Recorder Concerto in C major, TWV 51
Haydn – Symphony no.49, La Passione

LSO Chamber Orchestra
Giovanni Antonini (recorder, conductor)

It is a rare delight to hear the LSO, even if in ‘chamber orchestral’ formation, play music from the first half of the eighteenth century. Since the death of Colin Davis, it has even been something of a rare delight to hear the orchestra in eighteenth-century music at all. (I suppose we should at least be grateful to have been spared ‘Gergiev’s Haydn’.) Moving across the road from the Barbican to Milton Court was, in such circumstances, a sensible move; it certainly ensured that a small orchestra did not sound too small. The one problem, and I am afraid it was at times well-nigh insurmountable, was the conductor, Giovanni Antonini. Frankly, the LSO – and we – deserved better.

I kept an open mind for as long as I could. If, for these ears, trained on Klemperer and Richter, the introduction to the first movement of Bach’s C major Orchestral Suite sounded light, airy, and, alas, all too short-breathed, perhaps there would be a way of challenging those ears to listen differently, to take the performance on its own terms. The problem, despite the break-neck speed that ensued, was less of tempo as such, then of the lack of space for the music to breathe. Gorgeous, bubbly, woodwind playing offered some compensation, though. A courtly, undeniably Gallic Courante fared better, as did a surprisingly vigorous first Gavotte, its companion quite the textural contrast. Counterpoint was admirably clear. Alas, Antonini conducted with all the musical awareness of a sewing machine. The Forlane impressed with its vigour too, although greater warmth from the strings – low, but thankfully not no, vibrato – would have been welcome. The Minuets had a reasonable sense of character; the Bourrées were excitable, closer to Vivaldi (!) than to Bach; the Passepieds were suavely enough despatched. I listened in vain, however, for Antonini to show the slightest awareness of harmonic rhythm; and without that, Bach is lost.

The F major Symphony by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is more of a rarity, and thus scored points on that alone. Its first and third movements were performed with a sense of the strangeness of their disjuctures, yet Antonini seemed incapable, or at least unwilling, to mould a series of rhetorical gestures into something greater than the sum of their parts. Nervously dramatic playing again offered some compensation. The intervening Andante really needed more space, less metronomic regularity, although the LSO strings sounded impressively dark. An air of galanterie was welcome in the closing pair of Menuets, but Antonini needed to dig more into the music, the prevailing impression being one of curious neutrality – as if the players were being prevented from playing.

CPE Bach’s G major Symphony, Wq 182/1 concluded the first half. The opening Allegro di molto offered greater continuity: that is partly the work itself, but was not, I think, just the work. The seeds of something Mozartian were to be heard, if one so wished – a turn of phrase, a harmonic progression – without compromise to this most individual of musical voices. The slow movement emerged stylistically similar – too much so? – with Antonini again far too static in his conception. A finale somewhere in between again had me wishing that he might take more account – some account – of harmony and its role in propelling the action. This is, after all, the composer who declared that his ‘and my deceased father’s basic principles are contrary to Rameau’s’; we need to think about what that might mean.

The C major Recorder Concerto by Telemann, TWV 51, is no masterpiece. It, however, received perhaps the most compelling performance of the evening, at least until the interminable finale. One was better advised to close one’s eyes, though, unless one wished to follow the lead of many audience members, attempting, some with greater success than others, to stifle the giggles. Even before Antonini began to play, we were treated to bizarre dance movements; once connected with his instrument, the impression was of a cross between a snake charmer and something more pornographic. It was, I suppose, a spectacle of sorts. Poor Telemann seems increasingly to attract the bizarre: a couple of years or so ago, it was Simone Kermes in a state of perplexing ecstasy. There was alert, characterful playing, especially from the orchestra, which seemed to benefit from not being conducted. In the slow movement, having given a passable impression of a baby eagle not quite managing to take flight, Antonini concentrated on his playing, the LSO’s performance sounded all the more cultivated as a result. At one point, however, I felt it necessary to stare at an emergency exit sign. Solo playing became more wayward in the Andante, Antonini seemingly not listening to the orchestra, concentrating instead on his own peculiar self-choreography. The Lang Lang of the recorder? Perhaps, but with lesser technical ability. There was undeniable virtuosity, though, to the finale. It went on and on and on, though. Until then, I should have been happy to testify to a Telemann performance that had at least not bored me.

Seemingly emboldened by that display – and cheers from a small yet vocal group of partisans – Antonini continued to inflict ‘flamboyant’ gestures on the music, in this case that of Haydn. Quite unconnected with what we heard, they might have offered amusement, but there is more than enough interest in Haydn’s music for such an ‘approach’ to be quite unnecessary. The LSO’s playing had a grave, sonorous beauty; if only Antonini had had some conception of how to phrase. In the first movement, and indeed beyond, bar followed bar, at best phrase following phrase, with no sense of a greater whole. Alert, febrile playing characterised the second movement; if only Antonini had permitted the form to fulfil its dramatic potential. The Menuet and Trio were definitely better heard than watched; if only Antonini had not stunted the dances’ lilt with such metronomic regularity. Likewise in the finale, the energy of the playing notwithstanding. I should love to hear the LSO play this symphony with another conductor, or indeed with none at all.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Richard Wagner and Pierre Boulez's Conception of Opera

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the death of Pierre Boulez. The 'Opera and Musical Performance' forum of the Modern Languages Association hosted a panel on the day. I was delighted to be invited to speak; here are my (all too brief) thoughts.

Musical history – indeed, artistic, and most other forms of history too – is littered with great things that did not, perhaps could not, happen. Those of us who survived 2016 need no reminder of that. Pierre Boulez was not, of course, one of those, and his death, arguably the first of that year’s great litany of deaths, one year ago to the day, seemed to many of us not just another, but one of the most significant, in the many deaths of musical modernism(s).

Three performative great non-occurrences were works he said, on more than one occasion, he wished he had had opportunity to conduct: one by Mozart at his most musically radical, Don Giovanni,  whose harmonies often reach towards Wagner, and whose metrical dislocations reach beyond, even to Stravinsky; one by Mussorgsky, his great Pushkin epic, Boris Godunov, the best of operatic realism and thus perhaps that century’s greatest challenge to the Wagnerian world of myth of which the young Boulez stood highly suspicious; and Boulez’s one missing mature Wagner ‘music drama’, Die Meistersinger (about which he nevertheless would have several interesting things to say).[1]  More important still, one of the most fabled exhibist in the museum of imaginary musical works remains an opera, or any sort of music theatre piece, written by Boulez himself. I shall leave open – like many of his Mallarmé-inspired musical forms – whether that were in itself significant. To any of us steeped in Adornian negative dialectics, it almost certainly will be; but that will not be the principal focus of what I have to say. It is an unanswerable question, yet one that never ceases its demand to be asked: not unlike whether Wagner would, as he claimed, have turned from opera to symphony after Parsifal, or whether Schoenberg’s unfinished operatic masterpiece, Moses und Aron, were by its very nature impossible to complete.

I mention those two predecessors not least since they loomed so large in Boulez’s operatic, and more broadly musical, canon. Few were the operas he conducted which in some sense did not relate to that particular, central (and central, in large part thanks to him) conception of modernism. The quintessential composer of the anti-modernist box-office, Verdi, for instance, received short shrift as ‘stupid, stupid, stupid’. Nineteenth-century Italian operatic composers repelled him for their ‘vulgarity’. Puccini, a more sophisticated composer, remained ‘so easy to understand, and that’s never very interesting, at least not to me.’ Boulez’s first opera as a conductor, Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, in a 1964 Paris concert performance, remained an outlier, Boulez admitting to finding its style ‘dated’, but its tragedy, not mythology, ‘together with the choruses and great flexibility of the construction’ the ‘most interesting part’. Commenting that he loved ‘composers who construct their music,’ he met with a reply from Messiaen, also present at the interview: ‘Basically, you have very French tastes,’ a double- or perhaps triple-edged, response, if ever there were one. A still greater rarity, a 1973 abbreviated version of Haydn’s L’incontro impovviso, again in concert, in New York, would also remain an outlier. Haydn was always central to Boulez’s ‘earlier’ repertoire, yet sadly, his operas have never been central to anyone’s, with the exception of Antal Doráti, and possibly the composer himself. It was, though, with Berg (Wozzeck in 1963) and then Wagner that Boulez’s operatic career began in earnest, in the theatre. His 1966 Bayreuth collaboration with Wieland Wagner on Parsifal proved quite a turning point. Boulez’s Wagnerian theatrical career would close with Parsifal too, in 2004 and 2005, with a new staging, by Christoph Schlingensief. The small matter of the ‘Centenary Ring’ with Patrice Chéreau, what Boulez called his ‘most ear-splitting intrusion into the Museum’, would come in between. Boulez would also conduct all four of Schoenberg’s operas, in the theatre and in concert, almost staggeringly – and very much as part of his role as modernist advocate – recording Moses und Aron twice.


There was something in particular, though, about Wagner for Boulez – as indeed there has been something in particular about him to many others, from Liszt and Nietzsche, to lesser figures such as yours truly. ‘The difference between Wagner and the rest of the nineteenth century – as far as opera is concerned,’ he said, was that Wagner’s works ‘have such depth that one can return and be enriched each time.’ What, though, did that mean?

One important aspect, which requires far more study, is musical influence, or perhaps better, inspiration. The idea of the signal, crucial to many of his musical works, and which he discussed in one of his Leçons de musique, given at the Collège de France, found an important earlier predecessor – he also mentioned Bach, Berg, and Bartók – in Wagner’s use of leitmotif, specifically when a motif appeared isolated and unaccompanied. For instance, we might think of Wotan’s ‘great idea’ at the end of Das Rheingold, in which we hear the sword motif for the first time, before it has even been forged, let alone reforged. Wagner’s and Boulez’s musical languages are, of course, entirely different. Nevertheless, Boulez remarked that his work on Wagner – and Mahler – during the 1970s enabled him to write differently thereafter, for insistence on the orchestral version of his Notations – fated, or liberated, like so much of his œuvre, to remain a ‘work-in-progress’.


There is also no doubting the transformation with respect to his conducting. When I last heard him conduct Pli selon pli, in London, in 2011, I reflected:
… alongside the [definitive] revisions, it is equally interesting to note Boulez’s transformation of approach as a conductor. His reading certainly does not lack bite, as the ejaculating éclat of both opening and closing chords made clear, but the sonorities seem to have become still more ravishing. More than once I was put in mind of his recent conducting of Szymanowski, and of course his increasingly Romantic approach to the music of the Second Viennese School. For all Boulez’s talk of having devoted too much of his life to conducting, it has clearly enriched his compositional life so greatly that there really are no grounds for such regret and, once again, we heard a conducted performance that was more new composition in the light of recent experience than mere presentation of a work from the museum. (That, by no means incidentally, holds as much for his Wagner and Mahler, his Berlioz and Debussy, as for his own works.)

Composition and performance were never separate categories for him: something many critics – in the hostile as well as the more elevated sense – persistently failed to understand.

Such matters are not, however, my principal concern here. Just as his work as a conductor – a world into which he had stumbled in order to present earlier-modernist classics in performances of sufficiently high quality so as to vanquish counter-productive if well-intentioned quasi-amateurism – and his compositional work were not readily to be distinguished, nor was his broader significance not only as a polemicist, although he was certainly one of the best, but also as an educator. And in that, I think, he learned from and grew sustenance from, Wagner and his conception of opera, or rather music drama. ‘It was,’ Boulez wrote admiringly, ‘the search for a total solution that was the real passion of Wagner’s whole existence and provided the justification of even its most ambiguous and unacceptable aspects. We can watch him gradually defining his musical objectives and determining his line of conduct with growing precision, see the progressive inclusion of all his intellectual and artistic interests in a world essentially circumscribed by music.’ Wagner offered a new conception of theatre, which his own festival theatre, Bayreuth, somehow, despite its unfortunate – to put it mildly – history, had managed to rekindle under Wieland Wagner, and has, sporadically yet undeniably, continued to rekindle under successor directors. It seemed to Boulez almost a unique example of what opera, a genre, which he, like his avant-garde confreres, had held in suspicion, if not downright derision, might yet achieve, perhaps even an indication of what that never-to-be Boulez opera might have offered.

Like the actually existing society, perhaps especially the actually existing musical society, of the 1960s, 70s, and beyond, Wagner’s own Germany, and beyond it Europe and the world, had failed to heed his necessary message. ‘Although Bayreuth had a brilliant start,’ Boulez wrote,
... with all the aristocracy of the day in attendance, it was silenced from 1877 to 1882, and this left Wagner even more perplexed than bitter. … The society on which he wished to confer a unique identity amused itself for a while with this curiosity and then forgot it, until by a series of misunderstandings, his work was made the narrow, limited symbol of nationalism and racialism. 
Wagner’s work, however, ‘continues to exercise its fascination, for that is what it is: a work – and a theatre.’ What of that theatrical innovation?
This is a field in which Wagner has proved to have almost completely failed. His diatribes, written more than a century ago, are still completely relevant, for nothing has changed – the laziness of the repertory theatre, its failings, its precarious functioning, the blind choice of works, the fortuitous casting of singers and players, the lack of rehearsal, the sauve-qui-peut routine. Architecturally speaking, the Bayreuth model, [that is a simple Greek amphitheatre, with a covered pit] has remained a dead letter and we still have Italian-style theatres, ...
... in which so many cannot even see the stage, although they can doubtless see those in the audience they are intended to see. ‘The proportions,’ he continued,
... of these buildings have been disproportionately enlarged in order to accommodate orchestras that continue to grow in size. From the other side of this giant swimming pool – where it is possible during a performance to watch the family life of the orchestra – singers do their best to get through the wall of sound encountered by their voices: and the vanities involved in this contest give rise daily to very questionable, if not disastrous results. Both visually and acoustically, we continue to witness this permanent defeat of what is truly theatrical, Bayreuth having effected not the slightest improvement.'

With that in mind, we might turn to a notorious, earlier interview (1967), with Der Spiegel. Like so many things ‘everyone knows’, the one thing ‘everyone knows’ about this interview is wrong. Boulez did not call for the opera houses of the world to be blown up, although he might well have been following in the footsteps of Wagner, the socialist revolutionary and friend of fabled pyromanic, Mikhail Bakunin, if he had done. And so, the Swiss police who, in the aftermath of 9/11, arrested him in a dawn raid upon his Basel hotel in December 2001, for alleged terrorist intent a generation later, had perhaps not read the article properly either.[2] What Boulez, rather more playfully than Wagner, yet undoubtedly in his tradition, actually said was:
New German opera houses certainly look very modern – from the outside; on the inside, they have remained extremely old-fashioned. To a theatre in which mostly repertoire pieces are performed one can only with the greatest difficulty bring a modern opera – it is unthinkable. The most expensive solution would be to blow the opera houses into the air. But do you not think that that might also be the most elegant solution?

With a refusal to abide by the repertory system – whose uncaring, inartistic side had recently been frustrating Boulez in a Frankfurt revival of Wieland Wagner’s Wozzeck – Wagner offered the example of refusal to abide by the day-to-day rules of compromise, who may not have been taken up enthusiastically by all and sundry thereafter, but who had succeeded magnificently on his own terms, at least for a while, and who had continued to do so again. For it was Wagner who loomed largest in angry arguments concerning so-called Regietheater. It still is, in many ways, when one thinks of Frank Castorf’s recent Bayreuth Ring. What Boulez might have wanted in projected collaborations with Jean Genet (he died too soon), Heiner Müller (he also died too soon) and Edward Bond (a possibility remaining just at the stage of reading, for ‘I’m a bit superstitious about looking for a third candidate’) will always remain obscure. It might nevertheless offer us a utopian – both in a positive and negative sense – view of what future operatic endeavours might achieve. The possibilities of Japanese theatre, of masks and puppets) not for nothing did he, in 2003, turn to Manuel de Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Theatre (‘El retablo de Maese Pedro’) intrigued him. He also wanted something in which the musicians and indeed the conductor would be part of the theatrical action, very much, one might say, extending and acting upon Wagner’s experimentalism, albeit in ways his neo-Romanticism would never have conceived of – and, if it had, would doubtless have rejected. ‘Musically,’ Boulez said in a 1996 interview, ‘there is much of interest in the operas of Berio and Birtwistle, perhaps Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten too. But I don’t see that any of these are pushing forward the frontiers of theatre, and that’s the possibility in opera that has always interested me.' Like Wagner, Boulez wanted to use music to push, even to destroy, theatrical boundaries; like Wagner, he was, I suspect, just as aware, that such efforts would also push, even destroy, musical boundaries. Wagner’s insistence upon subordinating ‘music’ to ‘drama’ had only intensified the power and radicalism of his music; Boulez might have done, certainly would have wished to do, likewise.


Following the first performances of the Ring in 1876, Wagner told his performers, ‘Kinder, macht Neues!’ Dissatisfied with the inadequacy of his realisation, he told them that they must do it differently next time, an exhortation the composer’s would-be ‘protectors’ have always ignored. Still more dissatisfied with the inadequacy of his attempts, Boulez exhorts us to do the same. We may understand that in as banal or as strenuous a fashion as we like. Perhaps, though, we should be best off understanding it in a fashion akin to his Ring collaborator, Chéreau, when working on the Immolation Scene to Götterdämmerung. Opera, perhaps, might be like Wagner’s orchestra pit, itself: Delphi’s smoking pit, a crevice uttering oracles … The redemption motif is a message delivered to the entire world, but like all pythonesses, the orchestra is unclear, and there are several ways in which one might interpret its message. … Should one not hear it with mistrust and anxiety?
That may or may not have been Wagner’s Wagner, but its modernist indeterminacy was Boulez’s Wagner – and, in an age such as ours rightly still suspicious of totality, it should probably be ours too.

[1] Plans for a Don Giovanni, a Boris, and a Ring, all with Wieland, came to nothing on account of his death in 1966.
[2] Although see NYT, Alan Rider, 7 December 2001: ‘Astride Schirmer, Mr. Boulez's spokeswoman in Paris, said that in 1995, a Swiss music critic who had written a scathing review of a concert by Mr. Boulez received a threatening telephone call that included references to bombs. “The person who called may have said he was Mr. Boulez,'' Ms. Schirmer said. ''It was evidently a joke in extremely bad taste, but the critic reported it to the police, and Mr. Boulez's name was entered into their files.''’

Sunday, 1 January 2017

2016 concert tally and overall tally (concerts and opera)

Before Christmas, I gave you my tally of 2016 opera performances. Herewith, the figures for concerts, and for concerts and opera together. So Mozartian a year could not have been an entirely bad year. (Same rules: only one point per composer per performance.)
Mozart 19
Beethoven 13
Brahms 11        
Haydn, Schumann 8
Schubert 7
Bartók, Mendelssohn 6
Liszt, Mahler, Wagner 5
Bach, Kurtág, Schoenberg 4
Bruckner, Debussy, Elgar, Strauss, Webern, 3
Carter, Copland, Couperin, Ives, Prokofiev, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Jörg Widmann, Wolf 2
Michelle Agnes, Zakaria Ahmad, Jean Henry d’Anglebert, Lera Auerbach, Jona Bagés i Rubi, CPE Bach, JC Bach, Barber, Franz Benda, Berg, Lord Berners, George Benjamin, Berlioz, John Blow, William Bolcom, Axel Borup-Jørgensen, Boulez, Britten, John Bull, Sébastien le Camus, Carlos de Castellarnau, Cerha, Charpentier, Chopin, Desmond Clarke, Brett Dean, Jacques Duphly, Dutilleux, Dvořak, Peter Eötvös, Fauré, Graham Fitkin, Gesualdo, Detlev Glanert, Morgan Hayes, Robin Holloway, Kate Honey, Nicolas Hotman, Charles Hurel, Walter Jurmann,  Viktor Kalabis, Bronisław Kaper, Daniel Kidane, Korngold, Michel Lambert, Thomas Larcher, Liza Lehmann, Matthew Locke, Mateu Malondra, Marin Marais, Marenzio, Monteverdi, Etienne Moulinié, Mussorgsky, Per Nørgard, Pärt, Pfitzner, Pierre Danican Philidor, Poulenc, Purcell, Roger Quilter, Rahbani brothers, Anton Reicha, Rihm, Rimsky-Korsakov, Joel Rust, Kaija Saariaho, Saint-Colombe, Rebecca Saunders, Scarlatti, Othmar Schoeck, Sibelius, Blair Soler, Josephine Stephenson, Giles Swayne, Szymanowski, Dimitri Tiomkin, Sohrab Uduman, Verdi, Robert de Visée, Yukiko Watanabe, Weinberg, Freya Waley-Cohen, Peter Warlock, Stevie Wishart 1

Concerts and operas
Mozart 27
Wagner 21
Beethoven 14
Brahms, Strauss 11
Haydn, Schumann 8
Schubert 7
Bartók, Mendelssohn 6
Liszt, Mahler, Puccini 5
Bach, Debussy, Gluck, Janáček, Kurtág, Schoenberg 4
Bruckner, Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Webern 3
Britten, Carter, Copland, Couperin, Dvořák, Humperdinck, Ives, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Purcell, Rameau, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Jörg Widmann, Wolf 2
Thomas Adès, Michelle Agnes, Zakaria Ahmad, Jean Henry d’Anglebert, Kim Ashton, Lera Auerbach, Jona Bagés i Rubi, CPE Bach, JC Bach, Barber, Gerald Barry, Berg, Franz Benda, Berg, Lord Berners, George Benjamin, Berlioz, Bizet, John Blow, William Bolcom, Axel Borup-Jørgensen, Boulez, Britten, John Bull, Sébastien le Camus, Carlos de Castellarnau, Cerha, Chabrier, Charpentier, Chopin, Desmond Clarke, Brett Dean, Jacques Duphly, Dutilleux, Dvořak, Enescu, Peter Eötvös, Fauré, Graham Fitkin, Gesualdo, Detlev Glanert, Handel, Morgan Hayes, Hindemith, Robin Holloway, Kate Honey, Nicolas Hotman, Charles Hurel, Walter Jurmann,  Viktor Kalabis, Bronisław Kaper, Daniel Kidane, Korngold, Michel Lambert, Thomas Larcher, Liza Lehmann, Matthew Locke, Mateu Malondra, Marin Marais, Marenzio, Mascagni, Stephen McNeff, Martinů, Monteverdi, Etienne Moulinié, Offenbach, Stephen Oliver, Per Nørgard, Pärt, Pfitzner, Pierre Danican Philidor, Poulenc, Roger Quilter, Rahbani brothers, Anton Reicha, Reimann, Rihm, Rossini, Joel Rust, Kaija Saariaho, Saint-Colombe, Rebecca Saunders, Scarlatti, Othmar Schoeck, Sibelius, Mark Simpson, Blair Soler, Josephine Stephenson, Giles Swayne, Szymanowski, Dimitri Tiomkin, Sohrab Uduman, Verdi, Robert de Visée, Yukiko Watanabe, Weinberg, Freya Waley-Cohen, Peter Warlock, Weill, Stevie Wishart 1

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Two million visitors!

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

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

Esfahani - Bach, 21 December 2016

Wigmore Hall

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, 19 December 2016

For Berlin

March, this year

October, this year. A Schöneberg café

Znaider/LSO - Mozart and Tchaikovsky, 18 December 2016

Barbican Hall

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

Nikolaj Znaider (violin/conductor)
London Symphony Orchestra

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

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

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

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

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

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