Saturday, 18 February 2017

Ligeti Quartet - 'Melodicles’: Ligeti, Mason, Harrison, Diabété, Bartók, 17 February 2017

Hall Two, Kings Place

Ligeti – String Quartet no.1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’
Christian MasonTuvan Songbook
Lou HarrisonString Quartet Set: ‘Estampie’
Fodé Lassana Diabaté (arr. Jacob Garchik) Sunjata’s Time: ‘Nana Triban’
Bartók – String Quartet no.5, Sz.102

Mandhira de Saram, Patrick Dawkins (violins)
Richard Jones (viola)
Val Welbanks (cello)

‘Melodicles’, the title given to this concert as a whole, was a concept of Lou Harrison’s, referring to short motifs, inverted or reversed – perhaps one of the few signs in his music of his study with Schoenberg – to create musical modes. It is Harrison’s centenary this year, so it was especially good to have the Ligeti Quartet play some of his music. (I am not sure I have ever been to a concert in which he was featured before.) I wish I could have been more enthusiastic about this ‘Estampie’ dance from his 1978-9 String Quartet Set. Its simplicity has something to be said for it, I am sure, but I was glad that it did not go on any longer, beginning to tire of its single line melody, shared between first violin and viola, accompanied – for once, very much the right word – by busier, melody-less rhythm on the second violin and percussive use of the cello (knocking on its case, and so on). It was clearly very well played, though, and not at all unpleasant to hear; I was grateful for the opportunity.

On either side of the Harrison piece, which one might think of as imagined folk music, came two other folkish pieces. Christian Mason’s 2016 Tuvan Songbook is a transcription (and, to a certain extent, it seems, recomposition) of four traditional Tuvan songs. Two incorporated actual singing – although I was somewhat disappointed that it was not of the throaty variety one might have expected. The sharp rhythmic profile of the first, ‘Dyngylday’, strong on syncopation, augured very well, but I did not find its promise consistently realised. In the fourth, ‘Exir-Kara’ (‘Black Eagle’), it was intriguing to hear singing anticipated by some string extended techniques. Having said that, I found more to capture and retain my attention in the encore, Mason’s Mongolian-inspired Racing Horses, which seemed to me more a composition in its own right.

Perhaps I had just not been on the right wavelength, or in the right mood, for I felt similarly about ‘Nana Triban’, transcribed and arranged for string quartet by Jacob Garchik, from the Malian balafon player, Lassana Diabaté’s 2016 Sunjata’s Time (a Kronos Quartet commission). Cellist Val Wellbanks had the tune, the rest the accompaniment. It was pleasant enough, but I could not help wondering how much had been lost in transcription.

On either side of those works – as if the programming itself were conceived as a Bartókian arch – were works by Ligeti and Bartók. Ligeti’s First Quartet revealed itself as a typical mixture of, or dialectic between, ‘process’ and ‘expression’. Its many short sections are highly contrasted indeed – and so they sounded here in performance. Violent, Bartókian outbursts were especially well handled, as was the bizarre waltzing section – and its humour. Subsiding into nothingness at the close was again very well achieved, so much so that the audience seemed unaware that the piece had ended.

Bartók’s Fifth Quartet is, by any standards, a towering masterpiece. Itself in the arch form I observed in the programme as a whole, it received an estimable performance (albeit not always helped by the less than ideal acoustic of Kings Place’s Hall Two). The first movement showed a true sense of musical obsessiveness, and not a little wildness, which yet never degenerated into lack of discipline. Night music and Bulgarian meter were in general vividly portrayed in the inner movements. In the finale, Beethovenian purpose, perhaps even method in the motivic working, was unquestionably apparent: inspiration in the very best sense.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Kopatchinskaja/BPO/Rattle - Rihm, Ligeti, and Mahler, 12 February 2017

Philharmonie, Berlin

RihmGruß-Moment 2 – in memoriam Pierre Boulez
Ligeti – Violin Concerto
Mahler – Symphony no.4 in G major

Camilla Tilling (soprano)
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

It had been two years, almost to the day, since I had last heard the Berlin Philharmonic (in the flesh, anyway). Then it had been Mahler (with Lachenmann) in London; now it was Mahler (with Rihm and Ligeti) in Berlin. The contemporary (more or less) works fared splendidly on both occasions; Mahler, I think, fared much better on this, the interventionism that has latterly characterised Simon Rattle’s work with that composer less distracting, more convincing. The orchestra, of course, remains a great one, now as fearless in new music as its fabled earlier self was in Beethoven and Brahms.

Wolfgang Rihm’s Gruß-Moment 2 was not quite receiving its premiere: that had taken place on the first of these three performances. It is nevertheless emphatically a new work, albeit performed with a confidence that might suggest otherwise. Rihm’s piece – allegedly five minutes long, but significantly longer – is one of twelve commissioned by the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker from different composers, apparently given carte blanche as to how they approached their ‘album leaf’ compositions. It also follows Gruß-Moment 1, written for the Lucerne Festival, for Pierre Boulez’s ninetieth birthday in 2015; now, of course, we live in the shadow of Boulez’s death, and the piece is dedicated to his memory.

Rihm has written for what looks like an average-sized orchestra: neither Bach’s, nor Gurrelieder’s. There are interesting omissions, though: clarinets, bassoons (not contra-bassoon, however), and trumpets. On the other hand, there are four players apiece for flutes, horns, and percussion. It is with an English horn solo that the lament or tombeau begins, perhaps inevitably putting us in mind of Tristan und Isolde. (Whether I liked it or not, I could not help but find intervallic and rhythmic correspondences and differences with Wagner’s Shepherd Song.) Four horns follow on: as so often with Rihm, forging further links with German Romanticism, albeit more obliquely here than sometimes. Was that even a hint of Bruckner in the string unison lines to come? Oboe and trombone duetting, still more English horn and trombone duetting, put me a little in mind of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch, but that was probably just me; for one can play the game of correspondences all one likes, of course, and it is in many ways just a way of finding one’s bearing. It was only really with the sounding of the quartet of flutes and percussion together that my ears found something that might possibly remind me of Boulez, and then not overtly. Such, however, is not necessarily the point of a tribute. If this were a tombeau, it was not gloomy, some post-expressionist Angst prior to the close notwithstanding, but then why should it be? Perhaps this was more akin to an ode from Berlioz, Gluck, even Stravsinky; perhaps not. It intrigued, nevertheless, nowhere more so than in the soft, yet Fafner-like timpani of the closing bars: ‘dolce, quasi cantando’.

‘György Ligeti’s violin concerto is perhaps the most exciting violin concerto since Beethoven. It’s the concerto I most enjoy playing.’ Would that more violinists thought like Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whatever that might imply about some of those far from negligible concertos in between. (I shall except Schoenberg’s, since it is surely the most criminally neglected of all.) This was, it seems, the third time the Berlin Philharmonic had played the work, previous outings having come from Tamsin Little, also with Rattle, in 2003, and from Renaud Capuçon and David Robertson seven years later. There will doubtless always be a little personal eccentricity from Kopatchinskaja, but I cannot believe that her decision to play barefoot would have troubled anyone. If it did, so much the worse for him or her. (Our intrepid soloist even managed to persuade the leader, Daniel Stabrawa, to shed one of his shoes, when he joined her for a splendid encore performance of Ligeti’s very early (1950) Balad si joc.)

The solo opening suggested that this might be Ligeti very much in ‘process music’ mode. What especially intrigued about how both work and performance developed was that that was sort of true, but far from entirely so. That, one might say, is where music comes in. Kopatchinskaja’s solo line gradually distinguished itself more and more from the many other solo lines in this first movement Praeludium, taking on an almost ‘traditional’ virtuosic tinge, at least in the manner of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale (squared). Kopatchinskaja’s duetting with tuned percussion proved one of the multiple delights here. In the second movement, I initially reflected how viola-like her tone sounded – until the viola soloist entered. A sensibility that was far from un-Romantic grew, until the moment of typical Ligetian madness when a quartet of woodwind players, Pied-Piper-like, took up their ocarinas. If the chorale section inevitably brought Berg to mind, what greater inspiration could there be?

The high, fantastical writing with which the Intermezzo opens had me think of Prokofiev, although, of course, it went very much its own way. Such was the intensity of the climax that it felt as though the music were over all too quickly. The slow, inevitable, riveting progress of the Passacaglia brought, as the movement came to its climax, further thoughts of Berg. This was almost incredibly committed playing from all concerned. Prokofiev sounded as if he were unwinding in the final movement, soon characterised by the reinstatement of a virtuosity it is difficult not to think of in some sense as ‘Hungarian’. Rattle left the stage, deadpan, for Kopatchinskaja to play her own cadenza: great fun, both gesturally and musically. There was a sense of trying to goad him and the orchestra to come back, eventually successful when the conductor reappeared from the percussion to bring the concerto to a close.

The second half was devoted to the Mahler symphony. Its first movement cannot escape from a certain sense of molding, so perhaps sets itself up better for Rattle’s approach than some of the composer’s more (apparently, deceptively) simple inspirations. It certainly did not drag – unlike, say, the well-nigh unbearable performance I heard from Vladimir Jurowski last year. Rattle ensured that the score was treated affectionately yet not too much so, and at times, with a little yet not too much brusqueness. Stabrawa’s violin solo – and not just that – sounded sweetly sardonic, or should that be sardonically sweet? Mediaeval, or rather pseudo-mediaeval, pictorialism was appealing throughout, coexisting happily with Mahler’s idiosyncratic neo-Classicism. I was not sure what it all ‘meant’, but I am not sure that I should have been sure: that is not really the point, or at least need not be.

I was delighted to hear some vinegar in the second movement scordatura playing. Often, that ends up sounding ‘just’ dissonant, rather than making something (though never too much) out of the different tuning. Ligeti, I thought, would have approved. Counterpoint was admirably clear: one could really hear a multitude of lines, almost as if St Anthony of Padua were preaching to a shoal of particularly wayward, individualistic fish. However illusory, there remained a sense of essential simplicity to the slow movement, which sounded very much as if it grew out of Mahler’s four-part string writing: an expanded string quartet, almost. The sound was perhaps sweeter than one often hears, but not unreasonably so, and in any case often tended towards silver too. Not that the darker side was neglected, far from it, but the movement proved commendably un-hysterical. Thematic foreshadowings of the finale were nicely brought out, and that movement grew as ‘naturally’ as I have ever heard out of its predecessor, without a break, yet not rushed. Camilla Tilling offered one of the most interpretatively interesting accounts of the text I have heard. There was a greater range of vocal colour than one often hears, very much at the service of the words. Stylistically, she drew out, or so it seemed, the music’s kinship with the world of Hänsel und Gretel, whilst Rattle’s keen ear for instrumental detail enriched rather than overwhelming. Rarely have I heard so touching a performance of the final stanza, nor a more lingering, loving farewell from the harp. Mahler’s progressive tonality had indeed opened up a new, heavenly world.


Saturday, 11 February 2017

Widmann/Uchida - Brahms, Berg, Widmann, Schubert, and Schumann, 9 February 2017

Wigmore Hall
Brahms – Clarinet Sonata no.1 in F minor, op.120 no.1
Berg – Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, op.5
Jörg Widmann – Fantasie, for solo clarinet
Schubert – Impromptu in C minor, D 899/1
Widmann – Sonatina facile (UK premiere)
Schumann – Fantasiestücke, op.73

Jörg Widmann (clarinet)
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

A wonderful concert! If I had my doubts about the substance of the new Sonatina facile for piano solo, by Jörg Widmann, it was entertaining enough, and received a bravura performance from Mitsuko Uchida. A tribute to Mozart’s C major Piano Sonata, KV 545, with identical movement markings, ‘Allegro’, ‘Andante’, and ‘Rondo’, it starts off in deconstructive fashion not dissimilar to Schnittke’s (K)ein Sommernachtstraum. Harmonies in the opening ‘Allegro’ at times sound not unlike Henze; I thought of his own Mozart piano tribute, Cherubino. The nineteenth century looms large too, throughout the piece: ‘nineteenth century Mozart’, Beethoven (op.13?), Chopin, et al. As with his Con brio Concert Overture, there is much that teases: is this quotation or allusion? Does it matter? Whatever it is, though, it is certainly not facile in the sense applied to Mozart’s work.

Otherwise, there was much to intrigue, to enjoy, even to confound. The starkness of much of Uchida’s piano playing in the first movement of the Brahms F minor Sonata guarded against any conventional notion of autumnal mellowness. (I love that variety of Brahms as much as the next listener, perhaps more, but it is not the only way.) Widmann’s clarinet playing seemed to look even towards Birtwistle, certainly towards Berg and Schoenberg. A sense of exhaustion and the impetus dialectically derived from it brought Mendelssohn to mind at one point, so this was not simply Brahms from a twentieth- or indeed twenty-first century standpoint. Intervals – and then how does one not think of Webern – did a good deal of the work, just as they should. I liked the uneasy, even sometimes effortful lyricism of the second movement. The opening, neo-Mozartian – definitely not Mozartian without the ‘neo’ – grace of the Allegretto grazioso was soon undercut. Darkness was far from confined to the central section. The finale was more volatile than one generally hears, and all the better for it.

Berg’s Four Pieces followed naturally – or better, with seeming inevitability. From the very first piece, the similarity not only in motivic working but also in expressivity was apparent: not always, of course, but often. There was certainly nothing Brahmsian about those piano bell chimes, magical and menacing at once. Kinship with Schoenberg’s op.19 (especially the second of those pieces) was especially apparent in Uchida’s performance of the second piece, tendencies intensified in the fourth, whilst Widmann’s – the clarinet’s – scampering wit in the third evoked Pierrot lunaire. That intensification in the fourth and final piece brought homes just what variety there is to be experienced in unity, and vice versa. ‘Cataclysmic’ would not be an exaggerated description of the piano climax as heard here. And then, quite, lyrical witness…

Widmann’s solo Fantasie proved quite the tour de force. A multiphonic drone-like opening, out of which Don Juan-like ascending phrases issue forth, lodged itself long in the memory. All manner of extended techniques, and more ‘traditional’ ones – jazzy glissandi, for instance – contributed to a compelling narrative. Contours were traced by Widmann as performer, insofar as one can distinguish the two, with high drama and a sovereign command of musical line.

The C minor Impromptu with which the second half opened began, perhaps echoing the Brahms, in stark fashion, yet would ultimately prove far from unyielding. Nevertheless, such was the granite-like implacability of Uchida’s performance, that I thought more of a conductor such as Otto Klemperer than of pianists. For all the grandeur, though, there was great intimacy too: such were revealed to be two sides of the same coin. Schubert sounded contemporary, if anything rather more so than the Widmann of the Sonatina facile.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke opened as if with a reminiscence of an earlier Brahms than the one we had heard here. Melody, harmony, even developmental method evoked kinship. By the same token, there was something fresher here, redolent of a stroll through German Romantic woods. The second piece was fantastical – as the title would suggest! – in the best Schumann tradition. There was nothing ‘late’ here, save perhaps for our perception. Sunny, yet not without shadow, the third exhibited more than a hint of neo-Classicism, suggesting connections with Widmann’s own work. The Andante from Mendelssohn’s early clarinet sonata in E-flat major offered longing without exaggeration; connections with much of what we had heard earlier were inescapable, but were never forced upon us.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Weilerstein - Bach, Complete Cello Suites, 8 February 2017

St John’s, Smith Square

Suite no.1 in G major, BWV 1007
Suite no.2 in D minor, BWV 1008
Suite no.3 in C major, BWV 1009
Suite no.4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010
Suite no.5 in C minor, BWV 1011
Suite no.6 in D major, BWV 1012

Alisa Weilerstein (cello)

Would it be too daunting a prospect, or too tiring an experience, to hear all six Bach Cello Suites in a single concert? Not even slightly. ‘Journey’ is doubtless by now far too well worn a cliché to be admissible for me here. Nevertheless, in a programme interview, Alisa Weilerstein framed its use so well that I did not even notice: ‘To perform all the Suites one after another is a transcendental experience, a remarkable journey for both musician and listener. There is an almost childlike innocence to the opening of the G major Suite, and from there the music blossoms and broadens, and step by step the emotional range expands. The same goes for the rhythmic range: by the time you reach the Sixth Suite its Allemande is almost free-form.’ Part of that framing was, of course, her performance, which more than held the attention from beginning to end.

Weilerstein opened the G major Suite with warm tone, a tempo that seemed just right, telling rubato, and a startling, yet never remotely self-regarding, variety of articulation and dynamic range. Following that opening Prelude, the Allemande sounded soulful, even dreamy, yet always directed. A swift Courante contrast proved just as flexible. This was not playing that exhibited undue respect for bar-lines. The energy generated was musical, never artificially whipped up. Here as elsewhere, the Sarabande is at the heart of the Suite; this heart sang as if it were issuing a declaration of love both courtly and Romantic, almost a major-mode ‘black pearl’ (to borrow from Wanda Landowska). The pair of Minuets that followed seemed almost to exhibit different musical ‘characters’ through their differing articulations. The good, honest enjoyment of the Gigue put me in mind again of the Goldberg Variations, this time the world of the ‘Quodlibet’. There is good as well as ill in German provincialism – at least at its best. Not for nothing, I think, did my thoughts take me briefly to Thomas Mann and his Doctor Faustus, before it all ‘went wrong’.

The Prelude to the D minor Suite offered a songful lament, never maudlin, keenly felt. Its Allemande sounded similar yet different: a sister, perhaps, followed by an energetic sibling Courante. The Sarabande-heart spoke unmistakeably of sorrow, of loss, even perhaps of tragedy. It met its defiant response in the first Minuet, its aristocratic dance so clearly delineated it could almost be seen. Following the relative foil of the second Minuet, there was greater defiance still, I think, in the concluding Gigue, its character much in the mould of the first Minuet, extending and developing what I, perhaps too subjectively, cannot help but characterise as its ‘point of view’. Some might here have found Weilerstein’s rubato too much; for me, it always had rhetorical justification.

From the simple building block of its opening scales, the C major Prelude developed in just the way Weilerstein in that quotation from the programme interview had suggested. The extraordinary proliferation of the Allemande had me think, eccentrically or otherwise, of Boulez. Messagesequisse? Its flightier cousin, the Courante, proved flightier only in a superficial sense; there was neither lack of character nor of heart here, just different character. Breadth did not preclude chiaroscuro in Weilerstein’s (very broad) reading of the Sarabande, quite the contrary. A catchy, good-natured performance of the first Bourrée benefited greatly from an almost Mozartian (Trio-like) complement in the second. They made me smile: not something to be sniffed at. The freedom (and organisation) of the Gigue suggested Bartók – but such is Bach.

From C major to E-flat major: the very different tonality (especially for the cello) made itself felt immediately. These were new challenges, new opportunities; perhaps this Prelude even spoke with a new seriousness. Likewise the Allemande, although its kinship to its predecessor’s proliferative qualities remained clear. The opening phrase of the Courante sounded almost Purcellian in its insouciance, swiftly offset by undeniable complexity. A sense of austere, although never puritanical, relationship to the world of the viola da gamba characterised the Sarabande. Noticeable reduction in vibrato was part of that; just as important, however, was the communication of harmonic rhythm. The ebullience of the opening to the first Bourrée suggested an opening phrase to an imaginary (middle-period?) Beethoven quartet; the second was again heard very much in ‘trio’ vein. If Weilerstein’s tuning faltered somewhat in the Gigue, the spirit of this finale, runaway in the best sense, was very much present throughout.

Next to the relative minor: C. The Prelude’s opening section sounded more overtly and multifariously tragic than anything we had heard previously. Resonances from Monteverdi to Mahler and beyond were suggested, all the more powerful for the lack of any exaggeration on Weilerstein’s part; any pointing always had a discernible purpose. It was not only the key that made me think occasionally of the opening movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Mozart came to mind in the fugal writing and playing, so suggestive that there was no chance of missing the ‘missing’ voices of parts thereof. The Allemande sounded similarly haunted by ghosts of the musical past and future (interestingly, given the key, never Beethoven). It sounded as if an old Italian operatic lament, transformed, even transfigured, and always it danced. Bartók reappeared, with more than a dash of the stile antico, in the Courante. And Beethoven himself, the Beethoven of the late quartets, seemed a guiding presence in the world of the Sarabande, perhaps a more expansive Webern too. Every note counted, without pedantry. The dignity of response in the first Gavotte and the quicksilver genius of the second led us to an implacable Gigue. And yet, it moved.

The distinctive range (tenor, one might say) of the D minor Suite presented us with yet another, distinct modernity. Rapt lyricism and well-nigh Ligetian swarming were the stuff of the Prelude. Development and proliferation again characterised, utterly distinctively, the Allemande and Courante, the latter no less rich for its different character. Now the Sarabande seemed cut from the same cloth as the great opening chorus to the St Matthew Passion – whatever the obvious differences.  A nervy, vigorous first Minuet once again led, with Classical ‘naturalness’ – I thought of Haydn – to its sibling. There was no mistaking the note of triumph in the final Gigue: simple and complex, a true, irrepressible force for unity forged through diversity and development.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Kaufmann/Deutsch - Schumann, Duparc, and Britten, 4 February 2017

Barbican Hall

Schumann – Kerner-Lieder, op.35
Duparc – L’Invitation au voyage; Phidylé; Le Manoir de Rosemonde; Chanson triste; La Vie antérieure
Britten – Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, op.22

Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)

Just a diary item, here, to remind me that I went, and what I heard: sorry… I decided, not least in the light of both having been under the weather and being very busy, that it would be good to take advantage of an opportunity to attend without writing. I am sure that many others who were there at this excellent recital will have accounts for you, in any case. My highlight? Hearing the Duparc songs sound so post-Wagnerian from Jonas Kaufmann and so post-Lisztian from Helmut Deutsch. Schumann and Britten received right royal treatment too. I shall stop now, though, before this metamorphoses into a review… Normal service will be resumed very soon.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Uchida - Mozart and Schumann, 31 January 2017

Royal Festival Hall

Mozart – Piano Sonata no.16 in C major, KV 545
Schumann Kreisleriana, op.16
Schumann Fanatasie in C major, op.17

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

In a well-nigh perfect performance of Mozart’s ‘sonata for beginners’ – how treacherous that claim! – Mitsuko Uchida gave the impression and not far, I think, from the reality of utter effacement of the self. This was not anonymity, yet the sense, however illusory, of unmediated access to the work ‘itself’ could rarely have been felt more strongly. Come scritto, certainly; but not just as written, as we know it in the concert hall, or the parlour, of our imagination. The first movement’s passage work was second to none, articulation not only true, but a true joy. (How I wished my schoolboy left hand had permitted me to play a single bar, let alone a single phrase, like that. Not that my right hand had come so much closer…) ‘Just’ scales for so much of the development: not at all? The subdominant surprise in the recapitulation registered with subtle strength, preparing the way for Mozart’s concomitantly surprising path back ‘home’. The second movement offered similar virtues. Its transparency is cruel, even by Mozart’s standards, yet that posed, so it seemed, Uchida no difficulty whatsoever. The music flowed beautifully, its legato ‘like oil’. And how a chromatic note made all the difference in the world: so much from what might have looked so little! The turn to the minor mode evinced no exaggeration, but any degree of honest, even heart-rending drama. Uchida resisted the common impulse to rush the finale, which received a reading full of charm, delight, and yes, again, subtlety. Childlike? Perhaps, but certainly never childish. Mozart’s – Uchida’s too? – second naïveté worked its magic nevertheless.

The rest of the programme was devoted to Schumann. First came Kreisleriana. The opening piece benefited from admirable clarity. Perhaps it might have had a little more of the tempest to it, a little more flexibility too; nevertheless, the clearing of the skies still registered – again magically. I found myself comparing the difference in Mozart’s and Schumann’s use of arpeggios: not as some abstract distraction from the ‘poetry’, but by putting technical means at the heart of that poetry. There was greater flexibility in the second movement and thereafter, its intermezzi contrasting and responding to the opening material in a finely traced musical arc, as etched by Uchida (and Schumann!) Brahmsian compositional technique seemed unusually apparent in many of these movements, yet quite without Brahms’s ‘lateness’. Here was an earlier Romanticism, and rightly so. A little untidiness in the third and seventh was ultimately of little import; if anything, it reminded us that this music is not supposed to be easy to play (not, I hasten to add, that technique should ever be belittled.) The poise and dignity Uchida showed in the fourth, the whimsy that yet spoke of something darker in the fifth, and the ambiguity of the lullaby, intensified by the intrusion of contrasting material, in the sixth: all were movingly, perceptively portrayed. So too was the concluding movement, here sounding very much as in Harriet Smith’s programme note description: ‘less like the end … than the quiet closing of that door, the illicit listener tiptoeing away.’

The C major Fantasie followed the interval. Uchida’s first movement opened magisterially – a word overused, but not, I think, inappropriate here – yet capable of yielding. One always ‘knows’ that this is one of Schumann’s greatest works; here one undoubtedly felt it too, not least through the ongoing sense of perpetual development: ‘developing variation’, as any Schoenbergian would tell you. Here, comparisons with Liszt’s B minor Sonata seemed fully apposite. So did Schumann’s marking: ‘Durchaus phantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen’. Originality and eloquence were to be heard equally in all three movements: work and performance. The second had a fine, almost Elgarian swagger to its opening. It was questioned thereafter, again not unlike Elgar, although it was Chopin who came to mind in the serenity with which ensuing contrast was sung, likewise in the flickering, even dissolving, tendencies of Uchida’s left hand. Out of that extraordinary march emerged mystery and clarity in equal measure, in contest and collaboration. The quiet dignity with which the musical narrative was constructed, or perhaps better, constructed itself, brought an intriguing combination of methods with roots in both Chopin and late Beethoven. As for the Innigkeit heard and felt: that was entirely Schumann’s own. So were the paths down which the musical journey led us and its conclusion: they could hardly have been envisaged, let alone navigated, by anyone else. Uchida reminded us keenly of that ineffable individuality.

In a similarly exquisite fusion of process and poetry, she did that too in an encore of breathtaking delicacy and unerring direction. I guessed (correctly) that it had been by Kurtág. Only this morning did I find out which piece: Play with Infinity. Quite.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Levit - Beethoven, 30 January 2017

Wigmore Hall


Piano Sonata no.2 in A major, op.2 no.2
Piano Sonata no.7 in D major, op.10 no.3
Piano Sonata no.6 in F major, op.10 no.2
Piano Sonata no.18 in E-flat major, op.31 no.3

Igor Levit (piano)


I found myself torn. Should I actually have been attending the march to Downing Street against Donald Trump and his enabler, Theresa May? There is more than one way to resist, though: of that I am certain. Listen, for instance, to Furtwängler’s wartime recordings. (I have just been listening, on Schubert’s birthday, to the 1942 Great C major Symphony. The anger is still more palpable in Beethoven Ninth’s from the same year. And so, of course, is the power of Beethoven’s music to resist.) And whilst all great art, all great human endeavour, will have something to offer in that respect, Beethoven lays claim to a very special place. Sceptics can rail all they like, try to cut his music down to size, deny Beethoven’s art its heroism; they will never succeed. We know that a performance of Fidelio from Daniel Barenboim and young musicians, many of whom would now be denied entry to the United States, has something very important to tell us. Just as we know that Beethoven from the Palestine Youth Orchestra, two of its members cruelly denied ‘permission’ by an enthusiastic Trump ally to leave Gaza, will speak of a musical necessity of which we can barely conceive, yet in a sense need just as keenly. To hear Beethoven piano sonatas, then, from an artist whose steadfast opposition to fascism (click here, for instance, for his statement to a Brussels audience following Trump’s election) is not the least admirable of his humanist qualities, and to engage with that performance as an audience member in, I hope, an active rather than a passive sense, had its merits too.

We began in the eighteenth century, with the second of the thirty-two sonatas, the A major, op.2 no.2. The opening phrase sounded fresh, still, just about, of that world; the answering phrase already showed Beethoven flexing his muscles in the direction of things to come. Great care over articulation and phrasing contributed to the urgency of the performance: nothing was rushed; everything counted. Accents and sforzandi mattered in a sense far beyond ‘mere’ expression: their structural function and thus their meaning too seemed almost to speak of a world we might have thought opened up by Webern and his successors. The first movement’s development section offered proper intensification, as if taking after the symphonic Beethoven still to come, and the recapitulation proved as much a second development as a return, motivic working key here. That said, proportions still spoke, quite rightly, of Classical perfection. (A question I often set first-year undergraduates relates to whether we should consider Beethoven to be a Classical or a Romantic composer. The longer I think about it, the more difficult, yet necessary, a question it is. Should it prove to be question to which just a few of them return throughout their lives, that would make me happy indeed.) With hushed dignity, the Largo appassionato was constructed before our ears. Architecture came to the fore, without compromise to the quasi-vocal ornamentalism so typical of much early Beethoven. Alas, it took the most full-blooded tone for Igor Levit to mask, if only briefly, an all too zealous contribution from quadrophonic bronchial activists. The Scherzo was characterised by graceful insouciance, as if trying to recapture a Mozartian world that would ever remain just beyond it, tantalisingly so. Its trio, both in legato and vivid drama, seems also to speak of Mozart. If I have heard the finale more overtly loved – often loved to death, I fear – this performance intrigued in laying bare Beethoven’s musical processes. Not that it was short on drama, far from it, but it showed, in modernistic fashion, that those processes are not only its motor but perhaps even, at least in part, its subject matter. Tonal surprises registered, if anything, all the more strongly.

At the opening of the D major Sonata, op.10 no.2, we heard a related, yet unquestionably different, tonality. One might say the same of much else too, of course, but it was that indefinable ‘character’ of key – even if Beethoven might use D major differently somewhere else – that immediately struck me. A dizzying array of themes was thoroughly integrated in a performance that knew exactly where it was heading. It was very fast – Beethoven marks its ‘Presto’, after all – yet never too fast, never breathless. Rockets soared, especially in the development, yet their trail never lacked grace. Again, the sheer difference of the recapitulation registered strongly, thrillingly. There was no mistaking, even from the first bar, the Romantic gravity of the slow movement, quite distinct from anything we had yet heard; and yet, that vocal, quasi-operatic quality remained to be heard too, transformed, even transfigured. Imbued with a meaning that could never be reduced to words, Levit showed us that, if all Beethoven matters enormously, some matters still more. Even the starkest dynamic contrasts could not disrupt the musico-dramatic line; they strengthened it: perhaps there is a message there for us beyond the concert hall too. After that, the Menuetto sounded with charm; disruptions, or apparent disruptions, in the bass, showed a different variety of charm and more than a little Beethovenian humour. Both quizzical and furious, the finale burst forth as a riot of Haydnesque invention that could never have been written by Haydn. Beethoven had learned his lessons far too well to be mistaken for another. The particular integrative impulse was very much Beethoven’s own – and, of course, that of the pianist.

The first movement of op.10 no.2, in F major, sounded initially not so distant from it’s a major counterpart in approach. The devil, or perhaps the angel, proved to be in the detail. Beethoven’s good nature shone through: more than good nature, profound humanity. Levit conveyed a fine sense of deep mystery to the development, which proved ‘surprising’, even if one flattered oneself one knew it. There was protean mystery to the central Allegretto too. Heard as if in a single breath, it revealed such an array of incident when one truly listened – and how could one not? The Presto finale was despatched with a virtuosity permitting of both fury and levity (no pun intended). Counterpoint was relished, proving generative of a well-nigh neo-Mozartian host of ‘characters’ plying their trade upon our aural stage.

With the E-flat major Sonata, op.31 no.3, we found ourselves in a very different world. What a work this is; how much more often we ought to hear it! The tonal centre emerged gracefully, yet not too easily, from that extraordinary first-movement introduction. (It is as much a joy to play as to hear!) And yet, despite the differences in scale, maturity, and so much else, there was again a sense of a host of characters treading the aural boards before us, Beethoven’s neo-Mozartian flirtations now at greater distance and perhaps even possessed of still greater affection. Rhythm, harmony, and melody formed an indissoluble whole, conveyed with exquisite voicing that yet never remotely seemed an end in itself. Above all, quite rightly, this was a drama. The second movement is, quite frankly, a bastard to play, but you would never have known it from this performance, in which lightness of touch and great boldness were revealed as two sides of the same coin. It was more boisterous than Mendelssohn but perhaps gestured more than a little in his direction. That sense of longing for an age to which Beethoven – perhaps all of us – would like to return, yet could not, imbued the third movement, played with tender luxuriance. All too often it is rushed, but not here, the richness of Beethoven’s harmonies present for all to hear. A skittish contrast was announced with the finale, whose mood changes proved just as protean as anything in the preceding sonata. It was every inch a finale, every inch a Beethoven finale: just what was required.

To quote Hans Werner Henze, in an article entitled 'Does Music have to be Political?': 'Beethoven regarded his whole enterprise as a contribution to human progress.' Let us do so too.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Aimard/Stefanovich - Brahms and Messiaen, 24 January 2017

St John’s, Smith Square

Brahms – Sonata in F minor for two pianos, op.34b
Messiaen – Visions de l’Amen

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich (pianos)
I am not sure that I had ever heard Brahms’s op.34 (the Piano Quintet, to most of us) in its earlier, but not earliest, two piano version. The first movement, in this intriguing, sometimes even provocative, performance from Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, emerged not so much monochrome as with a different, darker palette. This was certainly not ‘old school’ Brahms, if such a thing ever existed. (Perhaps it did, but if so, with an array of options, certainly not as a monolith.) The tone I heard from Aimard, to whom I was seated closest, perhaps came closest to a pianist such as the Maurizio Pollini of ten or fifteen years ago. The music, of course, sounded very different; if, ultimately, I could not quite bring myself to dissent from Clara Schumann’s thought, quoted in Joanna Wyld’s programme note, that it ‘had the impression of a transcribed work’, there is often much to be learned from transcriptions, and perhaps especially what we might call transcriptions avant la lettre. Counterpoint was often clarified, although differences in attack occasionally perplexed (my fault, not that of the performance, I am sure). A curious passage of near- (yet not quite) stasis in the development had me almost (yet not quite) think forward in the programme to Messiaen. And then, of course, we moved forward once again. A darkly Romantic recapitulation, offered a sense of chiaroscuro with cross-stage echoing of post-Mendelssohn leggierezza, offered much more to intrigue, even to confound.
Our pianists were in no danger of confusing sentiment and sentimentality in the slow movement. What initially, to untutored ears (mine included), might have sounded a little dour, revealed its riches both horizontally and vertically, clearly prefiguring Schoenberg. Motivic complexity bred harmonic motion, and vice versa. I was struck several times, as so often with Brahms, how certain turns of phrase, especially in conjunction with harmony, had much in common with Schubert. The performers’ sense of onward tread was not dissimilar to his music either. A surprising, rather winning sense of near-swing to the opening of the scherzo was soon confounded by muscular strength of rhythm. Rhythms, though, could equally be lightly sprung. There was no more humour here than there would be in a Chopin scherzo, yet Beethovenian provenance remained clear. At times, the music seemed to cry out for an orchestra (as Clara suggested).
The abruptness of the ending seemed to prepare, or perhaps defiantly not to prepare, the way for the sheer strangeness (Book of the Hanging Gardens-strangeness) of the introduction to the finale. Tonality was not dead yet, though, as the almost Mozartian profusion of material seemed determined, if not quite without equivocation, to demonstrate. This was Brahms of a Romantic-modernist hue such as we hear far too rarely. I am not sure I have ever heard his music sound quite so perplexing in its alienation. At times, the music might almost have been by Busoni. (Now there is a thought for repertoire these artists might tackle…)
With the opening bar of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen we heard music that sounded far more at ease with the piano(s): Liszt’s tradition, then, one might say, rather than Brahms’s. And indeed I struggle to think of anything that Messiaen and Brahms have in common: this was quite a contrast, and again a provocative one at that. A magical contrast between treble registers and bass registers was to be heard in this ‘Amen de la création’. All manner of thoughts and feelings relating to Creation theology suggested themselves, although I am sure one might equally listen to this as something approaching that ever chimerical ‘absolute music’, if for some reason one wished to. The interaction of rhythmic security and metrical subtlety seemed just as important to the music’s progress as its harmonies. Nevertheless, or perhaps even because of that, Messiaen’s Debussyan heritage – this is piano music, after all – loomed large. For a slow-burn crescendo, and for much else, this was difficult to beat. Mussorgskian bells (Boris Godunov) pealed, not without menace, or at least disquietude.

Mussorgsky’s ghost perhaps remained during the ensuing ‘Amen des étoiles, de la panète à l’anneau’. Scurrying figures reminded me on occasion of his Pictures at an Exhibition. Darkness of spirit was conveyed: angels are not merely, or even generally, ‘nice’. They, like the music and its performance, are ever inspiring, never predictable, awe-inspiring. Grey secularism could likewise not have stood further from the ensuing ‘Amen de l’agonie de Jésus’. Agony does not necessarily mean what the secular-minded think it does, not entirely anyway. Here there was ecstasy in radiant beauty, something lying quite beyond mere ‘pain’, indeed sublimely dissociated therefrom. Late Liszt hovered in the air at the close, above all in Aimard’s low, very low bass notes.

‘Amen du désir’ brought reminders of an earlier, more perfumed Messiaen, this celestial banquet yet also prefiguring certain aspects of Turangalîla, both for better and for worse. It nauseated; it more than skirted with the banal. But that was part of the point. By way of sharp contrast, the ‘Amen des anges, ses saints, du chant des oiseaux’ opened as if an antiphon were being intoned; in a sense, it is. It then went on its cheerful way, seemingly assured of its blessed nature, which again, one might say, in a sense, it is. The performance brought out the importance of contrasting material: as important, it seemed, as progress (I hesitate to say ‘development’) in time.

Majesty, not only in the ravishingly voiced chords, but also in their juxtaposition, characterised for me the sixth Amen, that of ‘jugement’. With the concluding, indeed consummating, ‘Amen de la consommation’, this church-cum-concert-hall was intoxicated, bewitched even, by a brew of ecstatic triumph and something apocalyptic (Stefanovich), which seemed both to underlie and to undermine. Virtuosic piano tradition was here relished – and yet the music was clearly concerned with matters that would have bewildered most other pianist-composers, with the possible exception of Liszt, in that tradition or those traditions. Extraordinary!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Letter to my MP, Jim Fitzpatrick, concerning the European Union and a Parliamentary vote to leave

Dear Jim,

May I add my voice to what I suspect and certainly hope will be the throng of constituents urging you to oppose whatever legislation the Government might bring forward to further the country’s departure from the European Union? I am partly inclined to leave it at that, since you must have heard all the arguments before, yet feel that such would be an act of laziness, shading into cowardice, so please humour me.

To those who speak disingenuously of ‘defying the will of the people’, there are so many responses that it is difficult to know where to start. One might do so by pointing to those prevented from voting, by age or by nationality. One might also point out that this is a parliamentary democracy; not only is it impossible for a referendum to be anything other than advisory, but its advisory nature was explicitly conceded by the Government. There is also, of course, the little matter of the Supreme Court judgement. It is, though, simply absurd for anyone to claim to restore parliamentary sovereignty – not that it ever needed restoring – by circumventing it. There may very well be good reasons to adopt another system, but that is an entirely different matter. Moreover, a crude, slender majority of an electorate, even if it were less gerrymandered than this, has never been considered to offer a mandate for major constitutional change. In any case, the will of all, as Rousseau would tell us, is quite different from the general will.

Perhaps more fundamentally, still more personally, our future is being stolen from us: stolen by ignorant, xenophobic, often downright racist people, a great number of them of an age to suggest that theirs is an existentialistic act of revenge upon generations who have already been many times cursed by their social vandalism. Most of us have no hope whatsoever, especially in London, of owning property. Our financial prospects are bleak, and will be far bleaker in the bargain basement ultra-neo-liberal order the Conservatives have in mind. We shall never be able to retire; we fear the loss of our National Health Service; we worry about being dismissed at will on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, or any other prejudiced whim. The European Union has often been our only hope against the ravages of Thatcherism and its successors. It is far from perfect, and is in great need of reform, but its neo-liberalism is at least considerably removed from that of the Conservative Party.

We are Europeans. We do not see free movement as something to be tolerated, still less attacked. It is for us a blessing to have the right, as European citizens, to live, to work, to study alongside our European brothers and sisters. For many of us, it is our keenest of dreams to do so. We likewise welcome those brothers and sisters with open arms to our shores, and we abhor the vicious, even deadly, attacks upon them by racists. The people to whom this is happening are not an abstraction. They are our friends, our neighbours, our lovers; they are those we pass on the street or sit next to on the Tube; they are our fellow citizens, of Europe and of the world. We care about them and treat any attack on them as an attack upon ourselves. We have no wish to compel those who do not wish to make use of their privileges to live elsewhere to do so; all we ask is that they do not, out of spiteful malice, prevent us from living our lives.

In an increasingly dangerous world, with an outright fascist government now ruling the United States, now more than ever is the time for European solidarity. That need not, should not, betoken insularity, yet it will enable us to help other countries in greater need than our own. Cast outside the European Union, we shall matter to no one; we shall be quite incapable of influencing the EU’s decisions concerning ourselves and the rest of the world. That is not, as some would have it, to ‘do Britain down’ – the very phrase, incidentally, displays a chilling indifference to Ireland – but to attempt to elevate her, so as to play a full role in the world of today, rather than engaging in repellent imperialist fantasies.

Above all, to oppose this would be the right thing to do. Our country, our continent, and, closer to home, our city, our borough, and our constituency depend on it. The alternative is catastrophe of a kind even the most pessimistic of us have not begun to imagine.

Please do what you can.

With best wishes,


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?