Thursday, 30 January 2014

Denoke/Philharmonia/Jordan - Wagner and Strauss, 30 January 2014

Royal Festival Hall

Wagner – Tannhäuser: Overture
Strauss – Das Rosenband, op.36 no.1; Ruhe, meine Seele, op.27 no.1; Morgen! op.27 no.4; Die heiligen drei Köinge aus Morgenland, op.56 no.6; Freundliche Vision, op.48 no.1; Cäcilie, op.27 no.2; Don Juan, op.20; Salome: ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ and Final Scene

Angela Denoke (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Philippe Jordan (conductor) 
Strauss presumably for his 150th anniversary: the Philharmonia has a few performances of his music this season. Why then the Overture to Tannhäuser? It is not, of course, that there is no connection between Richards I and III, but one might have expected either more Wagner or none. Anyway, it did no harm, though Philippe Jordan’s conducting began in rather four-square fashion (despite the time signature), with little of the flow one would anticipate from a great Wagnerian such as Barenboim. It was often nicely shaded though, and the Venusberg music proved, not inappropriately, much freer in conception. The strings were more alert too, violins shimmering beautifully. Perhaps the contrast was the point; if so, however, the point was somewhat exaggerated.

Angela Denoke joined the orchestra for six orchestral Lieder. She proved – somewhat to my surprise – an attentive, involving guide, her diction excellent, her emotional sincerity readily apparent. Jordan proved a sympathetic ‘accompanist’, and not just that: more attuned to colour and form too. There were, for instance, a nicely Tristan-esque heft and hue to the introduction to Ruhe, meine Seele; the celesta and woodwind response could only have been Strauss’s, hinting at the phantasmagorical world of Der Rosenkavalier. Wagner remained, though, in Denoke’s sometimes Erda-like delivery (that despite her soprano voice) and the horns; likewise the moment of storm, like the opening to Die Walküre in miniature, albeit shorn of the politics. Guest leader, Amyn Merchant offered a winning solo in Morgen! Here, of course, the harmony and orchestration, above all their indivisible unity, are of such breathtaking, heart-rending beauty that something would be terribly amiss were one not moved. No such problem here, though I had been spoiled by hearing just a few days ago the superlative recording from Christine Schäfer and Claudio Abbado. This was admirably unsentimental, but might it not have yielded just a little more? In Die heiligen drei Könige, cellos and double basses echoed – at least in the context of this concert – passages in the Tannhäuser Overture. Sadness soon gave away to fantasy. For Strauss, the tale of the Three Kings seems only to be a folk-tale; he certainly never gave himself to religious thoughts. But what orchestral fantasy there is, especially in that gorgeous postlude one wants never to end! It benefited from especially fine playing from the violas. Cäcilie offered a winning contrast to much of what had gone before. In its romanticism – with a small ‘r’ – we were reminded, albeit considerably avant la lettre, of the world of Sophie and Arabella. Then we were ‘to soar upwards’, which Denoke accomplished more than creditably.

Don Juan, which opened the second half, was something of a disappointment, despite excellent playing from the Philharmonia. The fault lay with Jordan, who seemed quite at sea with the work’s symphonic structure. He set the tone for subsequent lurching around by driving the opening all too fast – yes, it asks for swagger, but even so… – and then more or less grinding to a halt for the feminine interest. Furtwängler, Kempe, and many others have all proved far more convincing. Throughout, the incidental prevailed against coherence. Christopher Cowie’s splendid open solo nevertheless deserves mention.

Onward to Salome. The Dance of the Seven Veils opened in similar vein; absurdly fast, with ensuing contrast too extreme for coherence. Orchestral balances were sometimes odd too: pizzicato strings far too prominent early on. Though matters improved, too much seemed to be heard – or at least communicated – on a bar-to-bar basis. Moreover, the music never quite danced so freely as it might have done. Would that the conductor might have learned from, say, Karajan. The moment of breakdown, however, was magnificent: mechanical in the best sense. The final scene opened splendidly too, with full orchestral sound and far less stiffness. Perhaps Jordan is more at home when he is guided by words? There was considerable, laudable dignity to Denoke’s delivery of the text. Alas, she soon sounded rather strained. Intonational difficulties then soon became more than that: straightforward wrong notes. A pity, since the Philharmonia now sounded as radiant as it often does under Esa-Pekka Salonen.


Peter Grimes, English National Opera, 29 January 2014


Peter Grimes – Stuart Skelton
Ellen Oford – Elza van den Heever
Captain Balstrode – Iain Paterson
Auntie – Rebecca de Pont Davies
First Niece – Rhian Lois
Second Niece – Mary Bevan
Bob Boles – Michael Colvin
Swallow – Matthew Best
Mrs Sedley – Felicity Palmer
Revd Horace Adams – Timothy Robinson
Ned Keene – Leigh Melrose
Hobson – Matthew Treviño
John – Timothy Kirrage
Dr Crabbe – Ben Craze

David Alden (director)
Ian Rutherford (assistant director)
Paul Steinberg (set designs)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes)
Maxine Braham (movement)
Adam Silverman (lighting)

Chorus, and additional chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor).

I am no uncritical Britten fan; last year, we heard far too much not only of his music but of ludicrous overrating – not his fault, more that of the English musical parochialism Britten himself often struggled against. As so often, the sterner test comes when an anniversary year has been and gone. In the present case, in a work more prone to overrating than most, largely on account of the dearth of noteworthy English opera during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It was, however, not only that test which was passed with flying colours; so too ENO triumphantly dismissed malevolent – as opposed to constructive – criticism from philistine, right-wing newspaper critics with no understanding of opera as drama (nor, for that matter, as music).

This, in short, was far and away the best staging of Peter Grimes I have seen. If even these forces could not entirely conceal the weaknesses of some sections of the score, then the dramatic fervour with which every aspect of the performance was presented made them count for little. (Even I have to admit that not every opera can be Wozzeck, though I still find Britten’s third-act homage to the tavern scene a little too close for comfort.) It was certainly the best conducting I have yet heard from Edward Gardner. If he struggles in much of the central Austro-German repertoire, he was clearly born to conduct Britten. If there were occasional moments of imprecision, they were so few as to seem touchingly human. For not only was the broad sweep of the musical drama searingly present; the constructivism of Britten’s compositional method was lain bare too, not didactically, but with a keen sense of its dramatically generative method. This held both throughout the three acts as a whole, but also between them. Perhaps especially impressive was the sense of material emerging in the first act, blossoming and withering as it developed. Moreover, the ENO Orchestra and Choruses were on magnificent form throughout. Weight and clarity were equally present, but so was a lighter touch where necessary; so too was a plethora of dynamic shadings. Chorus master (and assistant conductor) clearly merits plaudits of his own.

David Alden’s staging is, quite simply, brilliant, just as much so as his brother Christopher’s more controversial Midsummer Night’sDream. (Please, ENO, may we see that again?) Post-modernism does not, as often in Alden’s work, become overt and distracting; rather the tension between a joyless, ‘austerity’ 1940s setting and moments and episodes of heightened expressionism almost miraculously coheres. More than once I thought of Brecht: not in the sense of ‘similarity’, but in the sense that his dramaturgy seemed both extended and called into question. The hypocrisy of the Borough almost presents itself, but the spiv-like portrayal of Ned Keene seemed almost to evoke the world of Mahagonny, reminding us that this is at least partly an essay in socialism as well as an exploration of sexual repression. Presentation of Auntie as a Weimar lesbian Master/Mistress of Ceremonies sounds out of context quite out of place; and yet, it works, especially in a performance as committed as that offered by Rebecca de Pont Davies. It also sheds interesting light on her relationship with her Nieces, both disturbed and disturbing. (Abusive behaviour never lies far beneath the surface of this vile community, yet it is often as much hinted at as spelled out.) What leaves perhaps the longest and deepest impression, though, is the handling of the crowd. When choreographed as expertly as here (Maxine Braham), its madness as well as its viciousness, its sinister Daily-Mail provincial conformism and its ready manipulation by those with hidden motives, play with frightening realism – and surrealism.

Stuart Skelton’s portrayal of the anti-hero was again, without qualification, the best I have seen and heard. Skelton suggested that it is no luxury, but even a necessity, to have a Heldentenor in the role. There is no doubting the strength of his voice – his excellent Seattle Siegmund last summer offering further testimony to that – but just as impressive were the moments of hushed arioso (‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’) and all manner of colours and shades in between. The final scene showed just how movingly Skelton can act too (even if Britten, alas, is no Mussorgsky here). It did no harm, of course to have a Balstrode as sincere (and yet with quiet toughness) as that of Iain Paterson, nor an Ellen Orford as compassionate and as silvery-toned (yet again, though, with steel beneath the surface) as in Elza van Heever’s revelatory portrayal. Felicity Palmer’s Mrs Sedley was quite beyond compare: Miss Marple meeting Mary Whitehouse, with a generous dose of laudanum, a portrayal as intelligently sung as it was acted. Leigh Melrose proved utterly convincing as this especially sleazy Ned Keene, and Matthew Treviño revealed a dark, focused, highly attractive bass as Hobson, the carrier. There was not a weak link in the cast, nor in the performance as a whole. This is a production that absolutely demands to be seen – and heard.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

For Furtwängler's birthday and Gluck's tercentenary

What dramatic tension from the Overture onwards! No mere curtain-raiser, but as Gluck/Calzabigi demanded in the Preface to Alceste, an integral part of the drama. And then the noble, heartrending simplicity of the obsequies, already looking towards Les Troyens...

Friday, 24 January 2014

Orfeo ed Euridice, English Pocket Opera Company, 21 January 2014

(sung in English, as Orpheus and Eurydice)
Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design
Orfeo – Paul Featherstone
Euridice – Pamela Hay
Amor – Joanna Foote

Mark Tinkler (director)
Alex Hopkins, Fridthjofur Thorsteinsson (lighting)
Maddy Rita Faye, Denisa Dumitrescu, Vivian Lu, Anastasia Glazova, Lucia Riley, Isabella van Bracekel, Eimear Monaghan, Mathias Krajewski, Robin Soutar (set designs)
Robin Soutar, Denisa Dumitrescu, Lucia Riley, Isabella van Braeckel, Eimear Monaghan (costumes)

Sivan Traub (violin)
Orpheus and Eurydice Chorus (chorus master: Matthew Watts)
Philip Voldman (musical director)

No sooner had I bewailed the lack of Gluck this tercentenary year than I discovered an off-the-beaten track offering from English Pocket Opera Company. Doubtless our idiotic public relations companies would describe Orfeo as ‘iconic’ or some such nonsense; we might be better sticking with ‘one of the most important operas ever written’. But these performances at Central Saint Martins are better considered in the light of a four-phase project for children and young people at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education. The first phase has been and gone: EPOC performed Opera Blocks (a one-hour introduction to opera and to Orfeo) to over 10,000 children in Camden schools. This second is a ‘promenade’ version open to schools and to the public, in which we walked through the new Central Saint Martins building in King’s Cross, the eight scenes in different locations, with designs – both sets and costumes – from members of the college.  Phases three and four will be a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, involving choirs from 55 (!) Camden schools and their orchestras, aided by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and then finally work with schools to compose and produce their own versions.

Schoolchildren performed in the matinée performances; I attended an evening performance so did not have opportunity to hear them. However, there was a good deal to enjoy in what I heard. The heroic pianist/musical director Philip Voldman, assisted by violinist Sivan Traub, really brought those sections of the score performed to life. Some orchestral passages were to be heard via loudspeaker; there were some luscious strings to be heard there. However, the way in which these performances transcended the limitations of the upright pianos was creditable indeed. Pamela Hay’s Euridice was often touching, with a good sense of style. Joanna Foote’s Amor was finer still; I should be keen to hear more from her. Unfortunately, Paul Featherstone struggled stylistically and indeed intonationally as Orfeo. Nevertheless, Mark Tinkler’s direction of the characters, Furies included, held the attention throughout the various scenes. Perhaps an especial highlight was the use of claustrophobic theatre pit for Hades. Elysium, simply yet imaginatively designed upon the theatre stage itself, had a distinct sense of ‘place’ too: quite different from what had gone before and what was come. Excerpts from Die Zauberflöte and Orphée aux enfers framed the action, the former for the lovers’ wedding party at the start, the latter for curtain calls in the bar. Camden Music Service, Central Saint Martins, and EPOC deserve our praise for offering both reintroduction to and reminder of one of opera’s very greatest musical dramatists.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Some favourite Abbado recordings

I only heard Claudio Abbado 'live' twice, both times with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra: at the Proms, in Mahler (a performance I found admirable, but which did not bowl me over as it seemed to do almost everyone else), and at the Royal Festival Hall, in Mozart and Bruckner. Both performances I recall vividly, and doubt I shall ever forget. Nevertheless, my knowledge of Abbado's work lies mainly through recordings. I admit that I retain an unfashionable preference for much of his earlier work, especially in Classical repertoire, but the following are a few personal favourites, in no particular order, which I wholeheartedly recommend to the curious and committed alike:

1. Pergolesi Stabat Mater. A recording which, in many ways, typifies Abbado's music-making. An apparently modest, even simple piece, which in the wrong hands might even sound banal. Abbado makes it glow from within, treating it with just as much loving care as he would Parsifal. He must be one of the few conductors to have recorded the work twice (going on to record a late 3-CD set of Pergolesi: who else would do that?) This LSO recording, with Margaret Marshall and Lucia Valentini Terrari has, for me at least, greater radiance.

2. Posthorn Serenade and Nannerl Septet. Again, unfashionable repertoire, but the delight of a Mozart connoisseur. (Karajan recorded Mozart divertimenti too, offering adorable performances.) This recording, from relatively early on during Abbado's Berlin tenure, must boast the most ravishing woodwind playing such music has ever received - or so one is convinced at the time. Again, Abbado takes just as much care with the introductory and concluding marches - a lovely touch to include them - as he would with more portentous repertoire. More important still, the performances verily fizz with life.

3. Boris Godunov. Yes, we might all have occasional hankerings, especially in the Coronation Scene, for the bad old Rimskyfied days, but Abbado's Mussorgsky marked a true turning point. Fidelity to the darker, rawer, more dramatically truthful 'original' is never pedantic; however, it reveals this greatest of Russian operas in all its terror, never again to be relegated to the category of 'problematical', almost indeed an operatic rival to Wagner.

4. Pelléas et Mélisande. Speaking of great opera (and closer to Wagner), Abbado's Vienna recording of Debussy's sole completed work in the genre ravishes the senses and proves dramatically irresistible. Debussy's refusal to play to the gallery is clearly so akin to Abbado's own that the partnership proves ideal. And what orchestral playing he coaxes, the fourth interlude truly leaving one utterly shattered.

5. Berg orchestral and vocal works. Difficult to choose a single example here. I surprise even myself in opting for the LSO rather than the Vienna Philharmonic, but with the proverbial gun held to my head, I think I should, and not only for Margaret Price. Abbado's Romantic warmth illuminates and clarifies the Bergian labyrinth without a hint of chilliness. Prepare to be overwhelmed by the Three Orchestral Pieces and ravished by the Altenberg-Lieder. Or should that be the other way around? And then there is the Lulu-Suite: perhaps the finest recording I know. Truly no one has ever conducted Berg better - and only a handful of conductors would be mentioned in the same breath

6. Mendelssohn's 'Reformation' Symphony. One of the most scandalously neglected of Romantic symphonies, sounding every inch a masterpiece in Abbado's hands. Again, the LSO proves a perfect partner! Freshness and weight are shown to be anything but antithetical; harmony provides the key.

7. Nono's Il canto sospeso and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. This recording resulted from a 'provocation', as Abbado's longtime friend, Luigi Nono would have put it - and such as 'provoked' all or at least many of his works. In this case, the return of mass racial violence to Europe as Yugoslavia disintegrated, provoked Abbado and his colleagues to issue this cry for help. Nono's cry from the heart resounds with an exquisite agony that is judged to perfection. Perhaps no work was closer to Abbado's heart.

8. Mozart concert arias and Strauss songs. 'Accompanist' is both the right and wrong word for this ultimate in collegiate music making - not that we should forget Christine Schäfer's part in these well-nigh perfect performances! Again, Elysium comes to mind with Mozart, and the loving care with which Strauss's writing is delineated and communicated has one lamenting that a projected series of all of that composer's orchestral songs never materialised. I have never understood why this outstanding disc is not better known.

R.I.P. Claudio Abbado, 1933-2014

One of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century - and after - has left us. Or perhaps it would have been better to have said, 'one of the greatest, most collegiate musicians'. For part of Claudio Abbado's greatness lay in his genius for encouragement, for enabling, for nurturing. (Think of the number of orchestras, especially those made up of young musicians, he founded!) He recoiled at the very idea of the martinet, rejecting the lamentable, dictatorial example of Toscanini for the humanism of Furtwängler. His 1980 Desert Island Discs spoke volumes: the latter's Tristan, Beethoven Ninth, and Bruckner Seventh, Klemperer's St Matthew Passion, Walter's Magic Flute and Mahler Ninth, Monteux conducting Debussy's Nocturnes, and Schubert's C major Quintet from Stern, Schneider, Casals, et al. Such collegiality, such a refusal to stamp his 'personality', even authority, upon music, naturally worked better in some repertoire than others, but it certainly should not be misunderstood as having led to any lack of precision, quite the contrary; rather, he enabled as opposed to compelled his fellow musicians to give their best - above all, to listen to each other as chamber musicians. Such an approach was very much rooted in the Italian Left, symbolised and exemplified by musical partnerships with colleagues - that word always seems so juste in Abbado's case - such as Luigi Nono and Maurizio Pollini. Nono's music stands in many ways as a similar case to Abbado's music-making, once one probes beneath the (sometimes) angry surface of the former. Both make demands of the listener; indeed, they demand a listener, someone who concentrates, who thinks, who differentiates, who wrings the exquisite from agony and vice versa, who believes in the dignities of man and music as one, as indivisible. Abbado conducted a vast array of music, from Monteverdi to Nono and beyond. He stood as one of the select few who could take one to Mozartian Elysium; just listen, for instance, to his Berlin recording of the Posthorn Serenade; no one, but no one, could surpass him in Berg. However, for me, at least today, it is his old comrade-in-arms who calls; and calls us to listen...

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The BBC asks 'Who Killed Classical Music?' It will, if it carries on like this...

I am grateful – I think! – to Will Robin (his excellent blog may be found by clicking here) for having drawn to my attention the following programme description. Though I can make no comment whatsoever on the programme itself, given that it has yet to be broadcast, BBC Radio 4 should be thoroughly ashamed of itself for having published these words:

The Composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev) looks at the increasing disconnection between classical music and its audience. How did composers such as Schoenberg kill off 20th century classical music for all but a small elite audience?

Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers. Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising 'Serialism' where melodies were no longer allowed.

In the 1950s, composers such as Pierre Boulez created 'Total Serialism'. Every aspect of a piece of music - rhythms and loudness as well as notes - was rigidly controlled by a fixed formula.

And the sense of composers being remote from their audience was exacerbated by the elevation of musical performance to a kind of ritual.

But even at a time when Serialism gripped major parts of the classical music establishment, music that was overtly emotional was still being written by composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev in Russia. Ironically, in these countries, the State continued to support classical music, whereas in more liberal regimes in Europe it retreated to the intellectual margins.

Now the Serialist experiment has been largely abandoned and a whole new generation of composers - including Gabriel himself - is embracing popular culture, just as composers used to in the past when folk music or dance music were a major source of inspiration.

So has the death of classical music been exaggerated? Will it find new homes and new means of expression to attract the audiences of the future?

With contributions from Arnold Whittall, Stephen Johnson, Alexander Goehr, David Matthews, Ivan Hewett and Tansy Davies.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to take on all of these absurd claims, which may well bear little relation to the programme itself, but here are just a few comments:
How did composers such as Schoenberg kill off 20th century classical music for all but a small elite audience?’ When did this happen. The last time I looked – not so very long ago – 20th-century music was attracting large and hungry audiences. Consider, for instance, the Southbank Centre’s Rest is Noise festival. I certainly know many people – and, loyal to my friends though I might be, I do not necessarily call them ‘elite’, whatever that might mean – who go out of their way to seek out opportunities to hear Schoenberg’s music. I might even be one of those ‘small elite’ people myself, I suppose.
Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers.’ Unlike, presumably, our bogeyman, Arnold Schoenberg, perhaps a composer more weighed down by tradition than any composer other than Brahms?
‘Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising 'Serialism' where melodies were no longer allowed.’ WHAT?????!!!!! How did Schoenberg ‘change’ this, and under what authority? Why would anyone have listened, even if he had announced such a bizarre prohibition? In what sense did he ‘devise’ something called ‘Serialism’? And where do its founding principles claim that ‘melodies … [are] no longer allowed'? As anyone holding the slightest acquaintance with Schoenberg’s music would know, its alleged ‘difficulty’ lies far more in a well-nigh Mozartian, intense profusion of melody than in its absence, let alone its mysterious prohibition. As for Lulu, that legendary, melody-less opera… Or Il prigioniero, or Pli selon pli, or indeed just about anything… This may well be the most idiotic sentence I have ever read; I can scarcely imagine my reaction, had an undergraduate written it in an essay I had set.
I really cannot be bothered with the rest of this nonsense, though should probably direct a fatwa at the originator of the claim that ‘music that was overtly emotional was still being written by composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev’, as though Schoenberg’s were not; again, it may even be its hyper-Romanticism that offers a problem to some listeners. The claim that the state did not support music in the West is too preposterous for words; for instance, where on earth did all of those German studios come from? Dance music not an inspiration in music pervaded by the waltz, the Ländler, the rebirth of the Baroque suite, etc.? Enough!
It is difficult to believe that many, if any, of those contributing to this programme would agree with a single word contained in this trailer. In which case, should not alarm bells have rung? As a Twitter friend remarked, should not BBC Radio 4 have contacted colleagues on Radio 3 for some factual input?

Capuçon/Buniatishvili: Brahms, Bartók, and Beethoven, 14 January 2014

Wigmore Hall

Brahms – Violin Sonata no.2 in A major, op.100
Bartók – Violin Sonata no.2
Beethoven – Violin Sonata no.5 in F major, op.24, ‘Spring’

Renaud Capuçon (violin)
Khatia Buniatishvili (piano)

This proved to be an outstanding recital. The first movement of Brahms’s A major sonata was perhaps a little more tentative than the rest, Renaud Capuçon taking a little while to get into full flow, but that is really the only cavil that I can muster. Capuçon’s partner, Khatia Buniatishvili, made her presence felt straight away, spreading some of the piano chords in a way that took one back to what, despite the cliché, one can hardly but think of as a golden age of pianism. The chastity of the opening to the first movement suggested assemblage of building blocks; it was an intriguing alternative to being plunged immediately into the thick of it. If the basic tempo were a little slower, more reflective, than one often hears, that served to remind us that Brahms’s marking is not merely Allegro but Allegro amabile; I found it very convincing, and there was in any case a great deal of flexibility, not for its own sake, but with sound musical justification. Real passion was to be heard, but the hushed moments were just as telling. Once Capuçon was fully in his stride, his tone and vibrato, perfectly allied to bowing, could not have been better judged. Moreover, both players ensured that we were fully aware of the extraordinary concision of this first movement. In the second movement, Capuçon’s portamenti – never excessive, yet certainly present – and general suavity likewise put me in mind of an earlier generation of violinists: we might almost have been listening to Thibaud and Cortot. Again, the Andante tranquillo probably took a little more time than often, but in context, the tempo seemed just ‘right’. The kinship of Brahms’s piano writing with his late piano pieces sounded closer than ever, whilst the Vivace sections emerged as true trios, teeming with life yet never rushed. Brahms’s score breathed, beguiled, and most importantly, intrigued. One sensed in each phrase a wealth of possibilities which, after the event, but only after the event, could only ever have been resolved in one way: Hegel’s owl of Minerva only spreading its wings at dusk. The ghostliness of the Vivace reprise hinted at the spirit of Beethoven (the Fifth Symphony?); so did the final bloom. And there was real danger in the performance: at no point did it sound over-rehearsed, the players clearly reacting to each other. The final movement opened as if a continuation of what had gone before rather than a new beginning, yet a heightened sense of Romantic fantasy brought novelty enough. Again, the player’s admirable metrical flexibility, allied to clear motivic understanding, proved a well-nigh ideal combination. I should love to hear them in Schoenberg and Webern.

A myriad of colours announced themselves in the opening bars of Bartók’s second sonata, those bars offering a wealth of possibilities to be taken up in what followed: harmonically, rhythmically, melodically as well, indeed in terms of every parameter. A guiding spirit quite properly seemed to be the dialectic between freedom and determinism, heightened by a febrile tension in performance such as one only rarely hears. In context, one heard Bartók’s music as more post-Brahmsian than one might otherwise do. Line and voicing evoked Bartok’s concerto writing for both instruments; there was quiet as well as virtuosic integrity here. Much the same might be said of the second movement. An especially admirable quality was the way in which rhythm emerged not, as too often seems to be the case in such music, as something ‘in itself’, but musically inextricable from the other characteristics of the musical material and its expression. The shifting between moods, those crucial moments of transition, showed apparently irreconcilable material to be anything but. Last but not least, the sheer musical charisma of Capuçon and Buniatishvili had me mesmerised from beginning to end.

Beethoven’s Spring Sonata sounded from the outset – and again, the cliché will have to be forgiven, or at least endured – newly-minted. Capuçon and Buniatishvili lived and expressed the formal dynamism that too often is lacking in modern Beethoven performances, and without detriment to expressive detail. This was an urgency founded in harmony and motivic development, not in the false friend of the metronome. The moment of the exposition’s repeat thus announced itself as veritably heart-breaking: a genuine yet forlorn attempt to return to a Mozartian paradise that was now unattainable. By contrast, the initiation of the development section somehow registered as a true surprise, even though one knew it was coming, Haydn’s influence continuing to run deep. Capuçon’s vigorous annunciation of this section served to propel the rest of the movement; it was really quite something to hear Beethoven apparently reborn like this. And then, the recapitulation, which simply took one’s breath away: it might almost have been Schubert. That was not all, however, for the intensity of Beethoven’s thematic working had us feel that this was almost a second development, no mere ‘return’. Such, moreover, was the palpable, at times frankly erotic, tension that this oft-misunderstood sonata might have been an offshoot of Don Giovanni. The slow movement gloried in a sense of communion with Nature that undoubtedly looked forward to the Pastoral Symphony. That communion was attained not least through the players’ unerring sense of melos, which took in both post-Mozartian profusion and Haydn’s rigorous economy of means, whilst remaining true to Beethoven’s soul itself. The scherzo, immediately attacked, sounded with all that febrile intensity experienced in the Bartók sonata; it proved as concise and as expressive as anything in Webern. Beethoven’s finale was given a properly loving performance that yet never indulged. Accents were played with, to just the right extent. It teemed with life, driven by harmony rather than the externally-applied shock-tactics of the ‘authentic’ brigade. And crucially, it possessed the weight of a finale. It was difficult not to think that a great Beethovenian such as Daniel Barenboim, even Furtwängler, would have approved.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Murray/Müller-Brachmann/Martineau - Brahms, 13 January 2013

Wigmore Hall

Heimkehr, op.7 no.6; In der Fremde, op.3 no.5; Der Überlaufer; Liebestreu, op.3 no.1; Ständchen, op.14 no.7; An eine Äolsharfe, op.19 no.5; Der Gang zum Liebchen, op.48 no.1; Wehe, so willst du mich wieder, op.32 no.5; Wie bist du, meine Königin, op.32 no.9; Keinen hat es noch gereut, op.33 no.1; Sind es Schmerzen, op.33 no.3; Am Sonntag Morgen, op.49 no.1; Die Mainacht, op.43 no.2; An die Nachtigall, op.46 no.4; Von ewiger Liebe, op.43 no.1; Auf dem See, op.59 no.2; Regenlied, op.59 no.3; Ach, wende diesen Blick, op.57 no.4; Meine Liebe ist grün, op.63 no.5; Therese, op.86 no.1; Mit vierzig Jahren, op.94 no.1; Sapphische Ode, op.94 no.4; Kein Haus, keine Heimat, op.94 no.5; Schön war, das ich dir weihte, op.95 no.7; Auf dem Kirchhofe, op.105 no.4; Mädchenlied, op.107 no5; Wie komm’ ich den zur Tür herein; So wünsch’ ich ihr ein’ gute Nacht; Schwesterlein; Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh, op.121 no.1; Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit mit Engelzungen redete, op.121 no.4

Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)

I am ashamed to say that I was unaware of this series, ‘Songlives’, the brainchild of Malcolm Martineau, until the present concert. Each instalment attempts to show the development of a song-composer throughout the entirety of his career. With Brahms, this worked very well. Indeed, though much was, of course, missing, there was little or no sense of glaring omission, and a proper sense of narrative progression, not least since the programme was organised under six headings: ‘The early years,’ ‘Neue Bahnen’, ‘First Maturity’, ‘Established in Vienna’, ‘The last twenty years’, and ‘At the end’. Martineau was joined by two fine artists: Hanno Müller-Brachmann and, replacing Bernada Fink, Ann Murray. The former was on typically rich-voiced form, whilst the latter’s patent sincerity and generosity of delivery amply compensated for any loss of vocal bloom.

The recital opened with Heimkehr, Brahms’s first extant song. (Notoriously self-critical, Brahms destroyed a frightening number of earlier and indeed later works.) Though published in 1854, it was composed in 1851, and, according to Susan Youens’s informative booklet note, is only twenty-one bars long. Though the predominant mood is of agitation, Müller-Brachmann nevertheless achieved considerable subtlety of shading. The next song, an Eichendorff setting, In der Fremde, fell to Murray, the singers alternating for quite a while. A sense of Heimweh offered welcome contrast with the first song; likewise the grave simplicity of the following Der Überlaufer and the dark Romanticism of Liebestreu. Opening the second section, Müller-Brachmann’s – and Martineau’s – Ständchen proved nicely anticipatory, even though we all knew and/or sensed that hopes would be dashed. Brahms himself was the star of An eine Äolfsharfe, the ravishing harmony on ‘melodische Klage’ – a melodious lament indeed – quite taking one’s breath away, though Martineau should of course also take credit for its communication. The post-Schubertian quality of Der Gang zum Liebchen was well captured by Murray.

We then entered ‘First maturity’, allotted at first to Müller-Brachmann. The Platen setting, Wehe, so willst du mich wieder, was turbulent in mood yet benefited throughout from clarity of piano line. Müller-Brachmann’s melting vocal delivery of the Hafiz translation, Wie bist du, meine Köngin, was very much a high-point of the recital, bringing the odd tear to these eyes. Keinen hat es noch gereut was vividly pictorial, Tieck’s nimble steed (Roß) springing to life before our ears. The same poet’s Sind es Schmerzen received a setting and performance again haunted by the spirit of Schubert, albeit with typical Brahmsian ‘lateness’, a word that came to mind again and again, despite – or, on some occasions, even on account of – the strophic quality of a number of his songs. Murray’s Am Sonntag Morgen received a subtly ambiguous, subtly knowing performance: never overdone, but nevertheless aware. Die Mainacht was beautifully hushed, pregnant, with a brief vocal blooming upon the doves’ cooing. An die Nachtigall and Von ewiger Liebe were also Murray’s, the former benefiting especially from Martineau’s telling, unexaggerated delivery of piano syncopations, whilst the former offered a strange yet familiar marriage between tradition and alienated modernity that was very much Brahms’s own.

The singers shared ‘Established in Vienna’, following the interval, Murray opening with Auf dem See. Müller-Brachmann responded with Regenlied, not the text indicated in the programme, but Brahms’s op.59 no.3., from which he hauntingly quotes in the first violin sonata. The involved writing of Ach, wende diesen Blick, sounded very much of Brahms’s maturity, Murray’s Meine Liebe ist grün a touching pendant from Felix Schumann.

Murray’s Therese was the first from the ‘last twenty years’ group, followed by the anything-but-cheery Rückert Mit vierzig Jahren, Müller-Brachmann’s rich tone an especial boon upon such melancholy terrain. Murray’s Sapphische Ode not only charmed but moved; her Schön war, das ich dir weihte a plangent contrast with the brief fury of her partner’s Kein Haus, keine Heimat. High Romanticism, or rather Late High Romanticism, was once again the order of the day in Auf dem Kirchhofe, to which Murray’s Mädchenlied offered winning contrast. Both singers were employed in each of the three ensuing folksong settings: beautifully judged, with inevitable glances forward towards Mahler, despite the difference in style. Schwesterlein in particular emerged as decidedly ‘late’, an evocation of childhood that was haunted indeed. Müller-Brachmann’s two songs from the Vier ernste Gesänge were powerful yet restrained, Brahms’s apparently timeless archaism in reality anything but. Dark echoes of Ein deutsches Requiem led us to ultimate consolation – of sorts. Much the same could be said of the folksong and ‘lullaby’ encores with which this enlightening recital came to a close.  

Sunday, 12 January 2014

LSO/Egarr - Haydn: The Creation, 12 January 2013

Barbican Hall

Marlis Petersen (soprano)
Sally Dodds (mezzo-soprano)
Jeremy Ovenden (tenor)
Gerald Finley (bass-baritone)

London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Richard Egarr (conductor)
It is not an enviable task, to take over from the late Sir Colin Davis in almost any repertoire, let alone in Haydn. That said, the failings of Richard Egarr in this performance cannot simply be attributed to invidious comparisons. His perverse insistence that the LSO, by general consent London’s finest orchestra, play for much of the time as if it were some rough-and-ready pseudo-‘period’ band was bad enough. If you want a period orchestra, then go ahead and employ one, but why on earth belittle a modern orchestra in such fashion? Even if we leave that aside, Egarr’s manifest difficulty in maintaining a dual role as harpsichordist and conductor told of ambition exceeding competence. Continuo playing veered between the nondescript and the inappropriate, whilst there was great palaver to be had each time he switched one role for the other: a stool to be moved, arms flailing all over the place, and, oddest of all, a practice of conducting with the left hand whilst doodling at the keyboard with the right. Surely if a continuo instrument is to be employed at all in combination with the orchestra – it is unnecessary in Haydn – then the part should be founded upon a solid bass line. Tempi were often not only too fast, but rigidly driven to the point of caricature, a glaring exception being the weirdly distended recitative between Adam and Eve, a point at which the harpsichord became unduly distracting too.

It was, then, a tribute to the LSO, the London Symphony Chorus, and at least to Gerald Finley, that there remained a good deal in isolation to savour from this performance of Haydn’s late masterpiece. The ‘Representation of Chaos’ was disappointing: a truly dispiriting thing to have to write. Not only was this astonishing movement taken with a swiftness that verged upon the absurd; more damaging still, peculiarities of scoring and rhythm were crudely underlined, rather than permitting Haydn’s genius to speak for itself. (Such would prove a recurring problem, not least when the composer was at his most pictorial.) Here and throughout the work, Egarr seemed incapable of thinking, let alone communicating, with the symphonic breadth that Haydn requires: Fernhören does not seem to be in his vocabulary. The arrival of ‘Light’ was loud rather than grand. Here, as elsewhere, memories of Davis, whether in performance or on record, and of course, Karajan, died hard. Choral singing was in itself of a typically high standard: real drama was imparted to the episode of the fallen angels. But one felt a certain lack of interest on the conductor’s part in the text: especially odd, given Egarr’s opting for the English version.

Moreover, despite the aforementioned tendency to crude exaggeration of detail, when it came to what Nicholas Temperley called ‘the most extraordinary tonal surprise in the whole work – perhaps in all classical music,’ the ‘In native worth’ modulation to A-flat major, it passed for relatively little. Pleasant rather than epiphanic, God’s breath was reduced to an everyday occurrence. A great orchestra can rarely be kept down entirely. For instance, the darkness of the lower strings in Raphael’s Fifth day accompagnato was breathtaking; too often, however, violins were compelled severely to ration vibrato, sounding grey and thin through no fault of their own. (Contrast the variegated beauty of their sound on Davis’s LSO Live recording!) Trombones sounded splendid as they greeted the ‘tawny lion’. The opening of the Third Part, three flutes and all, sounded paradisiacal indeed, though the ensuing Hymn was almost ruined by the ragged, rasping race to the finish imposed upon it by the conductor. As for the martial quality of the following duet, it is difficult to imagine the music sounding less erotic. Again, I could not help but wonder whether Egarr had taken any notice of the libretto.

Finley excelled from his first recitative onwards, even if the brass section was forced to adopt a rasping sound quite at odds with its typical excellence. He offered subtlety of shading and of verbal response that was generally lacking elsewhere. He even almost made one forget the strangeness of some of Gottfried van Swieten’s adapted text – except when he, alas, opted for over-pictorial emphasis on the Sixth Day. Marlis Petersen had her moments, and her English was excellent, but she proved surprisingly shrill at times. Jeremy Ovenden’s light English tenor was not to my taste; I found myself hearing Janowitz and Wunderlich in my mind’s ear. Not to mention an imaginary conflation of the best of the rest from Davis and Karajan…


Wednesday, 8 January 2014

A Musical Postcard from Berlin, 6 February 1914

Click here to listen to a little postcard I wrote, broadcast on 8 January 2014, as part of BBC Radio 3's 'Music on the Brink' season. Jonathan Pryce reads this, as he has done the four postcards from other European capitals: London, Paris, St Petersburg, and Vienna. It did not seem a bad opportunity to mention Richard Strauss, who turned 50 that year and of course turns 150 this year...

Goerne/Andsnes - Mahler and Shostakovich, 7 January 2013

Wigmore Hall

Mahler – Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft
Shostakovich – Morning
Mahler – Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen
Shostakovich – Separation
Mahler – Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang; Das irdische Leben; Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen; Wenn dein Mütterlein; Urlicht
Shostakovich – Night
Mahler – Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
Shostakovich – Immortality; Dante
Mahler – Revelge
Shostakovich – Death
Mahler – Der Tambourg’sell

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

This was in almost all respects a distinguished recital, at least as much for Leif Ove Andsnes’s playing as for Matthias Goerne’s singing; indeed, had I to choose, I should say that Andsnes was on even better form, quite rightly seeming to have lavished just as much consideration on the recital as he would, had it been a solo performance. My sole cavil lay with the Shostakovich songs themselves. Perhaps an all-Mahler recital might have been a little too much, perhaps not; however, there would surely have been songs of a similar stature to have programmed with Mahler. It was an interesting idea, and in that respect, should be commended, to intersperse six songs from Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarotti, op.145, but the level of musical invention, as so often with this composer, was not high, leaving the songs, however well performed, to offer a degree of filling, even relief, rather than fully to complement Mahler.

The concert opened with a rare moment of relative optimism: the Rückert Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft. Andsnes’s introduction offered magical touch and an almost Boulezian clarity: it is, as with many of these songs, difficult not to think of the orchestra, but it is a tribute to Andsnes how fully he matched both pianistic and orchestral expectations. Bot artists imparted, even in this first song, a strong impression of wonder; there was no sense of warming up. Dissonance really bit upon the ‘Hand’ of ‘von lieber Hand’. Telling, true rubato – in the sense of robbed time rather than tempo modification – heightened the shaping of phrases. Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen benefited from a piano part so detailed, so evocative in performance that again, the orchestra was not missed at all; it almost seemed to be present, yet with an intimacy of scale that was the duo’s – and the Wigmore Hall’s – own. Goerne offered a variety of ‘voices’, whilst maintaining continuity. And a true spareness of writing emerged. In between those two Mahler songs came Shostakovich’s Morning: spare or merely empty? It sounded rather like Russian Britten (the note-spinning of a work such as Death in Venice). Goerne brought an apt parlando style of delivery to the recitative-like writing. The performance of Separation did its very best to rescue the song from generalised gloom.

It was striking to hear the Wunderhorn song, Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang as a song rather than as a movement of the Third Symphony – though it is well-nigh impossible to rid oneself of the memory not only of the orchestra but also of the boys’ choir. There was, though, a fine sense of dramatic narrative to the performance. Das irdische Leben was febrile, with an understated yet undeniably present fury, a terror emerging of which Shostakovich could at best only dream. Liszt and Wagner seemed very much influences upon the following two Rückert songs, Andsnes clearly relishing that Romantic harmonic background. He proved equally distinguished at laying bare Mahler’s musical processes, having Wenn die Mütterlein chill one’s bones all the more. It is no easy task to impart unity to the piano version of Urlicht, but Andsnes and Goerne experienced no problems whatsoever.

Andsnes evidently took as much care with the musical line of Shostakovich’s Night as he would have done with a solo work. He brought out the all-too-obvious ‘quirkiness’ of Immortality, and there could be no faulting strength or starkness in the performance from either artists of Death. It was always a relief, though, to return to Mahler. The musical line of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen sounded as perfectly formed as that of a Beethoven slow movement, whilst rhythm and harmonic rhythm proved properly generative in Revelge. Goerne’s dark, furious vocal delivery stayed just (about) the right side of hectoring here. This seemed a far better response, albeit avant la lettre, to Michael Gove’s militaristic idiocy, than any I have yet heard. Der Tambourg’sell sounded especially arresting with piano, the drumrolls having more than a hint of Bartók (perhaps not coincidentally, an Andsnes speciality) to them. The bleakness of onward trudge and sepulchral close hung over the aspiring Hoffnung of the Beethovenian encore. As in the recital as a whole, there were no easy answers, perhaps no answers at all.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Gluck: A Musical Dramatist for a Better World

For New Year, I posted some Rameau excerpts for the 250th anniversary of his death, commenting that, in general, our opera houses seemed quite indifferent to him and to that anniversary. Now there are good arguments about incessant marking of anniversaries; I have certainly tried to voice a few on occasion. Yet the arguments in favour of such acknowledgement become far stronger in terms of unjustly neglected composers. (We all know about the pallid legions of the justly neglected, for instance the Baxes, Bantocks, et al., whom a few sandal-wearing ‘British music’ enthusiasts would foist upon the Proms every year.) There are even some who claim that they would rather celebrate a birth than commemorate a death. We may even wish to restrict ourselves to centenaries, rather than come up against divisions thereof. So if, on the latter two counts, we are not to hear Rameau, whose stature seems almost to increase with every hearing, then what of one of the most significant figures in the history of opera, who was born in Erasbach in the Upper Palatinate on 2 July 1714.

Sometimes it seems as though that entire history of the form has been characterised by a struggle to reform it, to return – whether knowingly or otherwise – to the noble aspirations of the Florentine Camerata and Monteverdi. (That the Camerata’s belief that Greek tragedy was sung may have been misguided is in that sense neither here nor there; fruitful misunderstandings have long been a hallmark of musical and artistic development, as was more recently illustrated by the post-war serialists’ appropriation of Webern.) It is certainly not the case, of course, that composers have had to be operatic reformers to be great composers of opera. Stravinsky’s knowingly provocative comments on The Rake’s Progress – that wonderful instance of a masterwork founded upon the most highly problematical of æsthetics – serve as a warning in that respect:

Having chosen a period-piece subject, I decided – naturally, as it seemed to me – to assume the conventions of the period as well. The Rake’s Progress is a conventional opera, therefore, but with the difference that these particular conventions were considered by respectable circles to be long since dead. My plan of revival did not include updating or modernising, however – which would have been self-contradictory in any case – and it follows that I had no ambitions as a ‘reformer’, at least not in the line of a Gluck, a Wagner, or a Berg. In fact, these great progressives sought to abolish or transform most of the very clichés I have tried to re-establish, and my return to these clichés was not meant as a superseding of their now conventionalised reforms (such as the leitmotif systems of Wagner and Berg).

Gluck’s desire to reform opera continues to speak to us today; indeed in an era in which ‘opera’ often seems to be as much about big business, corporate entertainment, and provision of social standing to uncomprehending and, more to the important, uninterested bourgeois audiences, they seem more necessary than ever. Who could argue in principle against these words from the preface to Alceste, penned by his librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, but nevertheless very much Gluck’s own?

I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments; and I believe that it should do this in the same way as telling colours affect a correct and well-ordered drawing, by a well-assorted contrast of light and shade which serves to animate the figures without altering the contours. Thus I did not wish to arrest an actor in the greatest heat of dialogue in order to wait for a tiresome ritornello … nor to wait while the orchestra gives him time to recover his breath for a cadenza. … I have sought to abolish all the abuses against which good sense and reason have long cried out in vain.

Yet they would be in vain were it not for the greatness of the result. As the Preface continues a little later, ‘Furthermore, I believed that my greatest labour should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity.’ That is a perfectly justified aspiration, though in a sense far more open to question; it perhaps holds the key, or at least a key, to the hold that Gluck’s musical drama continues to exert upon us. One can hardly help but think of Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s Classicism at the same time: his lauding of the Apollo Belvedere, for instance. Winckelmann’s ‘Noble simplicity and calm greatness’, or Gluck-Calzabigi’s ‘beautiful simplicity’, which in whatever form is anything but simplistic, and which enters into an extraordinary alchemy with the drama, serves to create something extending far beyond the sum of the parts: indeed a proper understanding of the Gesamtkunstwerk as something whose meaning lies beyond the merely agglomerative.

Rarely, then, does Gluck’s invention strike one as extraordinary simply as notes on the page; they often appear commonplace. Yet Attic tragedy seems once again to live: not as recreation, but as renewal, just indeed as in Wagner’s still more ambitious project. Iphigénie en Tauride, probably Gluck’s greatest work, stands as perhaps the greatest single opera between Purcell and Mozart; Schiller, no less, owned that he had never been moved by ‘such pure and beautiful music’. The rigour of the æsthetic is not absolute; even here, Gluck ‘borrows’ not only from earlier works of his own, but also from Bach’s Mass in B minor. (Handel’s operas, whatever the wonders of individual arias, are unsatisfactory on the basis of a far more fundamental dramatic flaw than borrowing.) Absolute purity would doubtless be undesirable. Yet it concentrates Gluck’s mind and ours – we might also say Gluck’s emotions and ours, for, once again in Wagnerian style, they become one – upon the drama: not, it must be stressed, to be understood as the libretto, then ‘set’ to music, but rather as a new whole, a new work, which yet again, thinking this time of Hans Sachs, seems also venerable in the best sense.  ‘Es klang so alt und war doch so neu!’

Gluck’s radicalism, as that might suggest, is not merely recreative. Listen, for instance, to the orchestral storm at the opening of the second Iphigénie opera (following the minuet, ‘Le calme’). Both real and representative of the heroine’s inner demons, it almost beckons an age of psychoanalysis. Its orchestration born of a lavish French tradition – above all, Rameau – the tempest climaxes as Iphigénie, joined by her priestesses, implores the gods to aid them. Gluck not only sets the scene for the drama – as, in the Alceste preface, he had said it should – but plunges us right into it. Louis Petit de Bachaumount wrote, in his Mémoires secrets, of the premiere: ‘The opera was much applauded; it is a new genre. It is really a tragedy … in the Greek style.’

Might our opera houses not at least allow us the possibility to judge that success once again for ourselves? I have never spoken to anyone remotely interested in opera who did not regret Gluck’s scandalous absence. Barrie Kosky’s visceral Abu Ghraib production for Berlin’s Komische Oper proved an exemplar in this respect. So too, has Riccardo Muti’s persistent advocacy for the composer. Without Gluck’s example, Mozart would not have written Idomeneo in the way he did; but there, alas, is another work more often honoured in its lack of a hearing. If ever an anniversary celebration were needed, it might be this, for far more is at stake than Gluck’s works in themselves. A house that would stage them would show that it was once again, or even for the first time, taking musical drama seriously.

It was not for nothing that Orfeo ed Euridice featured in the projected first season of Pierre Boulez’s reformed Paris opera (which, of course, never happened). As his would-be collaborator, Jean Vilar, noted, ‘Too often, lyrical art has been limited to the art of singing, or even of simple vocal performance, and has become the victim of its own “literary drowsiness”. Lyrical art must rediscover its true identity as authentic musical theatre.’ The projected opening operatic season – 1970-1, there was also to have been a preliminary, concert seasion, including the mouthwatering idea of Boulez conducting the Monteverdi Vespers – was to have offered Les Troyens, Pelléas, Gluck’s Orfeo, Moses und Aron (its first French performance!), Don Giovanni, and a new work by Berio. The conductors were to have been Boulez, Colin Davis, and Georg Szell. Alas politics, as so often, intervened.

Nor was it for nothing that, just before those plans were tentatively drawn up with Vilar and Maurice Béjart, Boulez had condemned the existing Paris Opéra as being ‘covered in dust and merde,’ and suggested that the Red Guards be brought on scene to let some blood. Gluck might seem an unlikely candidate for such a role – but not to anyone who actually listens to either Iphigénie.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A Happy New Ramellian Year!

Jean-Philippe Rameau died 250 years ago, in 1764. Not, alas, that our opera houses seem remotely interested in the anniversary...