Saturday, 29 August 2015

Prom 57: Pires/COE/Haitink - Schubert and Mozart, 28 August 2015

Royal Albert Hall

Schubert – Overture in C major, ‘in the Italian Style’, D 591
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.23 in A major, KV 488
Schubert – Symphony no.9 in C major, ‘Great’, D 944

Maria João Pires (piano)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Images: Copyright BBC/Chris Christoudoulou

Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra presented what will surely be remembered as one of this season’s finest Proms. Not perfect, although it certainly was not far off in the second half, but an experience of such unforced and unshowy, wise and lively musicianship that only someone predisposed not to do so would not have come away buoyed by that experience.

Schubert’s C major ‘Italian’ Overture – there are two, the other in D major – is not amongst his finest works, but it has enough that is characteristic and indeed enough that is fun to merit the occasional outing. Above all, it is what it says: an overture, a genre which seems to have become strangely unfashionable. (In part, that is a consequence of a welcome rediscovery of other ways to programme an orchestral concert than overture-concerto-symphony; that seems, however, to have left some with the idea, triumphantly refuted in this concert, that overture-concerto-symphony is no longer an option, or is somehow intrinsically unimaginative.) The introduction took us quickly from Mozart to Rossini (well, sort of: that can be exaggerated) to Schubert. Ersatz Rossini reinstated in the exposition proper reminded me of the work of both Claudio Abbado and Maurizio Pollini with this wonderful orchestra in its early years, although, especially in Haitink’s hands, Schubert could not help but shine through. Harmonies, key relationships, even rhythm (looking forward to the ‘Great’ C major Symphony) announced kinship clearly, an not only with the composer’s ‘Italianate’ Sixth Symphony. The COE proved spruce, vernal; woodwind playing, unsurprisingly, offered many highlights. And yes, there was more of a sense of the theatre than one tends to find in Schubert’s own opera overtures.

Haitink opted for a very small orchestra for Mozart’s twenty-third piano concerto: eight first violins down to three double basses. Especially during a slightly bland first movement, I could not help but wish for a little more, not least given the notorious acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. Occasional ‘period’ mannerisms intruded, but only slightly: over-emphatic slurring of quavers from the violins, for instance. Compared to most of what we must put up with nowadays, it was almost nothing, but it seemed a pity, allied to slightly thin string tone in the opening tutti. The orchestra sounded fuller following the entry of Maria João Pires. She offered beautifully shaded playing: never fussy, let alone mannered. There was great clarity too, not least, crucially, when it came to her left-hand. And yet, beautiful though this was, the performance, in this movement anyway, never quite seemed to engage with Mozart’s greatest emotional depths, all of which are where. It was not all surface, by any means; but nor did it move to tears, at least in my case.


Mozart’s unfathomable depths are perhaps still more readily apparent in the slow movement. Here, both soloist and orchestra were much readier to explore them. The COE’s Harmoniemusik was exquisite, with the lightest direction – yet one imagined it made all the difference – from Haitink. Pires treated the music as if it were an aria, that ‘as if’ crucial: a singer can hardly sing an aria as if it were one, but a pianist can suggest with her playing, and did. Her evenness of tone was a thing of wonder. So were, for example, the bassoon duets which, more than once, caught my ears. Ineffable sadness, lightly worn, characterised the close. Papapeno put in a guest appearance, as he must, in the finale. Again, the COE woodwind were simply ravishing. That treacherous bassoon line at the opening – I remember a bassoonist in my college orchestra unsuccessfully pleading with me, as soloist, to take the movement even a little slower – was despatched as if the easiest thing in the world. Mozart must never, but never, sound difficult. Episodes had their own character and were seamlessly integrated, as if without effort. There were, perhaps, times when a little greater dynamic range would not have gone amiss, but this was otherwise quite delightful.

I was fortunate enough to hear a great Schubert ‘Great’ from the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim earlier this year. Ultimately, if I had to choose, I should opt to experience that again, but that is more a matter of Furtwänglerian personal taste than of æsthetic judgement. I can safely say that I have been privileged to hear two great performances in 2015, that art is not, thank God, yet subject to ‘league tables, and that I should thus count myself doubly fortunate. Whereas Barenboim had opened in unforgettable, darkly Wagnerian fashion, Haitink’s first movement introduction – more to the point, perhaps, his first horn, Chris Parkes – had no hint of the portentous; indeed, that opening was almost, but not quite, fragile. The COE, as one would have expected, fielded a smallish orchestra, albeit larger than that for the Mozart: strings, I think, 12:10:8:6:4. This was a performance which certainly did not avoid the darker corners of Schubert’s score, but nor did it dwell upon them. Balance was perhaps the watchword, offering a conception of the composer which perhaps placed him, rather than Beethoven, as Mozart’s most obvious heir – or rather, the most obvious heir of a particular conception of Mozart, such as we had heard earlier. The life we heard in the inner parts was reason enough to celebrate such a conception; brass gently yet unmistakeably reminded us that life necessarily entails death. And, wonder of wonders in these ‘authenticke’ times, although Haitink’s initial tempo had been on the fast side, there was an accelerando to come to the exposition proper. (The idea of anything approaching ‘authenticity’ with respect to a work never performed during the composer’s lifetime is more than usually absurd, but let us leave such irrelevances where they deserve to be left.) Having made that Mozartian comparison, I should add that there were differences too. The strings were far more willing, rather as I wish they had been earlier, really to dig in, often belying their numbers, whilst retaining the transparency those numbers probably aided. Haitink’s development section was fresh with the spirit of adventure, always so keen with this orchestra, and, in the quieter passages, harmonic mystery too. The recapitulation sounded, quite rightly, as exploratory as if it were formally a second development. The coda did not – could not – have the cataclysmic import Barenboim and the VPO had brought to it, but proved triumphant in its own, more modest, way.


The slow movement – yes, I know some people do not like it to be called that, but who cares? – was as fresh as expected, without downplaying stern intrusions, which truly exuded menace. The world of melancholic song was never far away either. Indeed, as mentioned, above, balance, in an almost Abbado-like way, seemed to be Haitink’s watchword. Lengths were truly heavenly; I wished it might have gone on forever. Style, vigour and, yes, song characterised the scherzo, equally well balanced between such apparently competing tendencies. There was a sense of conversation between the musicians such as one might have expected from a great string quartet. By the same token, the movement’s stature, which one almost inevitably, however misleadingly, is tempted to call Beethovenian, shone through. So, however, did feather-light, yet equally goal-orientated Mendelssohnian presentiments. We could dream, even after Midsummer. The sheer scale naturally also had one think of Bruckner, although Bruckner could surely never have summoned up such lightness and ease. The trio was just as lovingly detailed, very much with its own character, all too easily categorised as ‘rustic’. Not that there was nothing ‘Austrian’ to it, but it should not, could not, be reduced to the realm of the Heuriger, however inviting. Haitink unfailingly shaped and communicated the contours of the finale, having one almost believe that the music was speaking ‘for itself’; as ever, art concealed art. There was much that so poignant in melody and harmony, perhaps all the more so for the lack of heavy underlining. That pair of oboes brought a tear to my eye, as did moments of Mendelssohnian magic – put to other ends. The final blaze of glory was, again, quite different in character, as it had to be, from that which Barenboim had engendered. There was, of course, no need to choose. Magnificent!    

Friday, 28 August 2015

The Medium/The Wanton Sublime, Grimeborn Festival, 27 August 2015

Studio 2, Arcola Theatre

Hai-Ting Chinn (mezzo-soprano)
Orpheus Sinfonia
Andrew Griffiths (conductor)

Robert Shaw (director)
Gillian Argo (designs)
Tom White (lighting)

What an evening for Hai-Ting Chinn, taking the starring and indeed only role not only in Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Medium but also in Tarik O’Regan’s The Wanton Sublime, here receiving its first European performances! She must have been on stage for not far short of an hour and a half, singing for most of that time. I was a little surprised to hear her described as a mezzo; to my ears, she sounded much more of a soprano. What was not in doubt, however, was her accomplishment as a singing actress; nor, indeed, her accomplishment as a vocalist, not least in the unaccompanied Medium, written for Jane Manning. Called upon to alternate between Sprechgesang, rapid coloratura, hymn singing, and much else besides, Chinn managed both to remain in control and to convey meaning. A more ‘conventionally’ sung part in O’Regan’s work nevertheless offered plenty of opportunity for development, within its relatively short duration; much was made, capitalising upon Gillian Argo’s necessarily spare yet telling designs, of the conflict between different aspects of Mary’s – yes, the Virgin’s: ‘I am a virgin’ – character.

Davies’s work, if perhaps a little over-extended, presents a welcome continuation, albeit from a female standpoint, of some of the preoccupations of the slightly earlier The Lighthouse. Theology, religious fanaticism, fraudulent representation and self-representation, even some of the downright insanity of the composer’s earlier work: they co-exist, conflict, even fuse in a largely compelling three-quarters of an hour. The voices in the medium’s head whose urgings she feels compelled to act out, almost to give birth to, offer an intriguing ‘period’ lace introduction to the contemporary – New York, I presume – reimagining of Mary as Virgin in an equally uncomprehending world of The Wanton Sublime. Undressing and re-dressing (in what, before its obliteration before over-use and misuse, one might once have called ‘iconic’ blue), more of a sexual being than she is generally given credit for, this Mary has much to intrigue, although Anna Rabinowitz’s libretto perhaps tries a little too hard to be ‘streetwise’. O’Regan’s score, expertly played by the Orpheus Sinfonia (violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute/piccolo, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, two on percussion) under Andrew Griffiths, progresses alternately by angular, but not too angular, action passages and frozen, more melismatic passages of reflection. There is thus perhaps something filmic to what we hear as well as to what we see. Recorded voices – Mary’s own – surface too: largely confirming, but perhaps also questioning. Much to ponder, then, from a fascinating evening at the Grimeborn Festival.


Thursday, 27 August 2015

Prom 55: SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg/Roth - Boulez, Ligeti, and Bartók, 26 August 2015

Royal Albert Hall

Boulez – …explosante-fixe…
Ligeti – Lontano
Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra

Sophie Cherrier (flute)
SWR Experimental Studio (live electronics)
SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg
François-Xavier Roth (conductor) 

First, …explosante-fixe…, one of the Boulez works I had yet to hear this anniversary year, although I have heard its Originel seed more than once, and shall do again this weekend at a Proms Matinée. Sophie Cherrier, whom I had most recently heard in stunning Salzburg Festival performances of Répons, joined SWR forces, including flautists Dagmar Becker and Anne Romeis, under François-Xavier Roth. Cherrier proved as commanding and as malleable a soloist as one would have expected, her flautist supporters just as impressive. It is an exquisite work(-in-progress) and received an exquisite performance from all concerned, certainly not forgetting the SWR Experimental Studio. If I felt slightly dissatisfied, it was that my seat – too far to one side? – did not really permit the electronics to resound, to incite as they might have done. Rather to my surprise, the Royal Albert Hall seemed to work less well than the Queen Elizabeth Hall had in 2011 for a mesmerising performance from John Cox, the London Sinfonietta, and Péter Eötvös. Still, the ‘exquisite labyrinth’, to borrow from the title given to that South Bank series, of Boulez’s music retained its fascination, its post-Debussyan seduction, and the intangible yet surely present ‘modern classicism’ Arnold Whittall has identified as a key component of Boulez’s later style. Form created itself just as sonorities seemed to do so; if only the setting had been a little more ideal.

Ligeti’s Lontano was given its first performance by this orchestra at Donaueschingen in 1967. A beautifully judged performance from an orchestra of at least Mahlerian forces was notable for its subtle transformations; more than once, the word Klangfarbenmelodie came to mind, without Ligeti’s procedures being reducible to the practice of either Schoenberg or Webern. Indeed, as something equating to a tone poem, the work – and performance – offered sepulchral brass with more than a hint of Wagner and Strauss. Harmonics suggested electronic means that were not present, even perhaps an organ (such as might also have been suggested in …explosante-fixe…). Swarming violins reminded us of the Ligeti of the previous decade, whilst also making clear the development in his style. That (almost) imperceptible polyphony to which Ligeti himself drew attention did its wondrous work: ‘its harmonic effect represents the intrinsic musical action: what is on the page is polyphony, but what is heard is harmony.’ Hell, however, is too good for the person who took a telephone call as the piece drew to its close, music shading into silence.

Roth’s way – and the orchestra’s – with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra gave one of the most intriguing performances I have heard of the work, perhaps the most intriguing, at least since I last heard Boulez conduct it. The opening of the first movement stated its affinity with Bluebeard’s Castle as strongly and yet, quite properly, as ambiguously as I can recall. Both the bass line and those shivering, trembling lines above made that connection and also reminded us of Lontano. Throughout, this was a performance one might file under ‘modernist’, but that description raises more questions than it asks. It was more mysterious than Boulez, more internationalist than the stereotypical ‘Hungarian’ performances one often hears. Above all, it told its own story with its own means. Subtle inflections, be they of instrumental colour, texture, or rhythm, were to the fore. One was drawn in rather than the victim of a Solti scream. Even at the louder end of the dynamic spectrum, employed relatively sparingly, gradations were subtle, meaningful. Bartók’s startling formal ingenuity spoke for itself; or such was the illusion, as art concealed art.

The second movement delighted in its ‘pair play’, woodwind duetting – and other ensemble work – colourful and ever ambiguous. This was detailed, without a hint of pedantry: delightful indeed! The grave opening of the ‘Elegia’ was ‘elegiac’ indeed. Woodwind reminded us of the opening of the work and thus again of Bluebeard’s Castle, but the path taken was to be very different. This was a world of defiant passion. And how those massed strings dug in! For the anguish was undeniably musical, not something cheaply applied. One was beguiled – and unsettled. The fourth movement began very much as a counterpart to the scherzando second movement, yet just as important, announced and celebrated its own character and concerns. A brief Mahlerian moment underscored Bartók’s seriousness, providing retrospective bite to his unanswerable despatch of the banalities of Lehár and Shostakovich alike. Excitement was certainly a crucial quality to the performance of the finale, but again this was an eminently musical excitement: one was compelled to listen, to delight in an invention that is almost Haydnesque, and to admire a not entirely dissimilar humanism. The players sounded well-nigh phantasmagorical in their transformation of material and process; Roth ensured there was no breaking of musical line.

How sad, then, that this, the orchestra’s first performance at the Proms, a veritable triumph, will also be its last. Following reprieves in which we had foolishly placed our trust, the unforgivable forced merger with its Stuttgart sister-orchestra is to go ahead after all. Roth spoke at just the right time, many in the audience clearly unaware, but it was a forlorn announcement. Schubert, in Rosamunde guise, sounded all the more poignant as an encore.


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and New Music

Special pleading in the title? Perhaps. I have no reason to believe that the man so many of us hope will be the next leader of the Labour Party spends much of his time on Birtwistle and Lachenmann – or, for that matter, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He did, however, issue the only statement of note on the arts during this leadership contest: a glaring contrast with his rivals, who include Andy Burnham, one of the most philistine Culture Secretaries – and the field is competitive – this country has ever suffered. And any politician who mentions the heroic Birmingham Opera Company, whose Mittwoch remains one of the revelatory artistic experiences of my and many others’ lives, has one sit up and take notice. Can you really imagine Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall being aware of the company’s existence, let alone what it did – and, somehow, still does?

But that is not really the point of what I wanted to say today. It struck me, amidst the endless torrent of ‘unelectable’ calls from the far Right, whether of the Labour or the Conservative Party, that there is a parallel here with audiences for New Music. (I am old-fashioned enough still to use the capitals, just as I might for ‘New Left’.) The bizarre, arrogant dismissal of so much of this country’s population as beneath consideration – ‘the young never vote’, ‘the majorities in favour of public control of utilities, the railways, etc. do not count’, ‘the only people who matter are “aspirational hard-working families” who will vote Conservative anyway’ – is not so dissimilar form the insistence that concert and opera audiences want stale, boring formulae. Maybe some of those who presently attend do; I should wager that those who do are likely to have considerable overlap with the pensioners bribed by David Cameron, one of the many actions which have done so much to disgust young voters and turn them away from exercising their franchise. However, do things differently, consider people, issues, repertoire that your existing ‘focus groups’ have probably never considered – they might not even be hostile – and you will create a larger, broader, richer audience and electorate. Many of the Royal Opera’s stunning recent successes have been with new opera: The Minotaur, Written on Skin, or Quartett, for example. They sold out – at reduced prices, yes, thereby guaranteeing that no one was put off on grounds of cost.

Public funding works and creates both audiences and social solidarity. We need more of it, whether in healthcare, education, or the arts. Not, I think it is fair to say, to invade more Middle Eastern countries and to squander on unusable, irrelevant, and indeed morally obscene nuclear weapons. Ideally, we should phase out admission charges altogether, just as, in one of New Labour’s few laudable policies, they were scrapped for many of our great museums and galleries. In the meantime, let us work on offering artistically worthwhile experiences at affordable prices – we do much of this already, but should do more – and expanding both electorate and audience. That would be an ‘aspiration’ worth trumpeting; if only New Labour and the Conservatives were able to think in any terms other than the financial. Neo-liberalism is, finally, on the run. We have not even begun to defeat it, but at least we are beginning to wake up to what it has done and to what it has continued to do. Jezz we can! Just as that great socialist Richard Wagner always wished.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Prom 44: Braunstein/Soltani/WEDO/Barenboim - Schoenberg, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, 18 August 2015

Royal Albert Hall

Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony no.1, op.9
Beethoven – Concerto for violin, cello, and piano, in C major, op.56
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36

Guy Braunstein (violin)
Kian Soltani (cello)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra,
Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor)

This was an intriguing opportunity. I heard two of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s three Salzburg concerts last week, stupidly missing the third for a miserable Fidelio. Here, at the Proms, a work from each of those concerts was given. I was thus able to hear two performances of the works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and to hear the Schoenberg First Chamber Symphony from that regrettably missed concert. The acoustic of the Grosses Festspielhaus was, unsurprisingly, a clear winner over that of the Royal Albert Hall. However, as so often, my ears adjusted, so that the experiences were not so different as one might have expected. Performances? Swings and roundabouts. In many ways, very similar, but I think London had the edge in Beethoven, Salzburg in Tchaikovsky.

First, however, was the Schoenberg. I was astonished at the balance between the instruments, difficult to attain at the best of times. At no point were the strings overwhelmed. Barenboim’s combination of flexibility of tempo and sure harmonic understanding made for a very fine performance indeed; so did the richness of sound from these extraordinary musicians. The ‘character’ of themes and their working was as sharp as in Haydn, the cut and thrust of their development well-nigh Beethovenian, in a way I cannot recall previously having heard. That was certainly not at the expense of an array of colours, which seemed to look forward to Schoenberg’s own op.16 Five Orchestral Pieces. The Adagio section brought suspense but also clarity in motivic derivation and development. Colours, again, both took us back to so many of the Austro-German predecessors of whom Schoenberg was so inordinately proud, and forward too. The recapitulation did what it should: recapitulated, yes, but also further developed. Not for nothing is Barenboim renowned for both Schoenberg and Beethoven.

When it came to Beethoven’s own Triple Concerto, the hairs on the back of my neck stood for the first orchestral tutti. Both the deep, rich sonority of the orchestra and the sheer purpose of Barenboim’s conducting ensured that. The sweetness of Guy Braunstein’s tone and the aristocratic, almost Fournier-like character of Kian Soltani’s cello playing proved perfect foils for each other. I was less entirely convinced about Barenboim’s piano; as in Salzburg, there was something a little odd about its tone. But I am over-emphasising small matters; this was a performance of conviction with true fire from all participants. Moreover, Barenboim’s subtle yet teasing rubato for his first entry underlined who was in charge. As in the Schoenberg performance, formal dynamism was communicated and experienced. The closing bars of that first movement were infectious in their sense of fun: like an operatic finale. The slow movement unfolded in a single, unbroken line, with all the dignity of a great symphonic slow movement. How it sang too! And how all three soloists sounded as if they were a regular trio; perhaps they will be. It seemed over in the twinkling of a greatly blessed eye. As in Salzburg, Soltani expertly handled the transition to the finale. He is undoubtedly the real thing; we should expect to hear much more from him. The movement made its progress with Mozartian wit and Beethovenian idealism. Its ‘Hungarian’ lilt edged us at times closer to Brahms. Perfectly poised then, both musically and musico-historically.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony opened urgently – perhaps quicker than in Salzburg. Flexibility was again soon manifest, the hush of what we might think of as a second opening as impressive as the great build-up that ensued. Extremes of tempo seemed more pronounced than they had in Salzburg; indeed, there were just a few occasions when I wondered whether Barenboim had gone too far. There was much else, however, for which to be grateful, not least the incorporation of a balletic spirit into his reading. There is no harm, indeed considerable virtue, in having the ominous tread fuse with the spirit of the dance. A little more single-mindedness might have been welcome, but that is to nit-pick. Certainly, the orchestra sounded, insofar as the Albert Hall would permit, as magnificent as ever. For the depth of tone we heard from the strings in the slow movement was breathtaking. Song was an abiding presence, but we experienced too the (apparent, illusory?) pomp of an Imperial Ball, looking forward perhaps to The Queen of Spades. Stark modernity then vied with Romantic ‘consolation’. There were contrasts, then, aplenty, all impressively integrated. ‘Pizzicato games’ was my first thought in the scherzo, perhaps recalling, somewhat unexpectedly, the funeral games of its Eroica counterpart. A piquant trio seemed more insistent, more overtly ‘Russian’ than it had the previous week. That was quite a flourish with which the finale opened. Detail was not lost but rather enhanced by the rhetoric. Barenboim captured and communicated the tricky balance between apparently shifting mood and underlying, implacable Fate. Here, the electricity was at least as intense as it had been in Salzburg.

We were treated to no fewer than three encores. I did not mention the two we heard in Salzburg, since I did not want to spoil the surprise, if they were repeated, for anyone who might have read my review and attended the Prom. The first two were indeed the same: a Sibelius Valse triste of finely traced, rubato-laden progress, and a stunningly virtuosic Ruslan and Ludmila Overture. Following a typically diverting speech, in which Barenboim revealed that the following day marked the 65th anniversary of his first public concert and lavished praise upon his orchestra, we heard an Argentinian tango. I am afraid I do not know by whom, but it sounded splendidly idiomatic to my ears.

Salzburg Festival (8): EIC/Pintscher - Boulez, Répons, 15 August 2015


Répons (two performances)

Hidéki Nagano (piano)
Sébastien Vichard (piano)
Frédérique Cambreling (harp)
Luigi Gaggero (cimbalom)
Samuel Favre (vibraphone)
Gilles Durot (xylophone)

Ensemble Intercontemporain
Andrew Gerzso/Gilbert Nouno (IRCAM electronic realisation)
Matthias Pintscher (conductor) 

And so, the climax of my 2015 visit to Salzburg: my first ever hearing in the flesh of Répons. Sadly, I shall almost certainly never hear it conducted by the composer, save for on his Deutsche Grammophon recording (invaluable, but no replacement for the real thing). However, the superlative Ensemble Intercontemporain did Boulez as proud under Matthias Pintscher as I am sure they would have done the composer himself. To hear a work ‘live’ is always a different matter from hearing a recording, but a work in which spatial considerations are so crucial can only truly be heard like this. At any rate, the Salzburg Festival’s performances, in the Lehrbauhof, will surely be something I shall remember for the rest of my life. Every single performer struck me as contributing something nearly super-human. If I single none of them out, it is because my experience was such that it would be unfair to do so, not because they do not all deserve to be named.

As has often been the case, the work was performed twice. Each ticket had two different placements, enabling one to hear the work – and for once, this is no cliché – anew. Seated behind the orchestra (in section ‘D’) for the first half, I not only found the Introduction considerably sharper, also more ‘orchestral’ in the second half (section ‘A’), something which, I admit, might also have been simply a matter of a second hearing. As the work progressed, lines, sonorities, combinations emerged such as I truly do not think it would have been possible for me to have heard earlier. What also struck me forcefully was not only the – obvious, yet still interesting – thematic kinship with Dérive 2, of which I had had my ‘breakthrough’ hearing from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and DanielBarenboim earlier in the week. The difference in compositional method and the multiplicity of possibilities, some realised, many more yet to be realised, were no matter of theoretical reflection, not that there is any reason to slight such activity; the seemingly endless possibilities inherent and immanent in the material lived, struggled, sometimes even won out in my ears and in my imagination. Or so I flattered myself – but I do not think that was mere idle self-flattery, for such was genuinely my experience as this rich aural tapestry was spun. (Mention of tapestry has me recall a fleeting thought that Boulez’s late enthusiasm for Szymanowski – he knew some before, I know, but did little about it – may have been ignited here. Fanciful, doubtless, but why not spin a few more connections?)

Drama, just as in, say, an excellent performance of Structures 2, was everywhere: almost as if it could be instantiated in several dimensions at once. (I realise I am speaking nonsense, at least according to one understanding, but nonsense sometimes has its uses.) The truth of Boulez’s claim that his later work would have been inconceivable without his conducting of Wagner and Mahler was triumphantly vindicated; this work-in-progress – we sometimes forget that she score as it stands gives the date, tantalisingly as ‘1981/…’ – is as much a successor to Wagnerian music dramas as Mahler’s symphonies are, albeit forcing open a material tendency to open-endedness that Wagner and Mahler are so adamant to close. On this occasion, Répons seemed emphatically to open a new chapter in the composer’s œuvre. Long accused – unfairly and uncomprehendingly – by those jealous of his extraordinary talent of having taken refuge in his conducting activities, the composer and his IRCAM collaborators, who should always be honoured in any discussion of this work, reimagines not only the relationship between instruments and electronics, but also, in dramatic instrumental form, the time-honoured liturgical responsorial relationship between precentor and choir. Hence the title. Here, lighting – a literally ‘electrical’ response, as it were, to the end of the quasi-expository Introduction, and the entrance of the soloists and electronics – played a structural-dramatic role, just as if we had an intelligent stage director or liturgist on hand.

One example of maintenance of coherence between instrumental and electronic worlds, to which Andrew Gerzso draws attention in his booklet note for the CD release, is that of the soloists’ arpeggiated chords. As the soloists take their turns, so are the chords in turn transformed by electronics, ‘in such a way that the arpeggiated chords are themselves arpeggiated. The overall result of the soloists and the transformed sounds together is that of an arpeggio of an arpeggio of an arpeggio.’ Moreover, the pitches of the successive arpeggiated chords themselves are all ultimately derived from a seven-note vibraphone chord, through familiar operations such as transposition and combination, each instrument taking from another and yet remaining in touch with the first. Oppositions multiply and, in a sense, attract. Meter returns, joining and indeed transforming his earlier works’ opposition between ‘smooth’ (chaotic and irregular) and ‘striated’ (regular, repeated notes) time; so does ‘symmetrical’ harmony. Ornamentation and proliferation – the [Paul] SACHER hexachord ever in the background, not necessarily to be heard – abound.

I quote myself (from the English-language programme note I wrote for this performance) in the preceding paragraph, not because I have run out of things to say. (Honestly!) I do so, because reading those words, that is, almost uncannily, precisely what I heard, albeit within a ‘live’, dramatic, experiential framework, which made the work sound both known and unknown. In the words of Hans Sachs, hero of a work Boulez long wished to conduct and yet which, alas, he never did, ‘Es klang so alt und war doch so neu!’ One will never quite hear the same work twice, of course, in any situation, but the open-endedness of something which yet emphatically remains a ‘musical work’ intensifies the exhilaration and the poignancy of the moment.


Salzburg Festival (7): Mutter/VPO/Muti - Tchaikovsky and Brahms, 15 August 2015

Grosses Festspielhaus

Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major, op.35
Brahms – Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

This concert, dedicated by Anne-Sophie Mutter, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Riccardo Muti to the memory of Herbert von Karajan took place on the date he traditionally reserved for concerts with that orchestra. (I assume that to have been on account of the Feast of the Assumption, which always catches me unawares in southern Germany and Austria.) Mutter had played this concerto thirty years previously with Karajan and the VPO in the Grosses Festspielhaus. I wonder how many in the audience then were again in the audience this year: quite a few, I suspect. Brahms’s Second Symphony was, of course, premiered by this very same orchestra, and this year’s Festival offered a number of works whose first performance the VPO had given.

Although there was much to enjoy and little to complain about, I could not help but ask whether there was a little too much of the memorial to the concert. There is more, much more, to music-making than excitement, but perhaps this tended a little too much to the ritualistic. Mutter’s technique was quite beyond criticism, but occasionally, I longed for something a little more surprising, whether from her or from the orchestra. That said, I could not help but enjoy the splendidly old-world sound of the opening tutti and Mutter’s response: rich and sweet. Vibrato and portamento were very much part of her palette, but not at the expense of centring the notes. Moreover, she could cut through the orchestra’s sound as if she were Martha Argerich. The opening of the Canzonetta was beautifully hushed, the audience the recipient of whispered confidences. Above all, it sang. And then, the mood was transformed in a musical flash with the coming of the finale. Structure was clear – and if it left a little to be desired, the fault surely lay with the work rather than the performance. Expansive and urgent as required, the movement might nevertheless have benefited from a little more earthiness at times.

Too much D major in a concert? For my ears, I am afraid so. But that was not the only problem with Muti’s Brahms. I am all for slower tempi, but the first movement was off the scale, apparently a slow movement. There is ‘autumnal’ Brahms and then there was this. It was interesting, but I should not want to hear it like that again in a hurry. Counterpoint in the development was unexpectedly forthright: something of a relief. Thereafter, things picked up, although there was a true slow movement still to come. That, the Adagio non troppo, was memorable especially for the VPO cellos at the opening: like liquid chocolate, darkly noble. Again, this was a grandly autumnal reading, but easier to take. The change of mood for the ensuing Allegretto grazioso was welcome. This was no less exquisite, but faster-moving, lighter too. Perhaps the greatest contrast was nevertheless offered by the finale: jubilant, although, quite rightly, not uncontestedly so. Brahms’s tale was told frankly, without fuss, and was all the better for it. A gloriously rich orchestral sound would surely have delighted the concert’s dedicatee.

Salzburg Festival (6): Braunstein/Soltani/WEDO/Barenboim - Beethoven and Schoenberg, 14 August 2015

Grosses Festspielhaus

Beethoven – Concerto for Piano, Violin, and Cello in C major, op.56
Schoenberg – Pelleas und Melisande, op.5

Guy Braunstein (violin)
Kian Soltani (cello)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano, conductor) 

Beethoven and Schoenberg: the same pairing as Maurizio Pollini’s recital with which my visit to this year’s Salzburg Festival began. They are both composers at the very heart of Daniel Barenboim’s repertoire, and both composers in whose music he excels. Beethoven’s Triple Concerto opened the concert in style, with just the right orchestral sound from the West-Eastern Divan: rich, dark, yes – Furtwänglerian. This might have been the surging of Schopenhauer’s Will. Barenboim understands, seemingly like few if any conductors alive, that harmony is absolutely fundamental to Beethoven and communicates that vital truth. Balance between the soloists – Barenboim, the sweet-toned Guy Braunstein, and the suave Kian Soltani – was excellent throughout, a fine balance achieved between the aristocratic and the rugged. Crucially, the music breathed – and developed. Soltani’s opening solo in the slow movement was quite delectable: beautifully shaped. This was an expansive performance from all concerned, and all the better for it. Soltani’s transition to the finale was equally impressive, and it emerged full of wit and life,  underlying strength supplied by Barenboim and his orchestra.

Schoenberg’s early tone poem, Pelleas und Melisande, is a very difficult work to bring off. Indeed, for some time, I assumed the fault to lie in the work itself; it lies instead in insufficient performances. Barenboim’s was certainly not one of those. He veered structurally toward a Straussian reading, unlike, say, Christian Thielemann, who, with the Berlin Philharmonic a few years ago, revealed Schoenberg’s Brahmsian credentials. Gurrelieder and, of course, Tristan were  always close, even perhaps on occasion Ein Heldenleben too. There was playing of great strength and great delicacy to be heard, ever flexible to Barenboim’s demands. The West-Eastern Divan’s woodwind were outstanding throughout, reminding me more than once of Barenboim’s Wagner – in which he has always insisted on the importance of those instruments. Motivic insistence was certainly present, but not necessarily emphasised, again bringing us closer to the Wagner-Strauss axis than to Brahms. What might initially have sounded like a final dark turn was not unrelieved; variegation questioned our responses. But the final climax dwarfed its predecessors, the concluding sadness grave indeed.