Monday, 21 August 2017

Salzburg Festival (8) and (9) - noted, not reviewed

These ones are just to be noted as diary items, for which apologies. I normally try to write something up irrespective of whether I have had a press ticket, but in this case, time has run away and I have had to restrict myself. In any case, both concerts will, I am sure, have been extensively reviewed elsewhere - and I shall publish my programme note to the first concert next month anyway. Both were excellent, the concert from Igor Levit and friends quite outstanding, as you might have expected. My silence means nothing more than a lack of time in this case...

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum (12 August 2017)

Schoenberg: Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, op.41
Beethoven:  Fifteen Variations with a Fugue in E-flat major, ‘Eroica Variations’, op.35
Rzewski: The People United will Never be Defeated!

Igor Levit (piano)
Dorte Lyssewski (speaker)
Klangforum Wien (Sophie Schafleitner, Annette Bik (violins), Dimitrios Polisoidis (viola), Andreas Lindenbaum (cello))

Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (15 August 2017)

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg

Boris Timofeyevich Izmailov – Dmitri Ulyanov
Zinoviy Borisovich Izmailov – Maxim Paster
Katerina Lvovna Izmailova – Evgenia Muraveva
Sergei – Brandon Jovanovich
Aksinya, Woman Convict – Tatyana Kravtsova
Shabby Peasant – Andrei Popov
Millhand – Igor Onishchenko
Coachman, Teacher – Vasily Efimov
Porter, Sentry – Oleg Budaratskiy
Pope – Stanislav Trofimov
Chief of Police – Alexey Shishlyaev
Policeman, Office - Valentin Anikin
Sonyetka – Ksenia Dudnikova
Old Convict – Andrii Goniukov
Manager – Gleb Peryazev
First Worker – Martin Müller
Oleg Zalytskiy – Second Worker, Drunken Guest
Third Worker – Ilya Kutyukin

Andreas Kriegenburg (director)
Harald B. Thor (set designs)
Tanja Hofmann (costumes)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Christian Arseni (dramaturgy)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger)
Angelika-Prokopp-Summer Academy of the Vienna Philharmonic
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Mariss Jansons (conductor)

Salzburg Festival (7) - Pollini: Chopin and Debussy, 17 August 2017

Grosses Festspielhaus

Image: Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli

Chopin: Two Nocturnes, op.55
Chopin: Barcarolle in F-sharp major, op.60
Chopin: Piano Sonata no.3 in B minor, op.58
Debussy: Préludes, Book II

Maurizio Pollini (piano)


My final piano recital before leaving London was Maurizio Pollini’s Festival Hall performance of a similar programme: different Chopin, same Debussy. I have not (yet) reread my review, but offer a link, in case anyone wishes to compare. Needless to say, the London concert was excellent indeed, but this was probably better still – if good, better, best mean anything here, a big ‘if’. It is better, I think to take each concert separately, at least at first, which is certainly what I did in the Grosses Festspielhaus. At any rate, Pollini in Chopin and Debussy made for an outstanding conclusion to another memorable week in Salzburg.

There has been a great deal of uncomprehending criticism of Pollini recently, notably from many of the same people who had quite the contrary criticisms until a few years ago. Those who tediously disparaged his technique – as if superlative technique somehow precluded musicianship – now, still more tediously, pounce upon occasional slips. In both cases, not only do they miss the point; they tacitly acknowledge that their criticism, if one may call it that, concerns something else entirely. The actual reason, more often than not, is a dislike of the artist born of a longstanding history of political commitment in and through his music-making. (On that subject, see the beautiful film by Bettina Ehrhardt, Abbado/Nono/Pollini: A Trail on the Water.)


Why mention that here? Partly to provide context, which for some readers of such low journalism may be missing, but also because, to my horror, I actually wondered, during the opening Nocturne, op.55 no.1, whether recent jibes might actually have had some force after all. It proceeded uncertainly, unsettling in perhaps not the right way. There was a glimpse of the brilliance of old, but I found myself having to persuade myself that everything I heard was quite as intended. Anyone, however, can have a less than perfect start; none of us is a machine. And so, its E-flat major companion consoled still more than usual: clear-sighted, yet involved, its twists and turns not only navigated – anyone can do that, really – but navigated meaningfully. The sense of developing variation was almost, perhaps surprisingly, Schoenbergian, with a keen sense of some unspoken abyss yet beckoning. There were even some steps seemingly taken on the path towards the dissolutions of Debussy.

The Barcarolle’s opening chords unquestionably evinced the confidence of old. Indeed, its music sang almost as if this were a carefree encore. The waters glistened, glittered, not unlike those one sees and hears in the aforementioned documentary film; as in Nono’s Venice, moreover, there was no doubting their depth either. Chopin’s struggle, not entirely un-Beethovenian, was such that I could not but listen to every note. (Not, I hasten to add, that I wished to do otherwise.)

In the first movement of the Third Sonata, formal ingenuity and dramatic intensity were clearly at one, both in work and performance. The latter’s command of line was unerring: not just horizontal, but vertical too. Again, the depth of understanding was such that I was put in mind of Pollini’s Beethoven and Schoenberg. (I could really have done without applause from a segment of the audience, though; what on earth were those people thinking?) Opposing tendencies as extreme as in Beethoven or Schoenberg were to be heard in the scherzo; the method of their opposition and, to an extent, reconciliation was, rightly, entirely Chopin’s own. And, of course, the brevity is as radical as Webern’s. Lisztian portents at the opening of the slow movement swiftly saw their material corroded, even dissolved. The movement was then built up not unlike a Nocturne, melody and harmony of equal stature, indeed radically so. Chopin’s music sounded newly strange. As of course it did in the astonishing finale, in whose white heat every note yet still mattered: not in the banal sense of being heard but of meaning, even if that meaning could not be translated into words. Music and performance were necessary: which, coming very shortly after news of the attack in Barcelona, was just what we needed to hear.

The Debussy Préludes never ceased to surprise, each piece rethought, yet never for its own sake. The first was heard without hammers, but certainly not without bells. What, then, twinkled in the treble? Why ask? Do we need an object? A possible nod to such deconstruction reminded us that Debussy’s titles – ‘Brouillards’, in this case – are to be read afterwards, not beforehand, however utopian that idea. (If I use his titles now, it is only because not to do so would render writing about the pieces unnecessarily difficult; in any case, I am writing after the event.) ‘Feuilles mortes’ hovered between development and something else, not quite non-development; in its progress, or regress, lay quintessential Debussyan ambiguity. And the sound of those chords under Pollini’s fingers! ‘La puerta del Vino’ certainly banished any lingering ideas of the picture postcard. In its dark outgrowth from the bass, ‘local’ rhythmic figures took on new, quasi-autonomous meaning. Late Liszt here emerged as the father of all, in harmonies that both led somewhere and nowhere.

Fairies that not only were exquisite but also danced, ‘rapide et léger’ indeed, were our company in ‘Les fees sont d’exquises danseuses’. Their dance, moreover, was by no means an easy one: all the better, it seemed, darkly to seduce. ‘Bruyères’ was clearer than often, musical process to the fore, though never clinically so. Its title was definitely not the thing, but why should it (always) be? ‘General Lavine – excentric’ evinced a cakewalk brutality that chilled in the light of Charlottesville – and much else. It also, though, spoke of what we must not lose. So too did ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’, as delectable in its precise imprecision as in the unmistakeable aural glimpse of moonlight and the dances such silvery imagining might provoke.

Late Liszt again came to mind in ‘Ondine’, its harmonies undermining and expanding any aquatic or folkloric possibilities. Pollini’s way with the music was generative in the best sense: impossible quite to pin down, like the score itself. The embarrassment many of us feel when hearing our lacklustre National Anthem seemed both rewarded and itself satirised in a good-natured, yet ultimately deadly ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.’ Antique and modern, the whiteness of ‘Canope’ could – and did – sound both as deadly as Stravinsky’s and as illusory as Mozart’s. Yes, the world of the Etudes readily beckoned in ‘Les tierces alternées’, but there was no clear break with the more overtly ‘poetic’ Préludes either. The final chord might have come from Schoenberg’s op.19 Pieces: again, newly strange. Artifice and fire incited each other as equals in Feux d’artifice; somehow, we often tend to think of fireworks as ‘natural’, although they are anything but. Fleeting, corrosive, awe-inspiring: it was a brilliant – and brilliantly questioning – conclusion to a similarly conceived recital.


Salzburg Festival (6) - Gheorghiu/ORF SO/Pascal - Grisey, 16 August 2017


© Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli

Les Espaces acoustiques

Maria Gheorghiu (viola)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Maxime Pascal (conductor)

Rarely have I been so inundated with messages of envy than when I let friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter know that I was attending this performance of Gérard Grisey’s cycle of six pieces, Les Espaces acoustiques. Unlike many of them, I am very much a Grisey novice. For some reason, I was unable to attend a (relatively) recent performance of this work in London; likewise, other Grisey performances have not fallen at good, or even possible, times for me. I was therefore especially keen to begin to discover what all the fuss was about, and am most grateful to the Salzburg Festival for offering such an opportunity, not least in Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s glorious Kollegienkirche, which underlined the quasi-liturgical nature of the work – or at least one way in which it might be received.

Mario Gheorghiu’s performance of the first piece, a ‘Prologue’ for solo viola, captured, even instigated, that sense of visual and aural theatre very well, preaching to us, as it were, from the spotlit pulpit. The simplicity of Grisey’s opening material, phrases undergoing only very gradual transformation, certainly had something of an ancient, though not only an ancient, ritual to it. Coming to the work blind – or perhaps ‘deaf’ – I thought also of a slowly evolving fractal display. Whatever the truth or nonsense of that, Gheorghiu and Grisey imparted a true sense of the exploratory, albeit on an almost defiantly unhurried timescale. At some point, I realised that what I was hearing had undergone an almost complete transformation from what I had begun hearing, but I could not put my finger on when I might have begun to realise such a thing.

Gheorghiu wandered down within the wall, still audible, no longer seen, in order to join the orchestra for the second piece, ‘Périodes’, for seven musicians. Other string players joined gradually: double bass first, if I remember correctly. Again, transformation was slow, yet unmistakeable. There were here, though, I think, definite milestones, or perhaps it was more that my ears were becoming more accustomed to style, method, even idea. A duet between violin and viola, both apparently ‘tuning’, seemed a little obvious, but I suspect that was deliberate, prompting one to ask questions about expectation. Or was that just my own, almost metatheatrical, preoccupation being brought to the table? The ritualist element seemed to intensify in ‘Partiels’, for eighteen musicians. Many sonorities and harmonies were familiar in one sense, and yet, in contrast, not necessarily so. Spectralist technique seemed almost to reinvent a Straussian waterfall or Messiaenesque birdsong. Perhaps, again, that was just me; for context, again, was quite different, similarity seeming incidental if unmistakeable. I was certainly fascinated once again by the realisations that material had been transformed out of all recognition, or so it seemed. The non-cymbal-clash at the close again seemed all too predictable, but perhaps that is the point. Is it intended humourously? Or is that how we deal with unknown ritual, as in Stockhausen, with nervous laughter?

Following the interval, the fourth piece, ‘Modulations’, for thirty-three musicians, sounded perhaps still closer – but still only –er – to Messiaen. There was perhaps even a sense of éclat suggesting (to me) that pupil of Messiaen who will not be mentioned here. Any such (idle?) thoughts, though, were soon more or less banished, or at least subdued, by the spectralist framework within which this particular celestial banquet unfolded. ‘Transitoires’, for large orchestra seemed to develop from that movement with an expectation that was not entirely (at least for me) un-Wagnerian. Earlier onomatopoeia without an object – a forest perhaps? – was now set against and combined with a darker, deeper menace. There is clearly an extraordinary simplicity to what one hears at one level, but it is equally clear that that is not the only level at which one can, perhaps should, listen to this music. Around it, a fractal halo of sound both heightens and questions ‘familiarity’.

With the ‘Epilogue’ for four solo horns and large orchestra we return also to solo viola. That phantasmagorical ‘waterfall’ sounded here both exultant and an agent of disintegration, perhaps even tragedy. If descending the mountain is not a mirror image of the ascent, then it hardly would be; ask Strauss. Was the final drumming arbitrary or tragic? Why should it be either/or? The lady seated next to me probably came closer than any of my musings, when she turned and exclaimed: ‘Die ganze Kirche klingt!’ The church did itself resound, but it would not have done so without outstanding performances from all concerned. Maxime Pascal’s conducting of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra gave the impression, which I have no reason to doubt, of having mastered not only the detail of the score, but of its connections, and of the challenge of communicating all that and more. The players’ commitment was similarly beyond doubt. This is just what festival music-making should be: something quite out of the ‘ordinary’.

My immediate reaction was that I should now like to hear another performance, having just begun to establish what might be going on. I hope that my review will be taken in that spirit. I doubt, at this point, that I am about to become a devotee of Grisey’s music, but who knows? There are many instances of composers whose music it has taken several hearings for me to even to begin to respond to it; on the face of it, there is no reason why Grisey should not join their company. We shall see – or rather, we shall hear.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Salzburg Festival (5) - Wozzeck, 14 August 2017

Haus für Mozart

Images: Salzburg Festival / Ruth Walz
Margret (Frances Pappas) and Wozzeck (Matthias Goerne)

Wozzeck – Matthias Goerne
Drum Major – John Daszak
Andres – Mauro Peter
Captain – Gerhard Siegel
Doctor – Jens Larsen
First Apprentice – Tobias Schnambel
Second Apprentice – Huw Montague Rendall
Fool – Heinz Göhrig
Marie – Asmik Grigorian
Margret – Frances Pappas
Chorus solo – Burkhard Höft
Actors – Mélissa Guex, Andrea Fabi
Mimes – Claudia Carus, Gregor Schulz

William Kentridge (director)
Luc De Wit (co-director)
Sabine Theunissen (set deigns)
Greta Goiris (costumes)
Catherine Meyburgh (video)
Urs Schönebaum (lighting)
Kim Gunning (video operator)

Salzburg Festival and Theatre Children’s Choir (chorus master: Wolfgang Götz)
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

Marie (Asmik Grigorian) and Drum-Major (John Daszak)

Salzburg is certainly doing William Kentridge proud this summer: a new production of Wozzeck and an exhibition of his work, ‘Thick Time: Installations and Stagings’, split between the Rupertinum and the museum on the Mönchsberg, which together form the Museum der Moderne. The exhibition has also been seen at the Whitechapel Gallery; I missed it there. It will also be seen – or has: I am not quite sure which – at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk and Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. The exhibition is certainly well worth seeing for its own sake. In some ways, though, I found it more revealing than the opera production itself, which I could not help but think relied a little too much upon an imposed association with the First World War – a little too easy? – and indeed upon figures and ideas from his earlier work. Both claims are, I am sure, debatable, but I was left relatively unmoved by the result – which is surely a problem with Wozzeck.

Distancing can doubtless work in different ways for different people. One person’s chilling alienation will be another’s ‘I could not relate to that’. For me, however – and I can hardly speak for anyone else – the device of placing Wozzeck outside the action, having him in some sense present it, at the opening switching on the slide projector from which so much of the setting is presented, leads to a staging more observed than experienced. If we do not share Wozzeck’s agonies, his mistreatment, if it is not even entirely clear whether he actually experiences them, then that is surely something of a loss. What worked very well in Kentridge’s Lulu, which I saw at ENO, seems here to be more a matter of going through the motions; what had been a powerful impression of information overload mirroring, even intensifying the score, here reduced to a display of battlefield maps with little evident motivation other than the fact that the Battle of Ypres had taken place a hundred years ago. Charcoal drawings, long a Kentridge staple, seemed just a little dark to glean anything much from, at least at a certain distance from the stage. (I was in the First Circle.) What of looking back to such events from after the war, as Berg did when completing it? There is certainly something to be said for that in principle; yet here, it comes across as more of a device than a dramatic strategy.

Perhaps ultimately, the problem, at least for me, is Kentridge’s apparent lack of interest in psychology, as discussed in a programme interview: ‘I never start with the psychology,’ he says, ‘When a singer says to me, “what am I thinking?’ I sawy, “well, let’s listen to the music and let’s look at what we see on stage rather than giving a pre-history’. It is not clear to me why there should be an either-or. Surely part of that ‘pre-history’ lies in the music and indeed in what happens on stage; nor is ‘the music’ somehow something separate from the drama and its associations, certainly not in Berg. ‘Characters are always more than you expect and different from what you expect,’ Kentridge goes on. Of course. Here, however, especially in the case of Marie, they seem, if anything, less than one had expected. Marie comes across as somewhat peripheral to the action, or at least to the wartime setting that threatens to overwhelm the action. Most of us, I hope, are opposed to war; still more of us think the Great War was a terrible thing. But is Wozzeck really about that; or, better, should it be? The weird, powerful crowd scenes, with marauding deformed survivors give a taste of what might have been, suggesting that yes, Wozzeck could be about this, and in retrospect too; the necessary contrasting, developing character introspection, however, seems strangely absent. Substituting a puppet for a child again seems too much of a stock device. Do we really want to avoid being shattered by his fate?

Wozzeck and Marie

That said, an impressive aspect of the evening as a total artwork – Gesamtkunstwerk, if you must – was that Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting seemed to me very much in keeping with Kentridge’s approach. One heard a wealth of detail, of musical process from the players of the Vienna Philharmonic, indeed to such an extent that any listener with musical training would be well placed to identify the particular closed form of any scene immediately. That was, famously, not Berg’s point, but that does not mean that there is no value in hearing the score differently, quite the contrary. What I missed from Jurowski’s conducting was a stronger sense of how the scenes connected; again, this need not be an either-or situation, and preferably should not be. Berg remains a son, or perhaps grandson, of Wagner – or should do.

Was there also a sense that he was keeping the excellent Vienna players – what sweetness of string tone in particular! – down? I suspect it may have depended upon where one was seated in the Haus für Mozart (the old Kleines Festspielhaus). For me, there were many occasions when I longed for the orchestra to be let off the leash. It is not just during the interludes that the real, the deepest drama lies there; as with Wagner, it always does. Others, however, complained that they could not hear the singers, which certainly was not the case for me. Matthias Goerne did a good deal to supply some of the introspection seemingly missing from the staging. A Lieder-singer’s approach tends to be just the thing for Wozzeck, if not necessarily the only way; this was no exception. Asmik Grigorian sang beautifully, a fine Marie, by any standards. If only the staging had not left her somewhat marooned: just standing there, singing, seemingly having to act for herself. John Daszak navigated well the balance between character and caricature in the role of the Drum Major. Gerhard Siegel and Jens Larsen both offered keenly observed – insofar as they were permitted – performances as the Captain and the Doctor. Frances Pappas’s Marget greatly impressed, as, still more did, Mauro Peter’s beautifully sung Andres; in both cases, I was left wishing they had had more to do. Choral singing was excellent, impeccably well prepared, it seemed, by Ernst Raffelsberger. If I did not feel that I had been moved as much, nor as deeply, as I should have been, it was no fault of the cast. And I was certainly made to think.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Salzburg Festival (4) - Bronfman/VPO/Muti - Brahms and Tchaikovsky, 13 June 2017

Grosses Festspielhaus

Brahms – Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat major, op.83
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36

Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

It has never been entirely clear to me why Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto seems to be performed less frequently than his First – other, that is, than on account of the still more extreme technical demands it places upon the pianist. Come to think about it, we probably have our answer there, for it is surely the greater work of the two, or at any rate the one falling more strongly within a tradition of Mozartian perfection. I wonder, though, whether its less overtly tragic demeanour has something to do with it. At any rate, in my experience at least, a performance would appear to be a rarer occasion than one might expect. I therefore greatly looked forward to this concert from Yefim Bronfman, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Riccardo Muti.


It is very difficult quite to put my finger on why I felt slightly nonplussed by the performance of the Brahms. There was nothing wrong with it and a great deal to admire. Was I too hung up on great recorded performances of old? Perhaps: I immediately think of Gilels and Jochum here, and many readers will have their own favourites. The horn solo opening was wondrously tender; as usual, the VPO gave of its best for Muti. Bronfman’s response was musicianly, indeed that of a chamber musician. Not that there were not more turbulent passages, but perhaps on balance, the first movement was a little skewed towards the Apollonian. ‘Skewed’ is probably the wrong word, though, for there was certainly some sense of a dialectic here. And there was admirably big-boned pianism to relish too. Ultimately, though, I felt this a movement observed rather than experienced. Perhaps the fault was mine; stranger things have happened…


I was intrigued by the sense of Mendelssohn in the shadows of the scherzo, both from the orchestra (Muti’s doing, surely) and to a lesser extent the piano. Elfin rhythms were nicely sprung, but there were darker colours and moods too. Muti imparted a fine sense of grandeur to the trio, conflict in the cross-rhythms and all. The slow movement I found just a little matter-of-fact. It was taken on the swift side, but better that than dragging, and there was a greater sense of emotional involvement than in the first movement. The solo cellist’s tone, however, was a bit of a problem, especially earlier on: rather wiry, although certainly able to project. Bronfman’s way with those magical, half-lit passages was special: prophetic, certainly, of the late piano pieces. There was a degree of Haydnesque playfulness to the finale, likewise a degree of Brahms in ‘Hungarian’ mode; I wondered, though, whether a greater contrast between the two might have been beneficial. At any rate, none of Brahms’s cruel demands held any obvious fear for Bronfman.


I heard Muti conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic in May. Memory can play tricks here, even when one reads the earlier review. (I have not yet, although a link may be found above.) However, I suspect that, admirable though that performance was, there was here with the Vienna players a greater sense of urgency. The intimate scenes, redolent of the contrast between public and private in, say, Eugene Onegin, were once again to be heard and, more to the point, to be experienced. And the expressive range was certainly greater than what, for whatever reason, we had heard in the Brahms. A chamber ballet or a song without words? There was no need for Muti to choose in the second movement; nor did he. I was put in mind of Berlioz at times, not least in the way that the emotional complexities of the work were shown potentially to be allied with complexities of genre and structure. The ghostly dances of the scherzo were despatched, with precision, mystery, and fantasy, leading to a finale of considerable nervous energy, rather as if the opening to the final scene of an opera – which, in a sense, this almost is. Petersburg Onegin, perhaps? The argument was symphonic, of course, but Muti and the VPO excelled also in summoning up an aural stage before the eyes of one’s mind.

Salzburg Festival (3) - Mozarteum Orchestra/Luks: Mozart, 13 August 2017

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

String Divertimento in F major, KV 138/125c
Idomeneo: Ballet Music, KV 367
Symphony no.41 in C major, ‘Jupiter’, KV 551

Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Václav Luks (conductor)

How difficult – I have not yet lost my English bent for understatement – it is today to find a conductor capable of directing a fine Mozart performance, or at least willing to do so. Perhaps it was always so; not everyone was Colin Davis or Karl Böhm. The perversities of the authenticke brigade, though, have done serious damage. Here, the Mozarteum Orchestra sounded wonderful; when permitted to play, rather than harried or micromanaged, there was much to enjoy. Alas, Václav Luks, who appears very much to have an ‘early music’ background and ‘name’, permitted that far too little.

The F major Divertimento, KV 138/125c, started most promisingly. Had the rest of the performance proceeded similarly, that would have been a very good thing indeed. A small string section (, all standing save for the cellos, offered a bright, cultivated sound, their playing cultivated and quite without pedantry. The first movement’s roots in earlier music were apparent, quite rightly, without over-emphasis, its structure clearly, meaningfully presented. Luks, alas, made something of a meal of the Andante, its ease lost or at least obscured. I could have done, moreover, without that slight astringency he seemed determined to inflict upon the string. At its best, though, the movement evinced a hushed intimacy that compelled one to listen. The finale fizzed with energy. If it might have smiled a little more, counterpoint was admirably clear. The playing itself was, as ever, excellent.

A larger, though still relatively small, band of strings ( was of course joined by wind and drums for the Idomeneo ballet music. Luks’s way with the music, announced immediately in the Chaconne, was unduly aggressive. More damagingly, he seemed unable to communicate a longer line, proceeding bar by bar, sometimes beat by beat. (O for Sir Colin from Munich!) Playing was unfailingly alert; if only Luks had been able to relax a little, to let the music speak ‘for itself’. The Pas seul was warmer, if often hard driven; its corners were well handled, however, and there was no doubting its symphonic nature. Why we had to endure ‘natural’ brass rasping, though, with a modern orchestra, is anyone’s guess. The Passepied was well shaped, if on the fast side, the Gavotte better still, not pushed too far. It was a great pity that the transition to the finale emerged as an arbitrary collection of notes, and that that Passacaille itself proved fierce and, again, quite unsmiling. Messiaen’s charming observation that Mozart’s music ‘smiles’ may or may not be trite; it is undoubtedly true, though, or should be.

The ‘authenticke’ brigade and their camp followers seem unable to avoid ‘rhetorical’ gestures – usually an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to conceal an inability to phrase – in the Jupiter Symphony, especially in its outer movements. When allied to an apparent inability to establish a basic pulse, the result tends, as here, towards dragging, irrespective of speed. Trumpet and drum interventions were unfailingly, tediously underlined, as if there were any need. Structure was generally clear enough, but formal dynamism quite lacking. The recapitulation merely hectored. Once again, the playing itself was excellent. The slow movement was less pulled around, flowing well enough; it, bizarrely, sounded somewhat inconsequential: pleasant rather than unpleasant, but if that is the best one can say concerning a conductor’s view… The Minuet, needless to say, was taken fashionably, one beat to a bar, but was otherwise played reasonably straight, and emerged all the better for it. Alas, its Trio reverted to type, presumably as ‘contrast’. A weird hiatus prior to the reprise of the Minuet did not help either. The finale was fierce, again, rather than joyful, its counterpoint admirably clear. I could not help but think how much better it would have been had the Salzburg players not been saddled with a conductor whose sub-Bernstein podium antics were now really beginning to grate, not least since they seemingly bore no relation to either score or performance. I do not think I have heard the coda pass by with such little wonder: quintuple invertible counterpoint is nothing, apparently, in Luks’s world.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Salzburg Festival (2) - Aida, 12 August 2017

Grosses Festspielhaus

Images: Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

King – Roberto Tagliavini
Amneris – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Aida – Anna Netrebko
Radamès – Francesco Meli
Ramfis – Dmitry Belosselskiy
Amonasro – Luca Salsi
Messenger – Bror Magnus Tødenes
High Priestess – Benedetta Torre

Shirin Neshat (director)
Christian Schmidt (set designs)
Tatyana van Walsum (costumes)
Reinhrad Traub (lighting)
Martin Gschlacht (photography)
Thomas Wilhelm (choreograpy)
Bettina Auer (dramaturgy)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

It is a good thing to put even one’s most settled judgements to the test from time to time. Seven years had passed since my most recent encounter with Verdi in the opera house: seven years of (relative) good luck since. If the nauseating La traviata remains a nadir in the benighted ‘repertoire’ – better or worse than Donizetti, or about the same? who cares really? – then the mindboggling tedium of Aida anoints it a serious contender for any such reckoning. However fine the performances, and they were generally excellent here, any revival of so unremittingly banal a work will prove, at best, an absurd misallocation of resources. There is infinitely greater interest in any randomly selected note of Webern. As Boulez memorably put it, ‘Verdi is stupid, stupid, stupid!’ Quite why anyone would claim to know better remains a mystery.

Aida apologists seem to like to laud it essentially as a chamber opera, scenes of intimacy at its heart, contrasting with the pomp and ceremonial of grand opera. Fine, but that is hardly enough. It matters whether such scenes are any good, of any interest. All we have here is a ‘bog standard’ – with apologies, for the first and last time in my life, to Alastair Campbell – clash between public and private, generalised in the extreme, with ‘characters’ so thinly drawn, if indeed they be drawn at all, that a non-partisan listener cannot even begin to care. They all sing the same sort of stuff, about the same sort of stuff, at interminable length – it may be a relatively short opera, but it certainly did not feel like it – to a plot whose implausibility is so contrived as not even to amuse. (Maybe onstage elephants would have helped in that respect, if no other.) La clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s or anyone else’s, this is not; indeed, it is difficult to imagine a greater vulgarisation of the classical AMOR/ROMA dilemma. Of all the tragedies of occupation and war, why would the weird self-obsession of a woman who, rather than try to rescue her lover, elects instead to enter a tomb in order that they be buried alive, even register? She deserves no better, but what about poor Radamès? It would be nice to be able to care, but if somehow one manages to do so, it will be on account of a performance, not the work.

Frankly, their sentimental festival of smothering – would they at least not have sex for the first and last time? – cannot come quickly enough, even though it does not. Meyerbeer is more dramatically interesting, certainly more historically important. Perhaps this might work very occasionally as the exhumation of historical curiosity, the recipient of due criticism, but to place such drivel at the heart of the repertoire is too silly even to qualify as ‘edgy’ or critical performance art. If Aida is actually a satire on a well-heeled, self-regarding audience’s willingness to sit through anything, however dull, provided that its abject lack of taste and judgement be flattered, then is it not about time that someone finally explained the joke to that audience?

All that said, there is doubtless something for an interesting director to say; there always will be, even if the work does not deserve it. What one hears about Hans Neuenfels’s Frankfurt Aida sounds fascinating, all the more so for 1981: the slave girl an Ethopian cleaner and a typical Verdi audience screaming blue murder. Likewise Peter Konwitschny for Graz the following decade. Shirin Neshat is certainly not one to join their number; instead, alas, she joins the number of film artists who have nothing much to say about opera, or at least cannot say it. Her production is as dull as the work itself, creditably – I think, but now begin to wonder – shorn of the traditional vulgar trappings, but with nothing to put in their place. There are some half-hearted video (of course) images of refugees, but that is about it, other than a ‘stylish’ look and a vast revolving set which sometimes does not quite revolve as it should. (The second interval seems to have been mightily prolonged on that account.) Could we not at least have had the death-wish slave girl as a suicide bomber or something? Weirdly, she seemed to dress very much as Amneris; perhaps that is what happens when you have Anna Netrebko in the title role. The priests’ slightly strange look initially suggests parody; alas, nothing else does. There is nothing much else to it apart from the designs, at least nothing I could discern.

Aida (Anna Netrebko), Radamès (Francesco Meli), Amneris (Ekaterina Semenchuk)

Netrebko, perhaps needless to say, offered vocalism of a quality that would be spellbinding, were it expended on more interesting material. No degree of vocal shading seemed beyond her, the trademark richness of tone ever present yet variegated; if only the bizarre Orientalist shading of her make-up had shown a sensitivity that came anywhere close... Francesco Meli’s Radamès was every bit as impressive, perhaps still more so, as handsome and noble of tone as of aspect. Ekaterina Semenchuk was every inch the fiery mezzo, again completely in command of her instrument and, insofar as the non-staging permitted, her dramatic performance; I should love to hear (and to see) her as, say, Ortrud. Roberto Tagliavini sounded a bit wooden as the King, but that permitted some degree of contrast with Luca Salsi’s animated Amonasro. Choral singing was excellent throughout, indeed outstanding, as was the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Muti, its shading every bit as exquisite as Netrebko’s, the sweetness of string tone very much of old. Muti clearly cherishes the score almost beyond price, however incapable I may be of understanding why. His partnership with this orchestra rarely disappoints; here he showed himself once again to play it as if it were a piano under his fingers. If I found the pace rather slow at times, that was doubtless a consequence of my feelings towards the work; enthusiasts, I am sure, would have loved it.

I doubt there can have been many superior performances of the opera throughout its history; I equally doubt that I shall persuade myself to hear another. As for Verdi, see you in another seven years’ time? Perhaps.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Salzburg Festival (1) - Goerne/Trifonov: Berg, Schumann, Wolf, Shostakovich, and Brahms, 11 August 2017

Haus für Mozart

BergFour Songs, op.2
SchumannDichterliebe, op.48
WolfThree Michelangelo Songs
ShostakovichSuite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, op.145: ‘Dante’; ‘Death’; ‘Night’
BrahmsFour Serious Songs, op.121

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Daniil Trifonov (piano)

This proved an outstanding recital, at least as much for Daniil Trifonov’s searching, protean pianism as for Matthias Goerne’s singing. Such a partnership, something beyond what one might ‘ordinarily’ expect during the concert season, is just what a festival such as Salzburg should be about. Likewise the programming: excellent in itself, yet also offering connections to broader themes on offer in the festival.

Goerne is singing Wozzeck here – on which, more later in the week – so Berg’s op.2 songs could, if one wished, be understood as anticipatory. More importantly, they made for a fine opening to this programme, the Hebbel setting ‘Schlafen, Schlafen, nichts als Schlafen’ drowsy, somnolent in the best way, emerging and yet never quite emerging from that state of half-awakedness. The languor one heard and felt had something of Debussy and early Schoenberg to it, yet could never quite be reduced to them or indeed to any other influence; this was Berg. Above all, it was founded in the piano part, above which words could then do their work. In its Parsfalian leisure-cum-torpor, one almost felt it to be ‘lit from behind’. ‘Schlafend trägt man mich’ continued in a recognisable line, yet initially lighter, soon more involved and questioning. Trifonov showed himself keenly aware of the importance of specific pitches and their repetition; later Berg beckoned already. ‘Nun ich der Riesen Stärksten überwand’ and ‘Warm die Lüfte’ continued the developmental idea, (re)uniting, intensifying earlier tendencies – and again the importance of specific pitch, here in the bells tolling and nightingale singing in the piano part.

Dichterliebe benefited from the alchemy of no clear break: Schumann’s song-cycle emerged from Berg’s songs and retrospectively announced that that was where they had always been heading. From the very outset, the opening ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’, the limpidity of Trifonov’s piano playing was to die for, the delicacy of Goerne’s song also spot on. Magically slow, this was something to savour, without a hint of narcissism. ‘Aus meinen Tränen sprießen’ developed not only, it seemed from its predecessor, but from Berg’s songs too, not least in its nightingale song. Nothing here was formulaic, nothing taken as read: the voice took on the quality of something approaching an instrumental chamber music partner to the piano in ‘ich will meine Seele tauchen’, save of course for the words that both heightened and questioned that sense. The young Wotan seemed to appear on stage for ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’, his piano partner striking in dark, stark simplicity (however artful). The piano’s taunting cruelty in ‘Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen’ could match anything in Schubert: implacable, heartless, almost ‘objective’. It was, moreover, an unquestionably post-Schubertian agony here – distended, just a little, unerringly judged – that characterised the ensuing ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’. ‘Am leuchten Sommermorgen’ brought that summer morning to refracted life courtesy of Trifonov, the piano part’s passing notes returning us to Berg, perhaps even going beyond him, whilst the piano chords in ‘Ich hab’ im Traum gewidmet’ spoke in almost Lisztian fashion, not unlike his Il penseroso. The strange tricks and consolations of dreams that followed (‘Allnächtlich im Traume’) seemed almost to prepare the way, following the weakened ebullience of ‘Aus alten Märchen’, for those two extraordinarily final postludes. They spoke at least as keenly as any words, even those of Heine.

Liszt, unsurprisingly, came more strongly and unquestionably to the fore in Wolf’s Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo. His harmonic language and its bitter self-destruction haunted ‘Wohl denk’ ich oft’. Quite rightly, words took the lead in ‘Alles endet, was entstehet’ and ‘Fühlt meine Seele’, seemingly inciting Wagnerian harmonies through what, in context, sounded most Schopenhauerian language. The two songs’ different character registered as strongly as what they held in common.

Trifonov’s quasi-verbal directness of utterance, especially in the bass register, struck me especially powerfully in the three Shostakovich Michelangelo songs that followed. It was as if the ability to ‘speak’ were being returned with interest. In ‘Dante’ in particular, Goerne brought to our attention Shostakovich the seer and the critic. That importance ascribed to particular pitches in Berg seemed to haunt the world of Shostakovich too, as if to remind us of what might have been. Once again, however incorrect this priority in the world of mere empiricism, the words of the following songs seemed to grow out of the piano’s wordless speech. ‘Night’ (Noč’) evinced an unfamiliar familiarity, musical and verbal. ‘Hush, my friend, why awaken me?’ Why indeed?

That illusory ‘timeliness’ – what could be more ‘timely’ – of Brahms in ‘archaic’ mode proved especially striking in the Vier ernste Gesänge. Trifonov’s understanding and communication of the piano parts was properly generative, even occasionally verging on a quasi-objective autonomy, an ontological frame within which the Biblical words might be intoned and considered. ‘Ich wandte mich und sahe an alle’ nevertheless spoke of subjectivity, of a late verbal Intermezzo that more than hinted at Webern. An earlier German Romanticism hung in the air, and yet clearly had passed: sad, perhaps, but Goerne’s Ecclesiastes Preacher would surely have understood. An almost Bachian embrace of death, albeit with a more Romantic sense of tragedy underlying it, characterised Goerne’s delivery in ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du,’ flickering half-lights again very much from the world of the late piano pieces. ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelszungen redete’ afforded a climax that was truly Pauline in its depth, complexity, and sheer difficulty. The best theologians will sometimes, as Brahms shows us, be agnostic, even atheist, albeit in a strenuous sense: more Nietzsche than, God help us, Richard Dawkins and his ilk. This was Brahms’s reckoning with how things were, just as much as that of the epistle writer. And so it was with the recital as a whole: a reckoning necessarily both final and not.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (5) - L’Erismena, 15 July 2017

Images: Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2017 © Pascal Victor / artcompress

Théâtre du Jeu de Paume

Erismena – Francesca Aspromonte
Idraspe – Carlo Vistoli
Aldimira – Susanna Hurrell
Orimeneo – Jakub Józef Orliński
Erimante – Alexander Miminoshvili
Flerida – Lea Desandre
Argippo – Andrea Bonsignore
Alcesta – Stuart Jackson
Clerio Moro – Tai Oney
Diarte – Jonathan Abernethy

Jean Bellorini (director, lighting, set designs)
Véronique Chazal (set designs)
Macha Makeïeff (costumes)

Cappella Mediterranea
Leonardo García Alarcón (conductor)

Whose first thought when Cavalli is mentioned is anything other than Raymond Leppard? Certainly not mine. Whilst many, indeed pretty much all, such associations will be simplifications of varying degrees of grossness, and some bizarrely, often chauvinistically, incorrect – Bernstein and Mahler, for instance – Leppard’s role in the rediscovery and revival of Cavalli’s operas can hardly be gainsaid. What I should have given to hear one of his imaginative, luscious realisations in the flesh. Much has changed in the meantime, of course: save for the very occasional actual ‘reorchestration’, it has long been a capital offence to perform seventeenth-century music on modern instruments. I suppose we should be grateful that the fatwas of ‘authenticity’ have extended less frequently towards staging, although the vaguely ‘stylish’ mishmash that often results tends at best to be a mixed blessing.

What we saw and heard here was much in that line, and proved enjoyable enough in its way, although I could not help but wish that something more daring had been attempted. The theatre itself, the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, is a delight. However modernist one’s view of other matters may be, the growth of opera houses into outsize monsters should surely be deplored by all. Presumably someone will object that it is an eighteenth-century theatre; in which case, kindly get thee to seventeenth-century Venice and leave the rest of us in peace. Leonardo García Alarcón and his small, yet far from shy, Capella Mediterranea played in the accustomed ‘we’re Mediterranean and thus “sensual”’ style, or alternatively, ‘sex please, we’re not Christopher Hogwood’ – which is certainly preferable to, well, Christopher Hogwood and other puritans. It is, though, all a bit predictable after a while, not nearly so ‘interesting’ or indeed ‘sensual’ as it thinks it is – or, indeed, as audiences in thrall to ‘authenticity’ have been trained to believe it is. Have a ‘colourful’ continuo group, turn as much as you can into dance music, accompany that with a good deal of silly dancing on stage, hint at largely spurious parallels to other traditions, be they folk, jazz, anything other than the dread ‘symphonic’, and you are ‘counter-culturally’ away.

It is a business, of course, and it has succeeded greatly in those terms, not least by its ruthless suppression of the ‘competition’. And unlike those frankly unlistenable-to Northern European puritan forerunners – the Leonhardts, Goebels, Hogwoods, et al. – it is in many respects welcoming. Perhaps it is too much so, or at least too complacent in its remarkably non-reflective conception of history. (Nikolaus Harnoncourt was an exception in that latter respect; his greatest problem was a peculiar inability to phrase.) There is more, though, to ‘Mediterranean’ culture, and indeed there is more to Cavalli, than that. Moreover, violin intonation was sometimes little short of excruciating, although no one else seemed to mind.

Whatever one’s thoughts on the orchestra and conducting (how ‘inauthentic’!) though, the singing was excellent. A young cast, with acting abilities largely to match, held the drama, such as it is, in its hands and projected it with the vocal excellence that has long been the trump card of so much of the ‘early music’ movement. If I were compelled to single out one soloist, I should unhesitatingly opt for the bright, clear, and yes, sensual countertenor of Jakub Józef Orliński; it was a great pity he did not have more to sing. But this was a true company achievement. Orliński’s countertenor companions, Carlo Vistoli and Tai Oney also greatly impressed, each voice and character ‘naturally’ differentiated from the others. So too did Susanna Hurrell’s Aldimira and Stuart Jackson’s properly outrageous nurse-in-drag, Alcesto. There is a good deal of ensemble writing here, yet I cannot recall a single case of problematical balance.

Jean Bellorini’s staging falls into the aforementioned stylish-‘modern’ category. No particular point of view or framing seems apparent. Clothes are ‘modern’ and a good deal of attention is productively paid to movement and interaction. Again, though, I could not help but think that something a little more than having light bulbs  disintegrate at critical moments might have been done with the opera. For it is, frankly, difficult to care too much about the characters and their fate; this is neither Monteverdi nor top-drawer Cavalli. There is probably too much silliness; Leppard, anything but humourless, nevertheless remarked upon an all too easy tendency towards disguise and cross-dressing for the sake of it in a good number of Cavalli works. Indeed, Leppard was actually highly selective concerning those he selected for editing and performance. We, however live, for better or worse, in an age of completism. Not that that problem arose here; this is an opera eminently worth performing. Perhaps, though, at some stage, it might be done in a realisation and staging a little more interested in stretching our eyes, ears, and minds.