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Boulezian
Mark Berry
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Wigmore Hall
Szymanowski: String Quartet no.2, op.56Rebecca Saunders: Unbreathed (world premiere)Schubert: String Quartet no.15 in G major, D 887
Yun-Peng Zhao, Constance Ronzatti (violins)Franck Chevalier (viola)Pierre Morlet (cello)

Bracingly modernist Szymanowski opened this Quatuor Diotima concert. Tremolandi in the first movement of the Second String Quartet sounded almost as if presentiments of Ligetian swarming. Clarity was striking too; there was nowhere to hide, almost as if this were Mozart. (It would have been very odd Mozart indeed, but anyway…) And when Ligeti bowed out, there was a Schoenbergian violence to the string-writing, married in performance to a very Gallic abrasion. Harmonics sounded other-world – and not in a sentimental way. There was palpable fury in the precision of the second movement, not unlike Bartók, although certainly not to be reduced in that way. Tonality sounded just as ambiguous here as it had in the first movement; one ‘knew’ it, yet did not always experience it. If there were a little less of such ambiguity in the third movement, there was at least as much emotional ambiguity to its unfolding. This was some of the least gorgeous Szymanowski I have heard, but was none the worse for it; it seemed to speak with, even of, truth.

If the shock of the new infused the Szymanowski performance, and would do so still more the Schubert in the second half, Rebecca Saunders’s Unbreathed, here receiving its world premiere, was performed with all the confidence of an established repertory work – which surely it will become. The title comes from her own poetic inscription:
Inside, withheld, unbreathed,Nether, undisclosed.
Souffle, vapour, ghost,Hauch and dust.
Absent, silent, void,Naught beside.
Either, neither, sole,
Unified.
Written in a single movement, it seemed to me to be divided into two sections, the second initially perhaps suggestive of a slow movement that is not a slow movement, before turning out to breathe – or perhaps to unbreathe – if the reference will be forgiven, the air of another planet beyond the more familiar ‘another planet’. A destination of sorts, I think: but how had the music got there? Phrases, arguably ‘gestural’, yet certainly not only gestural, seemed to incite one another: consecutively, overlapping, even simultaneously; rhythmically as well as melodically. As often in Saunders’s music, the illusion of an electronic penumbra proved melodically fascinating, indeed constructive; it was no mere ‘effect’. Was that perhaps even an approach to Stockhausen in a frenetic, hard-won upward passage? I found myself preoccupied by the relationship between vertical and horizontal that yet, almost contradictorily, seemed to play itself out through time, in a dramatic form creating itself in modernistic fashion. Then the relative calm of much of that second section, eerie and not at all still, suggested ghosts in a reinvented, reset machine, anything but dualistic.

Schubert’s G major Quartet, D 887, sounded quite unlike any Schubert I had ever previously heard, although I am not sure I can really put my finger on how, let alone why. As in the Szymanowski, there was something truly menacing, coldly so, to the tremolandi, but it was much more than that. Likewise it was more than a matter of febrile energy, although that too played its part. It was not that the performance was fragmentary; it had a strong sense of line, at least in certain ways; nevertheless, sometimes phrases, again as in Szymanowski, seemed on the verge of taking leave of their tonal moorings. Passages of relative stasis sounded all the odder in this context, at least to begin with all the more unnerving. However, by the time we reached the second movement, which, like its predecessor, sounded slower than it most likely was, I was missing a little too much a sense of harmonic motion. Was it I who was merely missing it, though, or was it not there? I genuinely do not know, especially since it seemed to be restored somewhat in the scherzo, if only on account of the nature of the material. Its trio, though, sounded especially weirdly distended, all the more so on account of generally glassy tone. This was strange, even wearing Schubert. Should it (not) have been? Again, I do not know.
3 days ago |
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Wigmore Hall Haydn: String Quartet in G major, op.54 no.1Haydn: String Quartet in G minor, op.74 no.3, ‘Rider’Brahms: String Quartet no.1 in C minor, op.51 no.1
Amaury Coeytaux, Loïc Rio (violins)Laurent Marfaing (viola)François Kieffer (cello)
 It was good to be back at the Wigmore Hall, by any standards the jewel in London’s musical crown, after almost a year away. No hall or house can maintain identical  standards, night in, night out – in this case, often day in, day out too – over an entire season; even if possible, it would be quite undesirable to do so. Nevertheless, the level of musical excellence heard here far more often than not only exceeds any other venue in London, but surely withstands comparison with any in the world. The Modigliani Quartet had much to tell us in performances of Haydn and Brahms: never merely ‘different’ for the sake of it, yet, by the same token, all possessing points of particular interest to differentiate themselves from others.
 Haydn’s G major Quartet, op.54 no.1, opened with cultivated tone and considerable, although far from unvaried, vibrato. One should always be wary of imputing too readily ‘national’ or other stereotypical characteristics, but the group’s sound seemed to me very much to speak of a Franco-Belgian string heritage. My ears took a minute or so to adjust, having perhaps become more accustomed recently to other schools of string playing. (I have also probably listened to less in the way of string quartet music in my time away from London.) Whatever the characteristics of the sound – or Klang, as the German in me wants to say – the important thing was that, from this first movement onwards, formal process and dynamism were apparent, attentiveness of mutual listening equally clear. Modulatory development witnessed a relative, although only relative, withdrawal of vibrato, as it subtly to underline Haydn’s questing. Its concision was breathtaking, almost Webern-like. Rightly, everything had changed in the recapitulation, its material played and heard anew. Nothing was taken for granted in the slow movement either. Without any unnecessary underlining, phrasal, harmonic, and almost Schubertian modulatory qualities were made, or perhaps better, enabled, to tell. Haydn’s startling originality and ‘rightness’ of form were rendered immanent. Beethoven was but a stone’s throw away in the minuet and trio, yet a stone’s throw away he remained; this was still very much Haydn. Motivic integration nevertheless looked forward far into the future, at least as far – with the rest of the programme in mind – as Brahms. Rigour and fun proved inseparable in the finale: a properly Haydnesque combination. Both work and performance evinced sheer delight in musical argument: an object lesson in navigation of the overarching tonal universe and of the particularities of this work.
 The opening bars of the Rider Quartet immediately announced that Haydn will always do things differently, in every quartet as in every symphony. Material dictated, or suggested, the terms of performance, and rightly so. Here, the composer’s transformations, all lovingly, intelligently handled, proved worthy of Beethoven or Liszt, permitting the work’s opening G minor sadness, close to yet never to be identified with, that of Mozart, to give way to other, quite different forms of musical expression. In some ways, the music seemed to assert its status as heir to the Sturm und Drang Haydn – without, again, being merely identified with him. Harmonic and tonal rarity, in every sense, were apparent in the slow movement; it was difficult not to think already of late Beethoven. The central turn to E minor offered a dignified, noble sadness all its own. The third movement was taken as a not-quite-scherzo, which seemed spot on; it might have been in three, yet was not really. Intensification in the trio was especially well judged. Haydn’s finale surprised with every twist and turn, even when, perhaps particularly when, one ‘knew’ it. The composer’s genius of motivic development and transformation could hardly have been granted more subtly dramatic life.
 It was interesting, indeed enlightening, to hear Brahms’s First Quartet in the motivic developmental light of the Haydn works. If initially I found the first movement somewhat hard-driven, I tried to ask myself whether that were my problem rather than that of the performance; most likely it was. The music in any case relaxed for the second group, without loss to dramatic tension. Crucially, there were throughout this performance no compromises with the difficulty of the work. I have heard it played with richer tone, but so what? Tellingly, greater tonal richness was to be heard at points of developmental climax, prior to post-Mendelssohn passages of exhaustion. Voice-leading came very much to the fore in the Romanze, an heir to Schumann as much in sensibility as in method. Mediated simplicity was something to be worked at, by players and listeners alike; the effort was unquestionably worth it. A concision that spoke of Beethoven was to be heard in the third movement; again, one had to listen, and rightly so. There were, moreover, surely echoes of Haydn to be heard and relished in the trio, in tandem with a keen sense of ghostly, even corrosive questioning. The finale offered highly wrought intensity: a conclusion in every sense. Brahms never offers easy answers; there was no attempt to pretend that he does here.
 Puccini’s Crisantemi proved an inspired choice of encore. Craftsmanship and elegiac sensibility alike proclaimed the composer far more ‘German’ than his often regrettable popular reputation might suggest. Not for nothing would he and Schoenberg so greatly admire one another. 
7 days ago |
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Barbican Hall


Images: MARK ALLAN/BARBICAN/LSO

Various: Genesis Suite (United Kingdom premiere)Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Helen McCrory, Simon Callow, Rodney Earl Clarke, and Sara Kestelman (narrators)Gerard McBurney (creative director)Mike Tutaj (projection design)


London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony OrchestraSimon Rattle (conductor)
 
‘We live now in a time of refugees.’ With those words, Simon Rattle opened his typically engaging spoken introduction to this concert of works – if the Genesis Suite may be called a ‘work’ – by émigré composers, of whom a good few certainly count as refugees themselves. Indeed we do. Having spent the last year at work writing a book on Arnold Schoenberg, I should know. And whilst it would be self-indulgent to describe myself as a refugee, I too, tired and sickened at the political condition of my country, felt it necessary to leave during that time – and to leave for what, ironically, has now become the greatest place of refuge on earth: Germany. I also visited Los Angeles as part of my research last year. Not only did I visit Schoenberg’s house, where I was kindly received by his surviving sons and their families, but I was also kindly taken on a tour of émigré houses by Alex Ross; two of the sites we saw were the houses of Ernst Toch and Igor Stravinsky (the latter, in Beverly Hills, somehow fittingly obscured from any sort of public view).
 
It was, then, an exciting prospect for me to hear the British premiere of this composite work, the Genesis Suite, in its entirety, as well as rather a fitting one for the first note of live music I heard in 2018 to be by Schoenberg. I should probably say something briefly about the Suite itself, since it may be unfamiliar. (Alas, the programme note, by Neil W Levin, was not entirely reliable, especially – if predictably – concerning the relationship between Schoenberg and Stravinsky.) It emerged from a likeably bizarre project by the Hollywood musician and ‘personality’, Nathaniel, ‘Nat’, Shilkret. According to his autobiography, Shilkret had, during a Mid-West roadtrip, asked people ‘what records they would like the most, and invariably it was the Bible. This gave me the idea of starting the Bible at the beginning: Have the text read and write music to help the beauty of the text. I decided to call the record album the Genesis Suite.’ For the six stories he selected, up to and including the Tower of Babel (Stravinsky), he recruited Schoenberg for the void prior to Creation (Shilkret himself), Darius Milhaud, Alexandre Tansman, Ernst Toch, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. ‘I had tried to get Richard Strauss and Manuel De Falla but they were too old or too busy.’ Take your pick. Bartók may have been asked too; I am not entirely sure whether that were the case. Nevertheless, he would be present in this concert, with an undeniable masterpiece of exile, his Concerto for Orchestra.
 


Positioning himself inevitably as an heir to Haydn and his ‘Representation of Chaos’ from The Creation, Schoenberg presents order even within Chaos, the twelve-note series generating a remarkable fugue, perhaps the ultimate, neo-Bachian instantiation of order. It is, perhaps, a premonition or even reminiscence of the gigantic Choral Symphony he had once planned, of which a completed Jakobsleiter would have been but one section. Here it was prefaced and accompanied – as was all the music – by images and, in some cases, sounds too. ‘I would invite you to think we’re in the great age of radio,’ Rattle had said. If it helped as a way in, then I have no problem with that; I was not always quite sure what they added, being quite unsure later on when a superfluity of images of Margaret Thatcher came to the fore. At least we were saved Theresa May and Donald Trump. What struck me in the performance of the Schoenberg Prelude was how close some of the lines and their harmonies sounded – not always the case in this piece – to the ‘freely atonal’ Schoenberg, to Erwartung, to the Five Orchestral Pieces. Constructivism takes strange paths sometimes; with Schoenberg, freedom and determinism are certainly two sides to the same coin, but never straightforwardly, always dialectically.
 
The remaining five pieces all contain Biblical narration. Again, although it did no harm, and sometimes led to interesting effects – with more than one narrator speaking at once – I was not entirely sure why we had four narrators. They nevertheless grounded this often highly contrasted – in aesthetic quality, as well as style – music; as, in their way, did the projections. The skill with which Shilkret’s own Creation music emerges from Schoenberg’s is laudable indeed, even if intrinsic musical interest is not maintained. (One might well argue that that is hardly the point.) Tansman’s contribution brings a more Gallic sound to the story of Adam and Eve, whereas Milhaud actually sounds more conventionally Hollywood – certainly on this occasion, the LSO’s long experience with film music very clear – for Cain and Abel. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Flood music does not seem to me to add anything more than generic background – and not always appropriately generic – but again, it was played with filmic relish, well steered by helmsman Rattle. Toch’s Rainbow music speaks of greater compositional individuality, even though it veers between ‘late Romanticism’ and something closer to Shostakovich. Its lively counterpoint proved quite a joy, as did that of Stravinsky’s Babel, whose proximity to the Symphony in Three Movements, for instance, was clear in this performance. No, this is not a masterpiece; how could it be? But it is of great interest, and was royally served by Rattle and the LSO. If I were left in no doubt that Schoenberg’s contribution is by far the greatest, I can happily live with that.
 


And so to Bartók. In the last Berlin Philharmonic – Rattle’s ‘other’ orchestra – concert I heard during my months in exile, Iván Fischer led the orchestra in Bartók and Mendelssohn. This LSO performance of the Concerto for Orchestra was in all respects the more interesting – at least to me. Introduced by a reading from a late letter from the composer to Bartók to Joseph Szigeti, in which Bartók mentioned a peasant curse ‘may you have nine wives’, the performance seemed, more tragically than ironically, to return, surprisingly yet convincingly, to the world of Bluebeard’s Castle(which I heard Rattle conduct in Berlin last year too). Rarely can the opening music of the ‘Introduzione’ have sounded eerier; it seemed almost to ‘speak’ operatically, as if it were wordless accompagnato. The LSO’s highly wrought, ultra-dramatic way with the music not only surprised, but truly enlightened, enriching my understanding of the possibilities of a work I had thought I knew well. Mahler rarely sounded far away, to considerable, deeply moving effect. Perhaps this is fanciful, but I am convinced that Rattle was determined to bring to this particular performance a sense of the longing and bitterness of exile; if so, he certainly succeeded. Moreover, I was alerted more strongly than usual to the importance of orchestral choirs in this movement; no more than in Schoenberg were mood and drama purchased at the expense of constructivism
 
The game of pairs in the second movement was similarly relished, in a performance both loving and mordant. Again, even without the images of upstate New York above the stage, it was well-nigh impossible not to think of Bartók as exile, with all the richness of experience that implies. I loved the way the music danced, yet never danced too easily. There is ‘foreignness’ to this music, whatever standpoint or guise one adopts. The darkness of the central elegy seemed, rightly, to take its leave once again from Bluebeard and indeed from the first movement itself. If the material were very different, an emotional closeness to Mahler was again to be heard, as indeed it was in the ‘Intermezzo interrotto’, which intriguingly took upon itself, in context, a function not entirely dissimilar to that of the ‘Adagietto’ in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. There was longing, yes, but also a sense that we might be about to turn the corner, even that we had. That the music remained ultimately enigmatic was not the least of this performance’s virtues. Without wishing to push the Mahlerian parallel beyond endurance, there was again a sense not only of resolution but of difficulty in resolution to the finale that recalled its counterpart in the Fifth Symphony. Anger and fury remained behind the notes, perhaps more strongly than I can recall ever having heard before. This was no ‘mere’ exhilaration. Bartók’s music had been made strange once again, even re-exiled, in the very best of ways.
 

8 days ago |
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This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper but a bang. If ever we needed proof that 2018 will bring Götterdämmerung… And who better to bring down the curtain on Trump, May, neoliberalism, a certain 'love's dream', upon everything really, than Helmut Lachenmann? Listen, I implore you, to these six minutes. And do not doubt, for one second, that Lachenmann this is.


13 days ago |
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Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Image, Bettina Stöß (2015 revival)
 
Rodolfo – Lisparit AvetisyanSchaunard – Dean Murphy
Marcello – Noel Bouley
Colline – Ievgen Orlov
Benoit – Jörg Schörner
Mimì – Dinara Alieva
Musetta – Alexandra Hutton
Parpignol – Ya-Chung Huang
Alcindoro – Peter Maus
Customs Officer – Sam Roberts-Smith 

Götz Friedrich (director)Gerlinde Pelkowski (revival director)
Peter Sykora (designs)


Children's Chorus (chorus master: Christian Lindhorst) and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus master: Thomas Richter), BerlinOrchestra of the Deutsche Oper, BerlinNicholas Carter (conductor) 
It was with considerable surprise that I found myself making one final visit of 2017 to the Deutsche Oper. On Christmas Eve, a malfunctioning sprinkler system had flooded the stage, leading to the cancellation of that day’s Nutcracker and a number of subsequent performances. Nevertheless, having clearly worked very hard, the company was able to announce that, from 28 December, performances would resume, albeit ‘halbszenisch,’ which seemed to mean in costume, but without full staging (scenery and so on). When Intendant, Dietmar Schwarz came on to the stage before the performance, it was difficult not to wonder ‘what now?’ However, it was with good news: the scenery would be there; the only real problem now lay with lighting, which would have to be provided by different methods (hence my lack of a lighting credit above).  

In the circumstances – goodness knows what, if anything, happened by way of rehearsal – a detailed review would seem beside the point. What I will say is that, insofar as I could tell, the great Götz Friedrich’s 1988 production, here receiving its 118thperformance, did not seem especially tired. The cast seemed well directed by revival director, Gerlinde Pelkowski; interaction between the characters on stage proved detailed and convincing, within an overall realist framework. One did not expect the experience of Stefan Herheim’s Oslo staging – still the only one I have seen to offer profound, even life-changing insights – nor the bizarre yet inviting sounding lunar antics of Claus Guth recently in Paris. (How keen I am to see that at some stage!) Herheim’s shadow falls over everything I have seen thereafter, in any case; one does not need to have it in front of one, whether on stage or on screen, to experience again what it tells of death and its agonies. 

A good cast offered plenty of opportunity, well taken, for solo and ensemble excellence. Liparit Avetisyan and Dinara Alieva proved a likeable Rodolfo and Mimì. As so often, the Musetta glittered especially bright: this time courtesy of Alexandra Hutton. Dean Murphy’s Schaunard stood out vocally, far from the easiest of tasks in that role. Choral singing was excellent, no allowances needing to be made for ‘circumstances’. And Nicholas Carter’s conducting of the ever excellent Deutsche Oper Orchestra steered a generally judicious balance between what one might broadly term the score’s Wagnerian and Stravinskian tendencies. Above all, though, and without abdicating one’s critical faculties, this was an evening for gratitude to all concerned. It was also an evening for especial gratitude from me, both to the Deutsche Oper and to Berlin. Sad to say, work compels me now to return to the United (sic) Kingdom. I intend to be back as often as possible, and shall be grateful for the rest of my life to the city that offered me refuge from (some of) the worst of British society and politics. London awaits.


18 days ago |
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Rebecca Saunders

For the past few years, I have tried to count up the composers featured in performances I have attended, and wanted to do likewise for 2017: not the best of years in other respects, but with much for me to rejoice about musically. One review I have still to write, La bohème at the Deutsche Oper (29 December), but that should follow soon. Here, then, is the breakdown, for operas, for concerts, and together. As before, one appearance in a programme is counted once, whether it be for a Webern canon (alas not at all this year: not a single Webern performance) or a Wagner drama; so be it. And I have tended towards a more generous definition of opera, including music theatre, and so on, even including the Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s staging of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Wagner’s extraordinary dominance in opera is quite unlike any other year, but there is quite a mix otherwise, including two (I know only two…) women composers, and it is wonderful to see Monteverdi in second place there.

When it comes to concerts: Beethoven-Mozart-Brahms. I am a Viennese classicist, am I not? Boulez’s reappearance, though, is most welcome, with seven concerts: thanks here are due to the opening of the Pierre Boulez Saal, and to the Vienna Konzerthaus’s Boulez festival.
To return, though, to women, and indeed to turn to a subject I should have thought about long ago when making such a list: how is it that, of 96 composers featured, only six are women? (I think I have done my sums correctly; please forgive any slips in that respect, and feel free to tell me!) The problem is certainly not that I have not attended enough contemporary music. Of those 96 composers, 32 are living: one thing, at least, of which I am quite proud. Yet, whilst all six of those women composers are alive, the contemporary scales are still weighted 6:26. Is this partly my fault? Doubtless. I could certainly make more of an effort to attend and to review performances of music by women. (I could also make far more of an effort when it comes to teaching too.) Is it entirely my fault? Clearly not. This is systemic. What, then, are we going to do? We cannot pretend there is no problem here.
Opera/music theatre, etc.Wagner 15Monteverdi 4Strauss 3Debussy, Mozart 2Bartók, Benjamin, Berg, Berio, Borodin, Busoni, Cavalli, Humperdinck, Elena Kats-Chernin, Janácek, Ligeti, Menotti, Mussorgsky, Puccini, Ravel, Reimann, Nicola Sani, Rebecca Saunders, Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini, Schreker, Schumann, Shostakovich, Johann Strauss, Stravinsky, Verdi, Weber, Ryan Wigglesworth 1
ConcertsBeethoven 13Mozart 10Brahms 9Boulez, Schubert 7Debussy, Schoenberg, Schumann 6Haydn, Ligeti, Jörg Widmann 5Berg, Ravel, Stravinsky 4Bach, Bartók, Dvorák, Mahler 3CPE Bach, Carter, Chopin, Messiaen, Monteverdi, Rihm, Shostakovich, Strauss, Takemitsu, Tchaikovsky, Isang Yun 2Mark Andre, Georges Aperghis, Julian Anderson, WF Bach, Vykintas Baltakas, Alessandro Baticci, Benjamin, Birtwistle, Johannes Boris Borowski, Bruch, Busoni, Duparc, Britten, Fodé Lassana Diabaté, Eisler, Grisey, Ivan Fedele, Luca Francesconi, Franck, HK Gruber, Lou Harrison, Hindemith, Ibert, Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin, Kodály, Kurtág, Liza Lim, Liszt, Luca Marenzio, Christian Mason, Mendelssohn, Nono, Helmut Oehring, Eva Reiter, Matthias Pintscher, Erno Poppe, Prokofiev, Roussel, Rzewski, Rebecca Saunders, Iris ter Schiphorst, Johannes Schöllhorn, Marco Stroppa, Telemann, Nicola Vicentino, Walton, Weber, Weill, Gerhard E. Winkler, Wolf, John Zorn 1
Concerts and opera combinedWagner 15Beethoven 13Mozart 12Brahms 9Debussy 8Boulez, Schubert, Schumann 7Ligeti, Monteverdi, Schoenberg 6Berg, Haydn, Ravel, Stravinsky, Jörg Widmann 5Bartók, Strauss 4Bach, Bartók, Dvorák, Mahler, Shostakovich 3CPE Bach, Benjamin, Busoni, Carter, Chopin, Messiaen, Rihm, Rebecca Saunders, Takemitsu, Tchaikovsky, Weber, Isang Yun 2 Mark Andre, Georges Aperghis, Julian Anderson, WF Bach, Vykintas Baltakas, Alessandro Baticci, Birtwistle, Borodin, Johannes Boris Borowski, Bruch, Cavalli, Duparc, Britten, Fodé Lassana Diabaté, Eisler, Grisey, Ivan Fedele, Luca Francesconi, Franck, HK Gruber, Lou Harrison, Hindemith, Humperdinck, Ibert, Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin, Janácek, Elena Kats-Chernin, Kodály, Kurtág, Liza Lim, Liszt, Luca Marenzio, Christian Mason, Mendelssohn, Menotti, Mussorgsky, Nono, Puccini, Helmut Oehring, Eva Reiter, Matthias Pintscher, Erno Poppe, Prokofiev, Reimann, Roussel, Rzewski, Nicola Sani, Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini, Iris ter Schiphorst, Johannes Schöllhorn, Schreker, Johann Strauss, Marco Stroppa, Telemann, Nicola Vicentino, Walton, Weill, Ryan Wigglesworth, Gerhard E. Winkler, Wolf, John Zorn 1

One sign of hope, if hardly of mitigation: the new work that made the strongest impression on me was, I think, Rebecca Saunders’s Yes. New music groups of the world: unite and perform it as soon as you can, please. Audiences of the world: unite and attend.
19 days ago |
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Philharmonie
Bartók: Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz 100Bartók: Violin Concerto no.1, Sz 36
Mendelssohn: Selection from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opp.21 and 61: Overture and nos 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 13

Vilde Frang (violin)Mari Eriksmoen (soprano)Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano)Ladies of the Philharmonia Chor Wien (chorus master: Walter Zeh)Berlin Philharmonic OrchestraIván Fischer (conductor)
 
What struck me initially during the first of the two movements of Bartók’s 1933 version for orchestra of his Hungarian Peasant Songs was the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic. Many have commented, whether since the departure of Claudio Abbado, since that of Herbert von Karajan, even since the death of Wilhelm Furtwängler, on how the orchestra has lost ‘its’ sound. Depending on one’s standpoint, there is either a great deal of truth in that or there is none; or perhaps there is a third way too. Certainly the orchestral sound has not remained the same, but has that of any orchestra? Here, I heard – perhaps this has come from hearing the orchestra often over the past year, in the Philharmonie – what I might characterise as a ‘modern Berlin sound’, both in character, rich, deep, and yet translucent, and yet, almost paradoxically, if one is talking about ‘a sound’, adaptable, according not only to the music, but also to the conductor. Am I saying anything at all there? I am not sure, but I decided to mention it, since the thought struck me with some force.

The performance of that opening work sounded very much, well, as the opening to a concert, almost as if it were the aural opening of a storybook, which in a sense it was. Fantastical (at times) orchestration made the original material sound new, just as a Bach orchestration might, and yet, the ‘original’ was still there, just as with Bach. Moreover, one could hear where the later Bartók came from, too; affinities even with the Concerto for Orchestrapresented themselves. If I occasionally found Iván Fischer a little laboured, keen to underline, less keen to suggest how the dances of the second movement might hang together, there was no denying the straightforward excellence of the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing – which, I think, Karajan and Abbado, perhaps even Furtwängler, as well, of course, as Simon Rattle, would happily have recognised. And the final dance was unmistakeably a climax.

Vilde Frang joined the orchestra for Bartók’s First Violin Concerto. Her initially haunting solo line truly drew one in to listen. Odd though this may be sound, I barely noticed to start with that other violinists, then other instrumentalists had joined her, such was the unanimity of purpose, almost as if the musicians were part of a giant orchestral keyboard. (I thought, then, of Boulez’s sur Incises, and of his work with this orchestra.) Chamber music thus blossomed into orchestral music, in a truly extraordinary way: all the time, so it seemed, led by the golden thread of a solo line, even when it had fallen silent. The second movement offered a vigorous response, very much in the manner, if not quite the style, of the later Bartók. Fast vibrato from Frang proved no obstacle to the surest of intonation, for her violin playing proved just as commanding as her broader musicianship. Musical connections with Prokofiev, even Szymanowski, suggested themselves, without this singular piece ever sounding quite ‘like’ anything other than itself. 

I presume the programming of music from A Midsummer Night’s Dreamwas intended as a joke, given the date of the winter solstice. At any rate, it brightened the darkness of a Berlin winter. It is perhaps peculiarly difficult to speak of Mendelssohn’s music without resort to cliché. Words for the Overture – that perfect miracle, from a seventeen-year-old – present themselves all too readily, whether in work or performance: aetheral, gossamer, and so on. Those words certainly came to my mind more or less immediately, along with the recollection that Mendelssohn, so wisely, had once remarked that the problem with music was that it was more, not less, precise than words. Perhaps I should give up here, then, but I had better say something more. The aetheral strangeness of those opening chords actually put me in mind a little of Mahler: the chorale in the first movement of the Sixth Symphony, to be precise; the gossamer lightness of the Berlin strings’ response proved a true delight. And if Fischer, to begin with, sounded unduly Toscanini-like, harrying the score somewhat, he soon settled down. He understood – as many, surprisingly do not – that the end of the development here is, as often with Mendelssohn, a point of exhaustion, even if he somewhat overdid that exhaustion. It was, moreover, a joy to hear a full string section (fourteen first violins, down to six double basses) in this music. And who would not melt upon hearing those strings, or indeed Emmanuel Pahud’s flute in the recapitulation? 

The Scherzo was as lithe as it had been under Abbado, and at least as full of woodland character (those clichés again, I know). This might sound banal, and perhaps it is, but I was moved to marvel, which I do perhaps less often than I should, at quite what a modern symphony orchestra can accomplish, and in particular at what this modern symphony orchestra can. I was taken a little by surprise at the German in ‘Ye spotted snakes’ or rather, ‘Bunte Schlangen, zweigezüngt!’ Schlegel’s celebrated translation has its own enchantments, though, as of course does Mendelssohn’s score. If I might have preferred a little more warmth initially from soprano, Mari Eriksomoen, that was certainly forthcoming from Kitty Whately and members of the Philahrmonia Chor Wien, who stood up from within the orchestra. And any reservation was more a matter of personal taste, or lack thereof, than anything else; these were fine vocal performances. Fischer let the music run away with him occasionally, but recovered well enough. Wordless drama characterised the Intermezzo, again bringing those Mendelssohnian thoughts concerning the ‘definiteness’ of music to mind. Delectable horns and woodwind came very much to the fore in the Nocturne, just as they must. Fischer’s way with it was slightly on the sectional side, but I should not exaggerate. There was, moreover, great passion to be heard from the strings. A resplendent and, yes, moving Wedding March prepared the way for the mysterious, quirky, Mahlerian foreshadowing of the Marcia funèbre. The final movement bound together various gossamer threads admirably. My only regret was that we had not had more of the music, and indeed the play itself. And there was ambiguity to those fairies too, especially in the delivery of their final line: 'Trefft ihn in der Dämmerung!’
 
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Pierre Boulez Saal
Takemitsu: Le son calligraphié I-IIIStrauss: Metamorphosen, in version for string septet by Rudolf LeopoldProkofiev Sonata for Two Violins in C major, op.56Bruch: Octet in B-flat major, op. posth.
Daishin Kashimoto, Noah Bendix-Balgley, Luiz Felipe Coelho, Christophe Horak (violins)Amihai Grosz, Naoko Shimizu (violas)Ludwig Quandt, Bruno Delepelaire (cellos)Matthew McDonald (double bass)

It is doubtless in the nature of such varied programmes, in which the emphasis seems to lie upon variety in itself rather than on a unifying theme, that some works will appeal to any one listener more than others. In that respect, I should count myself fortunate that only – doubtless predictably – Max Bruch’s musically anonymous late string octet that failed to intrigue me. (If, as a Bruch fanatic, should such a thing exist, you prefer: I failed to be intrigued by it.) The date of composition, although it apparently is based upon earlier materials, beggars belief: 1920. It is not so much that it was written eight years after Pierrot lunaire, as that it sounds rather like a talented, yet uninspired attempt to imitate the young, and I mean very young, Mendelssohn. Not that the eight players – all of those listed above, save for Matthew McDonald on double bass – in any sense failed it. Quite the contrary: I cannot imagine it receiving a more committed, enlightened performance, determined to make the most of its craftsmanship, without attempting to turn it into something it is not. The spirit and cultivation of the playing were, from the opening of the first of its three movements, undeniable: far more thrilling than the material itself. It was surely to that, quite rightly, that the audience so warmly responded. There were darker moments (relatively speaking) too, especially in the central Adagio-Andante con molto di moto. And if even these players could not quite convince one that the generic character and/or form of a finale were transformed into something more than that, they did their very best. No one should begrudge such pieces an occasional outing – and who knows? Maybe others heard something in the piece I did not.

Written for the same forces, Toru Takemitsu’s three early Son calligraphiéworks (1958-60), proved more fascinating, at least to me. If their miniature status and their spare directness of utterance perhaps inevitably brought to mind Webern and – from the future – Kurtág, the harmonic language, especially in so warm, yet never over-egged a performance proved more suggestive of Berg. It might seem contradictory, and perhaps it is, to speak of spare directness and then to mention languor, but there seemed to be plenty of space, however considered, for that too, timbres often suggestive of a more Gallic sensibility. The wholeness of the players’ conception, combined with attention to (Japanese?) ‘calligraphic’ detail, might have had one think these pieces repertoire works. There seemed to me, at least on a first hearing, no good reason why they should not be.

Strauss’s Metamorphosen is, unquestionably, although not necessarily in this form, the version for string septet by Rudolf Leopold, made following rediscovery of Strauss’s short score and first performed in 1994. The players turned around so as to face in the opposite direction for this, following in the footsteps of many musicians, Daniel Barenboim included, eager to play the hall, even its audience, as a living instrument rather than a mere space for performance. Not for nothing is the Pierre Boulez Saal’s motto ‘music for the thinking ear’. Seven strings will never sound the same as twenty-three. Nor should they attempt to; for, if that were the aim, why not use twenty-three? Here there is, almost by definition, a greater sense of chamber music, but it was a greater sense in performance too, the players seemingly relishing the opportunity to play with the difference, although never to be different merely for the sake of it. What I noticed earlier on was an apparently slower tempo than often one hears. (I say apparently, since it sounded to be as much a matter of holding back harmonically, and have no idea whether it was in terms of accursed metronome beats.) Such was not how it was to be all along, though, for lighter, even relatively brighter passages seemed to gain momentum, both in terms of tempo and harmonic rhythm. (Are the two in fact distinct?) This was a Metamorphosen which, perhaps unusually, had more of late Strauss’s typical Mozartian sonata form balance and dynamism, vis-à-vis dark Wagnerism. It was not, however, a case of one against the other, but of dramatic conflict. Likewise, the balance and generative conflict between harmony and counterpoint sounded almost as if born of a Mozart quintet, rendering transitional passages – yes, I know the whole work is essentially transitional… – especially interesting. The cultivated gravity of return led to a soft-spoken sense of approaching yet never reaching suspension. And yes, the Eroica moment spoke as eloquently as ever, in its new yet old setting: a metaphor perhaps for the performance as a whole.

Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins, played by concertmasters Daishin Kashimoto and Noah Bendix-Balgley, fared wonderfully well, in a performance as dramatic, even aspirantly balletic, as it was razor-sharp of intonation. The bitter-sweet post-Romantic intertwining and separation of instruments in the first movement proved a masterclass, performative as well as compositional, in two-part writing. Bartókian fury, soon transmuted into something else, which in turn was soon transformed, and so on, characterised a powerfully yet never pedantically developmental second movement. Sweetly, songfully enigmatic, the simple, side-slipping pleasures of the third movement delighted. What I thought of as the sincere tricksterism of the finale did so too, in its very different way. It offered both a sense of uniting the work’s strands and yet also questioning them. Strauss was far from the only composer of this period to don compositional mask upon mask.
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Philharmonie
Mass in D major, op.123 (Missa solemnis)
Luba Orgonášová (soprano)Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano)Daniel Behle (tenor)Franz-Josef Selig (bass)
Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Philipp Ahmann)Berlin Philharmonic OrchestraChristian Thielemann (conductor)



There are musical works at which, in awe, one strain’s one’s aural neck – and then there is the Missa solemnis (no need, just like the Ninth Symphony, to say whose). It has its detractors; so does Fidelio. However, their accusations, in both cases, seem founded on gross misunderstandings of what Beethoven was doing. Ultimately, they perhaps even add to the works’ stature: almost unquestionably so, I think, in the case of the Missa solemnis. Its extreme difficulty is both the point and not the point. As with all late Beethoven, indeed pretty much all Beethoven, dialectics ensure that difficulty and simplicity, rupture and wholeness, so on and so forth, are not just banally ‘connected’, but inconceivable, conceptually let alone performatively, with one another.

Performance: there’s the rub, or perhaps the greatest rub. I have noticed that, with many honourable exceptions, it is singers who are most likely to condemn those works of Beethoven that include voices. (It is surely an error to name them ‘vocal works’, a mistake that gets close to the heart of the matter.) If you want concessions, to your personal taste, to your ease of performance or listening, concessions to anything really: Beethoven could hardly be less your man. It is not ‘about you’, as the modern slogan has it. And yes, I know very well that I am drawing upon, thinking and writing within, the Romantic myth of Beethoven, of the towering, glowering genius. Such knowledge, whether we like it or no, is the essence of our modern and/or post-modern predicament. Guess what, though? The myth happens to be true. The enigmatic quality and the extreme difficulty are integral to the work; in the complexity of its attempted, impossible mediation between subject and object, they are, just as in Hegel (well, more or less ‘just as’), doing the work of Geist (Spirit), of God, of history, of whatever we want to call it, or It. Calling the Missa solemnis a ‘concert work’ is at best misleading, despite its actual – as opposed to envisaged – performance history. It is not only a sacred work, but a resanctification of, through serious reckoning with, the Mass itself – and not only its text. Reactionaries will not like that, but so what? Nor does Geist.


Performance, however, is not, as it were, the only rub. The business of aesthetics, of reflection upon art, almost immediately, even immanently, arises with this work. Such is modernity – and is this not most likely Beethoven’s most modern work of all? I have long entertained the fantasy – and who knows: sometimes fantasies are realised – that the Missa solemnis in particular and perhaps Beethoven in general would be my retirement job. (Let us leave aside the sad reflection that retirement itself will doubtless remain a mere fantasy for those of us betrayed and destroyed by the ‘Brexit’ generation.) I certainly do not feel remotely prepared to tackle it yet. In that respect, I both take heart and become ever more fearful from Furtwängler’s decision no longer to perform it. Like Beethoven himself – and surely we ought to afford his view a little respect, Wellington’s Victory notwithstanding – Furtwängler thought it Beethoven’s single greatest work, yet considered its challenges too great for him or indeed anyone else ever to be able to realise. And if Furtwängler, surely the greatest recorded Beethovenian of all, thought so…



Furtwängler’s view has overwhelmingly, tragically, been proved correct. I cannot, of course, claim to know all recorded performances of the Missa solemnis, let alone all other performances. Of the recordings as such (as opposed to performances that have survived on recording) only Klemperer’s 1966 version for me really confronts its challenges head on and emerges with credit. (One can hardly say ‘surmounts’ them; no one surmounts Beethoven’s challenges, or if (s)he does, that is perhaps the most lamentable fate of all.) And, perhaps perversely, although I should like to think in some sense dialectically – well I would, wouldn’t I? – I had, before this performance from Christian Thielemann and Berlin forces, attended only one performance in the concert hall. True, they do not necessarily come along so very often, but nor are they so rare as that might imply. I had not wanted to risk a mediocre, let alone a poor, performance: bad enough in symphonic Beethoven – what is more soul-destroying than thinking ‘pointless’ and-or ‘meaningless’ to a performance of the Fifth Symphony? – but somehow even worse here, for it might end up sounding like what its detractors think it does. I had chosen my single performance well: Colin Davis, shortly before his death, and with mortality seemingly, even at the time, hanging over Beethoven’s grand reckoning not only with the Mass but with God Himself. It was a performance I shall never forget – and again, like Klemperer, that is part of the problem for whatever comes after. It may, it would seem, also be (re)listened to on YouTube, but I have never felt the desire to try – and doubtless to fail – to repeat an unrepeatable experience. (Indeed, although I have offered a link to the review, I do not yet even wish to re-read it.) And the thoughts it gave rise to, seemingly spanning the entirety of musical and theological history, or doubtless I flatter myself…




Apologies for having spent so long, relatively speaking, concerning my own thoughts, or attempts at thoughts, about the work rather than the performance. (Believe me, I could have gone on for much, much longer; I almost thought myself retired.) They seemed necessary, though, not even merely advisable, to explain how I heard Thielemann’s performance – or perhaps, to those who gained far more from it, how I did not hear it. Or perhaps I too was avoiding a confrontation. It seems somehow almost unforgivably banal to move to saying ‘it had much to admire, yet…’. And yet, that is what I must do; for, despite many very real virtues, the sheer excellence of all performing forces the greatest among them, I was left almost entirely cold. Was that another turn, as it were, of the Adornian dialectical screw? I thought I had truly grasped the work, however fleetingly, and then had not? Maybe a little, but not really, I think.

Thielemann clearly knew the work, or the notes, and what he wanted from it, or them. He was conducting from memory. Moreover, he clearly knew exactly how to get what he wanted from those uniformly excellent performers. Any criticisms I shall make are in no sense criticisms of them. One might have thought that a musician who, not unaggressively, positions himself as a standard bearer of the great German tradition would have been in a good position to communicate the mysteries of this work. There is, of course, no single tradition, though. And whilst I have in the past admired Thielemann’s Beethoven greatly – his recordings with the Philharmonia, for instance – his more recent Beethoven, still more so his Wagner, seems to have been filtered through a materialist conception that might work for Strauss, and often does work for him, magnificently, but which cannot really cope with the meaning(s) of works by Beethoven and Wagner. We can certainly applaud the need not to say the same thing over and over again, or indeed merely to imitate the past; but that does not mean that an alternative, simply by virtue of being an alternative, has any of the answers.

The full, warm sound of the Berlin Philharmonic at the opening of the Kyrieaugured well: not entirely unlike Thielemann’s Philharmonia Beethoven; perhaps also with a certain kinship to the Klang of Leonard Bernstein’s Concertgebouw recording; not much at all in common with the sound of any of Herbert von Karajan’s intriguing multiple attempts at reckoning with the work (see, for instance, hereand here), although perhaps at another level – deeper or shallower? perhaps both? – not so distant conceptually from Karajan’s approach. Militant authenticists would not have liked it, but who cares? And the bounds of the movement – perhaps the only one that has recognisable bounds – were well chosen; I was put in mind of an observation from Joseph Kerman to the effect that this was the only part of Beethoven’s setting that had no hyperbole. (I cannot recall his precise words, and do not have them here with me to check, so I hope that I shall be forgiven for distortion, misattribution, or even downright invention!) Moreover, whilst, from observing Thielemann, one might have feared an overly moulded performance, it did not – at least not here – sound like one. And if one had a problem with what it lookedlike, one could also, as with Bernstein, close one’s eyes. (Even Karajan did not, of course, do that for works with chorus when conducting them.) There was, moreover, a fine sense of a ‘natural’ – however constructed that might have been – tread to the movement’s progress. Beethoven, quite rightly, was not to be hurried; nor was he to be static. Individual soloists versus the ‘mass’ of the chorus sounded in balance, and dramatically rather than banally so. It did not ‘sound like’ Haydn, but perhaps still belonged in a similar conception to his. Beethoven as (sort of) Haydn? That is hardly unreasonable, especially here.

The rest of the Mass does not, of course, and rarely if ever did Thielemann seem quite to know – not that I think he was not trying – to portray, to dramatise that. The breakneck speed of the opening of the Gloria was surely an attempt, far from unreasonable, to do that – but what does reason, at least Enlightenment reason, have to do with this work? Superlative playing from the orchestra and superlative singing from the chorus impressed, as did the extraordinary clarity of what one heard: bassoons beneath the chorus, for instance. It ‘worked’, I think, but something was missing. The beating Larghetto heart of the movement arguably did not, Thielemann seemingly struggling to establish a basic pulse, although the woodwind solos predictably ravished in a materialist fashion. Even once the pulse had settled, though, it all sounded a little too glamorous. There was, though, a welcome sense of decision to follow: there can be no argument with either Beethoven or Whoever Stands Above Him; or alternatively, there can, but it will fail. Such good work, very sadly, was largely undone by a preposterously indulgent Luftpausebefore ‘in glora Dei Patris’. What might work – might – in Thielemann’s Meistersinger‘Wach auf!’ does not work here; it came across as mere egotism. Just because you can do something, it does not follow that you should. Following that, perhaps not inappropriately in situ, came weirdly operatic ‘Amens’. Beethoven as Verdi? No thank you.

Still more is at stake in Beethoven’s Credo, both statement of and struggle to believe. Here, alas, there was far too little sense of struggle. Tension was built up admirably in the first section, very controlled, even controlling, but that is not to be disdained; we hardly want a free-for-all. It was, again, mightily impressive. ‘Et incarnatus est’ brought Palestrina, increasingly adorned, to the stage, not unlike an aural representation of a Gothic church, decorated by Rococo successors. Egotism once again, however, brought a bizarrely prolonged silence between the ‘Crucifixus’ and ‘Et resurrexit’ sections. Perhaps this is unfair, but it was almost as if Thielemann wanted to dare the audience not to fidget, or even to applaud. What followed was highly theatrical – one may argue about whether it should be, but it is not an outrageous conception – without ever conveying any real sense of theological, or other, meaning. Neutrality as opposed to neutralising tendencies doing batter with subjectivity in the material and its development? Beethoven as sewing pattern? Again, no thank you.

That tendency to draw out ‘preparations’ – not in a liturgical sense – was again to be heard in the Sanctus as we approached the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ section. Alas, it sounded more like a trick of the trade than a reading or communication of the text. There was no gainsaying, though, the outstanding level of execution. Warmly cultivated playing from concertmaster, Daniel Stabrawa – I wish violinists would not stand as if concerto soloists for this – was greatly to be admired, but did this feel in context as if it represented, even embodied, the descent of the Holy Ghost? Oddly, the music of the ‘Benedictus’ section sounded closer than I could recall hearing before to Die Zauberflöte. Beethoven as Mozart? Well, we can argue about that.

Darkness, even if again of a somewhat materialist conception, rightly haunted the opening of the Agnus Dei. Franz-Josef Selig’s solo seemed to speak with something close to perfection of both that darkness and the humanity that might emerge de profundis. A comparison with Sarastro would be indicative, but only if it involved contrast too: there is nothing of a noble yet flawed character to the music here. (The flaws obviously, I hope, refer to Sarastro, not to Mozart!) Once more, although Thielemann often looked as if he were about to pull the music around, he did not do so unduly; indeed, the sternness with which he conducted the Berlin strings was greatly to be admired in terms of potential meaning as well as executive accomplishment. There was no doubt that we were all, worthless sinners, to be on our knees here. The longed for unambiguous major chord, when it came, was treated to what I thought of as ‘fleeting length’: not indulgent, now, but provocative in a better, productive sense. What never quite materialised, though, was the cosmic scale to the later sounds of this movement. It was as if we had returned to the world of the Kyrie; even the terror of war sounded as if heard a little too much from afar, or even as a near-visual, ‘beautiful’ representation.

I was not overwhelmed, then, either by this microcosm, or by Thielemann’sMissa cosmogony. I do not doubt, and certainly do not mean to call into question, that he had considered what he was doing. Perhaps it was just not for me. I am not sure, though, that it was for Beethoven – whatever we mean by that – either. Still, it made me think, if more afterwards than at the time. I was led to think even about what it meant not to have been made to think. And then I returned to Adorno, and with the unquestionable egotism of a mere fallen human being, to something I had written in my first book (on Wagner’s Ring), towards its close:
Adorno was quite justified to claim that serious consideration of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – perhaps the most enduringly enigmatic musical work yet written – could only result in its Brechtian alienation, in rupturing ‘the aura of unfocused veneration protectively surrounding it’. One of the greatest problems with respect to the Ring is that such rupture has become well-nigh impossible. To be aware of this is only a beginning, but better than nothing. We should remain grateful that the enigma of the Ringpales besides that of Beethoven’s work. If we could understand why Beethoven set the Mass, we should, Adorno claimed, understand the Missa Solemnis. Understanding why Wagner wrote the Ring and beginning to understand the work itself suddenly seem less forbidding prospects.

Until, then, (impossible) retirement…
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Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Gretel (Elsa Dreisig) and Hänsel (Katrin Wundsam)
Images: Monika Rittershaus


Peter – Arttu KatajaGertrud – Marina PrudenskayaHänsel – Katrin WundsamGretel – Elsa DreisigWitch – Jürgen SacherSandman – Corinna ScheurleDew Fairy – Sarah Aristidou
Achim Freyer (director, designs, lighting)Geertje Boeden (assistant director)Petra Weikert (assistant designer)Sebastian Alphons (lighting)Jakob Klaffs, Hugo Reis (video)Elena Garcia Fernandez, Larissa Wieczorek (dramaturgy)
Children’s Chorus of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (chorus master: Vincenz Weissenburger)Staatskapelle BerlinSebastian Weigle (conductor)

The first performance of Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera, Hänsel und Gretel, on the night before Christmas Eve, 1893, in Weimar, was conducted by Richard Strauss. The work’s second staging, in Hamburg, in September of the following year, was conducted by Gustav Mahler. It reached Berlin, this very house, then home to the Royal Court rather than the State Opera, the following month, and has belonged to the world ever since. Alas, that very popularity and a strange, seemingly related, insistence on presenting a tale of child abuse with sugar coating have tended to lead to the opera’s underestimation, or at least to insipid presentation, even non-interpretation. What, after all, is a fairy tale, if it is not an invitation to interpretation, for children, for adults, for all? For those to whom the Brothers Grim(m) were something a little more interesting than Eric and Donald Trump Jr, this would be mind-numbingly obvious; alas, audiences being what they often are…
Hänsel, The Witch (Jürgen Sacher), and Gretel


Achim Freyer does not penetrate so deep as LiamSteel in his Royal College of Music staging; when I saw that, I more or less instantly realised it was the production for which I had been waiting much of my adult life. (Yes, as I never tire of pointing out, much of the best London opera takes place in our conservatoires.) But nor does he try to; his concerns are different. He is certainly not pandering to reactionary ‘tastes’, in the manner of Adrian Noble in his Vienna Disneyfication. Where Freyer excels, as, at his best, he always does, is in the creation of a world, both childlike and perhaps not. I say ‘perhaps’, since who is to say what is ‘childlike’ and what is not, or indeed what its opposite might be. Is that, again, not part of the essence of fairy tales? Clowns are present, of course; there is that undeniable element of Freyer house style, but why not? It does not look, like sometimes his staging have, as merely more of the same, or one size fits all; nor does it feel like it. The sense of theatre is keen, not without framing, for instance when the wondrous flick of the lighting switch opens the metaphorical story book at the opening, yet without ever seeming pleased with itself, or too clever-clever. Children, of whatever age, do not like that; often they are right not to do so. We never see the ‘real’ Hänsel and Gretel, or rather the ‘real’ singers, not really, for their masks cover their faces several times over. But what is ‘real’? And what is ‘real’ here? Perhaps the plot interests Freyer less: a pity, I think, but he has other concerns. And the dream-like sense of proceedings, if only in retrospect, acquires a more darkly, yet also brightly, sense of the political and its possibilities, with a final unveiling of the sign ‘REVOLUTIO’. Unfinished business, or a joke? Dreamers or anti-dreamers, from Novalis to Brecht, may – or may not – have their say. Life with Freyer, life in many fairy tales, is a circus; yet think of what a circus, that theatre of cruelty, of the absurd, of society and anti-society, involves, suggests, incites.

If only the musical side of things had lived up to those possibilities. Sebastian Weigle’s conducting was, alas, throughout Kapellmeister-ish in the negative sense. ‘Light’, as if attempting a demonstration that Mendelssohn were not worth listening to, almost entirely without Wagnerisms, let alone the kinship with Strauss Christian Thielemann in that Vienna performance had imparted, rightly or wrongly to the score, the greater sin of Weigle’s reading was listlessness. I do not think I have ever heard the first act drag so; nor have I heard the music sound less magical. Weigle is certainly no Strauss or Mahler. It would be a hard task indeed to have the Staatskapelle Berlin sound bad in this music, and it did not; but this great orchestra was sadly undersold throughout, achieving a few moments of wonder despite, not on account of, its conductor.


It was not a vintage night for singing either, although Elsa Dreisig sparkled as Gretel. Katrin Wundsam sometimes sounded rather harsh as Hänsel. Marina Prudenskaja and Arttu Kataja sang well enough as their parents, likewise Jürgen Sacher as the Witch, but perhaps needed something more in the way of inspirational musical leadership – I shall never forget Colin Davis in 2008 – to lift their performances to something more memorable. There was hope, though, that in a subsequent revival, not only better conducted, but perhaps more engaged with the possibilities hinted at by Freyer, something more than the sum of the parts might emerge. That hope is, after all, the fuel on which opera houses, especially houses now reborn such as this, should burn.
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