Monday, 20 November 2017

Barenboims and Soltani - Beethoven and Borowski, 19 November 2017

Pierre Boulez Saal

Beethoven: Piano Trio in E-flat major, op.1 no.1
Johannes Boris Borowski: Piano Trio (2013)
Beethoven: Piano Trio in D major, op.70 no.1

Michael Barenboim (violin)
Kian Soltani (cello)
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Recently seventy-five years young, Daniel Barenboim is returning his attention to Beethoven’s chamber music – as well as turning and returning his attention to much else. The music of Johannes Boris Borowski is one of those newer focuses of attention. Borowski’s Encore was first performed earlier this year at the Pierre Boulez Saal by Barenboim and the hall’s resident Boulez Ensemble. Now, with two fine young musicians, violinist Michael Barenboim and cellist Kian Soltani, the elder Barenboim presented two of Beethoven’s piano trios – the rest are to come – alongside Borowski’s 2013 work, written originally for the Trio Steuermann.

This was, I think, my first encounter with Borowski’s music. It certainly made me keen to hear more, and indeed to hear the Piano Trio again. Typical caveats for a new work (to me) apply: I have not seen a score, and am basing my account entirely upon a single hearing (and performance). Written in a single movement, lasting about a quarter of an hour, Borowski’s Trio emerged as somewhat in the Schubert-Liszt-Schoenberg tradition of encompassing at least a sense, if less overtly than those composers, of traditional movements within. It certainly sounded as a work in itself, not one movement in need of anything else. My ear – the Boulez Saal’s ‘thinking ear’, I hope – was especially caught later on by a haunting passage, seemingly ‘led’ by the cello, often with harmonics, which paved the way for what sounded akin to a ‘slow movement’ section, save for its placing at the close. ‘Placing’ is not quite the right word, given the possible implication of contrivance, for it proved very much a fitting conclusion and, in its way, a ‘return’, with all the musical connotations that might bring.

For there was there to be heard a return, albeit transformed, to the material of the very opening, whose intervals had announced themselves – I think – of fundamental importance to the progression of the work as a whole: not unlike Webern, perhaps, for they proved generative in a thematic, even melodic sense, even on this first hearing. The sound-world was not Webern’s; why would it be? It was darker, perhaps, at any rate recognisably, if you will forgive the aesthetic affront, post-high-modernist (by which I certainly do not mean postmodernist). All three instrumentalists listened and responded to each other as their parts suggested or demanded; this was played above all as ‘chamber music’, rather than ‘new music’. Echoes, transformations, and repetitions of figures between instruments could thus be experienced much – well, at least in part – as one might have done with Beethoven or Haydn. The considerable technical demands for violin and cello in particular were fearlessly and, above all, musically navigated. As I said, I look forward to hearing the piece again – and more by Borowski.

Prior to that, we had heard the first of Beethoven’s works in the genre, indeed his op.1 no.1: the Trio in E-flat major. The very first bar spoke of a young composer, his music full of what can only, if bathetically, be described as ‘life’. Barely ‘Romantic’ at all – surely rather less so than late Mozart or late Haydn – this was nevertheless unmistakeably Beethoven, ‘influences’ notwithstanding. The performance, both of the first movement and beyond, was ‘stylish, yes, but as an integral part of work and performance: not, as so many ‘authenticke’ brethren would seem to think, as something to be applied to the notes. Balance, which so many of them would claim, quite without evidence, to be ‘impossible’ on modern instruments, never proved an issue at all. The expansive, even on occasion slightly stiff, qualities of Beethoven’s early structures were minimised, form properly dynamic, developmental modulations in particular relished.

The three instruments (and their players) were especially winningly differentiated in the slow movement, taken at a tempo that seemed just right to accommodate, or better navigate, its competing demands. Daniel Barenboim proved fully equal to the apparently opposed demands of simplicity and complexity, so typical of an early Beethoven slow movement. Michael Barenboim was not afraid to sound a little rougher, where the music suggested such an approach. The surpassing elegance of Soltani’s cello tone was yet never an end in itself. A sprightly, good humoured, even skittish scherzo followed, the trio more relaxed, and considerably more intimate. One was compelled to listen: all the better. The invention implied and unleashed by that almost bizarre opening phrase of the finale – bizarre, until one appreciates, if only retrospectively, what it is suggesting – quite rightly never found itself normalised. If there were a few oddities of balance in this movement, there was nothing too grievous, far more simply, or not so simply, to enjoy.

The so-called ‘Ghost’ Trio, op.70 no.1 – to my mind, a singularly unhelpful nickname – was heard in the second half. This was unquestionably, and with just cause, a very different Beethoven: master of all he surveyed, master of more than we mere mortals could ever survey, and yet more profoundly human than all of us too. There were points of reference to the early work we had heard, but the musical sublimity – an idea essentially defined by Beethoven’s music – was something quite different. Not that this was an unduly reverential performance, nor indeed a reverential performance at all. The composer’s intense developmental concision characterised what therefore proved – again, nothing applied to the music – a thrilling first movement.

There was no doubting the Romanticism, however defined or understood, of the slow movement. It rarity, in every sense, sang as unmistakeably as anything in the composer’s late œuvre. Rapt, sublime – yes, I know I am repeating myself – this offered the (dialectical?) contradiction of a ‘perfect dialectic’, between the simple and the complex. Whatever one fancied to have become impossible after Mozart’s death, for a few minutes sounded not only once again possible but close to realisation. Arioso or scena? Ultimately, rightly, this movement was simply itself. First and foremost, the performance of the finale possessed the character of a finale. It offered release after the slow movement, yet tension aplenty of its own too. Nevertheless, something of the spirit of the father, indeed the inventor, of the piano trio remained: Haydn lived. What invention here, then, both in work and in performance!

Sunday, 19 November 2017

RSB/Hrůša - Dvořák, 17 November 2017


Stabat Mater, op.58

Simona Šaturová (soprano)
Elisabeth Kulman (contralto)
Steve Davislim (tenor)
Jan Martiník (bass)

Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Rustam Samedov)
Schola of the Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Benjamin Goodson)

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša (conductor)

For whatever reason – I could speculate on a few, but shall not do so here – many, if not all, large-scale choral works from the nineteenth century seem to have fallen out of fashion, perhaps especially in Britain. Brahms’s German Requiem will surely always have a following, and rightly so; but I have managed to hear Elijah – formerly, at least to the Victorians, ‘“the” Elijah’ – precisely once, and St Paul never. Nor had I ever heard Dvořák’s Stabat Mater before in concert. (As for the following Verdi’s Requiem has, it can only be accounted for by the following mysteriously acquired by the rest of his regrettable œuvre.) It was a delight, then, to hear such a fine performance from the Berlin Radio Choir and its ‘Schola’, the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSB), and Jakub Hrůša. Even if I had my doubts about some of the solo contributions, they were largely on matters of taste rather than anything more fundamental.

To ascribe grief – and ultimately, consolation – in such a musical setting straightforwardly to personal circumstances will usually be to sentimentalise; artistic creation is never, thank God, quite so straightforward as that. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the sequential loss of his three children may have had some connection with what Dvořák wrote, even though it goes far beyond that, to what we might at a pinch – before deconstruction sets in – still consider a (more) universal message. His setting is certainly an unusually powerful, focused work for a composer whose unevenness and, sometimes, formal inadequacy are often skated over by apologists of nationalist and other hues. (That hapless Seventh Symphony, for instance, whatever its incidental pleasures!) At his best, Dvořák is excellent indeed; all too often, however, he is not at his best. He comes at least close to that best here, I think, and often indeed reaches it.

Its opening sadness – first, those extraordinary repeated F-sharps, the sharp sign a longstanding piece of musical crucifixion iconography, then a crucial, as it were, descending figure – registered not only powerfully, but, in a dynamic sense, dramatically. Icy or, better, cold – since it is certainly human – that descending orchestral figure grew ever more intense with every sequential or developmental reliving of its pain. Here, as often in this work, Dvořák proves more ‘symphonic’ than in any of his symphonies, or at least more consistently so – with, as ever, the great exception of the deservedly popular Ninth. Or maybe, I began to wonder, given the distinction of the performance, it was just that I had not heard Hrůša conduct them. The music seeped into, formed the foundation, motivic and dramatic, for the first movement (choral and soloists): soft at first, building to beautifully shaped climaxes, without merely determining it. Indeed such was the distinction of the choral singing, words and notes equally well projected, that one had the retrospective sense that the words of the poem had determined the music of the introduction too.

Alas, soprano Simona Šaturová’s first entry was, quite frankly, weak, and both the tenor (Steve Davislim) and bass (Jan Martiník) proved rather ‘operatic’, in an almost Verdian way, for me. Only Elisabeth Kulman’s predictably excellent way, rich of tone, thoughtful of words, seemed in keeping with the rest of the performance. Davislim and Martiník sang very well on their own terms, though, and I can only presume that Hrůša had no problem with those terms either. It does one no harm, in any case, to listen to performances of high quality that do not correspond to how one instinctively, or indeed otherwise, hears a work in one’s head. In that sense, only Šaturová was disappointing, and she improved as the work proceeded. If her vowels were odd, and her consonants often indistinct, in her later duet (‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem), her line was much cleaner by then.

A great strength to Hrůša’s reading was that there was always a strong sense of the work as a whole, just as in a symphony. Individual movements, or numbers, or whatever we want to call them, were sections of the poem, not poems in themselves. And so, the second movement Quartet followed on, related to, intensifying, certainly not repeating the mood of its predecessor. Even if I did not always care for the style of the solo singing, the RSB’s playing was second to none, not least the sweetness and warmth of the strings. (Czech music is no better served by ascribing some birth right to ‘national’ orchestras, than English music is. Who, after all, is better with Elgar today than Daniel Barenboim?) Fundamentals, in the harmonic and a more general sense, were always well taken care of: generative, again just as they would be in a symphony. The following chorus continued in similar vein: which, again, is to stress ‘continued’, with the kinship and difference that implies. The cries of ‘fac’ were every bit as ‘dramatic’ as one could have hoped for, not least since they were presented in context, no mere ‘effect’.

Different characters were to be heard in the following movements: never unnecessarily contrasted, but likewise never quite drawn from the same colours. Brahms, for instance, haunted the tenor solo and chorus, ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’, but in the orchestral sound itself, orchestral and textures themselves simpler, yet undeniably radiant. As the work progressed, transformation, even perhaps transfiguration, crept upon us. It was difficult to say precisely where or when: doubtless as it should be. Hrůša’s control of large-scale structures proved just as un-showily impressive as it had earlier this year when I heard him conduct – magnificently – the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

The neo-Baroque character of the penultimate movement, the solo contralto ‘Inflammatus’ was for me very much a highpoint – both of work and performance. Compassion here seemed very much to the fore, both for Kulman and the orchestra. Perhaps unsurprisingly by now, but certainly not to be taken for granted, Hrůša proved masterly in binding together the work in its final quartet and chorus. It was not merely a recognition of reappearance of earlier material, but of its developmental quality; contextual difference spoke just as strongly as similarity. There was ambiguity, quite rightly, at the close: exultant, yet not unalloyed. That one could – and this listener, at least, did – read back into what we had heard before. This, then, was an excellent concert; I was sad only to have had to miss the bonus concert of a cappella works scheduled immediately afterwards.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

BPO/Koopman - Bach, 27 October 2017


Mass in B minor, BWV 232

Yetzabel Arias Fernandez (soprano)
Wiebke Lehmkuhl (contralto)
Tilman Lichdi (tenor)
Klaus Mertens (bass)
RIAS Chamber Choir (chorus master: Justin Doyle)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Ton Koopman (conductor)

Theodor Adorno: how I wish we could have heard your thoughts on this concert. In his 1951 essay, ‘Bach defended against his devotees’, written in the wake of the commemorations of the bicentenary of Bach’s death, Adorno so sharply characterised the reactionary delusions and disingenuities of musical ‘authenticity’ that one might well have thought that would have been the end of that. Except, of course, that it was not; we had barely reached the end of the overture. Vast swathes of repertoire have been entirely colonised, placed off-bounds to modern orchestras in the maniacal name of an ‘authenticity’ so self-contradictory that a five-year-old could instantly demolish its claims. And yet, so it continues. It was, then, with great interest that, two-thirds of a century after Adorno’s essay, I approached the rare opportunity of hearing the Berlin Philharmonic in the B minor Mass.

Not, alas, that this was a large-scale, ‘symphonic’ performance. (‘Symphonic’ is an especially silly word here: as if Klemperer or Jochum approached Bach as they did Beethoven…) The opening of the first Kyrie was, rather to my surprise, not at all brusque, although the chamber-scale of the forces – not small by contemporary (to us) standards, although certainly small by Adorno’s – immediately struck me, not least given the size of Berlin’s Philharmonie. After the tempo change – call that Largo?! – however, Ton Koopman’s approach proved both glib and metronomic: not unlike his strangely uncompelling way with the organ. A plea for divine mercy? Forget it. Perhaps a request for afternoon tea, although even that might have been to impart too much meaning. And therein lay the real problem. The musicians playing and singing were nearly all excellent: the Philharmonic, the Berlin Radio Choir, and at least two of the vocal soloists. But they were directed by someone who seemed not just to have a decidedly peculiar sense of what the text of the Mass might mean; he seemed to have none whatsoever. And here, as throughout the work, he simply took the piece one archly articulated phrase at a time, giving no indication of a longer line, let alone a unified conception. Even dynamic contrasts were minimal – and, when they were to be heard, weirdly arbitrary. The following ‘Christe’, then, however beautifully sung by Yetzabel Arias Fernandez, might on Koopman’s part have been computer generated – or, to return us to the 1950s, ‘sewing-machine Bach’. The second ‘Kyrie’, the clarity of choral lines remarkable in itself, sounded as a mere pendant.

Parts of the ‘Gloria’ fared better. The first section was hardly profound, and suffered from fussy articulation, but it more or less looked after itself. Moreover, much to my surprise, the ‘Et in terra pax’ section relaxed properly, even daringly, as did the ‘Gratias’. And yet, whilst instrumental obbligato parts were all very well taken (Emmanuel Pahud on flute, for instance), most of the vocal solos likewise – Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s ‘Qui sedes’ an object lesson in sounding imploring without sentimentality – there was never any sign of an overall conception. When musicians were allowed to get on with it, they generally did very well indeed; often, however, they seemed circumscribed. To return to Adorno’s essay, one could hardly avoid the suspicion that the sole concern of Bach’s ‘devotee’ was to ensure that ‘no inauthentic dynamics, no modifications of tempo, no excessively large choirs and orchestra’ should be employed. Is that your idea of Bach, I wanted to ask? Bach’s scoring of genius in the ‘Quoniam’ told properly, the bassoonists shining just as brightly as the horn player; it was a pity, here and later, that Klaus Mertens sounded so dry of tone, and that he faltered so audibly at one point. His tenor colleague, Tilman Lichdi fared better, but his light instrument – or performance – was put in the shade by Arias during their duet. The Cum sancto Spiritu’ was, to no one’s surprise, taken at breackneck speed. Whilst the choir acquitted itself with distinction, the question that lingered was: ‘why?’

Following the interval, an almost aggressively domesticated ‘Credo’ – without the ‘almost’, it might ‘almost’ have been interesting – signaled little more than the sense that the conductor might have a train to catch at the end. Everything sounded as if it were surface; that Bach might have held beliefs, even held them to be eternal truths, that we might need in some sense to reckon with that, with them, seemed never to have been considered by Koopman. If your vision of Resurrection is in pastel, then the ‘Confiteor’ and what immediately followed might have been for you. The ‘Sanctus’ can rarely have sounded less like the swing of a censer, Koopman unwilling to let go, stopping it at the end of every phrase so as to permit it to move another few inches. As for his decision to play the organ himself for the ‘Benedictus’, it added a disconcerting sense of the listless, of the merely meandering, but is that what the coming of the Holy Ghost should signify? Following a bar-to-bar, highly laboured ‘Agnus Dei’, very well sung on its own terms, an effort towards mild grandeur was made in the closing ‘Dona nobis pacem’. It was unclear, though, where it had come from, or what it might denote.

‘They say Bach, mean Telemann,’ was one of Adorno’s most devastating charges. Bach was being reduced to the level of a generic ‘Baroque’ composer. (Telemann devotees should feel free to choose someone else; there are more than enough to choose from.) The problem with Koopman was not that he said Bach yet meant Telemann; he did not seem to mean anyone or anything at all.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Aimard - Anderson, Benjamin, Ligeti, Kurtág, Stroppa, Carter, and Messiaen, 26 October 2017

Pierre Boulez Saal

Julian Anderson: Sensation (2015-16): ‘Toucher’
George Benjamin: Shadowlines: ‘Tempestoso’ and ‘Very freely’ (2001)
Ligeti: Études: ‘Der Zauberlehrling’ and ‘Entrelacs’ (1994, 1993)
Kurtág: Játékok: ‘Passio sine nomine’ (2015)
Marco Stroppa: Miniatura estrose (1991-2001): ‘Passacaglia canonical in contrappunto policromatico’
Carter: Caténaires (2006)
Messiaen: Catalogue d’oiseaux: ‘La Rousserolle effarvatte’ (1958)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

If it would be an exaggeration to describe this as a recital of music that ‘belonged’ to Pierre-Laurent Aimard – music, surely, belongs to us all – then it would be a pardonable exaggeration, whose purpose and meaning were clear. Here were pieces, mostly drawn from larger works or collections, with which Aimard has a particular connection, and with which he could – and did – speak not only with great authority but with eminently thoughtful musicality. Nothing was taken for granted; indeed, the music spoke both with the freshness of the new and the understanding of a grounded repertoire.

I wish I could feel the enthusiasm so many friends, colleagues, fellow musicians and music-lovers clearly feel for the music of Julian Anderson. That includes, clearly, Aimard, who gave the premiere of Sensation at Aldeburgh last year, and here extracted from it, in what he believed to be its German premiere, the second movement, ‘Toucher’. I have never actively disliked any of Anderson’s music, but rarely have I discerned much beneath an often attractive surface. Perhaps that is the point; I am not so sure. At any rate, this piece, conceived, in Anderson’s words, ‘with particular emphasis on the French tradition of the jeu perlé – playing of great lightness, speed and clarity – of which Pierre-Laurent Aimard … is such a brilliant exponent,’ made for an impressive pianistic opening. It sounded as if conceived more or less in a single, dare I say melodic, line, with certain additions or elucidations, often chordal, around it. The chords certainly sounded very ‘French’, Messiaen in particular coming to mind in some of the harmonies.

George Benjamin’s Shadowlines, from which we heard here the fourth and fifth movements, followed: another work of which Aimard had given the first performance. This emerged very much as a re-examination, more to my taste, even perhaps to my understanding, of canonical procedures, thereby offering our ears and minds as much vertically as horizontally. It seemed, in performance as well as in the work ‘itself’, that not only had polyphony been reinstated, but so too had its typical dialectic between freedom and organisation. Or perhaps that is just someone speaking who has been spending too much time with Schoenberg recently. At any rate, the piano writing (and playing) had an intriguing sense of the Germanic too it as well: far from exclusive, or even predominant, but unmistakeable, at least to these ears. Aimard clearly relished its complexities; so too did I.

Aimard’s collaboration with Ligeti verges upon the ‘legendary’: (not, of course, in the sense that it did not happen!) Aimard gave the premieres of many of the composer’s later piano works, these two Études included. What immediately struck me, both in no.10, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, and no.12, ‘Entrelacs’, was the ‘finish’ to what we heard, again both as work and as performance. This, one felt, was a mastery, compositional and performative, worthy of, say, Ravel. If the first offered something of a connection to the Anderson piece, its emphasis perhaps in a broad sense ‘melodic’, the metrical transformations and layering of ‘Entrelacs’ seemed both to speak of kinship with and difference from Elliott Carter (still to come). The energy was impossible to resist – and why on earth would one try?

I suspect that, by now, you can guess who gave the 2015 first performance of Kurtág’s ‘Passio sine nomine’, from his compendious Játékok. He seemed to do it proud again here in Berlin. I was especially struck by a certain obstinacy, an almost religious truculence – although was that a thought elicited by the title? – a Credio quia absurdum, both to the material and to the performance. All that Bach the Kurtágs have played sounded with something I am tempted to call immanence.

Aimard gave the premiere of Marco Stroppa’s Miniature estrose in 1995; a second premiere, of the completed version, was given by Florian Hölscher in 2000. Here, Aimard’s performance of the ‘Passacaglia canonical in contrappunto policocromatico’ seemed very much to make use of the Pierre Boulez Saal – there, of course, is another composer to whom Aimard could hardly have stood closer! – as an instrument in itself. (How very different it must have sounded in that premiere at the Opéra Bastille!) The almost whispered intimacies and indeed the entire dynamic range sounded very much a product of the hall as well as of the keyboard. So too did their interaction with other parameters, and with other, more malleable aspects of the music. The sheer beauty of work and performance shone through.

Ever youthful, the work of Carter ended the first ‘half’; here we heard the composer at 102. In Caténaires, we heard once again consummate mastery. I thought of Ligeti’s ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, and perceived – if sometimes only just – a penumbra of polyphonic possibilities surrounding what is, for Carter, as Aimard explained, an unusually un-polyphonic work. The composer indeed spoke of having ‘become obsessed with the idea of a fast one-line piece with no chords’. Was it perverse for me to have heard it that way? Perhaps, but nevertheless I did. Truly, though, its energy sounded as music for the age of computers, even of the Internet.

Aimard did not, of course, give the first performance of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux; Yvonne Loriod did, in one of Boulez’s Domaine musical concerts. His association with all concerned, however, is strong and deep, and so it sounded here. Aimard’s recording of the complete work will be released next year. This performance of the vast ‘La Rousserolle effarvatte’ (‘The Reed Warbler’), at about half an hour, offered quite the calling card. More than that, it seemed, whether this were the illusion of performance and programming or something more, to unite and indeed to develop many of the tendencies we had heard earlier, whilst remaining of course very much itself. No one else could have written this music! The opening, as much for the different sonorities heard simultaneously as for their pitches, sounded as if performed with three hands. Admittedly, I could not see the keyboard, but I am reasonably sure that it was not. Through the violent eruptions, the silences (what silences!), the different colours (whether one actually ‘sees’ them or no), the luscious harmonies, the obstinate rhythms, the undeniable religious mysticism, and of course the birdsong, both a singularity of voice and a multiplicity of voices seemed to assert themselves – and to express a joy in being, in music-making that penetrated to the essence of Messiaen’s art. Everything sounded refracted through, not just related to but derived from, everything else. Perhaps ‘total serialism’ had not passed after all; it had simply, or not so simply, reinvented itself.


BPO/Nézet-Séguin - CPE Bach and Brahms, 19 October 2017


CPE Bach: Heilig, Wq 217
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem, op.45

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (soprano)
Wiebke Lehmkuhl (contralto)
Markus Werba (baritone)
Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Gijs Leenaars)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)

A slightly – well, perhaps more than slightly – baffling programme this. One might have presumed that the short CPE Bach cantata (eight minutes according to the programme, but I did not check my watch), Heilig, were present as a curtain-raiser for Brahms’s German Requiem. Brahms, after all, thought highly of Emanuel Bach, editing some of his music. And perhaps it would also have offered another opportunity for one of the vocal soloists. But no, the vocal types are different, so we had Wiebke Lehmkuhl sing a short solo and disappear for the rest of the evening. Perhaps even odder, the two works required different platform arrangements, so we had an interval in between them. Might it not have made more sense to have heard a selection of earlier music – Schütz, perhaps, even JS Bach or Handel? – with a more overt connection to the specific Brahms we were about to hear?

Anyway, we did not. It was a welcome opportunity to hear this 1776 cantata, for solo contralto, double chorus, and double orchestra, its text drawn from Herder, Isaiah, and the Te Deum. I cannot say that I found anything, save for its forces, especially individual in the writing: far more conventional than, say, many of CPE Bach’s orchestral or piano works. It would be difficult to begrudge it its Berlin Philharmonic premiere, though, and I have no wish to do so. Orchestra and choir (Berlin Radio Choir) alike offered a glorious sound throughout, antiphonal (Handelian) contrasts registering – although perhaps not quite so strongly as they might have done. Lehmkuhl’s performance sounded beautifully sincere, verbally and musically. It is always enjoyable to hear a little trumpet-led rejoicing too, and so we did. Yannick Nézet-Séguin ensured, greatly to his credit, that there was nothing unduly hurried to the performance, encouraging and retaining a note of necessary grandeur. It was nevertheless soon over, though, and I at least was left wondering ‘why?’

There was certainly nothing ‘off-the-shelf’ to Nézet-Séguin’s German Requiem either, conducted from memory. If I cannot say that his conception of the work was particularly close to mine, that is no reason to disqualify it; indeed, it was every reason to try to engage with it on its own terms. As sound, it was difficult to fault the performances of choir and orchestral alike, and again I have no wish to do so. What a joy – although is joy really what we should feel here? – it was, for instance, to hear those lower strings at the opening of ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’. The blend of orchestral sound, moreover, was irreproachable, whilst offering plenty of opportunity to hear individual instruments and sections: the three harps, in particular, stood out beautifully, even celestially. And there was real warmth, even consolation, to that opening chorus, although I have heard Brahms sound darker, much darker. I was not at all sure, however, why we heard quite so robust an emphasis on ‘Freuden’; it came out of nowhere and merely sounded mannered. The great second number, ‘Denn alles Fleisch’ was a little darker, as surely it must be, but with a strange touch of ‘glamour’ to it. It was certainly worlds away from Klemperer or Furtwängler. What the performance did have, in spades, was clarity. Nézet-Séguin shaped the movement well, preparing transitions, rendering them convincing, the winding down at the close was handled especially well. What I missed, I think, was a greater sense of ‘meaning’: not just theological or even verbal.

Markus Werba proved a relatively light-toned soloist, which seemed to fit with the general approach. In ‘Herr, lehre doch mich,’ however, I could not help but think that the orchestral sound was a bit too close to Strauss; there is no single way that Brahms sound, of course, but I am not sure, by the same token, that just anything goes either. It would be churlish, nevertheless, to deny the sonic pleasure of the build-up above the movement’s pedal-point. Following a duly lieblich ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,’ Hanna-Elisabeth Müller got off to a shaky start in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. Brahms’s solo writing here is exposed, even treacherous, and so it sounded. She settled down before too long, though.

Nézet-Séguin took the opening of the following number, ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt,’ very deliberately: not just pace, but choral enunciation too. It certainly focused attention on the words, whatever else I thought of it. However, the blazing, almost ‘operatic’ approach – more Strauss again, even Wagner, than Brahms, I thought – to the Last Trump seemed somewhat out of place. A cappella writing in the final ‘Selig sind die Toten’ reminded us that the choir was in itself just as impressive as the orchestra. It flowed nicely, and sounded consoling. Concerning what, however, did we need to be consoled?

Monday, 16 October 2017

Pelléas et Mélisande, Komische Oper, 15 October 2017

Komische Oper, Berlin

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Mélisande (Nadja Mchantaf)

Arkel – Jens Larsen
Golaud – Günter Papendell
Pelléas – Domink Köninger
Geneviève – Nadine Weissmann
Yniold – Gregor-Michael Hoffmann
Mélisande – Nadja Mchanthaf
Doctor, Shepherd – Samuli Taskinen

Barrie Kosky (director)
Klaus Grünberg (set designs, lighting)
Anne Kuhn (set designs)
Dinah Ehm (costumes)
Johanna Wall (dramaturgy)

Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Jordan de Souza (conductor)


And still they come. I went a good few years, a good few too many years, without seeing Pelléas et Mélisande in the theatre. More recently, I have seen several productions, every one of which has had something different to tell me, some different way of moving me – whilst all remaining very much faithful to what, in idealist metaphysical mode, I might term the inviolate spirit of the work. I might not, of course, but perhaps the temptation to do so tells us something about Pelléas and not just about me. Like Tristan und Isolde – another of the relatively small number of works Barrie Kosky said he was determined to direct, and has also ticked off – there seems to be no point in trying to turn Pelléas into something that it is not; like Tristan, there seems relatively little to do; like Tristan, it seems quite resistant to many typical directorial interventions. None of those is necessarily a categorical statement; such would be bizarre. (Indeed, such might make me something akin to a fevered writer for the Revue wagnérienne. Whatever my failings and/or eccentricities, I am not sure that I am quite there yet.) If something works, it works; and, like many, I can hardly wait to see what Stefan Herheim, present in the audience last night, will do with Debussy’s sole completed opera next year at Glyndebourne.

I shall have to, though, as shall we all. Barrie Kosky’s new production for the Komische Oper certainly proved plenty to keep us going in the meantime. Not, of course, that we should view it in anything other than its estimable own right. At its heart stands Arkel’s Allemonde castle. It is evoked clearly, claustrophobically, chillingly, and perhaps above all, simply. At the centre of the stage, concentric circles turn to reveal something that is always the same, moving yet not moving, just like the characters it transports. There is no way out; nor does anyone, save of course for Mélisande, seek one. (Whether Pelléas does in the opera is a moot point; I do not think he does here. Indeed he remains in the gallery of frozen souls, not unlike a Bluebeard collection, at the close: dead, yes, but was he, were they, always so? What on earth, or beyond, might it mean to be alive here?) Characters move simply, repetitively, if not quite so repetitively, certainly not with such meaninglessness, as in Christiane Pohle’s Munich production (roundly dismissed, I am tempted to suggest misogynistically, by ignorant journalists and audiences alike, but an unforgettable piece of post-Beckettian theatre). Parallels are drawn, easily discerned, given the essential simplicity of the pared-down action; for instance, Mélisande’s arms, her form as yet unseen, encircle – irony here, ‘Ne me touchez pas!’, doubled when it becomes clear quite how fearful she is of being touched – Pelléas at the opening of their final scene together just as they had Golaud at the start. She touches both, though barely. What is she doing? Finding her way? Through fear? Through the forest? Through a miserable, impossible life?

Mélisande's arms encircling Golaud ((Günter Papendell)

And there is no doubting her abuse. The fear is palpable, great tribute to the extraordinary performance given by Nadja Mchantaf, a worthy successor to her Rusalka for the same company and director. In context, many similar themes emerged, for that too had proved a highly concentrated piece of musical drama on Kosky’s – and everyone else’s – part. The fear is well-founded too, for in this world of highly damaged, highly damaging people, Mélisande will suffer horrendous violence. She has done before: you can see it in her eyes. Indeed, Mchantaf’s acting alone would be worthy of any stage: not, of course, that it really makes sense here to speak of ‘acting alone’. When she and Pelléas finally have their moment of sexual congress, she shows her ‘enjoyment’; but is that just what she has learned? Is that, in a sense, what many women have learned? What does it mean to be penetrated by the male gaze, as well as otherwise, on stage? Golaud’s quite shocking violence towards this heavily pregnant woman, his wife, the mother of ‘his’ child, having discovered her with his brother, now dead, is all the more shocking for taking its leave within a general increase of violence – which here seems to mean much the same as ‘action’ – following the interval. The gears of ‘fate’ grind, following relative nothingness. Yet what does it mean for us to label them as ‘fate’? Are we not thereby abdicating responsibility? Blood tells its own story, not just, or even principally, of childbirth, although it certainly includes that. We remember that disturbing moment, earlier on, when Mélisande had laughed childishly with Pelléas, at throwing away – here swallowing – her ring. Again, we both fall upon ideas of fate, and know that we should not. The final turning of the set’s concentric circles, the final display of things just as they always were, yet worse, brings the curtain down. The curtain, having been there all along, reminds us that our aestheticisation of such deeds is at least part of the problem; or at least, it is in itself unlikely to prove to be a solution. Does a performance of Pelléas make us in the audience better people? Who knows? Probably not, however. Things carry on as they always did.

Golaud, Pelléas (Dominik Köninger), Mélisande

If Mchantaf were, perhaps necessarily, first among equals, then that should be taken in its fullest, dialectical sense. Yet again, the Komische Oper under Kosky’s Intendanz – this certainly includes the work of other directors – showed itself to be a true company. Günther Paperdell and Dominik Köninger showed a near ideal blend of similar physicality – deliriously so at one point, the one almost assuming the role, or rather the behaviour of the other – and of difference, Dinah Ehm’s splendid, simple costumes very much contributing to that dramatic end. Theirs was a dialectical relationship, more strongly so than I can otherwise recall. Jens Larsen’s Arkel proved frighteningly creepy: finely sung, and repellent in his assault of Mélisande, all the more so for his grandfatherly concern. We knew whose rules, doubtless inherited, prevailed in this hopeless patriarchy. Nadine Weissmann’s Geneviève proved deeply compassionate yet – quite rightly – powerless. What could she do? Samuli Taskinen, a member of the Opera Studio, impressed in his small roles. And Gregor-Michael Hoffmann offered a sensational performance as Yniold: crystal clear of tone and words, effortlessly at home, or so it seemed, in a fiendishly difficult role both in work and in performance. It was an extraordinary thing indeed to learn afterwards that this was that outstanding treble’s first role on stage; it will surely not be his last.

Golaud and Yniold (Gregor-Michael Hoffmann)

Of course, so much of the drama, just as in Tristan, in whose waves Pelléas is soaked almost as much as it is as those of Parsifal, lies in the orchestra. It was on splendid form throughout, textures admirably clear yet never too clear. I always find myself in performances of this opera asking myself whether it is a more or less Wagnerian performance; I seem unable not to. The strange thing, however, is that, however different the path taken, the balance between Wagner and not-Wagner seems to end up being about the same; or at least that is so, in a performance worth its salt. This performance certainly was, wisely led by Kapellmeister, Jordan de Souza. There was no doubting his knowledge and understanding of Debussy’s tantalising, treacherous score, nor of his ability to communicate to both orchestra and audience. Again, I look forward to hearing more from him. For ultimately, as always, it is the music of those interludes that lingers longest, most insidiously in my mind. There is something almost evil about it; for it is the music of fate, of Allemonde, perhaps even, at one remove, of the Revue wagnérienne.

Belcea Quartet - Haydn, Ligeti, and Dvořák, 14 October 2017

Pierre Boulez Saal

Haydn: String Quartet in D major, op.20 no.4, Hob. III:34
Ligeti: String Quartet no.1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’
Dvořák: String Quartet no.12 in F major, op.96, ‘American’

Corina Belcea, Axel Schacher (violins)
Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola)
Antoine Lederlin (cello)


The Pierre Boulez Saal’s new chamber music season opened with a concert from the Belcea Quartet. This was for me, I am afraid, something of a case of swings and roundabouts, although I had the distinct impression that my reservations were not shared by the audience at large. At any rate, if it was only really the performance of Ligeti’s First String Quartet that truly convinced me, to hear a fine Ligeti performance is always worth the effort. And more than that, it was lovely to be back in Berlin’s wonderful salle modulable.

I was really rather surprised by the Quartet’s performance of Haydn’s op.20 no.4. This was not a group I had thought of as having been involved in ‘authenticity’, but the performance proved to be very low on vibrato, often without any at all, and generally quite abrasive in style. The very opening of the first movement worked rather well in that sense, I thought: dark and exploratory, almost as if looking forward to late Haydn. However, much of the rest I found too overtly ‘rhetorical’, or better, rhetorical at the expense of a longer line. (Others will clearly have thought differently.) There was much to admire in that, not least the very different ‘characters’ of particular figures, especially as allied to different note values. But overall, I found the performance muted and somewhat restricted in expressive terms. Nevertheless, the second movement sounded beautifully sad, and there was something to be said of the boisterous rusticity of the ‘Menuet alla Zingarese’ and the strong contrast of its trio. Moreover, the finale came off best of all, at least for me: more properly integrative than any other. The complexity of its material certainly came across too. If only that could have been read back, to a certain extent, into the patchier first movement.

Ligeti’s First Quartet was played with a very different, undeniably ‘modern’, if not especially ‘modernist’, tone. It owes much, of course, to Bartók, as we would proceed to hear; but at the beginning, it was Berg and Schoenberg who came at least as strongly to mind in the tortured hyper-Romanticism of the string lines and their paths. This may or may not be ‘mature’ Ligeti; the composer said not. It nevertheless proved anything but predictable, and offered a recognisable anarchism and attendant humour. This was music and performance ‘on the cusp’ in various ways, almost as if it were on the verge of turning into ‘real’ or ‘more real’ Ligeti. It was highly wrought, spellbinding drama, whether overtly violent or sweetly sensuous. Weird remnants of tonality – yes, it is they that are weird here – duly disconcerted, as did that persistent, if not constant, sense of the cusp.

Dvořak’s ‘American’ Quartet opened in impressive, but perhaps somewhat fussy, fashion, the variety of articulation threatening to overwhelm, as in Haydn, a sense of longer line. I very much had the sense that this was a reading that had been rethought, but which had perhaps not quite ‘bedded down’: better that, though, than the merely routine. Formal propulsion was also sometimes missing – in that sense, it would be, without line – and perhaps especially in the first movement. The slow movement sounded more strongly founded, rhythmically and harmonically, and emerged much stronger for it. All solos and duets were beautifully taken; if it were, perhaps, Antoine Lederlin’s cello solos that lodged themselves most deeply in the memory, that is probably more a consequence of Dvořak’s writing than anything else. The third and fourth movements again proved somewhat fussy, although I do not wish to exaggerate. It would be interesting to hear the Belcea Quartet again in this music, perhaps in a year’s time, it only to see whether my suspicions were at all well founded.


Friday, 13 October 2017

The Cunning Little Vixen, Berlin Philharmonic, 12 October 2017


Forester – Gerald Finley
Forester’s Wife – Paulina Malefane
Schoolmaster, Mosquito, Rooster – Burkhard Ulrich
Priest, Badger – Willard White
Hárašta – Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Vixen Sharp-Ears – Lucy Crowe
Fox, Crested Hen – Angela Denoke
Pásek – Friedemann Büttner
Mrs Pásková, Lapák the dog – Anna Lapkovskaja
Jay – Lotta Jultmark
Child soloists (in various of the smaller roles) – Anna Damiano, Ève Davillers, Victoria Florczak, Anton Hoppe, Artina Kapreljan, Raphael Küster, Johanna Mielisch, Luise Mielisch, Paul Mielisch, Johann von der Nahmer, Gabriel Pappalardo, Jonas Rattle

Peter Sellars (director)
Ben Zamorsa (lighting)
Nick Hillel (video)

‘Vocal Heroes’ Children’s Chorus from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Educational Programme
Vocalconsort Berlin (chorus master: David Cavelius)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

The best news, and indeed the most important news, is that this performance of The Cunning Little Vixen had clearly proved an invaluable experience for the children on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Educational Programme. It was not simply a matter of having participated in rehearsals and performance, but of a longer, deeper creative project, ‘MusikPLUS Fabelwesen' (‘Creatures from Fables,’ literally, which in this case probably works better than the more common ‘Mythological Creatures’), which had run from the middle of September until now. Under the artistic guidance of Berlin Philharmonic trombonist, Thomas Leyendecker, singer Judith Kamphues, and pianist Daniel Grote, children from St Paul’s School in Moabit had explored themes, musical and conceptual, from Janáček’s opera, in all manner of ways: music, movement, and so on. They had learned a good deal, it seems, about language too – given their multifarious backgrounds and the Czech of the performance. Splendid stuff then!

There was much to enjoy musically in the performance as performance as well, not least the excellent contribution of the children, whether chorally or as soloists. Mention should be made here of the work of Snezana Nena Brzakovic and Tobias Walenciak in rehearsing the child soloists and children’s chorus respectively. Otherwise, amongst the adults, I felt – not speaking Czech, I can say no more than ‘felt’ – a certain lack of idiom and intrinsic command at times and in certain cases, but nothing too grave. Willard White’s casting seemed odd; his voice is now, sadly, quite hollowed out. Angela Denoke, though, whose performances have proved vocally variable for quite a while, seemed at home in the role of the Fox; her dramatic commitment has never, of course, been in doubt. Lucy Crowe gave a spirited and vocally attentive account of Vixen Sharp-Ears herself. Gerald Finely proved typically thoughtful – if more than usually hamstrung by Peter Sellars’s bizarre collection of production clichés – performance as the Forester: more physical, indeed tortured, than Thomas Allen, say, but none the worse for that. As the Forester’s Wife, Paulina Malefane offered a well-judged balance between the strict and the likeable. Burkhard Ulrich, a justly esteemed Loge and Mime, emerged with great credit in each of his different roles: quite a test in itself.

The Berlin Philharmonic proved more than adept at communicating the changing demands both of the score and of Simon Rattle’s conception of it. The precision and almost Stravinskian (for Rattle) obsessiveness of the opening were balanced, or perhaps better opposed, by a well-nigh Straussian opulence later on, especially at climaxes and the approach to them. Perhaps there was room for something more in the way of mediation between such extremes, but that would be almost to find fault for the sake of it. It was a bold, dramatic orchestral performance, born of longstanding acquaintance with the score on Rattle’s part. There is so much in Janáček’s – frankly – miraculous score: perhaps more than can ever be conveyed, or at least appreciated, in a single performance. No one would have been disappointed by this, though, and I suspect that most would have heard things they had not heard before. Rattle’s role not just as conductor in the traditional sense but as enabler of the activities of children and adults alike showed him at his best: certainly something London has good reason to look forward to.

You felt a ‘but’ coming, dear reader? Of course you did, for it was ‘trailed’ in the second paragraph. This was not Peter Sellars at his very worst: may ENO’s Indian Queen – shudder – retain that title forever. However, it seemed bizarre both in its incoherence and in its often wild inappropriateness for children. ‘Distracting’ is a word so loved of operatic reactionaries that one hesitates to use it at all. However, it seems difficult to avoid doing so, and not worth the effort, with respect to the video screens dotted around the hall. The film had its justification, I suppose, when it showed pictures of ‘real-life’ versions of the animals singing at the time – although might not some small degree of costume or other stage indication have done the job better? Other scenes from nature did no particular harm either, although they showed a tendency, an irrelevant one at that, towards the generic wildlife documentary. The opening video sequence was, shall we say, very school biology class. But what on earth was Sellars thinking of when introducing a confusing – merely confusing, not ‘edgy’, not ‘transgressive’, not ‘daring’ – staged sequence in which the Forester appeared to have taken the Vixen home to have sex with her, sleeping together until discovered by his Wife. The poor Forester – ‘poor’ in terms of what was done to the character, not in terms of his deeds! – appeared then to be permanently traumatised by the whole affair, although the Vixen seemed fine.

Once again then, whatever his intentions, Sellars managed to turn something into a therapy session for that most vulnerable, threatened of groups: white men. Weirdly, the Forester and his wife appeared to live in a modern apartment block, several floors up; at least that seemed to be the indication of repeated footage (from the outside) of said apartment block. Quite what that was supposed to add, save for confusion about where much of the rest of the action was taking place, was, to say the least, unclear. If Sellars were trying to say that everything was in the Forester’s imagination, and that it was all an anthropomorphic projection, that certainly did not come across – either to me or to anyone else I asked. I eventually gave up on what I was seeing, insofar as that were possible. A concert performance, or concert staging in which the children at least could still have run around and enjoyed themselves, would surely have been a much better idea.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Reimann, L'Invisible (world premiere), Deutsche Oper, 8 October 2017

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Images: Bernd Uhlig

Ursula, Marie, Ygraine – Rachel Harnisch
Marthe, Bellangère – Annika Schlicht
Handmaiden – Ronnita Miller
Father – Seth Carico
Grandfather, Old Man, Agiovale – Stephen Bronk
Uncle, Stranger – Thomas Blondellle
Child, Tintagiles – Salvador Macedo
Queen’s Servants – Tim Severloh, Matthew Shaw, Martin Wölfel

Vasily Barkhatov (director)
Zinovy Margolin (set designs)
Olga Shaishmelasvili (costumes)
Robert Pflanz (video)
Ulrich Niepel (lighting)
Sebastian Haunsa, Jörg Königsdorf (dramaturgy)

Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

Aribert Reimann has recently seemed fated to be remembered, if not quite only, then principally for his Lear. Its fortunes certainly seem to have picked up recently: I saw it in Paris last year; Salzburg staged it this summer too. (Alas, it simply did not fit into my schedule.) I can hardly talk of the need to look beyond a single work, for it is the only of his operas I can really lay claim to knowing – until now, perhaps. It was no one else’s fault, moreover, that I missed the Berlin premiere at the Komische Oper of his Medea earlier this year on account of illness. Reimann’s work as a pianist will surely survive too, the recordings of Second Viennese School repertoire with Fischer-Dieskau (the creator of Lear) invaluable; I have found myself choosing them several times for the discography to my forthcoming Schoenberg biography. So perhaps I am over-dramatising. At any rate, there was a keen sense of anticipation at the Deutsche Oper, a sense of the some time répétiteur returning home. And what we saw and heard seemed to me not only a convincing ninth opera, but a highly accomplished piece of musical theatre from all concerned: a model of advocacy for a new work.

For those who know a little more – if only, as for yours truly, through reading, rather than through real acquaintance with the works – Reimann has been especially associated with what the Germans call Literaturoper: that is, an opera based upon an already existing literary text. Indeed, he contributed a piece, ‘Wie arbeite ich an einer Oper?’ (‘How do I work on an opera?’) to a 1982 collection on works derived from literature, Für und wider die Literaturoper, ed. Sigrid Wiesmann (Laaber). It seems especially fitting with respect to the history of the genre, then, that here Reimann should have turned to Maurice Maeterlinck, whose play Pelléas et Mélisande offered Debussy the opportunity to compose one of the defining, as well as foundational, works in the genre. (Another instance, which ought to be far better known, is Maeterlinck’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleu, set by Paul Dukas.) Here Reimann, drawing on a lifetime’s experience, has put together with commendable economy a short – under ninety minutes? – work founded on three of Maeterlinck’s relatively – surrounding Pelléas – early one-act plays, skilfully combined so as to prove considerably more, as the cliché has it, than the sum of their parts.

The three plays, L’Intruse, Intérieur, and La Mort de Tintagiles all concern themselves with death, children, and reactions to the deaths either of children or of those closely connected with them. A great strength of what we saw at the Deutsche Oper in Vasily Barkhatov’s excellent staging was that one could never quite be sure what was ‘work’ and what was ‘interpretation’. One had one’s suspicions, of course, but even when it was clear that a stance was being taken to the drama, it may have been by the librettist-composer, by the director, or even by the performers – or indeed by a combination thereof. In this Kindertotenoper, the first section presents a family anxiously awaiting the deliverance of a mother from childbirth, news of her deliverance eventually more negative than they had hoped; we then move to the tale of an old man and stranger having to tell a family the news of the death of one of its daughters; and finally, to the story of an unseen queen who strives, and succeeds, the efforts of a child’s sisters notwithstanding, to have her servants kill him. Fate looms large, of course, which may have been heightened by the practice – not followed here – of performing the second and third of the plays by marionettes.

What may have heightened the symbolism, and indeed the Symbolism, however, here is responded to by a typical directorial – or is it creator’s – edge. As time progresses through the three works, we first find ourselves in a stifling (high) bourgeois household from what would seem to be roughly the time of (Maeterlinck’s) writing. Intérieur takes a step forward in time, somewhere between a generation or two, prompting us to ask about the identities of characters, both sung (all in French) and acted (the Staatisterie on excellent form too), or at least what connections we might draw between sections of the work. L’Intruse is written for strings only – as well, of course, as voices! Intérieur, by contrast, is set in the world of orchestral woodwind. When we come closer to the present day – although with certain disturbing questioning from the three countertenors who have helped punctuate our way between sections: who are they now as servants, and why are their ‘dresses’ made of rubbish bags? – we hear the full orchestra, brass and percussion included. But there are still many sections solely for strings or for woodwind; when those orchestral choirs come together, and when they are supplemented, we are prompted to ask what that might mean, musically, dramatically, and of course musico-dramatically.

Shadows – implicit puppet-play – play an important role too, almost as if a second orchestra. They seem to offer additional standpoints on the action, to comment on it, and perhaps to offer alternatives. A dream world is never far away; and like the best – or worst – dreams, we are never quite sure what is what. Not that there is anything vague about Reimann’s writing, its precision clear, even as its clusters provoke immediate, dramatic effect. Its roots in serial processes may be felt, fatalistically, just as the hopelessness and fascination of the situations on stage works itself out, whether in a kinship, in parallel, and sometimes perhaps even in opposition. One never feels that the music is merely ‘reflecting’ the words or the characters; sensing its ever-changing dramatic role, like that of the staging, is the business of the drama – and indeed of the listener-spectator. And yet, those alternatives: were they alternatives at all? There was never any way out really, was there? Such seems to be the message of Barkhatov’s multiple visual realisations of the potential demise of Tintagiles: car crash, noose, and so on. We persuade ourselves things might be, might have been, otherwise; often we have to. Sometimes, at least, we should not. (Not entirely incidentally, words of thanks should be offered to the production team for coming on stage to receive applause, wearing T-shirts with images of the imprisoned director, Kirill Serebrennikov. We must not forget, and here at least must not be fatalistic.)

Perhaps even more so than usually, this was very much a company effort. It seems invidious to single out members of an excellent cast, changing roles as they did, no one seeking the limelight. Let us just say that Rachel Harnisch offered a fine performance as first amongst equals – indicated also by the warmth of applause she received. One often came close to losing track of who was a ‘singer’ and who was an ‘actor’; it did not matter. The Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper sounded fully prepared: not only prepared, but committed. Donald Runnicles led what sounded to me an equally prepared and committed account not only of the orchestral score but of the work as a whole. Its changing moods and colours, its ‘internal’ and ‘external’ musico-dramatic process, its moments of eery calm and explosion: all those and much more registered powerfully, if mysteriously, even on a single hearing. I hope very much to have a second chance, to explore this work further, and have little doubt that it deserves such an opportunity, from and for many of us.