27 Nov 2012
Haydn and Strauss, LPO
Haydn’s settings of the Mass ought to be heard incessantly, in churches and in the concert hall.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Haydn’s settings of the Mass ought to be heard incessantly, in churches and in the concert hall.
For reasons that elude me, they are not, even this, the so-called Nelson Mass, arguably the most celebrated of all, if only on account of his nickname. Indeed classical sacred music in general, Mozart’s included, with a very few obvious exceptions, is unaccountably neglected by most concert programmers. (When did you last hear Beethoven’s Mass in C major, op.86, any of Gluck’s sacred music, anything that was not a Mass setting from the Salzburg Mozart, or indeed any of the shorter liturgical works by Schubert?) Perhaps performers, audiences, bureaucrats alike still have the Whiggish canard that the Enlightenment was somehow concerned with secularisation seared into their incurious minds; if so, send them away with a copy of Ernst Cassirer’s venerable Philosophy of the Enlightenment in one hand and a good few scores or recordings in the other. In any case, let us hope that the London Philharmonic will programme more of this wonderful repertoire, especially if performed with such success as it was here, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
The ‘Kyrie’ plunged us immediately into a world of high liturgical, symphonic, well-nigh operatic, drama, the D minor tonality of Don Giovanni ringing in our ears. It was driven, but not too much; Nézet-Séguin knew where to yield too. The London Philharmonic Choir, here as elsewhere, shone, fullness of tone and precision in no sense antithetical. Sarah-Jane Brandon imparted the necessary note of wartime terror to the return of the ‘Kyrie’ material, form sharply delineated by Nézet-Séguin. A propulsive opening to the ‘Gloria’ shared that marriage of choral weight and transparency. It struck me, perhaps for the first time, how much Haydn’s writing for soprano against choir prefigures the ‘Hymn’ in The Creation, which lay, after all, just around the corner. The setting of the words ‘miserere nobis’ seemed to evoke Mozart — which of course in many senses it does, Haydn always keen to learn at the hands of the younger genius.
A particularly Haydnesque combination of Baroque sturdy figured bass, such as one always finds in his setting of the Creed (‘Tu es Petrus’) and Beethovenian symphonism characterised the opening section of the ‘Credo’. It was nicely shaded too, without fussiness. The cult of alte Musik furthered by Gottfried van Swieten, Viennese patron to Mozart and Haydn, as well as librettist (of sorts) for Haydn’s oratorios, was heard here for the inspirational influence it was: none of today’s mere antiquarianism (at best), but a vital force, informing performance and composition alike. Just listen to the words ‘et homo factus est’, Handel channelled via Haydn’s loving yet vigorous offices. The final section, like much of the rest of the faster material, was taken at a challenging tempo, or at least a tempo that would have proved challenging, had it not been for the excellence of orchestral and choral execution.
The ‘Sanctus’ was properly imploring, taken at a magnificently slow tempo, without the slightest hint of dragging. ‘Pleni sunt cœli...’ came as a thunderbolt of joy. A flowing contrast to both parts of that preceding movement was offered by a flowing ‘Benedicturs’. Militarism made its point, chillingly, yet commendably without the exaggeration one would most likely have endured from latter-day ‘authenticke’ freak-shows. Textures were clear and weighty (where necessary). Nézet-Séguin handled the ‘Agnus Dei’ with loving tenderness. Sarah Connolly offered excellent solo work at the opening, soon joined by her equally fine colleagues, Brandon, Robin Tritschler, and Luca Pisaroni. ‘Dona nobis pacem’ brought a wonderful, elating feeling of choral and orchestral release. Was anyone a more joyful contrapuntist — or homophonist! — than Haydn? As he is alleged to have said to a (slightly dubious) biographer, Giuseppe Carpani, ‘At the thought of God my heart leaps for joy, and I cannot help my music doing the same.’
Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben followed the interval. It is difficult to think of anything meaningful to connect the two works, so it was better approached simply as a contrast — which indeed it was. Nézet-Séguin and the LPO revelled in the opening kaleidoscope of colour, which sometimes, quite rightly, tended a little towards the phantasmagorically nauseous. The LPO’s cellos shone particularly, horns (led by David Pyatt) here and elsewhere quite glorious. Strauss’s critics were properly carping; Pieter Schoeman’s violin solo offered a delectable ‘feminine’ contrast, clean but not clinical, sinuous but not cloying. It was an interesting reading taken as a whole: not overtly symphonic, yet by the same token certainly not without form. Rather, the latter seemed to emerge from the material, which is doubtless as it should be. (Not that there is just one way of that happening, of course.) Battle was instrumental in more than one sense, a battery of brass and percussion both impressing and amusing: Strauss the inveterate ironist. It was brutal, but in a toy soldiers’ sort of way. There were a few occasions when I thought Nézet-Séguin might have relaxed a little more, but that was certainly preferable to meandering, always a danger in this score. The difficulty of shooting’s one bolt too early — I am not even convinced that Karajan always showed himself innocent of that all-too-seductive mistake — was avoided completely: quite an achievement.
Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Robin Tritschler (tenor)
Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone); London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Neville Creed); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Saturday 24 November 2012.