Monday, 27 September 2010

Tristan and Isolde: Philharmonia, Esa-Pekka Salonen

Wagner: Tristan and Isolde (concert performance) Soloists, Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 26.09.2010

Gary Lehman Tristan
Violeta Urmana Isolde
Anne-Sofie von Otter Brangäne
Matthew Best King Marke
Jukka Rasilainen Kurwenal
Stephen Gadd Melot
Joshua Ellicott Shepherd/Sailor
Darren Jeffery Helmsman

Bill Viola visual artist
Peter Sellars artistic collaborator

Multimedia additions have been the selling point of the Philharmonia's Tristan project, but innovative as they are, the most insightful contribution here is from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. He's not known as a Wagnerian, nor do his musical inclinations suggest a natural sympathy with the composer. The success of the result was, I think, the result of a certain friction between Salonen and Wagner. It meant that the musical focus of the work shifted, and the dramatic significance of the orchestra was cast in a new light.
Typically for Salonen, the sheer physical energy from the podium maintained the momentum throughout the work. At the opening of the prelude, he beat the six quavers of each bar with heavy, deliberate strokes. He then continued to conduct the whole of the prelude like this, never tempted to fall back into a relaxed two in a bar. The result was sustained dramatic intensity from the orchestra, even through the extended passages of mid-range dynamics from the strings and woodwind. Salonen's stock in trade is the evenly paced crescendo leading to intense and sustained climax. Wagner provides many such opportunities, but unfortunately most of them are in his other operas. Musically, the defining moment of this performance was the conclusion of the first act. The ship, upon which the action has so far taken place, reaches the coast of Cornwall and is greeted by the retinue of King Marke, all of whom – the trumpeters and the choir of guards – were distributed around the auditorium. It was a classic Salonen moment, dramatic, intense and searing.
In comparison to this, most of the rest of the score was relatively understated, and while Salonen ensured that the balance and ensemble were always finely measured, he was happy for the lead singers to dictate the mood. This was something of a relief, as watching his intensely expressed beat in the prelude, it seemed as if he was planning to control the entire opera with a Solti-esque iron grip.
Salonen's faith in his singers is well founded. The cast for this production is impressively, and almost uniformly, strong. However, one or two singers really do stand out. First and foremost is Gary Lehman, who is that rarest of opera singers, a Wagnerian heldentenor who is actually up to the job. His voice isn't the strongest I've heard, but it has enough power to carry over Salonen's inflated orchestral textures. He has a pure sound in the upper register and an almost baritone richness to the lower end. Both he and Violeta Urmana, his Isolde for the evening, can also be heard in Gergiev's new Parsifal recording. Both shine in Tristan as well as they do in Parsifal, and to hear them together live is a real treat.
The support cast contains some top flight Wagnerians too. Urmana is a great Isolde, but there were one or two occasions when the more experienced and more timbrally distinctive Anne Sofie von Otter came close to upstaging her as Brangäne. Matthew Best has the ideal presence of tone, not to mention stamina in Act 2, for King Marke. He too is an ideal singer for this project, in that there is never any danger of his being overpowered by the on-stage orchestra.
The Philharmonia were on their usual top form. As ever under Salonen, they were regularly taken outside their comfort zone in terms of dynamics and always coped well. The lower strings are a real strength of this orchestra and get many chances to shine in Tristan, the preludes to the Acts 1 and 3 spring to mind. Fabulous cor anglais playing from Jill Crowther. The instrument is used in so many contexts that it could almost be considered one of the cast, and its sheer variety of timbres really aided the dramatic credibility.
Which brings us to the video instillation. I notice that the term 'semi-staged' was not used in any of the publicity material, which is probably just as well, because it was about a quarter staged at most. In some of the scenes, the singers were distributed around the auditorium, but in general it was as if the live action had been deliberately played down in order not to distract from the video projections. Bill Viola has taken two basic approaches to the work, an almost prosaic literalism and a more abstract symbolism. With four hours or so of music, there is plenty of time for both, but their combination can lead to disorientation and incoherency. Each of the first two acts opens at the literal end of the scale, the first with images of the sea, the second with night time images of a forest. And at the end of act 1, when the ship reaches the coast, that is also literally depicted, although the North coast of Cornwall looks suspiciously like the South coast of California. For the abstract episodes, he takes a few visual metaphors that he then presents in a variety of contexts. Love/love potion/love magic are all represented by water, a visual device that flows seamlessly from the maritime imagery of the opening. Passion and lust are represented by fire and also by...well, gratuitous nudity. That's not a complaint, although it does mean that a number of the surtitles go unread. In general, the pace of the imagery is deliberately slow, figures moving in slow motion interspersed with slowly transforming abstract images. This has the practical benefit of filling the time, but also means that the video and the live action, such as it is, move at different speeds. It is as if the singers are playing out Wagner's skeletal narrative, while the video addresses the underlying and timeless philosophical issues.
Clever then, but also waywardly incoherent, and occasionally struggling for ideas. The video is at its best in the final scene (I won't give away the details) and musically these last 20 minutes were also exceptional. Urmana saved something in reserve for the closing scene, and was brilliantly supported by Salonen, who drew a smouldering intensity from the orchestra. Impressive stamina all round, especially considering that most of the performers are not generally known for their Wagner. The video is likely to remain controversial, but I suspect that acclaim for the musical side of Salonen's Tristan project will be universal.
Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 19 September 2010

4'33" – Please Take it Seriously

I've been following with interest the facebook campaign "JOHN CAGE'S 4'33'' FOR CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE 2010". On some levels, it is a great idea, although I struggle to understand why so many music enthusiasts care about the domination of the pop charts by a TV talent show.

4'33" would seem to be the ideal vehicle for the protest, after last year's successful campaign to topple the latest X Factor winner and replace them with 'Killing in the Name', they no longer need to scream 'Fuck you I won't do what you tell me' at Simon Cowell. This more demure protest sends the same message, but with a menacing veneer of passive aggression.

Successful or not, the campaign is certainty going to bring Cage's masterpiece under the spotlight, but how is the work itself going to fare? If you go to the campaign facebook page and look at the responses from group members to the various announcements, you'll find a lot of this sort of thing:

     I downloaded it accidentally once. Well, it was 4'32" of silence, but what's one second? 

     I can't hear anything.. is this some kind of joke? 

     makes an excellent ring-tone too...

But 4'33" is not silent. Cage's score stipulates that the performers refrain from making any deliberate noises, but those aren't the sort of noises he is interested in. Ambient sound is part of the work, as are the noises our circulation and nervous systems make, and even the sounds that we imagine when listen intently in a concert hall setting.

The sheer quantity of cultural context of the work is astonishing, and has recently become the subject of an entire book by Kyle Gann, appropriately entitled 'No Such Thing as Silence'. The 'blank' canvases of Robert Rauschenberg are an important precedent, while the Zen Buddhism that Cage was studying at the time even suggests a deep spiritual dimension to the work. And the significance of 4'33" on later music demonstrates its important cultural status. According to Paul Hegarty, the whole discipline of noise music, which admittedly isn't to everybody's taste, but which has pretty much defined the cutting edge of avant-garde electronica for decades, actually began with 4'33". 

Sure, John Cage was a bit of a joker, but he was making a serious point. Deadpan humour is an important part of the work, and most performances treat it as a send-up of the conventions of the recital hall. But there is much more to it than that. Fortunately, at least some of the facebookers get it, as the following interchange on the message boards demonstrates:

     Anyone ever read the emperor's new clothes?

     Have you ever read John Cage's book "Silence"? 

One last thought: when you type "JOHN CAGE'S 4'33'' FOR CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE 2010" into Google, it responds: "Did you mean JOHNNY CAGE'S 4'33'' FOR CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE 2010" What's that all about?

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Review of Krauss Ring Cycle

Nice to see a review of the Krauss Ring cycle in the Express. Shame it is only 70 words long (that's 5 words per disc) and seems to be of a completely different recording.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Arvo Pärt vs. Vladimir Putin

 Khodorkovsky's mother campaigns for his release ahead of the Proms performance of  Arvo Pärt's 4th Symphony

What is Arvo Pärt playing at with his recent dedications? Soon after the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, the composer made an announcement that all of the following season's performances of his work were to be dedicated to her. Very noble, you might think, but then in January 2009 a more political motivation emerged when he dedicated his 4th Symphony to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oligarch, who fell foul of the Putin administration and has been in prison in Siberia since 2003. He's really pressing the point, even inviting Khodorkovsky's mother to the British première of the work, to campaign for his release before the Russian press on the steps of the Albert Hall.

So what is in it for Arvo Pärt? He has certainly had his share of Russian oppression, his previous symphony, the 3rd of 1971 the subject of particularly focussed Soviet censure. But his emigration/defection to the West was in 1980, long before anybody involved in the current Russian administration was monitoring cultural activities in Estonia. 

Or is there something from Putin's KGB past that I don't know about, something that Arvo Pärt is putting to rights in his own way? Whatever the motivations for Pärt's recent dedications, one thing is for sure, he's off Gergiev's Christmas card list.

Read a review of the new ECM recording of Pärt's 4th Symphony here