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An Aural-Oral Assault

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on June 22, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Review – Quartett (Linbury Theatre, Saturday 21 June 2014)

Marquise de Merteuil – Angelica Voje
Marquis de Valmont – Mark Stone

Director – John Fulljames
Set & Costume Designs – Soutra Gilmour
Film Designs – Ravi Deepres
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet
Sound Design – Sound Intermedia
Computer Music Design – Serge le Mouton

London Sinfonietta

Andrew Gourlay (Conductor)

There is no denying that Luca Francesconi’s Quartett is a remarkable work.

Perhaps inadvertently, the Royal Opera House has created a French Revolutionary parallel with their recent and most excellent Carmélites.

And while both operas make an impact in very different ways, personally whether the impact of Quartett is as noteworthy or long lasting as that of Carmelites is debatable.

In the programme, the composer wrote that the music is “consistent” and that he used “expressive tensions” rather than styles. There was no denying that the music was never anything but tense – almost unbearably so and all the time. However the reliance on these tensions rather than a sense of structure (or form) doe question whether Francesconi could write anything longer than a single act opera.

In Quartett, Franesconi combined live music expertly played it must be said by the London Sinfonietta under the skillful baton of Andrew Gourlay, with both pre-recorded sounds and music. The players in the pit displayed a virtuosity that underlines why it is the leading contemporary music ensemble in Europe today.

The singers, Angelica Voje and Mark Stone also acquitted themselves brilliantly. Neither gave any sense that they were anything else but comfortable and confident in this music. Ms Voje however had the slight edge, finding a level of emotional delivery of words and music that sometimes eluded Stone. Halfway through the performance I did suddenly think how I would want to see Ms Voje in Handel. She has a bright, gleaming and flexible soprano of impressive range, and I was pleasantly surprised to then see has in fact sung Handel with ETO. I shall be looking out for her in future.

Perhaps unwisely, Francesconi also wrote the libretto. Taking as his starting point Heiner Müller’s play of the same title which was in turn ‘freely inspired’ by de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it didn’t work. He had removed any sense of humanity from the two protagonists. Without it, it becomes difficult – if not impossible – to understand why they are as they are. And while the language used was simple, it felt unwieldy – almost like an unfinished draft.

It might have been intentional, but with both words and music equally relentless and brutal all the time, it felt that Francesconi hadn’t written so much an opera than a complete assault on the senses.

On stage itself, James Fulljames’ vision was simple yet compelling. I didn’t realize that the Linbury had the facility to split the audience on either side of the stage and here it worked. More than feeling like the voyeurs that the composer intended, it was more like watching a gladiatorial fight of some kind.

I am not sure that Deepres’ video projections added anything. Projected as they were on lengths of hanging fabric, they were unclear and only offered the slightest respite from what was happening on the gangway cum stage.

By the end, Francesconi’s Quartett had delivered – hammer blow by hammer blow -an emotional numbness rather than anything else. Any emotional colour – as found in de Laclos original work – had been shorn from the retelling of a classical tale of love and revenge and the music bludgeoned rather than heightened the senses.

But in a perverse way, despite all of this, it made for a compelling evening.

New operas are vital if the art form is to survive. Most recently we had Julian Anderson’s flawed The Thebans, and before that Benjamin’s Written on Skin and Anna Nicole by Turnage.

Francesconi’s overtly intellectual approach is to be lauded. Francesconi is quoted as saying “It is not easy to compose an opera today. It is an incredibly rich form, but we have to completely change our definition. When we say ‘opera’ we normally think of the 19th century. For me … it is a fantastic multimedia machine.”

H has been commissioned by the Royal Opera House to write a new work for 2020. It will be interesting to see what comes of this because at the end I did wonder if his approach was at the expense of a truly musical and emotional experience.

Maestro Maazel’s Misjudged Mahler Makes For Mediocrity

In Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Review on October 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Review – Symphony No. 8, Gustav Mahler
Sally Matthews, Ailish Tynan, Sarah Tyan, Sarah Connolly, Anne-Marie Owens, Stefan Vinke, Mark Stone & Stephen Gadd. Philharmonia Chorus, BBC Symphony Chorus, Boys of the Eton College Chapel Choir. Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel.

Maazel ended his Mahler cycle which he began in earnest in April of this year with Gustav’s Eighth Symphony. The cycle as a whole has had a mixed reception and I have two admissions.

First of all I did not attend any of the other performances in the cycle and therefore cannot testify if there was any sense of ‘greater architecture’ or cohension to the cycle. And secondly I still had the magnificent performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony by Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic ringing in my ears from the previous weekend.

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony always sets up a sense of various expectations. Not only in terms of the forces that must be assembled – although fortunately not always the ‘one thousand’ of legend – but also in terms of the line up of soloists and of course the credentials of both orchestra and conductor.

On paper it all looked very promising. I have Maazel’s complete recordings of Mahler’s symhonies with the Vienna Philharmonic and I don’t think that his approach to this symphony has changed much from set to stage. Additionally the soloists ranked on Sunday were potentially impressive.

So why did I leave the concert hall feeling disappointed? Granted there were some who stood and gave ovations. Perhaps they had attended the whole cycle? Perhaps they were genuinely moved?

For me it was a lacklustre and at times incredibly frustrating evening. I have heard the term ‘directionless’ used with reference to the other performances in the cycle and that seems the best description for Maazel’s performance of the Eighth Symphony.

Granted the opening, Veni, creator spiritus was magnificent and promising. But simply in a way that – I believe – you cannot get the opening of this symphony so completely wrong that it doesn’t have impact. From the opening chord of the organ, the opening bars are as much about simply marshalling the extravagant forces arrayed in from of the podium as creating the momentum that will carry through to the closing bars of Part One.

There was both immediate sound and weight, yet almost immediately Maazel showed that he didn’t really have a direction of travel. Almost from the beginning it seemed that what Maazel lacked was a sense of pace, direction and attention to detail.

While Mahler wrote what can only be described as a ‘wall of sound’ for the opening, he was – as I have said before – a master of orchestration. He had an innate knowledge of orchestral colour and balance and despite the furious activity in the opening bars Mahler scores the orchestra intuitively as he begins to lay out the thematic ideas that will dominate for the rest of the symphony.

It became evident that Maazel wasn’t so interested in delving into this level of detail and was simply conducting the notes. There was none of the transparency or sense of contrast written so clearly, lovingly and with deliberate purpose into the score. Even in terms of dynamic range Maazel seemed to operate in one of two modes – very loud or dynamically bland. In fact by the end of the performance I was convinced that Maazel was so detached from the performers on the stage that he almost gave the impression of wanting to be somewhere else.

The chorus’ first entry quickly gave way to blurred lines vocal lines and many orchestral entries were ragged.

The soloists – bar one – fared little better and as they are all exemplary performers I can only put this down to a lack of frisson with Maestro Maazel himself. For the most part they seemed to struggle against the conductor rather than working with him.

Stefan Vinke – whose bell-like tenor is usually a pleasure to hear and whose diction is a marvel – bravely attempted to rise to the challenge that Mahler set the tenor soloist. Let’s be clear, it’s a punishing role at the best of time when the conductor is sensitive to the music, but here from almost the start his voice sounded strained as he fought to be heard against Maazel and above the orchestra. At no point was there any sense that he was getting any sensitive or intelligent support from the conductor. And this was sadly true of the remaining soloists.

Sally Mathews’ normally resplendent soprano, so rich and warm in tone seemed unusually ill-matched in this performance. There were moments when her brilliant soprano shone through but not as often as Mahler would have envisaged. And Ailish Tynan – who stepped in at the last minute so thrillingly for Mena’s Mahler a few weeks back – on this occasion sounded shrill and in the Second Part seemed to develop a peculiar affectation of over emphasising and individually aspirating notes in what should have been fluid vocal phrases.

The third soprano, Sarah Tynan – positioned in one of the uppermost boxes in the Royal Festival Hall – was hampered by her distance from her compatriots. Like Lee Bissett, Sarah Tynan is a ‘graduate’ of the ENO’s Young Singers and I have always been an admirer. Alas, accustomed as I am to her bell-like soprano, she too sounded somewhat out of sorts and her voice has a strange veil over the expected brightness.

Of the remaining men, Stephen Gadd (and pace Brindley Sherratt for the mistake) failed to make any impact at all. His deep bass failing to convey any of the mastery of Mahler’s music or words and on occasion seemed to slide across phrases rather than singing individual notes. Singularly disappointing. And finally neither Mark Stone nor Anne-Marie Owens – again both incredibly talented artists in their own right – made any impact.

So it was left to the marvellous Sarah Connolly to rescue the performance. An ever accomplished and talented performer she single-handed exuded vocal confidence in her every entr. She alone rose above the distraction of Maazel to deliver a stunning and meanginful performance – words crystal clear, tone rich and resonant.

The Philharmonia Orchestra also failed to assert themselves, and at times seemed at odds with the man with the baton in his hand. Some superlative playing from the woodwind coulldn’t gloss over the less than burnished tone from the string section and – truth be told – some rather ‘hiccuped’ solos from them as well. The bleakness at the opening of Part Two had more to do with a clear lack of confidence in the players than conveying the notes on the page.

And pace to everyone, but I have to admit that the fainting double bass player just at the end may have achieved the only sense of momentum and excitement in the whole evening. But joking aside, I do hope that both she and her instrument are much recovered. And all credit to her colleagues who kept on going.

So while I won’t go so far as to say that the performance was a complete disaster, it was – and perhaps a worse indictment – a mediocre performance. Maazel – semi or completely detached on the podium – didn’t deliver any sense of breadth or understanding of the symphony’s broader architecture. As a result he failed to inspire either the orchestra or the soloists.

By the end of the performance I was left thinking of those dreadful equations that I had to do when I was at school. If a car is travelling north west at sixty miles per hour, and a truck is travelling south east at 35 miles an hour, what time do they pass one another? Or on this occasion, it was more if Maazel starts conducting at 7.30pm and merely trundles through the motions of conducting Mahler, what time is the earliest that I will get home?

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