Sunday 30 September 2018

New directions: 'Winterreise' at Wigmore Hall

This is the second of two posts running about Schubert's 'Winterreise'.

Last time, I archived a piece I'd originally written for the Cross Eyed Pianist blog, mostly discussing a summer performance of the song cycle given by the mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager, accompanied by Julius Drake. It includes some of my current thoughts about 'Winterreise' in general, which I won't repeat here - so if you haven't seen it and would like to read through it, go here.

This post looks at a more recent, and very different, concert.


Over three years ago, I heard Iain Bostridge sing 'Winterreise' at the Barbican. The pianist on that occasion was Thomas Adès - perhaps better known as a composer. I'm most familiar with his work through opera - 'Powder Her Face' and 'The Tempest' have both entered the repertoire, and I'm sure his recent 'The Exterminating Angel' will do the same - but he's written a wide range of orchestral and chamber music, most of which I'm yet to discover.

I was impressed by their interpretation - IB was, as ever, utterly committed and immersed in the protagonist's character, and TA seemed acutely attuned to every twist and turn the singer took. They also seemed to have steeled themselves for the venue's peculiarities: the hall in the Barbican is vast, and they filled it with a driven performance. Nonetheless, it was a bit of a mismatch between work and setting, and the audience did at points disengage (most notably with almost epidemic levels of coughing and page rustling, which the Barbican acoustic ramped up to an even volume with the voice and piano).

Fast forward to September 2018, and this time the duo were performing 'Winterreise' at Wigmore Hall. This is now part of a wider project: IB is surely the British singer most associated with the work (the Wigmore website points out he has sung it over 100 times) - and this is the first in a sequence of three recitals at the Hall where he will sing each of the three Schubert song cycles with a different accompanist. (Pleasingly, the concerts will be preserved for posterity on the Wigmore Hall Live record label.)

(Photo of Ian Bostridge by Sim Canetty-Clarke.)

I confess that I can't begin to guess how many pianists must feature in IB's century of Winterreisen, or how often he has sung it with TA (if at all) since the 2015 performances. But they do seem to generate something quite uncanny between them, and for me, at the Wigmore, it came into focus.

As a singer, IB is a dominating and at times divisive presence. I always feel that Schubert would heartily approve of his lieder interpretations because you really feel that he is 'living' the material. He's not afraid to appear or sound eccentric or mannered, affected by the songs which play with their protagonists so cruelly. IB uses his tall, slim build to maximum effect: when he sways, it's as if he's in the grip of fate; when he bends double, it's as if he is broken. However, in TA he has a partner as wilfully individualistic, as singular on the piano as IB is vocally.

As readers of some of my past blogs will know, I'm a bit obsessed with song accompaniment, and the importance of giving the pianist equal consideration with the singer. In my experience - which is obviously limited compared to many lifetime listeners - I've heard two 'types' of approach to accompaniment. Perhaps this is stating the obvious: specialists in accompaniment often seem to have a near-telepathic link to the singer and - without losing their own stylistic trademarks - can serve the patterns of the voice with almost chameleonic versatility. On other occasions, I've heard 'solo pianists' - that is, players who are more known for performing as pianists in their own right - take on the accompanist's role. In most cases, they've unsurprisingly stamped much more of their own 'personality' on to the accompaniment - a perfectly valid approach, which can lead to interesting tensions and effects in the pairing. (Even if - *whispering* - my heart more often belongs to the former group.)

(Photo of Thomas Adès by Brian Voce.)

But in Adès's performance, I felt like I was hearing something completely new to me - an accompaniment that sounded recognisably like it was being played by a composer. I think this was hinted at in the Barbican performance but stifled by the setting - in the more confined, crystalline acoustic of the Wigmore, it seemed to ring loud and clear. I had the impression TA had taken the whole cycle apart to see how it worked, then put it back together again (and I recalled IB saying in an interview some time back that TA had looked at a manuscript and was brilliant enough to pick up instantly on certain features to bring out). This now had something of the unpredictability of an Adès score.

We seemed to be hearing new things. To give a single example, it struck me that in the 20th song, 'Der Wegweiser' / 'The signpost', TA was emphasising the tolling right hand to recall song 1, 'Gute Nacht' / 'Good night', while playing the ascending run of notes in the left hand to echo song 10, 'Rast' / 'Rest'. 'Der Lindenbaum' / 'The linden tree', normally the cycle's gesture towards prettiness, was absorbed into its overall desolation. There were enough quiet-LOUD-quiet dynamics to jolt even a Pixies or Nirvana fan, climaxing in an unforgettable 'Der Leiermann' / 'The Hurdy-Gurdy Man' - not the sound of weary defeat this time, but a raging, almost determined cry of defiance.

Something about Adès's fearless way with the material meets Bostridge's technique head-on, and the outcome is a surprisingly robust, wilful interpretation that doesn't skimp on the anguish or even horror, but doesn't give in to it, either. Already a pioneering work when first penned, this performance made 'Winterreise' sound for all the world like a new, contemporary cycle.

I was at the first of two performances - I assume both will be recorded to ensure the best renditions go onto the disc. I'd love to know if the second gig was different again, and I can't wait to play the performance back. It was wonderful to be so shocked and surprised all over again by a work I thought I knew so well.

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Chill factor: 'Winterreise' at Temple Church

This post first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest in all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.

The timing for archiving this post is deliberate. This was a review I wrote for Frances about an intriguing performance of Schubert's 'Winterreise' we saw during the summer - in the writing, it expanded a little to include some thoughts about the piece itself. In my next post, I'm planning to cover a very different rendition of this masterpiece, so it felt right to place this here as a companion.


Franz Schubert – ‘Winterreise’, Temple Church, 24 July 2018

Angelika Kirchschlager, mezzo-soprano, and Julius Drake, piano

Schubert’s song cycle – surely the greatest work of its kind – sets to music a series of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller. In the opening lines, the protagonist begins an unspecified journey on foot, leaving behind a woman who, back in the Spring, he believed he would marry. But now the affair is over. By the second song, we find out her parents have made a better match.

In the bitter, freezing night, he strives to leave the town behind him. But his route is obscure, as he encounters familiar landmarks, signposts, a village, even the post van – and most of all, throughout, he feels the effects of nature: snow, wind, water, clouds, lightning. Towards the end of the cycle, the sense that this voyage is at least partly interior strengthens. Hallucinations get the better of him: an apparently friendly guiding light, multiple suns – all symbols for what he has lost). Finally, he meets a mysterious ‘organ-grinder’, and considers joining him, to sing and play together. There are a number of interpretations of the ending out there: the one I favour – and I think I’ve come across the most – is that the figure indicates the cycle is eternal. The hurdy-gurdy goes round and round for ever, and the grinder could even be the wanderer’s future self. Or, he could, simply, be Death.

(No-one seems to think he’s just an organ grinder.)

Schubert composed the first 12 songs in the cycle in early 1827, before he even knew about the rest of the poems in the sequence. The story of his friends’ utter bewilderment on hearing them is often told in programme notes and CD booklets, so I won’t repeat it in detail here. But with all these years’ hindsight, it seems to me that ‘Winterreise’ must have sent shivers down their spines because Schubert wrote exactly the music the words demanded. There are tantalising flashes of vigour, even joy – and brilliantly robust, yet fractured piano parts that mirror so well a voice wracked with both determination and despondency – but the overall mood is poignant, downbeat and unresolved.

‘Winterreise’ might be cold to the touch, but it’s difficult to escape its icy grip. Speaking as an avid listener, I seem to gather recordings of it in an almost addictive way, constantly searching for new angles and insights.

Singers are drawn to it like moths to a blue flame. Perhaps it’s the art song equivalent of a Hamlet, or Lear – a rite of passage. Many feel the urge to visit and re-visit it. Ian Bostridge has a famously close relationship with the cycle, writing a book about it, and recently performing a semi-staged, orchestrated version against projected footage of this younger self. Mark Padmore and Florian Boesch have each recorded it twice in the last ten years (with different accompanists).

And that’s just a few of the men. However, the protagonist of ‘Winterreise’ – definitely a chap – must be an irresistible ‘trouser role’…? (It’s easy to forget that song is as visual a medium as opera – writing before recorded music was dreamt of, Schubert could only ever have imagined someone standing up, putting these songs across to a live audience.) But even though there are numerous recordings – including Brigitte Fassbaender, Christa Ludwig, Nathalie Stutzmann or one of my personal favourites, Alice Coote’s searing live disc – the opportunity to hear a woman perform ‘Winterreise’ live still feels all too rare.

Tonight, we were in Temple Church to hear mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager’s interpretation, for the first time. I’ve always found AK’s performances of art song thrilling: as much acted as sung, and with a captivating emotional range. I was excited to hear how she would apply this over a continuous narrative, rather than stand-alone lieder. What I experienced was completely fearless, at times frustrating but always fascinating.

The venue was both friend and foe. In Temple Church, at least where my companions and I were sitting, there’s a gloriously resonant but quite echoey acoustic. I’m not a sonic scientist, but at times, it felt like the voice and piano clashed slightly because a rumble of bass notes would tumble all over each other, or a phrase would be lost (for example, in the helter-skelter ‘Rückblick’ / ‘A backward glance’). At other points, however, in slower songs like ‘Wasserflut’ / ‘Flood’ or ‘Irrlicht’ / ‘Will-o’-the-wisp’, a fantastic sustain effect was created, allowing AK and JD to continue singing and playing with the traces of the previous note or two still fading. This really enhanced the continuous feel of the performance and lent a sinister edge that would be hard to replicate in a studio recording.

AK’s commitment to the piece was total, and I believe she portrayed the cyclic structure of the story as much through her body language as her voice. In the opening ‘Gute Nacht’ / ‘Good night’, she was still, transfixed, even to the point where I thought she was warming up in some way, not quite in full flow yet. Almost immediately, though, she opened out and began to move. Only in the final song, ‘Der Leiermann’ / ‘The organ-grinder’, when she withdrew back into herself, adopting the same pose, staring at some phantom far beyond the audience, did I realise – thoroughly moved and disquieted – that at the start we had seen her protagonist emerge, and now disappear.

Unafraid to sound harsh or broken when the context demanded, AK could come across at times as if the acting were leading the singing. So effective was she in the cycle’s moodswings that the intensity felt a bit like listening to a 75-minute ‘Erlkönig’, a rollercoaster ghost-train ride that kept me riveted. But this didn’t prevent the emotional high-points of the sequence – in particular, the soaring anguish of the penultimate song ‘Die Nebensonnen’ / ‘Phantom suns’, AK’s bright, glorious tone so tragically affecting – hitting home with a devastating beauty.

Friday 14 September 2018

Logger rhythms: ENO Studio Live's 'Paul Bunyan'

I was quite late to this particular party. I'd managed to get tickets for 'Paul Bunyan' on the last day of its week-long run. As a result, once it opened, I had the pleasure of seeing the great reviews it received rolling in, and hearing that every last ticket had sold... combined with the agony of having to wait the whole week to see it for myself.

Now another week has gone by. The (saw)dust has settled on the production, and I've hardly stopped thinking about it since. I already know that it will be one of my absolute highlights of the year - but how to start explaining why...?

The show was the latest in English National Opera's 'ENO Studio Live' initiative, now two summers old and going from strength to strength. It's a beautifully appealing idea: outside the regular opera season, when their vast home venue the Coliseum tends to host musicals, the ENO ensemble 'breaks free' to mount smaller-scale productions. But because this is ENO's Chorus and Orchestra we're talking about, 'smaller-scale' doesn't mean there's any reduction in ambition or achievement - quite the opposite.

ENO Studio Live productions before 'Paul Bunyan' have all been staged in the company's rehearsal studios, Lilian Baylis House in West Hampstead. But this time, the setting would be Wilton's Music Hall, the oldest surviving establishment of its kind, a noble relic of sorts with a structure that seems to consist entirely of nooks and crannies. Once in the auditorium, you get a simultaneous impression of narrowness and height - which, as the show will prove, offers the ideal combination of intimate theatrics and vast sound.

'Paul Bunyan' is an operetta by Benjamin Britten, with a libretto by W H Auden. It pre-dates all of Britten's mature operas, being a product of his stay in the US, and as such the score references jazz, blues and show-tunes in a dazzling display of genre-hopping versatility. This is just one of the ways it feels very 'current', in a year when we are celebrating Bernstein, and ENO's first production of the Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess' is only a couple of months away.

The operetta's subject matter deliberately mines American myth, focusing on Paul Bunyan, a legendary giant logger who clears the forests to usher in modern agriculture, progress over the primitive, man over nature. In a masterstroke, Bunyan himself is never seen, written as an offstage speaking voice to which the visible characters react. This gives him the aura of a 'Voice of God', for sure - but equally serves to distance him from the mayhem his innovations create.

The action walks a constant - but sustained - tightrope between the absurd/surreal and the truly affecting. Amid groups of talking trees and animals, in-fighting lumberjacks and a pair of chefs who can only rustle up soup and beans between them, several characters emerge to absorb the full impact of Bunyan's orbit. Among them are Bunyan's daughter Tiny, who suffers her parents' break-up and the loss of her mother; Hot Biscuit Slim, the cowboy who can actually rustle up a decent meal; Johnny Inkslinger, the reluctant book-keeper; and Hel Helson, the hapless foreman.

It's an 'unbalanced' work, in every sense - at moments, you feel it's properly unhinged. Equally, the first act is almost like a revue in its quickfire array of set-pieces and 'hit mumbers', while the second act is required to slow down, resolve the strands of story and supply the necessary weight, as Bunyan moves on to leave his acolytes searching for their version of America.

(The men's Chorus face the orchestra. All production photos by Genevieve Girling, taken from the ENO website.)

However, ENO's production finds the balance. I thought this was one of the most deftly thought-through stagings I've seen, precision-tooled for the venue. The orchestra were vertical rather than horizontal, arranged in storeys at the back of the stage - meaning no playing area separated us from the actor-singers. Under Matthew Kofi Waldren, they negotiated the lightning shifts in style with real pizzazz, finding that under-explored middle ground between pit and nightclub. As the story got darker, red blinds gradually drew over the players, as if twilight was descending on the stage. The recording of Bunyan's voice (a rich, booming Simon Russell Beale), neon lights and plastic props presented a kind of 'electric cabaret', conjuring up a mid-20th century New York milieu, channelling it through the history in the bricks and mortar of Wilton's, and bringing it all into collision with the enchanted forest.

The use of the space to maximise the effect of the voices was breathtaking. The opening moments would have been worth the price of admission alone, as we suddenly realised we were surrounded by the ENO Chorus, and we were inside the sound they were making. I've written before that one of the key joys of ENO Studio Live is that you get so close to the Chorus - it feels exactly like a classical equivalent of seeing a popular band you love in a small club instead of an arena. You start to hear how each individual singer, always captivating in their own right, forms their particular part of the overall blend - as they move, of course their voice travels with them and you have the luxury of experiencing a 'live', ever-shifting sound mix. However, in 'Paul Bunyan' we get to take that further still, a wall of glorious surround-sound as the choristers moved around and among us. It almost felt like being in the Chorus, without having to sing oneself: result!

But more than ever, this latest Studio Live enterprise gave the deserving Chorus - full of gifted singer-actors and always great movers - a significant number of individual parts, too. Various members morphed in and out of different roles, but I'll try and give credit as clearly as I can.

Claire Mitcher, Rebecca Stockland and Susanna Tudor-Thomas (above) combined the narrator role with a trio of wild geese, offering a sassy commentary on events: on stage for almost the entire duration, they pulled off the difficult trick of sounding gorgeous - running the gamut from sultry to sarcastic - while nailing the physical comedy. This set the pattern, though, for their colleagues. David Newman made an indelible stamp - eh, readers? - as the world's most dedicated postman, and - with Morag Boyle, Michael Burke and Paul Sheehan - formed part of the Quartet of the Defeated, an absolute showstopper of a blues song, delivered straight and all the more chilling for it: 'You don't know all, sir, you don't know all' (below).

Tenor Graeme Lauren and bass Trevor Bowes were superbly (mis)matched as Sam and Ben, the useless cooks: so heartfelt was their acting that, unexpectedly, I found myself thinking, 'I could actually go some soup and beans' - they never let their ludicrous personas get in the way of their powerful delivery.

Deborah Davison, Fiona Canfield, Amy Kerenza Sedgwick, Suzanne Joyce and Jane Read were genuinely terrifying as the woodland elements and animals mocking Helson's failure. While Robert Winslade Anderson, Adam Sullivan, Geraint Hylton, Ronald Nairne, Paul Sheehan (again!), Pablo Strong and Andrew Tinkler were on whip-smart comic form as a variety of Swedes, lumberjacks and farmers. Sophie Goldrick and Lydia Marchione were suitably slinky, disdainful feline foils to guest artist Fflur Wynn's sentimental dog Fido.

I could, quite easily, list the entire Chorus here and I apologise if I've unwittingly left anyone out. But the whole point of naming them is to recognise the distinct mark each member makes on the production.

A true company project, all the remaining soloist roles were taken by singers on the ENO Harewood Artists scheme. Elgan Llyr Thomas was memorably wracked as the conflicted Inkslinger, Rowan Pierce heartrending as Tiny, Matthew Durkan a humorously drawn yet fearfully intense Helson, and William Morgan a heroically confident Slim. These four handsomely carried the final moments of the show where, without disturbing Britten and Auden's closing words and music, they skilfully shifted the mood, through their acting alone, to flip the American Dream into Nightmare.

Congratulations then to director Jamie Manton, himself an ENO Studio Live veteran after directing the first in the series (Dove's 'The Day After'), and his creative team, for reviving this piece, which seems so peculiarly relevant to our current situation. In 'Paul Bunyan', for all its fabulous comedy and derangement, there is damaged nature, reckless humanity, environmental change, techno-fear, mental instability, bullying, broken homes, latent racism, intolerance, the rise of a new world order. Light on its feet, the production manages to examine, criticise or condemn these as appropriate - following through to its downbeat conclusion - while still sending you out of the Hall feeling thoroughly entertained and energised.

Which finally brings me back to the mighty Chorus, whose collective star wattage forms the absolute backbone of ENO Studio Live, and creates much of this energy, almost to the point of sending electricity coursing through the seats. I hope this show, along with its forerunners if possible, can be revived and - perhaps more importantly - recorded, so we have it for posterity. That said, the sky's now the limit: what will they perform - and where - next summer?

Monday 3 September 2018

Queasy listening: a pick-me-up playlist

Well, I've been feeling pretty sorry for myself. A trifling matter in the Grand Scheme of Things, I realise, but a wretchedly sharp broken tooth has been driving me to distraction. With no recourse to the dentist for a few days, I am having to be extremely careful when eating and - no doubt to Mrs Specs's temporary delight - try not to talk too much. Imagine! - when two of my chief pleasures in life are (a) food, and (b) banging on about things.

Inevitably, I've sought musical solace. Not able to concentrate on anything too long-form (back on the shelf with you, 'Götterdämmerung'), I've been digging out favourites ancient and modern, making new discoveries and generally pinging about YouTube and Spotify with the attention span not of a gnat, exactly, but perhaps a sloth with toothache.

The playlist that has resulted is - to dip into academic musical jargon for a moment - 'all over the shop', but the common thread is that listening to every track here made me feel better. Not just medically, so to speak - temporarily forgetting my Ailment for four minutes at a time - but uplifted and somewhat renewed. I hope you enjoy it.

Practical footnote - YouTube videos don't always stick around for ever, so the playlist repeats at the end in a version for Spotifiers. However, I recommend watching some of these videos if you can, particularly the deliriously silly 'Funky Town' - it's my new ambition to feel as excitable about life in general as the drummer in Pseudo Echo clearly does.


Poppy Ackroyd (featuring cellist Jo Quail): 'Quail'

Sandrine Piau, Jos van Immerseel: Debussy - 'De grève'

Iron & Wine: 'Woman King'

Mathias Eick: 'Oslo'

Pseudo Echo: 'Funky Town'

Trio Aristos: Per Nørgård - 'Pastorale'

Talking Heads: 'Found a Job' (Live)

Susan Graham, Malcolm Martineau: Ned Rorem - 'Early in the morning'

Sky: 'Scipio (Parts I & II)

Thomas Dunford: Bach - 'Chaconne' (from Violin Partita no.2)

Robbie Robertson: 'Somewhere Down the Crazy River'

Grant Green: 'Django'

Alice Coote, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Marc Albrecht: Mahler - 'Um Mitternacht'

David Bowie: 'I'd Rather be High' (Venetian Mix)

Kronos Quartet: Terry Riley - 'G Song'