Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Decade? How were the - whaddyacallits - for you?

Clara Schumann. This was the year it all came home.

End of a decade that won't be much missed, unless the twenties ahead fail to roar, or roar - as they might - in all the wrong ways. Nobody seems sure what to call this past lot. The 'teenies' might be a good one, with reference to Trump's hands.

How were they for you? Bests and worsts? My worst is probably the Very Stressful Thing 8 years ago that left me with a long-term health issue I could seriously have done without. It seemed to signal that we were moving into a world of irrationality and persecution that was likely to get worse rather than better, which is exactly what's happened. But we keep on keeping on, because something I've learned from Beethoven (who is off to the publisher tomorrow) is to sing joy at the worst of times as the ultimate defiance. Beethoven weaponised positivity. He never gave up. It's just as well we have a year of him ahead.

The best thing of the decade, though, is that I've discovered my favourite thing in the whole world ever is writing librettos. Silver Birch for Roxanna Panufnik at Garsington was a life-changing experience - the sort of moment when you regret all the years you spent on other stuff when you could have been WRITING OPERAS instead.

2017, indeed, was a spectacularly wonderful year, the Brexit mess notwithstanding. Not only Silver Birch but a magical visit to Leipzig to write Being Mrs Bach, the success of Ghost Variations and a visit to a favourite interviewee to talk about Schubert knee-deep in a field of mountain wildflowers are all memories to cherish. Performing Alicia's Gift at the Wigmore Hall with Viv McLean was a phenomenal highlight of 2016. Then Odette took wing in 2018, having been in the works for 26 years.

One of the oddities of the financial crisis was that it kicked the stuffing out of traditional publishers -who dropped many hardworking and dedicated "mid-list" authors, mostly because they had paid insanely huge advances to "celebrities" to produce stuff that, surprise surprise, didn't sell. Unbound is one of the new business models that has sprung up to deal with that situation. Instead of saying "there's no market for that, dearie", they allow you to prove there is a market first, by selling the thing in advance. This has worked jolly well. Immortal, the Beethoven novel I have waited all my life to write, was fully funded within three months (and you can still get your name in the book as a patron if you click here.) Regrettably, the 'teenies' have turned us all into hustlers. I'm sorry about that, but please blame the government for not dealing properly with the root philosophical causes of the financial crash in the first place.

For me personally it's been a decade of vicissitudes - Brexit, the Indy going xxxx-up, and the dissolution in front of my eyes of several professions that were all viable ways of making a living back in 1987 when I finished university - and yet in other ways it's been the best decade I've ever had. You may wonder if I miss the Independent, and sometimes I do, but often I don't. (Though I do miss it being the quality broadsheet newspaper I was so pleased to join in 2004.) Along similar lines, I miss our ginger bruiser Solti to bits, but we now have our Somali cats Ricki and Cosi who are simply the best.

In some ways 2019 was the year certain things came home to roost. The ascendency of awareness of women composers has been impressive. First of all, I seem to have spent half the year writing about Clara Schumann, whose 200th anniversary has provided a marvellous figurehead-point. And remember Pauline Viardot, whom I started shouting about sometime in ?2003? Now Orlando Figes has written a fabulous book about her, Turgenev and Louis Viardot entitled The Europeans; Cecilia Bartoli is putting her centre stage at the Salzburg Easter Festival; there's a definite upswing.

Conducting, too, is a growth area for female musicians, and not before time. Brava to Mirga Grazynite-Tyla, changing minds across the world from the heart of Birmingham, and all the fantastic work the RPS Women Conductors programme is doing - and much, much more besides.

Next, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - another composer I've been yelling about since a similar time - has become rather a figurehead for the fantastic Chineke! Orchestra. They have just been touring his gorgeous Violin Concerto around Europe, flummoxing racists and shining the light.

Meanwhile, music and storytelling have been coming together in all manner of ways - try the Aurora Orchestra's Berlioz Symphonie fantastique - and showing how new audiences can be engaged and won.

A new decade can bring a new injection of energy as we try to figure out what went wrong and how we can put it right. Now: climate change is the single biggest problem. Also, keeping peace in the face of worldwide popularity for strongman politicians who care for nothing but their own power; and maintaining the fight for liberty, equality and siblinghood.

As for the arts, my hopes are these.
-- We can reconnect music and opera and ballet to humanity by writing new works that people actually relate to and in which young people can perform.
-- We need to get rid of a situation where the substance of an artwork is secondary to the superficial way it is performed. We risk not seeing the wood for the trees, missing the point, and alienating huge swathes of audience.
-- We need urgently to find a way for freedom of movement to continue for arts practitioners between the UK and Europe, or our arts scene in Britain is going to suffer very, very badly. The case has been built often by organisations such as the ISM and the ABO, but there's precious little sign that anybody is listening; perhaps some quiet behind-the-scenes machinations might help. Brexit will show everybody its true colours in due course - whether it takes one year, five or 50 - and until then we can only try and limit its likely damage.
-- Let us seize fate by the throat. It shall not overcome us wholly. How beautiful it is to live - to live a thousand times! (Thank you, "Luigi".)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Susanne Beer, 31 October 1967 - 29 December 2019



Farewell to a dear friend and wonderful cellist, Susanne Beer, who died yesterday at the age of 52. She was co-principal cellist of the London Philharmonic for 18 years.

She had a long battle with cancer - melanoma - and was phenomenally brave and positive throughout.  While she was ill, friends and her many pupils from her school, The Cello Corner, came to her house to perform chamber music for her. As recently as 11 December she travelled to attend an LPO concert at the Royal Festival Hall in her wheelchair, and they gave her a party backstage afterwards. Her husband is now setting up a foundation in her memory to help young cellists.

Tom, who worked with her for most of those 18 years, writes:

Susi was born in Passau, Bavaria into a family of musicians. After studies at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and William Pleeth in London, she joined the London Philharmonic as co-principal cello.
Her first performance was playing continuo cello on the legendary Georg Solti recording of Don Giovanni; and it was indeed her continuo playing which made her such a recognisable feature of Glyndebourne.
After leaving the LPO Susi went on to become a devoted cello teacher, founding the London cello corner, where her enthusiasm inspired many students.
She coped valiantly with her tragic illness, surprising her many friends with her innate positivity and realism; I recall asking her how this was possible, she replied that she was incredibly lucky to have found total fulfiillment in her professional and personal life. 

On December 11 she came to a London Philharmonic concert, where she effectively said goodbye to her friends. 

You can read more about her at her websites: http://www.thecellocorner.co.uk and http://www.susannebeer.co.uk

Above, Gabriel's Oboe...

Saturday, December 21, 2019

WELCOME TO THE SILVER CHOCOLATE AWARDS 2019!


Come on in, quick.

It's raining. Again. Still. Just dump your stuff in the cloakroom and hurry along that corridor to the...yes, it's our CyberPoshPlace! It's decked out with seasonal sumptuousness and ready to host our magical mystery Silver Chocolate Awards all over again, as we do every winter solstice.

The glitter-balls are atwirl, the walls are draped with purple silk and on their thrones, side by side, Ricki and Cosi, joint feline monarchs of our particular glen, are preparing to give this year's winners a prize purr and let them stroke their fine silvery and milk-chocolate-coloured fur.

Meanwhile, our cyber bubbly will make you only as tipsy as you wish to be, our virtual canapés magically transform to be gluten free, dairy free or vegan as you desire, upon contact, and every composer and musician you have ever wished to meet is here, transformed into founts of sociability.

Our special guest star and Icon of the Year is, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven - or Luigi, as he becomes in Immortal, which is starting on its path towards publication. The old boy looks quite pleased. He's wearing a blue coat and yellow waistcoat; his brilliant dark eyes are surveying the crowd to make sure Prince Lichnowsky hasn't shown up; and the sisters Therese (our narrator) and Josephine Brunsvik are on either arm, in adoring attendance.

Luigi, you have a big year ahead. Exploring your life in greater depth and attempting to pay tribute to you has been one of the most thrilling experiences I've ever had. It has turned into a journey from Jane Austen to (sort of) Tristan und Isolde and I hope it will bring your story to life in a whole new way. There are some wonderful books about you out there. There's also a lot of pretty awful stuff. I hope to contribute to the former, rather than the latter, but I guess time will tell. It's full steam ahead now. Please come up to Ricki and Cosi and enjoy a really good purr.

Next, I'd like to welcome two composer colleagues of today who have been the centre of my work this past year. Actually, three, but I'm not allowed to reveal who the third is yet or what we're doing, so he will have to be incognito. Roxanna Panufnik, thank you for changing my life and entrusting me with the task of providing words that will spark some of your wonderful music into existence. I can't wait for our big Beethoven-anniversary piece at the Berlin Philharmonie that's coming up on 1 May, Ever Us. We bring Beethoven's words, world and favourite poets into a work for 10 CHOIRS from all over the world, plus the instrumentation of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, and our doughty directorial colleague Karen Gillingham is in charge of crowd control. Huge thanks to the Rundfunkchor Berlin for this glorious commission. Please join us, folks!!

Paul Fincham, The Happy Princess was a treat of a whole different kind: it was a story I've wanted to adapt for opera for years, your music is chock-full of earworms, and the staging, again by Karen, was utterly perfect. The thing was a smash-hit even if it only had one performance. Let's hope there will be more opportunities for it beyond this, because it deserves to be heard! Thank you for your work, your confidence and your friendship. And thank you, Garsington Opera, for the faith that you put in all of us! And, dear mystery colleague - can't wait to see what you're coming up with....


Conductor of the Year is the one and only Vladimir Jurowski, who needs no introduction. Three of his concerts with the LPO this autumn - respectively the Tchaikovsky Pathétique Symphony, the Strauss Alpine Symphony and Mahler 2 - were some of the best I have ever attended in my whole life, and I go to quite a lot. Mahler 2 left everyone simply speechless backstage afterwards. Vladimir has another year and a half or so to go as principal conductor of the LPO and he will be very, very sorely missed - though we're promised he'll be back often. I hope the Bavarian State Opera knows how lucky it is to be welcoming him in as music director.

I'd like to give a gigantic thank-you to Marios Papadopoulos, whose support for Ghost Variations in the form of the Schumann Violin Concerto last June and for Immortal in his Oxford Philharmonic's wide-ranging Beethoven celebrations next year really means the world. I'm looking forward to being part of the Oxford Phil's Beethoven festival in November and working at the Holywell Music Rooms with baritone Benjamin Appl, pianist Manon Fischer-Dieskau and a string quartet drawn from the orchestra's superb musicians. (And Happy Birthday, maestro!)

Speaking of the Bavarian State Opera, this is Opera Company of the Year for Die tote Stadt, which was unforgettably splendid - I doubt I will ever hear this, "my" special opera, better performed. The cast headed by Jonas Kaufmann and Marlis Petersen was perfect and Kirill Petrenko's conducting brought out all the marvels of the Korngold score with its chilli-pepper intensity and bristling detail. A little too much use of the "revolve", perhaps, but never mind. A massive thank you to the fabulous British mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, who sang Brigitta, for hoiking me over to Munich at short notice and making sure I got to hear it! They are all my singers of the year, too.

Pianist of the Year was tricky, because there are so many wonderful performers whom I love to pieces. However, the prize goes to Norma Fisher, the piano pedagogue who had to retire from the stage decades ago, but whose live performances from way back have been resuscitated by the record producer Tomoyuki Sawado and released on Sonnetto Classics to stunning effect. I recently went to visit her for one of the Masterclass series of articles for International Piano magazine - out sometime in the new year. How I wish I could have my time as a piano student again and beat a path to her door (this in no way diminishes my affection and gratitude to the marvellous teachers I DID go to, of course!).

Honourable mention, too, to some remarkable young pianists: Isata Kanneh-Mason, Mishka Rushie Momen and Iyad Sughayer, who all have had mightily impressive debut CDs released this year - Isata's devoted to Clara Schumann, Iyad's to the eye-wateringly challenging piano works of Khatchaturian and Mishka's an intriguing programme based around variations, including a special commission from Nico Muhly. And last, but very crucially, a ginormous thank you to my beloved concert partner Viv McLean - we have a super new Beethoven show coming up next year, so please watch this space.

Speaking of performance partners, a massive, massive cheer to my fabulous team of harpsichordist Steven Devine, cellist Jonathan Manson and baritone Ben Bevan for their glorious collaboration on Being Mrs Bach's UK premiere at Kings Place back in April. Please come up and have your purrs right away. And here's to more outings soon.

Tasmin
Photo by Paul Mitchell
Violinist of the Year is of course Tasmin Little. I'm devastated that she has decided to step down from performing next summer, but pastures new are beckoning - not least, she is to be joint president (with Barenboim) of the Yehudi Menuhin School and I know she will still be very active in the music world as professor, advocate, spokesperson and pretty much anything else she wishes to turn her hand to. Brava, Tasmin! Meanwhile, I've adored working with include two humongously wonderful violinists this year: Alena Baeva and Fenella Humphreys, both of whom can set the flames flying with their all-out, dedicated artistry.

Dan Tepfer and his trio at Incontri
Festival of the Year is the marvellous Tuscan joy that is Incontri in Terra di Siena, run at La Foce, the home of Antonio Lysy's family and headed by artistic director Alessio Bax. Having not been to Tuscany for about 30 years, I came back from my trip there ready to pack everything in and run away to Italy for six months at the very least. A magnet for marvellous music-making in varied, atmospheric locations, and the food is out of this world. Even the gluten-free spaghetti. I also had a great time Korngolding at Bard Summerscape, in upstate New York, which was quite an experience.

A book I'd like to applaud: Richard Bratby's Forward, the history of the CBSO - gorgeously produced, seamlessly readable, superbly expressed and full of splendiferous anecdotes. A wonderful anniversary tribute to the orchestra, with the lightly-worn engaging touch of the insider who knows exactly how it really works...

Record of the Year!
My Record of the Year is John Wilson's recording of the Korngold Symphony in F sharp. If you've ever wondered what all the fuss is about Korngold, this performance with the Sinfonia of London will show you. It's white hot, swashbucklingly virtuoso, staggeringly precise, with an intensity that sweeps all before it. It's the recording I've been waiting for for 30 years - doing for the Symphony what Die tote Stadt in Munich did for that opera. Showing what it's really made of and everything it can truly do. Is this the year that Korngold finally came home? Catch, too, the DVD of the Deutsche Oper Berlin's Das Wunder der Heliane directed by Christof Loy and conducted by Marc Albrecht, for a golden hat-trick of excellence.

We usually have one stuffed turkey, too, and there've been a few, as I seem to have gone to several of the Wrong Things this year. I'm sorry to say it has to be ENO's Orpheus in the Underworld, which was...unfortunate. Then again, I haven't yet seen Cats... [ouch! Ricki, get your claws out of my leg!]

And now let's have a big round of applause, please, for every musician who has touched the hearts of his/her audience during the roller-coaster year that has just been and gone. Thank you for the music. We love you all!

While the winners approach the silken cushions for their prize purrs, let's have some more cyberbubbly and hope that the year ahead will bring, with its new decade, new hope, new ideas, new approaches, new positivity and new focus on everything we can do to bring openness, internationalism, humanity, great-heartedness and great art of every kind into our everyday world. Bring it on. Time to dance.

MERRY EVERYTHING, EVERYBODY!










Monday, December 16, 2019

French revelation



I reviewed the Aurora Orchestra's splendiferous performance of Louise Farrenc's Symphony No. 3 the other day at Kings Place. WTH is this piece not performed 30 times a year? It's simply wonderful - and the orchestra under Duncan Ward gave it a beautifully characterised performance. Plus a gorgeous new piece for cello and strings by Charlotte Bray and Angela Hewitt in a fine, glittering Mozart concerto, on a piano that took up most of the platform... Here's my review for The Arts Desk.

Taster:

Why does music suddenly disappear? It is all the more heartening when a work as excellent and enjoyable as Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 takes wing once more, but you do have to wonder what they were thinking in mid 19th-century Paris to allow such a terrific orchestral piece to sink and vanish. The symphony formed the second half of the Aurora Orchestra’s latest concert in its Pioneers series for Kings Place's "Venus Unwrapped" series, and very welcome it was. 

Farrenc (1804-1875) was a highly successful and well-regarded musician in her day, known as a brilliant pianist and the only female professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Her third symphony, premiered in 1849, bristles with post-Beethovenian energy; the idiom is a little like Weber, but with a voice all its own, deftly written with never a note too many, plus a satisfying feel for structure and strong conclusions. The slow movement contains some enchanting ambiguity between major and minor, the scherzo fizzes and pounds and the finale is bright with contrapuntal virtuosity. 

Friday, December 13, 2019

The real battle: truth versus entertainment

It's the morning after the night before. Happy Friday 13th, everyone. What sort of a place will the UK be three years from now? How the blazes did we get here? (And can Beethoven help?) Above: I'm glad to see his study was even messier than mine.
These concerns do have elements in common with IMMORTAL, which is why I'm devoting this week's Friday update to them (dear JDCMB readers, this post is also going out to the subscribers to my book, as I am too knackered to write more than one blogpost this morning.)
One thing that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson share is that both have been on TV shows - Trump as centre of the US's The Apprentice, Johnson as satirical news quiz host on Have I Got News for You. People are used to being entertained by them. (And they are both blond. People seem to like blonds.) 
It's a peculiar quirk of human nature to prefer the utterly monstrous to the vaguely meh, and to value the entertainment value of the former over the latter's earnest, well-meaning anxieties. The question is: what constitutes entertainment?
Once upon a time, back in the frivolous Noughties when music features in national newspapers could be 1200 words long and might be actually read, I had a little flirtation with a rising trend of the time: contrarianism. Having heard Handel's Messiah once too often, I penned a semi-satirical piece about how irritating da capo arias are and how we revere Handel just because he lived in England, when actually Bach was a whole heap better. This caused such a rumpus that I ended up being roasted over an open flame by Sarah Montague on Radio 4's Today programme. Which kind of proved the point I was trying to make, of course...but the thing is, it should never have been taken seriously. It simply made a splash by being controversial and therefore entertaining. It got attention. And I didn't much like it.
There's been a lot of attention-grabbing contrarianism around us in the decade since. In a world where people want fast-food soundbites instead of meaty material for real-life consideration, a one-second thumbs-up rather than a speech about the fact that the UK is heading for 40% child poverty due to Tory policies, the wrong things get noticed. Entertainment should have no place in politics, but it's a bit late for that now.
Truth versus entertainment is, naturally, a problem in historical fiction. Part of the unwritten contract between novelist and reader is that we have to remember that you want to be entertained. If we did not want to entertain, we would write the sort of musicological tracts that I have often ploughed through in the past year or two for the sake of this book. The dessicated text sometimes needs to be decoded with a musical Enigma machine, and ultimately communicates little to our life experience unless we are music faculty PhD students. I can't even use them for programme notes these days. That writing of course has its place - which is not here.
So - yes - entertainment is required for a novel, even if it is about music. Does that mean not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story? 
Here the waters become still muddier, because around the Immortal Beloved, nobody can say with 100 per cent accuracy that they know what the truth is. That's probably because Beethoven on the one hand and the woman's family on the other did an extremely good job of concealing it. This provides some justification for telling her story as fiction - because essentially, barring a remarkable discovery in someone's attic, it always will be.
As for Beethoven, he too has fallen victim to the entertainment of disinformation: it has always been more popular to think of him as a furious grouch than to look at the many facets of his actual personality. I've found him to be a misunderstood, principled individual whose isolation was the result of his debilitating deafness and the fact that he was always an outsider in Vienna. He was kind and generous; his friends were devoted to him; women and young people loved him, and he loved them. Yes, he had one heck of a temper, bore lifelong grudges and drank too much. I can't say I blame him. 
So... there are two contracts to fulfil in IMMORTAL: one with the requirements of a story based on fact, the other with readers wishing for entertainment. This is why I've written, for once, in the first person. I am, dear reader, your classic unreliable narrator. And I have some remarkable stories to tell you... 
A quick PS re the Handel grilling. I feel a teensy bit vindicated. Recently BBC Music Magazine ran a feature in which around 100 contemporary composers ranked the composers through history who have influenced them the most, and the staff then crunched the numbers into a top 50. Bach was number 1. Handel was...not there at all. Brahms was high on the list. Bruckner was...absent. And Beethoven was, if I remember correctly, number 3. 
If you've enjoyed this post, there's still time to get your name into IMMORTAL as a patron: simply visit the book's page at Unbound and click on the pledge level you want to set it in motion.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Shostakovich: a warning from history

Shostakovich in 1950
Photo: Deutsche Fotothek
I'm not sure that listening to a completely terrifying performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 was the best way to spend my birthday. Of course there was no way the LPO could have known, when they scheduled it, that there'd be a general election the next day. Suffice it to say that this piece is an hour-long tone poem depicting an eerie silence, a people on the march, a horrifying massacre, its tragic aftermath and a renewal of elemental yet hideous energy beyond.

It is supposedly the Russian revolution of 1905. It was actually written shortly after Russia crushed Hungary in 1956. Shostakovich is living on the edge here - how could anyone have believed his excuse for the piece? - but his warning comes to us loud and clear: it could happen then, it can happen now, it can happen again, anywhere. The impact, as brought to us yesterday by Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO, is more than shattering. Hear it on Radio 3 iPlayer.

Totalitarianism doesn't begin as totalitarianism. It starts with crackpot ideology that speaks to a sect of zealots. It may be idealistically founded, but it bears no relation to helping ordinary people live in peace. Its perpetrators are sometimes elected when ill-informed electorates decide they want a 'strong man' to lead them. Gradually the promulgators face challenges to their power, from the judiciary, the media and more. They start taking control of such organisations to ensure they get rid of those that disagree with them and would stop them. The process continues, small step by small step, and it ends with people on the streets and those to whom ideology is more important than human life (as it will be by then) crushing them. And killing them.

Take a look at the state of Britain today and then consider what will happen if we allow a gigantic drop in GDP, starting from what's already a pretty grim position - a wealthy country that's home to some of the poorest places in Europe.

Yesterday's concert set Shostakovich beside one of the weirder British piano concertos of the last hundred years: John Foulds' Dynamic Triptych, which was brilliantly performed by Peter Donohoe, whose heroic effort for it should really be called upon for more than one outing. It's another piece of the jagged puzzle that is the music of the late twenties and early thirties (written 1929, performed 1931); a craggy, individual voice rooted in the concertos of the past but transformed with a wholly personal take. Each movement is based on a different motivating idea, respectively mode, timbre and rhythm. The result is bizarre, puzzling but also haunting, leaving one wanting to hear it all again to grasp a little more of what is going on within it.

I am mesmerised by Foulds' life story, but suspect that his music will not travel especially well, so far does it sit up in the tree of individual ideology. One would love to think it could have a wider currency, but in terms of realpolitik, sadly I doubt it. (Read more about him here, in an article I wrote for the Independent 12 years ago, in the days when a national newspaper would still take an article this size about a maverick classical composer.) Ahead of his time he may have been; out on a limb, assuredly; but with hindsight he represents another kind of Englishness that is not often acknowledged these days: the eccentric individual, an independent thinker, a person with a different creative outlook that does not tally with any party line in their art. It will never be easy to be a Foulds, or to get to grips with his creations, but we need these people more than ever, and not only in music.

If Shostakovich brings us a warning, Foulds brings us an alternative - but one that may not catch on strongly enough for long enough to prevent the juggernaut heralded by the side-drum and crowned by the demoniac roar of the tam-tam.

Today, Thursday 12 December, please get out there and vote against the mendacious monomaniacs who have taken a wrecking ball of greed, cruelty and lies to Britain and will take a worse one if we give them the chance. If you have a vision of a country that is open-hearted, international, sensible, long-termist and responsible to its people, its partners and its world, today is the day to get the new-look fanatic-Brexit Tories gone forever. It may be our last chance.







Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Alive and dizzying: Die tote Stadt in Munich


We've got a revolve and we're gonna use it...
Marietta (Petersen) and Paul (Kaufmann) hold on for dear life
All photos from the Bavarian State Opera website: https://www.staatsoper.de

I'm just back from an unexpected dash to Munich to see Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Bavarian State Opera. It's always a little daunting when dreams come true; sometimes you imagine they can only disappoint and will be best avoided, which is not the least reason I hadn't got my act together about this sooner. But when a kind friend in the cast wrote to me out of the blue saying she could get me a ticket, I decided to drop everything, use my air miles and run.

Die tote Stadt was the topic of my dissertation at university, which is where my Korngold book really began to germinate. Back then - the 1980s - you'd say the name "Korngold" and nobody had heard of him; worse, though, if they had, they would give a scornful laugh because he wrote, oh dearie dearie dear, film music. I never expected to see this opera on stage at all.

Its remarkable rehabilitation over the past 25-30 years has happened despite the army of nay-sayers, some of whom still like to damn Korngold with entartete Musik terminology that could almost be out of the Goebbels playbook; the fact that the performances are getting better and better and the standing of the artists involved increasing every time suggests those dogs have maybe had their day. (The final frontier is the UK, where it surfaced once at Covent Garden around 08, only to vanish again.)

Marietta (Petersen) drives Paul (Kaufmann) up the wall

Now the opera has been championed by Kirill Petrenko, the extraordinary conductor who has been music director of the Bayerisches Staatsoper for a good while and now has the Berlin Philharmonic as well. The cast is led by Jonas Kaufmann as Paul and Marlis Petersen as Marietta. I remember rejoicing, on hearing Kaufmann's first solo CD of Strauss Lieder in 2006, that here was the perfect German romantic tenor to sing Korngold's leads, if only he would be persuaded. That was 13 years ago - but it seems I wasn't wrong.

A fresh view of an old favourite after a long time is always illuminating - especially when a piece is so expertly performed that you know you are responding to the work itself and not its misapprehension by its performers. This opera functions at such high intensity, right the way through, that you can feel afterwards as if you've been hit by a juggernaut. I can see why I fell madly in love with it when I was 20: emotionally speaking, this music is for young people, reflecting Korngold's own age and stage at the time. He began work on it while serving as musical director of his regiment in World War I; upon its simultaneous premiere in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920, he was 23. Already an established superstar after a meteoric beginning as child prodigy par excellence, he wrote the lead roles for no lesser singers than Richard Tauber and Maria Jeritza, and assumed his orchestra would be so good that they'd be able to do absolutely anything.

Marietta (Petersen) taunts Paul (Kaufmann) with Marie's wig...

What is not young about it, though, is the libretto itself - and here's a whole new strand for me to explore, because when I studied the piece I looked at what the libretto does with its sources (Georges Rodenbach's Bruges la Morte and the play based upon it by Siegfried Trebitsch), but not exactly who did what, or why. "Paul Schott" was a pseudonym for the Korngolds père et fils, Julius and Erich, and of those two, Julius was the one who worked with words. It is easy to think, looking at some of his reviews (he was music critic of the Neue freie Presse, hence the most powerful in Vienna) and his unpleasant and unhinged-sounding letters to his gifted son, that Julius was simply crazy. He was, however, a very fine writer. His German is far from easy reading, but lucid translations in the relevant books, notably by Michael Haas and Brendan Carroll, show that his literary worth ran high and justifies his place and influence - even though he sometimes used these to somewhat malign ends.

Erich was a natural composer, but less so a wordsmith. He penned reams of funny and charming doggerel for his friends and family (the Exil.arte Centre in Vienna has in its collection a recording of him reading one of these verses), but when it comes to long  descriptions of a religious procession through the centre of Bruges, or an all-out "domestic" between Paul and Marietta (has there ever been such a row in any other opera?) or an overtly Freudian psychological process and extended dream driving the action - that has surely to be the hand of Julius. I am now wondering - and do not begin to know - what was driving him.



Here's is the gist of the story. Paul lives in Bruges, surrounded by medieval streets, ancient canals, the atmospheric nunnery named the Beguinerhof - all dark, shadowy repression. His wife, Marie, has died; he can't move on. He has created a shrine to her memory and in his mind the dead city of Bruges fuses with the dead woman into one strange, dominating presence. He is supported by his devoted housekeeper, Brigitta, and his one friend, Frank. Then he meets Marietta: a dancer who is the physical double of Marie, but her polar opposite in personality, all sparkle and sensuality. The virgin/whore complex of the Rodenbach original becomes, in Korngold, the battle for life against death. Paul has a dream - which takes up all of act 2 and most of act 3 - in which he sees calamity ensue when he attempts a relationship with Marietta, and in which he finally strangles her with a lock of Marie's hair. At the end he awakens to realise the danger of his state of mind. Marietta comes back to fetch her umbrella, but he lets her go. Frank persuades him to leave Bruges at last.

Trolleyed: Marietta (Petersen) and Fritz the Pierrot (Filonczyk)
The roles are huge - long, loud, high and very physical - and the orchestral writing is full of complexities and unusual instruments. Some productions have made radical cuts - I saw one that wholly omitted the sole choral scene, the religious procession early in act 3, no doubt saving ££££s - but Petrenko has gone full whack and does every note. This is the three-act version, too: in some, acts 1 and 2 are run straight through, again with the loss of a certain amount of music. I heard passages, notably in Paul's duet with Marie's ghost, that I don't think I've actually encountered before.

The production by Simon Stone was restaged by Maria-Magdalena Kwaschik from its original home in Basel, and it leaves you dizzy. There is a syndrome in opera staging that often ensues when a director is lucky enough to secure the use of a "revolve". This means the stage can spin. This feature is technically very complicated and costs a bomb. Therefore it is put to work at every available second. "We've got a revolve and we're gonna use it!" My spies tell me it's not only the audience that risks seasickness. Nevertheless, it's effective in the dream sequence at creating the bizarre, unpredictable atmosphere Paul's nightmare requires. Doors open startlingly into walls; you're never quite sure where you are; Frank takes an open-air shower on the roof; Fritz, the Pierrot, pushes Marietta around in a shopping trolley (I watched with some anxiety as it rolled free towards the edge of the stage); and in the procession Paul's house is taken over by children (his and Marie's?) helping themselves to cereal and jumping up and down on the bed, before the chorus itself is delivered in a circle on the move.

Paul (Kaufmann) and the pillow fight
More seriously, when everything does keep still, it becomes clear that Marie has died of cancer; she appears in her hospital gown, bald from chemotherapy, weak and fading in Paul's arms. The preserved hair is her wig. This makes act I the most emotionally harrowing section of the opera (certainly for me - both my parents and my sister died of cancer, the latter aged only 45, and she had a wig  - so I found this evening extremely close to the bone). That's difficult, because you need to keep something in reserve for the end; this time it comes almost as relief, rather than catharsis.

Biggest complaint, though, is that in this opera the "dead city" of Bruges is a character itself - we meet it time and again in the orchestral textures and in particular in the extended orchestral sequence that opens act 2, a truly filmic canvas unfurling the glimmering waters, the dark church towers, the tolling bells, the medieval lanes, in sound alone. But as Bruges is a character - fused with Marie - the could-be-anywhere modern apartments of the very detailed design (by Ralph Myers) slightly miss the point, unless it be that the soul of this place is somewhat dead.

The performers' characterisation and dramatic sense is fabulous. As Paul, Kaufmann is haunted and harrowed, but imperious and determined, taken to offloading laundry and cardboard boxes onto Brigitta and Frank by simply tossing them across the room. In act 2 he is straight out of a film noire, in raincoat and angled hat, casting well-placed shadows; in act 3 bewildered, desperate and goaded beyond his limits. Paul is anything but an appealing and likeable character, yet Kaufmann kept us with him through his sheer sense of disorientation and the genuineness of his lost love; when he sings the final Lute Song over a beer while burning Marie's wig and his own tie, we are grateful that Paul will recover at last. (In one other production at least, he shoots himself, which after all that intensity is a really miserable way to end the piece.)

Singing? Kaufmann - often heard elsewhere as if pacing himself and keeping heft in reserve - this time lets rip from the start. There's a Wagnerian, Siegfried-like steely edge to the tone, and a rock-solid technical strength; but tender moments, when they arrive, melt like chocolate fondue. As Marietta and Marie, Marlis Petersen could quite possibly out-Marietta Jeritza herself. She's a vivid actress, switching astoundingly between charismatic dancer and dying cancer victim both in presentation and in vocal tone. Her role is as high and loud as Paul's and her silvery tone matches the glitter of her silver dress; she brings the character a megawatt personality who nevertheless is not above pinging Paul's braces to make her point. When she triumphs in the act 2 showdown, seducing Paul into a submission as wholehearted as his earlier fury, it is no wonder she wins. There's a particularly nice touch at the end when Marietta, having come back for her umbrella, once more forgets to take it with her. Will she come back? Is this story over? We wonder...

Mezzo Jennifer Johnston is an ideal Brigitta, with warm, shining tone and deeply sympathetic characterisation: for once we can take Brigitta at face value as housekeeper and, later, a nun. The story is complicated enough without trying to turn her into something she isn't (as some productions do). Andrzej Filonczyk as Frank and Fritz is a wonderful discovery, a golden-centred baritone whose rendering of the Pierrot lied was a highlight of the performance. Together the four principals make a close-knit and convincing ensemble. Fine supporting performances from Mirjam Mesak and Corinna Scheurle as pole-dancing Lucienne and Juliette, and Manuel Günther and Dean Power as the men in their act 2 lives.

But the ultimate stars of the evening were the orchestra and Petrenko, creating an Aladdin's cave of detail, with supremely intelligent pacing and control, high-stepping élan and excellent balance (it would be easy for the orchestra to overwhelm the singers; they didn't). It is no easy feat to sustain such intensity with such clarity, and to unfurl the drama of this rich-textured orchestral sound without allowing it to be obscured by its own weight. (Watch The Sea Hawk; listen to Korngold's own conducting of his own music on the soundtrack. It's there to be tapped into, if you want to know how he needs to sound.) This music is a cake that has to be baked at a high temperature - the worst thing to do is let it be soggy, and I've heard more soggy Korngold performances in my time than I'd care to count. It totally kills him. He really needs to be performed almost as if he's Beethoven - taken on his own terms, with that degree of nobility, heroism and sincerity - and these qualities are in short supply in our world. Petrenko found the very soul of Die tote Stadt and I'm deeply grateful to him.

Would I fall in love with this opera now, in my fifties, as much as I did at 20? I wonder. I'll never know. But I do know I'll probably never hear it performed as well as this again. A little bird hints that there might be a DVD (at least I saw tell-tale cameras in action on Sunday), which is seriously good news. Several more performances remain before Christmas and it'll be back on stage in the Munich Opera Festival in July.