Friday, 18 April 2014

Thomanerchor/Gewandhaus Orchestra/Michael Gläser - Bach, St Matthew Passion, 17 April 2014

St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig

Ute Selbig (soprano, Weib des Pilatus)
Damien Guillon (counter-tenor)
Martin Petzold (Evangelist)
Martin Lattke (tenor)
Panajotis Iconomou (Christus)
Thomas Laske (bass, Pilatus)
Max Gläser (Ancilla I)
Johannes Hildebrnadt (Ancilla II)
Ansgar Führer (Testis I)
Paul Stammkötter (Testis II)
Julius Sattler (Pontifex I)
Friedrich Hammel (Pontifex II)
Kien Dô Trung (Judas)
Georg Schütze (Petrus)

Thomanerchor Leipzig
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Michael Gläser (conductor)

To hear the St Matthew Passion in the Thomaskirche on Maundy Thursday – Good Friday will be Parsifal day – could hardly fail to be a moving experience. Though a concert rather than a liturgical performance, there is enough of the Church, past and present, Body of Christ and bricks and mortar, to ensure that it is not merely a concert as generally understood. And St Thomas’s Church itself ensures that no performance, however astringent its intention, can fail to exude a degree of warmth. (Those seeking alleged ‘authenticity’ would do well to ponder the entirely ‘inauthentic’ sound, let alone experience, offered by the concert hall, let alone the clinical quality and distortions of a recording.)

Michael Gläser’s tempi were often very fast, sometimes absurdly so, but equally capable of convincing and surprising. (Wherever does this bizarre obsession with despatching the supreme masterpiece of Western art as quickly as possible come from?) Although the great opening chorus was in principle too fast, the security of the bass continuo line ensured that it maintained coherence. Just as importantly, the outstanding choral singing, here and elsewhere, ensured that all was not lost. The cries of ‘Wohin?’ were properly questioning, drawing us into the drama that was to unfold. Even in the case of the extremely fast tempo adopted for ‘Ja nicht auf das Fest,’ orchestral depth and power maintained more than a degree of the necessary gravity. Moreover, such tempi were not entirely predictable: that for ‘Wo willst du, dass wir dir bereiten’ was far more relaxed, indeed in context surprisingly slow. The hissing sibilants of ‘Herr, bin ichs?’ a little later told their own story. And, though again in reality simply too fast, ‘O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, the great chorale prelude with which the first part closes, still made its expressive point. Gläser really ought, though, to listen to and to consider the great performances of the past, both in Leipzig and elsewhere; so much is lost here when ploughing through it as quickly as possible, however excellent the choir and orchestra. Likewise, if he vicious, spiteful crowd truly made its presence felt in ‘Der du den Tempel Gottes zerbirchst’, ‘Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen’ sounded oddly inconsequential. In so consciously deflated a delivery, there was no sense whatsoever of what should be a world-shattering recognition. Furtwängler here remains supreme – and if we cannot expect his like today, we ought to be able to expect more than that. The final chorus, however, even if it did not move as it does with, say Klemperer or Richter, concluded in a fashion that was more than merely matter-of-fact, leaving one wishing only for silence.

The vocal soloists were not the most impressive bunch, though they had their moments. Ute Selibig sang with sincerity and quasi-instrumental agility, although in, for instance, ‘Ich will dir meine Herze schenken’, the wonderful Gewandhaus woodwind shone more brightly still in that respect. Selbig’s subtle ornamentation convinced too. And when she was permitted a more sensible tempo, as in ‘Er hat uns allen wohlgetan … Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,’ there were signs of something more profound than we generally heard. Bar a few moments of harshness, Damien Guillon’s counter-tenor impressed on its own terms, but it is difficult to understand a preference for a counter-tenor here over a female voice. Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker, et al., not only sound ‘right’, but have the consoling warmth that words and music demand. ‘Erbarme dich’, however, benefited from a perfectly-judged violin solo (Christian Funke). It was, moreover, permitted to unfold at a reasonable tempo. Martin Lattke’s tenor solos did not make a huge impression; Martin Petzold’s Evangelist sometimes veered towards caricature – spitting ‘spieten’ once is fine, but twice... – but at least he offered detailed attention to the text. Panajotis Iconomou’s Christus was disturbingly woolly and unfocused in the first part, intonation sometimes drifting, but he recovered strongly in the second. His first appearance therein, ‘Du sagest. Doch sage ich euch…’ was resonant and focused. Thomas Laske’s performance arguably headed in the opposite direction, though he was indubitably hampered by absurdly fast tempi for both of his arias in the second part, a sense of struggle in ‘Mache dich’ entirely absent. His interjections as Pilate, however, were uniformly excellent.

Radu Lupu - Schumann and Schubert, 16 April 2014

Semperoper, Dresden

Schumann – Kinderszenen, op.15
Bunte Blätter, op.99: selection
Schubert – Sonata in A major, D 959

I expect limited sympathy from readers elsewhere, but a sadness of London musical life is that Radu Lupu hardly ever seems to visit. Prior to this concert in Dresden, I had heard him once ever, and that as a concerto soloist. Suffice it to say, the long wait to hear Lupu in recital, whilst regrettable, was worth it.

The first half was given over to Schumann, first the Kinderszenen. ‘Von fremden Ländern and Menschen’ made for an opening of disarming simplicity: inflected, certainly, but with the impression of ‘natural’ inevitability sustained, however problematical those terms might be in the abstract. It was as if, to borrow from the final piece of the collection, the poet spoke: or, perhaps better, the poets, both Schumann and Lupu, spoke. Sprung rhythms, allied to the deepest understanding of Schumann’s harmonies, characterised the following ‘Curiose Geschichte’. ‘Bittendes Kind’ was lovely indeed, music seemingly melting in the air, Lupu’s exquisite touch and rubato seamlessly blended into one voice of musical expression. The voice-leading of ‘Glückes genug’ similarly beguiled. ‘Träumerei’ emerged as the heart in more than one sense of the cycle; the way Lupu’s playing drew one in – even from the Third Circle, though the Semperoper’s excellent acoustic here also played a role – simply had to be heard to be believed. This was playing that compelled one to listen, not merely to hear, but also seduced one into doing so. The pointing of rhythms in ‘Am Camin’ pointed the way nicely to a miniature Faschingsschwank aus Wien in ‘Ritter von Steckenpferd’. Brahmsian half-lights haunted ‘Fürchtenmachen’, yet without the ‘lateness’ of the later master; this was Schumann through and through. And yes, for ‘Der Dichter spricht’, the poet(s) spoke still more movingly, with a directness so touching that it hurt.

Twelve of the Bünte Blätter followed, nos 12 and 13 omitted. I hardly ever noticed the undeniably four-square nature of Schumann’s writing, and it certainly did not matter. Mendelssohn sprang to mind in the lyricism of the first of the ‘Drei Stücklein’, but extended in a way that was utterly personal, haunted by shadows of German Romanticism. The second was vehement yet variegated, whilst Schubert seemed to be recalled in the horn-calls of the third. The first of the ‘Albumblätter’ was intimate yet radiant, followed by Brahmsian involvement in the second, which yet managed to be very much of the moment. If the fourth was as sad as it was slow, perhaps still more so, the fifth offered consolation of a sort in its poetic eloquence. The final four pieces (nos 9, 10, 11, and 14) all benefited from the most beautifully-judged of rubato. Sometimes Chopin came to mind, for instance in the left hand of the Novelette, but again, it was Schumann’s voice that spoke, despite some irksome electronic interference (a hearing aid?)

The performance of Schubert’s late A major sonata was perhaps more individual still. I can imagine some finding it wilful, but only if they heard rather than truly listened; for, however unconventional some of the increasingly intimate communion with the score, a convincing line could always be traced, and more to the point experienced. The quasi-orchestral opening to the first movement, its chords surprisingly Beethovenian, soon mellowed in a way that could only be Schubert’s. Likewise the expressive experience – as opposed to mere outlining – of the movement’s form, just as mysterious as late Beethoven, yet very different. Much here and later seemed intriguingly to strain towards the fragmentary, suggestive, consciously or otherwise, of Schubert’s legacy to the Second Viennese School. To describe that process as centrifugal would be to simplify unduly, but the twin tendencies of disintegration and integration were equally apparent – again, so long as one listened. And what a touch: such as words fail, or at least fail me. Cross rhythms were imbued with dark meaning; above all, the music was made strange, none more so than the closing bars, which peered forward to Liszt. That rendering of strangeness also informed the slow movement’s ghostly tread: somehow almost depersonalised, as if the piano were playing itself, and yet at the same time utterly subjective. That subject, moreover, still had strength, however difficult it found its self-willing into existence. There was bitterness, yes, resignation, yes, fury, yes, but also at times something close to the beatific. Lupu’s performance was rhetorical, yet not at the expense of highly tortured form.

The delicacy of the scherzo’s high-lying would-be high spirits seemed to defy gravity. Unity was mysteriously achieved through contrasts of (almost but not quite) Beethovenian magnitude. The opening theme of the finale sounded both as a long-lost friend and as a new character in the unfolding drama. Its elaboration offered ineffable inevitability whilst maintaining the ability to surprise: modulations could – and did – still take one’s breath away. Was it too late, then, for reconciliation? Certainly in any Mozartian sense. Yet as one stared – or rather listened – into Schubert’s abyss, form and expression offered their own variety of experiential unity.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Ariadne auf Naxos, Semperoper Dresden, 15 April 2014


Music-Master – Markus Butter
Major-Domo – Friedrich-Wilhelm Junge
Lackey – Peter Lobert
Officer – Michael Auenmüller
Composer – Barbara Senator
Tenor/Bacchus – Burkhard Fritz
Wigmaker – Matthias Henneberg
Zerbinetta – Romy Petrick
Prima Donna, Ariadne – Marjorie Owens
Dancing Master – Timothy Oliver
Naiad – Emily Dorn
Dryad – Julia Mintzer
Echo – Arantza Ezenarro
Harlequin – Sebastian Wartig
Scaramuccio – Gerald Hupach
Truffaldino – Tilmann Rönnebeck
Brighella – Aaron Pegram

Marco Arturo Marelli (director, set designs)
Dagmar Niefind-Marelli (costumes)

Staatskapelle Dresden
Omer Meir Wellber (conductor)

It is difficult for Ariadne auf Naxos to go too wrong, though Katharina Thoma managed to do so in her dreadful staging for Glyndebourne last year. That said, it remains a pleasure and an estimable pleasure at that, when it goes right, which for the most part it did here in the Straussian paradise of Dresden. Marco Arturo Marelli’s production has been around for a while – it appears on DVD, from the loving hands of Sir Colin Davis – but in no sense does it seem tired. Whilst dispensing with undue viennoserie, it is faithful to the spirit and idea of the work, set here in a modern art gallery: in many ways a more apt contemporary milieu than the musical world would be. As a friend remarked, the patron is just the sort of person who would buy a Damien Hirst. Indeed, nowadays, he would be far more likely to do that than to commission an opera. The ‘opera’ proper thus takes place on an island installation, around which the fashionable habitués of an exhibition opening night drift. (There are suitably dreadful paintings surrounding on the walls too.)  Marelli’s staging is not cynical, though; whilst there is plenty of fun to be had concerning the ghastliness of modern patronage, it is not overdone, and one of the joys of the production is also to see how some spectators, not least a lady next to whom Zerbinetta seats herself for part of her big aria, respond to the proceedings, and in some cases partake in Hofmannsthal’s – and Strauss’s – transformation. Personenregie, designs, and concept alike work well, both in theory and in practice. In that respect, it is worth mentioning that the Komparserie does an excellent job throughout. I did not care for the Composer’s running off with Zerbinetta at the end: far better to have that Prologue Augenblick as just that, but by the same token, it is a directorial indulgence that can be lived with.

The Staatskapelle Dresden is of course the Strauss orchestra par excellence, at least as much as its cousin in Vienna. Whether one thinks of Böhm, Kempe, Thielemann, or others, it would be difficult not to think of a favourite Strauss recording made here. Here the orchestra was on fine form throughout, variegated of tone, responding to the manner born to Strauss’s quicksilver transformations of colour and harmony. Conductor Omer Meir Wellber proved an estimable Kapellmeister: not necessarily fashioning new insights, but permitting the score’s delights to speak for themselves, and Strauss’s line to develop unimpeded. For something really special here, we may return to Sir Colin – his bust proudly on display here at the Semperoper – on DVD.

There was an excellent sense of company: apt in this of all works. Not all of the singing may have matched great assumptions of the past – has it ever matched Karajan’s recording? – but one could hardly expect that. Marjorie Owens proved a graceful, often moving Ariadne: a few falterings here and there, but nothing serious. Burkhard Fritz offered a little too much in the way of Tenor bluster, hectoring at times, but one can readily incorporate that into the work’s metatheatricality. If Barbara Senator’s Composer was less individual of tone than of stage presence, there was nothing too much to complain about either. Romy Petrick’s Zerbinetta was a joy: precise, lovable, and touching at those tender moments too. Equally impressive was a fine female trio of Naiad, Dryad, and Echo: Emily Dorn, Julia Mintzer, and Arantza Ezenarro. Their fabulous costumes were matched by assured singing and acting, offering quite the model of an Ariadne performance.


Staatskapelle Dresden/Goebel - Telemann, Palm Sunday Concert, 14 April 2014

Semperoper, Dresden

‘Unsterblicher Nachrühm Friedrich August’: Serenata on the Death of Augustus the Strong, TVW 4:7

Simone Kermes (soprano)
Netta Ør (soprano)
Lothar Odinius (tenor)
Marcel Beekman (tenor)
Stephan Genz (bass)
Daniel Ochoa (bass)

Dresdner Kammerchor
Staatskapelle Dresden
Reinhard Goebel (conductor)

Dresden’s Palm Sunday concerts – this Monday concert was a repeat of the previous night’s performance – have a distinguished pedigree indeed. Wagner’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are the stuff of legend; indeed, it was following that of 1849 that the itinerant Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin approached the conductor, announcing: ‘if all music were to be lost in the coming world conflagration, we should risk our own lives to preserve this symphony’. Shortly the opera house would be in flames, Bakunin and Wagner heavily involved in the uprising. Nothing quite so dramatic has ensued in 2014, though perhaps there is still time.

Since the Staatskapelle Dresden and Christian Thielemann acquired their residency at the Salzburg Easter Festival, that has necessitated a smaller-scale presence in Dresden over Holy Week, and the decision has been made to explore works from Dresden’s Baroque heyday. Reinhard Goebel conducted a work which, whilst not actually written for Dresden, has a strong connection, as a work of mourning for the Saxon king, Augustus the Strong, by Telemann. An as yet unexplained peculiarity – not the only one – of the work is that it was written not for Dresden, but for Hamburg, first performed in May 1733, under the direction of the composer, most likely with singers from the Hamburg Opera. In an interesting programme note accompanying the performance, Karl Böhmer speculates on possible trading and political reasons for Hamburg’s somewhat belated commemoration; so far, however, as I can ascertain, we do not know.

The work itself is not a conventional work of mourning. It seems to begin as such, but soon becomes more of a celebratory commemoration, in the form of one of those allegorical discussions between Saxony, Time, Majesty, and so on, so beloved of the Baroque and often so strange to modern ears and minds. The opening is striking: a lengthy first part to the Sinfonia for trumpets and kettledrums (here sounding in notably ‘period’ guise) alone. Antiphonally performed, with groups on either side of the stage, this offered some of the most funereal music, string eventually joining in not un-Handelian fashion. There is relative sadness, to both this and the opening chorus, but nothing akin to what we might have expected from Handel or Purcell, let alone Bach. Telemann remains competent rather than inspired.

The relative simplicity of the music was not matched, however, by Goebel’s flailing around: often a distraction, though a distraction the orchestra generally seemed to ignore. Likewise apparent attempts to have the strings withdraw vibrato and so on: they worked for a while, then we heard something closer to the deep and richly toned Staatskapelle Dresden we know and love. Obbligato instruments took the best of their opportunities to shine, for instance a fruity bassoon in the aria of ‘Die Zeit’, ‘Ich stürze die irdischen Götter vom Throne’, a relatively – here a constant qualification – furious number. String echoes of Saxony’s voice in ‘Das Inbegriff von meiner Erden’ were nicely done: attractive in sub-Purcellian fashion. Likewise the string swagger of ‘Prange nur, auf stölzen Hügeln’, from ‘Die Majestät’.It was striking, moreover, to hear clarinets in music of this vintage, the pair of instruments in ‘Des Friedens holde Stille’ bubbling away in rather a lovely vein.

The extraordinary aspect of this performance, however, was the contribution of Simone Kermes (Sachsen). Anything but funereal, she sported something akin to an eighteenth-century sky-blue apotheosis of a dress, mysteriously cut away at the front. Much of her singing seemed to fit her outfit rather than Telemann’s serenata. Something approaching hysteria was reached in her first number, but it was only at the end that something more akin to sexual ecstasy seemed to have been reached. Clearly there is great vocal facility here, but for those of us who find the likes of Cecilia Bartoli unbearably mannered, this was something else again: closer to performance art than performance. That might not matter so much, did it not prevent Kermes from sustaining a line. Otherwise, the soloists were more conventional. Lothar Odinius nodded somewhat – if less so – towards camp, but the rest, one was grateful, played it straight. Especially impressive to my mind was Daniel Ochman (Die Grossmut), who even managed to deliver lengthy accompagnato recitative with great conviction and musicality, rewarded with a tuneful, again quasi-Handelian aria, ‘Die Macht zum Gebieten und Schrecken besitzen’. It was something of a relief to hear the four-part protestation, ‘Nein, rühme dich nur keener Güte’; recitative-aria etc. can become quite wearisome when the music is less than top-notch. The chorus of Saxon inhabitants does not have much to do, but did it well. In the final chorus, I was a little surprised by Goebel’s grandiloquent closing ritardando: just the sort of thing he and his ilk for which used to take performers of the past to task. Whatever the ‘authenticity’ or otherwise, it worked – as did this interesting performance as a whole.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Die Zauberflöte, Komische Oper, Berlin, 13 April 2014

Komische Oper, Berlin

Pamina – Adela Zaharia
Tamino – Adrian Strooper
Queen of the Night – Olga Pudova
Sarastro, Speaker – Alexey Antonov
Papageno – Tom Erik Lie
Papagena – Julia Giebel
Monostatos – Peter Renz
Three Ladies – Mirka Wagner, Theresa Kronthaler, Caren von Oijen
Two Armoured Men – Christoph Späth, Bogdan Talos
Three Boys – Jakob Göpfert, Laurenz Ströbl, Samuel Baur

Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky (directors)
Paul Barritt (animation)
Esther Bialas (designs)
Diego Leetz (lighting)

Chorus of the Komische Oper, Berlin (chorus master: David Cavelius)
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Kristiina Poska (conductor)

It seems more difficult to produce a satisfying Magic Flute than one might expect, if not nearly so difficult as the case of Don Giovanni. Barrie Kosky and ‘1927’ (Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt) come closer than many with this intriguing ‘silent film’ treatment. Doubtless predictably, I think it sells short the seriousness at the heart of this extraordinary work, but crucially, unlike many stagings falling into that category, it retains a space for one to think, to imagine and indeed to think of more serious things oneself. It was a pity that a sizeable section of the audience, seemingly intent on taking every opportunity to applaud through the music, did not avail itself of that space, but anyway… In Kosky’s words, ‘This concentration on images makes it possible for each spectator of the show to experience very much his own way,’ and to a large extent, that worked in practice.

In a reworking both radical and not, the dialogue – at least as dialogue – is dispensed with. Certain passages, old and new, conversational and explicatory, appear as part of 1927’s film. Whilst there are losses, and one clearly would not want to experience the work like this all the time, it is striking how much remains. And whilst Schikaneder deserves more credit than is often his due – how often one hears his magical, enabling text belittled! – it is of course for Mozart that we come to this work. What we see centres upon the 1920s, but is not confined to that era: associations, some freer than others, are made through what Andrade in a programme interview describes as ‘a journey through the most diverse fantasy worlds’. Meanwhile, what do we hear? Music from Mozart’s Fantasias for solo piano – to add to the post-modernism, on fortepiano. And yet, this somehow emerges as postmodernism that works. It might sound absurd to have Papageno dream (instead of his wine) of a pink cocktail, and through his experience to see pink elephants, but the free association benefits from the conviction of the ‘original’. It is certainly refreshing to experience the fruits of imagination as opposed to the mere silliness we often endure.

Musically, the situation was more mixed. Bonnie Wagner’s fortepiano playing – not in general, my usual readers will know, a favourite instrument of mine – was excellent: strong yet yielding, hinting at a larger whole yet imparting particular character to each ‘excerpt’. Kristiina Poska’s conducting was more problematical, despite generally fine playing from the orchestra. Most of the first act, from the Overture onwards, was rushed. Various tempi can work, of course, but the very difficult trick is to make them work; here, too often, one felt Mozart’s score harried. Matters settled down in much of the second act, however, and it was a relief to hear a performance of Pamina’s aria that, whilst certainly not of the Colin Davis variety, allowed Mozart’s pathos to shine through. Indeed, Adela Zaharia, a member of the Komische Oper’s Opera Studio, was definitely one of the stars of the show: hers was a genuinely touching performance. Her Tamino, Adrian Strooper, had his moments, offering a generally winning earnestness, but sometimes forced his voice. Tom Erik Lie was a characterful Papageno, hints of sadness informing even his most ebullient moments. Olga Pudova’s Queen of the Night did pretty much everything asked of her – often with considerable sparkle. The Sarastro of Alexey Antonov and Monostatos of Peter Renz were disappointing, however: the latter often shouting rather than singing, the former woolly of tone and too often insecure of pitch. The Three Ladies – Mirka Wagner, Theresa Kronthaler, and Caren van Oijen – were an excellent bunch, however, both individually and as a group. So were the Three Boys from Tölz: Jakob Göpfert, Laurenz Ströbl, and Samuel Baur. I am not sure I have heard better. Above all what impressed here was not only a strong sense of company but also of commitment to the staging, to the drama as a whole. That is worth a good deal – and the Komische Oper is strongly to be commended for it.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Tannhäuser, Staatsoper Berlin, 12 April 2014


Schiller Theater

Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – René Pape
Tannhäuser – Peter Seiffert
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Peter Mattei
Walther von der Wogelweide – Peter Soon
Biterolf – Tobias Schabel
Heinrich der Schreiber – Jürgen Sacher
Reinmar von Zweter – Jan Martiník
Elisabeth – Ann Petersen
Venus – Marina Prudenskaya
Young Shepherd – Sónia Grané
Four Pages – Julia Mencke, Konstanze Löwe, Hannah Wighardt, Anna Charin

Sasha Waltz (director, choreography, designs)
Pia-Maier-Schreier (designs)
Bernd Skodzig (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)
Jens Schroth, Jochen Sandig (dramaturgy)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright) 
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

For the first night of the Berlin State Opera’s new Tannhäuser, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin fulfilled even this writer’s heightened expectations, playing and conducting matching their peerless Proms Ring last summer. If proof were needed that Barenboim has passed from excellence to greatness, drawing upon years of experience both as pianist and conductor, as well as inspiration from musicians of his youth such as Furtwängler and Klemperer, it was here in abundance. Barenboim’s ability to have the music ‘speak for itself’ should not be taken to imply ‘neutrality’, whatever that might be. There was no ‘interventionism’ for its own sake, but the Wagnerian melos, even in what we might consider the early or at least intermediate stage of ‘Romantic opera’, sang, developed, brought forth musical drama, founded as it was on the surest of harmonic understanding, the surest grasp of poem, music, and staging (such as it was), and above all, that Furtwänglerian long-distance hearing (Fernhören) of which Barenboim at his best is now as distinguished an exponent as any living conductor. A Beethovenian impulse towards forging the strongest and, crucially, most dynamic unity in diversity in no sense precluded definition of ‘character’ with respect to ‘numbers’, to the old operatic forms, which retain a strong presence within the greater whole of the through-composed act, indeed which help determine and ‘form’ that greater whole. Yet a balance, or perhaps better dialectic, needs striking between apparently competing demands, a dialectic revealing itself in the specificity of performance. In recent years, the dearth of good, let alone great, Wagner conducting in London has been mitigated by two Royal Opera appearances by Semyon Bychkov in Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. Excellent though Bychkov was in 2010, Barenboim arguably exceeded that achievement, both in terms of dramatic engagement and greater stylistic variety – as pressing an issue here as in Der fliegende Holländer – within and towards the equally convincing whole presented by Bychkov. Estimable though Barenboim’s own recording remains, this performance indubitably exceeded that achievement too. There is now an urgent need for new recordings of Barenboim’s Wagner; this Tannhäuser and of course that Proms Ring would be good places to start.


The playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin would almost be reason enough on its own. All those necessary, apparently competing yet, in reality, mutually generative, qualities that combine to make a great Wagner performance were present: weight and transparency, golden and dark, rich tone, luxury and bite, sharpness of detail and the longer line. The ravishing tenderness and eroticism, grandeur and precision of the Overture and Bacchanale – we heard the familiar conflation of ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’, but at least sated ourselves on the post-coital, post-Tristan delights of the latter in the first act – offered a master-class in Wagner playing to any orchestra. Sasha Waltz’s staging enabled the magnificent horn section truly to take its place in the sun, marching across the stage as hunting-party in the first act. Onstage and offstage, the Staatskapelle’s brass excelled, quite the equal of glorious strings and woodwind.  But neither players nor conductor mistook drama for brash crudity; drama emerged from within rather than being applied from without. Choral singing impressed throughout, partaking in the virtues of the orchestral performance.

An excellent cast also went to make this the finest Tannhäuser I have heard. Bar a brief instance of a cappella flatness in the first act, and a few tired passages in the second, Peter Seiffert’s Tannhäuser offered much. He may not be the most dramatically perceptive of singers, nor indeed the most accomplished of actors, but he can sing the role, a rare accomplishment in itself. Moreover, there was intimacy as well as vocal heft. Some might have cavilled over Ann Petersen’s vibrato, but the notes were focused; this was a vibrato that enhanced rather than obscured. She shared Seiffert’s blending of intimacy and heft, more often than not quite seamlessly, presenting a plausible human, womanly Elisabeth, no virginal cipher. Having heard Christian Gerhaher at Covent Garden, I feared that every subsequent Wolfram would disappoint. I am not sure that Peter Mattei’s performance did not prove Gerhaher’s equal. The two certainly shared an approach clearly born of Lieder-like marriage of words and music, likewise a beauty of tone that could not help but move one to tears. René Pape's vocal beauty was also a thing of wonder. Marina Prudenskaya’s Venus was as imbued with dramatic ferocity as with timbral richness. And it was gratifying to see Sónia Grané, until recently a star of the Royal Academy of Music’s operatic offerings, successfully transfer to the world stage.

The Pilgrims

Alas, Sasha Waltz’s production failed to match the musical performances. I could not help but wonder whether she would have been better engaged simply as choreographer, this being her first staging of a large-scale repertoire opera. Insofar as there is a concept, it seems to be to present some sort of dialogue between opera house and opera, the designs for the song contest mirroring, subtly rather than gaudily, aspects of the Schiller Theater: for instance, the seats and the colour of the wood. Unfortunately, little is done with an idea of not inconsiderable metatheatrical promise. Elisabeth looks every inch the 1950s beauty in her second act gown, but again that is hardly enough in itself. Costumes and designs are stylish, and there is an undeniable transformation of visual as well as musical mood for the third act, David Finn’s lighting as important as Waltz’s surprisingly convincing, seemingly heartfelt Personenregie during Tannhäuser’s mourning for Elisabeth. Ultimately, this remains, however, more a work-in-progress than the finished article. Dancers, undeniably erotic in the Bacchanale – though it is difficult to suppress a smile as Seiffert’s less than lithe Tannhäuser awkwardly slides down to join them – work hard throughout. There is little respite for them, but nor is there for us, Waltz seemingly determined to have them do something all of the time, whether or no the drama demands, suggests, or even permits it. Moments of downright irritation are fewer than might have been the case, but they become more numerous, and there is a great deal that is at best unnecessary, however beautifully accomplished it might be. A production that – again, in metatheatrical terms – posited a problematical (yet fruitful?) relationship between opera and ballet might well have a great deal to say. This, however, was not it; opera won out, though not without loss.

VPO/Barenboim - Mozart, 11 April 2014

Philharmonie, Berlin

Symphony no.39 in E-flat major, KV 543
Symphony no.40 in G minor, KV 550
Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

There is a little irony in that I have now twice been asked to write an essay to accompany this programme for the Salzburg Festival – last year for the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle, this year for Concentus musicus Wien and Nikolaus Harnoncourt – yet not for this, with a conductor far more to my liking in Mozart. No matter I was not at the Philharmonie to read the programme notes. Indeed, since the death of Sir Colin Davis, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti are probably the only conductors about whom I feel great enthusiasm in this repertoire (which is not to say that I should not happily hear others and, with a little good fortune, be pleasantly surprised by them). Thomas Zehetmair, on the strength of a recent Mozart 39th, might be another, but since I have only heard him conduct Mozart once, it is perhaps a little early to say.

Anyway, in a relentlessly demanding programme – nowhere to hide – Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic shone. The first two symphonies received excellent performances; the Jupiter received something greater still. The introduction to the first movement of no.39 could not have been more promising: warm, expansive, grand, the E-flat major tonality immediately suggestive of the Overture to Die Zauberflöte. String sound ( was glorious, and would remain so. More important still, there was an overriding sense both of potentiality and goal-direction. If the exposition opened in muscular fashion, the second subject yielded as it should: classically ‘feminine’ in the time-honoured, if hardly feminist, typology. The concision of the movement as a whole was striking, having veritably burst forth from the introduction. (Barenboim sometimes took repeats, sometimes not; here he did not.) This was a reading that looked forward to Beethoven, with all the strengths that implies, but if I were to register a cavil, it would be that it might have smiled a little more, as it did for, say, Karl Böhm or Davis. The slow movement exhibited wonderful contrasts, not least in terms of dynamic responsiveness, within a greater unity. Contrapuntal clarity could not be faulted; moreover, it was a joy as well as an education to hear sections respond to each other. Above all, Barenboim’s ability to hear – and to convey – the movement as if in a single breath was evident. The minuet was grand and gracious: nicely pointed, without exaggeration. This was not a formulaic case of one-size-fits-all, for it was taken considerably faster than the succeeding two minuets. The trio relaxed slightly, the sonorous woodwinds a delight, though again, there was perhaps, that ‘smiling’ which Messiaen – of all people! – identified as a characteristic of Mozart’s music might have been more in evidence. If the finale was fast, indeed Haydn-fast, as it were, it was in no danger of being garbled. Due weight was imparted to a movement as full of character as Don Giovanni. It was over far too quickly.

The first movement of the G minor Symphony was urgent without forsaking grace. Barenboim opted for clarinets, whose beguiling presence was most welcome. In this movement, he took the exposition repeat, but the music did not sound the same; indeed, it developed throughout. The development section proper opened with disorientation that was yet not overplayed; it came from somewhere, and led to somewhere. Again, counterpoint was wondrously clear. The recapitulation’s second subject, now of course in G minor, signalled tragedy unalloyed. Clarity and warmth were striking in the slow movement, similarly direction and backbone. This was beautiful music, to be sure, but it was beautiful symphonic music. Barenboim ensured that the minuet was duly severe, without eclipse of its roots in courtly dance. Beethoven hovered in the (near) future, but did not overwhelm. The Vienna players offered a trio that sounded as if it were the easiest thing in the world, which it certainly is not; woodwind again were outstanding. The finale was taken quickly, but not at the expense of harmony. Motivic working was as tighly woven and as powerfully projected as it would – or should – have been in Beethoven or Brahms. The vehemence of the recapitulation was suggestive, rightly so, of operatic tragedy. It thrilled on account of, not despite, its beauty.

Finally came the Jupiter, its first movement opening with C major pomp, but not pomposity. There was due contrast, and generatively so, in the subsidiary first subject theme, as well as the second subject proper: strings brilliant in the best sense, thereafter caressing. The repeat was not taken, but the movement developed throughout, almost to the extent that one did not notice the advent of the nominal ‘development’ section. Progress was founded upon harmonic rhythm, unfailing dramatic. The same could be said of the slow movement, which breathed the air of the stage, of the Da Ponte operas in particular. This might have been the answer to ‘what happened next for the Countess?’ For, let there be no doubt, this was human tragedy that was heard and felt here. Form was no straitjacket, but dynamically expressive. Similarities and differences with Beethoven were equally apparent. This went deeper than either of the previous slow movements, much deeper. The minuet sounded, quite simply, as I hear it in my head. Barenboim’s tempo was perfectly chosen; light and shade balanced each other with similar perfection. Sturdy rhythms and gracious release characterised the trio too. And that woodwind section had to be heard there to be believed. The finale was again fast, but not too fast. There was release, yes, but originating in harmony and formal dynamism, not applied ‘excitement’. The bass line and its implications were as crucial as in a performance by Klemperer. Just to underline the transfer of weight towards the finale, Barenboim took both repeats; yet again, these were no mere repetitions, development  being again a matter for the whole movement. Alas, I could not quite reconcile myself to the extremity of Barenboim’s pulling back to announce the coda, which seemed to rob the symphony somewhat of its necessary triumph. However, with a performance that was otherwise so outstanding, I could live with it. All three symphonies, I might add, where conducted from memory.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Capuçon/LPO/Saraste - Schumann and Bruckner, 9 April 2014

Royal Festival Hall

Schumann – Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO 23
Bruckner – Symphony no.8 in C major

Renaud Capuçon (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste (conductor)

The Schumann Violin Concerto remains a problematical work. Too good to discard, not quite coherent enough ever – yet? – entirely to convince, it hovers on the edge of the repertoire. Renaud Capuçon, the LPO, and Jukka-Pekka Saraste made a very good case for it. The opening orchestral tutti sounded properly symphonic – Schumann-symphonic, that is, with various hints of the composer’s symphonies. And when Capuçon entered, we were treated to a performance that was not only sweet-toned, but which clearly knew where the work was going, insofar as that be possible. Indeed, whilst remaining characteristic, this was a solo performance that nudged the work closer to Brahms, no bad thing at all, especially for a violin concerto. There were times when Saraste seemed a little too much the mere ‘accompanist’: partly a consequence of the work, though only partly so. Yet they should not be exaggerated; this was in most respects an excellent performance from both soloist and orchestra. The slow movement seemed just ‘right’ in terms of tempo and general mood. That is not to say that it could not be done differently, but rather that it convinced, again insofar as that be possible. Poised nicely between chamber and orchestral music, the movement as a whole benefited from the example of give and take afforded by solo violin and cello. A relatively small orchestra could, moreover, call upon weightier tone when required. If the transition to the finale did not convince, then I am not sure there is much more the performers could have done. Once settled down, it again worked well, Saraste’s ear for harmony and rhythm especially propitious. Throughout, of course, Capuçon’s well-nigh Old World style worked its wonders.

Such a work offers no mean first half, when the second is Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. I find myself rather in two minds about Saraste’s performance, intriguing and somewhat unconvincing in more or less equal measure. (Such is not a comment upon the orchestral performance as such, which, bar a little evident tiredness towards the end of the finale, was less ambiguous in its quality.)  The first movement, marked Allegro moderato, was not necessarily excessively fast, but certainly sounded more Allegro than I can recall having heard previously. That need not have been a problem; indeed, in many ways it proved refreshing. But there were times when greater flexibility would have been in order. Such, after all, is the nature of Bruckner’s sonata forms and ‘deformations’. Urgency, then, was welcome, but not at the expense of variety within unity. A few moments of (relative) stillness seemed to look forward to Mahler, but it was not always clear how we had arrived there. As a consequence of that movement’s swift tempo, the scherzo came as less of a contrast, more of a continuation (perhaps not entirely like Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, at least for those of us who continue to prefer placing the scherzo second in that work). Here, rhythm and harmony were better aligned; it was rather impressive. However, the trio relaxed in the wrong sense; rather than offering a degree of relief, it seemed merely to meander.

The slow movement was on the swift side again, though not unreasonably so. There was some beautiful playing from the strings in particular, harps included. Saraste’s conception might have be considered ‘objective’, though I think that is probably a misnomer. There was certainly for the most part a general sense of shape, but that did not always translate into formal dynamism. All the more difficult, I know, in a slow movement, but then, that is what a conductor is for. The brass, here and the finale, sometimes displayed a tendency towards undue loudness. My overriding question remained, however: what does this, or at least might this, mean? Saraste seemed less enigmatic than uninterested. For the most part, the finale proved convincing. Notwithstanding those few slips previously mentioned and a certain brass crudity at times, the LPO offered a powerful and in many ways subtle performance. There was a good deal of light and shade, allied to the general progression of the musical argument. (And yes, Bruckner-sceptics, there is a musical argument, if not of a Brahmsian variety!) Schubert seemed to haunt a number of passages, the movement torn between such backward glances and something more modernistic. Moreover, the ambiguity of major-mode passages registered splendidly; there was still battle to be done. Alas, much of this very good work was undone by Saraste’s bizarre rush to the finish, almost as if embarrassed by the final peroration. It went for nothing, not even superficially exciting: a great pity.


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

R.I.P. John Shirley-Quirk, 1931-2014

This is, quite simply, one of the greatest recordings of a Bach cantata I have ever heard - and doubtless ever will.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Nach Deutschland...

It has been a little while. And whilst, in many respects, it would be unreasonable to complain about the music on offer in London, we hardly do well for Wagner. Or indeed for Mozart. More to the point, it will be good to have a change of scenery. I shall have one more London concert this week: the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Renaud Capuçon and Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Schumann’s Violin Concerto and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony). After that will come a visit to Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, and back to Berlin, with an embarrassment of musical riches: indeed, a performance every day. Here, then, is the programme to come:


11th - Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim: Mozart's Symphonies nos 39-41. (Barenboim and Riccardo Muti are probably the only conductors alive I can imagine wishing to hear in such a programme: very exciting indeed!)

12thTannhäuser: the first night of the Staatsoper’s new production, conducted by Barenboim, directed by Sasha Waltz. Cast headed by René Pape, Peter Seiffert, Peter Mattei, Ann Petersen, and Marina Prudenskaja.

13thDie Zauberflöte at the Komische Oper. Kristiina Poska (new to me) conducts a production from Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky.


14th – Palm Sunday Concert. (Well, the repeat thereof, but it is still described as such.) Not Wagner conducting Beethoven’s Ninth, alas, but even I have some degree of realism. This, however, offers a true rarity: Telemann’s Trauermusik für August den Starken, thus a work with an older Dresden history. The Dresdner Kammerchor, Staatskapelle Dresden, a cast including Simone Kermes (whom I have yet to hear in concert), and Reinhard Goebel perform.

15thAriadne auf Naxos at the Semperoper. Omar Weir Wellber conducts Marco Arturo Marelli’s production (the staging available on DVD with Sir Colin Davis conducting).

16th – Radu Lupu: only the second time I shall have heard him ‘live’, and the first time in recital. Schumann’s Kinderszenen and a selection from the Bunte Blätter precede Schubert’s late A major sonata, D 959.


17th – Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the Thomaskirche (!) with the Thomanerchor and the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Michael Gläser. I have heard the St John Passion in its home church twice, but never the St Matthew.

18thParsifal: Bach has been pushed back to Maundy Thursday to allow me to hear both the Passion and a Karfreitag performance of Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel. Ulf Schirmer conducts Roland Aeschlimann’s production (on which I have written more than once before).

19thManon Lescaut: rather the odd man – or woman – out here. Perhaps an odd choice for Holy Saturday; Boulez conducting Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (in my first ever posting for this blog) seemed a more apt choice as Christ sojourned in Hell. Anyway, Anthony Bramall conducts, in Giancarlo del Monaco. Nadja Michael takes the title role…

20thDie Feen: Renaud Doucet’s production was one of the revelations of Wagner-year. I am delighted to be seeing it again. Matthias Foremny will on this occasion conduct and there are a few new names in the cast too.


21st Parsifal (bis): it is a little while since I have visited the Deutsche Oper, and shall take this opportunity to see Philipp Stölzl’s production, new last year. Axel Kober conducts a cast headed by Stefan Vinke, Evelyn Herlitzius, Bo Skovhus, and Hans-Peter König.

22ndLe Vin herbé: finally, a rare chance not only to hear Frank Martin’s oratorio, but to see it staged, by Katie Mitchell at the Staatsoper. Franck Ollu conducts.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Kaufmann/Deutsch - Winterreise, 6 April 2014

Royal Opera House
Schubert – Winterreise, D 911

Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)

Was the Royal Opera House the ideal venue for a performance of Winterreise, whether by Jonas Kaufmann or anyone else? No, for all the reasons you might suspect – and probably a few more. If only this could have taken place at the Wigmore Hall instead, though then tickets would have been still more difficult to come by (unless, that is, the sensible approach had been adopted of scheduling multiple performances, and prohibiting anyone from attending more than one). In any case, I have been to Lieder recitals in other, less-than-ideal venues before. Hearing Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim perform this very work in the Berlin Philharmonie also proved a trial. And the principal reason then was the same as it was here: audience behaviour. Mobile telephones, strange rubbing noises, dropping of objects, you name it… But far and away the worst, as in Berlin, was the bronchial brigade. During songs, the terror was not too bad, though there were still a few wonderfully-timed displays; but the onslaught that greeted even the shortest of pauses, and which continued some way into Helmut Deutsch’s introduction to the next song and sometimes beyond, did its best to kill atmosphere, continuity, and most crucial, concentration alike. This was not the odd cough, unavoidable if irritating, this was rank selfishness from people who had no business setting foot anywhere near a performance. In Berlin, Quasthoff was so angered that he broke off part way through to plead – notably, in English – with the audience to desist. Such is hardly Kaufmann’s style, but he – and we – should never have had to endure what we did. It would be hoping for too much that the perpetrators would feel any sense of shame concerning their behaviour; we shall simply have to hope that the Almighty extends their stays in purgatory or elsewhere accordingly. And seriously, opera houses and concert halls should give thought to banning such sociopaths. Even if prices had been less high than on this occasion, or indeed admission had been free, performers and the rest of the audience alike deserve a modicum of consideration.

With that in mind, I shall have to limit myself to a few observations rather than offer a more detailed review. Insofar as it was possible as a listener to maintain concentration, one received an excellent sense of the songs as a cycle, as far more than the sum of their parts, from both Kaufmann and Deutsch. Unfortunately, that ‘insofar’ could not be entirely surmounted. To begin with, I wondered whether Kaufmann was not a little too withdrawn, inward-looking, especially for so large a venue, but not only did his performance draw one in, make one listen, it also revealed itself according to a longer-term plan. Thus the fine array of colourings at his disposal was not lavished upon ‘Gute Nacht’. Both performers, indeed, proved if not reticent, then cleverly expository. A journey, and a winter’s journey at that, had to be made; the world of weather-vane and frozen tears moved, but within limits, for it was but a starting-point. Likewise the colours of ‘Der Lindenbaum’, whilst different, whilst permitting a relative thaw, a relative hope, were never remotely garish; the journey had commenced, and everything was to be experienced upon its terms.

That said, when passions were truly roused, Kaufmann ensured that one knew it. It was striking to hear him sound quite so baritonal a tenor – irrespective, or almost so of the pitch. No wonder he makes so fine a Siegmund. Doubtless there would be some who would decry, or at least query, his performance as ‘operatic’, an all-too-easy evasion of very difficult questions. Lieder do not, any more than any other repertoire, exist in a vacuum; music, verse, drama, all manner of components and influences can and should combine to offer a musico-dramatic experience just as intense as that of a Wagner drama. (Indeed, the relationship between Schubert and Wagner is in need of far greater attention than anyone has yet accorded it.) Performers of all persuasions make choices; what matters is whether they convince. It would be absurd to hold against a performer his ability to maintain a vocal line. That does not mean in and of itself that he is not paying attention to the text. Kaufmann’s musicality shone through, liberated by sensitivity and technique alike; indeed, the directness of his verbal expression matched that of his musical expression. More to the point, there was rarely the slightest hint of disjuncture between the two. The ardent quality of Kaufmann’s hopes was all the more moving on account of his deeply considered performance – perhaps it was a little more akin to assumption of a role than to what many recital hall habitués would expect, but so what? – and its dynamically variegated quality. The quietest of ppp utterances could readily be heard, even given the venue and the audience; more importantly, it always had musico-dramatic warrant. This was a committed performance in the best of senses.

Moreover, Deutsch’s performance at the piano proved far more than a bedrock, though in many ways it certainly fulfilled that role too. His was not an overtly demonstrative account, drawing attention to pictorial aspects of the piano part and detracting, or at least distracting, from the overall journey. But it was perceptive nonetheless. The aethereal lightness to the opening of ‘Frühlingstraum’ was agonising, just as much for Deutsch’s attempt to smile through major-mode tears as for Kaufmann’s. The bipolar quality to the song was, moreover, beautifully, meaningfully captured, without forays into expressionist territory. (Not that I think there is anything wrong with the latter; such an approach can work very well, but it is not the only approach, and can often descend into mere caricature.) The Webern-intimations of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ drew their crystalline terror from Deutsch, again at least as much as from Kaufmann, for theirs was a true partnerships – whatever the Kaufmann ‘fans’ might have come for. This would have been a far less complete, far less glacial, experience without Deutsch.

Finally, ‘Der Leiermann’, where piano stasis could provide the perfect setting for the existential devastation of words and halting vocal line. Kaufmann finally offered something that few, if any, other singers could or would dare: a final crescendo, beautiful yes but agonisingly, dramatically so, reminiscent in the abstract perhaps of his Florestan and yet entirely different in context. This was a final raging against the dying of the light, but we knew it would dissipate into nothing; as indeed, equally finely judged, it did. And this was nothingness rather than nihilism: Schubert rather than Mahler. A cough, needless to say, immediately followed – but after that, even this audience had the grace to remain silent for a little while.