Wednesday 30 December 2009

Performances of the Year 2009

This really has been a year full of wonderful performances. Even singling out a goodly number entails almost arbitrarily excluding others. It becomes all the more difficult with opera in particular, since the odds of a production and performance having nothing with which one might quibble verge upon the fantastical. Moreover, even when it comes to concert life, there can often be one or two outstanding performances amongst others, which, relatively speaking at least, disappoint. Nevertheless, I have managed to come up with a list of twelve performances - one for each month, on average, but not one from each month - which give some indication of the musical riches on offer in London and beyond this year.

Back in January, I was fortunate enough to attend four concerts as part of the annual Salzburg Mozartwoche. The pick of the bunch, if only just, was an all-Boulez concert, presented by Jörg and Carolin Widmann, the Experimental Studio of the Südwestrundfunk Freiburg, and Hidéki Nagano, who gave the Austrian premiere of Une page d’éphéméride. Carolin Widmann's Anthèmes 2 was simply mesmerising. Further proof, as if any were needed, as to the ongoing importance, indeed necessity, of the man who may justly be accounted the conscience of modern music.

From Boulez to the music he has done so much to champion: that of the Second Viennese School, in this case early Schoenberg. A performance of the Gurrelieder would be hard put not to be a special event. Nevertheless, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia conjured up something unforgettable for the inaugural concert of their 'City of Dreams' festival.

Murray Perahia and the Concertgebouw under Bernard Haitink in Schumann's piano concerto, followed by Bruckner's Ninth Symphony: somehow, this concert lived up to and even surprassed expectations. I summarised the Bruckner thus: 'It was desperate but never Mahlerian, a true (non-)conclusion to a truly great performance. Haitink at eighty has never been greater.'

I initially prevaricated about including the Staatsoper Unter den Linden's new Lohengrin. Not every element of the musical performance quite matched up to Stefan Herheim's extraordinary, brilliant new production, though Klaus Florian Vogt made a powerful case to be considered the world's leading Heldentenor. Herheim's production, a worthy successor to his Bayreuth Parsifal, simply demands to be seen.

Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach have been performing the three Schubert song cycles together recently - and will perform all three at next year's Salzburg Festival. I caught their Wigmore Hall Winterreise, which was utterly devastating.

July took me to Aix en Provence, for an extremely pleasurable few days. Truly outstanding here was a concert from Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the Berlin Philharmonic, and Boulez as conductor. Bartók, Ravel, and Boulez (piano and orchestral Notations) would seem an almost stereotypical Boulez programme, but there was nothing routine to this concert.

Haitink returned to London for the Proms, conducting Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra. I had been stunned earlier in the year by Daniele Gatti's performance of the very same work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Haitink's reading was very different but equally powerful - and, forced to choose just one, the magnificent playing of the LSO would win out. Debating whether this extraordinary symphony, is ‘about’ life or death misses the point; Haitink showed that one cannot consider one without the other.

Daniel Barenboim brought his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to the Proms for a trio of concerts. I could justifiably have chosen all three (Waltraud Meier in Fidelio was utterly unforgettable), but perhaps the finest of all was a chamber concert, which worked surprisingly well in the Royal Albert Hall. Barenboim's musicians were left to their own devices - and how! - for a magical performance of Mendelssohn's Octet. The Berg Chamber Concerto saw Barenboim return to the podium, his son Michael the violin soloist and Karim Said the piano soloist. Many find this work intractable; I have never understood the problem. But even the naysayers would surely have been bowled over by this incendiary account, which led us into a labyrinth from which no one would wish to depart.

The programming of much of the Philharmonia's City of Dreams festival was a little disappointing: no Webern, for instance, in a series dealing with Vienna 1900-35! However, the final concert, a semi-staged performance of Wozzeck, proved a shattering experience. Simon Keenlyside was close to definitive in the title role, whilst having the orchestra on stage rather than in the pit permitted Berg’s writing to resound as rarely it can.

A second Wigmore Hall Winterreise was equally demanding of inclusion, this time from Wolfgang Holzmair and Andreas Haefliger. Holzmair's very Austrian-sounding tenor is a very different instrument from Goerne's dark baritone. This was a Winterreise that refused to subordinate dramatic truth to musical beauty, often more akin to a poetry reading than a conventional Liederabend. I was chilled to the bone.

It had been many years - nine in fact - since I had heard Christian Thielemann live. I wish the wait had not been so long, but it was nevertheless worth it. The Berlin Philharmonic was here on home territory, in the Philharmonie, in a programme of Brahms and Schoenberg. Three Brahms choral gems, all far too infrequently heard, prepared the way for Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande, which for the first time in my listening experience fell into place. Thielemann’s long-term structural understanding set me wondering what Furtwängler would have made of a work I have long underestimated.

Finally, we return to the opera house, for Oper Leipzig's Al gran sole carico d'amore. Almost unbelievably, I saw two different productions of Nono's second 'opera' within a matter of months. Salzburg boasted the Vienna Philharmonic under Ingo Metzmacher, with Katie Mitchell directing. Leipzig's performance, however, was rendered all the more revolutionary immediate by Peter Konwitschny's searingly committed production. And the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was pretty good too...

May I take this opportunity to wish my readers a very Happy New Year for 2010? I hope that the coming year will prove as rewarding as this one has.

Doric String Quartet - Mozart, Janáček and Beethoven, 29 December 2009

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.15 in D minor, KV 421
Janáček – String Quartet no.2, ‘Intimate Letters’
Beethoven – String Quartet no.7 in F major, op.59 no.1, ‘Razumovsky’

Alex Redlington, Jonathan Stone (violins)
Simon Tandree (viola)
John Myerscough (violoncello)

Mozart’s music, as many of us know from bitter experience, is the most difficult of all to perform well. At the best of times, when it formed part of a living, developing culture, there was nowhere to hide; nowadays, the influence of the ‘authenticke’ brigade is so strong, even amongst supposedly ‘modern’ performers, that Mozart performance has been rendered all but impossible. At least the Doric String Quartet did not travel far down that particular road. We were spared the attention-seeking antics of what I suppose at some point we shall have to call the ‘uncovered-gut-scraping community’, though the performance, as if cowed by Taliban-like ‘community leaders’, remained somewhat tentative. Today one has to be grateful for Mozart playing that is not metronomic and that permits vibrato, and there was more to praise than that. Contrapuntal clarity, especially during the first and third movements of the D minor quartet, was most welcome, with John Myerscough’s cello line perhaps unusually prominent – and welcomely so. For the most part, this, despite the minor mode, and Mozart’s avowedly demonic tonality, was more Apollonian than Dionysian Mozart. However, there were passages, for instance the recapitulation of the opening Allegro moderato, in which emotional reaches previously only hinted at were more fully explored. The slow movement was an Andante in the modern sense, that is, not really a slow movement, more of an intermezzo, though it had an undeniably brisk elegance to it. Following that, the intensity to the minuet from its opening bars was striking, whilst the trio exhibited a fine sense of the outdoors, bringing Salzburg serenades to my mind. Here, Alex Redlington’s first violin and Simon Tandree’s viola proved unfailingly melodic, whilst the pizzicato passages were equally well handled. The finale was cultivated, and sometimes looked forward to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet; perhaps a little more in the way of Schubertian foreshadowing would have resulted in a more ominous rendition, but such was clearly not the intent. I very much liked Redlington’s sinuous way with Mozart’s chromatic passages, whilst the second variation, so understandably admired by Schoenberg, exhibited an emotional and textural intensity that yet remained firmly – perhaps a little too firmly? – within ‘Classical’ bounds.

Janáček’s second quartet experienced no such inhibitions; indeed, it received a very fine performance, fully at home with what can sometimes prove elusive idioms. The glassiness of Tandree’s early viola interventions was at one with the composer’s initial intention to employ the viola d’amore, whilst the passionate outbursts from elsewhere provided high drama, as if mindful of Janáček’s operatic output. The slow movement was equally impassioned, highly impressive in the way its fragmentary nature was built into something more; the defiant close was almost Bartókian. Consolation, though far from illusory, came in the third movement, with the first violin’s statement of the lullaby-like rocking theme. Emotional intensity mounted, before the turn to ‘terror’, of which the composer wrote to his muse, Kamila Stösslová. The finale sounded properly ecstatic. Once again, the players transmuted compositional discontinuities into a greater whole, responding equally well to the composer’s challenging quicksilver changes of mood.

The first movement of Beethoven’s op.59 no.1 quartet was a bit on the fast side, though the false exposition repeat was handled well. Indeed, structure was clear throughout. However, I felt this was all a bit too good-natured, lacking in Beethovenian grit and gruffness. The scherzo began in a similar vein, but ‘late Beethoven’ – despite the period of composition – discontinuities inspired a Janáček-like response, clearly drawing upon the experience of the previous work. There was not always quite the sense of inevitability one might have wished for, but there was clearly a straining towards it. Musical concerns, however, trumped the metaphysical, here and elsewhere, with the partial exception of the slow movement. For there, a response to the composer’s marking, mesto, registered with rapt intensity, not least in the leader’s sweetness of tone and Myerscough’s replies. The tempo sounded just right – which nowadays, of course, is a relief in itself. A few intonational slips could be heard, but nothing too serious. The fast finale, however, whilst often exciting, could sometimes trip over itself. There were estimable qualities, then, to this Beethoven, but the Janáček was the thing.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera, 22 December 2009

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Die Feldmarschallin Fürstin Werdenberg – Soile Isokoski
Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Peter Rose
Octavian – Sophie Koch
Herr von Faninal – Sir Thomas Allen
Sophie – Lucy Crowe
Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin – Elaine McKrill
Valzacchi – Graham Clark
The Marschallin’s Major-domo – Robert Anthony Gardiner
Faninal’s Major-domo – Steven Ebel
Italian Singer – Wooyung Kim
Notary - Lynton Black
Mohammed – Ostin D’Silva
Noble Widow – Glenys Groves
Doctor – Alan Duffield
Innkeeper – Robert Worle
Commissioner – Jeremy White

John Schlesinger (director)
Andrew Sinclair (revival director)
William Dudley (designs)
Maria Bjørnson (costumes)
Robert Bryan (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Kyrill Petrenko (conductor)

After a number of recent disappointments at Covent Garden, I am delighted to report that this Rosenkavalier marked something of a return to form. John Schlesinger’s production has a wisdom born of age – it is not that much younger now than the Marschallin – yet does not seem tired. It is quite different in spirit, for instance, from the Otto Schenk production in Munich, which really needed to be retired as soon as Carlos Kleiber stopped conducting. Whilst the sets in some respects look similar – though there is less ostentation in London – one resembles a museum piece, and the characters inhabit it as such, whilst the other sets a frame for musical drama. Time has passed – it is, after all, ein sonderbar Ding – but that is not necessarily a bad thing in this of all works. Andrew Sinclair’s revival direction seemed to highlight comedy rather more than I recall Schlesinger having done: a valid enough choice, I suppose, but I could have done without it.

Kyrill Petrenko was clearly anxious not to wallow; indeed, his aim seemed to be to highlight the modernist tendencies, so often misunderstood or straightforwardly ignored, in what is anything but a benign score. There were occasions when this perhaps went a little far: a few clarinet lines, for instance, which shrieked to little avail, evoking neither Elektra nor Mozart. However, as a guard against undue nostalgia, this was on the whole an estimable account. The orchestra played gorgeously, the Viennese sweetness of the violins a perfect joy. As so often when not labouring under the baton of its music director, its world-class status was reaffirmed.

Singing was a little patchier. There were no bad performances, but there was probably only one that truly stood out, namely Peter Rose’s Ochs. This seemed to me a considerably stronger account than I had heard from him at the beginning of the year in Berlin. It combined the subtle virtues of that performance, nowhere more so than when dealing with Hofmannsthal’s German, with a greater stage presence, yet without any danger of falling into the all-too-typical boorish caricature. This Ochs was a nobleman, if a provincial one. Soile Isokoski’s Marschallin exhibited commendable Lieder-like attention to the text, but lacked charisma, especially during a rather frosty first act. There is something a little amiss if one does not immediately fall in love with her, as one had in different ways with Renée Fleming and Dame Felicity Lott, the two previous Covent Garden reincarnations. I have heard better from Sophie Koch, though there was nothing, save a degree of anonymity, especially wrong with her performance. (How, though, I longed for Angelika Kirchschlager!) And Lucy Crowe made a reasonable enough job of Sophie, though she lacked the beauty many singers have brought to the role. If she could not prevent the character from exhibiting a certain irritating pointlessness, then that is hardly her fault; almost no one can. It was, though, a joy to witness once again the sheer professionalism of Sir Thomas Allen as Faninal: his fiftieth role for the Royal Opera (as discussed in an October interview).

The Love for Three Oranges, Komische Oper Berlin, 20 December 2009

(sung in German as Die Liebe zu drei Orangen)

Fata Morgana – Aurelia Hajek
Celio – Jan Martinik
The King of Clubs – Carsten Sabrowski
The Prince – Christoph Späth
Princess Clarice – Christiane Oertel
Leander – Horst Lamnek
Pantalone – Mirko Janiska
Truffaldino – Thomas Ebenstein
Princess Linetta – Manja Neumann
Princess Nicoletta – Anna Borchers
Princess Ninetta – Nina von Möllendorff
Smeraldine – Karolina Gumos
The Cook – Hans-Peter Scheidegger
Farfarello – David Williams
Herald – Ingo Witzke

Andreas Homoki (director)
Frank Philipp Schlößmann (stage designs)
Mechtild Seipel (costumes)
Werner Hintze (dramaturge)
Franck Evin (lighting)

Choral Soloists of the Komische Oper, Berlin (chorus master: Robert Heimann)
Members of the Ernst Senff Choir
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Stefan Blunier (conductor)

What an enjoyable night in the theatre: a real company achievement. Colourful designs, well-thought-out dramatic progression, and sharp Personenregie combine to award Andreas Homoki’s Love for Three Oranges the status of a classic. It makes sense insofar as commedia dell’arte makes sense, and makes nonsense in a similar fashion. From the Prologue, the stage is set for a framing battle between comedy and tragedy, but what does it mean? Answers are less of the essence here than exploration, still more so a setting for Prokofiev’s score to perform its magic. Richard Taruskin, in his New Grove article on the opera, writes: ‘This was one of the very earliest applications of illusion-destroying “art as art” gimmickry, soon to become such a modernist cliché.’ It is perhaps not surprising that a writer so hostile to modernism should prove unable to resist such a barb; the important thing here, however, is that modernism is shown to be anything but killjoy. This joyfully bizarre production, full of wonders that cannot and need not be explained, ensures that outcome. Indeed, one should remember – and Homoki’s production relishes the fact – that the opera transmutes a host of operatic clichés into gold, all the time quite without false pretension. One can consider, to be sure, but most of all, one can enjoy – and through that one enjoyment, one is brought to consideration.

The direct communicative gifts of the Komische Oper’s cast played a considerable role here. These were not all great vocal performances; indeed, some, such as Aurelia Hajek’s Fata Morgana, left a considerable amount to be desired in purely vocal terms. Nevertheless, dramatic commitment tended to trump any such shortcomings. Christoph Späth’s Prince impressed somewhere on the border, as he should be, between ingénue and madman: Tamino taking a walk on the (slightly) wild side. Carsten Sabrowski’s King exhibited story-book authority in an appropriately kindly fashion. Meanwhile, the plotters, Leander and Princess Clarice, Horst Lamnek and Christiane Oertel, were nasty and a little grotesque – but never too much. Nina von Möllendorff was a lovely Ninetta and Karolina Gumos a wonderfully bizarre – here blue, not black – slave-girl Smereldina. Meanwhile, Hans-Peter Scheidegger’s Cook was a surrealist joy in drag for, as the cliché has it, children of all ages.

Perhaps the truest heroes were the orchestra and chorus. The chorus proved expressively adept, with words, notes, and gesture in happy combination. Ably directed by Stefan Blunier, the orchestra contributed essential bite and direction to the proceedings. Though not quite so declamatory a score as The Gambler, melodic development – and, equally important, discontinuity – is more often than not to be found here in what one might consider the composer’s Greek chorus. The hit-tunes still register, of course, and Prokofiev was so fine a melodist that he could never quite deny himself, but this performance reminded one that there is a great deal more to his gifts than that.

Thursday 24 December 2009

Al gran sole carico d'amore, Oper Leipzig, 19 December 2009

Pictures © Andreas Birkigt

Leipzig Opera House

Tania Bunke/Louise Michel/Deola/Communard/Vietnamese Woman – Carmen Fuggus, Kathrin Göring, Soula Parassidis, Tanja Andrijic
The Mother – Iris Vermillion
Pavel – Tuomas Pursio
Lenin – Stefan Schreiber
Thiers – Viktor Sawaley
Favre/French Soldier/Bismarck/Strike-breaker – Jürgen Kurth
A Fairy – Angela Mehling
Haydée Santamaria/Celia Sánchez/Sicilian Emigrant – Carolin Masur, Ruth Ingeborg Ohlmann, Jennifer Porto, Veronika Madler, Jean Broekhuizen
Sicilian Emigrant – Marko Cilic
Communard/Fidel Castro/Antonio Gramsci/Georgi Dimitrov – Tomas Möwes/Miklós Sebastyén/Morgan Smith

Peter Konwitschny (director)
Helmut Brade (designs, costumes)
Albrecht Puhlmann (dramaturgy)

Leipzig Opera Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Johannes Harneit (conductor)

I wonder how select would be the company in which I find myself, having now seen two different productions of Al gran sole carico d’amore within a few months of each other: first in Salzburg, at this year’s Festival, and now in Leipzig. Dawns have a tendency to be false, but I wonder whether Nono’s fortunes might finally be looking up. Peter Konwitschny’s recent appointment as director of productions at Oper Leipzig is an important factor in this case, of course, this being a production he has given elsewhere before. And in Salzburg, Jürgen Flimm’s artistic directorship was doubtless important. He had also produced the work before, although, on this occasion, he ceded that role to Katie Mitchell. Still, the role of individual champions should not be underestimated.

It was certainly heartening to witness the warmth of the reception and the size of the house for the final night of Konwitschny’s Al gran sole. Mitchell’s production was very Katie Mitchell, and had its strengths, but I found this a far more immediate experience – and not solely in terms of staging. For an interesting and commendable aspect of both productions was how closely integrated staging and musical performance seemed to be. Where Konwitschny, aided by Helmut Brade’s designs, took one very much into the heart of the revolutionary ‘provocations’ of which Nono spoke as being the origins of all his work, the Salzburg performance tended to look back at such matters as more a thing of the past, presenting a more æstheticised experience. Much depends upon how relevant today one considers the message of Nono, Marx, Brecht, Lenin, Castro, Che Guevara, et al., and of course the women, such as Louise Michel and Celia Sánchez, whose stories are treated – or, to put it another way, how ripe one considers the time for a more sober, historical, even distanced assessment of concerns, which, following the events of 1989, are no longer our own. Such issues were given heightened relevance by the location, Leipzig, where, as Konwitschny pointed out, there was no need to ask whether the audience would understand the barrage of revolutionary texts presented. (Or perhaps, in 2009, there is every reason to question that belief...?) Moreover, the premiere had taken place on 8 October, twenty years after the Leipzig protests had begun.

These are no mere chance circumstances, but very much part and parcel of how the work has developed and been received. Yet, of course, they are of relatively little importance in abstraction from the performance itself. The staging, arguably less true to Nono’s intentions than Mitchell’s, stood closer to opera as generally understood than her production. There were concrete settings: the Paris Commune for the first part and the second part’s Turin industrial unrest, though this of course did not stop the additional voices – and faces – from participating. Lenin as chorus leader was a witty touch, even more so the Punch and Judy act of Thiers and Bismarck. (The latter are, even in the original ‘text’, if one can speak of such a thing, more conventionally operatic, but one missed out on that in Salzburg.) But it was the Gorki-Brecht tale of the Mother, combined with Cesare Pavese’s prostitute Deola, which really went for the jugular: nothing sentimental, but gut-wrenching, particularly when it came to the factory strike. The malevolence not only of the factory owner – though there was something magnificently agitprop about him and the worker who betrayed his comrades – but, more crucially, of the entire mode of production upon which such structures are based, was searingly portrayed, though compassion, just as it should in Nono, won out when it came to the workers hemmed in by the walls of Brade’s designs. Anger, yes, but human spirit first, especially in the defiance of the Mother’s son, Pavel, a martyr and true hero to the cause.

Every member of the cast contributed to this. It is more than usually invidious to single out anyone in particular. The reader may feel a ‘however’ coming on, and so it is. Iris Vermillion’s mother provoked a powerful emotional response, not through the manipulations of a Strauss – for which, I admit, I fall every time, or just about... – but through the human dignity of a lonely, yet true, contralto voice: quintessential Nono, in fact. Tuomas Pursio’s Pavel was just as impressive as his Amfortas earlier in the year, which, coming but days after Hanno Müller-Brachmann in Berlin, I nevertheless found ‘outstanding’. A young man who could so easily have gone off the rails, he was in a sense saved by the desperation of the situation: his finest hour, not that that is to excuse anything. Pursio exhibited a sense of dangerous attraction, which could finally be focused rather than dissipated.

Moreover, the orchestra and chorus were on magnificent form. Where, in Salzburg, Ingo Metzmacher had led the Vienna Philharmonic, no less, in an astoundingly beautiful account of the score, here Johannes Harneit, like Konwitschny, played for immediate urgency, only possible, of course, through a complete command of Nono’s treacherous score. I doubt that the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra can have played Nono much more often than the Viennese players had, but it might have been Wagner they were playing, such was the commitment and understanding on display. The Leipzig Opera Chorus, fresh from a splendid performance in Lohengrin the night before, was equally at home here. Vocally and on stage their contribution drew one in to the very heart of the drama. Nono insisted that the chorus was the main protagonist in his azione scenica. If, on this occasion, it were a little less so than often, that is no reflection upon the chorus, but simply a consequence of the bravura contributions from all others. This, on reflection, may well prove to be my operatic highlight of 2009.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Lohengrin, Oper Leipzig, 18 December 2009

Pictures © Andreas Birkigt

Leipzig Opera House

Herald – Jürgen Kurth
Elsa – Gun-Brit Barkmin
Friedrich von Telramund – Hans-Joachim Ketelsen
King Henry the Fowler – James Moellenhoff
Lohengrin – Stefan Vinke
Ortrud – Gabriele Schnaut
Brabantian Nobles – Tommaso Randazzo, Timothy Fallon, Tomas Möwes, Miklós Sebestyén
Pages – Hitomi Okuzumi, Haike Hauptmann, Cornelia Röser, Claudia Schwarzmann
Gottfried – Lukas Vinke
King’s Trumpeters – Sebastian Taubert, Wilfried Thoß, Alexander Pfeifer, Robert Wintzen

Peter Konwitschny (director)
Wolfgang Bücker (stage rehearsal)
Helmut Brade (designs)
Helmut Brade, Inga von Bredow (costumes)

Leipzig Opera Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Ulf Schirmer (conductor)

Peter Konwitschny’s production of Lohengrin has become quite celebrated, but this was the first time I had seen it, whether in the theatre or on DVD. It has many strengths, though there are sections, especially earlier on during the third act, which transfer less well to the schoolroom setting. (A wedding is one thing, but preparations for a wedding night? Laying out of the marital bed is a strange form of sex education for what appears to be a rather old-fashioned kind of establishment, however universal the acclaim for Lohengrin as leader.) Clearly, someone who cavils at the very idea of relocating will immediately object here, but Konwitschny’s production is not one of those translations to a Stevenage multi-storey car park for the sake of it.

Issues of leadership, exclusion, (forbidden) knowledge, and sexual politics can be illuminated by this particular setting – and in many ways are. Lord of the Flies springs to mind more than once in the fickleness of the mob and the way it turns upon Telramund and Ortrud. Helmut Brade’s designs and costumes, the latter in collaboration with Inga von Bredow, successfully evoke both conformity and individual characterisation.

Here, as much as in Stefan Herheim’s superlative Berlin production, any black-and-white sense of ‘rightness’ concerning Lohengrin’s cause is rendered untenable. Lohengrin’s charismatic power is more potent than the traditional, legal forms pertaining to King Henry – it was unclear to me whether he was prefect, master, or something else – but it is inherently unstable. The road to 1933 is one of Konwitschny’s concerns: a thorny issue, to put it mildly, but failing to address it at all leaves the road clear for those who misunderstand or misrepresent. There is something undeniably chilling in this context to hear the words with which Lohengrin introduces Gottfried: ‘Seht da den Herzog von Brabant! Zum Führer sei er euch ernannt!’ However, the appearance of a boy with a machine gun might go too far for some, arguably too far for the parameters of the production. What, after all, is the alternative? Ortrud? There were a good few boos for the production team at the end, though wild enthusiasm was more common.

The production has lighter touches, wittier than one might have expected. Whether or no it actually ‘meant’ anything, I liked Ortrud’s dispatching of the girl organist at the end of the second act, so that she could assume the role for herself. Keen observation of the dynamics between individual members of the chorus heightens dramatic credibility.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was on excellent form: if not quite so traditional in sound as, say, the state orchestras of Berlin or Dresden, then still recognisably of that ilk, doubtless a consequence of East German shelter from international homogenisation. Gleaming strings from the first act Prelude continued to glow, whilst the third act’s brass fanfares from around the theatre provided a magnificent yet frightening premonition of militarism: excitement, rejoicing, hubris, and calamity. The Leipzig Opera Chorus was equally impressive, solidly prepared by Sören Eckhoff and well directed on stage. Ulf Schirmer’s conducting did not draw attention to itself, yet it was a signal achievement to serve both score and production with no apparent discrepancy. Such could only result from thorough grounding in this challengingly transitional score – how far to ‘music drama’? – and ability to communicate that understanding.

Stefan Vinke, whom I had previously admired in Oper Leipzig’s production of Parsifal, proved an excellent Lohengrin. If Klaus Florian Vogt remains hors concours amongst contemporary exponents, Vinke stands closer to traditional expectations. Initially, I wondered whether he might prove a little too baritonal, but fine command of line and tone put paid to such concerns. I should be keen to hear his Rienzi, another of his Leipzig roles. As Telramund, Hans-Joachim Ketelsen struck the right balance – shifting, as it must – between confidence and insecurity, the latter dramatically rather than technically speaking. Gun-Brit Barkmin, however, was a variable Elsa. Despite occasions when she attained a radiant lyricism, she audibly struggled elsewhere. Moreover, she lacked the purity of tone the role really demands – arguably less of a problem in this production than it would have been in many others. Then there was Gabriele Schnaut, a late replacement for Susan Maclean, who was still due to sing Ortrud for subsequent performances. Schnaut can act, and threw her all into the role, yet her vibrato is now so all-encompassing that pitch was often highly uncertain – or plain wrong. I was disappointed by the King Henry of James Moellenhoff, recently an impressive Hagen at Covent Garden; his voice seemed to have been sapped.

Still, even when singing did not match orchestra and production, it barely detracted from an extremely powerful dramatic experience. Konwitschny’s tenure as direction of productions in Leipzig bids fair to court controversy and acclaim, with good reason for both.

Saturday 19 December 2009

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Inkinen - Messiaen, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, 17 December 2009

Großer Saal, Gewandhaus, Leipzig

Messiaen – Un sourire
Mozart – Symphony no.29 in A major, KV 201
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Pietari Inkinen, not yet thirty, is making quite a name for himself. Music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra since 2007, he has also acted as guest conductor with a host of other orchestras, including the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the DSO Berlin, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Now it was the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s turn.

To open with Messiaen, even Messiaen in miniature, was a bold stroke. Un sourire is one of Messiaen’s latest works, written at the request of Marek Janowski, for the Mozart anniversary of 1991. It is so called because Messiaen believed, not without reason, that, whatever hardships Mozart suffered, he continued to smile. There could be no doubt, from the opening chord, as to the identity of the composer; indeed, that chord sounded as if it might have been taken from L’Ascension, at the opposite end of Messiaen’s career. Languorous woodwind solos and serene string chords – without double basses – completed the picture, the LGO sometimes sounding very close to Debussy. Two horns prepare the way for a barrage of bird song – yes, again – in which stunning percussion playing made its mark. Thereafter, those two blocks, slow and manic, alternate in typical Messiaenesque fashion. It was a great pity that much of the second half of the work was vitiated by a barrage of coughing. Far less evident during the pieces that followed, that suggested that the audience was displaying philistine impatience.

Even though, beyond the smallish size of the orchestra, Un sourire seems to have little actually in common with Mozart, it obviously made sense to continue with a work by its inspiration. The choice of Mozart’s twenty-ninth symphony was imaginative; indeed, I am not sure I have heard it in concert before. I worried when I heard the fast initial tempo Inkinen adopted for the first movement, but he never pushed the music too hard. (Those of us used to Karl Böhm would just have to adapt to something else.) This was cultivated Mozart-playing, though it could sometimes prove a little self-conscious in its articulation. Still, it wore ‘a smile’ on its face. If the string tone (proportions lacked the creaminess of the Vienna Philharmonic, there was nothing ‘authenticke’ to it either. The second movement was quick for an Andante, at least on ‘traditional’ terms. However, it benefited from a natural flow, never rushed. There were occasions here, as elsewhere, when delicacy won out a little too easily – a bit much of the Meissen china – but that is certainly preferable to the crudities in vogue in certain quarters. The horns provided some truly exquisite playing, as did the oboes, except for the end, when they suddenly sounded inappropriately – indeed, bizarrely – loud. A brisk but stylish minuet gave great pleasure. Sterner moments were given their due, proving more robust than might have been expected from the previous two movements. The trio suffered somewhat from self-conscious phrasing; it might have sung more, but again, when one considers the indignities to which Mozart is nowadays so often subjected, one can be forgiving. However, it did sound a little dull, as was brought home by the winning swagger of the minuet’s return. The finale was full of life, providing much to ‘smile’ about, the vigorous passages coming off especially well. Whooping horns were a joy.

This, then, was rather a good performance of an oft-neglected Mozart symphony. I suspect that more rehearsal time had been devoted to the work that was to follow. Had that not been the case, the Mozart might have sounded a little more ‘lived in’; as it stood, it remained impressive. Perhaps these are no more than straws in the wind, but what with this and Daniel Harding’s fine Jupiter Symphony performance at the conclusion of this year’s Salzburg Mozartwoche, I wonder whether young conductors are wearying of the exhibitionistic antics of many of their ‘senior’ colleagues in Classical repertoire. One can only hope so, for, Sir Colin Davis and a few others notwithstanding, it has been a long night.

Inkinen’s account of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth had some fine moments, but proved mixed when considered as a whole. Those horns, who had shone in the Mozart, had ample opportunity from the outset to do so again here, which they took, along with their other brass colleagues and the LGO’s splendid timpanist. Fate was announced, or rather bludgeoned into one’s consciousness. Indeed, every section of the orchestra was on excellent form, some wonderfully rich string playing a case in point. Direction in this first movement, though, was not always as clear as it might have been; tempo changes sometimes lacked the obvious motivation they require, though there was nothing glaring in that respect. The development section also tended somewhat towards the sectional. However, the orchestral playing at the final climax was tremendously impressive, if not so ‘earned’ as it might have been in a more rigorous reading. (Klemperer’s stunning recording of the Fifth Symphony has always seemed to me a fine model.) An excellent oboe soloist and songful cellos made for an idiomatically ‘Russian’-sounding slow movement, which proved more cohesive than its predecessor. The rest of the woodwind sounded glorious too. By its very nature, the pizzicato playing in the scherzo requires a tour de force, which it received here, complemented by characterful woodwind contributions, ‘characteristic’ in a balletic sense. The brass were equally fine – and equally full of character. Those two ‘worlds’ came together in exemplary fashion at the end; this movement was really very fine. Great showmanship announced the finale, which is as it should be: there is no point in reticence here. However, there might have been advantage in taking less than a hell-for-leather speed, for the movement ended up sounding hard-driven. There was magnificent playing from every section of the LGO and Inkinen can certainly get an orchestra to do what he wants. Nevertheless, in the outer movements of this symphony, I was sometimes less sure of what that actually meant.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Die Zauberflöte, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 15 December 2009

Sarastro – René Pape
Tamino – Benjamin Bruns
Speaker – Andreas Bauer
First Priest – Peter-Jürgen Schmidt
Second Priest – Bernd Zettisch
Queen of the Night – Sen Guo
Pamina – Ailyn Perez
Three Ladies – Carola Höhn, Rosemarie Lang, Simone Schröder
Papageno – Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Papagena – Rinnat Moriah
Monastatos – Peter Menzel
Armoured Men – Paul O’Neill, Rosen Krastev
Three Boys – Members of the Aurelius Sängerknaben, Calw

August Everding (director)
Fred Berndt (stage designs, after Schinkel)
Dorothée Uhrmacher (costumes)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Frank Beermann (conductor)

First the good news: this was a well-sung Magic Flute. No one seriously disappointed and there were two stellar performances, from René Pape and Hanno Müller-Brachmann. The beauty of the former’s voice, his evenness of tone, and his authority could not be bettered as Sarastro. Indeed, I am not sure I have even heard better on recordings. One would never have guessed that Müller-Brachmann had been singing Mahler the night before, for he sounded as fresh as could be. Musical line, poignancy, attention to words, comic timing, that ineffable Viennese quality: everything one could wish was there for this Papageno. And he really can act – which is just as well, as I shall explain below. As Tamino, Benjamin Bruns certainly had his moments. There was some beautiful singing to be heard, but also a little crooning. Ailyn Perez was a perfectly decent Pamina, whilst Sen Guo had a more than respectable stab at the impossible role of the Queen of the Night. Papagenas do not have that much to do, and rarely if ever linger in the memory, but Rinnat Moriah played her part well. There was also much to credit in Andreas Bauer’s Speaker, words and vocal line presented with an authority in which one could believe.

Unfortunately, there is more to opera, and more to this opera, than singing. The Staatskapelle Berlin, which can sound truly magnificent in Mozart and much else, was having something of an off-day, though one could hardly blame the orchestra. Frank Beermann, whom I have not previously encountered, had no apparent affinity with Mozart; even his command of the score seemed shaky. The Overture was rushed and relentless. Tempi rarely sounded settled, changing for no discernible reason part-way through. Insensitivity was the hallmark of this account. Most worryingly of all, there were numerous disconnections between pit and stage. On one occasion, the Three Boys – sung winningly by members of the Aurelius Sängerknaben, Calw – were more or less abandoned; they seemingly had to come to the conductor’s rescue, rather than the other way round.

And then there was the production. It is clearly high time that August Everding’s production, with Fred Berndt’s designs after Schinkel’s celebrated versions, was put out of our misery. In the Linden Opera of all places, it is not necessarily entirely unwelcome to have Schinkel evoked, but the stage designs now look woefully tired. Moreover, whilst one might well have been able to set up some degree of fruitful tension between old and new, there is not the slightest attempt to do that here. (A clue might be found in the work itself, for is not that one of its concerns?)

Worse still, there is no discernible direction of the singers on stage at all. Müller-Brachmann’s experience tells, in that he can essentially create the part himself. But many of the other artists, quite understandably, flounder. At one point, members of the chorus seemed on the verge of dissolving into laughter, as they were made to perform a silly dance, whilst the Three Ladies were left to wave their arms around, to an effect that could hardly be explained away as ironic. The animals do no harm, I suppose, but their direction once again seems hapless, without quite being able to degenerate into camp. Where there was sign of a directorial hand, in the final scene, it was very much to the detriment of the work. The Queen of the Night simply stays on stage – so much for her downfall – without the slightest indication of why this should be so. Moreover, Papageno and Papagena return, with a host of children: more grist to the mill of sentimentality. It was enough to make one wish for Calixto Bieito.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Staatskapelle Berlin/Gielen - Mahler and Bruckner, 14 December 2009

Konzerthaus, Berlin

Mahler – Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Bruckner – Symphony no.1 in C minor (Vienna version, 1890-91)

Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Michael Gielen (conductor)

A concert of two halves indeed – not so much in terms of the performances in themselves, but the works. I tried, I really tried, with Bruckner’s First Symphony. Unfortunately, the high standard of the performance only served to highlight what for me remained the grave shortcomings of the work itself. The first movement opened promisingly, Michael Gielen ensuring a gripping urgency to the response of the Staatskapelle Berlin. One of my very few reservations was a surprisingly lean sound to the strings, but after the exposition, this ceased to be a problem. I also wondered whether Gielen drove the music a bit hard, but then I should hardly have wished him to linger. The Tannhäuser-ish brass were truly resplendent, whilst the woodwind sounded delectable. And the structure was clear: perhaps too clear? The slow movement seemed to me the most successful. Once again, there was a Wagnerian grandeur to the Berlin brass. Moreover, a subtlety to the audible motivic working out in the strings put me in mind, much to my surprise, of Elgar. A magnificent bassoon solo should be credited. And there was no leanness of which to complain in the gleaming climactic gold, Viennese in quality, of the strings. Gielen ensured a furious scherzo, colourful too. If he could not quite paper over the cracks, then I am not sure anyone could. Once again, the brass, Freischütz-like horns, awesome trombones, and all, sounded magnificent, whilst the woodwind was full of woodland colour. The trio was nicely done, but I could make neither head nor tail of where it was going – largely, I fear, because Bruckner is unable to make it go anywhere at all. Then came the tumultuous finale – but to what end the tumult? Some marvellously sonorous playing from the lower strings could be savoured. I eventually gave up trying to discern a compositional thread so as simply to enjoy the Staatskapelle’s beautiful playing – and just about endured the movement’s apparently inordinate length.

The first half was devoted to Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs, split between Petra Lang and Hanno Müller-Brachmann. These were simply outstanding. If Müller-Brachmann seemed perhaps slightly to have the edge, that is probably partly at least a result of the nature of his songs. In any case, it is not a competition. Gielen and the Staatskapelle Berlin were equally crucial partners, for whose contribution I can find nothing but praise. Der Schildwache Nachtlied opened with a splendid military tread, setting the parameters not only for the song but for so much of the collection. And a new orchestral world, so crucial to much of the rest, was audibly glimpsed on and after ‘Muss traurige sein!’ Gielen showed, just in case anyone might have doubted, that impeccable modernist credentials entail no loss of Schwung when it came to Verlorne Müh’! Lang’s winsome cheek was spot on, likewise the loving (mock?) sternness of Müller-Brachmann’s response. One could almost have been at Der Rosenkavalier, albeit with something more cutting and harrowing in the orchestral ‘commentary’. Rhythms were, crucially, knowingly pointed in the following Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? Lang’s melismata were impeccably – and once again, knowingly – delivered, whilst the solo clarinettist simply had to be heard to be believed.

The after-life of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt is worthy of an essay in itself, Second Symphony, Berio and all. Certainly the sinister tone of the orchestra ensured that the latter’s Sinfonia was all but straining to be heard. Once again, absolute rhythmic security was guaranteed by the conductor, whilst Müller-Brachmann was every inch the preacher in his delivery. Lang proved desperate but in no sense caricatured in Das irdische Leben, the orchestral contribution as urgent as I have ever heard. This was as terrifying – and as real – as a nightmare, or, perhaps better, a fairy tale. Gielen’s rubato in the following Rheinlegendchen was supremely idiomatic. Müller-Brachmann was as winning a guide as one could possibly conceive – and then some. The beauty and meaning of his phrasing were simply beyond reproach. That he followed up with superlative comic ability in Lob des hohen Verstands, ‘high intellect’ lovingly mocked both by him and by the orchestral soloists. Gielen took Der Tamboursg’sell at a daringly slow tempo, which truly paid off. It was as ominous in its opening sadness and dignity as anything in Wozzeck, and so it continued. The ebbing away on ‘Gute Nacht’ was heart-stopping.

Urlicht was taken attacca, the oboe solo contribution almost unbearably beautiful. Tightness of rhythm from the outset, not least from the drums, proved a spur to invention in Revelge. Müller-Brachmann drew upon seemingly inexhaustible vocal reserves, whilst orchestral precision proved chilling in the very best sense. ‘Chilling’ was also the quality one should ascribe to Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen; indeed, this song chilled to the bone. So then, a magnificent Mahler performance: if only it could have been followed by more Mahler...

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Deutsche Oper, 13 December 2009

Photo: Marcus Lieberenz im Auftrag der DEUTSCHEN OPER BERLIN
(Kaiserin: Manuela Uhl; Amme Doris Soffel; Geisterbote: Stephen Bronk)

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

The Emperor – Robert Brubaker
The Empress – Manuela Uhl
The Nurse – Jane Henschel
Barak – Johan Reuter
The Dyer’s Wife – Eva Johansson
The Spirit-Messenger – Stephen Bronk
Voice of the Apparition of Youth – Yosep Kang
Voice of the Falcon, Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple – Hulkar Sabirova
Voice from Above – Katharine Tier
The One-Eyed – Simon Pauly
The One-Armed – Hyung-Wook Lee
The Hunchback – Paul Kaufmann
Maidservants – Hulkar Sabirova, Heidi Stober, Julia Benzinger
Children’s voices and unborn voices – Hulkar Sabirova, Heidi Stober, Julia Benzinger, Stephanie Weiss, Fionnuala McCarthy, Katharine Tier
Guards’ voices – Ben Wager, Lucas Harbour, Krzysztof Szumanski, James J. Kee

Kirsten Harms (director)
Bernd Damovsky (stage and costume designs)
Andreas K.W. Meyer (dramaturge)
Christian Baier (artistic production manager)

Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Children’s Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: Dagmar Fiebach)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Axel Kober (conductor)

I had previous reason to admire Axel Kober’s conducting in the Leipzig Opera’s marvellous triple-bill of Schoenberg’s one-act operas, Moderne Menschen. Arguably every bit as great a challenge, Die Frau ohne Schatten proved just as successful under Kober’s baton. Well shaped and with a clear sense of the structure, this was a reading which, if it did not quite match the sensational account I heard a good few years ago from Christoph von Donhányi at Covent Garden, had nothing to fear from most recorded competition, and was certainly superior to Gustav Kuhn in Paris. There were a few shaky moments, especially during the first ten minutes or so, when it sounded as though the orchestra was settling down, and occasionally afterwards from the brass. On the whole, however, the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper proved fully equal to Strauss’s demands. The sheen of its strings, sometimes more Viennese, sometimes darker – rather like Strauss’s score, one might say – and the character of its woodwind section were especially worthy of mention. Whatever Strauss’s notorious criticisms of Schoenberg’s Op.16 Orchestral Pieces, they did not sound so very far away. For, poised between the previous sound-worlds of Elektra and Rosenkavalier, with something of the Alpine Symphony about it, and possessed of a magical, fantastical expressionism very much of its own, one of Strauss’s most truly extraordinary scores was truly able to resound. If the grinding dissonances immediately prior to the final resolution were not nailed in quite the way one hears on Christian Thielemann’s Vienna recording of the orchestral fantasy, I have never heard anyone else, even Karl Böhm, achieve that – and a purely orchestral performance is a different matter in any case. This was a distinguished musical account.

The singing, however, was considerably more variable. Robert Brubaker’s Emperor improved as time went on, though his tendency to sharpness and indeed to shouting was never quite surmounted. Strauss wrote a cruel part, but there it is. Brubaker, however, was vastly preferable to Eva Johansson as the Dyer’s Wife. Awkward on stage, she managed the right notes from time to time, the right vowels even less so. She also exhibited a curious tendency – certainly more curious in her part than his – simply to stand and shout. Manuela Uhl occasionally struggled as the Empress, but an announcement had been made concerning her indisposition; in any case, she more often proved perfectly equal to the composer’s demands. Given the circumstances, this was a creditable assumption. Jane Henschel was predictably fine as the Nurse – what a wonderful, ambiguous role this is – but such excellence should not be taken for granted. Strange links with the spirit world were very much in evidence in her portrayal. Johan Reuter’s fine form as Barak might also have been expected, but again, remains equally worthy of praise. Carefully observant of words and music, he penetrated to the lovable heart of the dyer’s character.

Intendant Kirsten Harms’s production did not seem quite to add up. There was nothing especially wrong with it, and Bernd Damovsky’s stage designs were often rather striking, but I am not sure that someone relatively unfamiliar with what can sometimes seem a rather baffling drama would have found a way in here. Robert Wilson in Paris could perhaps be judged to have over-simplified Hofmannsthal’s layers of symbolism, though I rather enjoyed that production. Taking more of a ‘line’, almost any line (within reason), might not have been a bad idea in this case, though. The work benefits from a degree at least of help. Still, there was a great deal to savour from the conductor, orchestra, and much of the singing. Die Frau may have its flaws, but there are sections as great as anything Strauss wrote, music that was here largely heard to considerable advantage.

Monday 14 December 2009

BPO/Thielemann - Brahms and Schoenberg, 12 December 2009

Philharmonie, Berlin

Brahms – Nänie, op.82
Brahms – Gesang der Parzen, op.89
Brahms – Schicksalslied, op.54
Schoenberg – Pelleas und Melisande, op.5

Berlin Radio Chorus (chorus master: Robin Gritton)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

What a welcome opportunity to hear these three works for choir and orchestra by Brahms! The uninformed might relegate them to the ranks of the ‘minor’, but they are anything but. To have Christian Thielemann and the Berlin Philharmonic underlined what ought to be their ‘mainstream’ status. (I suppose the Schicksalslied, or ‘Song of Destiny’ might just about claim to have been accorded that in any case.) The Berlin Radio Chorus brought a marvellously smooth choral blend, with greater vigour when required. There were occasions when I considered a little more of the latter might have been desirable, but excellent intonation and diction reaped their own, far from inconsiderable,

The BPO was on excellent form, sounding pretty much ‘of old’, with rich strings and beguiling woodwind. I was especially startled by an oboe solo, from the Gesang der Parzen, I think, though it might have been Nänie, which set one back a good few years, sounding uncannily like Lothar Koch: a distinctive sound indeed. Inner parts proved their crucial role in terms of Brahms’s developing variation. The trio of trombones sounded, quite rightly, a note of equale-like archaism, highlighting Brahms’s study of Schütz and other early German music. Nänie gave the impression, bar its text (!), of being a lost movement from Ein deutsches Requiem. Warm consolation, with no loss to rhythmic and harmonic drive, was the hallmark of this and much of the Schicksalslied, whilst other sections of the latter and the Gesang der Parzen sounded almost Rinaldo-like, a reminder of the musical drama Brahms never wrote. The first to direct the BPO in Nänie since Helmuth Rilling more than thirty years previously, Thielemann conducted the entire programme from memory.

Quite apart from the opportunity in itself to hear those choral works, they made excellent preparation for what was, quite simply, the best performance of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande I have heard. Such preparation ensured that one listened with post-Brahmsian ears: a more fruitful approach, it seemed to me, than assimilating Schoenberg’s tone poem to those of Strauss. For this was one of those ‘Eureka’ moments on my part. A work I felt I had never really grasped before clicked into place. (Previous ‘live’ comparisons that sprang to mind were Boulez in the final movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and Barenboim in Brahms’s First.) Sometimes, of course, this is a personal matter of the ‘right time’; that might have been so, but could hardly have been a sufficient explanation. Thielemann’s stress upon the developing variation Schoenberg discovered in Brahms’s work and continued in his own proved the key not only to the musical but also what has been – for me at least – the somewhat elusive dramatic structure. Indeed, the point was that the two came together: perhaps less identical than dialectically related. Like Boulez, another conductor who dispenses with a baton, and with whom Thielemann might seem to have little in common, precision seemed enhanced by the control elicited by his hands. (As Boulez once remarked, a baton is a pretty poor sign of virility. The real point, of course, is that if it works, it works.) There was never any doubt as to Thielemann’s longer-term structural understanding: this was Fernhören as Furtwängler would have understood it; indeed, it made me wonder what Furtwängler could have done in this work. And crucially, the sense of telos, of goal-orientation, was present from the urgent, though certainly far from unduly driven, opening bars.

Thielemann could never, of course, have accomplished such an achievement had it not been for the magnificent playing of the Berlin Philharmonic. Again, it was very difficult to detect the internationalisation of its sound that has intensified in recent years. Without sounding so darkly Germanic as its Berlin neighbour, the Staatskapelle, this was undoubtedly a more ‘traditional’ sound than one now often hears – and surely not so far removed from the expectations of Schoenberg’s mind’s ear. If only the composer had benefited from more contemporary champions who understood his musical background; but he was certainly well served here. The richly-upholstered string sound, both solo and sectional, sounded straightforwardly ‘right’. It was notable how much Thielemann elicited from the violas in particular: perhaps, although this may be mere fancy, a sign of continuing affinity with his former instrument. Once again, the woodwind cast a magical spell. The contrast and inextricable relationship between ‘love’ music and tragedy was a hallmark of this performance, manifold connections with the Gurrelieder and Götterdämmerung highlighted, but within the context of an all-pervasive Brahmsian structural understanding.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Pierrot Lunaire, Transition_Projects, 11 December 2009

Hall One, Kings Place

Emma Williams (flute/piccolo)
Peter Sparks (clarinet/bass clarinet)
Tom Hankey (violin/viola)
Oliver Coates (violoncello)
Alasdair Beaton (piano)

Claire Booth (soprano)
Netia Jones (director/video design)
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

This performance of Pierrot Lunaire was part of a Kings Place series from Transition_projects. The programming has been fascinating, for instance mixing Dowland and Stravinsky, and Bartók with his countrymen, the choreographer Rudolf Laban, and the photographer László Moholy-Nagy. Claire Booth, the soloist in this concert, had also sung in Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres, and would the following evening sing in Scarlatti’s Correa nel seno amato. Unifying these and other concerts was the theme of ‘Darkness and Light’: a spur to imagination, it would seem, rather than an arbitrary constriction, but most welcome if such an interesting range of music proves to be the result. I only wish that I had been able to attend more of the performances.

The present production had first been presented at Wilton’s Music Hall in October 2007. It seems that the praise garnered then was very much deserved. Most importantly, this was a performance that raised questions, rather than answered them. Booth’s excellent performance might well be considered relatively restrained, but hysterical cabaret, though it can work, is not the only way to perform what Stravinsky rightly judged an instrumental masterpiece. Sprechstimme is impossible to define, but it certainly sounded as if it were on offer here; only the occasional note was sung, but pitch was far from incidental. And the words were crystal-clear. Titles, an integral part of Netia Jones’s video design, helped, yet the German was so clear that many would have understood anyway. Moreover, though there was ample opportunity to hear Booth’s words and notes, her part also drew attention to the teeming instrumental invention of Schoenberg’s score, here flawlessly and atmospherically delivered by the players of the Transition_ensemble. Great demands are placed upon the instrumentalists, but technical issues had been thoroughly subordinated to musical demands. Ryan Wigglesworth’s direction was always sure of its direction, imparting a strong sense of unity to what, in lesser hands, can sometimes seem just a succession of poems.

Jones speaks sensibly of her role in this. Pierrot ‘is a highly theatrical work already,’ so her production concentrates upon helping ‘a listener navigate through its treacherous narrative’. One might consider that hardly necessary, but the visual scenes did no harm and heightened that sense of playfulness the director rightly sees as a crucial element to the work. Manipulated, monochrome moving images, of Booth (in ‘real time’ and pre-recorded), of architecture, the moon, the Cross, and so forth, provided a backdrop to the crucial musical events unfolding. I was less sure about the beheading: surely it is a little more than whimsical. But the music, rather than the bizarre verse, is truly the thing – and so it was here.

Monday 7 December 2009

Brewer/Vignoles - Strauss Lieder, 7 December 2009

Wigmore Hall - BBC Lunchtime Concert

Zueignung, op.10 no.1
Die Georgine, op.10 no.4
Breit‘ über mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar, op.19 no.2
Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten, op.19 no.4
Hochzeitlich Lied, op.37 no.6
Glückes genug, op.37, no.1
Ich liebe dich, op.37 no.2
Befreit, op.39 no.4
Songs from Gesänge des Orients, op.77
In der Campagna, op.41 no.1
Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland, op.56 no.6
Frühlingsfeier, op.56 no.5

Christine Brewer (soprano)
Roger Vignoles (piano)

This was one of those concerts about which it is difficult to find a great deal to say: very little to elicit adverse criticism, yet, by the same token, precious little that is likely to prove unforgettable. Everything was performed at a high level of professionalism and Christine Brewer’s warm persona is such that it would be impossible not to like her. To hear a selection of Strauss Lieder is in itself of course most welcome, especially one such as this, which mixed the familiar and the less so (in the case of the Gesänge des Orients, the almost unknown). Members of the audience, as so often, did not help: coughers and paper-rustlers were out in force, and a high-pitched noise – some electronic device, I assume – rendered the opening Zueignung well-nigh unlistenable.

That was a great pity, for the power of Brewer’s voice registered from the outset, likewise the clarity of her diction, not always a hallmark of sopranos in Strauss. The following Die Georgine, its text also by Hermann von Gilm, enabled her to show the communicative, inviting aspect of her musicianship and personality. Roger Vignoles’s sustained yet muscular piano playing made just the right impression in Breit’ über mein Haupt, whilst his vigorous repeated chords in the ensuing Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten (‘How should we keep it secret’), imparting a sense of movement, answered the title’s question, namely that we should not be able to do so. I wearied somewhat of the preponderance of flowers and so forth in the opening songs, but perhaps such sickly Romantic imagery appeals more to others than to me.

Brewer really came into her own in Ich liebe dich, a Brünnhilde supported by piano fanfares that seemed to look forward to Der Rosenkavalier – and even evoked parallels with Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. The soprano proved just as dramatic in the Dehmel setting, Befreit: no lyric Schwarzkopf she, which entails gains and losses. What could be said for certain, here and elsewhere, was that Strauss’s long lines caused her no difficulties whatsoever. In the more elliptical three numbers from the Gesänge des Orients (‘Ihre Augen’, ‘Schwung’, and ‘Die Allmächtige’), she was fully able to spin the vocal line, whilst Vignoles highlighted Strauss’s sometimes surprisingly oblique harmonies. The sparer textures of these later songs registered most fully in the piano part, with no loss to the vigour of Schwung.

Wiegenlied was truly lovely. Here, Brewer showed that she was quite capable of scaling down her tone to a much gentler level, though she drew intelligently upon her reserves for the climax. The piano part in this song sounds busier than it does in the orchestral version. The latter seems to me in every respect preferable, likewise that of Die heiligen drei Könige, where here, rather to my surprise, the tremolos did not always resound as they might; it is very difficult, but it can be done. Just prior to that Heine setting, Vignoles’s piano had hinted at the Strauss of the symphonic poems – somewhere between Aus Italien and Don Juan – for In der Campagna. With Heine also as the poet for the final song, Frühlingsfeier, Brewer the dramatic soprano returned with a vengeance for Strauss’s own rite of spring. Allerseelen was a welcome encore, the magic of Wiegenlied reignited.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

DVD review: Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar

Das Rheingold. Mario Hoff (Wotan), Alexander Günther (Donner), Jean-Noël Briend (Froh), Erin Caves (Loge), Tomas Möwes (Alberich), Frieder Aurich (Mime), Renatus Mészár (Fasolt), Hidekazu Tsumaya (Fafner), Christine Hansmann (Fricka), Marietta Zumbült (Freia), Nadine Weissmann (Erda), Silona Michel (Woglinde), Susann Günther-Dissmeier (Wellgunde), Christian Bassek (Flosshilde), Luise Grabolle, Marie-Louise Winde, and Luisa Wöllner (Norns), Supernumeraries of the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar; Staatskapelle Weimar/Carl St Clair; Michael Schulz (stage director), Brooks Riley (television director), Dirk Becker (designs), Renée Listerdal (costumes), Wolfgang Willaschek (dramaturge); Arthaus DVD 101 353 (166 minutes, live recording from the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar, 2008)

Die Walküre. Renatus Mészár (Wotan), Christine Hansmann (Fricka), Elisabeth Anetseder-Meyer (Freia as harpist), Lars Creuzberg (Donner), Steffen Bärtl (Froh/Loge), Erin Caves (Siegmund), Hidekazu Tsumaya (Hunding), Kirsten Blanck (Sieglinde), Catherine Foster (Brünnhilde), Silona Michael (Helmwige), Susann Günther-Dissmeier (Gerhilde), Joana Caspar (Ortlinde), Marie-Helen Joël (Waltraute), Carola Guber (Siegrune), Christiane Bassek (Rossweisse), Kerstin Quandt (Grimgerde), Nadine Weissmann (Schwertleite), Erika Krämer (Grane), Supernumeraries of the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar (Alberich, Hagen, Siegmund, and Sieglinde as children, men, and rams); Staatskapelle Weimar/Carl St Clair; Michael Schulz (stage director), Brooks Riley (television director), Dirk Becker (designs), Renée Listerdal (costumes), Wolfgang Willaschek (dramaturge); Arthaus DVD 101 355 (2 DVDs, 237 minutes, live recording from the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar, 2008)

This is not a Ring for musicians. Such is the evidence of the first and much of the second instalment of der ring in weimar: a commoditised reversion to the Master/master’s temporary, revolutionary eschewal of the upper-case. Let us start prior to the beginning, with one of those ubiquitous musical ‘introductions’. Wagner’s Ring/ring is surely better off starting with that low E flat; we, however, are condemned to hear, on endless loop, Erda’s warning, ‘Weiche Wotan, weiche ...,’ and the god’s response. Select subtitles according to taste and try again. Alas, no: tuning up intervenes, accompanied by the sight on stage of a pair of shoes and a cast list. Then applause for the conductor: fair enough, I suppose, should one wish to remind the audience that this is a theatre – except that a DVD audience will probably be at home. Following a blackout and noisy moving of feet on stage, there appear hand-puppeted girl-Norns, speaking a further ‘introduction’, this time from Siegfrieds Tod. It might have worked or been ‘interesting’; a fit of giggles – on stage, not at home – destroys any prospect of that. Finally, E flat...

I soon realised that the wait had not been worth it. Carl St Clair’s conducting is undistinguished, as is the Staatskapelle Weimar’s orchestral contribution. Bar-lines are all too frequently audible, nowhere more so than in the descent to Nibelheim. The orchestra sounds light and, worse, thin throughout: not emphasising allegedly Mendelssohnian antecedents, but simply underpowered and uninspired by the direction. At the end, the on-stage harpist seems to be the only harpist at all; moreover, either she is amplified or there is sonic trickery at work. The orchestra improves in Die Walküre, though this is certainly not a memorable musical account. There are difficulties here too: never have I heard the conclusion to the first act sound so underwhelming. One really needs Furtwängler, though, on film, Boulez/Chéreau will do perfectly well; the Weimar orchestra by contrast sounds grey and exhausted. The Magic Fire Music suffers similarly: how does one render it so colourless?

Singing is often little better. Christine Hansmann’s shrill, squally Fricka is outshone by Marietta Zumbült’s Red Riding Hood Freia. Mario Hoff’s Rheingold Wotan is inappropriately light, succeeded in Die Walküre by Renatus Mészár, darker-toned, though hardly ingratiating or idiomatic. He makes a much better Fasolt. Whether through design or default, the casting of Alberich and Fafner/Hunding brings considerably lighter voices than the norm from, respectively, Tomas Möwes and Hidekazu Tsumaya. Möwes’s Alberich often veers dangerously close to Sprechgesang, although, given his approximate pitch elsewhere, that may have been wise. Musical relief hails from Erin Caves and Kirsten Blanck as the Volsungs, the former providing irreproachable diction and the best vocal performance; he also impresses as Loge. Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde proves variable: an intelligent portrayal. However, a pronounced beat and increasing intonational waywardness reveal themselves during the third act.

Let us return to Michael Schulz’s production, in which a certain disregard for musical values has already announced itself. Domesticity is the watchword. ‘Mark well my new poem – it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!’ Thus wrote Wagner to Liszt in 1853. In Weimar, where Liszt was then based, 2008 brings nothing so consequential. There is a falling out between Wotan and Alberich, perhaps old friends, and a soap-opera feud thereafter. We are constantly reminded of the ‘other’ members of the families, especially Clan Wotan, though to what end remains obscure. Just when, during the second scene of Das Rheingold, set in a not very affluent house, it seems as though we might be in for a hint of Ibsen, the strange, brightly-coloured mugs on the table, not to mention the characters’ behaviour, push us back in the direction of EastEnders. No wonder the gods wish hastily to move into Valhalla. The dignity of Wotan’s music, just about conveyed by the orchestra, is belied by his inexplicable inability to unhand his consort. I wonder whether, whilst once it might have been necessary to divest these gods of their divinity, now might be the time to restore at least some element of their erstwhile aura. How, otherwise, are we to understand Wagner’s Feuerbachian alienation of human qualities?

Alberich, however, is a dwarf – at least for some of the time – by virtue of the aforementioned shoes being strapped to his knees. Standing tall when Lord of Nibelheim, he reverts to size when captured. We actually see him as a toad, which may cheer stage-direction-fetishists; yet, given the lack of a serpent or Alberich’s invisibility, this here seems at best naïve. Mime is a cleaner, not a skilled smith. Wagner’s distinction between Handwerk and Kunst therefore goes for nothing in a simplistic reduction of craft to the menial; we shall see what happens in Siegfried, when the ‘artist’ appears. Why Mime at one point emerges with a baby in his arms I have no idea. It is a nice touch, though, to witness his delight at Alberich’s capture. Both are in thrall to the proto-Nietzschean will to power; Alberich has simply been more successful to date, thereby feeding his brother’s ressentiment. An undeniably powerful moment is that of Wotan’s possession of the ring, when he severs Alberich’s finger. Loge looks genuinely shocked. ‘Doch, durch Gewalt!’ one might exclaim, against Wotan’s earlier warning to Donner. Sadly, the orchestra merely sounds petulant upon Alberich’s departure; the curse barely registers.

Fasolt’s reluctance to abandon Freia shines through, in touch and glance, and is interestingly complemented by reluctance on her part. The image of weighing scales makes its point clearly in the dialectic between love and power: Freia and hoard. It is in this final scene of the Vorabend that a guiding visual motif imprints itself. Echoing – consciously? – Ruth Berghaus, covering of eyes becomes the customary salute to Wotan’s bartered eye. Subsequently, in Die Walküre, there is a degree of horror to the occasional removal of his eye-patch. Unfortunately, as with so much else in the production, the broader point is unclear, likewise how it might fit with the rest of the domesticated re-telling. Is it a reference to Wotan’s craving for knowledge and its cost, or a banal reminder that someone who has lost his eye might unleash his anger upon others?

Die Walküre has another delayed opening, Freia as on-stage harpist accompanying excerpts from Wagner’s sketches for Siegfrieds Tod, sung by the Valkyries at home in Valhalla. Wotan is the proud father. On marches Alberich, with the boy Hagen, who screams and obliterates the song: no great loss. Only then can the storm begin, Wotan presenting Siegmund and Sieglinde as children with blindfolds, Sieglinde later wearing hers around her wrist. They are worn again in the final scene, to be cast off upon the triumphant naming of Siegmund. Hunding’s status in a brutal society is underlined by the presence at dinner of his clan, replete with baseball bats. Wotan – who seems to be invisible – performs undercover work amongst them, the Wanderer before his time. His hat cocked as it is, he disconcertingly resembles Daniel Barenboim in a widely-disseminated publicity photograph; I assume the likeness to be incidental. Instead of extracting Notung from the tree, Siegmund simply receives it from Wotan/Wälse.

Incorporation of extra characters becomes almost farcical in the second act. Fricka arrives with her rams, all of whom wear spectacles, a sneak preview already granted at the end of the first act, when, to add to St Clair’s musical anti-climax, the Volsungs disappear and Hunding prays to Fricka. A truly mystifying reappearance seemed to be that of Erda, present for much of the second and third acts. During Wotan’s monologue she brings on a cadaver for tentative inspection, eventually leaving with Brünnhilde – and a suitcase: who said that Regietheater clichés were dead? She returns later on, to lead off Brünnhilde once again, this time with Sieglinde in tow. In the third act, and this was where I thought I gleaned some sense, she presents her daughter, in Wotan’s presence, with a wedding dress. Given the portrayal of the Ride of the Valkyries as a girls’ dormitory pillow fight, I assumed that Brünnhilde was fated to leave the Valhalla nursery for a life of bourgeois domesticity in her own household. Perhaps that was so, yet my incipient reading was thrown into confusion by the discovery, upon reading the cast list, that this elderly woman had not in fact been Erda, but Grane: a trusty and versatile steed.

It should perhaps not surprise that Weimar’s German National Theatre, long without a Ring, should elevate stagecraft over music, though I fail to see why the choice should be posed. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine who, other than those who attended in the theatre or the most indefatigable of completists, would consider der ring in weimar, at least so far, to be other than inessential. What truly saddens is how dull the Ring has been rendered. Watched on television need not resemble made for television.

This review first appeared in The Wagner Journal, 3/3, pp. 96-99. Click here for further information on the journal, including subscription details.

Monday 30 November 2009

Holzmair/Haefliger - Winterreise, 29 November 2009

Wigmore Hall

Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)
Andreas Haefliger (piano)

This was the third and, most likely, last of my three Winterreisen this year, following Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, and Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach, also at the Wigmore Hall. All three were very different performances, and not necessarily in ways I might have expected. Quasthoff and Barenboim, insofar as I could discern, given a supremely objectionable audience, proved the most Classical in outlook. Goerne and Eschenbach, not without their intimations of the twentieth century, might nevertheless be considered the most Romantic in their approach. To my surprise, it was the highly dramatic performance of Wolfgang Holzmair and Andreas Haefliger that took us deepest into the expressionist realm.

Holzmair’s general approach to the cycle is quite unlike any other I can recall. From the first words of Gute Nacht, one heard a directness of speech akin to poetry reading, the speech rhythms of Wilhelm Müller’s verse replicated in a fashion one might expect more of Mussorgsky or Janáček than Schubert. I might be tempted to call the performance operatic, were that term not so sullied with inappropriate Italianate connotations. Musico-dramatic then, for Wagner more than once came to mind: roles as diverse as Amfortas, Mime, and Tannhäuser. Perhaps it is the lightness of Holzmair’s baritone helps one think in terms of tenor roles; at any rate, this is a very different voice from that of Quasthoff or Goerne. Holzmair is not at all an artist to subordinate drama to musical beauty. Some might feel affronted that he does quite the opposite, and there is a degree of loss, but no single performance can be all-encompassing. He is unafraid to make sounds which, considered in themselves, might be ugly: again Wagner and indeed Schoenberg are not so far off the mark here. It also seems to me – and I wonder if I am being merely fanciful – that there is something specifically Austrian to Holzmair’s reading; certain vowels sound far more Viennese than hochdeutsch. Haefliger, moreover, proved anything but a reticent partner. At times, his part sounded well-nigh orchestral: more so, interestingly, than that of the conductor Barenboim.

This winter journey, then, was bleak from the onset of Haefliger’s insistent tread to Gute Nacht. Moments of repose, of beauty even, were rare. Risks were taken, for insistence the extreme rubato in Die Wetterfahne, suggestive of the possibility that the weather-vane might turn any which way. The wind, after all, ‘plays with hearts inside’. Occasionally such risks did not quite pay off; for instance, there were moments in Gefrorne Tränen and Rückblick when the performers were not quite together. Yet the dramatic end was always paramount, never more so than in the frozen rage of the final stanza to Erstarrung, or the freezing wind from voice and piano in Der Lindenbaum. A truly terrifying crescendo upon the words, ‘Und der weiche Schness zerrint,’ ensured that even the possibility of a warmer wind brought no consolation. Again, this might well be considered one-sided, and is far from the only path to follow, but it worked.

Frühlingstraum, a rare opportunity for Schubert’s aching beauty to manifest itself, was almost unbearable, the return to the major mode for ‘Ich träumte von Lieb’ und Liebe’ heartbreaking. In his harmonic preparation, Haefliger knew precisely where he was taking us – and why. Der greise Kopf was very slow – but again, it worked. In the piano prelude to Letzte Hoffnung, there was an almost pointillistic, Webern-like quality to be heard: no surprise, if one consults the score, for it even looks like late Brahms or Webern. A modernistic, fragmentary quality informed both of the first two stanzas, rendering all the more shocking Holzmair’s desperate lyricism when considering that the leaf might fall to the ground. A couple of songs on, and if you found Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau hectoring, you would certainly have felt the same of Holzmair’s Der stürmische Morgen. Yet this was a particular conception of a particular song. In Täuschung, Haefliger once again conjured up a fleeting image of beauty – Täuschung (delusion) indeed – seemingly derived from, or at least related to, the piano impromptus in its rhythmic and harmonic pointing.

This could only be a momentary distraction, however, from the ineffable sadness characterising Der Wegweiser. Here, Holzmair exhibited a prayer-like calm, beseeching someone or something in the second stanza: ‘I have, after all, done no wrong...’. Yet what does that someone or something care about that? The spareness of the piano writing in the final stanza sounded closer to late Liszt than I have ever heard before: chilling. After that, the sad dignity of the chords in Das Wirtshaus was almost more than I could take, though Holzmair managed to ratchet up the tension still further, with a bare honesty of expression far removed from conventional beauty at the end of the song. Der Leiermann brought a direct, deathly simplicity, which chilled to the bone. Rage – and what rage there had been! – was gone. As ever, Holzmair brought one so close to the verse itself, music almost negating itself. I was terrified. Even the inevitable return – had they ever gone away? – of the coughers could not quite disrupt the awestruck silence that ensued.