Haydn, Die Schöpfung
For this year’s 200th anniversary of the Society of Friends of Music, extra concerts have made their way into the program. Tonight, the Society’s house amateur orchestra (the Orchesterverein) put on Haydn’s Creation. This is a work which, despite its huge dimensions, makes for a better match for this group than some of the pieces I have heard them perform in the past. Indeed, they play very well for amateurs, but can be overmatched by the likes of Bruckner. Despite some rough edges, they played a spectacular Haydn. This was the best I have ever heard them.
They were helped by the house chorus (yes, the Singverein) in full voice, and three outstanding soloists: Cornelia Horak (soprano), Alexander Kaimbacher (tenor), and Wolfgang Babrnkl (bass), three Austrian singers with dramatic and pleasant voices, the two men coming out of the Staatsoper’s ensemble. Robert Zelzer took his customary place on the podium, and knew exactly what to do to create the world with Haydn’s music.
Haydn produced this oratorio very much inspired by Händel, whose music he had fallen for during his spell in London. The text was, in fact, originally written for – but not ultimately set by – Händel, so Haydn saw himself as picking up his predecessor’s work. But to write a setting of the creation of the world required innovation in tone painting, of the sort that may have become routine in the 19th century but was still not done in 1798. The listener would do well to hear Haydn’s work in that context: for his time, Haydn was an innovator, and took music to another level in this work. Tonight’s performance understood the idiom.
The work has three parts: the first covers the first four days of creation, the second covers the fifth and sixth days, and the third has music for Adam and Eve to sing in paradise. The third part comes across as more of a set piece, a product of 18th-century convention. It contains none of the drama of the first two parts (it does not include the snake or the expulsion, just Adam and Eve crooning on how wonderful paradise is), and provides little opportunity for the tone color that made this work so innovative for its day. Zelzer chose to have the first two parts run uninterrupted and then performed the third part after the intermission, which made for a let down. After creating the heaven and earth in six days during the first two parts, Haydn should certainly have rested after the sixth day.
The Volksoper premiered a new Candide tonight, in an unstaged adaptation of the 1999 version. Bernstein’s operetta has an unfortunate and problematic performance history, so this may represent one of the better attempts to make sense of it all. Bernstein had a flair for the dramatic, but Candide failed miserably as a stage production and I have never understood why he, of all people, thought it might succeed. Voltaire’s story is not conducive to staging, especially when edited down to fit into a night’s performance, jumping as it does all over the planet. As a parody, however, it works.
And, of course, Bernstein’s music works. So for more than half a century, different people have attempted to preserve Bernstein’s music with a semblance of the plot, with more or less staging. Tonight’s adaptation did not try to stage it at all, although the singers provided some acting. The arranger had an actor substitute all of the dialogue with German-language narrative, although all of Bernstein’s musical numbers were performed in the original English. In this way, the Volksoper’s artistic director Robert Meyer, appearing as the narrator, managed to capture the story’s humor without the distractions of an impossible plot, as well as throwing in additional jokes. Taking care of the plot in this way, he allowed the singers to concentrate on the music, pulling off the comic lyrics to the melodious tunes. Stephen Chaundy (Candide) and Jennifer O’Loughlin (Cunegonde) were in full voice as the leading couple. Morten Frank Larsen made a fine Pangloss, and Kim Cresswell (quite a performer, although in uneven voice) provided wit and charm in the role of the Old Lady. Joseph R. Olefirowicz conducted an elegant and idiomatic interpretation of Bernstein’s music, which, in the end, remains the reason people keep desperately trying to find good ways to perform this otherwise heavily-flawed operetta.
Rossini, Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Ageless production of the Rossini’s Barber of Seville at the Staatsoper tonight. Well, not completely ageless. It will be 46 years old this April. But it was produced back in the day when there were still some German directors who understood opera and theater. The long-departed Günther Rennert (died in 1978), who at the time was the director at the Bavarian State Opera did this guest production in Vienna in 1966, and used a simple concept. The entire action took place without a set change – he constructed Don Bartolo’s house in such a way as to allow walls to retract so that the audience could see inside one or more rooms where the action took place. Some action took place in – or spilled into – the courtyard. Rennert put the music foremost – but this opera represented Rossini at his most consistently tuneful and whimsical. So the music drove the farcical plot, which Rennert added to with a dash of slapstick and other sight-gags.
Over the years, an entire array of Vienna casts have had the chance to put on this production, so it can remain constantly fresh. Looking at the faces of the cast, they enjoyed themselves immensely, which very much helped. Vienna ensemble singers made up tonight’s group, maintaining the standards that make the House on the Ring the best on the planet even for casts without particular stars. Adrian Eröd (Figaro), Isabel Leonard(Rosina), and Juan Francisco Gatell (Almaviva) made up a youthful front-line trio, ably supported by Alfred Šramek (Bartolo), Michele Pertusi (Basilio), and Donna Ellen (Marzellina). Michael Güttler conducted precisely, ensuring that the orchestra not only did not overpower the singers but also allowed them to enunciate their often tongue-twisted texts – he clearly appreciated that Rossini wrote a difficult opera to sing and, furthermore, for the comedy to work in this production especially, the difficult singing must have extra clarity.
Tonight was a study in contrasts: the skilled sophisticate with nothing to say, and the sincere simpleton who knew how to make the music of Heaven audible to those of us on Earth. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra performed Brahms and Bruckner.
Bruckner admired the opening of the first movement to Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. But he considered that Brahms could have built a symphony out of this theme. Although Brahms certainly had the skills to do so, he lacked the imagination. So instead he produced a piano concerto. In reality, the concerto was just an orchestral piece which Brahms simply failed to completely orchestrate – rather than showcasing the solo instrument, he blended the piano parts into the whole, and he might as well have turned this into a fully-orchestrated symphony. But he did not.
The German Conductor Marc Albrecht accentuated the structure that Bruckner had so admired. The German Pianist Lars Vogt provided robust substance that filled out the un-orchestrated piano parts and blended well with the orchestra. But the movement never went very far beyond this. The second movement had less motion – Brahms considered it a musical portrait of his friend Clara Schumann, but if I were her I would have been insulted that Brahms considered her so dull. Thematically, the movement foretold his German Requiem, but in that later work Brahms certainly had something to say that he did not in this earlier one. The final movement had many very charming parts, which had little or no relation with each other. Brahms certainly knew how to compose on a purely technical level. But successful music must exist on a higher level.
Hence to the Bruckner Third Symphony. Bruckner was a simple man, and very insecure. Critics ridiculed his compositional technique in his day (and many still do). But in his way he knew how to develop an idea. Albrecht also understood this idiom. By controlling the dynamics, he ensured that the work had sufficient contrasts to augment the aetherial swells, and he also drew out the lyrical elements within the score, to make the reading multi-faceted, and to allow the heavenly chorales to grow organically out of the earthly lyrics.
The Vienna Symphony continues to impress with its authoritative but sensitive tone. The solo horn had absolutely gorgeous moments in the Brahms concerto. He deserved a solo bow, but Albrecht did not grant him one.