Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 4)

Highlights

With the world still on indefinite lockdown, I spent a fourth week perusing archival performances streamed online.  I am nocturnal, so am normally awake through the night and usually spend the hours reading.  The lockdown has changed my patterns, so that I now do a lot less reading and a lot more opera-gazing.

Wagner: Parsifal (Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera, and Berlin Philharmonic)

This being the Holy Week in the Western Church, my week’s selections were dominated by three versions of Wagner’s Parsifal (and I will add a fourth new version next week).  Two were staged (the previous production at the Staatsoper and the current one at the Metropolitan Opera) and one was a concert version (Berlin Philharmonic).  I will move on to the Staatsoper’s current staging next week.  This is such a wonderful transformative opera, and when I get fully immersed into it I really do get into it.

I saw that previous Staatsoper staging live in 2006 – yet another abomination by a German director, in this case Christine Mielitz.  So I had absolutely no desire to see her nonsense again.  But I did want to listen to this cast, from a 2015 performance, and the sumptuous sounds of the Staatsoper orchestra crafted by Ádám Fischer.  Danish baritone Stephen Milling, as Gurnemanz, was the real revelation here with his warm and all-encompassing voice.

That said, I did look into the streaming a few times on this production, including the final scene.  Mielitz’s travesty was every bit as imbecilic as I remembered, but she does seem to have made some adjustments between 2006 (when I saw it live) and 2015 (this video).  So now Parsifal, with help of the spear, embraces Amfortas and Kundry in a big bear hug towards the end, which both healed Amfortas’ wound (the key event of the entire opera, which had been completely missing in her original) and in the same process clearly blessed Kundry (another key plot point Mielitz completely left out before) who instead of walking off the back of the stage into what looked like a backstage construction site (when I was there in 2006) now got onto a lift and was transported up to (presumably) heaven.  It wasn’t satisfying, but it least showed that Mielitz may actually have decided to read the plot sometime after she had done the staging, and attempted to make the staging more closely approximate the plot by reintroducing some key actions.  (Reminder to trashy German Regisseurs: please read the plot before staging an opera; is that really too much to ask?).  I still saw no Grail.  But maybe if I rewatched the whole thing I might have found other corrections – but I am not watching the whole thing (and the snippets I did see did not make me hopeful; even if she did make corrections in the final scene, that scene still failed miserably).

From there it was over to the Met for their 2013 new production by Canadian director François Girard.  The Met Orchestra is not the Vienna Philharmonic, and the dull Daniele Gatti on the podium lacked the intellectual stature of Ádám Fischer, so the Met forces were not as lush nor able to provide the same driving coloration.  Girard’s concept probably required more from the pit, since his staging was oddly modern but timeless, minimal but semi-realist, focusing on the psychological elements of the opera rather than the action (such as it is – this is indeed a very long opera with very little action).  I do not think it really worked.  It was all blood and darkness and ominous cloud formations (and in one case something that looked like a huge Mars gone into eclipse).  Klingsor’s magic garden was transformed into a blood-soaked hewn cave, for example (Klingsor himself was a bloody mess).  The chorus generally stood around, sometimes contorting itself (often with arms outstretched to mimic the crucifixion – but in Parsifal Wagner actually used the story of the grail knights as a myth, and while the final act takes place on Good Friday the symbolism is generally not Christian and Jesus never gets a mention at all).  Girard’s blocking was questionable, but partly balanced by camerawork which allowed those of us watching from home to focus in ways it would have been harder to do in person.

The third act took place in a post-apocalyptic setting, opening with the knights, visibly unhealthy and in tattered clothing, burying their dead from a plague – obviously not a reference to the corona virus (this was filmed in 2013), but a bit disturbing in the current context.  The dark foreboding lighting (even at noon – enter Mars under eclipse at that point) did not so much make this production transformative and mystical, but rather gloomy and depressing.

Jonas Kaufmann, the Met’s Parsifal, was more convincing than the Staatsoper’s Johan Botha.  Botha may have had the bigger voice, but Kaufmann was more lyrical and sympathetic (it also did not help that Botha forgot the words at times).  If Kaufmann was undermatched for the Heldentenor role of Siegmund in Walküre, Parsifal falls more within his vocal strengths.  René Pape, the Met’s Gurnemanz, was in his usual fine form (especially warm in the third act), but on hearing these two performances back-to-back when juxtaposed next to Milling was simply outperformed (I am not sure I had heard Milling before, but I definitely intend to again).

Since it’s hard to get too much Parsifal once I start immersing myself, I migrated over to the Berlin Philharmonic archive they’ve opened up this month, and found a 2018 concert performance under Simon Rattle.  Since it was not staged, the entire focus could go onto the music.  A good staging (particularly of a mystical opera such as this) augments that message, but bad stagings detract.  So in this case, particularly since this was being performed in Germany, where incompetent opera direction reigns, a concert version made for a really good idea.  Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic captured that mystical level.  Stuart Skelton sang an excellent Parsifal (he who recently sounded so good as the Met’s Tristan, there felicitously placed opposite Nina Stemme as Isolde, who sang Kundry here for Berlin).  Franz-Josef Selig was in absolute top form as Gurnemanz, who is really the key character in this opera.

  • [Recording tips:  When it comes to selecting a “best” recording of Parsifal, I think the biggest discussion is not which conductor but rather conceding that some of the best are by Hans Knappertsbusch, then which version conducted by Knappertsbusch deserves that distinction.  I favor the live 1951 Bayreuth Festival performance by virtue of the best overall cast balance.  Wolfgang Windgassen sings the title role, with Ludwig Weber as the critical Gurnemanz.  George London (Amfortas), Arnold van Mill (Titurel), Hermann Uhde (Klingsor), and Martha Modl (Kundry) round out the lead ensemble.  For excerpts, there are several exciting recordings of the second act duet with Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, of which the best may be the one recorded in Philadelphia in 1940 with the Victor Symphony Orchestra under Edwin McArthur.  A recording of the “Good Friday Spell” from Act Three, with Alexander Kipnis as Gurnemanz and Fritz Wolff as Siegfried, recorded at the 1927 Bayreuth Festival with Siegfried Wagner, the composer’s son, on the podium, has never been equaled.]

Strauß II, Zigeunerbaron (Volksoper)

I actually started the week on a much lighter note, with Johann Strauß II’s Zigeunerbaron.  This was unfortunately a confused and humorless new production – the last premiere at the Volksoper before the coronavirus lockdown – by German director Peter Lund.  Despite the nationality of the director, I had better expectations, since Lund had managed to successfully capture Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür in this house a few years ago, which I assume got him invited back for this.  But now he demonstrated no understanding for the Straußian Austro-Hungarian idiom, and his clumsy sets left no room for charm (so, indeed, the cast, orchestra, and conductor – all of whom will remain nameless here so as not to drag them down for something not their fault – could provide none).

  • [Recording tip: A lot of Viennese operetta is best experienced live.  I have happy memories of a performance of Zigeunerbaron at the Volksoper in December 1987.  I did not grow up speaking German, but had begun to study it as my fifth language only in September 1986.  Of course, I had heard Viennese German regularly growing up, since my father spoke to his parents in Viennese (but they all, for some reason, spoke to me in English), so that influenced my dialect, but clearly this was not my native language and my father liked to laugh at my pronunciation as a beginning German-speaker (at that time only a year into when I started speaking the language), which sounded to him like I came from one of the Monarchy’s Kronländer – maybe Slavic or even Hungarian.  After listening to the thick Hungarian accents in the Volksoper’s Zigeunerbaron, my father smiled at me….  Recordings do not quite capture the spontaneity of live performances, so critical for this genre.  But I lean towards one in particular, on the basis that it is sufficiently Viennese to capture the humor, even if it is a tad too “grand.”  But its mostly Viennese performers all would have performed this in a less serious manner, and understood the Fach: a 1961 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic under Heinrich Hollreiser, with a cast including Staatsoper (and Volksoper) ensemble stalwarts Hilde Güden, Karl Terkal, Walter Berry, Erich Kunz, Anneliese Rothenberger, Hilde Rössel-Majdan, and Kurt Equiluz.]

Strauss, Elektra (Staatsoper)

From a purely musical perspective, this performance of Elektra by Richard Strauss was electric.  Waltraud Meier and Christine Goerke were in full voice, and Semyon Bychkov provided the perfect amount of sound and powerful framing from the Staatsoper pit.  Yet Uwe Eric Laufenberg, another worthless German director, staged something other than Elektra, and the only advantage of not being in the opera house live (where the music sounds so much better) is that I really don’t have to watch this Prussian nonsense.  I thought initially maybe I would watch, and see what Laufenberg offered, but life really is too short.  I listened happily while doing other things.

What is strange about this opera is that, for no apparent reason, I have never really gotten into it.  I own one recording – a classic 1953 West German Radio recording conducted by Richard Kraus with Astrid Varnay in the title role – which is fine but I will make no claim that it is necessarily the best available – which I may have listened to only 2-3 times since I bought it 20 years ago.  And I am not sure I have listened to the opera otherwise in that period (maybe a Met radio broadcast at some point – assuming it has even been in the Met’s repertory – but if so then certainly never paying much attention).  So it was great to hear it properly like this and scratch my head as to why I haven’t listened to it more often.  I do have a ticket for Elektra should the Salzburg Festival go ahead this Summer (which looks unlikely – although Austria is opening up gradually starting next week, the government has clearly indicated it wants to keep the borders closed until there is a vaccine, which won’t be until mid-2021 at the earliest, so travel in and out would remain blocked; under those circumstances, I could envision a shrunken Austrian-only Festival, but not the normal one).

Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s staging of Verdi’s Aida is monumental, but this cast was not.  The blocking was poor and the cast in general could not act (I wonder if these facts were related: did they give up on blocking to accommodate a cast that couldn’t act, or was the cast unable to act because the director thought monumental sets alone would substitute for stage direction?).  Within those constraints, the two female leads, Anna Netrebko (as Aida) and Anita Rachvelishvili (as Amneris), could at least sing really well.  Netrebko has been doing this for a while.  But as a rising talent, Rachvelishvili has a unbelievably powerful round and dark lower register (which I heard live in Salzburg last summer) but still handled the high notes with dexterity – hers is quite a remarkable voice in every respect.  As Radamès, Aleksandrs Antonenko was awful – his voice screeched even on those rare occasions when he was not trying to locate his pitch.  Nicola Luisotti did what he needed to in the pit.

  • [Recording tips: My preferred recording of Aida does not seem to rank on most people’s lists, but I’ll stick with it anyway.  Erich Leinsdorf’s 1971 set with the London Symphony Orchestra, featuring Leontyne Price (Aida), Grace Bumbry (Amneris), Plácido Domingo (Radamès), Sherrill Milnes (Amonasro), Ruggero Raimondi (Ramfis), and Hans Sotin (Pharaoh) simply captured this drama better than most.  For something different, if I may, there is a 1955 live Staatsoper recording led by Rafael Kubelik floating around on the market and worth searching out, sung in German with Leonie Rysanek (Aida), Jean Madera (Amneris), Hans Hopf (Radamès), George London (Amonasro), and Gottlob Frick (Ramfis).]

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (Staatsoper)

I had never seen Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen before.  I am not sure I had even heard it – if I had, it was on in the background at some point and I was not paying attention.  While it may not be performed too often, it does appear regularly, and I meant to see it at the Staatoper before but never got around to it.  It is a strange little opera: a fantasy, it has a dose of hard realism; almost a children’s tale (most of the characters are animals), it has adult themes; and although a comedy, it is sad.  I like Janáček’s music, although unlike the bolder music in his other dramas or his orchestral works, here he stayed restrained, moody music shimmering in the forest.  Tomáš Netopil conducted with feeling.  Chen Reiss sang a playful Vixen.  Roman Trekal pulled together the arc of the story as the Forester.

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel (Mariinsky Theater)

Another seldom-performed work, which I also had never seen before (although I do own a recording), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel was on offer from the Mariinsky Theater.  Rimsky-Korsakov did not originally mean this as a children’s story but it is easily accessible as one, in its world of fantasy, here in a fairy tale staging by the young Russian opera director Anna MatisonAida Garifullina was in great voice as the Queen of Shemakha.  Valery Gergiev conducted in the Mariinsky Second Stage, a modern state-of-the-art theater behind the original Mariinsky.  The house opened in 2013 and for which the visionary Gergiev himself was the mastermind (I actually visited the construction site with him late one night in 2010, when it was still a hole in the ground).

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (Mariinsky Theater)

The best opera performance I attended in 2010 (the night Maestro Gergiev showed me that hole in the ground) was Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina (in the performing version by Schostakowitsch) at the Mariinsky main stage (a performance I already reviewed on this blog back then for 2 June 2010).  They have now streamed a 2012 performance on their website with a similar cast (so this performance let me see Sergey Alekshashkin as Khovansky, Nikolay Putilin as Shaklovity, Vladimir Vaneyev as Dosifei, Olga Borodina as Marfa, and Vladimir Galuzin as Andrei again; Yevgeny Akimov as Golitsin was the only major character with a different singer this time) with Gergiev in the pit.  It was as thrilling this time through as well (although it is always better to see opera live).  One thing that was obvious during my time living in Russia was that Russian opera singers are taught to act, which produces much more dynamic portrayals across the board.  This stood out here in contrast to some of the poor acting I have seen in other non-Russian productions these last few weeks.

  • [Recording tip: Surprisngly for such a tremendous opera there are not exactly a ton of recordings.  And even then, most use the standard performing version by Rimsky-Korsakov.  Mussorgsky died with the opera unorchestrated and not tidied up, so there are options.  Rimsky-Korsakov did the first clean-up, but his result is actually not very satisfying even though it became the standard.  Stravinsky and Ravel later did another version together (each taking different parts rather than jointly working on the same parts).  By all accounts, the parts orchestrated by the incompetent Ravel were terrible (he had an undeserved reputation as a good orchestrator based on his quite excellent version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition but otherwise never produced much of value, whether orchestrating his own work or the work of others), although Stravinsky’s contributions are still sometimes heard.  Schostakowitsch did a new orchestration, which had its premiere at the Mariinsky in 1960 with the same staging they use today, and it is probably the most fulfilling and respectful of Mussorgsky’s wishes.  So if I narrow down to recordings of the Schostakowitsch version, there aren’t a lot to choose from.  But there is an especially good one by Claudio Abbado (who substituted Stravinsky’s version of Act Five instead of Schostakowitsch, for intelligent reasons he explains in the liner notes), with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast including Aage Haugland, Paata Burchuladze, Vladimir Popov, Anatoly Kotchega, Marjana Lipovšek, and Vladimir Atlantov.]

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky

Since the Mariinsky is putting up concerts, not just operas, during its corona streamings, it is nice to hear the rarely-performed full score of Stravinsky’s Firebird and not just the oft-performed suite.  Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theater Orchestra carried it off with drama and suspense, with even the normally-omitted bits bringing their intrigue.  This is raw music, which usually gets sanitized when cut into the suite (not that the suite isn’t good, just that this is even more exciting).  They prefaced the Firebird with a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, in this case presenting the opposite problem: made me wish for the full length opera (itself almost never performed).  A late Rimsky work, it crosses the composers rich tone-painting with more experimental chromatics.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s student Stravinsky followed on this musical language with the Funeral Song #5, written upon the older composer’s death.  That piece was performed once at the memorial service in 1909 and then the score was lost until being rediscovered in 2015 and given its first public performance at this 2016 concert.  In that it formed the missing link in the musical progression from Kitezh to the Firebird.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 3)

Highlights

When this pandemic is all over, I will either need to rush out to hear live music, or I may never want to see another opera again for the rest of my life.  But in the meantime, I continue to take advantage of the opera (and symphonic) archives being opened up on line during the lockdown.

Wagner: Tannhäuser (Metropolitan Opera)

This week began much as last week ended: with Wagner from the Metropolitan Opera.  A classic Otto Schenk production of Tannhäuser was undermined by Johan Botha in the title role, who basically could not act so stood there while other characters bounced off him, trying to get him to move.  This production has been around for decades, and with better casts.  James Levine has probably been in the pit for many of those as well.

  • [Recording tip:  Of the recordings I own, my go-to version remains the one by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, with René Kollo as Heinrich von Tannhäuser and Victor Braun as Wolfram von Eschenbach.  No other version quite captures the drama and elevates the authenticity of the characters the way this one does.]

Poulenc: Dialogues of the Carmelites (Metropolitan Opera)

This mystical opera – about nuns who are martyred by barbaric French revolutionaries – is one of those exceptions that prove the rule that the French do not understand music or drama.  Several French composers (beyond Berlioz, who was pretty consistently good and whose countrymen never properly understood him) could sometimes manage to churn out one decent opera per composer (and maybe one additional work that has withstood the test of time).  Gounod had Faust, Bizet had Carmen, Massenet had La Navarraise (my obscure choice for Massenet may surprise people, but have another listen: it really is his best opera by far), Saint-Saëns had Samson and Dalilah, and Poulenc had Dialogues of the Carmelites.  A suggestive minimal staging by John Dexter was in general sufficient to convey the meaning of this opera (except the final scene, which was supposed to depict the nuns getting guillotined, did not work at all – even without showing them all being executed, Dexter’s timing of the action did not go with the music, which undermined the drama).  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted in full idiom.  I do not own a recording of this opera, having only heard it periodically on radio broadcasts (possibly all of them over the years from the Met), and this may be the first time I have seen the opera.

Rossini: Barber of Seville (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s staging of Rossini’s Barber of Seville seemed a bit odd at first but it grew on me.  I was not sure if it was trying to be realistic or fantastical.  But the concept was to accentuate the farce within this opera, and it ultimately succeeded in doing that.  The extremely tall Peter Mattei as the factotum Figaro hammed it up sufficiently.  Maurizio Benini let the performance from the pit – but with the stage built out around the front of the pit as well, he and the orchestra ended up right in the middle of it all.

  • [Recording tips: I am going to agree with conventional wisdom that the best recording of this opera is the 1958 one with Tito Gobbi as Figaro, Maria Callas as Rosina, and Luigi Alva as Count Almaviva, with Alceo Galliera conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.  But for sake of being different, I may use this space to point out two unusual recordings worth looking for – not because they are better (they are not), but only because they have excellent acting casts that have a certain charm of their own.  One is a Moscow Radio recording from 1953 conducted by Samuil Samosud, sung in Russian.  I think I originally bought it (when I lived in Russia) solely because I was trying to collect recordings of Mark Reizen (who sang Basilio here), but I ended up enjoying the whole thing.  Another is a 1966 live recording from Vienna, sung in German, which gives the opportunity to hear Fritz Wunderlich as Almaviva just a few months before his untimely death.  The remaining roles are filled out by stalwarts of the Staatsoper ensemble under the baton of Karl Böhm.  Rossini doesn’t really work in Russian or German per se, but these recordings in local vernacular do provide a chance to hear the opera differently and have some additional fun with it.]

Verdi: Don Carlo (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s confused staging (by Nicholas Hynter) of Verdi’s Don Carlos could not decide if it wanted to be traditional or modern and failed miserably at both.  Roberto Alagna was nowhere near in his best voice as Carlos, sounding strained and often off-pitch.  The Met likely has many versions of this opera in its archives, with better casts and better stagings, so it is a mystery why they chose to put this one up.  Nézet-Séguin did his best to be dramatic in the pit, but he can’t do everything.

  • [Recording tip: This is another one of those operas where one recording far exceeds everything else.  In this case, it is the comprehensive concept thoroughly thought through by Carlo Maria Giulini for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, with Plácido Domingo as Carlos, along with a truly dramatic cast including Montserrat Caballé, Shirley Verrett, Ruggiero Raimondi, and Sherrill Milnes.]

Saint-Saëns: Samson and Dalilah (Mariinsky Theater)

I realized that the Mariinsky, by far Russia’s best opera house, is putting up a cross-section of performances (not just operas – in fact, actually not many operas) during the lockdown.  So over it was electronically to St. Petersburg for Saint-Saëns’s Samson.  As I said above (and often enough before), with the exception of Berlioz, the French generally seem to lack any understanding of music or drama, but Saint-Saëns showed some talent (not that he used it much) and wrote one complete opera that passes muster.  I had seen a staging by the French-trained Greek director Yannis Kokkos before (at the Staatsoper: a production of the original – rejected for good reason by the composer – version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov), which was dark, static, and totally missing drama.  That must be his way of doing things (presumably his French training), because this production of Samson was also dark, static, and totally missing any drama whatsoever.  Ekaterina Semenchuk as Dalilah held up her end of the bargain as much as she could in this staging, but Gregory Kunde as Samson did not, with a voice that lacked sufficient dramatic heft, particularly in the lower register.  Valery Gergiev, in the pit, is usually a better judge of casting in his house.

  • [Recording tip: since I don’t think I have ever heard a recording by a French opera house that passes muster either musically or dramatically, I default to a non-French recording of this opera.  In this case, I revert to a 1948 Bavarian Radio recording conducted by Hans Altman, with Lorenz Fehenberger and Res Fischer in the title roles and Fred Destal as the High Priest.  I’d recommend people have a listen to this dramatic version even if they do somehow find French productions satisfying in ways I never seem to.]

Tschaikowsky: Yevgeny Onyegin (Mariinsky Theater)

I suppose I could not resist hanging around on the Mariinsky’s site to see what other operas were available.  Tschaikowsky’s Onyegin should not have been unexpected.  But this production, conducted by Gergiev, did not match up to the Met’s production, also conducted by Gergiev, that was streamed last week.  Andrei Bondarenko did not make as dashing an Onyegin as Hvorostovsky.

Schreker: Der Ferne Klang (Royal Swedish Opera)

I decided to finish the week with an unusual choice: Franz Schreker’s The Distant Sound, an opera rarely performed.  I have actually owned a recording of it for many years (a 1990 Berlin Radio recording with Gerd Albrecht conducting a cast headed by Thomas Moser and Gabriele Schnaut), but do not remember when I last listened to it, so thought this was as good a time as any to see if I could remind myself what was up here.  Schreker’s polychromatic musical palette – somewhere between Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold – is on full display in this opera, composed over several years in Vienna during the first decade of the 20thcentury.  There is no particular reason this opera could not be performed more often (it apparently was performed frequently enough in Germany until the Nazis banned it because Schreker’s father was Jewish), but it is probably destined to remain a curiosity.  The Royal Swedish Opera has dusted it off, with a simple but straightforward staging that did not try to do too much.  Daniel Johansson was good as the main male lead, the composer Fritz.  As part of the simple concept by Christof Loy (a German opera director who seemed to have a concept and tried to set the actual plot of an opera!), the chorus morphed among different roles in each scene, much like a Greek chorus, but that worked here.  What may not have worked was that many of the singers doubled up in roles as named characters – so not the Greek chorus – and since they stayed in costume this was often confusing.  Was it cost-saving that made the Royal Swedish Opera double cast members up, or was this part of the director’s concept to portray different characters as alter-egos of the same persona (and if so, why?)?  In the pit, Stefan Blunier maintained a good sense of the drama.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Tsar’s Bride (Bolshoi Opera)

I should have known better.  One night this week I tried to watch the Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov streamed from Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera.  I decided to do this purely on the strength of the opera itself, which is rarely performed but really should appear more often.  I saw it four times when I lived in Moscow, with four different opera companies, including this same staging at the Bolshoi (the other performances I saw were by the Novaya Opera, the Gelikon Opera, and a visiting opera company from Rostov-on-Don performing in the Stanislavsky Theater).  But the Bolshoi is an absurd place, which lives entirely off its reputation.  It has not been a good opera house for 40 years, ever since the Communist Party fired longtime general director Boris Pokrovsky (apparently – the story I have heard – because, during one of the all-too-regular waves of official Russian antisemitism, he refused to reduce the number of Jews playing the Bolshoi orchestra), and when I lived in Moscow it was the worst of the seven different opera companies I attended (yet due to prestige – all-important in Russia – it was nevertheless the most expensive).  This performance was, as I should have expected, mediocre.  But not only that.  The Bolshoi fails at almost everything, so it probably should not have surprised me that they could not even succeed in streaming this properly: the stream cut out shortly into the third act (suddenly went off-line to “private” setting).  Since I couldn’t exactly walk away at that point, I threw on a much better recording from the Bolshoi in 1973.  I won’t be going back to the Bolshoi’s streamings again during this crisis – or probably not ever, they’re just a mess.

  • [Recording tip: That 1973 Bolshoi recording may be the best available, with Galina Vishnyevskaya in one of her final performances before she was expelled from the Soviet Union along with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich for their opposition to the regime and support of other dissidents (I suppose that was a better penalty than being sent to the gulags, or being executed).  The cast is from the Bolshoi’s ensemble of singers under the baton of Fuat Mansurov.  I am willing to guess, however, that there may be an even better unpublished version somewhere in the Bolshoi’s archives.]

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

In addition to Onyegin, the Mariinsky posted a fair amount of Tschaikowsky.  My objection to Tschaikowsky is that much of his music tries too hard to be western, when western Europeans wrote much better material.  His music is pretty enough, but so over-performed – particularly his 4th, 5th, and 6th symphonies – as to have become tiresome.  Where he most succeeded in saying something lasting were in his psychodramas (particularly Yevgeny Onyegin and the Queen of Spades) and in his truly Russian-inspired masterpieces such as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd symphonies, which are sadly underperformed.  In taking advantage of the archive made available on the Mariinsky website, a performance of the Second Symphony stood out, with Gergiev again conducting.  This may be my favorite work by Tschaikowsky, and Gergiev did it justice with his orchestra.  The performance was recorded on tour in Moscow in the Zaryadye Concert Hall, a hall I do not actually know since it was constructed sometime after I lived in Moscow.  The hall stands in a large lot near the Kremlin which, when I lived there, contained a handful of partly-restored historic buildings which had decayed during the Soviet period and a bunch of tractors whose only reason for being there seemed to be to move dirt from one place to another.  Apparently they subsequently decided what to move the dirt for.

Berlin Philharmonic: Sibelius, Weber, Bartók

I continue to search through the archival materials that the Berlin Philharmonic has made available for a month on its website.  The late Mariss Jansons, who died last November, periodically guest-conducted this orchestra over the years, and a number of his concerts appear.  I would highlight this concert in particular, featuring the First Symphony of Janne Sibelius, the Clarinet Concerto #1 by Carl Maria von Weber (with the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer as soloist), and the suite from the Miraculous Mandarin by Béla Bartók.  It never really mattered what Jansons conducted – there was always some new way to listen.  My own go-to recording of the Sibelius first is also by Jansons, when he was music director in Oslo earlier in his career.  Although he was responsible for raising the standard of the Oslo Philharmonic, it still did not reach the level of the Berlin Philharmonic, and here we have his tremendous interpretation taken to the highest level.

Berlin Philharmonic: Bach, Stravinsky, Mahler

The Berlin archive only has one concert led by Vladimir Jurowski, and this from back in 2011.  Jurowski has always been one of the most exciting conductors of his generation (he’s now 48), and his concerts often provide intelligent combinations of music designed to make listeners think.  The concert available here was no exception.  It opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorale “Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” as arranged by Igor Stravinsky – starting with a brass chorale and moving through the text with Bach’s mathematics and 20th century harmonics.  Jurowski followed this with an altogether stranger work by Stravinsky, his Requiem Canticles – parts of the mediaeval requiem mass reset in a very modern structure – scientific, perhaps, but not necessary with musicality in the forefront.  It’s not that it had to have a tune, per se, but maybe a little less formula and a little more music would have helped.  Still, as an intellectual exercise it worked as a bridge to the main work in the program, Gustav Mahler’s giant student work Das Klagende Lied, in which the young composer, still at conservatory, imagined new musical ways forward (partly under the influence of his neurotic apartmentmate Hans Rott, when they were both studying with Anton Bruckner).  Like with Stravinsky, there is a reverence for the past, the history and building blocks of music, but also a desire to strike out in a new direction.  I own one recording of Das Klagende Lied: a 1997 performance by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  Jurowski’s interpretation with Berlin is rather more angular and strident than Tilson-Thomas, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing more robust than San Francisco’s.  The San Francisco Symphony in that recording (indeed in that period generally) did not sound as muddy as it does now (Tilson-Thomas has been there too long), but the superior virtuosity of the Berliners simply allows for more fine tuning.

Berlin Philharmonic: Wagner, Liszt

Riccardo Chailly brought two Faust-inspired works to Berlin for his guest stint.  The logical pairing (since the composers themselves encouraged each other) of Wagner’s Faust Overture and Ferenc Liszt’s Faust Symphony graced Chailly’s contribution.  Chailly grasped the strengths of this orchestra, which can sound clinical but can also have its technical precision unleashed in nuanced ways for a fulness of sound and excitement.  While every recording I am familiar with of Liszt’s Faust Symphony is missing a little something here or there (my favorite is the one with Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra), this performance with Chailly and the Berliners may be close to definitive.

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, historically one of the best in the United States (and I believe also the best-endowed orchestra in the world), suffered a long, slow, painful decline.  Seiji Ozawa, who may have been an inspired choice to lead the orchestra in 1973, stayed far too long in that post, leading to stagnation by the time he finally departed in 2002.  The orchestra replaced him with James Levine, who had done so much to improve the pit orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera and was looking for a top symphony orchestra to lead alongside his duties as music director at the Met.  Unfortunately, Levine did not have the health and vitality at this point in his career to handle both roles, leaving the BSO rudderless.  By the time he resigned in 2011 (they never bothered to terminate him early, which was another huge mistake), no one could speak of the BSO as a top-flight orchestra.  In that climate, the choice of Andris Nelsons to take over as music director in 2014 was inspired – a young dynamic conductor at the top of his game.  During the lockdown, the BSO is putting up one selection per day from its archives (which then remain on their website – not clear how long they will stay there beyond the end of the lockdown).  As I listened to the selection they provided this week, I found one of the first performances Nelson conducted as music director featured the Second Symphony of Sibelius: here it is possible to listen to the relief the orchestra must have felt, that finally they would be restored to their rightful place.  It’s a moody symphony, but performed here with so much hope.  The excitement is palpable.

  • [Recording tip: I own several recordings of the Sibelius 2nd, but for sheer other-worldliness nothing comes close to the one with Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.  It is the most recent one I have purchased, and since I added it to my collection I have pretty much stopped listening to the other versions.]

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 2)

Highlights

Another week of lockdown, another week of online streaming.

Puccini: Tosca (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper’s offers this week included a classic staging (by the Austrian Margarethe Wallmann) of Puccini’s Tosca with a selection of recent casts.  I chose a 2019 performance with Piotr Beczala as Cavardossi and Thomas Hampson as an elegant Scarpia.  Hampson’s voice has clearly tired with age, but he remains a tremendous stage presence.  Baron Scarpia is the bad guy in this opera, but to pull off the part requires a certain grace rather than just performing the role as a one dimensional villain.  And it was precisely that level of intelligence that Hampson provided.  Sondra Radvanovska, as Floria Tosca, was the least impressive of the three lead characters – adequate but not in Beczala’s or Hampson’s league.  The always-reliable Marco Armiliato conducted.

  • [Recording tips:  I think purists generally agree – and I don’t argue – that the standard recording against which every other should be compared is the 1953 La Scala version with Maria Callas in the title role, Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi, Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, and Victor de Sabata conducting.  However, I might also propose another recording which I often default to instead: a 1967 Russian-language studio recording with Yevgeny Svetlanov conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra.  My attention will always be drawn to recordings of great Georgian dramatic tenor Zurab Anjaparidze, indeed the greatest dramatic tenor I have ever heard (sadly only on recordings as he was before my time), who sang Mario Cavaradossi in this version.  Anjaparidze became the leading dramatic tenor at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater (often paired with the unmatched soprano Galina Vishnyevskaya) in its heyday in the late 1950s and through the 1960s until the authorities allowed him to return to Tbilisi in the 1970s.  In this recording, Oleg Klenov’s Scarpia is a force to reckon with, and Tamara Milashkina’s Floria Tosca, if not always entirely up to Callas’ level, displays an intensity consistent with this production under Svetlanov’s full-on interpretation.]

Donizetti: L’Elisir d’Amore (Staatsoper)

Armiliato also conducted another classic Vienna production, L’Elisir d’Amore by Donizetti, in a staging by Otto Schenk.  Schenk, also Austrian, is one of the greatest operatic stage directors – an actor by training, his stagings fundamentally focus on maximizing understanding of the plot, including refined interpretations, and I have seen this production myself live in the Staatsoper (albeit a different cast).  The Staatsoper’s streaming lineup gave me a choice of casts, so I picked the one with Dmitry Korchak as Nemorino and Adam Plachetka as Dr. Dulcamara, both excellent singing actors who personified their roles.  Olga Peretyatko may have been a notch down as Adina, but she still performed with a twinkle and the Schenk production made it easy.

  • [Recording tips: oddly, although I am long familiar with this opera since childhood and enjoy it very much, I realized that I somehow don’t own a complete recording of it, nor am I aware of a version I would recommend.  Indeed, I now want to do some research and get myself a complete recording to rectify the situation, but until then I suppose I will just have to keep going to see it in person.]

Tschaikowsky: Yevgeny Onyegin (Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera launched the week with its 2007 production of Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, and with the dashing Dmitri Hvorostovksy in the title role ably matched by Renée Fleming as Tatyana and Ramón Vargas as Lensky.  The staging is minimal, allowing the characters to fully act out the emotional psychodrama.  I actually own a DVD of this performance, but it was still worth re-watching.

  • [Recording tips: I don’t have a go-to recording of Onyegin.  Unlike Elisir d’Amore, I do own several recordings, each with its plusses and minuses.  I tend to mix and match scenes, whether from complete recordings or excerpts recorded separately.  There is a Swedish-language version of Lensky’s aria sung by Jussi Björing which is – and deserves to be – widely available.  Galina Vishnyevskaya’s letter scene recorded at the Bolshoi with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich conducting is an excellent extended highlight.  Mark Reizen’s take on Prince Gremin’s aria – which he recorded multiple times over his remarkably long career – is definitive in many of those recordings.  A final scene from a 1961 Vienna Staatsoper performance (sung in German) with Sena Jurinac as Tatyana and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Yevgeny under the baton of Lovro von Matačić is worth looking for to give a different lyrical perspective.  But, in the end, perhaps Hvorostovsky was indeed the most dashing Yevgeny there exists on record.]

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Metropolitan Opera)

After that Onyegin, the Met shifted into Wagnerian gear for a few days.  They led off with a vocally-impressive version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a modern setting that was impossible to watch, so I stopped watching.  Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme excelled as the title characters, with Simon Rattle keeping the pace from the pit.  To be honest, this is the only one of Wagner’s mature operas that has never spoken to me – I admit I just don’t understand Tristan.  So I guess I also was not bothered by finding the staging shambolic, allowing me to multi-task while listening.

  • [Recording tips: Since Tristan is not an opera I especially care for, I have not really done a complete comparison of commercially-available recordings.  I own one complete recording, that has some poor sound quality but otherwise excellent pacing: a 1943 live broadcast recording from the Met with Erich Leinsdorf conducting and Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel in the title roles.]

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera)

Of course the highlights of the week came in the form of a complete Ring Cycle from New York and the second half of the one from Vienna.

Vienna’s Ring, as noted last week, featured Thomas Konieczny as Wotan.  And while I could appreciate his edgy voice last week in Rheingold and Walküre, I was less convinced by it this week in Siegfried.  He contrasted with the Met’s Wotan, Bryn Terfel, who was altogether a more elegant chief god, still able to show the complexity of circumstances but with a much more rounded instrument.  Konieczny doubled up in Vienna as Gunther in Götterdämmerung, a role for which his voice was simply not at all suited – far too angry and unsubtle.  The Met countered with Iain Paterson as Gunther, who provided a much better characterization.  Gunther is often portrayed as a one-dimensional character, but he is rather more complex, which Paterson readily understood and transmitted.

Vienna’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung switched out the Brünnhilde in last week’s streamed version (Evelyn Herlitzius) to provide instead the Swede Iréne Theorin, an altogether stronger solution.  The Met streamings had Deborah Voigt, who was in excellent voice for Die Walküre and Siegfried but tended to strain during Götterdämmerung (the streamings came from shows spread out over a year and a half, so provided no indication if in the real world she had to sing on three successive nights, which might have explained the voice losing its shine and becoming more forced by Götterdämmerung).

On the Heldentenor front, the Met tried out Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund – he has a wonderful voice and stage presence, but this role seemed a bit much for him.  He may be a dramatic tenor, but it’s not so clear he is a Wagnerian Heldentenor.  Of course, Heldentenors are very hard to find, as demonstrated by the Met’s unfortunate choice to sing Siegfried, Jay Hunter Morris, who was reduced to screaming his role rather than singing it.  He had his quieter moments, and indeed might possibly have a nice voice in an appropriate role, but this role was far more than he could handle.  Vienna’s Siegfried, Stephen Gould, sounded dry-voiced and not quite fresh enough to sing this particular role, although he might have managed Siegmund (of the Wagnerian roles, I might peg his voice as best-suited for Tannhäuser).

The most impressive singer in either cycle was Hans-Peter König at the Met, who performed not only Fafner in Rheingold and Siegfried, but also Hunding in Walküre and Hagen in Götterdämmerung.  This was not a one-size-fits-all feat, but rather different portrayals to fit different roles.  (Contrast with Konieczny, for example, whose Gunther sounded exactly like his Wotan, and whose voice would have been temperamentally better for Alberich.)

It is actually worth underscoring König’s performance as Hagen especially.  If Götterdämmerung is my favorite opera, then Hagen is easily my favorite character in all of opera.  It is a strange role – Hagen actually has very few lines compared to his stage presence, but every one of those lines pushes the plot forward and the entire opera (possibly even the entire cycle) is dependent on this character.  Hagen is, of course, the son of Alberich, who wants a son to help him get the Ring back.  But it is often overlooked that in Act 2 of Die Walküre, Wotan anoints Alberich’s then not-yet-born son as his successor (pointedly NOT anointing his own offspring) for the purposes of bringing about the end of the world.  In the myths Wagner read and upon which he based his plot, Hagen was also sometimes portrayed as one-eyed, with the clear allusion to the one-eyed Wotan.  And as Wotan rules the world with his spear, defender of treaties, which is shattered by Siegfried in Act 3 of Siegfried, Hagen’s spear becomes the critical weapon of honor in Götterdämmerung.  While ultimately Hagen fails to win the Ring back for Alberich, he does succeed in setting in motion the final conspiracy that destroys the world (carried out, of course, by Wotan’s estranged daughter, Brünnhilde).

In this absolutely critical role, König dominated.  Vienna’s Hagen, Falk Struckmann, though a fine singer, simply did not rise to the role.  His Hagen was a tired old man – but Hagen is only a few months older than Siegfried (Kriemhild is pregnant with Hagen before the plot of Walküre begins – when Siegfried is conceived during the intermission between Acts 1 and 2), and probably (although not entirely clear) the younger brother of Gunther and Gutrune.  Assuming Siegfried is still a teenager during the opera Siegfried, and perhaps ten years or so pass during the first Act of Götterdämmerung before Siegfried arrives in Worms (the plot does not say explicitly how much time passes, but there are a number of clues in the text), this would make Siegfried and Hagen around 30 years old.  Hagen admits he is grey before his years thanks to being the son of the dwarf Alberich, but this does not need to mean he is an old man (Alberich himself is ageless and remains active, and wanted a half-human son to be his own vibrant hero to counter Wotan’s half-human race of descendants).

And if Struckmann did not have the voice or stage presence for Hagen, his task was made more difficult by the staging itself.  Last week I already mentioned the utterly useless production by the clueless German director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, and watching the last two operas in the cycle did not let me see any concept grow even taking the entire four-opera set into account.  If it was not offensive (which is already an improvement on the garbage self-important German poseur opera directors normally churn out), it added nothing.  Indeed, a minimalist staging would have been better to allow the singers to act, but this was not minimalist just a mix of I-am-not-sure-what (some mock-realism, some abstraction, some stuff seemingly unrelated to anything else).  Some of it was just plain silly (for example, Wotan left the stage in Act 1 of Siegfried having forgotten his spear, so he returns to fetch it, hitting himself on the head to demonstrate his forgetfulness… and then Siegfried does exactly the same thing with his sword later in the opera).  It really is not worth going into the weeds to analyze Bechtolf’s staging, as that would be giving him too much credit for intelligent thought.  So I dealt with it.  But really: why?  Why give this idiot a contract?  Why give any German stage directors contracts?  What the hell have German stage directors been smoking these last several decades that has made them incapable of providing any sensible opera productions?  (OK, I admit there are a small handful of exceptions to prove the rule, but Germany has become a operatic wasteland, ruined by its Regisseurs.)

My verdict on the Met’s staging is still out.  I actually do not know who the director was (I could not find a credit on their website).  But the concept was that the stage for the duration of all four operas was actually a huge mechanical contraption consisting of a series of long planks.  These planks adjusted their angles individually or together, to form everything from the Rhein River to various buildings to landscapes, assisted by projections – sometimes realistic film and sometimes abstract lighting.  The characters moved in and out of the contraption.  The use of projections meant that some things often omitted could easily be included (Wotan’s ravens, for example) but this was not done consistently.  Without having to do an elaborate set (although I imagine the contraption on stage was actually elaborate) it could still be traditional if it wanted to be, and minimalist if it preferred that approach (or somehow both at once).  Many of the singers could act (although the contraption was often at steep angles and they looked distinctly uncomfortable moving about on it).  Was I convinced?  No, but watching it on a laptop may not be ideal for this concept – maybe I would need to be in the audience at the Met to appreciate the entirety.

From an overall musical perspective, the Staatsoper exceeded the Met – no surprise there (although, in Götterdämmerung, Siegfried’s entries were accompanied by consistently disastrous horn playing – and not because they got Gould to play his own horn, so someone in the orchestra must have gotten fired).  James Levine conducted the first two operas in the Met’s cycle – a once dynamic opera conductor, he was already in poor health by the time these performances were recorded in 2010-11 and so he simply could not keep the orchestra charged.  Fabio Luisi took over for Levine during Levine’s illness, and so had Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – Luisi can always be counted on for perfectly adequate performances (and I also find that any orchestra he is music director of improves its quality during his tenure, so he must be a good rehearsal conductor – the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, our city’s second great orchestra, sounded at its best at the end of his tenure and may have moved to among the top ten in the world at that time), but Luisi rarely comes up with anything special.  In contrast, Adam Fischer led the Staatsoper for Rheingold, Simon Rattle for Walküre, and Axel Kober for the final two operas, and all of them coaxed exciting color from the pit.  It is only a shame that the musicians in Vienna’s pit driving the Ring forward could not overcome Bechtolf’s complete lack of talent or purpose in his staging.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has ever exceeded John Culshaw’s brilliant ahead-of-his-time audio engineering for the classic London Decca Ring cycle.  But whereas the Rheingold lacks something particularly due to a sub-standard performance by George London as Wotan, and the Walküre in that set is poorly-cast, with an over-the-hill Hans Hotter falling short as Wotan at the end of his illustrious career – Culshaw recorded Walküre last, several years after the other operas – being one of several vocal inadequacies, especially Siegmund and Sieglinda in James King and Régine Crespin, neither of whom had anything near the voice for those roles).  But Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in that set have never been surpassed.  And if I said above that the key to any Ring is Hagen, well Culshaw cast Gottlob Frick, whom Wilhelm Furwängler once described as “the blackest bass” in all of Germany.  Possibly no one has ever been better suited for that role, and his Hagen dominates the entire recording (and may indeed be the reason I became such a fan of Götterdämmerung and the character Hagen in the first place).  But Hotter was in full voice for Wotan in Siegfried, Birgit Nilsson was at the top of her career as Brünnhilde, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was an inspired choice to portray the complexities of Gunther, Wolfgang Windgassen may not have been Culshaw’s first choice Siegfried but what we would not give to have a Heldentenor of his caliber today, Gustav Neidlinger and Gerhard Stolze provided idiomatic character portrayals of Alberich and Mime… and then there was the Vienna Philharmonic with Georg Solti, of course.]

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Metropolitan Opera)

Before writing this blog post up, I concluded the week’s offerings with Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg in a classic staging by Otto Schenk (that name again).  Schenk really is one of the best stage directors to work in the opera world.  It’s not just that the staging is sensible, but there is an attention to details, blocking, nuance, meaning… in short, a delight to watch.  And although I have seen the production before (with several casts, including in person – it was my father’s favorite, after all!) it has held up and remains a treat. Michael Volle portrayed a humorful Hans Sachs, someone who could enjoy life and all of its eccentricities, while still providing substance (Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy after all – a Wagnerian comedy, but a comedy nonetheless).  Sachs is of course the hero of this opera – it is a love story, but Sachs is the odd man out, the old bachelor who has an interest in Eva but has moved beyond that, and the internal conflicts of Sachs are apparent in Schenk’s intelligent concept.  At the end of this staging, Schenk has Eva crown Sachs with the victor’s laurel wreath.

But if I had not already mentioned Hans-Peter König in connection with the Met’s Ring above, I would focus on him now: the role of Veit Pogner is obviously quite different from Fafner, Hunding, or Hagen.  But as he successfully differentiated among those roles in the Ring, so did König’s performance here as Pogner display yet another personality.

  • [Recording tips: Although many people did not realize it (many assumed it was Rheingold), Meistersinger was my father’s favorite opera (he also admired the real life Hans Sachs as a freethinker ahead of his time).  He had several recordings, but there was one he kept returning to, which I might agree may still be the best, although it is a surprising choice.  Herbert von Karajan’s operatic interpretations were cerebral but usually underwhelming.  Yet he recorded a version of this opera in 1971 with the Dresden Semperoper (and therefore the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra), with Theo Adam as Sachs.  Adam has a higher-register baritone voice, so may not be the deeper Sachs most people are accustomed to, but he was a very lyrical baritone who could carry Wagnerian roles, so providing an excellent understanding.  The rest of the cast is also up to the same level – one of Karajan’s strengths, if not commanding performances, was his ability to identify vocal talent and match it to the right roles, even unexpectedly.]

Berlin Philharmonic: Bruckner

On the concert front, I have started to take advantage of the Berlin Philharmonic’s archive that they have opened up for 30 days (to anyone who registers – for free – by 31 March, so unless that is extended I suggest people sign up now!).  Of the several concerts from Berlin I selected this week (and I will certainly listen to more in the coming weeks), I will make two recommendations in particular, both under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt.

The different available versions of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies each have a story rooted in Bruckner’s personal insecurity and well-meaning friends who sometimes never fully comprehended his music and gave him bad advice, which he usually took. So sometimes his revisions are good things, representing him refining his music; but other times they reflect his insecurities and he deconstructed what he had built and not in a good way.  So it is inconsistent which version to use of any of his symphonies, but there is a general reason that convention has settled on one particular edition of any symphony as preferred and most reflective of Bruckner’s thoughts and talents.  For Bruckner’s Third Symphony, this is usually his third version.  Blomstedt here prefers Bruckner’s original version, a much more rambling work with extra passages quoting from various Wagner operas that he edited out later.  And in this performance, Blomstedt manages to make a convincing case for this version – if not as a substitute for the third version commonly performed, then at least as an additional part of the performing repertory (and not just as a curiosity either, but having rightful place in the repertory).  Fundamentally, Blomstedt remains an architect of music, and takes great care to construct Bruckner’s soaring edifice.

  • [Recording tips: I own one recording of this original version, also convincing under the baton of Bruckner-specialist Georg Tintner.  But the Berlin Philharmonic far surpasses the orchestra Tintner had available (the Royal Scottish National Orchestra acquits itself well enough in the recording, but Berlin is among the top ten orchestras in the world and is just that much better).  As I do not believe the Blomstedt / Berlin performance is commercially available, then I recommend interested listeners to seek out the Tintner / RSNO recording.  (My go-to recording of the symphony in its normal performing version is with the Concertgebouworkest and Mariss Jansons, recorded live in Amsterdam a few days before I heard these forces repeat the concert in Vienna.)]

Berlin Philharmonic: Berwald, Dvořák

The other concert from Berlin that especially appealed to me this week of the ones I listened to, featured Blomstedt conducting Franz Berwald’s Symphony #3 and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony #7.  Berwald is an unjustly-neglected Swedish composer, and this symphony written 1845 was not performed for 60 years after he wrote it.  It is full of complex mood swings, which it accomplishes without losing its train of thought or musical lines.  Dvořák’s symphony, written on commission for the London Philharmonic in 1865, is in many ways similar, and represented the Czech composer’s first huge international popular success.

  • [Recording tips: For those who would like an introduction to Berwald, there is an excellent complete cycle of Berwald’s symphonies and other orchestral works released as a set by Sixten Ehrling and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra.  For commercial versions of the Dvořák seventh, I’m partial to one with Wolgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra (maybe more driven that Blomstedt’s interpretion with Berlin, whereas Blomstedt focuses on the intricate building blocks themselves, as is his wont).]

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Berg, Beethoven

I have not heard the Berlin Philharmonic sound this good in years.  The orchestra had recently become quite clinical in its performances, and its former music director, the otherwise excellent Simon Rattle, had probably stayed too long in post.  Last Summer at the Festival, Rattle looked much happier at the helm of his new orchestra (the London Symphony Orchestra, which sounded happy to have him as well), but the verdict remained out with the Berliners and their new music director, the reclusive and enigmatic Kirill Petrenko.  A year further along, the Berliners seemed determined to return to their former place among the top tier of the world’s orchestras.

Tonight’s program provided a good test: Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu by Alban Berg, and the Symphony #9 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

If the orchestra wanted to be clinical, Berg’s twelve-tone music would have given them a good excuse.  But Berg knew he was writing music, and went a step beyond his teacher Schoenberg, who had developed the formulaic twelve-tone technique, to successfully craft longer works including operas.  Lulu is an opera I once knew reasonably well when I was a child, when I had studied it ahead of seeing it live at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  Somehow it did not stick with me over the years, getting eclipsed by Berg’s Wozzeck for my affections already while I was an undergraduate, to the point that Lulu fell almost completely off my radar.

Berg assembled these concert pieces when he realized he might never complete the opera (he actually never did) and that the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the writing appearing on the wall in Austria might make it difficult to perform in the German-speaking world even if he did finish it.  So he needed to assemble a half hour or so of music that might make a coherent concert program.  In this he was successful, and the Berliners underscored this with a performance that was anything but clinical.  Marlis Petersen joined the orchestra for the middle movement entitled “Lulu’s song” adding her own clear soprano lines.  In total, the performance stood well on its own as music, utilizing Berg’s idiom which followed the twelve-tone method but also had to maintain a sense of both music and drama.

The Berliners must know Beethoven’s Ninth by heart, so I suppose they could also have ended up being clinical here too.  And once again they were not.  The first three movements represented a battle between a dark world and a human joy, the orchestra sounding almost playful in the juxtaposition.  While there was a tension between the two competing moods – particularly in the first two movements, it was also clear in which direction Beethoven was moving, heading to the triumphant apotheosis of joy in the finale.  I would quibble a bit with Petrenko’s tempi, which were too fast, particularly in the first movement (essentially the same speed as the second movement scherzo) and in the third (one of the symphonic repertory’s great adagio movements, along with those from the Bruckner Eighth and Mahler Third), the third sounding slow only by comparison with what came before.  But the musicality remained.

Joining Petersen in the quartet were Elisabeth Kulman, Benjamin Bruns, and Kwangchul Youn, who blended well together and with the orchestra as a coherent part of the scheme.  Petrenko placed them behind the orchestra, rather than at the front of the stage (where they might more normally be) – but as Petrenko is primarily an opera conductor, he knows well how not to overwhelm the singers even while maintaining a full orchestral tone.  Less successful was the Berlin Radio Chorus, which seems not to have gotten the memo, producing detached staccato and emotionless singing in contrast to the otherwise exhilarating performance.

The Berliners perform at the Festival again tomorrow, but I decided to skip it as I wanted to get through an entire summer without hearing any music by Mozart or Tschaikowsky (I like their music, but they are far too over-rated and over-performed and I need a break from both of them for a while).  I’ll catch the Berliners and Petrenko on a future date and see if their transformation sticks.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dukas, Prokofiev, Schmidt

My final concert of this Summer’s Salzburg Festival was second of the Berlin Philharmonic‘s set under Kirill Petrenko.  In contrast to last night, tonight’s concert contained three works which are not part of the standard repertory, and thus a chance to consider the performance in more of a vacuum on its own merits.  The three pieces, all from the early Twentieth Century, seemingly had one commonality: they provided Petrenko a chance to show off the versatility and color of this orchestra.

If that indeed was Petrenko’s goal, then he succeeded.  The orchestra handled complex multi-colored and multi-textured canvasses with a certain warmth.  What was missing, on the whole, was something more than that.  Where were these pieces going?  I don’t know that I found any meaning, beyond just the playing.

Paul Dukas is yet another French composer known for a single work (in his case, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice), with the rest of the output being dismally forgettable.  Dukas actually destroyed most of his own compositions without publishing them, I suppose saving us from having to listen to them.  That he was a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory helps explain things too (although he’s hardly responsible for French composers who came before him, rather being a product of the system himself).  Tonight’s concert opened with his ballet The Peri, originally composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based Russian Ballet – although apparently Diaghilev then decided his leading ballerina was not up the task (one wonders why, as he staged rather more complicated scores such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that must have been even more challenging than Dukas’ work; maybe he was just being nice to Dukas with his excuse).  The work opened with a fanfare, which apparently also came with a story: as the ballet itself starts quietly, it was next to impossible to get the uncultured Parisian audiences to shut up when the music began, so Dukas added a loud opening fanfare to the score later on.  The rest of the ballet was unremarkable – sure, it had intricate components, but I’m not clear it went anywhere, or why anyone would want to dance to it.

Prokofiev‘s third piano concerto followed, with soloist Yuja Wang.  This work is nuts: all over the place stylistically.  But there is a certain logic to it, and Petrenko assembled the pieces.  Wang had light fingers – like Krystian Zimerman last week, but unlike Zimerman who gently coaxed full tones out of the piano, she did not get a big sound.  Indeed, she was often overwhelmed by the orchestra.  Very agile and adept, but there just was not much heft to her (similar to the assorted green threads she was wearing that some unscrupulous – maybe French? – fashion designer must have somehow convinced her qualified as a “dress;” it may have been snazzy, but really could have benefitted with a lot more fabric).  She gave us an unidentified encore of no particular interest.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned for Franz Schmidt‘s sorrowful Fourth Symphony, written after his beloved daughter died giving birth.  As he mourns her, he reminisces, but each reminiscence – including what looks like it might turn into a happy dance – gets overcome by his grief.  Schmidt’s works really do deserve to get performed more often.  He represents a natural progression from Bruckner – parallel to Mahler (who would have opened up new concepts for him) and Sibelius, if maybe not at their levels.  Schmidt is not Bruckner re-worked, but rather more inventive, if Bruckner had lived several decades more where his own music might have evolved – I think the rarity of performances really just demonstrate a lack of understanding, or of even an attempt to understand.  Petrenko made the attempt, although in this case I am not sure how successful he was.  The orchestra did produce some wonderfully-moving moments, but Petrenko could not keep the momentum, so that the performance had a tendency to drag.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Strauss, Beethoven

The Berlin Philharmonic came to this year’s Festival for a two-concert set with its enigmatic new chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko, whom I have now heard for the first time.  I may have to wait until tomorrow’s concert to give a full verdict.  

Tonight’s concert contained standard repertory, so in theory I should be able to make a judgement, but I left scratching my head.  Two tone poems by Richard Strauss graced the first half of the concert, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung.  Beethoven‘s Seventh came after the break.

I suppose it was time for this orchestra to move on from Simon Rattle – people shouldn’t stay too long in one place, and I’ve found this orchestra has often sounded too clinical (most recently in the Musikverein in June).  Judging by his appearances with his new orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, here at the Festival last week, I’d say it’s been good for both sides after a happy few years together just to have a change of scenery.  With Petrenko, the orchestra certainly did not sound clinical – he took the exact playing and elicited just a little more emotion and nuance, with a conducting style equal parts animated and precise.

The problem was that his interpretations did not necessarily succeed.  Strauss wrote these two tone poems months apart using the same compositional language, but they are telling very different stories.  While Petrenko coaxed gorgeous tone paintings out of the orchestra in amazing colors, I actually heard very little differentiation between the poem desrcibing of the erotic life and exploits of Don Juan and the poem describing the death of an artist.  Petrenko rarely conducts concerts (which is what made his selection by the Berliners an odd choice), but has spent almost all of his career as an opera conductor, so he understands drama and coaxed it from the orchestra – still, it was peculiar not to hear much of a difference between these two works.

His interpretation of Beethoven’s Seventh flopped.  Petrenko did it with a much-reduced orchestra, perhaps to highlight chamber music aspects (the musicians could certainly make a big sound when they needed to, to contrast the quiet – indeed delicate – moments Petrenko emphasized).  He also did it at breakneck speed.  The slow movement was only slow by comparison, and it was breathless.  I was amazed the musicians could even keep up without any glaring errors in the final movement.  It may indeed have been that fact that prompted a standing ovation – truly a remarkable bit of playing that had everyone on the edge of our seats wondering if the orchestra could survive this craziness.  But on the other hand, it didn’t make any sense, so I think the ovation was unwarranted (and indeed it dissipated – the ovation was rather short, which might affirm for me that it was more a spontaneous reaction to the fact that the orchestra survived the out-of-control ride still very much in control, rather than a measure of the overall performance value).

Tomorrow night sees three works that are not in the standard repertory, all from the Twentieth Century.  It may help me complete the picture.

Berlin Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Abrahamsen, Bruckner

How to make Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony even more apocalyptic?  Spend several decades collecting the stray pages of the manuscript score from the fourth movement that he was working on when he died, and which his friends and students took away as souvenirs from his desk after he passed on.  Then reassemble the finale.

There have been several versions of the finale to this symphony over the years, but most of them are pure fantasy and have little to do with Bruckner.  But a group of scholars slowly assembled the finale from actual manuscripts.  In some cases they found the partitur, in other cases only the sheet music for strings or other individual parts but the full orchestration is known.  A few very small gaps remain, and they can be filled with educated guesses, at least until the originals turn up.  And it is this reassembled version that Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic use for performances (as far as I know, this is the only conductor/orchestra combination that uses this version – I don’t know if that is because they have some special agreement with the Anton Bruckner Society in Vienna that is sponsoring this work, or if simply no one else feels ready to perform the four-movement version).

Bruckner likely would have made some adjustments anyway, so it is in no way a finished product.  But Bruckner’s adjustments to his symphonies were not always improvements – sometimes they were due to his insecurities and criticism from well-meaning friends.

This morning’s concert was the first time I got to hear this version live, with the Berliners visiting Vienna’s Musikverein.  I do own a recording of these forces performing the four-movement version, so it is not entirely new to me.  But I have wanted to experience it live, and Rattle’s farewell tour with the Berlin Philharmonic featured it, so off I went.

The finale is indeed apocalyptic.  Bruckner was looking forward to what music might become in the 20th century, with dissonance and jarring themes on top of his usual chorale apotheosis.  The first three movements, normally performed to fade into oblivion at the end of the slow movement, here build to the originally-planned climax, and Rattle and the Berliners certainly went in that direction.

Conversely, their performance felt a bit clinical – something I have noticed in general about their Bruckner interpretations in the past.  There was nothing really special about the first three movements (the fourth at any rate has a slightly artificial and unfinished feel).  A little emotion would have taken this a long way.  I wonder what the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertebouw Orchestra, or the Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio – all quite different in approach but all consumate Bruckner orchestras in their own right – might make of this performing version.  For all of the excellent technical playing by the Berliners, they did little more than go through the motions.

The concert opened with Three Pieces for Orchestra by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, which had its premiere with this orchestra and conductor last week.  Abrahamsen champions “simplified” music, but it is not minimalism (and certainly not the nihilism of Philip Glass), but rather has all the bits it needs without anything extraneous.  The first of the three pieces was quite lively, as if to wake everyone up for the morning concert.  The next two pieces set a more sedate mood.  As a stand-alone set, it worked quite well.  If Bruckner’s Ninth looked into the future, then Abrahamsen is clearly part of that future.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch

There is a certain logic in pairing Schostakowitsch‘s first and last symphonies.  Symphony #1, his graduation work from the Petrograd Conservatory, is an experimental work looking forward to the music style he would develop through his compositional career.  Symphony #15, written in failing health, looked back upon that career and made reference to it (along with snippets from Wagner, Mahler, Rossini, and others).  Both pieces use full orchestras, but spend most of their time bringing out delicate juxtapositions of individual instruments – more concerto for orchestra than symphony.

The first symphony is clearly a student work, often failing to develop portions, while in a hurry to move on to the next thing, to demonstrate to the examiners that he could tick the boxes (albeit quite elaborate ticks).  The fifteenth benefits from 45 more years of composition, and without going overboard does resolve each theme and section.

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic programmed these works tonight at the Festival.  The large swells were there, but so were all the details.  I already knew both symphonies, but felt as though I was hearing both for this first time.  So many details often remain hidden in the complex workings of these symphonies: they are not big showcases, and indeed are often delicate, but they are nevertheless showcases for the right orchestral forces.  Rattle drew out all of the lines, and the orchestra responded with every intricacy intact.  Even at quiet moments, the sound made its way through the hall in the right proportions.

As for the audience, it failed tonight.  The whole hall seemed restless – lots of coughing, seats fidgeting, people standing up and sitting back down, and a mobile phone ringing.  The man next to me seemed to be intent on swatting non-existent flies all night.  Who were all these people and what did they do with the usual audience?

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Boulez, Mahler

Although the Salzburg Festival still runs a few more days, my ticket collection ended tonight… and what a way to end.  Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic returned to the Great Festival House and brought Mahler‘s Seventh Symphony with them.  

They provided a perfect balance of tension and celebration: here a dance, there a march, and over there a lullaby – but all threatened by the struggle of life.  The orchestra bounced effortlessly from one concept to the other, while simultaneously balancing night and day, darkness and light, joy and trepidation.  Many have failed to understand this symphony, and have criticized the final movement in particular for failing to resolve: but it does resolve, especially when crafted as Rattle did tonight.  It happens to be one of my favorite movements in Mahler’s symphonies, with its great chorales striding from the darkness to proclaim to the world that it may be dark but we live – indeed, we have danced, marched, and sung lullabies.

Less commented is the original inspiration: Mahler’s conservatory classmate (and roommate) when they studied together with Bruckner was Hans Rott, who went insane and died aged 25.  Bruckner (and Mahler too) had regarded him as more talented than Mahler.  Rott completed only one symphony (which I had only known from recordings until I finally heard it live last year), elements of which later showed up as inspiration for some of Mahler’s works.  And indeed the final movement chorales in the Seventh Symphony grew out of Rott’s.  In life, Rott had failed (and was locked up in the asylum).  In death, it seems he has triumphed on the wide open spaces of Mahler’s Seventh.

Of course, it takes a perfomance of such clarity as Rattle and the Berliners gave tonight in order to hear this.

For some reason, they chose to preface the symphony with a short pile of musical notes spilled on paper by Pierre BoulezÉclat.  Boulez, in his roles both as composer and as conductor carried on the French effete tradition of distilling all of the essence out of art (in this case, music) and then also throwing out the substance, so that nothing of value remains.  And so it was with this opening work.  Seriously, what was the point?  Fortunately, it was short and easily forgotten when the Mahler arrived.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Britten, Schostakowitsch

It was third time lucky this year with the Berlin Philharmonic.  They underwhelmed me in Vienna and Berlin in May, but in Salzburg this afternoon they hit their stride for the closing concert of the Festival.  Simon Rattle took the podium.

The concert opened with a work I did not previously know: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge by Benjamin Britten.  This was Britten’s first major international success, composed on commission for the 1937 Salzburg Festival.  In it, Britten took a simple theme from his composition teacher and ran it through a bunch of variations for string orchestra.  And these were not just the usual variations, but rather in a wide range of styles, from Viennese waltz to funeral music and from military march to baroque fugue.  The Berlin Philharmonic strings needed to demonstrate almost every possible manner of playing, and Rattle had to jump from one to another with versatility and agility.  They succeeded and then some.

These skills also helped after the intermission, when the full orchestra took the stage.  Schostakowitsch’s Fourth Symphony was banned for 25 years in part because it accurately portrayed how miserable life is in Russia.  The authorities also thought it was far too complex.  The Berliners handled the complexities this afternoon with few problems – almost made it sound easy, but sometimes it was a head-scratcher (“did they really just manage to play that?!?!).  Rattle had it all under control.  My only quibble is that they could have played it several shades darker – this performance did not quite portray Russia in all of its misery.

Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonie

Petrassi, Strauss, Tschaikowsky

I went to hear the Berlin Philharmonic perform in its natural environment. What an awful concert hall they play in. I did not realize. Besides the fact that it is just plain ugly, and way too big, the most important issues concern acoustics. When a small number of instruments play, or more of them play quietly, then the sound travels cleanly. But if multiple instruments are playing, especially with any volume at all, the sound turns to sludge.

So with the caveat that I could not hear them cleanly due to their lousy home hall, they sounded a bit better than they did in Vienna earlier this month, at least playing with some sense of emotion.  Gianandrea Noseda, an Italian currently based in Turin, made his first appearance with the Berliners. Although not in his bio, he would seem to be a protege of Valery Gergiev, given his dates both as an assistant at the Mariinsky and as principal guest in Rotterdam. The audience gave him a warm welcome.

The concert opened with a strange 1932 piece by Goffredo Petrassi, his Partita for Orchestra. This work tried to say everything and in the end said nothing. It had too much going on, with no clear style, and no clear direction (although three movements tried to make their own ways). The music was not unpleasant, it just had no point. Not even at least a nice melody, on one hand, or a new concept of composition, on the other.

It did allow the orchestra to warm up ahead of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, with soloist Camilla Nylund (subbing for an indisposed Angela Denoke). Nylund clearly had not had the benefit of the Petrassi warm up, so it took her until the middle of the second song before she came into full voice. Until then, she warbled. The solos in the orchestra were outstanding, but the dry acoustics in the hall made the bigger sections lose their shine. Nylund projected out cleanly in the final two songs, but probably would also benefit from a better venue.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned with Tschaikowsky’s Fourth Symphony. Noseda knew how to draw out the emotion, the anguish and the angst. The woodwinds were especially exceptional, particularly in their third-movement dialogue with pizzicato strings. The larger parts got muddled, hitting the ear as a blur. Fine playing, but a poor hall (then again, when they performed in the Musikverein, they did not sound so good – also a muddle in a hall with excellent acoustics). I am being hard on them, because they claim to be so good. But could it really be that the orchestra, though indeed good, may be the most over-rated orchestra on the planet?

Berlin Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Janáček, Bruckner

Somehow I had never seen Simon Rattle nor heard the Berlin Philharmonic live until they visited the Musikverein tonight. They were very good, but not as good as anticipated, which made for a disappointing first listen.

The concert opened with Leoš Janáček’Sinfonietta – or a muddle pretending to be that work. The trumpet choir on the Musikverein organ balcony behind the orchestra looked lost and unprepared. Perhaps they have practiced in a semi-circle and not a line where they cannot see each other (although they had an unobstructed view of Rattle). I can be sympathetic if this is the case, as it happened to me in a brass quartet during my senior year at Exeter, but I would hope there is a big difference in preparation time and quality between an amateur high school brass quartet and the Berlin Philharmonic. The rest of the orchestra tried to recover somewhat, but this is a difficult syncopated piece, and they never quite sounded like they got it together. As the Sinfonietta raced to its finale, the musicians held on for dear life, hoping to get all of the notes out at some point, no matter if at the right point.

After the intermission, the orchestra regrouped for Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. This one they got together for, and produced very fine sounds. But Bruckner is meant to be emotion-shattering, allowing a glimpse of heaven – whereas tonight’s performance, though technically flawless, provided no such thing. Where the first movement should wash the audience in great waves of sound, this performance just had sound, fluctuating tensely. The funeral movement – composed when Bruckner learned of the death of Richard Wagner, whose musical advances freed him to conceive of another world of possibilities – should reduce the audience to the tears Bruckner had in his eyes when he wrote it, but tonight’s version showed no emotion. This was not the blockish interpretation of Bruckner standard from such Prussian oompahs as Christian Thielemann, rather indeed a fuller and better attempt, but nevertheless missing a soul.

The audience gave a loud applause, but I heard a lot of German accents in the crowd. The Austrians headed for the doors.