Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 8)

Highlights

The lockdown is thankfully over, at least in Austria, so I am getting out more.  But since there is still no live music out there for the foreseeable future, I continue to keep an eye out for worthwhile things to see online.

Mozart: Marriage of Figaro (Metropolitan Opera)

I have to admit: I have never quite taken to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  I’ve sat down to listen to it more than a few times, and usually give up after the first act.  I don’t turn it off, I simply leave it in the background.  While the music is beautiful, I never felt that it went anywhere, at least not to merit my further attention.  I’ve never been tempted to go see it.  I own one recording – bought early in my CD collection (a 1953 Salzburg Festival performance with a tremendous cast) since at that time I thought I still needed a recording of this opera – and then I basically never listen to that complete in a single sitting.

This remained the case, at least, until the Met streamed a 1998 performance, in a delightful staging by Jonathan Miller with an unbelievably perfect cast.  Perhaps if I had started with this production, I might have appreciated this opera more.  Miller left room for the singers to act out their roles to the fullest, which they did, creating pure comedy while still maintaining full musicality.  The cast could act.  The cast could sing.  The farce was every bit as hilarious as Rossini’s Barber of Seville (same characters set earlier, but which Rossini wrote later), just in a Mozartian style.  Renée Fleming (Countess), Cecilia Bartoli (Susanna), Susanne Mentzer (Cherubino), Dwayne Croft (Almaviva), and Bryn Terfel (Figaro) all captured such humor.  James Levine, still at the pinnacle of his career, conducted.

Strauss: Capriccio (Metropolitan Opera)

Renée Fleming has in recent years owned the role of the Countess in Capriccio by Richard Strauss (she has owned so many roles, actually).  She sang the part when I first saw this opera in Vienna in 2008, and in this 2011 performance from the Met here she was again.  The cast around her was idiomatic as well (Morten Frank Larsen as the Count, Joseph Kaiser as Flamand, Russell Braun as Olivier, Peter Rose as La Roche, and Sarah Connolly as Clairon).  The staging was not the timeless one of the Staatsoper, but updated into the twentieth century (exactly when is hard to tell – the lavish set suggested an over-the-top traditional country estate, the costumes could have been out of the 1980s – my father might have felt comfortable dressing that way in the 80s, although he would never have worn shoes inside the house, and this was certainly not our house since we neither had an inherited estate nor would we have decorated it that way if we had had).  Still, this opera does not require any particular time period, so the staging (by John Cox) worked.  What did not work in the end, or at least less well, was the music.  That’s not Strauss’ fault, so it must have been the Met orchestra under Andrew Davis, who did not capture the lush score.  The Met orchestra will never be the Vienna Philharmonic, but there had been a time when it was a top-rate opera orchestra – by the season when this was recorded, the first season when James Levine, who had done so much to build up that orchestra decades before, publicly had to admit he was no longer fit for the job as the Met’s music director, the orchestra had suffered noticeable decline.  Fabio Luisi took over many of Levine’s duties starting in 2010-11, and the orchestra began to improve again, but that season may have been its nadir.

Borodin: Prince Igor (Metropolitan Opera)

Because of the unusually-difficult provenance of Borodin’s Prince Igor, the director can basically decide how to assemble the opera – which music to use or omit, and in what order to perform it.

And because there is no fixed version of Prince Igor, I am fine giving great leeway to the construction of the opera.  Choosing which pieces to assemble and in what order to put them may indeed result in a not fully-logical result (and it would not be the first opera to have an illogical plot).  But whatever the choice, there must be some dramatic conception for how the director assembles it.  So while musically this performance from the Metropolitan Opera was objectively fine, the lack of clarity in the concept sapped its drama.  Gianandrea Noseda, conducting, did not do a bad job, but he could not overcome the direction by Dmitri Tcherniakov.  Likewise, a cast headed by Ildar Abdrazakov as Igor, supported ably by solid performances across the board (especially Oksana Dyka as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna), simply failed to inject life into this fundamentally dull production.  And that’s on Tcherniakov’s head.

It probably did not help that Tcherniakov could not figure out a timeframe for his concept (moving around in time, sometimes different characters in different centuries on stage simultaneously, and none of them in the 12th century, when the action takes place).  But that probably was not fatal.

After the usual prologue, Tcherniakov moved the first act (which in this case is essentially the first of the Polovtsian acts) into a field of flowers with characters wandering in and out speaking to or around Igor (even when they aren’t supposed to be in front of him – such as Vladimir and Konchakovna, or not supposed to be there at all, such as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna) and Igor speaking in front of them.  The result came across as a disjointed set of arias with no inherent logic (I suppose if Borodin left a jumble, Tcherniakov just kept it as a jumble, but there’s no reason to believe Borodin wanted a jumble).  When the Polovtsian chorus sings at various times (they remain offstage except at the end of the act when they dance among the flowers) a film is shown on the scrim depicting the aftermath of the battle in which their armies defeated Igor’s.

Another disconnect of putting this act immediately after the prologue: it contains the plot line that Igor’s son and the Khan’s daughter are already a couple, to the extent that Konchakovna has already raised this potential marriage with her father (and they speak of it, oddly in this production, in front of but not to Igor).  Yet much later in the opera Yaroslavna is informed for the first time that Igor was captured, which would imply that she somehow did not know this for a very long time.  While there was no internet or 24-hour news back then, this is still a bit odd.

At the end of that later act, when the Polovtsians attacked Putivl (presumably: they did not actually appear), somehow in the confusion the only one who wound up dead was Galitsky (he is supposed to die in the attack, but in this staging there was no actual attack yet he ended up dead on the floor of the stage for no clear reason).  More confusion came in the final act, here the act set in the destroyed city of Putivl, which had now turned into a late 20th-century impoverished ‘hood (think: Bronx, but with no black people).  Igor returned (as he is supposed to), but was greeted by his son Vladimir, followed by Konchakovna, who then sang music from an act (omitted in this version) in the Polovtsian camp before Igor’s escape.  Igor then sat there in the middle of the stage oblivious while the rest of the plot moved on around him.

So while there may be no correct order of the bits of this opera – assembly indeed required – there are incorrect orders.  What did Tcherniakov’s one for the Met do?  It removed the drama, and the musicians simply could not recover.  I don’t think this was quite as bad a jumble as I once saw at the Mariinsky – which felt like they threw the entire score up in the air and performed it in whatever order it fell to the ground – but actually in that Mariinsky performance each scene individually was wonderfully dramatic even while the full concept made no sense.

  • [Recording tips:  In selecting “complete” recordings, I have made my decisions based on the music rather than on the assembly of the opera itself.  On top of that I have a pretty decent amount if excerpts.  So I suppose when listening to the opera I am in general less concerned about whether it makes any sense.  But if I watch it, I want it to make sense.  My two “complete” recordings (since, after all, there is no such thing as a “complete” recording given what Borodin left behind when he died, and that much of it may actually have been composed by Aleksandr Glazunov anyway) are: one from the Bolshoi Opera in 1951 conducted by Aleksandr Melik-Pashaev, and one from the Staatsoper in 1969 conducted by Lovro von Matačić, both live performances with first class casts.]

Tschaikowsky: Iolanta (Mariinsky Theater)

I chose to stream a 2009 production of Tschaikowsky’s Iolanta from the Mariinsky Theater, with Anna Netrebko in the title role and Valery Gergiev in the pit in order to hear this seldom-performed opera done right.  Tschaikowsky himself did not think highly of it, but the music is rather gorgeous (and was appreciated by none other than Gustav Mahler, who knew a thing or two about opera and actively championed it outside Russia).  It’s basically a fairy tale, and taken as such it works.  Mariusz Treliński’s basic modern (definitely not fairy tale) staging, mixing in filmed images with real ones, was pretty silly, but did play up the psychological aspects of the main character (just as long as I did not try to think too hard about the stupidity of the mismatched costumes, sets, blocking, or pretty much anything – thankfully, this was a case of it being so silly that I indeed did not have to think much about it and did just focus on the psychological aspects).  The camera work on the filming followed the same path, often switching intentionally to soft focus to underscore the key plot element that Iolanta herself is blind.  Sergei Aleksashkin was particularly excellent as King René (I’ve seen him before at the Mariinsky as Khan Konchak in Prince Igor and Ivan Khovansky in Khovanshchina), with Sergei Skorokhodov as Count Vaudemont and Alexei Markov as Duke Robert.

Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra concluded its six weeks of curated selections by providing a great chance to hear a seldom-performed opera: Beatrice and Benedict by Hector Berlioz.  This performance was fully staged at the Tanglewood Festival in 1984, but the BSO only released the audio recording.  Still, the performance, led by Seiji Ozawa with Frederica von Stade and Jon Garrison in the title roles, was exciting, and a rare chance to have comic relief provided by Berlioz, most of whose works were rather more serious.  From the sound of it, the audience also had a good time!

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Rossini, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Beethoven

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra still has several concerts streamable from its website, and so I continue to pull out ones by the late Mariss Jansons.  I was particularly taken by this particular concert, even if the program itself was a bit of a mish-mash, as Jansons often seems to have intended to do later in his life.  But since it will never again be possible to hear Jansons conduct live, I am thankful for the recordings made available online that truly show why he was the greatest conductor of the last couple of decades, and this concert displayed some of his range.  It opened by a spirited overture to William Tell by RossiniProkofiev’s violin concerto #1 followed with soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who also played an encore by Rachmaninov.  A tense but also joyous Beethoven Symphony #3 concluded the concert – worth calling up from their website while it remains posted.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Schubert, Strauss, Dvořák, Berlioz
Philadelphia Orchestra: Mahler

Among the offerings they made available during the closure period, the Philadelphia Orchestra posted two transitional concerts from 1993 and 2011, which were quite enlightening, showing the orchestra in two different time periods under conductors who had actually not yet taken up their posts as music director yet and so were conducting an orchestra they had not yet had the chance to mold – Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1993 and Yannick Nézet-Séguin in 2011 both had the title “Music Director Designate.”

The 1993 concert itself was rather ironic given the current global crisis caused by the Chinese Communist Party penchant for trading in endangered species, operating unhygienic wet markets as breeding ground for new diseases, and orchestrated cover-ups (not to mention trying to gain propaganda value from exporting healthcare materials which turn out to be mostly defective and useless).  The Philadelphia Orchestra was the first American orchestra to be invited to Communist China in 1973, and this concert was performed twenty years later as a commemoration in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People (a misnomer, as the Communist Party of China cares not a jot for its people and has been the most murderous regime in history on raw numbers, dare I also mention Tibet and East Turkestan).  Sawallisch, who would take over as Music Director of the Orchestra a few months later, conducted this one, for a quite standard program: the unfinished Eighth Symphony of Franz Schubert, Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss, and the Ninth Symphony by Antonín Dvořák, with the Roman Carnival by Hector Berlioz for an encore.

What made this concert interesting was actually hearing how different the orchestra sounded then than it does now.  Of course this was a recording using old technology (1993, but it was produced by Chinese television back then), in an absolutely enormous venue.  But I am getting a lot of streamed recorded music right now (plus there is my CD collection), so in the absence of live music (thanks to the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Xi) this is the new standard.

I was probably too young to appreciate the “Philadelphia Sound” when Eugene Ormandy was Music Director – but I caught him towards the end of his 44-year tenure, and what was clear even to me as a child was that things had become blurry.  No one should stay in charge of anything for 44 years.  Riccardo Muti succeeded Ormandy, which was initially a good thing as it brought back some discipline.  But my assessment of Muti remains pretty  much the same today: he is a fantastic and intelligent guest conductor whose concerts are to be anticipated, and as a music director he will certainly discipline an orchestra’s sound, but he’s not actually a very good music director because he knows only one thing for his orchestras: a Muti sound.  Now, a Muti sound is certainly a good one, but it sacrifices the identity of an orchestra.  So, for example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra today sounds pretty much like the Philadelphia Orchestra of the 1980s.  Close my eyes listening to the Chicagoans now and I think I am in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music back then (except for maybe the poor acoustics of the old Academy of Music – of course, Philadelphia’s new venue also has poor acoustics of a different sort).  So Muti may have been exactly what this orchestra needed to clean itself up in 1980, but he sacrificed the orchestra’s character.

In this concert, Sawallisch brought a program of standard works that could as easily have been conducted by either Muti or Sawallisch.  And the orchestra was not yet Sawallisch’s as he would not take over until later that year.  So it is a good concert by what was indeed one of the top three or four orchestras in the United States, but it’s neither the orchestra of my childhood nor certainly not the orchestra of today.

Sawallisch was a terrific match for this orchestra, as he maintained its quality but gave it back its distinctive character through the 1990s.  Sawallisch arrived on the back end of his career, never intending to stay long, but stayed long enough to do this orchestra right.  Rather than lining up whatever would come next knowing Sawallisch’s tenure would be short, the Orchestra managed to completely botch appointing a successor and initially ended up with no one.  Sawallisch, by then widowed, depressed, and ill, agreed to extend his contract to give the Orchestra more time.  They ended up with the seriously uninteresting Christoph Eschenbach, who was essentially chased out of town – and still the Orchestra failed to have anyone lined up.  This forced them to go without a Music Director for several years, using Charles Dutoit as “chief conductor” – and if Eschenbach was dull, Dutoit was ten times worse (he had apparently wanted to be music director for decades and there clearly was a good reason they had never appointed him, after all).  The Orchestra literally went bankrupt in 2011.  That was its nadir (although it had so many remarkable musicians – many still there today – it sounded so mediocre in those years).

On to the concert the Orchestra posted from 2011, or at least part of one including Mahler’s First Symphony.  The conductor of that concert was the current Music Director, Nézet-Séguin, at the time when he was still the Music Director Designate.  And while his concert was an improvement, he had not yet had time to fix the Orchestra.  The team was mostly already in place, but this reading of Mahler lacked the intensity and exquisite virtuosity the Orchestra produces as its baseline today.  But fix the Orchestra he did, to get where it is today, in my humble opinion far and away the best orchestra in the United States and among the top five in the world.

I do have recordings of the Philadelphians with Muti in the 1980s and Sawallisch in the 1990s, and they are good recordings indeed, but it is still fascinating to hear the evolution of the Orchestra’s sound.  It is hard to quantify – and if there is a “Philadelphia Sound” I am actually not sure that under Nézet-Séguin he has quite brought it back to Sawallisch or to Ormandy (or Stokowski) but has probably given it a new identity.  And in a sense that’s what Muti did too, so I suppose my only objection to Muti is not the sound (Muti is a fantastic musician and exacting conductor) but that it had no identity under Muti other than Muti (as Chicago today).  So sounds do evolve (although maybe not the Vienna Philharmonic’s), but the distinctiveness is key.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus: Prokofiev
Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitch

The Mariinsky streamed a good amount of not-unexpected music on Soviet Victory Day.  Sergei Eisenstein was one of the greatest film directors of all time from in terms of artistic value.  Among his product were films about Aleksandr Nyevsky and Ivan the Terrible (the first generally a Russian hero, the second a favorite of Stalin), to which Prokofiev provided the film scores.  Schostakowitsch’s Seventh Symphony is also a traditional work performed on that day.  Valery Gergiev conducted both concerts.

The Prokofiev concert took place in 2016 at the Mariinsky Concert Hall, with excerpts from both films: the separate Aleksandr Nyevsky Cantata which Prokofiev himself arranged, and a arrangement of music from Ivan the Terrible (not sure if Prokofiev or Gergiev or someone else assembled it in this condition).  For both, Gergiev took a somewhat softer, smoother approach than normal – not the usual bitter Russian orchestral sound (which I happen to like).  Only Prokofiev’s dissonances created tension.  Ivan the Terrible had a narrator in this version, which turned out annoying, as he interrupted the flow.  It would have been better either go with the complete film with the music serving as backdrop, or to go with the complete cantata without narration.  Or maybe narration between sets (as opposed to talking over the music).  This did not work at all – I just wanted the narrator to shut up so I could enjoy the music.  It was not that the narrator was bad, just the concept of a narrator was.

I suppose a performance of Schostakowtisch’s Seventh Symphony has become obligatory for the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra on Soviet Victory Day (I heard them perform it live that day in 2010).  It’s actually not clear when this performance was filmed – the Mariinsky’s webpage itself said it was done on the day, but there was clearly an audience in the Mariinsky’s new second hall, which would not be possible under Russia’s covid-19 restrictions, so clearly they had filmed it beforehand.  The symphony, called the “Leningrad,” was long used as a propaganda piece, but it is still good music (and of course had a subtext that did not follow the party line, starting with the “invasion” theme of the first movement, which Schostakowitsch did not write to portray the invasion of Russia by Germany in 1941 as the Communist Party announced, but rather had already written two years earlier to portray the invasion of Poland by Russia with its German allies in 1939).  For this symphony, Gergiev did let the orchestra’s more traditional Russian sound emerge.

  • [Recording tips: Gergiev has an excellent version of the Nyevsky Cantata with the same Mariinsky forces (confusingly, the CD jacket calls the Mariinsky by its Soviet-era name, the “Kirov,” despite the 2002 release date).  The 1984 version with Riccardo Chailly leading the Cleveland Orchestra was my introduction to this work and has held up well.  For Ivan the Terrible, the complete film score (without narration) appears in a 2000 version by Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Tschaikowsky Radio Symphony Orchestra of Moscow, a performance that truly allows the music itself to shine.  For the Schostakowitsch Seventh, I remain partial to a 1980 release by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic.]

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 7)

Highlights

With the lockdown in Austria now having officially ended on 30 April, I may try to have other distractions in May, but I certainly digested a fair amount of opera during the last seven weeks.  Austria is not completely opening for a long time, and of course there is no live music any time soon, but we can at least get out of the house more.  Several institutions streaming performances online are now scaling back.  Others are moving ahead but beginning to repeat performances (see my reviews here, I suppose, to know what to look out for – or subscribe to the different sites).  So maybe I don’t keep updating this blog every week with online highlights.  We will see what I do.

Many thanks especially to the Vienna Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, the Vienna Volksoper, the Royal Swedish Opera, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but also to all of the opera houses and orchestras that have streamed so much wonderful music these last weeks – there were many, but even during a lockdown there remain only so many hours in a night, so I merely sampled a selection.  Hope to hear you all in person again soon!

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel (Staatsoper)

Engelbert Humperdinck, a favorite assistant of Wagner at Bayreuth (and who later wrote incidental music for Max Reinhardt productions), turned a lot of fairy tales into operas with a suitably Wagnerian coloring.  Hänsel und Gretel has hung around in the standard repertory, and although popular for children at Christmas time, it often attracts quite serious artists.  It’s fun to revisit this opera now and then.  Here the Staatsoper did a fantasy setting with Margaret Plummer and Chen Reiss in the title roles and Axel Kober conducting.

Weinberg: The Passenger (Bregenz Festival)

This was rough: over on the “Fidelio” streaming site (access courtesy of the Volksoper), I got to finally see Moishe Weinberg’s Auschwitz opera, The Passenger, in its world premiere staging at the 2010 Bregenz Festival.  Set in approximately 1960, a German diplomat and his wife are heading off to Brazil for his new posting when she spots a mysterious passenger on the ship, who reminds her of a Polish inmate at Auschwitz.  This leads her to reveal to her husband that she had been an officer in the SS and indeed an overseer in the women’s camp at Auschwitz.  The rest of the opera mixes flashbacks from the camp with scenes from the boat.

Weinberg’s music is rather grim and never tuneful (but not atonal – typical of Weinberg, the music is dense and complex and plays on multiple levels simultaneously) until close to the end, where the tunes shout defiance.  Keeping with communist propaganda, Jews were almost entirely missing from this version of Auschwitz, except for one inmate from Salonika.  Of course the Warsaw-born Weinberg knew the truth about the Holocaust, the Germans having murdered his entire family.  But even that attempt to follow the Communist Party line did not let his work through the censors.  The Soviet regime suppressed this opera, like they did to so much of Weinberg’s other music.  Although composed in 1967-68 it was not performed until a concert version in 2006, ten years after the composer’s death.  The world premiere staging had to wait until this one in 2010 in Bregenz.

Michelle Breedt sang Lisa, the SS officer and Elena Kelessidi sang Marta, the Polish inmate and the mysterious Passenger (the opera never actually reveals if these are the same person).  A very young-looking Teodor Currentzis (an excellent conductor when he sticks to music – as here – and does not attempt distracting performance art) led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the pit.  The staging by the British director David Pourtney fully captured the plot, and was effective at moving back and forth between the two periods portrayed without trying to do too much except let the opera speak for itself.

Boito: Mefistofele (Bavarian State Opera)

Opera in Germany became a bad joke several decades ago, to the point it is no longer safe to go to the opera there.  So I can promise that I did not turn to this Bavarian State Opera production of Boito’s Mefistofele because I wanted to see what yet another trashy German regisseur, in this case Roland Schwab, was up to (trashy is apparently the right word here, since the description said he opened this setting in a garbage dump).  But when searching through the collection available in the “Fidelio” streaming service, this was the only version of Boito’s Mefistofele in the catalogue and I wanted to hear who was singing.  My favorite Italian-language opera is not performed often enough (I’ve only managed to see it live once in person, in Prague exactly two years ago), so hearing it with a top-flight cast today was an objective.

As Mephistopheles René Pape himself was worth the listen, balancing a soothing bass-baritone voice – the temptation of the devil – with menace.  Joseph Calleja as Faust was suitably dramatic and had a wonderful mezza voce at times, but his voice also tended to crack.  Kristīne Opolais was a sensitive Gretchen.  Omer Meir Wellber was the conductor, and was neither here nor there – at times I do think he captured the music, but at others it wandered off, although maybe it would have to do with the staging and there’s not much a conductor can do if the director is an idiot who insists on staging something bearing no relation to the opera on the program.  It also did not help that part of the prologue (set in heaven, to what is supposed to be mystical, uplifting, open music) sounded like it was pre-recorded on a badly scratched vinyl LP (seriously – not a sound issue with the streaming as far as I could tell, so may indeed have been intentional).  Nor that the bumpkins in the audience kept interrupting the performance with gratuitous applause (although they did stop doing this midway through the opera, so someone must have given them a good thwack in the intermission – or maybe they went home and did not come back after the intermission).

  • [Recording tip: Nothing has matched the 1974 set featuring the inimitable Norman Treigle in the title role, backed by Plácido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé, with Julius Rudel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.  Seriously, nothing comes close, and probably nothing ever will.  I’ve listened to numerous versions, and extensive excerpts with top-notch performers, and this is the definitive recording in every respect.]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)

I could not resist sitting once more through Beethoven’s Fidelio from the Staatsoper in the Otto Schenk staging, which I saw with a different cast last week.  I had remembered Anja Kampe’s Leonore and Valentina Naforniţă’s Marzelline fondly from when I saw this production live in 2013, so tuned in to see them again in this streamed 2016 performance.  They were every bit what I remembered, and although Camilla Nylund sang a good Leonore in last week’s streaming (from 2017), Kampe easily outdid her in the acting department, with passion and verve.  Stephen Milling, whom I admired as Gurnemanz in a Staatsoper streaming of Parsifal earlier in the lockdown (the first time I remembered hearing him) was indeed also impressive as Rocco.  Again, the acting added to his fine voice – not that Günther Groissböck (Rocco in the streaming I saw last week) cannot act (he certainly can), but there was more of the humanity in Milling’s Rocco.   Klaus Florian Vogt was also a much more believable Florestan than Peter Seiffert (whom I saw last week and who had not even merited a mention in my write-up).  And Evgeny Nikitin was that much more of a villain as Don Pizarro than Albert Dohmen’s more basic version last week (Nikitin’s unsavory past makes him personally more of a villain, but famously having had a large swastika tattoo, though making him of dubious character, does not make him a better artist – that comes from him genuinely being a better artist).  It’s not that last week’s cast was bad, but with the exception of Chen Reiss being a notch better than Naforniţă (which is not in any way meant as a knock on the younger singer), and Boaz Daniel (Don Fernando) and Jörg Schneider (Jaquino) reprising their roles, this group just made a more convincing whole portrayal.  And while Cornelius Meister led a fine performance in the version streamed last week, Peter Schneider in the pit this time just added even more warmth and spirit.  The applause from the audience was proportionately grander as well – they knew what they had seen.

Mozart: Entführung aus dem Serail (Glyndebourne Festival)

David McVicar has directed a delightful little production of Mozart’s Abduction for the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival.  Extended dialogue allowed for much fuller character development than the usual set stereotypes. McVicar could succeed here as well by keeping the singers active on the stage: they were not just singing in an opera and doing the necessary actions, but rather living their lives for us.  McVicar also recognized that this opera may be serious, but is filled with comic relief – which he magnified without turning it into a comedy.  This is actually Mozart at his best, playful and full of humor but grounded, with a lesson for us all.  The cast could act, too.

This production was the opposite of some of those terrible German Regietheater stagings, where I want to hear them but cannot watch.  In those cases, I do listen, but can do other things at the same time.  But in this case I wanted to watch, yet had to suffer through listening to the performance.  It made me realize that I do not know much about Glyndebourne, other than that it has a certain reputation from a cult following, set on some English country estate.  I assumed it was a bit like other music festivals, attracting top performers.  Maybe it is, but this production had more than a whiff of amateur night to it, which was a shame, though, with McVicar’s truly intelligent and completely thought-through concept.

The Glyndebourne Festival’s orchestra, conducted by Robin Ticciati, sounded thin and not quite able to stay in tune, which was painful.  Of the singers, Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) was perhaps the only one with a solid voice.  Brendan Gunnell (Pedrillo) and Mari Eriksmoen (Blonde) were equipped with adequate vocal instruments.  Sally Matthews (Konstanze) could sing sometimes but her voice cracked too often to get comfortable with.  Edgardas Montvidas (Belmonte) was the most problematic, with a consistently weak and strained tone that often became downright cringeworthy.  Franck Saurel (Pasha Selim) thankfully did not have a singing role, just spoken dialogue, which he generally could do although he had a tendency to overact.  I’d love to see the McVicar staging live with a proper cast and orchestra, though (I’d stream the film another time through to catch more of the nuances, except I don’t think I could take listening to this version again).

  • [Recording tip: My favorite recording of this opera, combining musicality and Austrian charm, is the 1966 one made by Josef Krips and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Nicolai Gedda as Belmonte, Anneliese Rothenberger as Konstanze, Gerhard Unger as Pedrillo, Lucia Popp as Blonde, and Gottlob Frick as Osmin.]

Berlioz: The Trojans (Staatsoper)

Berlioz’s opera based on Vergil’s Aeneid rarely gets performed.  The French, of course, never understood it, so Berlioz only managed to get a truncated version produced during his own lifetime, that he was not remotely satisfied with.  It finally got a full performance in Germany and entered the repertory long after the composer’s death.  The Staatsoper’s current staging is by David McVicar – and since he is generally pretty good, I figured this would be a nice version to see.

I’m not sure of the logic, but McVicar set the Trojan War in (perhaps) the 19th century.  For the acts set in Troy, McVicar has the Trojan warriors dressed up in ceremonial naval uniforms.  The sets were not realistic of anything – they looked a bit like deconstructed naval vessels.  The horse itself consisted of lashed-together detritus from old warships (cannons, ship’s wheels) lit up to look like a circuit board.  (The jumble reappeared at the end of the opera, reconfigured into a human form as the Carthiginians curse Rome.)  The acts in Carthage at least tried to look North African, even if likely not from 3,000 years ago.  But it worked, sort of, until the Trojans arrived from the 19th century.  Maybe I just write this off as not one of McVicar’s better efforts.

From the musical perspective, this 2018 performance featured strong characterizations by Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas, Joyce DiDonato as Dido, Szilvia Vörös as Anna, and Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra.  Alain Altinoglu conducted.

Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera streamed a 1985 performance of Verdi’s Aida, featuring Leontyne Price in the title role (her final on-stage opera performance – she only did concerts after that point in her career), Fiorenza Cossotto as Amneris, James McCracken as Radamès, and Simon Estes as Amonasro.  James Levine conducted.  It was great to hear, but strange to watch, with a minimalist set, stylized mock-Egyptian costumes (a bit over the top, actually), and very static blocking with singers walking slowly and intentionally to specific spots where they just stood.

New York Philharmonic: Mahler

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum posted on their Facebook page a video of a television broadcast by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic from 1963, performing Mahler’s Second Symphony in memory of President Kennedy, who had been assassinated two days before the broadcast.  This piece is always evocative, and here the orchestra produced a solemn performance, with Bernstein providing the strong punctuation.  Tempi were noticeably quite a bit faster than usual, particularly in the first movement, but while rather odd at times this did not undermine the tension.  The sound on the recording was oddly crackly (and even warped in places) – other live performances from that period were of far better quality, so one wonders whether CBS (the network responsible for the broadcast) was particularly incompetent – but the tone of the orchestra shines through.  Indeed, it is pleasant to remember that the New York Philharmonic once counted among the best in the world.

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 1)

Highlights

With the world on pause due to the latest pandemic, cultural institutions have gone online.

I myself fled Salzburg and decamped home to Vienna before the authorities ended freedom of movement, so that for what looks like will last at least one month on lockdown, I can be more comfortable than I would be if crammed into my small Salzburg pad (my office is in Salzburg, and it’s just too far from Vienna to commute daily – all I really need in Salzburg is a place to sleep, with a reasonable kitchen, bathroom, and balcony for when I do spend Summer weekends there).  In Vienna, I have a good kitchen stocked with sufficient food, a cellar full of Georgian wines, and my private library (including my CD collection – and good external speakers for my laptop), so can survive more than a month if necessary.  My own day job goes on remotely, so it’s also good to have a home office with a desk and printer.

My ticket for a new Vienna production of Rigoletto was refunded – that show won’t go on.  A chamber concert of music by Moishe Weinberg in Salzburg will, I hope, be rescheduled (no refund yet – but I’d rather hear the concert so happy to wait to see about the new date).  My April trip to the US is off, so I lose a chance to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra in its annual concert in memory of my father (would have been Beethoven’s Ninth this year – but not only my trip but also the concert itself is anyway canceled).  We will see when and whether concerts resume this Spring, or indeed for the Festival this Summer (I got my applications accepted for 19 tickets, and since I usually manage to add new ones during the Summer this would have meant my most performances ever at the Festival, surpassing last Summer’s final total of 19).  We will see.

At night, after work, I have been able to take advantage of the new offerings available online.  I am not going to pretend this is the same as hearing music live, but it’s nice to get some variety I might not have otherwise had.

Every evening the Staatsoper releases a new video available for that night.  New York’s Metropolitan Opera does the same (but with the difference in time zones, this comes after midnight here – thankfully I am nocturnal).

Wagner, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre (Staatsoper, Royal Swedish Opera)

I am now halfway through the Staatsoper’s current production of Wagner‘s Ring cycle, which they have spread out over two weeks (so far just Rheingold and Walküre).  The staging is blah – I am not sure that the vapid German director Sven-Eric Bechtolf had a concept.  If he did, it’s not remotely clear.  Thankfully, it’s not Regietheater, so nothing offends.  But I hope the Staatsoper did not pay him for this lack of imagination.  The cast consists mostly of Staatsoper ensemble members or frequent guests, and does not need to have any star names to succeed dramatically.  I have especially liked the edgy-voiced Thomasz Konieczny as Wotan.  He apparently has sung more Alberich than Wotan, and his voice indeed would be well-suited for Alberich, but the two characters are almost alteregos (“Schwarz-Alberich” and “Licht-Alberich”), so it can work with intelligent singing as Konieczny provides.  In the big roles so far, Evelyn Herlitzius has disappointed as Brünnhilde, her voice is expressive enough but not big enough.  Siegfried (my favorite opera as a child) is tomorrow, and Götterdämmerung (my favorite opera since I was a teen) next weekend.

I actually realized I have not sat through an entire Ring cycle in a while, so even with the faulty staging this is quite a positive outcome of the global pandemic.  Next week, I will also sit through the entire Ring Cycle on four successive nights, courtesy of the Met.  And the Royal Swedish Opera has provided Walküre (just the audio in this case) – in another dramatic reading with only one big-name star, Nina Stemme, as Brünnhilde (a shame she wasn’t contracted by for the current Vienna set!), and a supporting cast that generally held up.

  • [Recording tips: since I am cooped up at home, I do get to tap into my archive to listen to comparative performances.  For Rheingold, the 1958 Solti set with the Vienna Philharmonic made for Decca works for sake of drama thanks to John Culshaw’s brilliant audio engineering; but since George London’s portrayal of Wotan lacks dynamism, I tend to favor the 1953 live recording from Bayreuth conducted by Clemens Kraus, with Hans Hotter as Wotan and a cast otherwise up to the same standards as the Vienna one (in some cases the same singers).  For Walküre, I’ve never found a recording that really does it for me.  There are two conducted by Erich Leinsdorf a couple of decades apart, the first with the Metropolitan Opera has the better cast – there are actually a few of these from the same period, of which I favor a 1940 recording the Metropolitan Opera made while on tour in Boston, with Lauritz Melchior and Lotte Lehmann as a heroic Siegmund and Sieglinde, Marjorie Lawrence as Brünnhilde, and Friedrich Schorr as Wotan; the second Leinsdorf record came with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1962, with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde and a much better George London as Wotan, and has the more thrilling reading from the pit (indeed, from the orchestral standpoint, this 1962 Leinsdorf version may be the best Walküre available).  For sake of being unusual, I might also suggest seeking out the hard-to-find audio from the 1983 Bayreuth Festival with Georg Solti conducting a Ring cycle that was rightfully panned, but out of which came a surprisingly good Walküre.  Siegmund Nimsgern’s Wotan is similar in style to Konieczny’s in the recent Vienna cycle, Hildegard Behrens is at the hight of her career as Brünnhilde, and Siegfried Jerusalem and Jeannine Altmeier made an excellent pair as Siegmund and Sieglinde.]

Eötvös: Three Sisters (Staatsoper)

Of course, there is plenty of non-Wagner in the Staatsoper’s offering.  In an effort not just to be popular, the Staatsoper also included one 21st-Century opera in its mix: Three Sisters by Peter Eötvös.  That was worth a listen – Eötvös’ music is intelligent and edifying.

Bizet: Carmen / Verdi: Il Trovatore (Metropolitan Opera)

From the Met, the highlight so far has been a 2010 performance of Bizet‘s Carmen, with a sultry Elīna Garanča in the title role, overwhelming poor Roberto Alagna as Don José (he was great, but could not compare to her).  A very young-looking Yannick Nézet-Séguin (this production came even before he was appointed Music Director in Philadelphia) provided a perfect spark in the pit.  (Among the other performances the Met streamed was Dmitri Hvorostovsky‘s final public performance, when he returned to the stage for one set of Verdi‘s Il Trovatore, after he began his cancer treatment and before he died.)  The sad side-story from the Met, however, is that this week they fired all members of their orchestra, chorus, ensemble singers, and stage staff and it remains to be seen if the best opera house in the US will be able to survive the pandemic.

  • [Recording tips: I will be a bit zany here, and instead of suggested a “best” recording I will instead suggest one that will make the listener hear Carmen differently.  Carmen‘s international success derives from a production done in Vienna a few years after its Paris premiere.  So how about a German-language version?  The best one of those is a 1961 version from the Deutsche Oper Berlin under Horst Stein, with Christa Ludwig (Carmen), Rudolf Schock (Don José), and Herman Prey (Escamillo).  From a standpoint of drama, it is worth getting over the clumsy German that does not always pass with the music, and just enjoying some fantastic singing actors.]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Theater an der Wien)

The most disappointing production I have seen this week, though, was a new one.  The Theater an der Wien (Vienna’s third major opera house) was supposed to open a new production of Beethoven‘s Fidelio this week.  When it was clear a couple of weeks ago that this would not be able to go ahead – and indeed the entire run would be canceled – Austrian television rushed in to film it in front of an empty seats, so that all the work that had gone into producing it would not go to waste.  That was classy.

The problem, though, was the terrible production.  Beethoven’s first attempt at writing an opera did not go well and he gave up.  But he was still under contract, and the impressario was paying his living expenses while he wrote, so he was actually in debt to the impressario – Emanuel Schickaneder – and had to write something to fulfill his obligation, so he grabbed a French play he thought he could set as an opera: Leonore.  It went very badly.  A year later, he revised it.  The second version (now called Fidelio) survived two performances before being canceled.  Beethoven gave up.  About eight years later, with the help of another dramatist friend, he did yet another revision.  This third attempt worked and is the version of Fidelio that became a fixture in the operatic repertory.  Beethoven swore off writing any more operas.

Why anyone would think to stage the first or second versions of Fidelio is beyond my comprehension.  Actually, the music is Beethoven, so it’s great music, and certainly worth the curiosity factor to program selections for concerts.  But it’s lousy opera: there’s no drama (this got fixed in the third version, especially Act Two, which Mahler later augmented by adding the brilliant convention of inserting the Leonore Overture #3, which Beethoven himself realized was not a proper opera overture but a stand-alone piece in its own right, into the scene change).

The staging was blah here too – apparently they hired an architectural firm, which is not who should be doing stagings.  The construction of the stage indeed succeeded aesthetically, and I suppose it worked with this performing version – it, too, lacked drama.  The cast of no-names was mediocre – although it probably did not help that they had to perform this deficient version of the opera.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra was in the pit (they are world-class, but when I have heard them live in the last couple of years I have noticed they have slipped a bit from where they were a few years ago) under the baton of Manfred Honeck (I like him – he’s certainly the best Austrian conductor working in the US, currently music director in Pittsburgh, and I never understand why his adequate but undistinguished countryman in Cleveland has a higher profile) – but again, the score of this version has no drama, so it’s really hard to make it do anything.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has yet surpassed the 1969 Otto Klemperer recording of Fidelio with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christa Ludwig as Leonore, which continues to be my go-to recording.  However, for something different, there is an excellent 1991 version from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Kurt Masur, with some of the same folks who made the 1983 Bayreuth Walküre so compelling: Jeannine Altmeyer as Leonore, Siegfried Jerusalem as Fidelio, and Siegmund Nimsgern as D. Pizarro.  Fun fact: this was the very first CD I owned.  When I bought my first CD player, the electronics shop had a very small collection of classical CDs in the store and I bought this one so I could play something as soon as I got home.]

Philadelphia Orchestra: Beethoven, Habibi, Mahler

For non-operatic selections, I have to defer to the Philadelphia Orchestra.  When the City of Philadelphia banned large gatherings due to the virus, this orchestra was supposed to open a series of concerts to celebrate the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth.  That entire series is now canceled.  But they did perform the first concert in the series in front of an empty hall, and posted it on Facebook.  This concert included Beethoven’s Symphonies #5 and #6 plus a world premiere of a work the orchestra commissioned from Iman Habibi, Jeder Baum Spricht, inspired by Beethoven.  Nézet-Séguin’s tempi were far too fast for my taste, but the playing was sublime (they left the concert up online without a clear expiration date, so I recommend searching for it from the Orchestra’s webpage).  This orchestra is by far the best in the US right now (Nézet-Séguin is also one of the best conductors of his 40-ish generation, but he seems to be in a horrible rush here.)

As I write this, I have just finished enjoying a Philadelphia Orchestra concert from one year ago, added free for streaming on their website, with Nézet-Séguin conducting Mahler‘s Ninth, which highlights many of the complex interior lines, played virtuosically by this Orchestra.  Overall a pensive performance, and perfect for an uneasy period in which the world is locked down by a Chinese virus.  The European orchestra Philadelphia is most similar to is the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, in terms of having a lot of virtuosi players with fantastic individual lines but who also understand how to blend those thrilling lines into an ensemble whole. Most of the first chairs in Philadelphia are every bit as good as the first chairs in Amsterdam (the Concertgebouworkest is better, as it has more virtuosic depth after the first chairs).

Concertgebouworkest: Strauss, Mahler

Speaking of the Concertgebouworkest, when Mariss Jansons died last year, they posted for free a nice selection of live concerts he had conducted with them over the years.  Although I have not re-listened to them this week, they remain up on the orchestra’s website.  From the available selection, I’d recommend in particular Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss and Mahler’s Symphony #4, but you really cannot go wrong with any of them.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Schubert, Mahler

I have now heard Gustav Mahler‘s Fifth Symphony three times in 2019.  Today’s performance, by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin was the best.

Nézet-Séguin took us on an emotional roller-coaster.  He took the opening funeral march with deliberate pacing, emphasizing the deep dark bass lower registers to create a fearsome rumble upon which to construct the rest of the amusement park.  Up the mood went to the blazing heights, only to come tumbling down in sheer terror.  The aborted chorale at the end of second movement provided a glimpse ahead, before it too came crashing down.

The transformation occurred in the middle movement, which began with a warped dance full of foreboding until it resolved into something more hopeful.  Then the fourth movement adagietto came across not as its usual melancholic self, but rather as something positive, to lead into an exuberant final movement, now with the complete chorale achieving its fullest triumph.

The Orchestra managed these mixed emotions with ease.  I prefer to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour in better halls, since the acoustics in the Kimmel Center just are not very good.  But even in this dull hall, the orchestra shone.  If Minasi’s interpretation of this work with the Mozarteum Orchestra in May represented an experiment in approaching what was for that conductor an unfamiliar symphony, and Barenboim’s interpretation with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Festival in August was conventional and missing angst, Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians drained their souls this afternoon.

Unfortunately – and a big unfortunately – the Orchestra’s principal trumpet is undergoing shoulder surgery and was unable to perform, so they substituted in his place the principal trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera.  He just was not very good (or at least far inferior to the standard of this orchestra) and flubbed too many notes in what is a very exposed trumpet part.  They should have let one of the other orchestra trumpeters take on the principal part, and brought the Met’s musician in for a less-exposed part (the score has four trumpets, so he might have been able to handle the fourth trumpet OK).  The rest of the Orchestra (definitely the best on this side of the Atlantic) sounded spectacular, full of nuance, charm, and verve, which made this substitution particularly painful.

Speaking of not very good musicians: the piano soloist in the concert’s first half, Louis Lortie was emotionless and mechanical.  He hit the notes (which I suppose is more than the Met’s trumpeter managed during the Mahler), but without any sense of feeling at all (actually, the Met’s trumpeter at least had feeling).  Wind Lortie up like a watch and he can keep time.  The music was Franz Schubert‘s Wanderer Fantasy as arranged for piano and orchestra by Ferenc Liszt.  The orchestra sounded warm and cheerful – but Lortie not so much.  I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate that they chose the Liszt arrangement (Schubert’s original was for piano solo, and Lortie would have been even worse without the orchestra keeping this thing going).

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

After a run of chamber concerts at the Festival, my final five tickets return me to my usual Fach, the large orchestra concerts starting this morning with an all-Mahler program with the Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Barenboim.

Barenboim is a perfectly competent if not particularly interesting conductor, so the concert was good but not insightful.  He used the orchestra to paint thick musical canvasses, but did not necessarily do anything with the music that I have not already heard.  Although this morning’s primary work was Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the natural point of contrast would be to Herbert Blomstedt leading the Philharmonic in Mahler’s Ninth last month, in which Blomstedt opened new worlds within the existing notes and produced a trascendental performance from this orchestra.  Not anywhere in the same league as Blomstedt, Barenboim came across as certain but not always clear, and at times it sounded as though the orchestra could not really follow him.  Also missing: any sense of Angst – and what is Mahler without Angst?

The concert opened with Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, with mezzo Okka von der Damerau as soloist.  Damerau has a full, well-rounded voice.  She warbles a bit at the lower register, which also did not project as well as the upper registers.  But she overall has a clear sound that interacted especially well with the woodwinds, whose colors Barenboim was most intent on drawing out.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Dusapin, Mahler, Dvořák

I have taken to generally going to hear the annual Young Conductors Award prize concert each year at the Salzburg Festival to see what name might be coming down the line.  Hungarian Gábor Káli won the competition last year, so he got the honors of the concert in the Felsenreitschule this year.  His is definitely a name to look for in the future.

The Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra has not been particularly distinguished in recent years, never seeming to have quite recovered from an attempt by the Austrian radio (for whom it works, after all) to shut it down during the 2009-2010 season.  But I don’t believe I have heard it sound this good since before its near-death experience.  Káli gave it real character this evening, its playing evoking feeling and emotion.

For Mahler‘s Songs of a Wayfarer, baritone Andrè Schuen added his own warm, expressive tone, telling stories both with clear diction and intelligent nuanced singing (I definitely want to hear him again too!).  Káli and the orchestra were right with him for support, the song cycle erupting into full color.  After the intermission, Dvořák‘s Ninth Symphony built to another level.  This was not just the homogenized (if decent) sound I have come to expect from this orchestra, but rather more lilt and theatrics, as it used to sound ten years ago.  From the podium, Káli clearly had taken charge, and the orchestra happily and enthusiastically followed (so did the audience – he earned a long well-deserved applause).

The only part of the concert that made no sense was the first piece: Morning in Long Island by Frenchman Pascal Dusapin.  Dusapin wrote this piece in 2010 based on the memory of a particularly bleak Fall morning he had spent on Long Island in 1988 that had clearly stuck in his mind all that time.  His moody music quite successfully portrayed the gloomy weather and damp chill, so that the audience certainly experienced his 1988 morning too.  The main problem, though, was that this went on for half an hour.  While the music evolved and shifted a bit, it never got around to saying anything more than the weather, which we already knew.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

For the fourth year in a row, Mahler‘s 9th Symphony was on the program at the Festival.  I’ve heard it many many more times as well.  I wondered: what new could there possibly be to say?  Then I heard Herbert Blomstedt‘s masterful reading with the Vienna Philharmonic tonight in the Great Festival House and discovered worlds in that symphony I have never heard before.

The symphony opened desolately enough, but it soon became clear Blomstedt was not satisfied with just being desolate.  He deconstructed every line and then put the pieces back together emphasizing the sinister and the odd and even the grotesque. Instruments jumped out of the mass of sound, only to get abruptly cut off – or to have their flowing line completed by seemingly the wrong other instrument.  All of this appeared in Mahler’s score, but Blomstedt found it (and the Philharmonic reproduced Mahler’s and Blomstedt’s vision perfectly).

He treated the music like painting by Pieter Bruegel – with attention to all the fine details, but upon close inspection a lot is actually malformed.  The interior movements may have even harkened to Hieronymus Bosch – they had the skeletons dancing in hell and blurts on what might have been the bizarre musical instruments Bosch portrayed.  The Philharmonic provided raw playing – not just the winds, but even the strings came across like a lush hurdy-gurdy.

The final movement started by suggesting it might resolve this craziness and rise above the din, but as the music soared it revealed itself as the Angel of Death.  And then… when we may have expected death to warm over, it became instead frigid. As blood spilled upon the ice, it hardened solid.  I did not time how long it took from the last note to fade until Blomstedt released the room, but it certainly felt like a full two minutes of complete silence.  No one in the packed hall even breathed.  We couldn’t.  No air remained in the room.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Mahler

The final subscription concert of the 2018-19 season by the Mozarteum Orchestra under chief conductor Riccardo Minasi had a single work this morning: the Symphony #5 by Gustav Mahler.  While they easily could have had something else on the program before an intermission, in a sense it was good for them to keep this focus.  Minasi’s own background as a violinist who had specialized in early music and the baroque, and his recent conducting career in which he has preferred short(er) pieces must have made Mahler quite foreign to him.  But in becoming chief conductor here, he has clearly intended to expand his repertory.

There is something to say about hearing a work like Mahler’s in a fresh interpretation, by someone not so familiar with the Fach but willing to learn.  What we got was indeed a refreshing performance, with Minasi demonstratively coaxing competing lines from the orchestra.  The symphony itself is a competition between dance and despair, and Minasi tweaked and tucked to pull out both the dissonance and the fact that with Mahler the two aspects really belong together.  This began from the opening funeral march (parsed through a limping dance) and went right the way through to the final triumphant (if only hopefully-so) chorale.

The emphasis on various stray lines highlighted the complexities of the music – rather than blending it all together – and the orchestra in general responded with exquisite playing (a few stray notes and blotches notwithstanding – my second concert in a row with this orchestra where I am noticing more of these issues), particularly exceptional and evocative in the woodwinds and principal trumpet and horn.

What did not work so well was bringing the principal horn down to the front of the stage (even forward of where a soloist would stand during a concerto) during the third movement.  Although that movement features the solo horn quite a bit (albeit this is Mahler, so really not much more than usual), it did not have enough solo lines to justify the strange positioning, and the poor hornist fidgeting during the long periods when he did not have lines, wondering what on earth he was supposed to do standing there at the lip of the stage in front of Minasi.  But I’ll give Minasi points for his creativity and desire to tackle something new (for him) in a thoughtful manner.  The orchestra was also quite enthusiastic, as was the audience which gave an extended applause.

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Haydn, Gruber, Mahler, Grieg

This evening’s concert by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Juanjo Mena in Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart confirmed my impression yesterday, but exceeded the result.  First, the musical selection was better tonight.  Second, I had a seat with passable acoustics.  And third, I finally did not have to stifle a cough, so I was more comfortable (still a little congested, but not much of an issue any more).

Joseph Haydn‘s trumpet concerto opened the concert, again with Håkan Hardenberger as soloist.  This was the first modern trumpet concerto – the keyed trumpet had just been invented, allowing a trumpet to have the full range of notes, and Haydn was the first to write for it, combining his usual good humor with a demonstration of the new instrument’s capabilities.  Hardenberger plays everything idiomatically, and here was no exception, a warm tone throughout.

We then switched gears entirely for a different type of trumpet concerto: H. K. Gruber‘s Three MOB Pieces, originally for jazz septet here rescored for trumpet and orchestra in a version the composer did for Hardenberger himself several years back.  Gruber has never explained what “MOB” stands for (he has implied but not confirmed “mobility”).  They are American big-band-inspired works, and in this performing version a nice showpiece for Hardenberger (actually three different showpieces, performed on three different trumpets).  Not really my thing, and unclear if this is appropriate music for an orchestral concert, but it allowed a display of virtuosity and was not as pointless as the Wallin concerto last night.

After the break came another first symphony – not Brahms, as we had last night, but Gustav Mahler.  Salzburg is the location of the (likely apocryphal) story in which Brahms complained to Mahler while walking along the Salzach River that after Beethoven had said everything there was to be said with music, it was now impossible to write anything new.  Mahler pointed out at the river and said: “Look, Maestro!  Here comes the last wave!”  So Brahms’ first symphony was a mature work which said nothing new (water under the bridge, as it were).  Mahler’s was a youthful work which marked the next wave in the flowing river.

With this much to work with, Mena and the Bergen Philharmonic excelled, producing a full, emotional, and ultimately exuberant performance.  This orchestra once again demonstrated its complete sound, with strong solo lines magnifying the full impact.  Mena again looked like he was molding clay, but this was a much higher-quality clay, and the life he breathed into it showed.  The symphony indeed came alive.  The audience reception agreed, with a much bigger applause than last night (they earned it last night, but the music was less compelling – tonight just went in total to the next level).  Two additional encores from Edvard Grieg‘s incidental music to Peer Gynt rounded off the performance (one was “Morning;” the other I can’t quite remember what the segment is) with more enthusiastic responses and smiles all around.

My seat this evening was up top on the side – I’ve actually sat in almost the equivalent seat on the other side before, and thought it was OK, so now I know where to sit in this hall.  Sitting over the orchestra, the sound came straight up to me.  I have had other seats up top before too, which were OK.  Now I realize where the sound goes in this hall: right to the ceiling – from the other seats I’ve been in lower down, it has sounded like it was trapped in a box.  Given that the other two halls in the Festival complex have good acoustics, one wonders how they got this one so wrong.  And the name is stupid too, as I’ve remarked before.  Why “House for Mozart” (not to be confused with “Mozart’s House” and “Mozart’s Birth House” both open as museums in Salzburg)?  Why not “Mozart Hall” – or, given the number of things named for Mozart already in this town, why not name it after someone else?  Or since there is a “Great Festival House” next door, even the prosaic “Little Festival House” would even work.  At any rate, looking through the windows of the Great Festival House, the renovations are well underway and the sooner we get concerts back there the better.  Maybe they can rip this hall out next year (ahead of the Festival’s 100th anniversary) and replace it with a new hall with decent acoustics.

London Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

For the third year in a row, Mahler‘s Ninth graced the program at the Salzburg Festival, each with a different orchestra and conductor, and thus interpretation.  Tonight, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra provided a surprisingly happy reading… which left me a little befuddled.  It was indeed a good performance, but not quite as I might have expected, and at the opposite end of the interpretative spectrum from the anguish of Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic last year.

Rattle’s interpretation was missing what would normally be the key ingredient for Mahler: angst.  The London Symphony Orchestra replicated its joy and lilt and overall good humor from last night (Rattle must certainly have more fun with them than with the Berlin Philharmonic).  The symphony presented itself as a series of dances – albeit off-kilter (and by the end of the third movement rather frantic).  Even the outer movements became boisterous.  Only at the very end, where the symphony fades away, did the mood get contained, but given what had come before this seemed to describe a life fully lived.  The only problem was that Mahler was pensive even on a good day, and he wrote this symphony while dying and consumed by superstition, so Rattle’s take on it was peculiar, to say the least.

The Orchestra responded, however.  As I noted yesterday, the strings do sound a tad thin, and tonight the winds now and then cracked some notes.  So maybe I need to hear this orchestra more (and perhaps after Rattle has had more time with them) before reaching a conclusion.  Top ten certainly – probably more personality than Berlin (even when performing under Rattle).

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Zimmermann, Mahler

 

I went to hear Mahler‘s 2nd for the first time since my father died.  He would have liked this spectacular, emotive performance by the Vienna Philharmonic and Andris Nelsons in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

Nelsons gave the performance extra drama – this is, of course, an orchestra drawn from an opera house, which knows better than most how to use music to augment the impact on the audience, so they bought in to Nelsons’ reading.  Essentially, Nelsons kept the lid on the first movement, making it almost delicate and mysterious.  This allowed him to draw out individual lines to highlight anguish and pain.  When the music swelled to crescendo, it proved devastating.  And then came the almost playful second and third movements, as interludes, almost classical in proportions (despite a full Mahler-sized orchestra).  The fourth movement – “premordial light” – shone.  Then we returned to the approach of the first movement… except whereas the first movement was a “celebration of death” the final movement is one of life and renewal and triumph.  Nelsons never lost sight of that ever-broadening smile among the tears.

Soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova, and the Bavarian Radio Chorus sang beautifully.  At the end: silence, even after Nelsons dropped his arms and released the room.  Only when he turned to look out over the stunned hall did tentative clapping begin, swelling slowly.  The audience stayed standing in our seats to applaud until 11 p.m., at which point Nelsons and the Philharmonic decided they (and we) should probably go home.

 

Before the intermission came Bernd Alois Zimmermann‘s Trumpet Concerto “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See” with soloist Håkan Hardenberger.  I suppose Nelsons chose this to somehow set up his interpretation of Mahler.  The work, in one long movement, has a colorful orchestral backdrop that starts in dissonance, moves through dancing jazz, and finishes in mystery, sort of the reverse of his interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd.  On top of this, the trumpet moves through a variety of styles.  And who better than Hardenberger, whose versatility shines, to interpret this.  The work was actually fun – despite the undercurrent (inspired by an old Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” the German Zimmermann wrote it shortly after his own country had checked out of the human race for a few years as a sort-of self-indulgent Schadenfreude to highlight American racism, but he undermined his own message somewhat by changing the title to parody black American English).  But in the end, juxtaposed to the Mahler, it was unconvincing.  It was written decades after Mahler, so it is not like Zimmermann could set up Mahler or provide influence; Mahler was also fresher, more original, and managed to carry his work over five movements and more than an hour and a quarter.

As an aside: I had been disappointed to not have my application accepted for tickets for Salome by Richard Strauss at this year’s Festival.  But opening night was televised, so I at least watched that.

The staging, by an Italian, Romeo Castellucci was terrible.  His biography does not indicate any German connection, but watching this performance I might have assumed he could have been German or German-trained, given how little relevance his staging had to the plot and a desire to shock for sake of shock – opera in Germany is all about these narcissist imbecilic directors.  The characters wandering around the stage – sometimes stopping and standing in place, sometimes also contorting themselves, had no bearing to anything.  The literature indicated he thought the Dance of the Seven Veils was the culmination, but he did not have Salome dance.  Instead, after Herod left the stage (so he did not even get to see the dance), Castellucci had Salome tied immobile to the top of a pedestal labeled “SAXA” – Latin for “rocks” – and had a large hewn rock descend slowly from the ceiling to crush her (apparently it was hollow, because she survived to sing the next scene).  John the Baptist (who sang in blackface carrying a tambourine) appeared to share his cistern cell with a horse (!?), so that when they brought his head out, they actually brought the horse’s out instead.  The Baptist’s naked headless body (white skin – so I won’t even begin to guess why Castellucci portrayed him in blackface – probably to shock, or he’s just a racist, I don’t know) did come on stage at the end, and she made out with that corpse and kissed where his lips would have been if he had still had a head.  Salome was not killed at the end either (why should she be? – “kill that woman!” are only the opera’s final words, and the music describes her death).  It really is not worth recapping the rest of this garbage.  I suppose I am now pleased I did not pay for tickets.

The one redeeming feature: the Armenian-Lithuanian soparano Asmik Grigoryan as an expressive, physcologically tortured, Salome.  Franz Welser-Möst led the Philharmonic (which reminded me that I had seen an even worse staging of this opera in Zurich many years ago with him conducting).  If I had only heard this on the radio, I would have been impressed.

 

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

Back in the Great Festival House, the dour Finns sounded much better this evening for a program of Schostakowitsch and Mahler.  The Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki seemed more comfortable than on Wednesday, as did cellist Truls Mørk with the Schostakowitsch concerto more in his comfort zone than the Elgar.

Mørk’s Schostakowitsch was paranoid – as though the Soviet police might come on stage at any moment and arrest and deport him.  Mälkki bought into this, and a certain nervousness pervaded everything.  This was not so much Schostakowitsch triumphing over Stalin, but more basic survival… for now.

Hearing a Finnish orchestra do Mahler was a treat.  Tonight came his 9th Symphony, which allowed this group to keep their melancholic mood going from Wednesday.  This approach worked best in the third movement, for a off-kilter dance, and especially in the pensive final movement.  Mälkki is still a bit too blockish in her approach, which broke up the flow of the first two movements – and oddly meant less precision where Mahler’s lines run into or against each other.  But she warmed, the music cooled, and the audience was left hanging in the balance, where we belonged, questioning our existence.  She and the orchestra earned a much bigger and warmer applause than on Wednesday, well deserved this evening.

Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Schnittke, Beethoven, Mahler, Martin

I added tonight’s concert of the Camerata Salzburg to an eclectic Mozarteum subscription package on a whim.  I have no idea why.  I certainly did not expect that chamber music by Alfred Schnittke and Frank Martin could be so much fun.

The music was certainly unconventional and gave me a lot to digest (even before dinner – I think all the unexpected digestion made me hungry early tonight).  The concert opened with Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso #1 for two violins, cembalo, “prepared” piano, and strings.  Stylistically this was everywhere (from Corelli to the tango, according to the program), but never felt out of control.  I would need to hear it again to understand if Schnittke had some logic to its construction, but even without quite understanding it at this point I could safely feel he must have had one.  The two violin parts were taken by the Camerata’s concertmaster Gregory Ahss and guest Andrey Baranov, who played together with one mind.  Jumping robustly from musical style to style, they somehow made it sound easy – and it could not have been (must be hard enough if it were a solo violin, but two of them together made the effort more dauting – but achieved).  A quick encore by these two (and piano accompaniment) of a Beethoven piece as arranged by Schostakowitsch was more conventional but equally as impressive.

The concert’s last piece was Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante for harp, cembalo, piano, and string orchestra – commissioned to provide a baroque continuo orchestra with a modern work.  Martin accepted the challenge, producing something classical in form but modern in substance.  Although not as boisterous as the Schnittke piece, it remained tonal but always sounding new.  What did Martin have to say exactly?  Again, like the Schnittke, I am not sure.  This is another piece I will absolutely and gladly need to hear again some time.

Tonight’s conductor was Teodor Currentzis, the Russian-trained Greek whose career got stuck in Perm, Siberia.  I heard him for the first time last season in front of the Camerata, and noticed then that he showed a great rapport with this group (they had just kicked out their previous unexciting music director and had decided to try to do without one, but I had thought they should snap up Currentzis – indeed, I still think they should).  Currentzis had returned to Salzburg for last Summer’s Festival at the head of his own orchestra from Perm, which was unfortunate (too much performance art and not enough performance), but the Camerata is a far better orchestra than his usual one, so the music was foremost tonight, and Currentzis drew it out.

I did have one gripe with tonight’s performance, coming in the form of Gustav Mahler‘s Kindertotenlieder.  Currentzis lost it on this one: he insisted on adding his own sound effects (making hush sounds throughout the cycle, perhaps mimicking crashing waves, although I don’t really know what he was trying to do).  He really does need to tone down the performance art and stick to music.  Fortunately, the Camerata went on with its business and sounded fantastic.  Mezzo Ann Hallenberg had a warm and full lower register that almost made me forget it was not a baritone voice tonight (the usual voice for this song cycle – although using a mezzo instead is perfectly acceptable too). Her upper registers were not always quite as complete (or accurate) though.

Musica Aeterna Orchestra of the Perm Opera, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Berg, Mahler

The “Musica Aeterna” Orchestra of the Perm Opera certainly provided the most unusual reading of Mahler‘s First Symphony (the third live performance of the work I have heard this year), paired with Berg‘s Violin Concerto in Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule.

It’s not that it was necessarily bad – it wasn’t – but they tried too hard to make it more performance art than performance.  Less of the former and more of the latter would have been nice.

Conducting was Teodor Currentzis, whom I first heard last Fall with the Camerata Salzburg and thought was quite promising.  I think he still is, but he seems to have let spectacle get the better of him.  Currentzis is a Greek who studied in Russia and whose career seems to have gotten stuck in Siberia.  He’s beginning to venture back out.  He founded this orchestra (with a Latin name – why?) in 2004 – one wonders what the Perm Opera used for an orchestra until then.

Russian orchestras have a distinctive timbre, mostly from the method of playing the wind instruments.  This works surprisingly well for Mahler.  However, this orchestra does not sound Russian at all, and instead has a rather homogenized sound, which is unfortunate.  Perhaps to make up for this lack of distinction (which I suppose he wants – it’s his orchestra, after all, and always has been!), Currentzis plays with the volume to exaggerate the dynamic range.  This produces delicate rather than robust playing for the quieter moments (even when quiet robust would be wanted) and big swells of sound to the larger moments.  The overall tone is not bad, it’s just the orchestra seems to use dynamics as a substitute for actually inflecting the music.

For the Mahler, Currentzis had the orchestra stand rather than sit (except for those instruments that have to be played sitting down).    The musicians did not seem to know what to do, fidgeting from leg to leg (or in some cases, especially the concertmaster, more than fidgeting – he kept jumping around, up and down, and almost off the stage).  Visually this became distracting.  And while there may be times (chamber orchestras in confined spaces, for example) where standing might be preferable, an hour-long Mahler symphony is not one of those times.

Tacked onto the Mahler First came an encore – the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth.  Lacking the big swells of the Mahler First, this single movement lent itself even less to the performance style and made the delicate playing sound altogether too thin (especially for the drawn-out slow movement speed).

The first half of the concert had also been for show.  Members of the orchestra started playing – or, rather, making noises on – their instruments before Currentzis and soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja came on stage.  These noises were, I think, supposed to be aetherial noises to set a mood.  Again, they served only to showcase performance art over performance.  Currentzis and Kopatchinskaja tip-toed on stage during this nonsense (Kopatchinskaja barefoot – as is her wont – but also taking a random detour through the orchestra on her way in), and then jumped right into Berg’s concerto.

Berg’s Violin Concerto is a difficult enough work to figure out – except during the occasional lapses when Berg actually tried to write (and succeeded in writing) music.  The weird intro did not help this understanding.  At least the orchestra was sitting down for this one.

Again, it’s not that the performance was bad, it was just they tried too hard to make it performance art.  They should stick to music.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mahler

Gustav Mahler‘s farewell to life: his last completed work, the ninth symphony, filled him with superstitious dread.  His symphonic idiom drew from Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner, who had not exceeded nine symphonies (using the official numberings – Schubert’s supposedly-lost symphony that got a number seems to have actually been his unfinished #8 and not an entirely different one, and Bruckner wrote two, #0 and #00, which he excluded from his own numbering).  The symphony received its premiere in 1912, one year after Mahler’s death.

 

There are a number of ways to approach this symphony.  In taking perhaps the most anguished possible interpretation at Salzburg’s Great Festival House this morning, Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic may have unleashed the best – and most devastating – performance I have heard of the work.  This was a heart-wrenching version, the instruments growling and hissing and mocking the soul.  Haitink coaxed virtuoso playing from each individual musician, representations of awaiting death (but also an entirely new harmonic language Mahler had developed, a logical if radical continuation of his unique style which went on to influence Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School).  Even when the middle movements danced, this was not a dance with death so much as a dance with death hovering in the corner of the room, darkening the dancers with its monstrous shadow.

 

This interpreation highlighted an expansive adagio finale as the cousin of the adagio finale of Mahler’s third symphony.  But whereas the third ends triumphant, the ninth sinks into despair, fading to nil.

 

The Philharmonic’s principal clarinet died suddenly of a heart attack a few days ago, and one wonders if his departure hung over the orchestra.  The audience breathed deeply and stood.  We may be so used to this orchestra that we expect the most from them, and so standing ovations don’t come often.  But sometimes even the great Philharmoniker exceeds itself as it did this morning.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

The Mozarteum Orchestra presented the final Sunday matinee of its subscription series this year.  It’s a fine provincial band, on a par with Rotterdam Philharmonic or the City of Birmingham Symphony or Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra (which itself gave me two and a half years’ enjoyment during my time living there from 2000-2002, although I have not had a chance to hear it again in well over a decade).

Salzburg’s own great local cellist Clemens Hagen joined guest conductor Constantinos Carydis and the orchestra for Schotakowitsch‘s cello concerto.  Together, they depicted a desolate Russian wasteland, where every soul struggles to survive life in the Evil Empire.  Schostakowitsch’s own signature notes D-S-C-H permeated the whole score, pushing forwards as those around him had been liquidated by the brutal regime.  Here he was defiant, but kept his head down: soloist and orchestra were never over-bearing, and kept their performance almost restrained, and with an edge to it that Russian performers would understand.  The meaning was clear.  The principal hornist sat amidst the viole to engage Hagen in more dialogue: was he hiding there as a spy, or was he simply a trusted friend out of place?  The music kept this ambiguous, indeed as life must have been in the Soviet Union, or indeed Russia today.

On an ominous note, in the middle of the slow movement a member of the bass section collapsed on stage.  The music stopped while he was carried off, and then the movement started over.  After the intermission they announced that he had merely fainted and was fine, but the optics added to the somber mood.  Hagen tried to cut this with a somewhat more up-beat encore, which sounded like it may have been Bach, but really we needed nothing else.

The Mahler first symphony after the intermission was a bit anti-climactic.  The first movement launched with a certain dynamism.  But then Carydis decided to insert the so-called “Blumine” movement – the bit Mahler extracted from an earlier work he had ripped up and inserted here, only to decide almost immediately that it didn’t belong here either and so he removed again.  When the Norrköpingers performed this symphony here last month, they gave us the “Blumine” movement as an encore and made it work as a stand-alone fragment, but inserting it here demonstrated why Mahler rejected it.  This reading was less compelling and also sapped the emotion and drive from the entire symphony.  When the usual second movement (now third) came along, the orchestra had not quite recovered from the pointless diversion.  For the rest of the symphony, Carydis tried to re-capture the initial dynamism by modulating the volume, keeping some passages unnaturally quiet and then exploding in others.  The orchestra responded well, but I still wonder what they might have done had they not lost the momentum in the “Blumine.”

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mendelssohn, Lecuona, Stravinsky, Mahler

Tonight I had quite a discovery in Salzburg’s Great Festival House: the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra from Sweden.  This orchestra sprung to the rescue for a two-night set in Salzburg when the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra canceled its European tour (as the result of a budget crisis, I have been told).  The new orchestra generously took over kept the same conductor (Florian Krumpöck), soloists, and program as the Jerusalemites (Jerusalemers? Yerushalaimi? what is the adjectival form of Jerusalem anyway?) with one substitution tonight – Mahler‘s First instead of his Ninth (so I’ll get the First twice within one month, as the Mozarteum Orchestra has it scheduled for my next Sunday subscription concert in May).

 

A number of conductors have launched their careers in Norrköping, among them Herbert Blomstedt and Franz Welser-Möst, but for some reason I’ve never heard of it.  Now I have, and that makes me happy.

 

The concert tonight led off with Felix Mendelssohn‘s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which he wrote when he was only fourteen and of which he and his sister Fanny gave the premiere (also performing the orchestra parts between them, since they lacked an orchestra and only had the two pianos).  For what it was, it showed the composer’s real talent – but it was essentially only reworked Mozart and not one of his finer works  (by the composer’s own recognition – he never published it).  Still, it did provide a platform for Felix and Fanny to show off their enormous talents, and they probably had fun with it as the Israeli duo of Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg (not sister and brother, but a married couple) clearly had fun together tonight, throwing lines of music back and forth at each other from two interlocking pianos.

 

Silver and Garburg then gave us two encores on a single piano but with four hands.  First came Ernesto Lecuona‘s Malagueña, followed by an arrangement of the opening of Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky (as much as they hammed it up, it’s still better orchestrated).

 

After the intermission came the anticipated Mahler First, the substitution.  Actually, as an earlier composition by Mahler, it probably was a better choice to come after the youthful Mendelssohn work.  The orchestra performed the symphony in technicolor – this was quite an exuberant performance.  They captured the dancing melodies better than the underlying melancholic ones, but that made it happier, I suppose.  Unfortunately, conductor Krumpöck intentionally could not keep a temp – he kept switching tempi radically throughout, the way Leopold Stokowski used to alter some works to make them (he thought) more dramatic.  But when the work is already dramatic, these sudden and unwarranted tempo shifts all over the place just make it confused.

 

As another encore, Krumpöck and the Nörrkopingers gave us Mahler’s so-called “Blumine” movement, which I actually do not believe I have ever heard live before (only recordings).  This was a movement from an early piece of incidental music Mahler wrote.  When he discarded that other work (no copies are known to have survived), he stuffed this one movement into a draft of his First Symphony, since it had some melodic ties (as do many of Mahler’s works with each other), but then thought better of it so removed it again.  Mahler was right not to include it in his symphony, but the Norrköpingers made a good case for it as a symphonic fragment standing by itself.

 

Let’s see what they do with Beethoven and Bruckner tomorrow.