Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

Although live music has indeed resumed in Austria, I probably won’t get any until the Salzburg Festival.  So I continue to try to identify highlights online.

Janáček: The Makropoulos Affair (Staatsoper)

I was in the audience at the Staatsoper on the day this performance of Janáček’s Makropoulos Affair was recorded, and remember it as one of my musical highlights from 2015.  This is a very strange opera, which even some non-German directors have used as an excuse to turn it into a too-fantastical staging.  Here, a German director, Peter Stein, broke with the dross his countrymen usually produce and went the other direction, with a straightforward staging that made the plot understandable, and brought the underlying humor to the fore of the dark plot (the opera was based on a comic play, without itself becoming a comic opera).  An excellent cast (including Laura Aikin, Ludovít Ludha, Thomas Ebenstein, Margarita Gritskova, Markus Marquardt, and Wolfgang Bankl) ran with it from there.  Jakub Hrůša conducted idiomatically.  Indeed, this was worth seeing again – remaining fresh while every bit the success that I had remembered (see my original review on this blog from 20 December 2015).

Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera (Staatsoper)

I do not believe I have seen Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera since I was a kid.  I have distinct memories of watching Luciano Pavarotti’s terrible acting skills try to navigate the prolonged death scene in more than one “Live from the Met” telecast, and I also have an old Met libretto on my bookshelf, so I must have also seen it there live, too.  It’s wonderful music, but had completely fallen off my radar (I do own one complete recording, which I have probably not listened to in twenty years).  So when I saw the cast assembled for this streaming of a 2016 performance from the Staatsoper, and also that they were using a opulent staging which also restored the action to Sweden (as opposed to colonial Boston, where the censors made Verdi move the plot and where it is therefore most commonly set), I decided this was as good an opportunity as any to remind myself of this opera.

Jesús López Cobos conducted with verve, nicely supporting Gianfranco de Bosio’s staging – neither was more than it needed to be, a sumptuous container in which the cast members could showcase their own talents.  Piotr Beczala and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (already dying of cancer when they filmed this) elegantly portrayed the lead characters Gustav III and René Ankarström, with able support from Krassimira Stoyanova (a gorgeous dark lower register) as Amelia, Nadia Krasteva as Ulrica, and Hila Fahima (with a tremendous stage presence whenever she appeared, standing out even in a supporting role) as Oscar.

During the opera, there was quite a bit of overt flirtation going on between the page Oscar and King Gustav III (who died here in Oscar’s embrace), which seemed very odd to me.  But as I started doing some background reading, I discovered that the real-life King Gustav was apparently a rather flamboyant homosexual.  So by moving the plot back to Sweden from Boston, de Bosio presumably decided to also restore the King’s homosexuality.  However, in a fictious plot centered on a love affair between the King and the wife of his closest advisor (in reality, Ankarström was not the King’s advisor, was not named René but Jacob Johan, did not assassinate the king over a love affair but rather because Gustav was a despotic autocrat who also broke up privileges for the unenlightened nobility, and did not receive a pardon from the king as in this opera plot but was instead executed), I’m not sure making the King gay made any sense in elucidating the plot and indeed contradicted it (OK, if he was gay, then he was gay, but then making the plot about his heterosexual affair made no sense… but it’s historical fiction and his love affair with Amelia is indeed the opera’s plot for better or worse).  But that oddity aside, restoring the plot to Sweden from its usual reassignment to colonial Boston did enable a more lavish setting, not to mention that it was simply more sensible this way.

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra (Staatsoper)

I have a certain fondness for Verdi’s dark-colored opera Simon Boccanegra, perhaps because it is one of the least tuneful of his works.  The original version flopped massively, and several decades later the brilliant Arrigo Boito revised the libretto and a more mature Verdi reworked the music, in the process creating a real drama.  I saw this production live at the Staatsoper in 2008, but here they streamed a 2018 performance, starring Thomas Hampson in the title role – a somewhat more dashing Boccanegra than in a normal portrayal.  As Jacopo Fiesco, Dmitry Belosselskiy also may have taken a non-standard approach to his role, making this grandfather (already a grandfather when the opera opens, and thirty years older by its conclusion) into a somewhat more robust character.  The interplay created a more exciting dynamic in their confrontations in the prologue, as well as in the final act (as the poison ate away at Boccanegra, and Hampson became accordingly haggard).  Marina Rebeka as Amelia had a tender voice that she could ramp up with real power.  The minimal staging itself, by Peter Stein, was simple and unpretentious – as if to prove that a German director can actually stage an opera (it was not a great staging, but gave a sufficient platform for the cast to do the work – by German standards that counts as a triumph these days).  Evelino Pidò conducted.

Prokofiev: The Gambler (Mariinsky Theater)

The Mariinsky has provided a stream of yet another rarely-performed opera, this time Prokofiev’s Gambler, in a 2010 performance.  The dialogue-heavy plot is dense, and without a libretto or subtitles I certainly missed a lot.  However, I could find the plot summary on line, and with the clear staging by Temur Chkheidze I did essentially follow along.  Unlike War and Peace, which I have tried to get into in each of the last two weeks, Prokofiev succeeded in producing drama here, something I could tell even without fully comprehending the text.  The music, not tuneful (but not having to be) also fully supported Prokofiev’s concept in a substantial way that the composer’s music for War and Peace did not.  Vladimir Galuzin (Alexei), Sergei Aleksashkin (the General), Nikolai Gassiev (the Marquis) led the way with Larisa Diadkova (Babulenka) adding her wry humor to the mix.  Valery Gergiev put it all together from the podium.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Bruckner

The Philadelphia Orchestra marked the tenth anniversary of signing its contract with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, one of the most exciting conductors of his generation, with a luscious performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony filmed in May 2014.  The annual concert in memory of my father got eaten by covid in April, so this online streaming substituted.  My father loved this symphony (and I think it may have been his father’s favorite).  I have heard it a million times, but heard new nuances in this performance.  Nézet-Séguin made sure to highlight the woodwinds especially in the first movement – without diminishing the strings and brass, but reminding us that Bruckner took great care in these inner lines, which give his music so much extra color.  A brutal reading of the scherzo followed, with Bruckner breaking down conventions and moving music towards the twentieth century.  As an antidote, the Orchestra’s lush strings drew out a delicate adagio, even as it swelled into what must have seemed impossible chromatics, as Bruckner approached the abyss, setting up a final movement that Bruckner never completed (and which was not performed here, as per normal practice).  While there are some versions that have been conjured up mostly out of fantasy with no basis on Bruckner’s sketches, Bruckner was actually very close to completing the final movement, and likely did complete the sketch and most of the orchestration, but some of his eager students ran off with the paper from his desk as souvenirs, and the movement has only been slowly reconstructed in recent years by the Bruckner Society in Vienna, showing that Bruckner had indeed stared over the abyss to see the end of the world.  But the three completed movements suffice to tell a story.

An interview with Rafael Viñoly, the architect of the Kimmel Center, preceded the concert.  While Viñoly correctly mentioned the centrality of hearing the music, he never really explained why he could not be bothered to design a hall with decent acoustics.  The hall itself looks nice enough (it is shaped like the inside of a cello, and uses a pleasant dark wood with warm coloring), but aside from a few seats where the orchestra is fully audible, in most seats (and I indeed have intentionally sat in many locations) the orchestra sounds distant, as though playing behind a scrim.  As its onlyintended use was as a concert hall, this makes it a complete failure of architecture, no matter what it might look like.  And the hall itself is not the only failure.  Outside the concert hall itself, but inside the overall shell of the building, the Kimmel Center is quite simply a horrible space: busy but cramped, open but difficult to move around in, and generally jarringly noisy ruining the mood coming and going from concerts.  In the pre-concert interview, Viñoly said the right things about his motivation and music, but then never actually explained why his architectural concept took none of his motivations into account.  The Kimmel Center truly is an awful venue.  As I wrote here last week, I find it an absolute travesty that this wonderful orchestra does not have a home with decent acoustics.  Those who live in Philadelphia will have to make do.  For everyone else: go hear the Orchestra on tour in a proper venue.  (My choices for best concert halls where I have myself attended concerts: 1. the Tonhalle in Zurich; 2. the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory; and 3. the Musikverein in Vienna, although I recognize that certain seats in the Musikverein are problematic acoustically even if most are tremendous, I don’t think there are any bad seats in my first or second choices.  I have so far never been to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, hence have not included that famed hall on my list but intend to get there for a concert some day; I have lived in Zurich, Moscow, and Vienna, so have tried seats in many locations in those three halls to get a good sense of their acoustics.)

Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 10)

Highlights

Still no live music.   Here is a selection of what I’ve been streaming online.

Strauß: Die Fledermaus (Vienna Philharmonic)

The “Fidelio” streaming service gave me a choice of performances of Johann Strauß II’s Fledermaus, so it seemed worth having some fun with a 1972 film version I had not seen before.  Directed by Otto Schenk with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm, it included a cast of Viennese regulars.  This opera is always best left in the hands of the Viennese, and here it was no different, with maximum fun.  The staging and acting were completely over-the-top, but no one can really try to make this farce believable, so why not push everything too far?  They also clearly lip-synched over the singing, which was a little disconcerting at times, but on the other hand meant that the cast did not have to worry too much about singing while they acted out (or over-acted out) their parts.  Gundula Janowitz (Rosalinde), Eberhard Wächter (Gabriel von Eisenstein), Renate Holm (Adele), Waldemar Kmentt (Alfred), Erich Kunz (Frank), Heinz  Holacek (Dr. Falke), and Sylvia Lukan (Ida), not to mention Schenk himself (as to be expected) in the non-singing role of Frosch, all contributed to the romp.  The main failing was actually Prince Orlofsky, which in this version instead of a mezzo dressed as a man was transposed for the Wagnerian Heldentenor Wolfgang Windgassen, who was totally unsuited for this role (recasting this for a male voice seems to fail every time it is attempted) – and since part of the comedy is giving the prince an outrageous Russian accent, Windgassen also failed on that as well (he tried, but he just could not master the accent).  That was a shame as it did interfere with the otherwise non-stop humorous flow of this production.

  • [Recording tips: Although the leading members of the cast are not Viennese, my favorite recording of Die Fledermaus is the 1972 one conducted by Willi Boskovsky, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1936-1979 – no one captured Strauß better than he did, which is why he led the Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert from 1955 until his retirement.  In this recording, he conducted Vienna’s second orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (if not the Philharmonic, then excellent in its own right – one wonders though why they did not engage the Philharmonic).  The cast includes Nicolai Gedda, Anneliese Rothenberger, Renate Holm – as in the film – Brigitte Fassbänder, Adolf Dallapozza, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Walter Berry, Senta Wengraf, and of course Otto Schenk in his obligatory appearance as Frosch.]

Weber: Der Freischütz (Staatsoper)

I have not seen Carl Maria von Weber’s Freischütz in years, and indeed do not remember when I last listened to it complete either (although I have two perfectly good complete recordings).  So I was long overdue, and checked the Staatsoper’s options to see which available cast I preferred (both of the options the Staatsoper steamed this month were from 2018).  In my excitement, I neglected to check who directed.  The curtain opened and I instantly knew the director had to be yet another awful German poseur (for the record, some dolt named Christian Räth).  Given the nonsense these German opera directors produce, one advantage of streaming at home is that I actually don’t have to watch – maybe I could try to figure it out, but I’ve seen enough German schlock to realize it’s all about the Regisseur and never about the opera.  So I guess I still have not seen Der Freischütz in years.  Yet from the Staatsoper orchestra and chorus – under Tomáš Netopil – all sounded well.  There was a lot of excess stage noise, which I assume had to do with the staging itself (I’d say it was distracting, but in a good staging some appropriate noise can augment the experience; what was happening on the stage here would have been distracting enough, so I suppose more noise might not make any impact for people trapped in the theater forced to watch whatever this Räth dumped on stage).  I also noted that they added to the dialogue – what seemed to be a German attempt at humor (yet another thing the Piefkes are apparently incapable of).  It’s hard to be critical of the cast, since they were forced to “act” out this thing and probably wished they were anywhere else except on this stage.  In fact, they all sounded agitated.  But somehow out of the wreckage I managed to appreciate Alan Held as Kaspar and Camilla Nylund as Agathe.

  • [Recording tips: I have two complete recordings.  Is either of them the best available?  I don’t know, but they are both good.  One is a 1960 Bavarian Radio production with Eberhard Wächter, Albrecht Peter, Irmgard Seefried, Rita Streich, Kurt Böhme, and Richard Hold, conducted by Eugen Jochum.  The other is from the German Opera Berlin in 1967, with Claudio Nicolai, Fritz Ollendorf, Claire Watson, Lotte Schädle, Gottlob Frick, and Rudolf Schock.]

Wagner: Lohengrin (Metropolitan Opera)

I remember the Metropolitan Opera sounding its best on a consistent basis during the early/mid-1980s, when I rarely missed a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast.  This made me especially pleased to see that the Met has streamed some older recordings from its archives, and not just the recent productions from the last decade.  I wavered on whether to watch Wagner’s Lohengrin, mostly because the singer in the title role – Peter Hofmann – was not very good (I never understood why he had such a following back then; he was – quite literally – a rock star who crossed into opera, but although he could be loud and dynamic, he couldn’t really sing very well).  But then I have not listened to any recordings of Hofmann in decades for that reason (he retired from the opera stage in the late 1980s, although he continued to sing rock an pop music for another decade), and hearing him again now, although my opinion remains, I realize I have heard many far worse nominal Heldentenors since Hofmann.  So he may not have been very good, but it seems he may have been better than average.  Eva Marton, then at the height of her powers, sang Elsa.  Leonie Rysanek approached the end of her career singing a darker role but no less strident and with a tremendous stage presence as Ortrud.

Leif Roar (Telramund), was a little rough but full of character, while John Macurdy (who died earlier this month) was an expressive King Heinrich.  James Levine, in his heyday, marshalled the Met Orchestra, from the mystical overture through to the larger martial passages.  The staging was sensible – not lavish, but enough to frame the action – by August Everding, a German left over from the days when German directors still understood opera.  That said, he did not really add understanding to the opera and there were some odd decisions.  For example, he could have used a swan – in the first act, the cast looked stage-front singing about a swan, but then Lohengrin emerged without one from behind them, which was weird; the swan also did not appear in the third act (nor is it clear how Lohengrin departed – maybe he walked back to Spain).  The blocking was also a bit static in general, maybe most notably so during the duel between Lohengrin and Telramund, where they mostly just looked at each other.  But I will still take this no-frills direction any day over the stuff German Regisseurs spew out these days.

  • [Recording tips: I naturally have more excerpts from Lohengrin than I can count, and I probably don’t know how many of “In fernem Land” specifically (nor do I have a favorite). For complete recordings, I go to one of two, depending on my mood.  Probably the best in terms of overall cast composition, orchestral coloring, and sound, would be the version recorded in 1985-86 by George Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Plácido Domingo in the title role, and with Jessye Norman, Eva Randová, Siegmund Nimsgern, and Hans Sotin.  A 1941 live performance from the Met in New York has its reasons to savor as well, though: Lauritz Melchior sang the title role, with Astrid Varnay, Kerstin Thorborg, Alexander Sved, and Norman Cordon; Erich Leinsdorf conducted.]

Puccini: Turandot (Metropolitan Opera)

The spectacular staging by Franco Zeffirelli (who died last year at 96) of Puccini’s Turandot portrays timeless Peking as a living, thriving city (albeit suffering under a cruel regime), with its teaming masses represented by an oversized chorus, dancers, and extras.  The Met streamed a version from last Fall (a 2019 revival of a 1987 production) with an adequate if not especially noteworthy cast (they could all act, which was welcome at least): Christine Goerke (Turandot), Eleonora Buratto (Liù), Yusif Eyvazov (Calàf), and James Morris (Timur).  On the podium, Yannick Nézet-Séguin crafted a rich score.

  • [Recording tip: I go back repeatedly to the 1959 recording by Erich Leinsdorf and the Rome Opera, with Birgit Nilsson in the title role, Jussi Björling as Calàf, Renate Tebaldi as Liù, and Giorgio Tozzi as Timur.]

Gounod: Faust (Metropolitan Opera)

Des McAnuff created a modern staging of Gounod’s Faust for the Met, with Faust as a lab scientist.  McAnuff, a Canadian, is apparently also a trendy director from Broadway, as is Michael Mayer, who created that horrible staging of Rigoletto for the Met that I watched last week, and while McAnuff did not warp the plot here the way Mayer appeared to in Rigoletto (which made me stop watching and just listen last week), he did throw in some silliness (far too much prancing about), as well as a confused ending: Mephistopheles and Faust sank into Hell, Margarethe climbed a stairway to Heaven (presumably), and then Faust reappeared out of Hell having reverted to his old-man self, only to pass away on the floor of his lab.  All very unnecessary.  But McAnuff generally stuck to simplicity and letting the characters act, and that they did.  Marina Poplavskaya gave a resounding portrayal of Margarethe, evolving from a coquettish girl into a tormented woman over the course of the opera.  Jonas Kaufmann as Faust seemed in his element, making this opera (where Faust may have the title role but is not the central character) into his own.  René Pape’s voice lacked some of the fierceness he has shown portraying other villains, but his self-assured stage presence remained.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted this 2011 performance.

  • [Recording tip: Long before I had ever been to Russia and got to know Russian performers, I was tipped off about a recording of Gounod’s Faust that supposedly put all others to shame: a 1948 performance from the Bolshoi Opera.  I found a recording back then at a reasonable price and ordered it.  To this day, it remains my go-to recording of this opera.  At the center of this performance stands the unmatchable Mark Reizen as Mephistopheles, with Ivan Kozlovsky as Faust and Yelizaveta Shumskaya as Margarethe.  Kozlovsky takes some getting used to – a master (perhaps the master) in a very typical Russian style of tenor singing, which comes across to Western ears as weak (it’s not – it is only a special stylistic convention), but it works here, as Faust really is not the central character in this opera despite the title (there is a reason it has often been performed under the name Margerethe rather than Faust, as it does represent her struggle with evil and Faust is merely the catalyst).  Vasily Nyebolsin conducted a driven performance – albeit abridged, including to remove the church scene in Act IV as well as the ballet: the ballet is not missed (it added nothing to the opera but was only inserted due to a silly French custom in which opera patrons insisted on seeing ballet whether it made any sense or not, so it can just as easily be staged separately); the church scene is (but was probably removed by the Soviet censors) and some of the shorter cuts would be nice to have back as well.  But the performance as a whole stands.]

Prokofiev: Betrothal in a Monastery (Mariinsky Theater)

I had never heard Prokofiev’s rarely-performed opera Betrothal in a Monastery before, so took this opportunity to explore a version streamed by the Mariinsky Theater under Valery Gergiev.  Despite intending it to be a farce, Porkofiev’s setting failed by being too static – though lively here and there, the music mostly went on at a pace too slow to generate the comedy.  The staging itself (by Vladislav Pazi) was not static – suggestive of Spain in a mystery timeframe – and the characters moved around as would have been appropriate.  The cast was uniformly excellent: Larisa Diadkova (the Duenna), Yevgeny Akimov (Don Jerome), Roman Burdenko (Don Ferdinand), Sergei Aleksashkin (Mendoza), Yulia Matochkina (Clara), Yevgeny Akhmedov (Antonio), Violetta Lukyanenko (Louisa), and Yuri Laptev (Don Carlos).  I suppose the opera never caught on because the music, though fine on its own, simply does not convey the farce it is intended to depict.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Prokofiev

The Mariinsky also streamed a varied concert of less-often performed music by Prokofiev, by the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Valery Gergiev in the Mariinsky Concert Hall in 2016.  The concert opened with the Piano Concerto #4, for the left hand, one of many written on commission from the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who needed works to play after losing his right hand in the First World War.  Wittgenstein apparently never understood this piece, so did not end up performing it.  It is indeed strange, although no stranger than some of the composer’s other works from the 1930s.  This was confirmed by the next works, the often delicate but still jarring Spanish-inspired Violin Concerto #2, and the Piano Concerto #5.  Sergei Redkin did the solo honors for the Piano Concerto #4, Kristóf Baráti for the Violin Concerto #2, and Vadim Kholodenko for the Piano Concerto #5 – looking at their relative youth, they may have been selected based on a performance competition, and indeed they were all sufficiently good (particularly Baráti, although Redkin seemed to have a larger personal following in the sparsely-populated hall.  Skipping ahead to the 1950s, the Seventh Symphony, which concluded this concert, was in many ways more traditional in its sweep as well as restraint.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Sibelius, Copland, “Hannibal”

The Philadelphia Orchestra and its Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin presented two warhorses and one world premiere in a concert they streamed.  An unusual rendition of SibeliusFinlandia opened the concert, with drawn out lines gave a sense of longing.  Copland’s Appalachian Spring followed, in which the Orchestra’s virtuosity pulled out lines (many quite modern in their tonalities) that may not generally feature, and magnified their feeling, for a full and complex performance.  “Hannibal” is the professional artistic name of jazz/soul trumpeter and composer Marvin Peterson.  One Land, One River, One People was a bit of a cross-over work for orchestra, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and given its world premiere at this 2015 concert.  I am not sure I am in a position to judge it – it was certainly pleasant enough as music, but as “classical” music I am not sure it needed this particular orchestra, or indeed any serious orchestra.  I will say that it did have substance and will likely withstand the test of time (even if it will not enter the classical repertory), with performances by regional orchestras, musical theaters, or bands, something I would not say about Tod Makover’s Philadelphia Voices, another Philadelphia Orchestra commission (in 2018) for which the Orchestra also posted the world premiere on its website this week (having heard that back in 2018 – as reviewed in this blog – I had zero desire to listen to it again now).  The Orchestra was joined by a bunch of soloists and choirs – all fine, but again hard to judge against more normal repertory, so I do not wish to give them undeserved short shrift.  I guess I’ll just recommend readers go have a listen for themselves.

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Wagner, Mascagni, Puccini, Respighi

Last week, the Philadelphia Orchestra streamed the first concert program conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin as its Music Director, a triumphant emergence of that orchestra from a prolonged slumber.  This week came the turn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which streamed Andris Nelsons’ first concert as Music Director in 2014, reawakening this orchestra from its own slumber.  The concert opened with what can only be called a “triumphant” overture to Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser.  Yes, it ends in major key, but that is not normally so triumphant and usually comes with a darker subtext.  Except here.  Jonas Kaufmann has a nice voice and good inflection, but does not quite make a Heldentenor – just too much strain to fill the Wagnerian role, even for the slightly lighter role of Lohengrin and a single aria, “In fernem Land,” at that (so not needing to last an entire opera).  Kristīne Opolais gave a somewhat subdued rendition of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.  I don’t believe the role is in her repertory, so it is just a one-aria introduction.  Whether her voice grows into it will be seen, but the expression was there.  Kaufmann was better suited for the Italian repertory: from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.  Opolais, too.  Bizarrely, though, where the program (and website) indicated she was supposed to sing an aria from La Wally by Catalani, she instead sang an aria from Madama Butterfly by Puccini.  Not that it makes much of a difference, but especially given this concert is six years old one would think they could get the program right.  A passionate duet from Manon Lescaut saw a rather romantic kiss between the two, with Opolais’ then-husband (Nelsons) looking on. And another duet from La Boheme (without the passionate kiss, but with plenty of flirtation – so much so that Opolais winked at Nelsons partway through).  The concert concluded by leaving the operatic repertory, with an evocative Pines of Rome by Respighi.  Like the Tannhäuser overture at the opening of the concert, this one ended with even more triumph than usual, with extra brass scattered around the Symphony Hall balcony.

Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 9)

Highlights

The government this week released some guidelines for the resumption of public performances.  It was not all that clear how they will work in practice (basically they won’t).  The Bregenz Festival announced it would skip this year.  The Grafenegg Festival will go ahead reconfigured with outdoor performances featuring musicians based in Austria (we certainly have plenty).  And the Salzburg Festival announced what we already knew: it will take place in some form, but nothing resembling what was planned… details by the end of May.  As for the return of concerts and operas in the Fall, who knows.  What a mess.  So I remain, sampling offerings online.

Wagner: Parsifal (Bayreuth Festival)

Having seen some absolutely atrocious stagings of Wagner’s Parsifal last month, I felt I needed something better.  The “Fidelio” streaming service (courtesy of the Volksoper) provided me with a production from the 1981 Bayreuth Festival, directed by the composer’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner.  The production was actually rather simple, in some ways basic with inexpensive-looking costumes (not that a lot of monks in the early middle ages would have had expensive clothes), painted backdrops substituting for scenery, and melodramatic acting.  Actually, maybe the acting was a bit too melodramatic.  But even without providing new insights it did not get in the way of a basic understanding, something that could not be said about the stagings I streamed last month.

Hans Sotin carried the role as Gurnemanz.  As Parsifal, Siegfried Jerusalem matured noticeably (and not just from gaining a beard in the final act) through the opera from fool made wise through pity to king of the realm of the Grail.  Eva Randová provided a multi-faceted Kundry.  Bernd Weikl sang better than he acted, although this may have been Wolfgang Wagner’s stage direction rather than a fault from Weikl.  Horst Stein may have gone a little fast in his tempi.  But then the slow-motion stage direction might have been unbearable if Stein had kept more traditionally-paced tempi.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Bayreuth Festival)

I stuck with Bayreuth and a staging by Wolfgang Wagner for Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  On the whole, this 1984 production was effective.  While it may not have pushed the realm of giving any new understanding to the opera, it remained relatable.  The characters in this opera are not gods nor figures from legend, but humans, and the staging made them human.  They may not have always interacted naturally, or pulled off their acting assignments generally, and glossed over some of the humor (Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy, after all), but they still generally presented a couple of (albeit fictitious) days in the life of their town.  And the strong cast generally sang their roles idiomatically.

The nice sets, although grand, also came across as almost intimate: Act 1 took place in the corner of the church; Act 2 in a leafy square; Act 3, scene 1, in a simple room in Sachs’ home that was almost cell-like (although perhaps too grand a space for a cobbler, even a worldly one as the real-life Sachs had been); and Act 3, scene 2, indeed took place in a field (as it is supposed to be, but without Nürnberg in the background).  The blocking was playful, if not always obviously comic.  There was some strange camera work during the second act fight scene, using lots of close-ups, but since the people fighting were the chorus and not professional stuntmen, this came across as rather silly.  Normally the fight can be disguised a bit in the theater (and we all know they are opera singers and not street brawlers), but the close-ups exposed that the fighting just was not very realistic, compounded by the funky expressions on everyone’s faces.  That said, I do suppose Meistersinger is a comedy.  And the flying leap that David made onto Beckmesser, which set off the brawl, was indeed quite humorous in its way.  In the final act, instead of running away, Beckmesser goes into the crowd to watch Walther’s prize song, and even he in the end is won over.  At the very end, Sachs even shakes his hand – an act of reconciliation.

Bernd Weikl starred as somewhat haughty Sachs (pretending to be modest, but he knew who he was).  Hermann Prey’s Beckmesser took some getting used to – while a bit of a caricature, it was also clear why he is also a mastersinger and should have a lyrical voice.  Siegfried Jerusalem was a dashing Walther von Stolzing, and Graham Clark a lively David.  Mari Anne Häggander (Eva) and Marga Schiml (Magdalena) portrayed their roles as somewhat much older than they should have been, although vocally they were fine.  Horst Stein conducted again.

Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci (Metropolitan Opera)

David McVicar’s staging of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Metropolitan Opera took place not in a village, but on a large rotating wooden stage surrounded by villagers who moved their chairs around, pranced flailingly, or who knows what they were doing besides distracting everyone.  McVicar is generally quite good but has a tendency to create busy stagings – which work when they focus on the plot, but don’t work when they are just busy for the sake of it.  When the villagers were not around, the intimate scenes and interactions between the main characters more successfully elucidated the story, particularly for Marcelo Álvarez (Turridu), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Santuzza), and Giorgi Gagnidze (Alfio).  Álvarez and Westbroek strangely had trouble at times staying on key, as did the chorus, making me wonder if something was off with the streaming even though nothing obvious was.  Fabio Luisi conducted.

In the second half of the double-bill, McVicar also gave Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci a peculiar staging, opening in what looked like some tacky vaudeville theater to reveal behind the curtain: the mid-1900s.  This actually worked quite a bit better than his odd setting of Cavalleria – the change in time was not really material, and the busy details here contributed to a lively interpretation (especially the twentieth-century slapstick update of the Commedia dell’Arte that had inspired it).  It is precisely in these sorts of detailed thoughtful interpretations that McVicar succeeds best.  Álvarez (as Canio) and Gagnidze (as Tonio) returned, now with Patricia Racette (as Nedda).

Verdi: Rigoletto (Metropolitan Opera)

I started to watch this version of Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the 2013 Met Opera staging (by Michael Mayer, apparently some trendy hack from Broadway) was too absurd, set in a sleazy casino with the Duke seemingly the casino singer, Monterone an Arab sheikh, and I did not stick around long enough to figure out who everyone else was supposed to be.  So I just listened, particularly to Piotr Beczała’s charming Duke and Željko Lučić’s on-edge Rigoletto (who could still show such tenderness for his daughter Gilda, here portrayed by Diana Damrau), who made it worthwhile.  The Met’s orchestra sounded a tad thin under Michele Mariotti.

Donizetti: Don Pasquale (Staatsoper)

A bit of a silly staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale from the Staatsoper – by the Frenchwoman Irina Brook.  It was thankfully not Regietheater but somewhat of an updating of the plot into a modern nightclub with Don Pasquale apparently as the proprietor.  I’m not sure what her point was, though.  The 2016 cast featured Michele Pertusi in the title role and Dmitry Korchak as Ernesto, backed by the Vienna Ensemble, notably (and happily for my ears) Alessio Arduini as Malatesta and Valentina Naforniţă as Norina, all keeping their humor up on stage.  Frédéric Chaslin conducted.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Howell, Elgar, Weinberg, Knussen

Poking around the “Fidelio” streaming service to see if it had more music by Moishe Weinberg, I came up with a concert from the Royal Albert Hall and the 2019 Proms, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla performing Weinberg’s Third Symphony.  This made quite a contrast to the only other work by Weinberg which I could find on the “Fidelio” service, his opera The Passenger, which I watched a couple of weeks ago.  Whereas the opera was brutal, brash, but ultimately defiant, the symphony was lyrical but wistful, charming but sad.  I had not heard this symphony before, but as with most of Weinberg’s compositions, it was well worth discovering.  I listened twice to make sure I heard every brilliant nuance (Weinberg’s music is so brilliantly complex on so many levels that I am sure I still missed a few).  Gražinytė-Tyla is a skilled interpreter and promoter of his music, now at the helm of her own orchestra (which ranks alongside the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich in a class by themselves of top European provincial orchestras).

The first half of that concert opened with the tone poem Lamia by Dorothy Howell, which had its premiere at the Proms one hundred years before (making this an intentional commemoration), when the composer was 21 years old.  It, in turn, was based on a poem by John Keats, which he had written exactly one hundred years before that.  The music, by an otherwise forgotten British composer, worked fine as a tone poem, but was in the end not more than a curiosity that will likely return to oblivion (it’s not bad, and who knows why some works of less quality become more standard parts of the general repertory, but there is also no reason this should get more attention).  The same could not be said of Edward Elgar, whose Cello Concerto followed: this is a work which started off mostly ignored (despite being championed by such greats as Pau Casals) but gradually became a standard.  A then-twenty-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason as the soloist was nothing short of impressive – this is a difficult work to pull off even for a fully-mature artist, full of passion and deep feeling, but the young cellist more than mastered it.  He added a Saraband for solo cello by Weinberg as an encore.  The concert’s first half concluded with “The Way to Castle Yonder,” an orchestral excerpt from Higglety Pigglety Pop! – a children’s opera based on a Maurice Sendak book – by Oliver Knussen.  I had heard of Knussen before, but do not believe I had heard anything written by Knussen before.  So now I have.

Vienna Philharmonic: Beethoven, Bruckner

The “Fidelio” service also has in its archive Bernard Haitink’s last concert at the Salzburg Festival, the third-to-last stop of his farewell tour of Europe with the Vienna Philharmonic before he took his “sabbatical” (from which it is widely believed he knows he will never return).  I attended this concert, but found it worth listening again to hear Haitink lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4 (with Emanuel Ax) and Bruckner’s Symphony #7.  My impressions from last summer have held up on a second listen. (My review from 31 August 2019 is on this blog – incidentally, the stream edited Ax’s encore out completely, so I still have no idea what he played.)

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

The Boston Symphony has decided to continue to post on its site (for a limited but not-specified amount of time) a curated selection of performances from its archives, which it considers transformative, now going up weekly rather than daily.  These are generally individual works rather than entire concerts.  To highlight Erich Leinsdorf’s farewell spring as the Orchestra’s music director in 1969, they posted a warhorse: Tschaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony.  This is one of these far-too-often-performed works that I have said should generally be removed from concert programs unless people have something new to say (such as a spectacular performance of it I heard in Dresden a few years ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin).  Here, indeed, Leinsdorf and the BSO rose to the occasion.  The first movement had a relentless pacing (not fast, just strident).  The second captured lyric nuances in the winds which often get blurred, over an underlying tension.  The third movement danced, as it should, but the dance increasing went on its edge: could be in despair, except that it led into the triumphant final movement.  This performance produced more sound than the BSO normally manages, and indeed the stage looked crowded, but Leinsdorf had indeed expanded the BSO’s repertory, and nothing prevents more intimate-sounding orchestras such as the BSO or Leipzig Gewandhausorchester from doing justice to the larger works.  And it is performances such as this one which keep this particular symphony in the forefront of the repertory.  It is also such special performances like this that mean most other orchestras and conductors should remove it from their repertories completely.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Verdi

The Philadelphia Orchestra offered a performance of Verdi’s Requiem from 2012, one of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s first concerts as Music Director, starting the Orchestra’s reemergence from its doldrum years under Eschenbach and Dutoit.  The musicians were there, so it’s not like the orchestra itself required an overhaul, but having good leadership makes a huge difference.  In this concert, that became palpable.  It started off quietly, almost delicately, remarkably so for what grows into a bombastic piece, but this just highlighted Verdi’s powerful writing (even the soft passages have their own fateful power).  Excellent soloists (Marina Poplavskaya,Christine Rice, Rolando Villazón, and Mikhail Petrenko) – who themselves did not try to be bombastic but rather provided sympathetic and almost lilting lines.  The Westminster Symphony Choir added wonderful color.

There was a certain catharsis with this concert – the Orchestra knew that happy days were ahead, and this requiem mass may well have been a mass for the Orchestra’s lost decade.  In the end, Nézet-Séguin held the silence out – especially noteworthy considering that American audiences tend to be quick to applaud and do not necessarily respect that hold.  But here the audience remained mute for the duration until Nézet-Séguin lowered his arms long after the music ended.  From the knowing looks on the musicians’ faces, they felt it too.  Welcome back to the pantheon, Philadelphia Orchestra – it’s been a stellar rise since then too.

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 6)

Highlights

Although Austria is coming back to life, the return to live music looks to remain months away.  Even then, it is not clear what musical events may look like.  Will we be able to cram into our seats in the audience, or will only a small number of seats go on sale?  Given scarcity, will they be affordable (and if not, is this sustainable?)?  Will the musicians themselves be able to survive this period?  Will the venues?  Even a committed concert-goer like me has not renewed any of my subscriptions for 2020-21.  Even if I were sure the shows will go on, I don’t know my schedule, which has been heavily disrupted, so do not know if I can plan around the subscription dates.  I also have taken a cut in income giving me even less disposable income to spend on concerts (I was using most of my disposable income on live music since I moved to Salzburg), so I may start to be more selective – subscriptions give me more music for the price, but if I won’t make certain concerts then it becomes less cost-effective.  I don’t really know, so I wait.  But I also recognize that people like me (I am sure I am not the only one waiting) makes it harder for the music to return.

So I am thankful for the online offerings people are making available.  It does not replace the live music, but it keeps me current.  Once again, I will stick to the format of operas first and concerts second in these highlight summaries.  I do not repeat recording tips if I have made them in connection with the same opera in a previous weekly blog during this lockdown.

Strauss: Capriccio (Staatsoper)

This week included three operas by Richard Strauss, opening with a simple and elegant staging at the Staatsoper by Marco Arturo Marelli, which I saw live in 2008.  The streamed version had a similar cast as the performance I saw back then (Michael Schade as Flamand, Adrian Eröd as Olivier, Wolfgang Bankl as La Roche, and Angelika Kirchschlager as Clairon) with only the Countess and Count different (here Camilla Nylund and Markus Eiche, instead of Renée Fleming and Bo Skovhus), and Michael Boder conducting (instead of Philippe Jordan in 2008).  This is a peculiar opera – wonderful in so many ways, but does not get performed often for reasons of its length and eccentricity.  When I saw this production at the Staatsoper in 2008, which may also have been the first time I ever heard it, it impressed me – a combination of Strauss’ lush score and undivided attention on the words (I would say “action” but there is no action, only words), and I rated it the best opera performance I had attended that year (in which I had spent quite a lot of time in Vienna).  On the small screen it did not enrapture me as much.  Was this Nyland and Eiche and Boder not having the same twinkle as Fleming and Skovhus and Jordan?  Hard to say, since it has been so long.

  • [Recording tip: After seeing this opera for the first time in 2008, I went out and got a recording (Karl Böhm’s 1972 recording with the Bavarian Radio and a stellar cast).  I am not going to claim it is the definitive one, since I have not made comparisons.  I have other excerpts, too.  But I will say that I return over and over again to Renée Fleming’s luscious final scene with the Vienna Philharmonic and Christoph Eschenbach released on a CD with other “Strauss heroines” in 1999).]

Strauss, Rosenkavalier (Metropolitan Opera)

I did not understand the interpretation from the Metropolitan Opera by Canadian director Robert Carsen.  I tried to understand.  I think he tried to think this one through.  But it’s not just that I was not convinced, rather more that I didn’t see any logic at all.  The concept (costumes, décor, and mood) was more 1920s Berlin than 1740s Vienna (even the fictionalized and romanticized 1740s Vienna created by Strauss and Hofmannsthal).

The first act, set in the Marschallin’s bedroom, looked more like a state room in the Hofburg.  For an opera set in Maria Theresia’s Vienna, somehow there were numerous portraits of Franz Joseph prominently displayed on the wall, as well as of other descendants of the Empress (at least in the Hofburg Maria Theresia is on the wall in what is now the President’s formal reception room).  As a nice touch, Carsen had Octavian return with (actual) roses for the Marschallin in the later part of the act, after he his snuck off and changed back into himself.  Act two had neo-Greek décor, armaments, and oddly waltzing servants (what?  Yes, the music is full of waltzes, but the servants don’t just start spontaneously waltzing with each other).  In the plot, Faninal was ennobled for supplying Austria’s armies in the Netherlands, but that would not mean he keeps the guns and cannons in his home – or maybe this was simply an attempt by Carsen at comedy.  Act three took place a brothel, but I suppose if it is being updated to the 1920s, then why not.  The “Innkeeper” was a transvestite madame, and the musicians also looked like transvestites.  Yes, the opera features a female lead playing a male role in which the character dresses as a woman, so it is part of the farce, but I am not sure what having actual transvestites in a brothel added.  Octavian as Mariandl dressed like one of the whores (skimpy lingerie is not necessarily a good way to hide certain body parts, though!).  It also meant she was not playing the simple country girl.

There are different ways to place the stress in this plot.  In Carsen’s interpretation, Octavian (an exciting and excited Elīna Garanča) became the driving force.  Günther Groissböck, a despicable Ochs, intended to be a bit of a dashing playboy in his military uniform.  This made him more physically active than the usual portrayal – not bad, just different, since he cannot be a complete bumpkin in the plot, but must demonstrate he is presentable in polite aristocratic society even if he is at heart an oaf.  The opera ended with Octavian and Sophie (Erin Morley) in the brothel bed together, and during the final measures (when the Marschallin’s young blackmoor Mohammed is supposed to be fetching her handkerchief), I have no explanation for what happened: the servant Mohammed (not a blackmoor here) showed up drunk, an army appeared in the background (presumably led by the Feldmarschall), the servant shook his bottle of alcohol, and the army collapsed dead – or something like that.  But we did get Renée Fleming as the Marschallin.  Sebastian Weigle led a perfectly fine performance from the pit.

Strauss: Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)

As I noted earlier during this lockdown, Strauss’ Elektra is an opera I have never really paid much attention to, for reasons I cannot explain.  The Staatsoper’s woeful staging by a Prussian nincompoop in its recent streaming did not help me to understand it, so I just listened then.  I was pleased to have another chance this week from the Met.  But it turns out the director of the Met’s version is Patrice Chéreau, who made a lasting traumatic impression on my childhood with a miserable production of Wagner’s Ring he did at Bayreuth along with his airheaded countryman Pierre Boulez conducting, that seemed designed to take the most deconstructionist French approach possible to the Ring (as a child I certainly did not know about French deconstructionism – and as an adult I am sorry I do).  That Chéreau-Boulez Ring from Bayreuth was televised, a big deal for back then, and my father and I sat down to watch with great anticipation, only to be terribly let down.  So I just listened again this time to Elektra.  (Is that entirely fair?  Should I have given Chéreau another chance, especially considering the number of lousy opera stagings I have seen over the years since then?  Probably, but his collaboration on that Bayreuth Ring really left my younger self disgusted and disgruntled.)  Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the moody music.  Nina Stemme was a wonderful Elektra, with Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis and Waltraud Meier as Clytemnestra.  It really is luxurious.  One of these days I will get to see a production of this opera by a competent director.

Puccini: Tosca (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met gave us a nice staging of Puccini’s Tosca (this was apparently the premiere performance of this staging from 2018) by David McVicar, where he provided a stage on which the singers could act.  Great little touches included Cavaradossi washing his face with holy water before Tosca comes in, and the mannerisms of Scarpia’s henchmen towards Cavaradossi (and knowing winks and nods to Scarpia).  Željko Lučić was a forceful Scarpia and dominated his scenes.  Sonya Yoncheva was a tad too melodramatic as Tosca (ever the diva, I suppose).  Vittorio Grigòlo may not have been the strongest Cavaradossi in voice or pitch (indeed, his voice was easily the poorest aspect of this entire performance), but could act the role.  Emmanuel Villaume conducted.

Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann (Metropolitan Opera)

There is no definitive performing version of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (not worth explaining here why not).  So this is an opera which enables the director to decide how to assemble it.  All I ask is that the version makes sense.  A 2009 production at the Met by Bartlett Sher was set as a series of fantasies, which does make sense, but the settings themselves did not.  Not that they were crazy, just that they seemed to add nothing to understanding the work.  An excellent Niklaus (Kate Linsley) was equal parts dashing and mysterious, often as much co-conspirator against Hoffmann as muse to Hoffmann, so in this concept it made sense to insert the pre-prologue scene (with muse and the devil) and the post-epilogue scene (with the characters from the entire opera returning to the stage for a grand final morality chorus), both usually omitted.  Sher flipped the acts with Giulietta (here coming third) and Antonia (here coming second), putting them into the order that Offenbach himself wanted and which does make the most sense, although not the order they usually appear in.  The rest of the cast was fine, although the entire evening seemed uninspired other than Linsley (Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann, Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Anna Netrebko as Stella and Antonia, Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta, Alan Held as all of the villains).  James Levine conducted.

  • [Recording tips: …or lack thereof.  I like this opera and have seen it many times since my childhood, but maybe because there is no definitive version, I have never come across a recording I would especially recommend although I own two complete ones, depending on how one defines “complete.”]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper’s Otto Schenk-directed production of Beethoven’s Fidelio resolved for me the problem of having watched the Theater an der Wien’s production earlier in the lockdown.  First of all, they used the third version, which works dramatically much better than the two earlier versions (the Theater an der Wien did the second).  Second, Schenk’s intelligent staging augmented the drama even in the first act, which still in Beethoven’s third try was never quite up to the level.  I had a choice of recent casts, and picked one from 2017 (the cast available next week from a 2016 performance included the same Leonore – Anja Kampe – and Marzelline – Valentina Naforniƫă – that I saw in this production in 2013; they were excellent, but I opted for something else this time, although maybe I am tempted to listen back in next week).  Camilla Nylund as Leonore and Günther Groissböck as Rocco led the cast.  Chen Reiss fully developed the character of Marzelline, both in acting and in singing, and was a delight in her brief scenes.  The orchestra was warm and full, and carried the Vienna tradition started by Mahler of performing the Leonore Overture #3 in the scene change of the second act.  Drama indeed.  Cornelius Meister led a spirited performance.

Benatzky: Axel an der Himmelstür (Volksoper)

The Volksoper (of which I am a fan – and where I indeed attended my first live opera when I was five) kindly offered a trial of the “Fidelio” streaming service.  It does not offer a huge selection (or maybe it just does not have a very good search function), but I think I will be finding some things to recommend on there.  I thought I might start the trial with something from the Volksoper itself, and went back to the 2016 new production of Ralph Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür, a parody of 1930s Hollywood done up as a Viennese operetta.  This production was one of my musical highlights in 2016.  And on this streaming, it was a great show once again, with a partly different cast than the one I saw in 2016 – I assume they filmed their “A” cast and I saw some “B” cast, but that itself may not mean anything in particular.  I am not sure that the two female leads here (Bettina Mönch as Gloria Mills and Johanna Arrouas as Jessie) convinced me as much as the ones I saw (Julia Koci and Juliette Khalil, respectively), although hard to make a direct comparison over the years.  But Andreas Bieber repeated as Axel and Kurt Schreibmayer as Cecil McScott, and Boris Eder replaced Peter Lesiak as Theodore, and they were all in fine form.  Lorenz Aichner conducted this clever staging by Peter Lund (my original review is on this blog for 14 October 2016).  I must say, however, that I was still bothered by the microphones.  There is no need to ever mike an opera opera performed indoors – although possibly if the staging requires the singers to move around a lot and not always face front, but here it was clear from the film that they still faced front, so I cannot excuse this decision.  It makes an even bigger difference in the theater for a live performance: what is the point of hearing music “live” if it comes over a speaker and sounds the same as on a recording?

  • [Recording tip: the 2016 Volksoper production inspired me to go out and get a recording.  There are not too many choices.  I now have a 1958 Vienna Radio recording with Heinz Sandauer conducting.  Zarah Leander, who created the roll of Gloria Mills, reprises it on this recording.  The CD set includes some original tracks from the 1936 team that created the opera.]

Vienna Philharmonic: Schumann, Berlioz

The trial with “Fidelio” allowed me to find Mariss Jansons’ last concert in the Musikverein leading the Vienna Philharmonic last June, broadcast on Austrian television after Jansons passed away late last year.  Jansons looked exhausted and frail, yet the sound he coaxed was revelatory despite the works being standard and theoretically with nothing new (for lesser conductors) to say: the “Spring” Symphony by Schumann and the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz.  Indeed, this was perhaps the most powerful and expansive performance I have ever heard of Schumann’s first symphony.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Berlioz, Poulenc, Saint-Saëns

Jansons was of course the greatest conductor of his generation, and will be sorely missed.  He was the sort of conductor I would see was conducting, and not even look to see what he was performing: I was guaranteed to hear something good.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he remained Music Director at the time of his death, has posted several concerts for streaming on their website.  I zeroed in on one all-French concert.  The French, as I often remark, seem not to understand music (Berlioz excepted, and the French never understood him).  Some French composers had talent, but did not do much with it beyond some works that deserve to remain in the repertory but make me scratch my head as to why they couldn’t produce more like that.  But with Jansons and the Bavarians, suddenly real drama appears.  This was not French drama, but the way it could sound.  Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna joined forces here – I’ve heard her perform in the Mozarteum, but this she took to the next level.  The concert opened with Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival.  Then came Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto G minor (this is the work I heard Apkalna perform before – this time it convinced me, since last time she had a real disconnect with the orchestra, which I blamed back then squarely on an inadequate conductor).  Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 C minor (with the organ) completed the concert, its own first movement setting an amazingly delicate mood.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Bruckner

Jansons drew more lush sounds from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a January 2019 performance of Bruckner’s Mass #3.  Bruckner wrote this mass right before he moved to Vienna and so it marks the transition point in his life.  This performance itself was other-worldly.  At “et resurexit,” they could have raised the dead.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Prokofiev

For Prokofiev’s birthday on 23 April, the Mariinsky streamed a concert the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra performed on his birthday in 2016 in Moscow’s Stalinist Tschaikowsky Hall (I hated that hall, but it has extra prestige in Russia because Stalin had it built).  Maestro Valery Gergiev was joined by Denis Kozhukhin for the piano concerto #1 to lead off the concert, and by Leonidas Kavakos for the violin concerto #1 to end it.  In between came Prokofiev’s first and second symphonies.  Gergiev kept the first symphony, called “classical” because of its size and style, within those classical bounds, but added a spirited and even exciting approach.  The violin concerto marked another highlight, with an interpretation highlighting the work’s great contrasts (and making it look easy).  For those subscribing to the Mariinsky’s streaming who can get them, go look for those two works in particular.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Beethoven

I opened the music this week with a compilation posted on the Philadephia Orchestra’s website: three Beethoven concerti from three different concerts combined into one program.  The Beethoven 250 celebration having been interrupted by the lockdown, they’ve moved it online.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the two piano concerti, with Yefim Bronfman (concerto #4) and Daniil Trifonov (concerto #5) on the keyboard, and their performances were suitably pensive for a Sunday afternoon, the orchestra in full sound enveloping but never overwhelming the ears.  The violin concerto, with soloist Gil Shaham and conductor Susanna Mälkki, should have been the same, but was less so – I find Mälkki far too blockish a conductor, putting everything in place and leaving no room for expression.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 5)

Highlights

The cultural news hit on Friday that while musicians may begin to rehearse together in the coming days, and museums will reopen in July, large cultural events such as concerts will not resume until September.  The Salzburg Festival indicated it is in discussion with the government to see what might go ahead in a reduced form, but right now nothing fits the roadmap.  This was not unexpected – not just from the standpoint of the gradual reopening of Austrian society, but also from the fact that the roadmap for reopening still does not include any plan to reopen our international borders at any time in the foreseeable future.  Austria shut down the corona virus, but we may have been too successful and have developed no herd immunity, meaning that as soon as the borders open, more people will die.  So here we sit watching music streamed online.

Strauss: Rosenkavalier (Staatsoper)

Otto Schenk is one of the best opera directors of all time, and his staging of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier for the Staatsoper (originally in 1968) may be his best production.  I saw this wonderful production live in 2010.  Schenk pays so much attention to detail without being busy, and this production is just a delight to see over and over to catch new things.  The Staatsoper streamed it this week with two different casts, and frankly it was worth seeing both even if only to take in Schenk’s brilliance.  For the first streaming, the Staatsoper went deeper into their archives than they generally have been doing for these free lockdown streamings: a 1994 performance under the elegant Carlos Kleiber, with a fine cast including Felicity Lott as the Marschallin, Kurt Moll as Ochs, Anne Sofie von Otter as Octavian, and Barbara Bonney as Sophie.

The second take of this, from a 2017 performance, was not nearly at the same level.  It was worth watching for the staging, but Krassimira Stoyanova was a far less glamorous Marschallin than Lott, Peter Rose could not remotely master Ochs’ Viennese dialect (actually not even close), and Stephanie Houtzeel, though playful as Octavian, did not quite have the chemistry (at least not with the other cast members) that von Otter showed.  When I saw Houtzeel in this role in the same production in 2010, she carried it out better, but it may have been that a more convincing cast surrounded her then too (mostly from the Staatsoper’s own ensemble or regular guests, rather than tourists like Stoyanova and Rose).  Especially with this Schenk production, which relies on the details, that chemistry among the cast becomes even more important.  Ádám Fischer, if not quite as enigmatic a figure as Kleiber, is possibly as cerebral and knew how to shape the music from the pit.

  • [Recording tip: I think everyone has a different favorite recording of Rosenkavalier.  I’ll put mine forward.  In March 1945, an American bomb destroyed the Staatsoper.  When the reconstructed building reopened in November 1955, it put on a whole row of legendary new productions.  Its new Rosenkavalier (in the staging that Schenk’s ultimately replaced in 1968) debuted with an all-star cast under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch.  This was a production in which Ochs dominated (Strauss and Hofmannsthal had originally intended to call the opera “Ochs von Lerchenau”), even if there are other interpretations such as Schenk’s in which the Marschallin pulls all the strings.  In purposefully selecting Kurt Böhme, Knappertsbusch got the Ochs he needed.  Maria Reining (the Marschallin), Sena Jurinac (Octavian), and Hilde Güden (Sophie) produced some luxurious music together.  I do listen to other recordings, but I always return to this one.]

Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri (Staatsoper)

I saw this Staatsoper production of Rossini’s Italian in Algiers in person in 2017, but the performance streamed here from 2015 was a much better cast.  I remember the staging, by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, to have been simple but tasteful, however when I saw it live I wondered then if Ponnelle had even understood the opera at all since he made it so static.  This 2015 cast more than made up for Ponnelle’s deficiency – they had so much fun on the stage it was hard not to have fun watching them.  Ildar Abrazakov (Mustafà), Aida Garifullina (Elvira), Rachel Frenkel (Zulma), and Alessio Arduini (Haly) stood out in particular with their strong voices and characterizations, but Edgardo Rocha (Lindoro), Anna Bonitatibus (Isabella), and Paolo Rumetz (Taddeo) also joined in the farce.  Jesús López-Cobos conducted and the orchestra, as when I heard this in 2017, absolutely nailed Rossini’s idiom.  If this music does not already emerge dancing out of the pit, then even a good cast cannot make it.  What fun!

  • [Recording tip: I first got to appreciate this opera through a recording that remains my most-listened-to recording of a Rossini opera: a charming and lively version by conductor Claudio Scimone and his orchestra, I Solisti Veneti, with a cast headed by Samuel Ramey s Mustafà and Kathleen Battle as Elvira, and with luxuries such as Nicola Zaccaria as Haly and Marilyn Horne as Isabella.]

Wagner: Parsifal (Staatsoper)

If the Staatsoper provided me the two highlights of the week with Rosenkavalier and Italiana in Algeri, it also provided me the biggest lowlight of the week.  I am sorry I thought I wanted to see Wagner’s Parsifal again in a new production (after three Parsifals last week).  The Staatsoper seems to have replaced the miserable staging by Christine Mielitz (which I saw live in 2006 and a different performance streamed last week) with yet another miserable staging, this time by Alvis Hermanis.  Hermanis is Latvian, not German, and although his CV includes productions staged in Germany, I did not expect he would be just as bad as a German opera director (seriously, who is as bad as the Germans at staging operas – such a common theme on this blog, but I feel I do have to keep pilloring them until they literally find the plot).  But he was (I should have googled him before making this decision: when I looked him up I realized he was responsible for a staging of Trovatore at the Salzburg Festival a few years ago, right after I moved to Salzburg, reset nonsensically in an art museum and which I remember was panned as vapid).  The staging here was set in the Otto Wagner Hospital (or an interpretation thereof), a psychiatric clinic designed by, and later named after, the famous Viennese Sezession architect in 1907.  Most of the knights (and Kundry, kept in a special caged bed) were patients, with Gurnemanz being the chief doctor.  (Act 2 was in an operating room, with Klingsor as a brain surgeon.)  Why?  I tried to watch a bit to figure out why, but even in the midst of an indefinite lockdown I have better things to do with my time.

Doing other things was also less distracting that watching this stupidity.  So I did get to appreciate René Pape’s luxurious Gurnemanz.  The rest of the cast seemed a bit off – probably not a bad cast under normal circumstances (although the shrill and almost nasal Parsifal lacked much of a voice, it sounded like it had aged badly even though the singer is not yet 50), but truly uninspired singing across the board.  I won’t list the cast because it’s not fair: it must be extremely difficult to sing seriously while traipsing around this travesty of a stage.  Valery Gergiev did not have that problem in the pit, but really what could he do?

Lortzing: Undine (Staatsoper)

Kudos for the Staatsoper for the last opera I watched this week.  I had never seen Albert Lortzing’s Undine before (and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it performed either other than excerpts).  I still haven’t, but that’s not a bad thing.  The opera was listed as being streamed and I tuned in to discover it was actually an abridged version for children.  The opera was shortened to fit within one hour, and although the main roles were sung by members of the Staatsoper’s Ensemble, the supporting roles, chorus, and dancers all came from the Staatsoper’s children’s academy.  I am not quite clear where this was performed – a small theater space, presumably in the bowels of the Staatsoper.  But it made me discover that the Staatsoper does offer an entire array of abridged operas performed this way in front of an audience of children.

One thing I have to say in Austria is that opera is not just for old people, and audiences are full of people of all ages, but to ensure the future requires making the art form accessible to the youngest generation.  This does not have to come in the form in which my father exposed me, through his constant listening to operas, setting me in front of the television every time an opera was broadcast (whatever the opera), and frequent one-on-one lectures from him to me about Wagner’s Ring when I was still a toddler.  He took me to my first live opera, Otto Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor at the Volksoper, when I was five years old, and that hooked me for good.  So I give the Staatsoper full points for this little presentation.  Not only do they do these “Operas for Children,” but they are including them in their corona lockdown streamings.

Dvořák: Rusalka (Metropolitan Opera)

Although a fairy tale, Dvořák’s Rusalka is a heavy one.  While it is dark, the music has its shimmers of light.  For this 2014 performance from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nézet-Séguin crafted a lush orchestral color.  Renée Fleming headed an excellent cast with Piotr Beczala as the Prince, John Relyea as the Water Goblin, and Dolora Zajick as the Witch Ježibaba.

  • [Recording tips: Fleming has owned the role of Rusalka for years.  She recorded it in 1998 with Charles Mackerras conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, with Ben Heppner as the Prince, Franz Hawlata as the Water Goblin, and Dolora Zajick – again – as the Witch.  I also have a sentimental connection to a 1987 live recording from the Staatsoper, for which I myself saw the same cast later that year, with Eva Beňačková as Rusalka, Peter Dvorský as the Prince, Yevgyeny Nyestyernyenko as the Water Goblin, and Eva Randová doubling as the Witch and the Foreign Princess, with Václav Neumann conducting.  Apparently that was the first time that opera had ever been performed at the Staatsoper.  To be a little different, just because of Gottlob Frick, there is a 1948 German-language recording available out there from Dresden conducted by Joseph Keilberth.  I’ve not heard the whole thing, but own extended highlights on a CD set featuring some of Frick’s best recordings, and it is worth hearing him sing the Water Goblin.]

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Metropolitan Opera)

I have a ticket for Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Salzburg Festival on my birthday this year.  But first we tragically lost Mariss Jansons, who was supposed to conduct but passed away late last year.  Now it looks like we’ll lose the Festival this Summer thanks to the Chinese Communist Party deciding to destroy global health, welfare, and livelihoods.  They’ve murdered more of their own citizens than they’ve killed with their virus, but the virus has caused more worldwide devastation (yes, it’s a natural virus, but the pandemic is still entirely the Chinese Communist Party’s fault).

The plot of Boris is set during the “Time of Troubles” in Russia.  The title character was vilified by the repressive Romanov Dynasty, which ruled after that period until it, in turn, was deposed by the Russian Revolution leading to the again-repressive Soviet Communist regime.  The real-life Boris was probably more sympathetic, at least in the context of his time (is anyone in Russia truly sympathetic?  Boris created Ivan the Terrible’s secret police, so he was no saint, but apparently was relatively competent technocrat if overtaken by events out of his control and a bunch of schemers who resented him as the outsider he was – he came from a Tatar family that had converted to Christianity – and he had somewhat of a conscience, unlike most of the Russian ruling classes).  But I digress…

American director Stephen Wadsworth did not manage to capture the nuances, mostly because he was too busy with everything else.  In this production (filmed in a performance from 2010), he decided to augment the portrayals of the minor characters.  While this could be seen to be in the tradition of greats such as Otto Schenk to pay attention to intricate details, Schenk’s details are usually grounded in the opera and are merely fine incidental details that complete the plot.  Wadsworth’s strayed into distraction, especially given a non-traditional (but not modern) staging, with suggestive rather than accurate sets and extra elements added, such as a map and the book chronicling Russia’s history (both of which do appear in important places in the opera, but do not remain on stage – and the book in this case is enormously over-sized).  So, as an example, we got the Simpleton already taking a visible role in the prologue, which demonstrated clearly who he was, but did not give us any more of his story to make it useful or add to the scenes where he did play a role.  At the end of the scene in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral (the Cathedral itself missing here), he rolled himself into the pages of the chronicle.  All of this combined make Wadsworth’s staging additive, and it may have been too much while missing the realism, particularly as the additions did not necessarily accord with the plot – having Shuisky appear in the Polish court is one intrigue too many, even for that infamous historical villain.  But I guess I should be thankful that Wadsworth clearly put some thought into this staging (he’s not a German Regisseur), so there was some intelligence even if he failed to convince me.  So, for example, Varlaam and Missail much to their astonishment recognized Grigory when he returned in the final scene, adding a bit of comedy to the revolution: the brutality of guards towards the Russian people in the prologue was exceeded by the Russian people towards everyone viewed as an authority in the Kromy Forest epilogue, a clear reversal of fortune.  (Wadsworth set both the St. Basil’s scene and the Kromy Forest scene, as parentheses to the final act, as is one common and perfectly acceptable convention).

René Pape sang a strong Boris.  Valery Gergiev, in the pit, knew this opera upside down (and used Mussorgsky’s own scoring).  They combined to produce a particularly effective death scene musically.  But it did not work on stage, where the dying Boris did too much running around.  The rest of the cast was adequate (even Aleksandrs Antonenko, whom I heard sing an inadequate Radamès last week, but who seemed more comfortable singing in Russian as Grigory).  I may highlight two minor figures: they decided to use appropriately-aged singers for Boris’ children Ksenya (sung by Jennifer Zetlan) and Fyëdor (sung by Jonathan Makepeace), and they actually had a stage presence.  I googled them to see if their careers have taken them anywhere since 2010: the older Zetlan seems to not quite have launched herself yet in any major roles beyond inconsequential provincial US opera companies – her appearances with major US companies or orchestras have been in minor roles or as an understudy (I find no European credits at all on her website bio); and Makepeace is still an undergraduate at Princeton – but nice that they get a little bit of fame here.

  • [Recording tip: For an opera that actually has been recorded many times, I have never found an ideal version.  This is only partly the result of the problematic history of this opera, which exists in several versions.  The most-used performing version is an arrangement made by Rimsky-Korsakov that managed to miss Mussorgsky’s point entirely.  Most recordings are of this orchestration, and it fails – so this rules out the recordings with Mark Reizen perhaps the greatest Boris of all time (I do own one complete version with him as Boris, and numerous excerpts).  Overshooting in the other direction, in recent years a trend has been to perform the original version of the opera, which the composer himself rejected and which is lacking drama.  I am looking for a recording of Schostakowitsch’s arrangement – which I did get to hear at the Gelikon Opera in Moscow once – since Schostakowitsch did understand Mussorgsky and while cleaning up some of the loose odds and ends nevertheless kept Mussorgsky’s raw colorings.  But in the absence of a recording of the Schostakowitsch version, if I insist on Mussorgsky’s own scoring rather than the more-common Rimsky-Korsakov rewrite, but also insist on not using Mussorgsky’s rejected first version but some construction coming out of his more mature later version with the scenes in some semblance of order, and on top of all of that insist on a cast that can give character development and drama, then I end up with one very peculiar recording.  And that is a rather Wagnerian production broadcast live by the Bavarian Radio in 1957, under the baton of Eugen Jochum, with Hans Hotter as Boris.  Hotter, more known for his portrayals of Wagner baritone lead roles, regarded Boris as his favorite part.  The cast includes Martha Mödl, Hans Hopf, Kim Borg, Paul Kuen, Lorenz Fehenberger, Benno Kusche, Kurt Böhme, Hermann Uhde, and others, all singing in German.  Not ideal, but it’s what I go back to until I find something I am entirely satisfied with, which hasn’t happened yet.]

Tschaikowsky: Queen of Spades (Mariinsky Theater)

A simple staging by Aleksey Styepanyuk of Tschaikowsky’s Queen of Spades on the Second Stage of the Mariinsky Theater allowed the cast to act out their respective emotional and psychological psychoses.  The sets were not quite minimalist – there were props and furniture and important details – but the framing (colonnade to represent St. Petersburg, dark lighting highlighted by a giant moon…) was more suggestive of the mood.  Interestingly, Styepanyuk did not actually show either of the opera’s two suicides, those of Liza and Gyerman, but rather only suggested their deaths.  Whether they died physically or only mentally was left up to the audience.  A thrilling Maksim Aksyënov as Gyerman was obsessive, tormented, and mentally unbalanced right from the start, making it easier to see his descent into madness.  He gave a tremendous performance (I had thought of giving this streaming amiss, but his performance alone made me glad I did tune in).  Irina Churilova was a dreamy and distracted Liza who falls into his spell.  Of the smaller roles, a coquettish Yekaterina Sergeyeva as Polina thought she was being playful in the first act, but helped deliver the push.  The ubiquitous Gergiev conducted.

  • [Recording tip: I am going to go out on a ledge here and recommend a recording that has never been available but which I am certain must exist in an archive somewhere waiting to be rediscovered.  I have heard extended excerpts on two separate Russian disks: one on a recording released from the private archive of Galina Vishnyevskaya for patrons of her Moscow singing academy (I went when I lived in Moscow), the other on a Bolshoi Opera archival release for Melodiya in memory of Zurab Anjaparidze (which I found on Amazon, since I am always searching for recordings of Anjaparidze).  From the late 1950s until the early 1970s, the Bolshoi – then at its peak – had the world’s greatest dramatic soprano (Vishnyevskaya, a Russian dissident) and the world’s greatest dramatic tenor (Anjaparidze, a Georgian) both in the house’s ensemble, and they did sometimes perform together.  In May 1967, under Boris Khaikin, they did Tschaikowksy’s Queen of Spades.  The extended excerpts I have heard are so far beyond anything else available on recordings that there’s not really any point looking for another recording, although I do own other recordings.  I keep hoping someone finds the complete version of this, or at least some other complete performance including both of them in that period.  There is a complete film made around that time with Anjaparidze as Gyerman, but the sound quality is very poor.]

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Mariinsky Theater)

Last week the Mariinsky gave us Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely-performed fantasy opera The Golden Cockerel.  This week came another, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, suitable for children (and adults!), in a charming fairytale staging by Aleksandr Pyetrov which did not try to do too much.  It is after all a fairy tale.  A nice touch was that during the preludes to each of the acts, they projected a cartoon summary of the coming act’s plot.  This would make it even more accessible for children, but the cartoons were lovingly drawn and had so much personality on their own.   The 2015 performance streamed here marked the Mariinsky debut of Mikhail Vekua, singing Prince Guidon, whom I heard in the same role at the Stanislavsky in Moscow back in 2010.  Eduard Tsanga sang Tsar Saltan and Irina Churilova sang Empress Militrisa; Gergiev conducted.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

Either the Mariinsky orchestra performs a lot in the new Zaryadye Hall in Moscow, or they simply make more recordings there.  Gergiev is a Putin loyalist, and despite his jetsetting – or indeed because of it – he is always ready to perform his service to Mother Russia.  In this streamed concert, they opened with Schostakowitsch’s fifth symphony.  The orchestra displayed wonderful almost delicate phrasing (while also being robust), the sort of understanding of drama that comes from primarily being an opera orchestra rather than a concert orchestra.  The mood of the symphony did come across as uplifting and triumphant, rather than dark and mock-triumphant: Schostakowitsch intentionally wrote a piece with two meanings, one for Stalin’s consumption and one private (Yevgeny Mravinsky, who gave the premiere along Stalinist lines, was famously described by the composer as too stupid to understand the secret meaning, but of course the triumphant version is what saved Schostakowitsch from arrest and murder by the Soviet Russian regime).  Given Gergiev’s attention to detail (and his orchestra’s ability to follow through), I am sure Gergiev understood the symphony’s meaning, but at the same time the triumphant sound produced would have pleased that other famous Ossetian.  The concert continued with Prokofiev’s wonderfully crazy Piano Concerto #2 with Denis Matsuyev pounding out the solos idiomatically, wave after wave washing over the audience (or in this case spilling out of my speaker system and through my home office).

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Hindemith, Martinů, Copland

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is still not posting full concerts online, but it is adding individual works each day to the selection available.  This week, several performances highlighted what this orchestra once used to be: an elegant ensemble, maybe smaller in size that its peers near the top of the US rankings, but able to provide just that little extra intimacy and character – an American counterpart to the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester (as it happens, both now share a music director, Andris Nelsons).  I will flag four pieces they posted this week, which exemplify its old sound: Dmitri Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #1 conducted by the BSO’s then-music director Erich Leinsdorf in 1964 took the composer’s conservatory graduation work and made it into a mature and groundbreaking next step beyond Mahler; Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony, conducted by guest conductor Carlo Maria Giulini in 1974 was expansive and stately; Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani guest conducted by Rafael Kubelik with Charles Wilson joining the orchestra on the piano in 1967, and Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with Copland himself conducting and Harold Wright playing the clarinet in 1980, also explored new combinations of sounds.  Together they made a nice set this week, which I listened to in one sitting.

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.

Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Theofanidis, Beethoven, Mozart

Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music is one of the leading conservatories in the United States, so always nice to see what the Curtis Symphony Orchestra is up to: if they have fun on stage (as they did this afternoon), then the mood is contagious and the audience has fun too.

This afternoon’s program in the Kimmel Center was a mixed affair, designed to show off a wide range of musicians rather than to highlight anyone or anything in particular.  Bizarrely, the concert opened (unannounced and not listed in the program) with the US National Anthem (nice arrangement, but… why exactly?  It felt like we were at a sporting event or something.  The students at Curtis are also an international bunch – I don’t know what percentage are Americans, but surely a large number of non-Americans were on the stage, so it just seemed weird and out-of-place).

The first programmed piece was Drum Circles by Christopher Theofanidis.  Written earlier this year, the work featured seven percussionists (four stage front with multiple instruments each, and three more conventional percussionists at the back of the stage) and orchestral continuo.  At times it veered in the direction of new age music, but in general it held together nicely and with more substance, emphasizing unusual combinations of sounds (mostly from pitched percussion instruments).  The overall mood remained creative and original while firmly based in classical musical traditions.  The student conductor Yuwon Kim kept everything under good control.

After the intermission, the concert became more conventional and we went to the opera.  Robert Kahn came on to conduct a dramatic Leonore Overture #3 by Ludwig van Beethoven, shaping it as a tone poem – the opera Fidelio in miniature – rather than as an overture (at which even Beethoven recognized it was less effective and replaced it with a simpler overture for the opera).  But although not a great overture, it is great music as a stand-alone (and the convention introduced by Gustav Mahler to perform it during the scene change in the middle of Act II of Fidelio was also brilliant).  Important however it is performed is an understanding of the entire opera, and that sense of drama pervaded this performance.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra who also mentors conductors at Curtis (including Kim and Kahn) came out to perform four extended ensembles from operas by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (two each from Cosi Fan Tutte and Figaro).  What worked best here was precisely the ensemble nature of the excerpts – no need to highlight individual singers but rather to show how they could perform as a whole group (each selection had a different cast, with a couple of people repeating but mostly new groups for each).  The voices were mixed in quality (none bad, but some stronger or more expressive than others) but worked well as a team effort, and they clearly had chemistry with each other.  Behind them, the orchestra gave tremendous support.  The audience smiled broadly and laughed (appropriately) at the comic nuances.

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).

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Prokofiev, Strauss

More from Yannick Nézet-Séguin (again filling in for the ailing Mariss Jansons) and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra this morning, with Gil Shaham stepping in for the ill Lisa Batiashvili.  If we are going to get substitutes, those are pretty good ones to have.

I am not quite sure the reasoning behind the collection of works Jansons assembled for this concert (the program remaining the same despite the substitutions), although Jansons has said before that sometimes there is no logic and he just programs pieces he likes.  So we started with the Symphony #1 by Sibelius, then the Violin Concerto #2 by Prokofiev, and finally a suite from Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss.

The program notes made a point of stressing a supposed interest in Tschaikowsky during the time Sibelius wrote his first symphony, which seemed odd.  The origins of the symphony date to his study in Vienna, and Schubert and Bruckner (his favorite living composer) would normally seem to be the most appropriate influences.  I seriously doubt Nézet-Séguin made any decisions on interpretation based on reading the program, but from my side: having read the program, and listening to Nézet-Séguin’s reading, I did hear a few lines now and then (in the strings) or psychodramatic (in the winds) which could have invoked the lush melodic flow of Tschaikowsky.  These either got interrupted, or had a different section perform a completely contrasting line simultaneously and counter to them.  Sibelius was far more original, even early in his career, than Tschaikowsky later in his career, while remaining authentic to his Nordic homeland (where Tschaikowsky sounded less and less Russian later in his career).  Although Nézet-Séguin did not draw out the soaring post-Brucknreian chorales, he did load this symphony up with contrasts and a throwback melancholy.

Prokofiev’s second violin concerto has several moods, based on Russian and Spanish folk music (his wife was Spanish, and this work had its premiere in Madrid).  Shaham does not get the largest sound from his violin, but he moves adeptly among styles, from the robust and assertive to the soft and wistful, with ease.  Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra made a stunning complement to keep painting an ever-broader palate.  (Shaham returned to the stage to do a joint encore with the concertmaster from Prokofiev’s sonata for two violins).

Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier was by design a piece of Viennese nostalgia, even at its premiere in 1911 before the dismembering of the Austrian Empire a few years later.  The suite (arranged with Strauss’ approval, possibly by Artur Rodziński who may also have been aided by his then-assistant Leonard Bernstein) does not follow the plot of the opera, but instead tries to capture its schmaltz.  The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra hammed it up.  (To take down the mood, they added as a final encore more Sibelius: his “Valse Triste” from Kuolema – perhaps connecting the two Vienna-inspired composers at either end of the program).

The orchestra sounded even better today than it did on Friday, with its complete soundscape.  The woodwinds as a unit are nothing short of spectacular.  And they had a great rapport with Nézet-Séguin (in addition to the clear warmth and understanding during the performance, he kept kissing and hugging members of the orchestra as he wandered around the stage between pieces and during the applause to a degree I have not seen him do with the Philadelphians).  One wonders what will happen if Jansons needs to retire and whom the Bavarians might choose to succeed him.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Beethoven, Schostakowitsch, Mussorgsky

With Mariss Jansons taking a doctor-advised period of rest, Yannick Nézet-Séguin sprung in to replace him on the podium in front of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for two concerts at this Summer’s Festival.  Nézet-Séguin retained the original programs with one change: substituting Schostakowitsch‘s 5th Symphony tonight for his 10th, paired with Beethoven‘s 2nd (Sunday morning’s concert will remain as programmed by Jansons).

Even if not originally scheduled, the new pairing made sense.  Both symphonies represented, in their own ways, defiance in the face of personal tragedy.  Beethoven wrote his Second Symphony at a time when he was borderline suicidal, coming to grips with the deafness he realized would consume him and the world he knew.  Nézet-Séguin captured pure exuberance.  Whatever Beethoven may have been feeling under the circumstances (and he wrote those morbid thoughts down in words), his music expressed the opposite, full of wit, humor, and life.  Tonight’s performance came fully-charged.

After the intermission came a different take on the Schostakowitsch Fifth.  The composer’s enemy in this case was not nature, but a man, Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator who had criticized Schostakowitsch’s music and had purged his friends.  Schostakowitch had to produce a symphony within bounds acceptable to the regime, but true to himself wrote something which nevertheless transcended the regime.  Tonight’s interpretation took an unusual route: melancholy.  Neither artificially upbeat nor dark and oppressive, this reading demonstrated an almost-hopeful subtext: things were bad, but the listener should cheer up; the human soul will survive.  So while not up-beat, Nézet-Séguin also did not make this performance devastating: how might the original listeners in 1937 have heard this (not quite a capitulation to Stalin’s criticism of the composer, but rather a new addition to the approved canon).

Foot-stomping applause induced an encore: the prelude to Mussorgsky‘s opera Khovanshchina, which both relaxed the mood while also building on the hopeful feeling derived from the Schostakowitsch interpretation.  Throughout all three works, this orchestra played as a fully-coherent unit: no standout individual instrumentalists, but all working together as an accomplished whole.  However the woodwinds in particular took this concept to a higher level, with evocative wistful playing as a unit, perhaps responding even more than the other sections to the unfamiliar guest conductor’s lead.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Bernstein, Tschaikowsky, Elgar

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned for a second night in the Musiverein’s Golden Hall, making a bigger splash with the audience than last night: bigger applause devolving to rhythmic clapping and a call for an encore.  To be honest: this orchestra certainly deserved the ovation, but I’m not convinced tonight was better than last.

The first half of the concert had one peculiar piece, Leonard Bernstein‘s Second Symphony, the “Age of Anxiety.”  Bernstein was a far better conductor and intellectual than he was a composer, but this is one of his better compositions.  That does not make it any less pretentious.  Part One was everywhere (as the composer intended), which I suppose is what gives it the sense of anxiety.  But it was a joyous Part One – a musical description of four people getting drunk together, but each lonely and self-absorbed, in a bar, they seemed to be embibing a bit too much and may have actually been rather happy when not mourning their own existence.  Part Two, on the other hand, never seemed to figure out what it wanted to be, shifting musical styles (including a bit of jazz) without settling on anything.  This may have been a bit too weird.  The Orchestra could certainly handle this tricky music with no problem at all – the only one who seemed to be anxious was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the piano soloist (the work is in many ways more piano concerto than symphony), whose mouth remained agape and whose eye stared up at Nézet-Séguin with a look of utter fear.  Thibaudet appears to have told his barber to cut his hair to match Bernstein’s own hairstyle, and there was a passing similarity, so perhaps this was indeed the pianist channeling the composer’s spirit.

For the second half of the concert, the Orchestra pulled out Tschaikowsky‘s Fourth Symphony.  His fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies are performed far too often.  They are good music, but it’s just hard to say anything new.  This Orchestra’s thrilling Tschaikowsky Fifth in Dresden in 2015, for example, still rings in my ears – it was that good.  Tonight’s Fourth… wonderful performance, but I heard nothing I haven’t heard before.  So that was a bit disappointing.

But yes it was a wonderful performance, and the audience appreciated it maybe more than I did.  The solo bows elicited roars (particularly for the principal oboist, Richard Woodhams, who is retiring at the end of this tour, whose solo bow inspired massive foot thumping across the hall).  So the orchestra gave us an orchestration of Edward Elgar‘s Liebesgruß to show off its lush string sound, as an encore.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms, Schumann, Strauss

It’s always wonderful to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour performing in a proper hall and not the dull box they have in the Kimmel Center.  Tonight, they hit the Musikverein for the first of a two-night set with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium.

The second half of the concert was spectacular, featuring the best performance of Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony I have ever heard – a mix of mystery, wistfullness, and outright joy.  This was followed by Richard Strauss‘ tone poem Don Juan, in an interpretation which emphasized the individual virtuosic lines.  Not sure where to begin on this, but maybe the duet between the oboe and clarinet was most special.  Or was it the horn solos?  Or the violin?  Or… or…  From my seat I had a good view of Nézet-Séguin, and watched him cajole the Orchestra emotionally, and then heard the immediate response.  These forces make music so well together.

This intimacy was also on show for the concert’s first half, where they were joined by Hélène Grimaud for the Brahms first piano concerto.  I am afraid not even the Philadelphia Orchestra can rescue that Brahms concerto, although it was a valiant effort.  The playing sounded great, but there was just not much to work with (or too much – an hour of musical ideas that weren’t all bad but Brahms was not creative enough to know what to do with them).  According to the program notes, Bruckner was a fan of the main theme of the first movement (“Siehst, das is a Symphoniethema!” – “You see, that is a symphony theme!” he apparently declared to a student).  Indeed, there was something there, and if it had been a Bruckner symphony we would have found ourselves dreaming in a gothic cathedral he would have built from it.  But it was a Brahms piano concerto, so all he could do with it was plant a vegetable garden for the monks.  Maybe they were good vegetables, and maybe Grimaud, Nézet-Séguin, and the Philadelphians made good tour guides, but I’d rather admire Bruckner’s cathedral than wander around in Brahms’ monastery farm.

The concert had very high security (indeed, I have never seen so much security for anything in Austria, including when I attended a reception hosted by the President last Fall with many other dignitaries from Austria and neighboring countries in the room).  Armed police roamed everywhere (outside and inside the building), as did ubiquitous Israeli close protection teams.  There were also a bunch of huge men who looked like nightclub bouncers stationed around the hall (apparently recommended by the Israelis).

This all had to do with the fact that at the end of the Orchestra’s European tour tomorrow, they head off to tour Israel, and the anti-Semites are protesting everywhere.  The Orchestra started its tour in Belgium, one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe today (I make no excuses for Austria, its failure to address its history, and the fact that unrepentent German nationalists with an arguably classical national socialist political agenda are sitting in the current government – but Austria is actually pretty tame, which is frightening).  So in Brussels the Orchestra’s concert was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Semitic protestors, which led the Orchestra to contact the Israelis for advice and the host cities on the rest of the European tour for high alerts.  At the start of tonight’s concert, a Musikverein representative came on stage to announce that if there were a protest, then the Orchestra would stop playing and walk off the stage, and return to start the concert over after the protest ended; so, since the Orchestra believes in the right to free speech, it was requested that if anyone in the audience wanted to protest, that they do so now before the concert began.  There was a loud applause for the announcement, but no protest.

And there was certainly no protest about the concert itself.  I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Machover

I would not normally post a review of a rehearsal, particularly one for a world premiere performance where the orchestra and composer were still fine-tuning ahead of the first concert.  But for this rehearsal, I have decided to make an exception (albeit delaying the public posting for a day until after the world premiere has taken place).  This is because I realized I am not actually reviewing the performance.

Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices is about to have its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin in a three-concert set in Philadelphia this week and then at Carnegie Hall in New York next week (along with works by Bernstein and Mussorgsky, not rehearsed this evening).

On an intellectual level, I’m glad I went.  On a musical level, there’s nothing to say.  It’s an especially awful piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra to bring to Carnegie Hall – a Philadelphia audience might have fun with some of the inside jokes and immediate cultural references, but New Yorkers will lose that dimension, exposing that there is nothing else there.

Machover crowd-sourced his thing-a-ma-bobby.  He cobbled the inane text (partly sung, partly pre-recorded voices from around the city played over speakers) together from various sources, including on-the-street interviews (or in one case an interview with a short-order cook making a cheese steak).  Some of it came from snippets of documents like the US Constitution (written in Philadelphia).  The text contained juxtaposed words or phrases often presenting inside jokes; recent events ranging from the Pope’s visit that took place while Machover had begun to work on this, to the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl earlier this year complete with the play-by-play announcer’s calling of the final play of that game; and some truly dreadful poetry including one section that began: “My house is full of black people.”

At a pre-rehearsal discussion, Machover answered an audience member’s question about what will happen with this piece after this initial set of concerts, explaining that Haydn had written his London symphonies and they became part of the standard repertory. But Haydn’s “London” symphonies got the name because he wrote a set of them there (or at least for premieres there), not because they have anything specifically to do with London ranging from insider knowledge to recent (from 200 years ago) football championships. Haydn just wrote good music.

But intellectually, learning how Machover constructed this work (wandering around Philadelphia recording people and sounds, while getting to know the city – he himself is not from Philadelphia), and then hearing a full (final) rehearsal in which the composer and Nézet-Séguin had to make finishing touches and to see how to make it function in real life, was worth the several hours I spent in the Kimmel Center.  As a native Philadelphian, I also had fun with parts of the text.

Four different choral groups, apparently mostly drawn from a good selection of inner-city kids, sang the words.  For them, this was an opportunity to rehearse with the best orchestra in the United States and under one of the best conductors of the 40-ish generation, and then to perform live at New York’s historic Carnegie Hall (and of course at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, an undistinguished venue but likely exciting for these kids).  This was heartening to see.  What a great experience for these kids – and maybe they’ll even stick around for some real music.

Oh, yes… the music.  It was mostly tonal, and required performance on instruments (including voice) despite many voice-overs, but I’m not sure it was music.  It had no discernable structure or direction (not just a factor of the strange text, but a fundamental problem with the construction itself).

What did it really remind me of?  I attended a bizarrely experimental elementary school in Philadelphia.  On a typical day, we walked up and down the streets of this city exploring different neighborhoods (and once a week they bussed us city kids out to a working farm).  We had no formal classes – maybe the closest we came to a recognizable class period was music, which they taught us using the educational system developed by Carl Orff.  I could easily see my elementary school collaboratively writing this piece – both the words and music – and then performing it for our parents on our recorders and xylophones (and singing along) in the school’s “Multi-Purpose Room.”  Our parents would have had fun (or at least would have pretended to).  And then after that performance there would never – ever – be any reason to perform our piece again.

Philadelphia Voices should share the same fate.   Creative?  Sure.  But place- and time-specific, and otherwise with nothing of substance.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart

Salzburg’s Mozarteum Foundation runs an annual Mozart Week Festival overlapping the anniversary of the composer’s birthday (27 January 1756).  Quite oddly, these are the most expensive tickets of the year in Salzburg – even more than the Salzburg Festival.  It’s a great mystery why.

I’ve skipped it the last two years as it is extremely hard to justify the prices, but last Summer while renewing my Mozarteum subscription series tickets (quite reasonably priced), I decided to pick up relatively cheaper-end seats for three concerts for this Winter’s Mozart Week while they were still available.  By stroke of bad luck, I now have to go on a last-minute work trip this weekend and will miss two of the concerts (so gave my tickets back to the box office tonight for re-sale), leaving me with only tonight’s concert (and next year’s Mozart Week schedule, just released, looks especially uninteresting, so I won’t be going back any time soon).

The programs mix about 50% or more Mozart with some other themes (this year includes a lot of Haydn).  That’s probably a bit more Mozart than my diet can take, and tonight’s concert was 100% Mozart, but he’s a fun if highly over-rated composer, so I decided to enjoy.  The forces assembled tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival House – the Vienna Philharmonic under Yannick Nézet-Séguin – promised to make the performances dynamic, and they did not disappoint.

The concert included Symphonies #39 and #40, composed back-to-back but in different styles, which Nézet-Séguin and the Philharmoniker mastered.  For #39, they captured Mozart’s quirky humor, the sudden shifts and surprises, unexpected pauses and changes in direction.  #40 is a bit more serious, and Nézet-Séguin emphasized the thick harmonies hiding under the melodies, giving this work perhaps even more weight than it normally has.

In between the symphonies we were supposed to have a selection of Mozart’s songs performed by Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón (songs not heard so often, which had made this concert particularly appealing to me).  Unfortunately, Villazón came in to rehearse earlier today sick and coughing heavily, so was a late cancelation.  Brazilian pianist Maria João Pines, in town for a concert last night, was on her way to the airport when the Mozarteum called her up and asked her to skip her flight and perform tonight as well.  She did a standard work from the repertory – Piano Concerto #23.  Her playing was workmanlike, lacking sparkle or humor.  About all I can say regarding the others on stage: the orchestra accompanied her.  Nothing particularly wrong with anything, indeed beautiful music, but perhaps paradigmatic of Mozart himself on one of those days when he just did not feel like playing any jokes.  And Mozart’s music without Mozart’s humor is… perfectly nice for a lazy weekend morning, but maybe not for an evening concert with the fashionably overdressed crowd.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Martinů, Bruckner

A late start tonight in Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall: 9 p.m. seems like an appropriate time to construct a church service in a concert hall, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Vienna Philharmonic doing the construction.

The concert opened with Bohuslav Martinů’Frescos of Piero della Francesca, a work I did not previously know. Martinů got his inspiration on vacation in Arezzo, where he saw these paintings in a church. To be entirely honest, I could not quite connect Martinů’s modern music (the work had its premiere by the Philharmoniker in Salzburg at the 1956 Festival) with the 15th-century frescos. But as pure music, it worked, with that composer’s wonderful juxtapositions.

They then skipped the intermission completely and went directly to the second work on the program, which gave Martinů yet more juxtaposition. The Bavarian Radio Chorus joined a smaller orchestra for Bruckner’s Mass #3. Having put up the paintings in the church, I suppose they now had to fill the room with mass.

In 1867, Bruckner’s doctor told him to stay away from music – it was driving him insane. Thankfully, Bruckner listened to God instead of to his doctor. He wrote Mass #3 and then moved to Vienna full time to teach counterpoint at the conservatory.

This mass is a bridge work. The insane church organist subsequently wrote mostly orchestral music, constructing his cathedrals of sound. But this was a work he meant to have performed in a church (unlike Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Wednesday night’s work, to which it was immediately compared in scale when it was first performed). The premiere indeed took place in Vienna’s Augustinerkirche (in the Hofburg) and remains frequently performed as a mass in Austrian churches and cathedrals (possibly more often than it appears in the world’s concert halls).

Unlike Harnoncourt’s muffled Missa Solemnis on Wednesday, Nézet-Séguin made use of his forces to fill the hall brightly. Although relatively-early Bruckner (in terms of major compositional output), the mass connected Bruckner’s church organist background with some of the larger structures he would create after moving to Vienna. The mass works both as church music and as a dramatic concert work. But the texts are clear, and the devout Bruckner clearly believed in them. This piece marked his transition from his time serving the Church to his new world serving Humanity.

Soloists Dorothea RöschmannKaren CargillChistian Elsner, and Franz-Josef Selig sang their lines clearly. But this is not a work highlighting the soloists. There is drama in the text, but it is in the service of the Lord.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Konzerthaus Berlin

Muhly, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov

Tonight the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin appeared at the Berlin Konzerthaus with a rather more-challenging program. The Berlin Konzerthaus is famous for its acoustics, but from tonight’s observation this praise is not deserved. Maybe it got this reputation only in comparison with the other concert hall in town, the Philharmonie, which I discovered last night is truly awful. It is also clear that the house management knows something is wrong with the acoustics, as plexiglass plates have been installed over the orchestra to deflect the sound (either that, or to keep unruly Berliners in the side balconies from spitting on the orchestra). Nine additional large plexiglass dishes hung near the ceiling to try to get the sound to do something (or were they UFOs hovering up there to hear the Philadelphians?). In short, the acoustics are not bad but nothing special and the house clearly knows this.

However, because the acoustics were more straightforward, I did get a better chance to hear Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly that I heard for the first time two nights ago. While the Orchestra did need that piece in Dresden to understand the acoustical bounces of that hall (which, as I noted, had better acoustics but the bounces off the walls took getting used to), tonight they could jump right in and it came across more clearly and somewhat less crazy than it sounded on Sunday. Nevertheless, although the piece changed its musical style, it did not go anywhere, and the common thread throughout could not sustain it for the full length. If Muhly edits it down to something shorter, it may stand.

Works by Schostakowitsch and Rachmaninov demostrated what composers with something to say can achieve despite wild rhythms and modern sounds – Muhly is not in their league.

From Schostakowitsch, we got the First Violin Concerto, with the solos played defiantly by Lisa Batiashvili. Batiashvili exhibited a warm, deep tone, while remaining crisp. The Schostakowitsch concerto allows for the violin to play along with the orchestra but periodically change its tune and go its own individual way, still hewing closely to the orchestra, as if to show that an individual can preserve an identity in the face of oppression and demands for conformity. But then, even those bets were off, as the violin solo turned into a full-out cadenzaof enormous complexity. Batiashvili made this into a real tour-de-force. Did Schostakowitsch (who wrote the piece for David Oistrakh) really expect human violinists could play this? Batiashvili did. And when the cadenza finished, the orchestra joined back in at a level unheard before. The violin individualist had freed the masses.

After a standing ovation, Nézet-Séguin sat down at the piano on the side of the stage, and Batiashvili joined him for a Tschaikowsky romance, that lowered the tension going into the break. But after the intermission, the gloves came off again for a crazy Rachmaninov Third Symphony. Although it got its premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra have decided to champion it, it really is not one of the composer’s better works. But if anyone can do it, then this orchestra will at least make the case. The concert ended with another encore designed to bring down the tension: Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, highlighting the violins and woodwinds. Wonderful playing.