Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

I was convalescing from dental surgery this week, so although the lockdown is long over and life outside looks reasonably normal, I continue to scan residual streamings for more unusual performances I want to hear.  This seems to include a disproportionate amount of Russian music.

Tschaikowsky: Iolanta and Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (Metropolitan Opera)

Good to know that sometimes a rarely-performed – indeed unjustly-neglected – opera gets a champion and another chance to re-enter the repertory.  Tschaikowsky himself did not think much of Iolanta, which may have influenced the poor uptake of the work even though its champions included such notables as Gustav Mahler.  Now it seems Valery Gergiev is leading a new charge, working with Anna Netrebko in the title role.  I saw this combination in a streaming from the Mariinsky one month ago (a 2009 production), and was rather pleased to see them reunited at the Metropolitan Opera now (in a 2015 production).  Mariusz Treliński directed both versions.  His staging for the Met essentially followed a similar concept to the one he previously did for the Mariinsky – both rather silly, with no discernable logic to the combination of costumes and sets, but indeed emphasizing the psychological aspects of the drama.  The confusion was inoffensive, if needless, but so long as I did focus on the psychodrama and the singing, I could enjoy the performance.  In addition to Netrebko sounding in top form for the title role, Ilya Bannik sang an elegant King René, Aleksei Markov a strong Duke Robert (a role he also sang in the Mariinsky version), and Elchin Azizov an impressive Ibn Hakia.  Piotr Beczala was uneven as Count Gottfried Vaudemont – his good moments shone, but he also had rougher ones.

If Iolanta provided a psychodrama of a woman moving from darkness to light, then the Met paired this performance with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók, in which a woman goes the other direction into darkness.  It’s not at all an easy opera to stage, and so Treliński juxtaposed projections with odd portions of inside and outside spaces with off-balance lighting, seeking to get inside the head of Judith.  I am not sure he succeeded, and in the process he made Duke Bluebeard a more one-dimensional evil character, when in reality Bluebeard is more nuanced and in some ways himself cursed to his fate, hoping Judith will succeed in rescuing him.  That did not come across here.  Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko sang the two roles adequately, but both might have had fuller voices: Petrenko could have been darker and rounder especially in Treliński’s interpretation.  Gergiev appears also to be promoting this rare opera – I heard him conduct it in Moscow in 2011.

Shchedrin: The Lefthander (Mariinsky Theater)

I don’t think I have ever heard the music of Rodion Shchedrin live.  I own a recording of his opera Dead Souls, but other than having listened to that at some point (I don’t remember buying it, so think it was given to me) I don’t remember hearing anything else by him on the radio.  But something pulled me to watch the Mariinsky’s steaming of the world premiere of Shchedrin’s opera The Lefthander from July 2013 (commissioned to open the Mariinsky’s brand new Second Stage).

Supposedly a witty satire on British and Russian society, I missed a lot of the amusement from not understanding Russian (the Mariinsky does not provide optional captions for its streamings, and my residual passive Russian, built up when I worked in Russia from 2009-2011, is no longer up to the task).  But the production by Alexei Styepanyuk was like a lot of other fantasy stagings the Mariinsky has shown in the last few months (including his own staging of the Queen of Spades) – although set in the 19th century, it is obviously not a realistic story, and so the caricatures and sometimes cartoonish settings serve their purpose.  Valery Gergiev conducted a cast headed by Andrei Popov, whose stylized Russian tenor worked well for the title role.  The music itself jumped around modern tonalities on a base of Russian folk melodies – a 21st century outgrowth of the Russian classical tradition.  Was it good music?  Maybe, but it did seem to properly support the operatic story, so at least it was good opera.  I just wish I had understood more of the text.

Prokofiev: War and Peace (Mariinsky Theater)

I may not have appreciated Prokofiev’s War and Peace when I watched it for the first time last week in a streaming from the Stanislavsky.  So I decided to give it another go, to see if I might not take to it more on a second hearing, this week from a 2003 performance streamed by the Mariinsky (I actually own two complete recordings – one from 1961 at the Bolshoi, the other from 1991 at the Kirov, as the Mariinsky was then called – as well as excerpts released from the private archives of Galina Vishnyevskaya from a 1971 Bolshoi production, but until last week had never seen a production on video).  My verdict: unchanged.  Good music, poor music drama.

Valery Gergiev conducted this performance, starring a young-voiced Anna Netrebko overshadowing Vladimir Moroz, as Andrey.  Gegham Grigoryan provided a more forceful presence as Pierre, less timid but portrayed as a bit of an older character than the Stanislavsky had him and that he might seem from the plot (Grigoryan, who passed away in 2016, was the father of Asmik Grigoryan, who made such an impression in the otherwise forgettable Salzburg Festival production of Salome in 2018).  Stage director Andrei Konchalovsky used historical costumes but otherwise an abstract staging, that may have worked – but it was hard to tell, as whatever moron was in charge of filming this performance was having a severe drug trip, using vertigo-inducing camera angles, never from the perspective of the audience and always from bizarre angles that put the stage on steep diagonals which made the cast look like they should have slipped off the set completely (since they clearly were not, this was entirely due to the extreme camera angles).

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Staatsoper)

I never tire of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.  But I marked this one – from the Staatsoper – down in my calendar as to hear and not to watch.  I saw this production in 2014 and had no desire to see it again.  Director Yannis Kokkos, who despite being Greek seemingly does not have the word “drama” in his vocabulary, delivered a terrible concept: first, he used Mussorgsky’s original version – which Mussorgsky himself had rejected and which will always lack drama, and then did not even try to develop anything beyond that (see my blog review from 2014).  But the music is wonderful, and although it makes every character except Boris himself somewhat one-dimension, this original version does enable whoever sings the role of Boris to have a showcase.  And in this performance, the stage belonged to René Pape, ably supported by the orchestra under Marko Letonja.  I may also call out Ryan Speedo Green, who sang a rousing Varlaam in his brief appearance.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitsch

The Mariinsky streamed a concert from the Mariinsky Concert Hall on 25 September 2016, the 110thanniversary of the birth of Dmitri Schostakowitsch.  The first half consisted of chamber music, and the second of orchestral, with two student works framing two Jewish-inspired pieces.  Schostakowitsch wrote his Trio #1 when he was just sixteen years old, and his Symphony #1 as a graduation piece from the conservatory when he was twenty.  Both demonstrate his budding talent at the different Fächer.  The middle pieces were his song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry (performed here in its original version with only piano accompaniment) and his Violin Concerto #1 – both of which he had to hide in his desk drawer due to official Soviet antisemitism.  Sergei Redkin (piano), Pavel Milyukov (violin), and Aleksandr Ramm (cello) performed the trio, with Redkin returning to accompany vocalists Anastasiya Kalagina, Yekatyerina Sergeyeva, and Dmitry Voropayev for the songs, and Milyukov returning for the concerto.  Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra.  The performance of the concerto stood out in particular for its robustness and vigor – celebrations in the midst of tragedy (kudos to Milyukov).  And the interpretation of the symphony was very powerful, even in its softer moments demonstrating a sense of foreboding.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Bach, Dukas, Rachmaninov, Sarasate, Copland, Stravinsky

The Philadelphia Orchestra has posted on its website its 100th birthday concert from 16 November 2000.  The program opened in dramatic fashion with Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d (BWV 565), one of many transcriptions Stokowski did for this orchestra during his tenure as its music director (1912-38).  In keeping with Stokowski’s trends, his version represents a complete reinterpretation of the work more than just an orchestration, here for a full orchestra and emphasizing the Philadelphians’ famous lush strings.  This orchestra also provided the soundtrack for the classic 1940 Disney film Fantasia, in which works such as Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas entered American pop culture.  So it was natural to hear these two works lead off the anniversary concert in thrilling, high-octane performances.

Three works for soloists and orchestra followed.  André Watts joined the Orchestra for Rachmaninov’s second Piano Concerto – the Orchestra which Rachmaninov himself had prized so greatly gave the world premiere of several of the composer’s works (although not this one, as it happens).   Sarah Chang then came on for Sarasate’s Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen (which had its US premiere in Philadelphia, albeit before this Orchestra was founded), and Thomas Hampson for four selections from Copland’s Old American Songs (there would of course need to be some American composition on this program, in this case the greatest American composer of the 20th century, born the same year the Orchestra was founded – apparently two days before, on 14 November 1900).  Watts and Chang grew up in Philadelphia so were likely chosen for sentimental reasons – Hampson did not grow up in Philadelphia (and as far as I know has no particular Philadelphia connection), but was by far the most impressive of the choices for soloists.  It was a great shame they did only four selections and not Copland’s entire song cycle (ten short songs in total, the additional six would have only added another 15 minutes to the concert, so certainly within reason especially for a gala celebration that came in easily at under two hours including applause and announcements from the stage).

The concert concluded with the suite from the Firebird by Igor Stravinsky, for which the Orchestra had given the U.S. premiere – the return to purely orchestral music most welcome and again full-on showcasing the Orchestra’s craft.  Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Orchestra’s much-loved music director at the time, conducted this concert in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music.  The Orchestra today still owns the Academy, although it has subsequently moved to a new hall – sadly, neither the Academy nor the Orchestra’s current venue in the Kimmel Center has decent acoustics, which is a real travesty.  This wonderful Orchestra desperately needs a proper home venue and is until then best enjoyed on tour.  Back when I lived in Zurich, I heard it with Sawallisch in the Tonhalle – where it nearly blew the roof off considering the perfect acoustics in that hall, the best in the world, and the Orchestra simply had been used to having to over-play in order to overcome the Academy’s tendency to swallow sound – as well as in recent years with its current music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the Musikverein (another world-great hall), Dresden’s Semper Oper (where sound takes peculiar bounces but remains alive), and the Berlin Konzerthaus (a strangely overrated hall, albeit better than the Philharmonie across town, but still reasonable thanks to the installation of sound-deflecting enhancements around the stage).

Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 11)

Highlights

It looks like live music will resume in Austria in June – the Vienna Symphony Orchestra is testing out performing the same concert multiple times back-to-back (a different program each week – mostly Beethoven in his 250th anniversary year) for an audience at each of 100 people in Vienna’s Konzerthaus.  The Salzburg and Grafenegg Festivals will go ahead in modified forms later this summer.  But in the meantime, there is still online streaming (not as good, but I do get to watch a ridiculous amount of opera – this week, two by Mozart, one by Strauss, one by Wagner, two by Berlioz, one by Schreker, and two by Schostakowitsch).

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (Staatsoper)

Mozart’s Zauberflöte can take a lot of stagings, being fantasy and allegory and all.  But a staging still has to make sense.  I have no idea what I just watched from the Staatsoper.  This was not Regietheater, since it did seem to at least allude to the opera (key elements appeared at every point when they were supposed to) and it followed the plot (thank goodness).  But otherwise I could find no rhyme or reason in anything from random setting (a stripped-down disused theater backstage, maybe?), the costumes (no consistency – although there looked like there may have been a reason each character got the costume they did, the costume style did not match up among the characters), or props (actually, these were the key elements that were supposed to be there, but they seemed out of place with everything else).  I have seen minimalist productions, which work since they allow focus on the key elements (or at least on the acting) to augment comprehension – but when the framing is not minimalist but irrelevant, it detracts from the focus on and understanding of the plot. Two directors were listed as being responsible for this: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, who are apparently a Paris-based couple.

The cast in this 2017 performance was mostly from the Vienna Ensemble, keeping up the baseline standards of this house and ensuring good chemistry among them.  The only big visiting name was René Pape as Sarastro, who works in this house often enough to be part of the extended family at least.  Thomas Tatzl was a playful Papageno (joined later by Ileana Tonca as Papagena), Jörg Schneider was fine but not quite dashing enough as Tamino, Olga Bezsmertna made a fine Pamina, and Hila Fahima was uneven as the Queen of the Night, but this is judging her by the high standards of this house, which she attained – generally, the Vienna Ensemble puts stars in other houses to shame, so it is important to consider the success of the cast as a whole unit.  Ádám Fischer conducted a wonderfully lilting performance, capturing all of the musical charm.

  • [Recording tips:  Otto Klemperer’s 1964 set with the Philharmonia had possibly one of the best Zauberflöte casts ever assembled top-to-bottom: Nicolai Gedda, Gundula Janowitz, Walter Berry, Lucia Popp, Gottlob Frick in the major roles, but luxuries like Franz Crass, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Marga Höfgen, Ruth-Margret Putz, Gerhard Unger, Agnes Giebel, Anna Reynalds, and Josephine Veasey in the assorted smaller roles.  The main fault of the set, however, is that it excludes the dialogue, which makes listening to it as a “complete” recording rather disconcerting.  Better to hear it as extended excerpts.  For a complete recording with dialogue from around that period, there is a wonderful recording from the 1959 Salzburg Festival, with George Szell leading the Vienna Philharmonic with Leopold Simoneau, Lisa Della Casa, Walter Berry, Erika Köth, and Kurt Böhme that may lack the brightness of some later live recordings of better technical quality, but still captures its period very well.]

Mozart: Don Giovanni (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper gave us three streaming options for a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni by director Jean-Louis Martinoty, so I picked the one that looked most promising, from 2017, mostly to see the ever-lively Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni, and with the cerebral Ádám Fischer conducting.  Neither disappointed.  As Giovanni’s sidekick Leporello, Erwin Schrott made a good tandem with Keenlyside.  Ileana Tonca (Zerlina) and Dorothea Röschmann (Elvira) both excelled, while the rest of the cast gave an appropriately strong Staatsoper baseline performance.  However, Martinoty’s staging itself was at times busy and confused, with different sets unrelated to the plot (or maybe they were, but Martinoty just put them in the wrong places) and sometimes extra people hanging around on stage, which made the production more distracting than helpful.

  • [Recording tips: Don Giovanni is perhaps another one of those operas where everyone has a favorite recording, and I simply will not weigh in to that debate.  Without declaring it the best one available, I will say that the recording I return to most often is a historic 1955 performance from the Staatsoper, right after the house reopened after it was restored from having been hit by a bomb in 1945 during the final weeks of the war.  The Staatsoper put on what amounted to a mini-festival of standard repertory with leading casts, and this all-star collection, under the baton of Karl Böhm, included George London in the title role and Erich Kunz, Sena Jurinac, Lisa Della Casa, Anton Dermota, Ludwig Weber, Irmgard Seefried, and Walter Berry.  Some people might resist this recording because they used the alternate libretto by Hermann Levy, and while it is true that Lorenzo Da Ponte’s original version is a work of art, Levy’s version, in the tradition of great 19th century literary translations, fully captures that original art but in Mozart’s German vernacular – and indeed it may why other German versions are so jarring.  The Nazis had a problem with this opera, which they otherwise liked very much, because both the Italian and the German libretti were written by Jews, and so they dropped the Levy version and either performed it in Italian with no librettist credited or commission less-good German versions, some of which have remained in circulation since that period.  The Staatsoper gets credit here for restoring the Levy script. 
  • In addition to mentioning this complete version, I would be remiss to not point out one excerpt that should be in everyone’s collection: Richard Tauber may have been the greatest lyric tenor of all time, and while he may be most remembered for operetta, of which he recorded a lot and took on tours, he was first and foremost a Mozart tenor and had sung many lyric roles in the Vienna Staatsoper Ensemble.  No one has ever matched his mezza voce.  No one has ever matched his Austrian charm either – Richard Strauss once remarked something like that if someone wanted to understand nostalgia for the way Vienna once was, they just needed to listen to Richard Tauber sing.  There are two recordings of “Dalla sua pace” that I am aware of, one in the Da Ponte version and one in the Levy version (“Nur ihrem Frieden”).  The Italian one came later with better recording sound.  If I were to spotlight a small number of Tauber recordings that best demonstrated his lyricism, this would be one.  And for real collectors, there are some excerpts available – albeit in poor sound – from Tauber’s final performance of this role.  The Austrian Tauber turned down an offer from the Nazis to be declared an “honorary Aryan” and ultimately fled to England.  In 1947, with their house bombed out, the Staatsoper went on tour and stopped in London, where their run included Don Giovanni.  They invited Tauber, by that time dying of cancer, with one lung removed and the other one barely working, to perform Don Ottavio one last time with the Vienna Ensemble.  Most of the audience was not aware that he was singing on half a lung, nor is it obvious from the recordings that survive.  He died just over three months later.]

Strauss: Salome (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper streamed Salome by Richard Strauss in a staging Boleslaw Barlog first produced in 1972.  Barlog, a German from the days when Germans knew how to stage opera by sticking to the plot, did not have much to say, but his timeless, moody setting (which indeed sticks to the plot) allowed Strauss’ music to do the work.  I saw this Klimt-inspired production in 2015 with some of the same cast, particularly Lise Lindstrom in the title role and Herwig Pecoraro as Herod.  Pecoraro was as sardonic as I remember.  Lindstrom fell a bit short in this performance, coming in off pitch more often than not, and sometimes warbling when she did find the pitch.  As John the Baptist this time around, Michael Volle did not quite completely fill the role, which could have been bigger, darker, or warmer.  For this performance from earlier this year, Michael Boder conducted but failed to add from the pit, the opera even ending on a whimper.  In all, if the Staatsoper wanted to stream Salome, one wonders why they chose this performance of all of the ones presumably in their archive.

  • [Recording tip: Perhaps the most-charged version of Salome available is a recording with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1994, reassembling most of a cast that had triumphed at the 1992 Salzburg Festival: Catherine Malfitano (Salome) and Byrn Terfel (John the Baptist).]

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Staatsoper)

David McVicar’s staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Staatsoper is a decent panacaea for the version from the Met during the lockdown that I listened to but could not watch.  It actually is not necessary to do over-the-top natural stagings – minimal works too, when the director understands the plot and tries to make it understandable for the audience.  I myself have never gotten the hullabaloo about this opera – the only one of Wagner’s mature operas that does not speak to me.  But I did give it another time through this evening, and found that McVicar captured this over-philosophical work well, and at least I could understand the opera better even if I still don’t really get it.  The cast (from a 2015 performance) sounded terrific and acted out the changing and confused emotions well.  Peter Seiffert and Iréne Theorin sang the title roles, amply supported by Tomasz Konieczny (Kurwenal), Petra Lang (Brangäne), Albert Dohmen (King Marke), and Gabriel Bermúdez (Melot).  Peter Schneider led the drama superbly from the pit.

Berlioz: Damnation of Faust (Metropolitan Opera)

The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz is a notoriously difficult opera to stage, and it is anyway based on Goethe’s mystical play, which makes it fine to do it as fantasy.  This Metropolitan Opera production by Robert LaPage, started off with me confused as to whether the fantasy worked, but it grew on me as the opera progressed.  The stage was a set of square boxes, with characters generally inside them (today, in the age of zoom, this format does not look out of place – although in this case there were usually multiple people in each frame).  Sometimes scrims fell in front, with projections screened onto them.  This allowed multiple thoughts to occur at once, often suggesting alternative realities which in their way reinforced the main thread.  Unfortunately, Marcello Giordani was a weak-voiced Faust.  John Relyea was not dark enough as Mephistopheles.  Susan Graham was bolder as Margarethe.  James Levine conducted this 2008 performance.

  • [Recording tip: I have oddly never found a recorded version of this opera I have especially been enamored of.  Although its poor sound makes it a problematic choice, there is a fascinating live recording from the 1950 Luzern Festival conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler, with Frans Vrooms as Faust, Hans Hotter as Mephistopheles, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Margarethe.  The sound quality is so poor, it is necessary to use imagination as to how it must have sounded live, but it is nevertheless distinctive.

Berlioz: The Trojans (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met also has kept Berlioz’s Trojans in its repertory.  The current version, directed by Francesca Zambello, creates a grand spectacle, with some illusions to make it seem even larger than it already was.  But at the same time it remains human and intimate.  The sets were not realistic, but more mood-setting; not quite abstract, but more representative.

Given the decision to keep all of the dancing in this version, and to do it on a big scale, realism was not the objective.  Berlioz incorporated extensive ballet into the opera not according to the silly French tradition, but more for his own purposes of interpreting Vergil with all possible tools at his disposal.  Yet the dancing, uncut, did become tedious, particularly in the fourth act, and in the end this contributed to the scenes in Carthage ultimately dragging in ways the scenes in Troy had not.

The two acts set in Troy also benefitted from wonderful little moments, included the tragically tender scene between Coroebus (Dwayne Croft) and Cassandra (Deborah Voigt) in Troy, who sing past each other in the plot.  But Croft and especially Voigt really did provide the impulse for those acts.  In the final three acts, Susan Graham made a very personable and approachable Queen Dido.  Bryan Hymel was Aeneas, and his strong voice held.  Fabio Luisi conducted this 2013 performance.

Schreker: The Smith of Ghent (Flanders Opera-Ballet)

Looking around the online offerings, it is nice to find something different.  Having seen Franz Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang during the lockdown, I moved along to his last opera, Der Schmied von GentDer Ferne Klang apparently had entered the standard repertory in the German-speaking world, but was of course banned by the Nazis as “degenerate” music (Schreker’s father was Jewish) and has rarely been performed since.  Der Schmied von Gent had its premiere in 1932, and never had time to enter the repertory before the Nazis came to power in Germany.  The Austrian Schreker died in 1934, and his music has mostly been forgotten.  But as I thought with Der Ferne Klang, the music represents a cross between the language of Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and even if he did not necessarily rise to that level, there is no reason his music should not get performed more often (plenty of far less original or far less musical stuff has entered the standard repertory – and Schreker’s work is both original and musical).

Schreker called this particular work a “grand magical opera” – it is a folly, a fantasy, even if set in a historical period (the end of the 80-years war in the 16th century) there is too much magic to make it realistic.   So I suppose it was OK that the setting made by Ersan Mondtag for the Flanders Opera-Ballet earlier this year (before the lockdown) was cartoonish.  The main problem was that while Mondtag made it more phantasmagoric, he somehow left out the actual fantasy elements that appear in the libretto.  Some remained as allusions and could be assumed listening to the words, but why not show those instead of introducing other elements?  The staging generally followed the plot, but for an opera almost no one is familiar with, Mondtag did not exactly enhance understanding of what it was about.  And that was already before his non sequitur deviation in the final act: when Smee (the smith in the opera’s title) died, Mondtag had him dress up as the genocidal Belgian King Leopold II before heading out to try to get into either Heaven or Hell (the real Leopold II would absolutely be consigned to Hell, but there is no logical reason to link Smee with Leopold).  Hell turned out to be a Congolese art gallery, where various characters stood and listened to Patrice Lumumba declare Congo’s independence (we got a far-too-long excerpt of his speech over the loudspeaker – what this had to do with the opera is a mystery).  After Smee was denied entry into Hell, he tried to get into Heaven, where he was made to watch a film that had scenes from Congo’s history, including the “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match staged by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.  To cut to the end, after Smee was allowed into Heaven and gave a royal wave to the assembled crowd (in his persona as Leopold II), Heaven changed suddenly into Hell (that Congolese art gallery again – now with red lighting and devils), and the main she-devil ripped Smee’s beard off and said to the audience: “really?”

To that, I have to say: “really?”  It should not surprise anyone that Mondtag is a German Regisseur.  So he’s probably trying to make a point that we should think how clever he is because he can completely miss the plot.  It is a shame, because for the first two acts, I could almost accept his cartoonish staging as consistent with Schreker’s intention to make a “grand magical opera” – if only Mondtag had kept in the actual fantasy elements.  But then he “jumped the shark” (to use the American pop expression).  Boo.

Baritone Leigh Melrose sang Smee, the title character, who pretty much stays on stage the entire opera and therefore is critical to hold it all together, which Melrose certainly did.  Alejo Pérez (whom I saw conduct Gounod’s Faust at the Salzburg Festival four years ago) again showed he could advance the music and the drama no matter what dreadful German directors put on the stage.

Schostakowitsch: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Dutch National Opera)

The Dutch National Opera provided a 2006 performance of Schostakowitsch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in the pit under its then-music director Mariss Jansons.  This performance was probably not as brash as the last time I saw this opera performed (also with Jansons conducting, with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival), with an emphasis now on the dancing melodies – if disturbed ones at that.  It ended almost with restraint, representing not the harshness of Siberia but the hopelessness of it all.  Then again, some of that differentiation may have come from hearing it here recorded and not live, and some of it may have been to match the staging.

Although an Austrian, the director Martin Kušej has spent most of his career in Germany, which is immediately obvious from the terrible staging.  This is such a brutal opera that it’s actually hard even for a German director to shock – which must frustrate them.  So while this staging did not really make any sense, it did at least keep more or less to the plot.  Eva-Maria Westbroek starred as Katerina Izmailova and Christopher Ventris was Sergey, both giving as convincing a performance as might be possible in this staging.  The most convincing of the cast was actually Vladimir Vaneyev as Boris Izmailov.

Schostakowitsch: Cheryomushki (Mariinsky Theater)

At the other end of the spectrum from the brutal Lady Macbeth for Schostakowitsch’s opera works was his comic operetta Cheryomushki, here presented by the Mariinsky in a semi-staged version (without scenery and minimal costuming – main characters acting in front of a fixed chorus, with the orchestra in the sunken pit) in the Mariinsky Concert Hall.  The singers came from the Mariinsky’s in-house training academy.  Pavel Petrenko conducted this 2015 performance.

I streamed this to hear a work I have heard about but never actually heard.  It was fun to hear how someone like Schostakowitsch might write more “popular” music.  Within an identifiably-Viennese operetta style of which he was familiar and which apparently remains popular in Russia to this day as I discovered much to my surprise when I first moved to Moscow, Schostakowitch used parodies of historical Russian musical styles from the mediaeval to the great 19th century Russian composers to set an operetta mocking Soviet corruption and bureaucracy (how he got away with it I am not sure).  Unfortunately, the Mariinsky does not provide subtitles for their streamings, so this was a bit harder to follow without a full staging to provide clues about the action (I do not normally watch with subtitles, but for a non-standard work in a comic operetta style, they would have been appreciated under these circumstances).  I could find a plot summary online, but I mostly just listened and enjoyed without worrying too much.

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 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.

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Wagner, Strauss, Schostakowitsch

Franz Welser-Möst assembled a very strange concert indeed this evening for the Vienna Philharmonic in the Great Festival House all about death: overcoming it (first half of the concert) or not (second half).  In the end, I am not sure he convinced me of anything.

For the first half, Welser-Möst performed two unrelated works with no break between them: the Prelude to Parsifal by Richard Wagner and the tone poem Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss.  Clearly he tried to make a connection.  In the opera, Amfortas is unable to die from what should be a mortal wound, and the other knights are wasting away lacking sustenance from the Grail – it is Parsifal who redeems them.  In Strauss’s tone poem, a setting to music of an actual poem, a man is lies dying and as he passes his soul is transfigured.

I just did not see the connection: but maybe I could hear it?  No.  Christoph von Dohnányi, Welser-Möst’s predecessor as music director in Cleveland and also a frequent guest conductor of the Philharmonic, praised the Philharmonic by saying that when others just played overtures or preludes, the Philharmonic put the full opera into that overture or prelude, and so it was this evening.  So even with just the prelude, we had the full emotion.  Extended excerpts from Parsifal would have worked better than the Strauss piece following without pause, which did not work as continuity in any way.

I heard Welser-Möst conduct Tod und Verklärung three years ago at the Festival with the Cleveland Orchestra.  The Vienna Philharmonic is a far better orchestra than the Cleveland Orchestra (and indeed the Cleveland Orchestra itself is not as good as it was in the days when Dohnányi was at the helm), so this was almost a better performance by default.  The orchestra added emotion, but what Welser-Möst shaped was not death and transfiguration (as in the title) but rather triumph over death.  It did end triumphantly.  I hear this work about once every year, so Welser-Möst needed to do something to convince me of his interpretation, and he did not.

After the intermission, the concert got weirder.  Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Fourteenth Symphony is rarely performed for good reason: it’s quite morbid and difficult.  Rather than a character in a story on the verge of death, it was Schostakowitsch himself who thought he was about to die (although he managed to hang on a few more years), and consists of a chamber ensemble supporting two vocalists who sing settings of eleven poems about death.  Lines of sadness flashing back to many of Schostakowitsch’s earlier work (either directly quoting, or reminiscent of) permeate.  There is very little motion, just one depressing song after another for almost an hour.  This evening’s performers were excellent (soprano Asmik Grigoryan and baritone Matthias Goerne joined members of the Philharmonic), but the entire work as presented by Welser-Möst lacked shape.  It’s hard to get right in a way that makes the audience appreciate the work, and it didn’t happen this evening.

Great playing; unsatisfying concert.  I am not on the anti-Welser-Möst bandwagon, but his interpretations are not especially inspiring when compared to the other conductors in the circles in which he travels.  He’s merely adequate – if better than most conductors over all, he’s (to use the nasty nickname someone once coined that unfairly stuck with him ever since) “frankly worse than most” conductors who appear regularly in front of this orchestra.

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.

SWR Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch

The Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra under its new music director Teodor Currentzis gave a monumental but never bombastic interpretation of Schostakowitsch‘s Symphony #7 at the Festival this evening in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.

I have admired Currentzis before, lamenting that he often lets performance theater get the better of him to get in the way of actual musical quality (image over substance).  But when he is on, the music clicks, as it did this evening.  He captured nuance and drama in a work, and even a quirky black humor, that itself sometimes overwhelms less-thoughtful conductors.  Although this symphony was used from its first performance for Russian propaganda purposes, the thoughts going through the composer’s mind when he wrote it were far more complex.  It is worth remembering that Schostakowitsch originally sketched the “invasion” theme in the first movement – which Russian propaganda ascribed to Nazi Germany invasion of the Soviet Union – not in 1941 but already in September 1939 in response to the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, which were then still allies.  Dark forces engulfed the world.

Currentzis did revert to some performance theater, of course.  Different sections of the orchestra stood up periodically and played on their feet – not just brass (which would allow more air in the lungs and a fuller tone) but pretty much everyone who played an instrument that did not absolutely need to be played sitting down.  Indeed, when the orchestra first took the stage, the percussion and woodwinds came out and sat down alone – before a long pause when the rest of the orchestra finally joined them (knowing Currentzis, I feared the worst: was he going to have the rest of the orchestra march on stage to the “invasion” theme – thankfully not).

The orchestra, formed from the merger of two previous orchestras, sounded terrific (actually, given the size of the orchestra in this symphony, they might have almost used two full orchestras-worth of musicians).

West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Rostropovich, Beethoven, Schubert

The West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne has come to Salzburg for a set this week, with its Chief Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and cellist Alban Gerhardt.  This evening’s opener packed the Great Festival House, and for good reason.

Schostakowitsch wrote two cello concerti for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, of which the second – on tonight’s program – is less-often performed, but seemed ideally-suited for Gerhardt.  Gerhardt has a gorgeous lower register that can warm up even a large hall, and the opening movement – a deep and pensive largo – showed off Gerhardt’s tone.  Against this, the orchestra (particularly interjections by the percussion, but also the winds and upper strings) insert jagged edges.  While the cello tries to relax, the surrounding music becomes increasingly nervous.  This leads to two further lyrical movements, the third with the cello waxing nostalgic, but still the orchestral pokes keep everything unsettled, which the cello has to swat away.  When the cello returns at the end to its warmth, the world around it remains uncertain.  Schostakowitsch certainly had his neuroses, and this combination of Gerhardt with the orchestra, shaped by Saraste, played them out to perfection.

Gerhardt then offered a showier encore – itself a somewhat neurotic cello piece by Rostropovich himself – in which he could demonstrate his dexterity across diverse techniques.

The nervousness carried over to the second half of the concert, where it probably did not belong.  Saraste took the first movement of Beethoven‘s Symphony #3 at breakneck speed, which did not allow its wonderful sonorities (including stark dissonances that resolve) to breath.  The rest of the symphony remained within the realm of normal tempi, but the neurotic start had already colored the mood.  It was a fun reading, Beethoven’s genius shining through in a post-Schostakowitsch world, with some fine orchestral playing (nice oboe!) but it did not necessarily convince.  A dancing encore by Schubert (the scherzo from his Symphony #6) relaxed the mood so we did not have to go home paranoid.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Bernstein, Schostakowitsch

The 2018-19 concert season opened in Salzburg’s Great Festival House with the hometown Mozarteum Orchestra and guest conductor John Storgårds. They performed music from the mid-1950s by Leonard Bernstein and Dmitri Schostakowitsch, although the pieces could not have been more different: Bernstein’s charming Serenade After Plato’s Symposium and Schostakowitsch’s brutal Eleventh Symphony.

The Bernstein piece, scored for violin solo (tonight, Baiba Skride), strings, and percussion, was suitably eclectic in style, with movements representing figures at Plato’s dinner party.  I suppose the nature of each movement was supposed to represent the respective character, but whether Bernstein succeeded in this or not (and some evidence suggests he wrote the music first and only later added the cultural references to the written description) the music did work in an odd way.  Written simultaneous with Candide, some elements of that opera make an appearance in the score here, and Stravinsky also has an influence.  I had not known this piece before, and had feared it might be over-thunk like so many of Bernstein’s works, but maybe because he was not really trying to set a program (despite his official description) he kept this more contained.  The orchestra got it.  Skride got it.  The combination produced delightful interplay, well balanced and full of humor.

After the break, Storgårds let loose with Schostakowitsch’s approximate portrayal of the events in Russia of 1905 – a year which opened with peaceful protesters coming to the Imperial Palace to plead with the Czar (whom they actually revered), only to have the Czar send his soldiers shooting into the crowd leaving thousands dead, triggering revolutionary events that foretold the overthrow of the Czarist regime in 1917.  In memorializing the victims and raising the alarm, Schostakowitsch’s subtext concerned the post-1917 Soviet regime under which Russia continued to suffer (the symphony was officially written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution).  

Lines in one section of the orchestra came into direct conflict with lines played by other instruments, both dissonant and cumulative (in this way it actually did resemble the Bernstein work too).  Storgårds’ interpretation was raw – with the comfort level of ripping scabs off wounds unable to heal, with the wailing of harsh crescendi interjecting.  Gone were the soaring chorales – either of the peasants’ pleas or the memorial hymns – replaced instead by harsh reality.  This was not the Mozarteum Orchestra at its most beautiful, but that was exactly Storgårds’ point.  This was the Mozarteum Orchestra at its most dramatic.  I still think it’s possible to do both (my clear favorite reference recording of the work is with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra – a recording that made this possibly my favorite of Schostakowitsch’s output), but tonight’s interpretation was highly convincing on its own merits.  Special kudos to the English hornist and percussion section.

Oslo Philharmonic, Oslo Konserthus

Lyadov, Britten, Schostakowitsch

When I originally planned a vacation in Norway at this time, it did not occur to me that the new concert season would have opened yet.  But it has (rather early), so I added a new venue to my collection – always nice to see how things are in other cities.  

The Oslo Konserthus does not have a good reputation.  It looks pleasant enough architecturally, but the acoustics are problematic.  It actually has a bit of a feel of a school theater, if somewhat larger – the room feels smallist, but apparently seats 1600.  They had a good age range, with lots of young people in a mostly-full hall (the chorus seats behind the orchestra were mostly empty, but the rest of the hall was pretty full).  

Young British guest conductor Nicholas Collon on the podium with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra picked a much better concert program than he did when I first heard him with the Mozarteum Orchestra last December, and as good as the Mozarteum Orchestra has been sounding of late, the Oslo Philharmonic is better.  So combined Collon and this orchestra produced just that much more nuance and buzz this evening.

The concert started with Anatoly Lyadov‘s Enchanted Lake – in a delicate and extremely mysterious opening.  Partly that would seem to have been Collon’s intent – but when the music swelled I realized it was also partly the acoustics in this hall, which make the orchestra sound distant.  Nevertheless, this performance revealed the dark side of nature, setting the mood for the dark side of man operating within nature to come.

The other two works on the program both dated to 1943, when the world was indeed dark.  The first of these two was Benjamin Britten‘s Serenade for Tenor, Horns, and Strings, a rarely-performed piece which I first heard with the Camerata Salzburg about two years ago.  A series of poems by English authors written over several centuries, they all focused on the theme of nighttime, with a longing introduction on horn and a pensive farewell performed hauntingly from off stage.  The Orchestra’s alternate principal hornist Hongpark Kim did the honors, cracking a couple of notes early on but then becoming suitably soulfull.  British tenor Andrew Staples had a pleasant enough voice, but his high tenor lacked the undertones and depth necessary for this piece.

After the intermission, Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Eighth Symphony picked up the horrors of war – the Russians had turned the tide and were chasing the Germans back, but it was still the Soviet Union.  Collon had the strings open menacingly, and from there onwards the meaning was clear.  The second row of the winds (including the horn section) was not as menacing as the rest of the Orchestra, but I wonder if this may have been the acoustics as well.  When the Orchestra swelled to full volume, it was indeed loud enough – but still had the feel of coming from far away somewhere, which was certainly the hall.  In the end, the orchestra faded out, coming full circle to Lyadov’s opening.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Felsenreitschule (Salzburg)

Sibelius, Paganini, Schostakowitsch

The 2017 winner of the Salzburg Festival’s Young Conductors Award, the Brit Kerem Hasan, had his victory concert this evening with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Felsenreitschule.

The conductor I suppose has to work with what they give him.  This orchestra is fine, if not exceptional – and the same could be said for tonight’s instrumental soloist, the violinist Augustin Hadelich.  Hasan did not rise to the occasion, so we got a perfectly decent if unexceptional concert.  Could he have done better with better forces?  Possibly.  But there really was nothing wrong with these (even if they aren’t stars) so it would be nice if he could have inspired them to do more.

Hadelich displayed excellent versatility for the Sibelius Violin Concerto, but plays with an over-abundance of legato.  So rather than a robust sound, he came up soft (not in terms of volume – he was loud enough – but rather in his approach).  This blended rather well with this particular orchestra, itself known for a somewhat muddy tone.  So while it all sounded nice and together, it has no forward propulsion, and Hasan did not provide any.  A beautiful playing but dragging along lacking much of substance.

Hadelich did provide Paganini‘s Capriccio #21 as an encore, and for this his softer approach seemed better-suited than for Sibelius, his instrument singing along in an Italianate lilt.

Schostakowitsch‘s Symphony #10 started where the Sibelius left off, at least in terms of where Hasan was.  But as the symphony went on, Hasan became more confident, and slowly provided a bit more drive (and the orchestra eventually started following).  If the first movement began a bit ragged and opaque, the fourth ended excitedly and together.  Hasan made this Symphony into a series of off-kilter dances on the grave of Stalin: the composer had outlived the brutal dictator and now affairs in the Soviet Union thawed slightly under Stalin’s henchman Krushchev (life inside the Evil Empire was indeed all relative), and this symphony marked the composer’s return to public life after nearly being purged.

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Mahler

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

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

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

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Beethoven, Joh. Strauß, Schostakowitsch

Another weekend at home in Vienna for which I had not planned to go to a concert but could not help myself.  A month ago I heard the Vienna Philharmonic (which normally plays in the Musikverein) perform in the Konzerthaus, so maybe it just seemed fair to hear the Vienna Symphony (which normally plays in the Konzerthaus) perform in the Musikverein.

Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck took the podium for a pair of 5s: the fifth piano concerto by Beethoven and the fifth symphony by Schostakowitsch.  These were two quite different works, but Honeck had a plan.  Fives of different suits, indeed.

The Beethoven concerto (with young Russian pianist Igor Levit) strangely, but in a good sense, gave the feel of climbing into a newly-made bed with freshly-laundered silken sheets and well-fluffed pillows.  This was a performing version to settle into for the night.  Levit’s playing had a slightly other-wordly feel until it hit me during the quiet (but still quite active) passages: he made the piano into a music box tinkling away (his louder passages had some extraneous notes, unfortunately).  That may sound wierd, but it worked.

Levit returned for a piano rendition of a Johann Strauss waltz – this worked less so, as it only had the music-box quality with the fullness of the orchestra missing.

After the intermission, the Schostakowitsch Fifth was anything but warm and cuddly.  Here legato playing exaggerated the dissonances, and Honeck went further in that direction but turning the first movement into a parody of a march and the second into a warped waltz.  This was Schostakowitsch composing to Communist Party dictates but at the same time thumbing his nose.  The solos by (and duets between) the principal violin and oboe were especially jarring.  The third movement largo came across as cold as Sibelius, but not the plucky Finnish winter – instead bleak Siberian tundra.  There was no fake triumph in the final movement – Honeck elongated the agony Schostakowitsch experienced living in Soviet Russia.  If not quite as devastating as the version I heard in this hall about three years ago with the Petersburgers (who fittingly have their authentic Russian sound), this was still a smart reading of the composer’s intentions.

This orchestra (Vienna’s second-best!) sounds world class.  The pieces were indeed quite different, but it captured both idioms with full sound (including the quiet passages, which could be delicate and still full and revealing).  Tonight’s works were warhorses, performed quite often, but if the orchestra can provide intelligent readings like these then worth hearing over and over and finding new and undiscovered corners even on the umpteenth listen.  (Plus I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Beethoven and Schostakowitsch, the way I have certainly tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky).

 

SWR Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Dvořák, Tschaikowsky, Schostakowitsch

I do not think I have ever heard a cello so gorgeously played as by Mischa Maisky tonight, in a performance of Dvořák‘s Cello Concerto with the SWR Symphony Orchestra and Aziz Shokhakimov in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  When he needed a big sound to balance the whole orchestra, he got it; when he needed delicate playing, he did that too (his duets with the principal flute were especially wonderous, the flutist sounding far better than Wednesday evening’s solo flutist too).  Throughout, his tone was heart-rendingly warm and full – high notes, low notes, loud, soft, delicate, aggressive, whatever it was, pure beauty emerged.  Shokhakimov did not exactly restrain the orchestra, nor flatten – no, this was a full orchestral effort, but he did ensure it had a solid basis for accompaniment that allowed Maisky to take over the extra interpretation, with lilts and embellishments.  Indeed, a human voice singing actual words could probably not have been so expressive (as an encore, the orchestra accompanied Maisky in Lensky’s aria from Tschaikowsky‘s Yevgeny Onyegin, with the baritone transcribed for cello, and he made us forget that there are normally words being sung).

I really do not know what else to say.  And this is especially so since the last time I heard this concerto was at last summer’s Festival, also with Shokhakimov on the podium (his prize-winner’s concert, having won the young conductors’ competition at the 2016 Festival), but then with a dreadful cello soloist who butchered this beautiful piece.  I did not blame Shokhakimov for that mess (it was definitely the cellist), but it was vindication that he got to do this piece again in Salzburg so soon thereafter with a cellist at the opposite extreme (and a better orchestra this time, too).

The orchestra is in its second season of existence, having been formed in Fall 2016 from the merger of two orchestras of Germany’s South Western Radio (that network’s house orchestras from Stuttgart and from Baden-Baden).  I would imagine that morale would probably not have been very good initially (I’d guess the decision was a financial one), but it did mean they got to select the best players from two decent orchestras, with a really quite good final result, with a level of virtuosity exceeded among German radio orchestras possibly only by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

This talent was on display (without Maisky) after the intermission, for Schostakowitsch‘s First Symphony.  A student work (his graduation piece from the conservatory), it did not yet have the darkness and pain he displayed later, but it still represented the next logical forward step in symphonic music after Mahler.  A colorful work with many exposed lines (that, as student writing, do not always lead anywhere) presents challenges, which this orchestra handled effortlessly.  The affable Uzbek, Shokhakimov, kept them lively.

Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Glinka, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov, Schostakowitsch

The Tschaikowsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio pays a visit to Austria this week with its long-time (since 1974!) music director Vladimir Fedoseyev.  Of three concerts in Salzburg there is some program overlap, which I avoid by going to my subscription concert tonight, skipping tomorrow, but returning on Friday, and then I get to hear them in Vienna on Saturday with yet another set of works on the program.  Tonight’s performance was definitely a concert of two halves: whimsical Glinka and Tschaikowsky before the break, and Schostakowitsch served raw after.

The Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila gave a spirited start to the Orchestra’s arrival in the Great Festival House.  This fairy tale opera is mostly known only by this Overture, which is a shame – I did have a chance to see it once (at Moscow’s Novaya Opera) and wish opera houses would stage it more (not least because, in a fun performace such as the one I saw at the Novaya, children will get hooked on opera).  But if we only get the overture, then Glinka’s music marks as good a place as anywhere to open several nights of Russian music.

Next came Tschaikowsky’s Second Piano Concerto.  I am not sure I had been aware that he had written more than one (the famous one) until I showed up tonight and realized that the one in the program was number two!  It’s perhaps not as memorable as his first, and might have used some editing (particularly the far-too-long first movement), but it was fun in its own way.  The first movement certainly used every key on the keyboard (I was half expecting pianist Andrei Korobeinikov to run out of keys at both ends).  While that movement did not contain exciting music, it did have intrigue.  In the second movement, Tschaikowsky never quite figured out what sort of piece he was writing, switching among several, including various chamber combinations (not all of which even utilized a piano – the violin-cello duets were certainly special, then with strong continuo; the combinations involving piano and different winds also stood out).  What would he have thought of next?  Well, that would be the final movement, which exhibited the skill and coloration with which the composer had constructed his moody opera Yevgeny Onyegin, except without the depressants.

Korobeinikov’s treatment was flat (in a good way): this was not a flashy work (Tschaikowsky’s friend Nikolai Rubinstein, known for his excellent musicality but sober and contained technique, was supposed to have performed the premiere, however he died suddenly right before the concert and Sergey Taneyev took over, under the baton of Nikolai’s even more famous older brother Anton – the composer dedicated the concerto to Nicolai’s memory).  Korobeinikov gave us a flashier (unidentified – UPDATE: subsequently identified as Rachmaninov‘s Piano Prelude #5 – I am not so familiar with solo piano reportary, as I am actually not a fan of the instrument) encore to show us he could do flash too (I hope so, since he’s performing Prokofiev’s absolutely nutso second piano concerto on Friday).

After the intermission, Fedoseyev led an almost restrained reading of Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #10.  Begun in dark times, right after the end of the Second World War when Soviet Russia had defeated its one-time ally Nazi Germany and then people woke up and realized they still had to live in Soviet Russia.  This performance was all gloom and doom, yet nevertheless quiet, passive, and even submissive – never bombastic (I’ve heard good bombastic interpretations of this symphony, too, but that was not Fedoseyev’s approach tonight).  This interpretation worked, as it allowed the periodic harsh dissonance and jarring syncopations to jump off the stage, scraping at an open wound.  By the time Schostakowitsch finished writing this symphony, Stalin had died, and the final movement tonight came across as an off-kilter dance on his grave – off kilter because, despite that evil man’s demise, the Soviet Union was still around and ultimately outlasted Schostakowitsch, who would never know freedom.  For this work, this orchestra’s unmistakable Russian tone stood out – not always the most polished noises come out of the instruments, but the style is intentional and the sound authentically Russian.

A mock-Spanish piece livened up the mood as an encore (I think I’ve heard this orchestra play this encore before, although I never did figure out what it is – UPDATE: turns out to be the Spanish dance from Swan Lake) and sent us out maybe a little less-depressed into the snow.

Mozarteum Orchestra, Mozarteum

Schostakowitsch, Haydn, Stravinsky, Liszt, CPE Bach

The new musical year opened tonight in Salzburg, with an extremely eclectic concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra under its brand new chief conductor Riccardo Minasi in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.  The orchestra is apparently very enthusiastic about Minasi, not least because he promises to schedule unusual works such as tonight’s combination: Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Festive Overture, Joseph Haydn‘s first Te Deum in C (he wrote two), Igor Stravinsky‘s Fireworks, Ferenc Liszt‘s Preludes, and finally CPE Bach‘s Magnificat.  Whew!

Enthusiasm permeated the room.  I’m not clear if this lead to the generally faster-than-normal tempi Minasi took, or if he really meant to play everything faster.  I could say the same about the volume, which rarely dropped below forte.  But this produced a breathless buzz (sometimes a bit chaotic, as in Stravinsky’s rarely-heard and refreshingly peculiar Fireworks; sometimes literally breathless, as in it was hard to believe the musicians managed to keep up and get all of the notes in for the opening of CPE Bach’s Magnificat).  Everyone had a twinkle in their eyes – and sometimes an unrestrained laugh, as the first four works were relatively short and the orchestra (and chorus) had to rearrange themselves frequently and with great difficulty between them (when Minasi chose the works for this concert, he probably did not realize they were in the Mozarteum, which has a much smaller stage than the Great Festival House where they often perform).

The orchestra sounded in its accustomed form, with the Salzburg Bach Chorus joining them magnificently for the two choral works.  Three of the four soloists – Kim-Lillian Strebel (soprano), Dara Savinova (alto), and Fulvio Bettini (bass) – had wonderful voices which blended nicely with orchestra and chorus even as they projected cleanly.  The fourth soloist, tenor Barry Banks, was a disaster for the ears, unable to find his pitches (especially painful in his upper register) and with an ugly hoarse (but loud) timbre.

Berlin Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch

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

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

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

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

Vienna Philharmonic, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Schostakowitsch, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

What promised to be a musical highlight of this Summer’s Festival did not disappoint: Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic performing Dmitri Schostakowitsch‘s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

This is an absolutely brutal opera, without any sympathetic characters and full of violent crime.  Schostakowitsch infused the music with western dance patterns (Viennese waltzes and the like – many recognizable from operettas) in caricature, interrupted by more violence, before the choral music in the final act – depicting prisoners being force-marched to Siberia – evoking Mussorgsky (and maybe here some sympathy).  Stalin called it “muddle not music” in a review he wrote for Pravda and the opera nearly cost Schostakowitsch his life.

But it is a fantastic score.  Mariss Jansons kept all of the complexities together and well-paced.  The orchestra produced a full sound from the pit, without ever overwhelming the singers, and then exploded into the musical interludes.  This was thrilling, and fitting that Jansons and the Philharmonic got the evening’s loudest applause.

The cast itself had no big names – a motley collection made up mostly of Russians and Ukrainians.  All were good.  The best voice of the night belonged to Dmitri Ulyanov, the Russian baritone who sang Boris Ismailov, the protagonist’s overbearing father-in-law (he exits relatively early in the plot, after she feeds him mushrooms laced with rat poison).  Nina Stemme was to be the one big-name singer in the cast as the protagonist, but she has been ill and was replaced this Summer by her understudy, Evgenia Muraveva, a young soprano from the Mariinsky Theater, who – aside from a few misplaced upper notes – completely filled the role and carried the plot.  She was mostly balanced by tenor Brandon Jovanovich, an American cast as her lover and partner in crime Sergei.

The staging, by German director (oh, no, not another talentless German opera director!?) Andreas Kriegenburg was thankfully not Regietheater (thank goodness for these periodic exceptions coming from Germany). That did not mean that it made any sense. It was a modernized, if not modern, staging, moved to what looked like a Soviet-ish apartment block, which did not quite match the plot so unclear why he did it.  There were some other deviations from the plot, but the music and plot are shocking enough that there really is no need to do more (and he did not).  Depicting rapes and murders and whatnot is sufficient – and it was all there.  Injecting some comic relief in appropriate places (consistent with the text) is also correct.  And giving the singers a platform on which to act is probably most important, and Kriegenburg did just that.  So there was no need to get into an intellectual exercise to try to figure out what he was thinking.

Better to bask in the music.