Volksoper

Offenbach, Hoffmanns Erzählungen

The Volksoper unveiled a brand new production of Offenbach‘s Tales of Hoffmann this evening, achieving mixed results.  

Offenbach died before completing this opera, so no definitive version exists.  Certainly, tonight’s version would not have been the one he would have chosen had he lived.  He left a lot of sketches behind, but likely would have edited the opera if he had the chance – I will give the Volksoper the benefit of the doubt that tonight’s extra music was original Offenbach, but they did not have to include all of it, as it made the performance drag.  Offenbach also did not live to draft the recitatives, so there is great flexibility in how much to use, and again the Volksoper used too much.  

The Volksoper also introduced plot changes, which failed dramatically.  Again, this may have been through using Offenbach’s sketches (I will assume), but that does not make them necessary.  So two extra scenes were added to the beginning of the prologue, in which first Hoffmann’s Muse (a.k.a. Niklaus) and then the devil (all four villains) introduce and explain themselves, which is not strictly necessary and which made the prologue drag considerably before finally moving to Luther’s tavern. In the Venetian act, the plot became needlessly convoluted (instead of Hoffmann killing Schlemihl to get the key to Giulietta’s room and then arriving to find she has already gone off in the gondola with someone else, tonight’s plot became somewhat hopeless, with Hoffmann appearing to kill Pitichinaccio with not a lot of other clarity in the outcome).

 

The final major plot change happened at the end – almost every version of this opera I know ends with Stella finding Hoffmann drunk under the table and going off with Lindorf, but not tonight.  Actually, the end of tonight’s opera, with all characters on stage, and Hoffmann and his Muse (Niklaus reverted to female form) singing about art being more important than love, made no sense.

In addition to this, the director appeared not to understand that Offenbach wanted his whole life to write a serious opera – not just the farces that made him famous – and this was it.  Although there is a certain amount of humor in this opera, it is not a farce and Offenbach never intended it to be one.  The opera director, Renaud Doucet (I suppose a Frenchman, although this seems to be a co-production with the Bonn Opera, a German company which thus should have raising a red flag indicating the opera director is no doubt incompetent) staged this production as a farce, with many sight-gags and crazy costumes that really are not worth mentioning that made the staging a nonsense.  (It really is not worth mentioning the idiocy that went on stage – albeit I’ve seen far worse from German opera directors – so I won’t even try to describe this nonsense.)  

But the lousy stage direction underscored a complete lack of understanding of what Offenbach would have wanted to accomplish had he lived, and this undermined the entire performance.  The extended acts (particularly the extra prologue scenes and the act with the singer Antonia which lasted a full hour) dragged.  They made one reversal in the opera, flipping the Antonia act to second before moving the Venetian act with Giulietta to third, although there is sufficient evidence in both the text itself and in Offenbach’s own comments to colleagues that this order is the one he wanted (although the other order became the standard), and to be honest I have no preference there, nor criticism for the reversal in this production.  But there was no logical sense of continuity tonight, so the reversal from the established convention, even if likely Offenbach’s preference, just made for additional bewilderment if Doucet had any overall concept at all.

 

The male leads outperformed the female leads.  Particularly strong were Josef Wagner as all four villains and Stefan Cernydoubling as the tavern-keeper Luther and as Antonia’s father Krespel.  Mirko Roschkowski in the title role sang well enough but looked lost on stage (was it him, or was it the staging that made him lost?).  The various female leads were perfectly adequate. 

Conductor Gerrit Prießnitz held the orchestra more or less together, although periodically not quite in time with the chorus, and also sometimes allowing the music to overwhelm the singers (who otherwise generally projected well).

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Camerata Salzburg, Mozarteum

Wagner, Britten, Mendelssohn

Fall has most certainly arrived in Salzburg, but with it the concert season also picks up.  Tonight, the Camerata Salzburg opened its year with a spirited performance under the St. Petersburg-trained Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis.  I had never heard of Currentzis, who seems to have mostly vanished inside the Russian Federation for his career, but he is quite talented.  Indeed, the orchestra parted ways with their unremarkable chief conductor (Louis Langrée) last season and decided to go without one – but maybe they should keep this one!  They clearly had an excellent rapport with him, and their enjoyment spilled off the stage into the Mozarteum’s Great Hall.

The centerpiece of tonight’s concert was a somewhat unusual work by Benjamin Britten, his Seranade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. A not-quite-tonal work, it sets six poems written over six centuries, and prompts difficult blends of colors, which Currentzis coaxed with ease from the orchestra.  The tenor soloist Samuel Boden and hornist Johannes Hinterholzer fully grasped the mood as well, with their idiomatic readings.  Although on a modern horn for the songs themselves, Hinterholzer played the Prologue and Epilogue on a natural horn – the last as a backstage solo with the lights in the hall fading to darkness.

Sandwiching this peculiar Britten piece came two more traditional – but themselves quite different – works.  The concert opened with Wagner‘s Siegfried Idyll, here performed extremely delicately by Currentzis and the Camerata.  This was perhaps the Idyll Wagner intended, as a brithday morning wake-up gift for his wife, although tonight working equally as well to set the relaxed mood at the end of a hectic week.

After the intermission came a boisterous Symphony #4 by Felix Mendelssohn, which coming after the Wagner and Britten works demonstrated the Camerata’s sheer musicality.  This is a chamber orchestra, so they did not augment the string section although adding the assorted wind instruments – this allowed Currentzis to highlight the various lines in those instruments, over a string foundation, with the orchestra capturing all of the nuances.

The audience exploded in applause.  This applause, on top of the Mendelssohn, may have raised the roof in the hall, so Currentzis and the orchestra felt compelled to sedate everyone again with an encore (not a bad idea at all).  Currentzis spoke a long introduction for this encore, emphasizing the need for silence and inner reflection after the wild performance of Mendelssohn, but he never actually told us what it was.  It was some quiet minimalist piece of no particular interest (performed with the house and stage lights off, illuminated only by the music stand lights) that – to be frank – was anti-climactic after his long-winded introductory remarks.  Far better would have been to turn the lights off and let us meditate in actual silence before heading back out into the night.  But given the music-making of the rest of the evening before the encore, all is forgiven.

Members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Mozarteum (Salzburg)

Bruckner, Schoenberg, Wagner

I followed the Festival and members of the Vienna Philharmonic over the Salzach River to the Mozarteum for a chamber concert.  Co-principal violin, viola, and cello of the Philharmonic were joined by three younger orchestra members for music by BrucknerSchoenberg, and Wagner.

The Bruckner String Quintet is a monumental work despite its limited instrumentation.  Written when Bruckner held the chair of composition at the Vienna Conservatory, on request of the Conservatory’s Director (and the Philharmonic’s principal violin), Bruckner gave the instruments full music and lush colors fit for a whole orchestra.  The musicians got off to a rough start as something appears to have happened to the second violin’s instrument (there was a loud crack, and she kept inspecting the backside of it, but continued anyway).  The audience also seemed incapable of sitting still, and many audience members coughed up various lungs (the weather this summer has indeed been surprisingly wet and cool – to the point that some friends are even using heat in their apartments – but if people are that ill then they should go directly to the morgue).  The unfit audience noticeably distracted the musicians – and while their playing was sublime, they did not always capture the mood.  Only during the third movement – the Adagio, crowing achievement of Brucknerian musical architecture – did the hall fall quiet and the angels from Heaven descended to heal the wounded and cure the sick, at least briefly.

After the intermission came Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (in the original version for string sextet).  This built easily on Bruckner’s lushness, but with more complicated and diverging lines, which the musicians developed while producing the same full sound fit for an even larger ensemble.  The transfiguring tones naturally led to a much-desired encore, for which they provided a version of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a reduced version for sextet.  Indeed, Schoenberg was known for making such reductions, and maybe they even used his version.  Whether or not they did, the sextet revealed Wagner’s revolutionary harmonics, exposing them as the forerunner for Schoenberg’s own later experiments.  These were kindred works.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Großes Festspielhaus

Chausson, Wagner

Guest conductor Marc Minkowski came to the front of the stage to personally introduce this morning’s Wagner matinée a la française with the Mozarteum Orchestra.  An introduction was in order, as he had changed the concert program recently, and after this concert (part of a subscription series) was originally announced.

Minkowski explained that Wagner did not write symphonies (except for one particularly poor one that is never performed for good reason).  So, he asked, who wrote Wagner’s unwritten symphonies?  French composers, inspired by pilgrimages to Bayreuth.  Or so Minkowski said.  I won’t deny that some French composers did indeed frequent Bayreuth, but they had to keep their heads down when they got home because of the negative perception of Wagner’s music in France.

One composer Minkowski did not mention was Massenet, who did write (generally exceedingly dull) operas.  Other Fench opera composers who admired Wagner, such as Meyerbeer (who was actually not at all French, but an Italian-trained German Jew whose music owed nothing to France although it was adopted there), found that they could not convince French tastes to accept Wagner no matter how much they championed him.

But Minkowski persisted, and the first half of the concert contained one of the French symphonies Wagner never wrote: the Symphony #1 by Ernest Chausson.  Chausson, a student of Massenet, is largely forgotten today (he died in 1899, aged only 44, in a bicycle accident).  Minkowski is championing his work, but from this morning’s concert it seems the music was rightly forgotten, other than as a curiosity.  The symphony was pleasant but meaningless.  It was Wagnerian in scale, but not in drama.  Wagner’s failure to write symphonic music is directly tied to his own sense of drama – and for him, this required the Gesamtkunstwerk, and not just an orchestral component.  Chausson’s symphony did have some beautiful passages, but they never went anywhere, nor did they seem to connect to each other effectively.  In the end, it was this lack of any sense of meaning that made the work, even if Wagner-inspired, typically French.

After the intermission came Wagner himself.  I don’t actually hear enough Wagner.  His operas are hard to stage (and cast), which limits what opera houses can handle them.  And too many places that do stage Wagner bring in self-important and utterly terrible German opera directors that make attending Wagner operas unwatchable and unbearable.  So I get Wagner, if at all, mostly in concert performances (or recordings).  One of the reasons I liked the original program this morning was that it had extended excerpts rather than short extracts, but the changed program went back to the short extracts.

Two of these had connections to Paris.  First came Senta’s ballad from the Flying Dutchman in its original version (written by Wagner in a proposal to the Paris Opera, which the Paris Opera rejected – Wagner later wrote the full opera for Dresden). Swedish soprano Ingela Brimberg, only recently branching into Wagner, captured the inner passion of Senta in a thrilling and emotional reading.

There followed the Overture to Tannhäuser in the version Wagner reworked and extended for the Paris Opera to include a bacchanal. This is the only ballet music Wagner wrote, and it fails as a concert work (it is even debatable if it succeeds dramatically on stage – in general, the French practice of inserting ballets into operas was a really bad idea – but the right choreographer would make a difference).  So the thrilling stage-setting that comes from the original opening of the overture devolves quickly in the unstaged ballet music.

Brimberg returned for the final extract, which Minkowski explained had no French connection but which they just wanted to perform: Brünnhilde’s immolation from Götterdämmerung. Although Brimberg’s voice may not be big enough (yet) to perform the entire role, she does have the right sense of drama to carry off this scene.  Despite her defiance, Brünnhilde’s final scene is actually sad, and Brimberg understood the tragedy.

The Mozarteum Orchestra, today with heavily-augmented winds, sounded fine. My understanding is that one of Minkowski’s assistants actually rehearsed the orchestra for this concert and Minkowski just showed up at the end. If so, the orchestra was clearly well-rehearsed. Minkowski, not known for his Wagner (although it is apparently his current interest), carefully crafted the drama, with good pacing and modulation, but having the orchestra in good form certainly helped.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Wagner

 

The most excellent Andrís Nelsons uncovered the Holy Grail in the Musikverein’s Golden Hall this evening, as he brought the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to Vienna on his farewell tour with that orchestra before moving full-time to Boston. On the program, the Prelude to Act I and the entire Act III of Wagner’Parsifal.

Nelsons did not disappoint, providing a dramatic reading for the unstaged concert performance. On one hand, he had to make up for the lack of staging by accentuating the playing – on the other hand, the opera is low-action and the music provides the drama anyway, so he did not resort to gimmicks, just clear emphases to indicate that he understood well the operatic scenes he conducted.

For soloists, he was especially blessed with German baritone Georg Zeppenfeld portraying Gurnemanz. Zeppenfeld had a big, round voice, warmly portraying the holy monk-knight, a sympathetic character for Parsifal to meet as he wandered back into the Grail Kingdom. Unfortunately, the German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt who sang Parsifal, did not make it up to snuff. He spent the first scene trying to sing on key – never quite figuring it out. By the second scene, he had finally come into tune with the orchestra, but he nevertheless will never be confused with a Heldentenor. It’s not that he had a small voice, but – to be blunt – he sounded like a wimp. No bold sounds emerged from his mouth. No drama either (unless you count the anxiety of waiting to hear if he would ever sing on key). As Amfortas, British baritone James Rutherford fell somewhere in the middle. At least he was on key and his voice projected through the hall, but he also lacked the dramatic narrative that Nelsons and the Birminghamers (and Zeppenfeld) had pushed.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will miss Nelsons. I’m not aware that they have managed to name a successor to Nelsons and the program identified no one. But they sound mostly in order, with the ragged edges likely not from a lack of good leadership from the podium but rather just that this is, after all, only a provincial orchestra. The strings somehow managed to sound nasal.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Schumann, Wagner, Segal

A mixed bag from the Armenian Philharmonic in the Khachaturian Hall this evening, under the baton of Lior Shambadal, the long-time chief conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, performing SchumannWagner, and a world premiere by Anna Segal.

I remember recordings of the Berlin Symphony when growing up, and recollect that it achieved a pretty decent standard.  Now that I think of it, I cannot recall having heard anything from that orchestra since my childhood, which may also explain why I have never heard of Shambadal, whom I would have expected to know of considering he has led one of the major orchestras in Berlin for the last 16 years.  After tonight, I may now understand why the Berlin Symphony has faded from its previous acclaim and disappeared from the musical map.

Shambadal’s technique was unclear, and this led to uneven performances.  Schumann’s Manfred overture which opened the concert had a certain amount of drama.  This got lost during the subsequent overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  The drama returned, however, once Armenian soprano Magda Marian Mkrtchyan stood up to deliver Isolde’s Liebestod from the same opera.  Her solid voice made an impression. Although it is not clear she had the vocal stregth to sing the whole opera, she managed the Wagnerian idiom well, and the the orchestra backed her up.  The orchestra’s performance clearly derived from the sheer force of Mkrtchyan’s personality, and not from Shambadal on the podium.

Still before the intermission, the orchestra treated us to the world premiere of Songs of the Soul by the Ukrainian-born Israeli composer Anna Segal, based on poems by Sayat-Nova, the great 18th-Century Armenian poet, composer, and diplomat who served the court of Iraki II of Georgia.  The music came across as a strange mix of Philip Glass (for its minimalist architecture), Sergei Prokofiev (for its scoring, particularly for woodwinds), and Zakaria Paliashvili (for its neo-polyphony) – and, oddly, with no discernable influence from Sayat-Nova’s own music.  The orchestra made a good account of this work, partly because the Glassian influence required thin playing from the strings, and this orchestra’s strings have a hard time managing a full sound on the best of days, whereas the winds are comparatively much better, making scoring of this work ideal for this orchestra.  Mkrtchyan came across weaker than she did for the Wagner, not in full voice and tentative, her eyes clearly darting back and forth between Shambadal’s cues and her music.  The piece was pleasant enough, and I would want to hear it again to understand it better; of course, if I hear it again, I’d probably also want to learn Armenian – the words to each song in the cycle meant something, but I had no idea what picture the music tried to paint.  The program notes were limited in Armenian, and this portion of the program was not translated into English, but I’m sure the Armenian audience understood the lyrics.

The concert closed with Schumann’s Third Symphony, for which Shambadal and the orchestra made a little mess, with all of the instruments seemingly playing independently of each other, coming in at the wrong times and keeping different speeds.  Every so often Shambadal slowed his hands down and the orchestra managed to get itself together.  The pained expressions on the musicians’ faces suggested confusion.  After a while, I think they may have started ignoring him.  The brass sounded great, but the chorales, which make this piece special, did not soar.  The orchestra got a warm applause – Shambadal less so (at his last curtain call, the audience simply stopped clapping altogether as soon as he walked back out onto the stage – he turned and walked off, and the applause resumed).

London Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Bruckner, Wagner

Next week I will go to London.  This week the London Philharmonic came to me.  The orchestra, under its cool and talented chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski, performed in the Musikverein.

I have not heard this orchestra in many years, and although its reputation waned for a while, it sounded like the London Philharmonic of old that I remembered from its days under Klaus Tennstedt.  The opening showpiece demonstrated why: although Rimsky-Korsakov’Great Russian Easter Overture sounds different performed by Russians, with their distinctive sound, the lush London Philharmonic playing completed Rimsky’s rich orchestration, and the sonorities filled the hall.

The young violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, born in Moldova, educated in Austria and Switzerland, came out for the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto looking like she had just snuck out of her own wedding – wearing a long fluffy white dress and barefoot (presumably from dancing, since she also danced the whole time she played).  She and the orchestra stayed in idiom for Prokofiev’s playful 1930s modernized re-telling of a classical model: quite a fun work, performed with great humor.  Her sound, though not large, blended perfectly with the orchestra.  As an encore, Kopatchinskaja and the orchestra’s concert master, South African Pieter Schoeman (whose solos in the earlier Rimsky-Korsakov had shone), performed a Prokofiev sonata for two violins with equal banter.

Bruckner’s Symphony #1, performed here in its original Linz version, must have sounded as innovative in the 1860s as Prokofiev’s concerto did in the 1930s, both taking strictly classical forms in new directions.  This was young Bruckner (relatively – he wrote the first symphony in his 40s), and showed his lack of experience with orchestral music at that time.  But it marks a contrast with the first symphony by Brahms, who also waited into his 40s before writing a symphony.  Both Bruckner and Brahms found approaching symphonies hard after Beethoven. But when they were finally ready to do so, Brahms produced the more sophisticated and polished work which said nothing new and simply imitated Beethoven, while Bruckner advanced the art with a rough but new Beethoven-inspired construction.  Ultimately, this work paved the way not only for Bruckner’s own future development, but also for great symphonies to come, including those of Mahler, Sibelius, and Schostakowitsch.  Setting this classical-derivative work, with its raw dissonances and soaring organ-inspired chorales inexpertly mixed throughout, after Prokofiev’s concerto emphasized just how new and important this symphony could sound.  The London Philharmonic and Jurowski put it in context, with resounding orchestral color.

The prelude to the third act of Wagner’Meistersinger served as a final encore, as the orchestral chorale that Wagner based on the hymn “Wacht Auf” (sung by the chorus later in the opera) by the historic Hans Sachs wafted the audience out of the hall, another for-its-time modernized setting of an older form.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner, Bellini, Glinka, Rachmaninov, Rubinstein, Bizet, Khachaturian, Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, Orbelian

Tonight’s concert by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and the Armenian Philharmonic was peculiar long before it started.  Ostensibly part of the annual Yerevan Perspectives Music Festival, it appeared neither on the Festival’s published program nor on the Armenian Philharmonic’s schedule.  But when posters went up around town, tickets sold out.  Only cheap seats were available when I got to the box office, and in retrospect that was a good thing because this concert was not worth more than a 10-dollar ticket.  After the concert sold out (or over-sold out, since some people were literally sitting on every available stair in the aisles and standing to fill every other empty space), black market tickets were going for well above face value.

A list of composers was published on the concert flier, so presumably they knew what they were performing in advance.  But to tell us what was being performed, they hired a master of ceremonies.  Sometimes he was too slow to announce the next selection.  Sometimes Hvorostovsky beat him too it.  Sometimes we just had to guess.  A program would have been a nicer idea.

The first half of the program contained a mix of arias and orchestral overtures.  Hvorostovsky is clearly more comfortable in the Russian repertory, and Aleko’s lament from Rachmaninov’Aleko and an aria from Rubinstein’s Demon remain signature works, combining loving sensitivity with drama.  His singing style may be less suited for German and Italian repertory, at least for tonight’s selections, since his voice can sound somewhat bitter and not subtle in those languages, and this undermined the portrayal in Wolfram’s Ode to the Evening Star from Wagner’Tannhäuser and in another aria that sounded (I’ll guess) like it came from Bellini’Puritani.  It worked better for Escamillo’s bullfighting aria from Bizet’Carmen, as Hvorostovsky ostentatiously made his appearance in the middle of the orchestral introduction, and then gave a swashbuckling portrayal quite appropriate for the scene (this may also have worked better since French is already an ugly enough language, and a biting Russian baritone will not make that worse).

The orchestra mostly kept pace, under the baton of the Armenian-American conductor Constantine Orbelian, but Orbelian does not have the same control that the orchestra’s music director Eduard Topchjan has.  Topchjan is perhaps the only one to make this orchestra sound good.  Tonight, they reverted down several levels, missing notes and entrances, and failing to allow natural phrasing in the music to flow, making the performance somewhat disjointed.  When Hvorostovsky sang, they thankfully stayed in the background (with some glaring exceptions).  When performing the overtures to Verdi’NabuccoGlinka’s  Ruslan i Lyudmila, Bizet’s Carmen, they just served to keep the audience entertained while Hvorostovsky took a breather.  Likewise for a Khachaturian dance in the concert’s second half.

When I worked in Russia, someone told me that someone famous (unfortunately, I forget who) once quipped that if the Russians have ever done anything cultured, they learned it from the Jews, the Armenians, or the Georgians.  The second half of the concert seemed designed to prove that no matter how well they have been trained, Russians remain tasteless underneath.  I suppose Hvorostovsky selects his own programs, so I will blame him.  His selections in the second half converted the hall into a Russian nightclub, but with the accompaniment scored for full orchestra to ensure it could become as tacky as possible.  He sang a string of Russian-language songs by Russian and Armenian composers (according to the flier: Pakhmutova, Dunayevsky, Babzhanian, and Konstanin Orbelian – the last being the uncle of the conductor and who came on stage personally to accompany Hvorostovsky and the orchestra on a miked piano, and whose music is as cheesy as it was when I last suffered through it in 2011).  Hvorostovsky used a microphone for these songs (he correctly did not use one in the first half of the program).  Why someone with his voice needed amplification is a mystery, but it just made the sound more seedy and defeated the point of paying to hear him sing live.  His gold chain glittered under his half-unbuttoned shiny black shirt.

Audience reaction was mixed.  Some – presumably the Russified Armenians, of whom there are far too many – clearly loved it and applauded madly.  But a sizable minority had expressions of disgust on their faces similar to mine.  After politely sitting through the scheduled part of the concert, and sitting on our hands during the applause, we waited to see what Hvorostovsky would do for encores.  He began with two differently-scored versions of the Russian nightclub favorite “Dark Eyes.”  When it became clear that the encores would continue in the same manner, lots of us got up and walked out.

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Verdi, Wagner

For the closing concert of the Armenian Philharmonic’s 2012-13 season, the orchestra honored the 200th anniversary year of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, with a concert of selections (a “Gala,” as they refer to such concerts in the former Soviet space).  Hasmik Papian performed the soprano solos, and Eduard Topchjan conducted.

Papian, born in Yerevan but based in Vienna, has apparently made quite a career singing Verdi, and similar, heroines with her expressive large voice.  Although we only had arias, she clearly knew she had taken the stage and assumed the roles.  Verdi filled the program before the intermission (she sang arias from BalloDon Carlo, and Forza).  But she has recently added Wagner to her repertory, and we got that after the intermission.  Her voice certainly handled Senta in the 2nd Act ballad from Holländer and Elisabeth’s “Dich teure Halle” from Tannhäuser (that particular aria coming across in with a poignant twinkle, since she clearly showed she had made a triumphant return to her hometown’s large concert hall, where she got her professional start in the opera house on the back side of the same building).  When it came to Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan, however, her voice may not yet have filled that role, especially if she had to sing for hours beforehand, but she made an excellent case as an Isolde for the not distant future.  For an encore, she treated the house to a rousing “Ritorna vincitor!” from Verdi’s Aida.  In this case, she herself had returned home triumphant.  The audience roared.

Papian aside, any concert with Topchjan conducting is worth going to.  In addition to the arias, the program also contained a selection of overtures.  The orchestra gave suitably spirited renditions of the overtures to Vespri Siciliani and Forza del Destino, which not only showed off some powerful chorales but also delicate solo work on the middle strings and winds.  I do not know how often Topchjan gets to conduct opera, but he certainly can convey a sense of the dramatic in the overtures.  The question on this hot night, though, was whether the orchestra would whither after intermission when the Verdi gave way to Wagner.  The Prelude to Lohengrin that opened the second half of the concert answered the question: the orchestra sounded even warmer and more lush.  But whereas it handled bits of Lohengrin, Holländer, and Tannhäuser, the next question was whether the Prelude from Tristan might not prove its undoing.  Yet here Topchjan had the orchestra sounding its best, effortlessly navigating the chromatics while keeping the full tone – another question with a good answer.  The thing is, this orchestra still has flaws, but when Topchjan conducts they sound completely different.

I hope they sound this good next season.

Ensemble LUX, Schoenberg Center

Berg, Hensel, Wolfram Wagner, Wagendristel, Schoenberg

I suppose I knew it would be an odd concert when the most musical piece on the program was the one by Arnold Schoenberg.  But Ensemble LUX played everything about as well as this music can ever be performed, which I suppose made up for the music itself.

The concert opened with Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata #1 transcribed for string sextet.  The transcription actually worked quite well in this arrangement, but made me wonder throughout how unbelievably awful this piece would have sounded in its original version for piano.  I’m certain I do not want to find out.

Next came three pieces by living composers (two in attendance – the third was not there because his flight got stuck in a snowstorm in Frankfurt), which I understand were fun to play but less fun to listen to.  The first two (Klärchens Lied by Daniel Hensel and Five Moments by Wolfram Wagner) at least qualified as curiosities, but the third (Double Trio by Alexander Wagendristel), being given its world premiere, was utter nonsense.  The concept of this last piece was intriguing – rather than writing for sextet, Wagendristel wrote for two trios.  But if he was doing that, he should have written two separate but related trios played simultaneously; that would have shown talent and imagination.  Instead, I am not really sure what we got but a pile of notes, shrieks, and thumps, where the only innovation was seating the sextet violin-viola-cello-cello-viola-violin.

The final piece was Schoenberg’Verklärte Nacht in its original version for sextet.  Good performance, but I prefer this piece in its revised version for string orchestra.  The original version for sextet performed here just comes off as too thin, even when the instrumentalists are good.

Russian National Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Wagner, Die Walküre

If people are looking for Wagnerian voices these days, perhaps they need to spend more time looking around the post-Soviet space.  There should be enough talent over here, some of which was on show tonight at a concert performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Tschaikowsky Hall with the Russian National Orchestra under Kent Nagano.

The undisputed star of the evening was the Wotan, Aleksey Tanovitsky, a member of the Ensemble from the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg.  He has a warm deep voice – more bass than baritone – and portrayed Wotan as a concerned father (indeed, only two characters in this opera are not Wotan’s children).  I suspect he was also the member of the cast most familiar with his role, since, more than anyone else, he had a hard time standing still on stage and clearly wanted to act.  He has a large gorgeous voice, which may not have the edge associated with Wotan when he gets angry, but he made his portrayal warm, engaging, and sympathetic.

There has been some hype about the search for a tenor capable of singing Siegmund.  The man selected was Mikhail Vekua, a Georgian who was ethnically-cleansed from Abkhazia in the early 1990s and ended up at the Moscow Conservatory.  I’ve seen him – and been impressed by him – before as Cavaradossi in Tosca at the Stanislavsky Opera.  Small of stature, he nevertheless has the voice.  This was his first-ever German role, and while he learned to sing in German (with good and clear pronunciation), he clearly does not speak a word of German.  So he had to read closely from the text.  When he tried acting and looked away, losing his place, which he unfortunately did often enough, he got the music right but had to insert nonsense syllables.  And since he did not understand what he was singing, he did not always get the emotions right.  I’m not convinced he is a Heldentenor, but perhaps if he gets comfortable in German then he may develop in that direction.

As Sieglinde, Svyetlana Sozdateleva had a relatively deep soprano voice capable of great swells of sound and emotional acting.  The Armenian bass Vazlen Gazaryan sang a very dark, threatening, and impressive Hunding.  These two could go on stage anywhere.  Similarly, Kseniya Vyaznikova also held her own as a scalding and scolding Fricka.  She made sure husband Wotan knew who was really the boss.

Unfortunately, there was one weak link: the title role.  Larisa Gogolevskaya, as Brünhilde, another import from the Mariinsky, went sharp on most of her higher register.  Her voice was big enough, but she should perhaps sing lower soprano roles.

For the Russian National Orchestra, this concert must have been doubly unusual.  First, I do not believe they perform many complete operas.  Second, I doubt they perform much Wagner.  So not only did the music seem new to them, but they did not understand how to portray the drama.  This is a shame, since the Russian National Orchestra is world-class and the playing was certainly up to standard.  But Nagano, using a very crisp and clear technique, walked them carefully through it.  Although there were a few missed cues, in general they responded to him, but had to think so much about the music that they may have forgotten that they were performing an opera.  I also do not believe that this opera was in Nagano’s repertory previously.  So the performance was steady but not insightful.  At least Nagano clearly wanted the singers to shine, and kept a lid on the orchestra in order to allow the voices to predominate (although these were big voices, since the orchestra was on stage and not in the pit the potential was still there for the orchestra to overwhelm them, something Nagano ensured did not happen).

The acoustics halfway up the Tschaikowsky Hall are definitely better than in the more expensive seats.  Now that I have sat here for two concerts, I can confirm that.  Nevertheless, it does not come close to the now-closed Conservatory.  And the hall was in full communist mode tonight: the lady in the cloakroom insisted on seeing my ticket before she took my coat (even though I had already gone through building security and a separate ticket control just to get that far, and had waited for ten minutes in the cloakroom line since the Stalinist architects built this hall with the world’s most inefficiently-designed cloak rooms – why else would I be giving her my coat if I were not there for the concert?  There was another seemingly mandatory ticket check as well by the usher selling programs).  Also rather oddly, the concert was five hours long (the full opera plus intermissions), but began at the usual Moscow start time of 7:00 p.m. as opposed to an early start time, and did so on a Monday night; I have no idea why they did not start this earlier and/or schedule it for a non-work-night.  This does not bother me, since I am nocturnal, but must bother Russians who tend to be morning people – I suppose someone in Central Planning assigned them this night and since all concerts begin at 7:00 they were given no choice (better to do what we are told around here and never ask questions).

Bolshoi Opera Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Wagner, Beethoven, Strauss

The conductor (Gennady Rozhdestvensky) and soloist (Aleksandr Rozhdestvensky) did not make it (I presume they are stuck somewhere because of the volcanic ash which has shut down most air traffic in Europe), so the concert was not as advertised.

Mikhail Granovsky, a youngish (30s?) conductor, took over the podium.

The concert started with the Overture to LiebesverbotWagner’s early opera. The Bolshoi Orchestra strings sounded like mush, as though someone miked them and turned up the speaker volume too high. Despite that, the winds actually overpowered them anyway. But instead of a balanced sound, I got to hear new secondary and internal lines in the music, and so at least I learned new parts of this piece. I just kept having to deal with the uncomfortable noise coming from the strings.

We then got two Beethoven romances for violin and orchestra. The soloist was Mikhail Tsinman, who teaches violin at the Conservatory. He took a while to get into tune. Certainly had not gotten there before the end of the first romance. By the second romance he wasn’t so bad. If I ever hear him perform again, however, I will remember to arrive late to give him time to get his act together.

After the intermission came the Simfonia Domestica by Richard Strauss. This was worth sticking around for. Granovsky had the orchestra under control for this piece. The strings were still a bit mushy, but he managed to de-emphasise them sufficiently. The winds (both woodwinds and brass) produced sumptuous sounds. A worthy performance.

Tonkünstler Orchestra, Musikverein

Schostakowitsch, Wagner, Strauss

The Tonkünstler Orchestra, conducted by Claus Peter Flor, opened its program in the Musikverein with Schostakowitsch‘s 15th Symphony, a sarcastic work in which he reviewed his own life and forebode his own death (although he lived another four years, this was his last major work).  During the fourth movement, shortly after the quotation from the Todesverkündigung in the Second Act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, a woman near the front waved in the ushers.  They waved in more ushers, and then carried out another woman’s body, which was scarily rather stiff.  I suppose if you are going to go, going in the Musikverein during a concert right after the annuciation of death is probably as good a way as any. (Word later was that she recovered.)

That woman’s timing was better than anyone else on the evening.  Flor kept missing beats and cues.  Michael Jurowski last week had this orchestra together during the very difficult Prokofiev 2nd Piano Concerto, but Flor obviously is not as talented.  Ironically, Michael Jurowski was the rehearsal conductor for the premiere of Schostakowitsch’s 15th Symphony back in 1971.

After the intermission came the Immolation from Götterdaemmerung, with Angela Denoke singing Brünhilde.  She is good, but again the orchestra wasn’t together.  Flor also had the balance all off, and was too loud when he should not have been, almost drowning her out at the softer moments.  The Tonkünstler rarely play Wagner (or operatic music in general), so this is unfamiliar territory for them, and Flor did not help.  At least no one died during the second half of the concert.  (Denoke gave us the song Zueignung by Richard Strauss as an encore.)

 

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Schubert, Wagner

The Wiener Symphoniker and Vladimir Fedoseyev are usually a good combination, but something was amiss.  The concert opened with Schubert‘s Death and the Maiden as arranged for orchestra by Mahler.  The Orchestra took some time to warm into the piece.  After the intermission came a selection of Wagner (Rienzi Overture, Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg music, Tristan und Isolde Prelude and Liebestod).  Again, perfectly good performances, but a bit of a disappointment since the Symphoniker is better than just “perfectly good.”

I will admit that the Rienzi Overture was better than the last time I heard it live: in high school, when I was first trumpet in the orchestra and my sheet music disappeared before the concert forcing me to try to play an exposed difficult part from memory.

 

Highlights from 2008

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Less travel and more time in Vienna meant I enjoyed even more live music than usual this year.

Best performance: Schostakowitsch, Symphony Nr. 8, Wiener Symphoniker, Vladimir Fedoseyev (November). Not among the more-often performed of Schostakowitsch’s symphonies, the anguished Eighth captures Schostakowitsch’s personality and mindset well. Written to commemorate the Red Army driving the Germans out of Russia, the undertone is that the Soviet regime was also ghastly, so the work was banned in Russia for many years. A moving performance, quite devastating in segments.

Runner up: Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts, RSO Wien, Bertrand de Billy (November). I had forgotten just how immense this work was. Not sure the chorus even had room to inhale, they were so packed onto the Musikverein stage. The orchestra did not fit on the stage, so extended over the first few rows as well as into the first parterre loges on each side. The four brass choirs (in addition to the regular oversized brass section in the orchestra itself) were placed around the hall. Berlioz intended the piece, although bombastic, to be performed as church music and not as a concert requiem. De Billy clearly understood this and kept the lid on. The singing soared from the combined chorus of both the Wiener Singverein and the Wiener Singakademie.

Best concert venue: Occupation Museum, Tallinn (May). Visiting the Estonian Occupation Museum, I was invited to stay on after closing time for a concert with a rather odd quartet (soprano, flute, cello, and a glockenspiel-like instrument) performing modern, mostly Estonian, music. Between each piece the quartet moved around the museum and the audience had to carry our folding chairs from place to place, surrounded by Soviet-era memorabilia.

Most disappointing performance: Beethoven, Symphony Nr. 2 / Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Göteborgs Symfoniker, Gustavo Dudamel, Vienna (October). If it had been a student orchestra, I would have been impressed. The much-hyped Dudamel (whom I watched from a balcony seat over the stage, where I could observe his peculiar technique) had clear passion and sense for palette, but the performance was far too sloppy for such an orchestra. Dudamel is the music director in Gothenborg, and thus can and should be held personally responsible. I cannot tell if Dudamel will gain more control as he gets older or will turn into Zubin Mehta (charismatic and capable of getting occasional exciting performances, but otherwise dreadfully boring and absolutely disastrous for orchestral discipline).

Worst performances: Nielsen, Violin Concerto / Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 6, Tonkünstler Orchester, Kristjan Järvi, Vienna (November). Nielsen is neither original nor interesting. Järvi demonstrated absolutely no feel for Bruckner. Dvořák, Cello Concerto, Daniel Müller-Schott, Wiener Symphoniker, Yakov Kreizberg (April). Müller-Schott’s uninspired solo work put me to sleep. Woke up after the intermission for a spirited Dvořák Sixth Symphony.

Best opera and most fun at the opera (winning both categories this year): R. Strauss, Capriccio, Staatsoper, Vienna (October). A rarely-performed esoteric work, the entire plot (in one act lasting nearly three hours) concerns whether music or text is more important to opera. No kidding. The opera’s seemingly unpromising plot was supported by witty text set to glorious music. The simple staging was well-considered and with good direction. Renee Fleming headed a superb cast, conducted by Philippe Jordan. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Runner-up for best opera: Verdi, Simon Boccanegra, Staatsoper, Vienna (September). A moody piece, not performed often enough. Not tuneful by Verdi standards, but with a plot resembling Gilbert and Sullivan. Thankfully, Verdi let Arrigo Boito fix up the libretto and made Boccanegra version #2 into good drama, if properly performed (as here).

Runner-up for most fun at the opera: Benatzky, Im Weißen Rößl, Kammerspiele, Vienna (May). The classic 1920s Austrian comedy, here performed cabaret-style on a small stage with a three-person orchestra.

Worst opera production: Wagner, Lohengrin, Staatsoper, Vienna (May). The performance, conducted by Peter Schneider, would have been great if I had kept my eyes closed. They should have saved the expense of a staged production and just done a concert performance, since the cast generally wore formal concert attire anyway. Of all the bizarre things on stage, the director left out the one thing which must be there: the swan (explaining in the program notes that this central figure was actually unnecessary). The imbecilic director was not German, but – to no surprise – trained in Berlin. I think I have to stop going to operas directed by people who have even visited Germany.

Highlights from 2006

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Most fun concert: Ludwig August Lebrun, Oboe Concerto Nr. 1 (and works by Mozart and Haydn), Heinz Holliger (soloist and conductor), Tonhalle Orchester Zürich (January). I do not normally get excited about music for oboe, except when performed by Holliger, who in addition to playing masterfully also clearly enjoys himself on stage. I did not know the Lebrun piece, but bought Holliger’s recording of it after the concert.

Most mystical concert: Anton Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 9 (and Gustav Mahler’s Rückertlieder), Wiener Philharmoniker (May). Performed in the Staatsoper to commemorate the 95th anniversary of Mahler’s death. All that can be said about conductor Daniele Gatti is that he did not get in the way of the orchestra’s magic.

Best opera performance: Richard Wagner, Parsifal, Wiener Staatsoper (April). On Holy Saturday, no less, the performance (including Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz and Franz Grundheber as Amfortas) would have been mystical if I had kept my eyes closed. The staging was certainly not mystical (although not Regietheater either). There was no Grail, Parsifal was never baptized, Parsifal never healed Amfortas’ wound, and Kundry never died absolved but instead walked to the back of the stage and vanished. Costumes and sets were inexplicable.

Most fun opera performance: Imre Kálmán, Csárdásfürstin, Volksoper Wien (April). This was a Viennese period piece performance, and very very fun.  The Volksoper even cast Hungarians in the appropriate roles, so that instead of having people pretending to be Hungarians they had authentic ones, who hammed it up to the fullest (including speaking to each other on stage in Hungarian). Viennese operetta at its most traditional.

Worst opera experience: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Entführung aus dem Serail, Wiener Staatsoper (May). I was excited to see an opera staged in Vienna’s magnificent Burgtheater (almost never used for opera performances). However, the Regietheater staging was overt anti-Turkish racism at its worst. I don’t have to be Turkish to find it deeply offensive. Shame!

Best musical museum exhibit(s): I dropped into Vienna’s Jewish Museum in April to see an exhibit on Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s brilliantly eccentric librettist (a baptized Jew adopted by an abbot whose name he took, da Ponte became a Catholic priest; fleeing out-of-control gambling debts in Italy – and husbands whose wives the rather ugly da Ponte had somehow seduced, no doubt with the help of his good friend Casanova – he talked his way into becoming the imperial librettist in Vienna; da Ponte, still ordained as a priest, later had a Jewish wedding and followed his wife to my hometown of Philadelphia; after his businesses all failed, he ended up as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia). Then I went upstairs to see what the other exhibit was, and found it to be about Erich Zeisl, a Viennese composer I had never heard of who fled to Hollywood in 1938. Zeisl crated up his entire home in Vienna and shipped it to himself, and therefore kept a very Viennese home in California, which looked remarkably like the home my grandparents kept in New Jersey (they, too, had crated up all their possessions and shipped them to the US in 1938).