Archive for April 2nd, 2011|Daily archive page

A Matter Of Choice

In Classical Music, Opera on April 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Listening to – Rodelinda (Il Complesso Barocco)

I recently attended two performances where – at the last minute – there were changes in the line of principals. Now I am not naive enough to think that this is not an occasional hazard for ensembles and that they make every effort to find suitable replacements. Yet the two performances I attended show how very different the experience can be.

First of all let it be said that in both cases the replacement artists were – we were clearly informed – both well-known in the respective roles themselves.

In the first instance the stand-in was in every way, superlative. I do not only mean in terms of the actual performance itself, but the fact that in her interpretation she did not in any way attempt to emulate the stylistic mannerisms of the performer that she replaced and which sometimes the audience expects. She very much made the character and the performance her own and this made for an unforgettable experience.

The second experience was not so enjoyable. It was hard to believe that the tenor in question had in fact performed the role in it’s entirety before. Of which more anon.

So back to the first performance. Alcina with Les Musiciens du Louvre. Anja Harteros was to perform the title role – for which she had already been lauded by critics. However she was unable to perform in London – the cold weather was blamed. Disappointing as it potentially was, she was replaced by Inga Kalna and I admit that she was not a soprano I was acquainted with. The slip note informed us that Ms Kalna had not only performed the role before in Europe, but had performed this specific role with Minkowski and Les Musiciens in Grenoble, their home town. So on paper at least she had form. And in performance she did not disappoint. Hers was an interpretation that was obviously built on experience, and while she did not deliver the vocal fireworks that I – as well as many people no doubt expected from Ms Harteros – was expecting, she provided vocal fireworks aplenty of her own. Her Ah! Il Mio Cor was not only heart-rendingly beautiful, but delivered with a real sense of musical pathos. My only gripe was that perhaps Minkowski took it a tad too fast. But overall Ms Kalna created her own Alcina – rich in both interpretation and character – which enabled the rest of the cast to reach their own musical and emotional peaks.

One small aside before I move on. Vessalina Kassarova. Despite what some critics wrote, she was superb and I feel that this was in no small way a result of Ms Kalna’s performance. Indeed her performance as Ruggiero led me to listen again to her CD of Handel arias with renewed interest – and taught me (again!) – never to take a critic’s opinion at face value.

And so to Tristan und Isolde. Now I am the first to acknowledge that this opera presents – even when the cast does not change at all – significant challenges. The original cast was meant to be American tenor Stephen Gould in the title role, with Katarina Dalayman as his Isolde. Unfortunately Gould was replaced by Kirov tenor Leonid Zakhozhaev. A quick glance at his homepage and nothing would seem amiss. Plenty of references to his perfect German diction and in fact, one glowing review of his performance of Tristan. As I have already said, this blog is about my personal experiences and opinions, but on this occasion I do not think I was far off the mark. I am sure that in some repertoire Zakhozhaev is an exceptional performer. Needless to say I would imagine he excels in Russian repertoire and indeed in most other tenor roles. But not as Tristan. I admit that some external factors need to be considered. He was dropped in cold into a production that he did not know. But the production was not challenging. For once, and with some relief on my part, it did not display the usual affections of Personregie that you sometimes see in German productions (Because it was a co-production with Montpellier perhaps?) and was pretty much static. Clearly the direction was just a little north of ‘stand and deliver’ but Zakhozhaev made this seem even more wooden.

So to his actual singing. Tristan requires a tenor that not only has the notes and the ‘heft’, but also one that that sing in shades of colour and delicacy. Heppner had this once and occasionally it still gleams through. Zakhozhaev struggled from the beginning. Singing at one volume, in one flat tone even his German – to a non-German like me – sounded strained, with his diction almost non-existent. His struggle was clear from his first appearance and his struggle at the end of Act I did not bode well for Act II. And he didn’t disappoint. The duet was long and arduous – for the audience. And there was clearly no ‘frisson’ between Zakhozhaev and Dalayman and even she gave up trying to lead him on stage. Needless to say the final Act was a disaster. Within minutes of his monologue I was myself praying that Isolde’s ship would come earlier and cut short both his and the audience’s agony.

I know that when a principal cancels at short notice it can be difficult to find a replacement. However I remember most recently when Christian Gerhaher was delayed en route for Tannhauser, the understudy more than ably performed until his arrival. Indeed much as I was thrilled by Gerhaher’s arrival in time for the final act, I did feel somewhat sorry for the understudy who so valiantly and rather brilliantly took on the mantle at short notice.

On this occasion I cannot believe that Zakhozhaev – all the way from St Petersburg – was the best option. Perhaps I am wrong but surely in the whole of Germany or indeed Northern Europe a more suitable Tristan could have been found than the lacklustre and troubled Zakhozhaev? Even if that meant – as at Covent Garden and Tannhauser – the replacement sang from the side of the stage while someone else acted the role.

Katarina Dalayman was an impressive Isolde. She certainly has the heft for the role but perhaps because of Zakhozhaev she was not at her best. The Liebestod – while moving and a worthy intepretation – was ‘of a single volume’ with little subtlety, and therefore any sense of a ‘blissful’ state was hard to muster or convey. However again this could be down to her Tristan.

A small word for Liang Li as King Mark. He made this small yet vital role come alive. His Act II monologue was palpable with regal disappointment and betrayal.

The production was interesting and, as I have said, pretty much devoid of the usual affectations prevalent in most Personregie – such as making tea or breakfast. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes – as in Loy’s Tristan und Isolde – subtle and well-placed direction adds great value and insight, but more often than not I find the discipline of Personregie sinks to the banal and a desire to fill the music with action. I won’t try to understand the ‘Samurai’ lilt to the production, but not too much was made of this. I did admire the inference that Isolde was trapped in her own mind that the bare walls of Act I produced and the second Act was beautifully conceived in terms of portraying the ‘endless night’.

And finally to Asher Fisch. I admire and enjoy his conducting of The Ring and in Tristan und Isolde he did not disappoint. He found the ‘chamber’ element in the orchestration and for the most part succeeded in finding the balance between the singers and the orchestra.

Apart from when Zakhozhaev was singing and at thus points – particularly when the tenor was exposed or alone – he ramped up the orchestral sound.

Confidence in his Tristan? I think not.

Enough said.

Goldberg Variations (Gould)

In Classical Music, Opera on April 2, 2011 at 7:47 am

I thought i would give WordPress a go so this is an original blog entry from blogspot …

First of all please note that this is a blog. These are personal views. A mental meander through my own thoughts on music. Not based on a career as a critic but on a passion for classical music and a fundamental but I would hope thorough education many years ago in the subject.

This is a place where I will publish my own thoughts. I don’t always agree with what other people say and I definitely don’t expect people to agree with what I think about classical music, specific performances or performers. However I hope that if this is read then people will feel that they can start a discussion and share their own thoughts.

So why? I don’t profess to be an academic. I don’t profess that anyone will read this. I admit that all blogs are vanity projects and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar. There is a side to me that wants to see if I can generate debate. Perhaps I will. Perhaps this will fall flat on its face. Although that would be impossible for a blog. Rather perhaps it will dissipate after a few entries. Either when I not longer feel compelled. Or I simply get bored. Who knows but perhaps bear with me for now.

So were to begin? Perhaps with the genres of music I enjoy. Then at least you can decide if you wish to read any further.

I enjoy all classical music. While that is a sweeping generalisation, it is simply true. I can and do sit through a lot of music. Some in performance, some on radio and some on DVD. But while I listen to a wide range of genres and styles that doesn’t mean that I enjoy it all.

What I particularly love is vocal music – opera in particular – and orchestral music. To hone this down even further I prefer the music of Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Handel and Mozart when it comes to opera and vocal music, but do also enjoy forays into the works of lesser known operatic composers. In terms of orchestral music, Richard Strauss again features as do Mozart and Handel, but the Bachs feature heavily as do Beethoven, Mahler and Haydn. And with regards choral music, JS Bach is right up there with of course the great choral moments in Mahler – religious experiences in a sense – together with the great polyphonists.

But if I look at my iPod I have Korngold – perhaps not so surprising considering my love of Strauss – but also Bruckner, Couperin, Chausson, Gretry, Hartmann, Lebrun, Lorenzo Palermo, Lully, Messiaen, Porpora, Rossini, Schmidt and Suk to name a few. But each can draw a line back to my first list in some way.

And naturally some composers I have come to later than others. A good friend of mine – who sadly died a few years ago and with whom I enjoyed many memorable concerts – once said that as you grew older the appreciation accorded to composers changed with life experience. It is something that I have heard on countless occasions but always as a sense of moving inexorably forward and discarding composers in your wake. He taught me how to listen to new composers – or should I say ‘other composers’ – through the prism of those I already loved and admired. It’s how I came to appreciate Mahler – a composer I had for so long struggled with. And more importantly it meant I never lost my love for other composers.

So it surprises me that as I write my first entry I am in fact listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. My intention is to note what I am listening to at the top of each entry. So having written that my primary passions are opera, vocal and orchestral music, here I sit writing this while listening to the complete opposite. Music for solo keyboard. I think perhaps that this blog will be full of these contradictions but on the whole chamber music – as I call it – generally leaves me cold.

So why Glenn Gould’s performance of the Variations. And does it matter that it is the 1955 recording. Does that make me a snob in some way? No. But simply I sat down to write after I had selected this piece of music. I love the beautiful simplicity of his performance. Many years ago, my piano teacher said to me that the secret of a great performance was that the listener should feel that he could walk to the stage and feel that he or she could perform the same piece of music. Not necessarily to the same artistic standard, but feel inspired to give it a go.

Now I know that I cannot play to the standard of Gould but his performance makes me want to ‘get inside’ the music and the only way I know how would be to sit at a piano and bang away. Not with the aim to recreate perfectly the sense of balance and finesse that he brings to this beautiful piece of music, but rather to discover and enjoy my own sense of musicianship and interpretation that his performance compels me to find.

Does that make me strange? Does anyone else ever feel the same compulsion?

So Gould compels me to leap to a piano. I would if I had one so instead I feel compelled to leap to this alternate keyboard! Another thing – often when listening to the Goldberg Variations I stop every four or five and return to the original Aria. This is something I started doing only recently. Why? It isn’t like Bach does not ensure that the Aria is recognisable even in the most complicated or abstract or the thirty-two variations. But after three or four variations I feel the need to once against marvel at the shear simplicity of the opening Aria. I cannot think that there is a single piece of music apart from this Aria where the simplicity of the opening few bars is so starkly beautiful that is takes one’s breath away. And then evolves into veritable avalanche of music thought.

And at the very end. A return to the original Aria. Beautiful.

So there you have it. My first entry. I had thought that I would wax lyrical about Wagner or Strauss. Or perhaps even Handel. But there you have it. I said there would be contradiction and there it is. In my first entry.

But what a beautiful contradiction it is.

Thank you.


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