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“Muses to Murder” – Wagner & Strauss Scenes

In Classical Music, Opera, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner on November 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Review: Elizabeth Connell, Queensland Orchestra & Muhai Tang.

First of all let’s dispense with the title of this CD. It always perplexes me why labels sometimes feel the need to label recitals with the most ridiculous titles. While this might not be the worst, it’s almost definitely in the top ten perhaps because at the end of the day it’s a rather broad and sweeping title that isn’t strictly accurate. Who did Brunnhilde murder? Whose muse was she? Certainly not Siegfried’s. Nor Wotan’s. And murder-one-step removed – in fact revenge in one instance – slightly muddies the waters.

However the unfortunate title cannot distract from the fact that Elizabeth Connell delivers a very credible and rewarding recital disc. Ms Connell is – as witnessed by her amazing performance of Turandot at Covent Garden in 2008 – an accomplished and intelligent singer with strong, bullish top notes, excellent control throughout her register – with wonderful low chest notes and a bright gleaming top – and in terms of dynamics and tone she has the heft needed for the most challenging roles. And coupled to this is her accomplished ability to deliver the words clearly and with real meaning. Being an ‘old school’ dramatic soprano I can almost imagine her earliest teachers – and perhaps even Reginald Gooddall during her participation in his masterful Ring Cycle for Sadler’s Wells Opera as one of the Valkyrie – recounting “Diction, diction, diction” in her formative lessons.

Ms Connell tackles the two most popular bleeding chunks’ of Wagner – Isolde’s Liebestod and the Immolation scene from Gotterdammerung as well as scenes from Elektra – interestingly though not the Recognition scene – Salome and Ariadne auf Naxos.

It is always a challenge in recital either on CD or stage to launch from a standing-start into the most dramatic of scenes, particularly in Wagner and Strauss. And here Ms Connell goes straight in with the opening monologue from Elektra – Allein! Weh, ganz allein. A rhythmically opening from the orchestra, with plangent winds helps to set the scene – and generally throughout the Queensland Orchestra, conducted by Muhai Tang provides very strong support. Listen, for example, to the carefully placed and precise brass chords at “Agamemnon, Agamemnon, Wo bist du, Vater?” and the lilting walz at “wie ein Schatten dort im Mauerwinkel zeig dich deinem Kind”.

Her opening “Allein” belies the power and heft that Ms Connell gradually and with control unleashes as the music moves beyond the Agamemnon motif to the first iteration of the ‘dance’ motif carried with great momentum forward by the orchestra to the end of the scene. As well as pointing out the more lyrical elements of Strauss’ line it is also notable how the soprano brings to the front the almost sprechtimme-like elements of the vocal line (“wir treiben sie vor dem Grab zusammen, und sie ahnen dem Tod und wiehern in die Todesluft”) and similarly her attention not only to diction but the actual meaning behind the words is nothing more than ‘muscular’. Listen her delivery of phrases such as “Es ist die Stunde, unsre Stunde ist’s, die Stunde, wo sie dich geschlachtet haben” through her retelling of her father’s murder for example. Revelling in the words, this is clearly a role that sits at the centre of Ms Connell’s repertory.

Es gibt ein Reich from Ariadne auf Naxos takes us to a more pastoral plain and displays Ms Connell’s more lyrical side. Along with the Marschallin’s scena – “Da geht er hin, der aufgeblasne, schlecte Kerl” – in the first act of Der Rosenkavalier, this is one of my favourite Strauss monologues and what’s makes this performance stand out over and above her creamy, warm tone is her rhythmic alertness without any sense of snatching any of the notes that can sometimes be missed in other performances. For example at “Wie lechte Vögel, Wie welke Blätter, Treibt er sie hin”. Again she carefully paces her voice making her entry at “Du wirst mich befreien, Mir selber mich geben” all the more thrilling with Tang giving her just the slightest opportunity by reining back the tempo.

And with that gentle yet musically persuasive aria we are suddenly back in the more neurotic sound world of Salome. Tang launches the orchestra straight in with great vigour and Connell’s somewhat brittle opening vocal line seems totally appropriate. Again she both revels in and points up the more lyrical elements of this closing scene as well as clearly annunciating the more ‘spoken-style’ passages, switching from one to the other with incredible ease which only helps to underline the character’s neuroses. In terms of dynamic control here she displays incredible control by scaling her voice right back to match the chamber-like orchestration of most of this scene. But heft is never far from reach with thrilling effect. But nothing underlines her characterization of the character as her entry at Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan, clearly indicated as “listlessly” by Strauss, and Connell draining her voice of all colour until the final closing phrases when she returns her voice to full and radiant bloom alongside the orchestra itself repeating Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ich habe ihn geküßt, deinen Mund before Strauss brings proceeding to an abrupt and violent end.

Tang leads the orchestra in a rather literal almost academic performance of the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde to take us to Ms Connell in the Liebstod. In truth her Wagner performances on this disc are not exactly on par with the scene from Strauss earlier but they are still riveting.

As Isolde I was left wanting for that added dimension to her voice similar to that in both her Elektra and Salome previously. As before she clearly has the heft for the role but every so often the lyricism that the Liebestod requires was missing. But as with the Prelude, there was something distinctly ‘academic’ about the orchestra’s support and in this piece, more than in other Wagner, the momentum and support of the orchestra is all important if the soprano is to feel confident in the soaring vocal line.

The Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung however is ‘on the money’. Crisp rhythms from the orchestra are carried through into Connell’s vocal line in a way that many performers fail to do. And again, she marshals her vocal forces with intelligence and with some distinct word painting. Listen for example to der Reinste war er, der mich verriet! Die Gattin trügend and indeed the carefully placed syllables and dynamic control of Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott have never before sounded so chilling. Less a daughter wishing her father well than a woman seeking revenge.

Tang and the orchestra are more intuitive in this scene that previously in Tristan und Isolde. Tang maintains the momentum throughout and there is – as I have mentioned – a rhythmic alertness to the playing together with bright and pointed wind and brass playing. Connell reacts positively, saving her finest vocal heft for the closing moments with the conductor never letting up on the momentum and not – as some conductors have a wont – to pull on the brakes immediately after Selig grüsst dich dein Weib. Instead Tang maintains the direction of travel with the orchestra as the major leitmotivs of The Ring fill the final bars and only finally gives slightly more breadth to the Redemption theme, quite literally, the closing bars.

Elizabeth Connell delivers a musically intelligent recital. It is always a challenge when delivering ‘bleeding chunks’ of Wagner and Strauss to create a real sense of characterization. Connell rises to and – with the exception of her Isolde and only slightly less so – exceeds the challenge. She creates a series of credible portrayals and demonstrates that she is a leading dramatic soprano in this repertoire.

Hopefully her next disc will not be hampered by the antics of the label’s marketing department.

Something Old. Something Borrowed. Something New. Simply Brilliant.

In Beethoven, Classical Music, Review on November 3, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Review: Grand Baracolle Premiere (Colin Matthews, 2011) & Symphonies No. 3 “Eroica” and No. 8 (Beethoven)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig & Ricardo Chailly.
Barbican, Tuesday 1 November 2011.

Having listened to Chailly & the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig’s complete CD edition of the Beethoven symphonies almost to the exception of anything else since I purchased them a few weeks ago, the expectation for their performance at the Barbican was incredibly high.

And neither me nor the rest of the audience were disappointed.

So far the cycle has been well received and I think that their performance of the Third and Eighth symphonies – while I cannot speak personally of the past or for future performances – will be among the strongest in the whole cycle at the Barbican.

As part of the cycle tour, Chailly commissioned a series of contemporary composers to write pieces based or inspired by Beethoven’s symphonies. This is an incredibly smart idea – it connects Beethoven’s symphonies with the modern world in a very direct way, reminds us that – in his own time – Beethoven was a revolutionary and additionally underlines the musicianship of the Gewandhausorchester itself. The concert programme recounts that Chailly only told the five composers – Carlo Boccadoro, Steffen Schleiermacher, Colin Matthews, Bruno Mantovani and Friedrich Cerha – which symphonies would be programmed alongside their own pieces and left them to draw – or not – their inspiration from that.

This particular concert opened with the premiere of Colin Matthews’ Grand Baracolle. The programme talked of inspiration not only from the Eighth Symphony but also about parallels with Mahler. To be honest, I didn’t quite get the references to Mahler – I was more reminded of Vaughan-Williams, Shostakovich and even, at time – and this may just have been transference from the expectation of hearing the Eroica – of Strauss’ Metamorphosen. But Mahler? Not really.

Colin Matthews approach was one of sonorities. The opening, dark and heavy created – as I have already said – a sound world that was for me more Vaughan-Williams or Shostakovich than Mahler. There wasn’t a translucence or transparency to the writing that I associate even with the more heavily orchestrated parts of Mahler. Rhythmically there were nods to a ‘Baracolle’ but those expecting a more lilting piece would have been disappointed. Matthews contrasted the more intense blocks of sound with delicate wind writing and lighter scored strings that were a definite nod to the second movement of the Eighth Symphony.

Overall Grand Baracolle was an original composition, well-crafted and by limiting himself only to a ‘Beethoven’ orchestra, Matthews deliberately created a direct link to what followed.

And what followed was magnificent.

Chailly showed himself to be an incredibly observant conductor in the Matthews, but in the Beethoven he sprang into life and motion.

Beethoven’s Eight is often referred to as his most ‘Haydnesque’ symphony alongside the Fourth. Clearly there are parallels but ‘Haydnesque’ is then interpreted by many as meaning ‘polite’ or ‘measured’, but what is often neglected is the humour and ‘earthiness’ of Haydn’s music and in particular his symphonies. Reminiscing once again about my university lecturer, he told us that modern day audiences had lost the art of listening to the humour in Haydn’s symphonies. In the Eighteenth Century audiences would have reacted more overtly to the humour in his symphonies and would have been more sensitive to the less overt ones that audiences today react to.

At the Barbican, Chailly and the players brought out not only the humour in Beethoven’s Eighth but also a ‘ruddiness’ in the music. This was no ‘slight’ symphony between the Seventh and the Ninth for Chailly. Far from it, they championed a more vigorous and muscular interpretation so much so that at times it seemed that the orchestra might run away with itself. But Chailly not only kept absolutely control but was a master of bringing out the individual details in every movement of the symphony – and in particular the specific details in the double bass line that are often overlooked. And Chailly clearly pointed up the humour throughout, particularly in the beautifully played second movement.

However the Third Symphony was especially memorable. Again the muscularity and energy of the performance was breathtaking and the ensemble playing was superlative.

Chailly took the first movement at breakneck speed (although perhaps a literal fraction slower that the recording?) but never sacrificed the interior detailing and lyricism of the movement for speed. Indeed there was an anger, almost a ’rudeness’ to the playing that was exhilarating – ‘con brio’ quite literally.

The Marcia Funebre had an emotional intensity rarely delivered in a live performance and before raising his baton Chailly seemed to take more than a moment to prepare himself, the orchestra and the audience. There were moments of crushing emotion. The Scherzo was all lightness of touch rather than spun out at speed. Yet as in the recording, Chailly created a real sense of inexorable momentum into the closing bars.

However, it was the Finale that was – to coin a phrase – truly ‘promethean’. Again Chailly’s pointing up of detail was immaculate. The string sections’ pizzicati was markedly aggressive yet never over-balanced the delicate scoring in the opening sections.

Indeed, of all the symphonies the Eroica is counterpoint-heavy compared to the other eight. Yet throughout Chailly maintained a clarity of the inner voices which ensured that the counterpoint shone through – for example the clarity in the opening of the development section of the first movement as well as in the second movement was crystalline.

And the timpanist? I still don’t know if it was Matthias Müller or Tom Greenleaves but once again the playing was superlative and they deserved the especial cheer at the end of the evening.

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