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Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

2011. The Magic. The Mishaps. The Future.

In Baroque, Beethoven, Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Handel, JS Bach, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner on December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am

2011. The year that I started this blog to recount my own opinions about performances that I attended and CDs that I listened to.

No one’s opinion – particularly mine – is either right not perfect. Listening to music is an intensely, intensely personal experience. I can sit next to a friend and at the end of performance walk away with a completely reaction and different point of view. And on some occasions following what can be heated discussion my opinion has changed. And I can leave performances I attend alone with one perception and after some thought, or a flash of ‘something’, I have changed my mind. Sometimes completely.

So what I have selected below are the ten events or recordings that have struck me as the most significant performances I have heard in 2011. And five that were disappointing against the original expectation.

Top of a list of ten is a recording – or set of recordings – that even now I return to on a daily basis. Step forward Ricardo Chailly, the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig and their well near perfect performances of Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. At tempi faster than usually expected, these are lithe, muscular renditions of these great works. But at no point do either Chailly or the GewandhausOrchester sacrifice speed for precision and an acute attention to detail. And as I have said before, the timpanist is a revelation. And of all the symphonies, the ‘Eroica’ is my personal favourite and I was fortunate enough to see them perform this symphony during their visit to London. And in 2012 I plan to visit Leipzig and see them on their home turf.

Needless to say, you haven’t purchased this set already then I can’t recommend it enough.

Next to Munich for Richard Jones’ production of Lohengrin in July. I had originally hoped to see both Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier in the two female roles, and while Emily Magee more than respectably replaced Ms Pieczonka as Elsa, it was very much Meier’s evening. Her Ortrud was a masterful character study of pure malevolence. As I remarked at the time, there was something almost Shakespearean in the way that Jones revealed the character not only of Ortrud but of her husband, Telramund played magnificently by Evgeny Nikitin. Indeed even when she was not singing, Ms Meier held the complete attention of the audience. Jones direction was masterful not only in its attention to detail – there were some incredibly thought-provoking moments – but also in the way he also captured the grand sweep of emotion as well. The ending – not the traditional one of redemption – is not one I will forget in a hurry.

Another unforgettable evening of Wagner – at the other end of the spectrum – was Opera North’s semi-staged production of Das Rheingold at the Lowry Theatre on Salford Quays. From the moment Richard Farnes – in a moment of simple yet effective theatrical magic – lifted his baton and raised the waves of the Rhine itself, it was a near perfect performance. The singers were without a single weakness and if I am to salute just a few then without doubt they are the Fricka of Yvonne Howard, Lee Bisset’s Freia, the Rhinemaidens one and all – Jeni Bern, Jennifer Johnston and Sarah Castle – and the brilliant Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. And special mention of Peter Mumford and his exceptionally elegant and effective lighting. This was a performance of Das Rheingold that outshone many I have seen by some of the so-called ‘major’ opera companies and some of that credit is due to the artistic consultancy of Dame Anne Evans. I have a ticket to their production of Die Walküre next year and do not doubt that it will be of the same incredible high standard.

Staying with The Ring, next is Hamburg Opera’s production of Die Walküre (April). General Manager and conductor Simone Young drew incredibly rich and opulent music making from both the orchestra and the singers. Without a doubt this was music that Young both loved deeply and knew inside out. It reminded me in so many ways of Reginald Goodall’s approach to Wagner – majestic, informed and intuitive and with a real attention to the orchestral detail and sensitive to the singers. And the case was incredibly strong. Angela Denoke and Katarina Dalayman were Sieglinde and Brunnhilde respectively but the real revelation for me that evening was Lilli Paasikivi as Fricka. For the first time her confrontation with Wotan in the Second Act became a central focus of the unfolding drama as never before in productions I had seen. Even the production and direction – having seen Gotterdammerung the previous year – was strong. As I said at the time, each action was investing in meaning and the set – while incredibly simply – was completely integrated in the narrative. The Hamburg Opera will perform their complete Ring Cycle in 2012 and I am hoping that I can get the time to see it.

Unexpectedly, Mahler appears twice in my lists of performances. The first is a memorable performance of his Resurrection Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic under their new Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena. The BBC Philharmonic sounds exceptional – European – at the moment, which is due to their stewardship under Noseda and this is set to continue under Mena. His approach to Mahler’s Second Symphony was one of architectural clarity with an almost Latin-lilt. It’s a shame that it hasn’t be caught for future listening on a CD.

Renée Fleming’s recent performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach crowned a great year of performances for me. As with their 1999 recording, the pair took a valedictory approach with tempi that revelled in the lush sound world created by Strauss. Eschenbach – bar a few small glitches – drew some glorious playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra but Fleming dominated with an intensely personal and intelligent performance, her warm burnished tone, with a new resonance to her bottom notes, making for a memorable evening.

Kasper Holten soon arrives at Covent Garden and I was fortunate to catch his final production at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an incredibly difficult listen and – with its dense storyline – complicated to direct effectively. However Holten, with his manga-noir set managed to negotiate the audience clearly through the story as well as effectively highlight the underlying psychology woven in. On the whole the singers were incredibly strong and Michael Schønwandt and the orchestra were marvellous in the pit. I think that Holten will be a refreshing and inspiring creative change for Covent Garden.

Il Complesso Barocco, led by Alan Curtis and a cast including the incredible Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux brought a musically stunning concert performance of Ariodante to London in May. Curtis’ troupe recording all of Handel’s opera – Giulio Cesare is next in 2012 – and this performance marked the release of Ariodante on CD. Needless to say while the charismatic and accomplished Ms DiDonato stole the show it was an incredible night. Each and every soloist sparked off each other to create some brilliant music making and the discovery – for me – of Sabina Puértolas. Definitely someone to watch.

Strauss Vier Letzte Lieder are placed twice in my top ten of 2011. This time a recording both by an unexpected soprano and which was an unexpected pleasure. Martina Arroyo – more commonly associated with Verdian roles recorded the songs with Gunter Wand. Her incredibly rich voice was well suited to Strauss and she more than managed the soaring vocal line and was sensitively supported by Wand.

And finally this year wouldn’t have been complete without regular delving into the cantatas of JS Bach. While it is better to listen to them in their entirety, the beauty of Gardiner’s exemplary and recordings with the Monteverdi players and singers and the wonder of shuffle means that many a happy hour has been spent waiting to see what random and revelatory track my iPod will play next. Wonderful.

But of course not all performances and recordings were as memorable. Or were memorable for the wrong reasons.

So here are my top five ‘turkeys’ of 2011. In brief.

Top of the list is the Marrinsky Opera production of Die Frau ohne Schatten as part of the Edinburgh Festival. Jonathan Kent’s production had some moments of intelligence but the whole thing was completely destroyed by what can only be described – bar Nikolai Putilin’s Barak – as very poor singing indeed. And Valery Gergiev’s conducting was nothing short of disappointing. I am still waiting for Mr Gergiev to send me a refund.

Next Maazel’s performance of Mahler’s Eighth symphony, which drew his cycle of the symphonies to an end. His meandering approach made for a lacklustre evening that couldn’t even be salvaged by a strong line up of singers. Indeed, with Maazel intent it seemed on working again the soloists, only Sarah Connolly acquitted herself with any success.

My final three choices all hail from my trips this year to the US – to New York and San Francisco. First, a shoddy performance of Il Trovatore at the Met where it seemed that Peter Gelb had made the decision to attract an audience with casting that couldn’t deliver for box office receipts. I don’t think I will ever want to risk seeing or hearing Dolora Zajick on stage again.

Next – and perhaps surprisingly – I have selected the San Francisco Ring cycle. It goes without saying that Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde was absolutely magnificent and for her alone it was worth the journey. In the singing stakes she was joined by Ronnita Miller as both Erda and Norn and a promising Siegmund by Brandon Jovanovich. However the remaining singers were generally not up to it and Donald Runnicles was completely uninspiring in the pit, generating mediocre and bland playing from the orchestra. And yet the most frustrating element was Francesca Zambello’s often lazy, ill-thought through direction. Promising to deal with the ‘real issues’ facing the US, instead she produced a sugar-coated production clearly more suited to placating San Francisco’s rich donors than forcing them to confront reality.

And finally, Robert LePage’s Die Walküre. Again this was not about the singing which was on the whole, superlative. While Deborah Voigt might not be the best Brunnhilde, she delivered a great performance as did Terfel, Westbroek and – on the whole – Kaufmann. And special mention to the incredibly human portrayal of Fricka by Stephanie Blythe. Less a goddess bent on revenge than a wife trying to save a marriage. But the staging, I felt, hindered the singers and became the main attraction, adding nothing to the narrative or underlying messages of Wagner’s opus, but rather merely a backdrop for some rather ineffective and distracting special effects.

So what of 2012? Well looking at my bookings so far, or which I have few, it seems to be a year of Tristan und Isolde. I am seeing it twice in Berlin, including a concert performance with Nina Stemme under Janowski as part of his plans to record all of Wagner’s operas. I am also off to the Millennium Centre to see Welsh National Opera’s production as well. Later in the year I have Opera North’s production of Die Walküre to look forward to as well as their new production of Giulio Cesare.

Other plans include hopefully Hamburg Opera’s Ring Cycle, Renée Fleming in Arabella in Paris and a trip to Leipzig for the GewandhausOrchester.

No plans for anything at English National Opera just yet. I was tempted by Der Rosenkavalier but I have seen the production and while I love the opera I don’t think it warrants a return.

And Covent Garden? Not their Ring Cycle. Once was enough. Perhaps Don Giovanni as I haven’t seen a production of it in a while.

And next year I intend to listen to one completely new piece of music at least every fortnight. So suggestions are most welcome.

So a merry Christmas to one and all and here is to an exciting, enjoyable and thought provoking 2012.

Time Stood Still.

In Classical Music, Review, Richard Strauss on December 16, 2011 at 11:06 am

Review – Renée Fleming, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach

Renée Fleming is one of today’s leading interpreters of Richard Strauss – if not the leading exponent of his music. Of course I may be biased as she is one of the few sopranos that I will readily travel abroad to see in performance, but there is no denying that her interpretations of some of his greatest characters are second-to-none. Here I refer to her Marshallin that I have seen more than once and her Countess in Capriccio for example.

Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder are at the pinnacle of any soprano’s repertory and Ms Fleming herself has recorded them twice superlatively, first in 1996 with Christoph Eschenbach and then again in 2006 with Christian Thielemann.

There is no denying that these four songs are a perfect match for Ms Fleming’s incredible voice and innate sense of musicianship. Over the years she has a developed the closest performance relationship with each of the individual songs as well as the set as a whole.

And nothing was clearer than in her performance of these songs at the Royal Festival Hall conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. There was almost a sense of reunion considering that Eschenbach also conducted Ms Fleming on her Strauss Heroines disc – another perfect recital.

However, before Ms Fleming took to the stage, the concert started with the overture to Wagner’s Tannhauser. Eschenbach is a thoughtful conductor and clearly is a ‘devil-in-the-detail’ man. He drew an almost ‘Germanic’ sound from the orchestra as the opening bars unfolded, the woodwind beautiful pointed and the cellos were breathtaking in the richness of their opening entry. The ensuing allegro, taken at a speed more resolute than Bacchanalian was, nonetheless, a pretty thrilling experience with conductor pulling out orchestra detail that is often missed. Brass were suitably weighty but never threatened to drown out their colleagues.

However nothing could have prepared me – or the audience – for what came next. I admit that I had listened to Ms Fleming and Eschenbach’s 1996 recording of the Strauss earlier in the day, and was reminded of the slower than expected tempi adopted. Yet their performance hadn’t suffered any for those slower speeds and gave Ms Fleming the opportunity to dwell lovingly on Strauss’ vocal line, creating a particular intensity

At the Royal Festival Hall, Fruhling opened at a slightly faster pace than in their recording but Eschenbach highlighted the exquisite orchestral detail that is so often missing in other performances. Ms Fleming’s burnished and bronzed tone sailed through in the vocal line, rising effortlessly above the orchestra, and diction perfect. Her entry at Du kennst mich wieder was a wonderful lesson in control.

From September and the subsequent songs however, Eschenbach slowed the tempi down considerably – perhaps even slower than their original recording. The effect was amazing. It concentrated the attention of the audience completely. Indeed, such was there concentration that I almost felt that many didn’t even breathe during the songs themselves which would have accounted for an almost excessive barrage of coughing in between.

The slow tempi proved no obstacle for Ms Fleming. Indeed for her it seemed an opportunity to revel in, and almost caress, Strauss’ expansive vocal lines and pay particular attention to the text, investing each individual word with significance. In complete control of her voice, she coloured individual phrases, displayed great dynamic control.

In some way, Ms Fleming and Eschenbach created an incredibly intimate performance, almost as if she wasn’t singing to the audience as a whole but to each and everyone one personally.

In Beim Schlafengehen, never have I heard the orchestral texture at Hände laβt von allem Tun drive home the literal sense of the words as Eschenbach eased back even more on the tempo momentarily. Additionally I would more normally want a greater sense of crescendo at Und die Seele unbewatcht, yet the sense of intimacy already created by soprano and orchestra made the restraint shown all the more thrilling. As she drew the song to its final close, she once again displayed absolute control of the vocal line, making each closing phrase an expansive breath. Mesmerising.

Despite a slightly muffled start to Im Abendrot, the final song was truly valedictorian as the soprano placed each word carefully before the audience, wrapped as ever in her wonderfully rich tone. As in the earlier three songs, Eschenbach never permitted the orchestra to play over the voice, again adding to that sense of real intimacy. The flute birdsong, often played intrusively against the soprano, was delicately placed and played throughout.

And indeed as Ms Fleming moved towards the final line of the poem Eschenbach pushed the tempo even slower. Suddenly time seemed to literally stop as she intoned Ist dies etwa der Tod?. Indeed it felt as if Eschenbach and Fleming were literally leading us through the final moments of the narrator, his/her heartbeat gradually slowing from the opening bars of Fruhling as death approached.

As her final note died away, Eschenbach led the orchestra to the final bars and let the sound die away naturally. Indeed while the London Philharmonic seemed to struggle in following Eschenbach on occasion in the songs, the rapt ending they delivered more than made up for any previous inconsistency.

Renée Fleming and Christoph Eschenbach delivered a mesmerising performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder. Clearly they share a longstanding and deeply felt relationship with the songs over many years. As I have said in a previous post, there seem to be two camps when considering performances of these songs – the ‘grand gesture’ versus the more intimate performance. This was clearly in the second category Personally, the focus and concentration, combined with a real sense of musicianship and involvement in the songs took the whole experience to a deeper level.

Ms Fleming returned to the stage – to rapturous applause – for a single encore – Strauss’ Waldseligkeit. This is a darkly-hued work, emerging from an orchestral denseness that was perfectly captured by Eschenbach and the orchestra. Ms Fleming brightly rose above the orchestra, negotiating the awkward – and unexpected – harmonic shifts with ease and grace and once again demonstrating her Straussian credentials.

In the second half Eschenbach led the London Philharmonic through Beethoven’s Seventh symphony. I say ‘led’ as, still deeply in awe of Chailly’s Beethoven with the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig, while the symphony under Eschenbach was well played, it was the notes that were well played rather than interpreted. However it was still a credible performance and brought the evening to a strong and enjoyable end.

Yet the evening belong – inevitably – to Renée Fleming and her performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder. Indeed I always judge a good evening by my choice of music as I head home. If the concert is anything but excellent, chances are that I will select something different. If the performance was exceptional then I am drawn to listen to the same piece.

On this occasion? Ms Fleming’s 1996 recording of the View Letzte Lieder conducted by Maestro Eschenbach.

Bliss.

Related Blogs:
1. Follow The Lieder – Richard Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder

When Less Can Be More.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Gauvin, Handel, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Review on December 11, 2011 at 10:34 am

Review – Streams of Pleasure.
Karina Gauvin/Marie Nicole Lemieux/Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis.

Here’s a conundrum. When can an exceptional recital disc be marred by trying to cram too much into it?

For me this seems the case with this recital of arias and duets from Handel’s oratorios performed by Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux.

Having seen both of them in an outstanding concert performance of Alcina (alongside an incredibly heroic Joyce DiDonato) with Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis, it seemed only a matter of time before the two joined forces for a recital disc under Curtis’ direction.

While their decision to focus on Handel’s magnificent oratorios initially struck me as slightly unusual– and understandably they avoid any inclusions from The Messiah – this is in fact a superlative disc. Let’s be clear, they face inevitable comparison from Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Robin Blaze and their own oratorio disc released some years ago. Truth be told that remains a favourite recital disc of mine – Sampson’s wonderfully bright soprano coupled with Blaze’s clarion-like countertenor produces wonderfully intuitive music making. Whether by deliberate intention or accidental choice of repertoire, the Gauvin/Lemieux recital includes both duets and solo arias with few duplicate selections.

However what defines this new disc is a real sensuality in the performances as opposed to the almost chaste performances of the Sampson/Blaze recital disc. Don’t get me wrong, theirs are beautiful and often breathtaking performances, but the emotional reaction for me comes from the purity of their voices rather than any sense of emotion.

At fifteen tracks this new disc seems incredibly generous, so I was a little surprised to be left with a sense that a shorter selection would have made for a more enjoyable experience.

Without a doubt it is the duets that stand out appropriately so as it is the contrast of the vocal light and shade of Gauvin and Lemieux that lends this recital disc that aura of sensuality. The arias – with a few exceptions – do not match the emotional intensity of the duets and personally, ultimately seem to detract from the overall experience.

The disc opens with Destructive War, Thy Name Is Known from Belshazzar and Lemieux is in fine fettle, throwing out the coloratura with ease and supported by jaunty playing from the ensemble. However, it’s not the strongest opening argument for the disc which is why it seems a daring choice for the second track to be what must count as one of the finest duets, from either oratorio or opera, that Handel ever wrote – the heart-wrenching To Thee, Thou Glorious Son of Worth, from the second act of Theodora. Again a comparison unconsciously comes to kind – that of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and David Daniels in Peter Sellar’s unforgettable staging of the oratorio at Glyndebourne. Perhaps one of the most original stagings of Handel and fortunately – not only for Hunt-Lieberson’s unforgettable performance but also Sellars’ intelligent production and direction – caught for posterity on DVD. In comparison to the Sampson/ Blaze performance, Curtis chooses a slightly faster tempo but none of the beauty of the vocal writing or the tragedy of the duet is lost. And it is here that that feeling of sensuality comes to the fore, perhaps its the plangent bassoon, so clearly heard in the opening ritornello, that sets the mood which is underlined by how beautifully the voices of Gauvin and Lemieux intertwine and weave against each other. However Curtis does not allow the singers too much indulgence, maintaining a rhythmic alertness throughout – just listen to the precise delivery of the rhythmic line in the second section. Another wonderful touch happens with the return to the first section. As I’ve mentioned previously – and Curtis is somewhat guilty of this in the recording of Alcina – there can be a tendency to over-ornament da capo sections. Fortunately this is not the case here. Another nice touch is how in the da capo of this particular duet it is Lemieux who leads, ornamenting her vocal line that is then mimicked by Gauvin. A beautiful touch – and psychological insight of the two characters perhaps? – which helps to make this one of the highlights of the entire disc and therefore surprising to hear it so early in to the recital.

The remaining duets are all as impeccably performed with a real sense of drama. For example even the short duet From This Dread Scene from Judas Maccabeus, with its crisp martial accompaniment, is memorable. Both soloists capture and clearly enjoy the inherent drama in this short yet incentive duet.

Theodora’s Streams of Pleasure Everflowing, from which the CD takes its title, reminded me how this oratorio contains some of Handel’s most inspired music in English. Lemieux opens in suitably reverent tone, her creamy contralto wrapping itself wonderfully around the words. When Gauvin joins her, the effect as their vocal lines entwine is magical. Just listen to the wonderful pointed phrasing at ‘All the blissful holy choir’, especially in their mini-cadenza, to feel how in tune these two performers really are.

Our Limpid Streams With Freedom Flow from Joshua is the least effective duet on the disc. While this is a clean cut performance, wonderfully sung, it strikes more as a track filler for what follows – a remarkable performance of Can I See My Infant Gor’d from Solomon. Without a doubt the bass line and hesitant strings above are meant to represent the anguished thoughts of the mother, and Gauvin’s performance captures the mood perfectly, particularly as her diction is absolutely clear. The closing bars from ‘Spare my child, take him all’ is incredibly poignant.

The final track on the disc, and a worthy counterpoint to the first duet is the magnificent duet Great Victor, At Your Feet I Bow from Belshazzar. This is a beautifully crafted piece with Handel so brilliantly capturing the opposing emotions of the two protagonists. Gauvin and Lemieux fit the roles perfectly, the chaste and mournful queen and the young, impetuous yet magnanimous Persian king, investing their words with a real sense of meaning and passion.

Of the remaining arias, Lemieux provides a heart-stopping performance of As With Rosy Steps The Morn. The hushed orchestral opening is matched by the contralto’s own entry. I was once again reminded of Hunt-Lieberson’s haunting performance of this aria. Lemieux’s interpretation, balancing the restraint of the opening section with the increased emotional temperature of the middle section, makes this performance more than a worthy successor.

Joseph And His Brethren is rarely performed which is a shame based on Gauvin’s performance of Prophetic Raptures Swell My Breast. Clearly this aria was written for a soloist with an incredibly technique – not less evidenced by the opportunity for a cadenza at the soprano’s first entry. Research informs me it was written for Elisabeth Duparc, also known as La Francesina and for whom Handel also wrote the title role in Semele.

At almost nine minutes, this is a substantial aria and Gauvin delivers an impeccable and cheerful performance, throwing off the countless runs effortlessly. The minor mode middle section is memorable for the sudden shift in mood, and at the da capo Ms Gauvin’s ornamentation stays clearly on the side of intelligent – and perfectly delivered – addition rather than being over-florid and undermining the music.

Gauvin’s performance of My Father! Ah! Methinks I See The Sword from Hercules is suitably grief-laden. Written for the character Iole, it is one of Handel’s finest arioso-cum-arias. Despite the less melancholy second section, Peaceful Rest With Verdant Shade, Handel maintains an overall air of tragedy til the end.

Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – as ever – provide keen and alert accompaniment throughout and as I have mentioned above, show incredible restraint is shown in terms of ornamentation of the reprised da capo sections. It has been suggested to me that this is due to the fact that the selections are from oratorios and a nod to the less secular content of the music itself. However I don’t buy into this considering that Baroque and early Classical composers as whole imported their operatic mannerisms wholesale into ecclesiastical music as a whole.

Without a doubt, Stream of Pleasure is a superlative disc. The quality of the performances cannot be faulted and both Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux do not disappoint in the high standard of their musicianship. However, when I return to this disc – which I will do often – I have a feeling that I will be programming my selection in advance to provide myself with a bespoke, shorter and ultimately more satisfying listen.

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