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Lieder Less

In Classical Music, Review on June 30, 2013 at 9:58 am

Review – Wagner 200 – Lieder by Wagner & His Contemporaries (Wagner200)

Janice Watson (Soprano)
Joseph Middleton (Piano)

It’s rare to hear anything but Wagner’s Wesendonck lieder in performance but as part of their bicentennial celebrations, Wagner 200 programmed an evening of his lesser known songs wrapped around songs by his contemporaries Liszt and Schumann.

My heart always sinks slightly when the performer talks during a concert. It works when there is a clear and well-prepared narrative reason but when it seems ad hoc – and at times not all that well informed – it simply jars.

But there was a kernel of an idea that should have been developed. A well-written narration could have taken the audience on a proper journey through Wagner’s lieder and their relationship not only to his operas but also in relation to his contemporaries and their influence on the composer.

Sadly what should have been an musically rewarding and interesting evening was ultimately marred by less than secure performances on the whole.

By the end of the evening I was not convinced that Janice Watson had been the most convincing interpreter of either the early Wagner songs not those of Schumann and Liszt. I left feeling that perhaps this was mainly because they didn’t elicit the kind of performances that come from them being part of a regular repertoire.

And in some ways the ambition of the repetoire was slightly beyond Ms Watson as well. There was a definite sense of strain not only in terms of the higher raches of her vocal range but also in sustaining the longer spans of the vocal line.

Wagner’s Adieux de Marie Stuart, so clearly inspired by French grand opera proved a particular challenge for Watson. Not only was her French – as in all the songs performed in this language – less than clear but she also clearly struggled with the music itself, chopping phrases, stretching for the top notes and hacking her way through the coloratura.

There lack of colour – the light and shade – in the singing was also more than once cruelly exposed. Affecting those it was, La tombe dit à la rose particularly laid bare these vocal frailties that followed through to the performances from Schumann’s Liederkreis.

Here particularly I felt that Ms Watson didn’t get beyond the notes. At I did wonder why perhaps Ms Watson hadn’t shared the stage with a male colleague. As she herself said, these songs are more often – and more effectively – sung by a male singer. Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden and Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen in particular lacked the necessary poignancy and depth.

Indeed perhaps the most convincing performance before the ‘main article’ was Melodram not as much an oddity as Ms Watson assumed considering melodramas had been popular in German since before the Benda brothers and continued after Wagner with works such as Strauss Enoch Arden

And so the programme ended with the Wesendonck Lieder. It was clear that here Ms Watson was on firmer ground and that this quintet of songs form a central part of her repertoire. To be sure her performance of these lieder – and her Liszt encore – contained some of the most compelling singing of the evening. Phrases were beautifully shaped for the most part and there was a greater sense of musicianship. But even then I felt – despite some compelling moments – that she rarely got beyond the notes being sung consistently. And again there were times when her voice clearly showed signs of strain and stress.

However it was the final song of the programme that proved the most magical. For from somewhere, Ms Watson pulled out what was needed for a serene performance of Träume.

Throughout Joseph Middleton was a sympathetic accompanist and in truth created a great deal more colour in his playing. He instinctively drew out the sonorities in the lieder – his playing in the Wesendonck lieder was exquisite.

Yet in the end however the recital personally left me more with a sense of what could have been rather than what was delivered. Wagner200 contains some great insight events and I did leave wondering why that hadn’t been applied here. An evening that took the audience through the lieder of Wagner and his contemporaries, perhaps using it as an opportunity to showcase some up and coming singers as well as shedding light on both the composers and their lieder, would have been a much more satisfying option.

And perhaps it would have left Janice Watson to simply focus on the performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. I think they would have benefited from greater attention.

Gergiev’s ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on June 24, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Review – Die Walküre (Act 1)

Siegmund – Jonas Kaufmann
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Hunding – Mikhail Petrenko

Mariinsky Orchestra

Valery Gergiev (Conductor)

Valery Gergiev. In all honesty I can say that he never disappoints in surprising me. When I listen to his recordings or attend a performance of his I am never quite sure what I am getting.

Take his Elektra for example with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in the title role alongside Angela Denoke, Dame Felicity Palmer, Matthias Goerne and the LSO. Say what you will about Charbonnet’s performance but personally I was completely taken by her total immersion in the character. And Gergiev marshalled his forces with absolute authority, extracting committed performances from each member of the cast and drawing playing from the orchestra that veered – exactly as Strauss wanted – from sheer brutality to wondrous luminosity under his baton.

On the other hand, his Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Edinburgh International Festival was, for me, a fiasco not only in terms of both the production and the quality and level of the musicianship across the board. Not only were the singers, drawn from the Mariinsky Opera, all ill suited to their roles, but Gergiev’s own sense of commitment was lacklustre and distracted.

So when I read that Gergiev was embarking on his first recording of the Ring cycle with Die Walküre, I was initially filled with trepidation.

But let’s face it, if there was an equivalent of a Fantasy Football League for opera – and especially Wagner – lovers, then this cast would the dream team. All credit to Gergiev or the people who work behind the scenes that the assembled cast includeS Jonas Kaufmann, Nina Stemme, Anja Kampe, Mikhail Petrenko and Ekaterina Gubanova.

I have been lucky enough to see both Kaufmann and Stemme perform their roles live either on stage or via live broadcast. Kaufmann in his debut as Siegmund at the Met, and Stemme live in San Francisco Opera’s Ring cycle and via broadcast in Krigenberg’s Götterdämmerung.

So to say that my expectations were high is an understatement and on this occasion Gergiev has not only surprised but also surpassed my expectations.

This review has been a long time coming because I have listened to the recording all the way through as well as act-by-act countless times. And – unusually for me – it is act by act that I plan to approach this review.

This is not a recording to be skimmed over and overall, repeated listening has convinced me that it not only stands comparison with some of the most memorable recordings but also in reality, surpasses some of them.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that Gergiev has delivered a traditional performance in the best sense. No gimmicks. No fanciful notions or radical re-interpretations. He conducts what’s on the page.

And it is music making of almost the highest standard.

It opens with some beautifully paced and articulate playing in the strings, with just the right hint of menace in brass and winds. And Gergiev handles the dynamics building into the first timpani roll and the subsequent decrescendo masterfully without once dropping the momentum.

And the detail and attention in the phrases leading to Kaufmann’s first entry – you can almost feel his exhaustion in the way Gergiev directs the orchestra – is telling of the whole recording. Each phrase is not only articulate but due care has been given to how they play in the overall fabric of the music.

I don’t intend to go through the recording phrase by phrase or indeed bar by bar but there are some telling moments when it is clear not only that a great deal of love and attention has been lavished on this performance but that Gergiev gives Wagner’s music time to breath.

For example, take the very first exchanges between Siegmund and Sieglinde – not only in the careful and very deliberate molding of Kaufmann and Kampe’s vocal lines but also the carefully judged and beautifully played cello solo.

Or when Siegmund relates his tale of woe to Hunding, Gergiev maintains the taut momentum and doesn’t allow the brass to become too intrusive but generates a real sense of menace through their clear and rhythmically articulated playing.

Siegfried’s subsequent monologue is beautifully delivered. More so that on Kaufmann’s recent recital disc in that Gergiev takes the vocal line beyond the cries of Wälse. They aren’t the more normal ‘final destination’ in the monologue but the momentum generated carries the music through to the next section where singer and conductor balance the lyricism of the vocal line without sacrificing the rhythmic muscularity in the orchestra.

Indeed Gergiev draws some finely attuned playing from the Mariinsky Orchestra, particularly from the reappearance of Sieglinde and into their subsequent ‘love’ scene.

Here there is a sensuality that can often be missing from both from recordings and performances. Sieglinde’s rapture is almost tangible and the singers work together seamlessly in terms of both dramatic impetus and emotional tension.

Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond is most tenderly sung without any loss of focus and as it literally melted into Du bist der Lenz it struck me at how slowly Gergiev seemed to be taking the entire section – giving the music and the words time to breath and fold out.

Kampe, Kaufmann and Gergiev continue to spin the music out, ratcheting up the tension in the both singers and the orchestra almost note by note as first Siegfried’s name is revealed and then Northung itself and then its an almost sexual rush to the closing bars.

Needless to say the three singers – Kampe, Kaufmann and the Hunding of Mikhail Petrenko are magnificent. Vocally there are all on top form and I would be incredibly surprised if this recording was literally a case of them turning up without some time having been spent on rehearsal and coaching. There is an attention to detail, not only in the delivery of the words but, as I have mentioned, also in nuancing of phrasing that makes this recording stand out.

There is a depth and maturity to Kaufmann’s performance as Siegmund that I did not hear at the Met. Of course a lot of this will be to do with this being a studio recording but it is also in no small part to the attention to detail and surely working with Gergiev himself. And there is no hint of strain that seemed to occasionally surface in his recent recital disc. Similarly Petrenko is no mere cipher. His dark, brooding base is full of menace without ever snatching at the notes being sung. And Kampe, who can admittedly sometimes be a little hit and miss, evolves from the downtrodden wife to exultant lover with such vocal and dramatic authority and her soprano is sonorous and even throughout its range.

Indeed so outstanding is this first act in fact, that it’s almost a shame to move on to the Act Two.

Aria For … Thursday – El bajel que no recela

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera on June 20, 2013 at 9:33 am

It was in a dusty CD shop tucked behind the Ramblas that I first discovered Nebra and Maria Bayo.

José de Nebra – who lived in the 1760s – is kind of a big deal in Spain. He is seen as the ‘father’ of Zarzuela, and this aria from a dedicated recital disc by Ms Bayo and original instrument ensemble Al Ayre Español – who champion his music – reveals a composer who shouldn’t be overlooked, and not only if you like early Eighteenth century opera.

If my Spanish is up to scratch, El bajel que no recela – from Vendado es amor, no es ciego – with its preceding accompagnato is very clearly a simile aria in the best Metastasian tradition.

This beautifully crafted aria shows what an accomplished composer Nebra was. The expansive introduction with its surging strings and colourful horn writing leads into an aria that stands comparison with any written at the time by those composers being increasingly performed today. Take for example Joyce DiDonato’s excellent Drama Queens recital disc. Yet Nebra lifts it further beyond just being a run-of-the-mill aria with an attention to little details like the delicate scoring for oboe.

And just like Nebra himself, Maria Bayo was a find in that dusty shop all those years ago. She has a finely balanced and clean soprano. In this aria she skilfully negotiates the wide leaps and occasional coloratura with ease while shading the vocal line subtly in the middle section. And in the returning da capo, her ornamentation is both skilful and tasteful.

In fact this disc led me to hunt out all her recordings and I am surprised that we don’t see more of her here in the UK.

This aria brings the entire album back into mind. Somewhere on the disc is an aria with castanets.

Now to hunt it out.

Cardiff & the BBC’s continued cultural deficit

In BBC, Classical Music, Review on June 19, 2013 at 10:44 am

Cardiff Singer of the World should be one of the highlights of the BBC’s calendar in terms of the arts. For a whole week all attention is focused on the city as a panel of judges listen to performance after performance to find singers that will go on to fulfil their dreams of a career as an professional singer.

I am envious of those who can make it to Cardiff even once this week and sit in St David’s Hall. Unlike them, the majority of us must rely on the BBC.

So am I the only one who feels cheated by the BBC?

First and foremost Cardiff Singer of the World is relegated in its entirety to BBC Four and Radio 3. Like the Proms it has been exiled to that distant cultural television outpost by the BBC’s top brass.

No wonder Richard Klein has jumped ship.

Instead the mainstream audience are offered a thirty-minute programme on BBC Two every night. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it is hosted by two complete and total incompetents – Connie Fisher and Tim Rhys Evans. Based on the first half hour it seems that their joint knowledge of singing is totally dependent on whatever some researcher has written on the autocue.

Their only qualification seems to be that they are Welsh. On that premise we should expect that the BBC’s history programmes be presented only by those actually related to the subjects of the documentaries; nature programmes by Doctor Doolittle and news by real journalists and not news ‘readers’.

The nadir of the first programme was when Connie Fisher – at a loss for words in the face of the real talent of Katherine Broderick – had to resort to speaking about her dress. I don’t deny that most of us may mention on occasion a singer’s outfit but it was clear that Ms Fisher’s knowledge didn’t extend any further as the matter was compounded when the autocue clearly failed and she made a hash of filling the void by referring to Rhys Evans’ knighthood.

She couldn’t even get the honour correct.

And their guests were a similar reflection of the total lack of regard that the BBC has for arts programming. Alongside the very excellent Rosemary Joshua, who seemed completely nonplussed by the stupidity around her, the BBC wheeled out that vocal insurance salesman Wynne Evans. To hear him speak with his faux authority on the quality of the singers was ‘comparable’ to the presenters’ own ignorance and lack of insight.

Could the BBC not find one person – in Wales let alone the entire UK – who could speak and host even half an hour on BBC Two with real authority? Why not Petroc Trelawney who is hosting the BBC Four show? Why not another Radio 3 presenter?

Clearly Ms Hadlow, the hapless and hopeless controller of BBC Two still thinks that her audience like being treated as if they are idiots. Her approach to arts programming – as witnessed by Maestro at the Opera – is akin to restoring a painting with crayons – crass and offensive.

From what I hear ‘Call Me Tony’ Hall is making arts a priority. This is either a knee-jerk reaction to recent criticisms from the likes of Brian Sewell or a realisation that without some limp gesture in this area, its charter renewal will be bloody.

But what I fear is that this ‘commitment’ is pure spin. The BBC is currently working on the premise of telling people what they think they want to hear and covering everything they do with a thin veneer of make-believe. They are operating on the belief that saying something – anything – once is enough. Delivering doesn’t matter.

I am sure Tony Hall will be at the final at the end of the week. I am sure that the cameras will pan to him sitting in the audience more than once. I am sure that will be spun into his ‘personal’ commitment to the arts.

But being seen to do something simply isn’t enough. The BBC seems quite content to wantonly fritter millions of pounds on cheap and failing entertainment shows, digital ideas that don’t deliver and ‘hush money’ but seem incapable of treating their audience with even a modicum of respect.

Perhaps Cardiff Singer Of The World should shop around for a more committed broadcaster for its next competition in 2015?

Like the rest of us, it surely can’t just hope things will get better at Auntie.

Aria for … Thursday – Marie Theres! … Hab’ mir’s gelobt

In Aria For ..., Opera, Richard Strauss on June 13, 2013 at 10:41 am

Belatedly, my own celebration of Richard Strauss’ birthday (June 11 1864).

A deliberate but obvious choice.

The trio from Der Rosenkavalier.

I think it is the most beautiful moment in all of Strauss’ music. While I admit to bias as it is my favourite of all his operas, I also seem to remember reading that it was sung at his funeral at his request.

And here, sung by Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Barbara Bonney, it is perfection.

The overlapping counterpoint of the three voices after the Marschallin’s initial opening phrase – itself so full of regret – builds inexorably towards what can only be described as a most amazing wall of sound before it recedes for the duet for Octavian and Sophie.

It’s so tempting just to sit back and just wallow in the glorious music that Strauss wrote for this trio. But while the music is sublime it always raises in my mind the ‘what if’?

With its resplendent horn scoring as the voices soar higher and higher, it seems the older aristocrat seemingly accepts her fate with ‘…als wie halt Manner das Gliicklichsein verstehen. In Gottes Namen’.

But does she? After many years and many, many performances I have come to the conclusion that – for me – the entire opera hinges on two words.

Just two words.

After the duet between the two young lovers the Marschallin returns with Faninal. As they spy Octavian and Sophie he comments ‘Sind halt aso, die jungen Leut’!’. To which Princess Marie Therese von Werdenberg replies ‘Ja, ja’.

How those words are delivered, almost spoken, is critical. They define the Marschallin herself.

This might seem like a gross over simplification and don’t get me wrong, Der Rosenkavalier is the most magnificent opera in every sense of the word.

But for me throughout the opera it has been the Marschallin who has pulled the strings. Perhaps Octavian’s newfound love has always been on her terms from the start? She entered into the plot right at the beginning when she suggested Rofrano as the Rosenkavalier. It’s not too far a supposition to suggest that she would know of – if not met – Faninal. And therefore knows he was seeking a husband for his daughter.

And doesn’t the music of the returning duet hint at a less than happy ending for the couple with the almost bittersweet piquancy of the descending motif in the flutes?

Perhaps in Sophie the Marschallin sees her younger self? Perhaps she is simply replaying a scene that happened to her in her own youth?

History repeating itself.

And each and every time, it is at precisely at that moment that I hear myself catch my breath. Most productions play this trio very traditionally, rarely finding the balance between the young lovers and the actual closing moments of the opera.

But the production tat sticks most in my mind as it seemed to hint at that very point was at Cologne Opera. It was the production where Kiri Te Kanawa decided to perform on stage for the last time in this. As one of her signature roles it couldn’t be missed. The production itself was a mish-mash of ideas but at the then it wasn’t her page that returned to pick up the handerkerchief.

It was the Marshallin – rushing back to retrieve this token in an almost desperate manner as the music finished and the curtain fell.

I think Strauss and Hoffmansthal would have approved.

Aria for … Saturday – Nacht und Träume

In Aria For ..., Classical Music on June 8, 2013 at 5:52 pm

This piece I have not heard for a very long time. So long in fact that I had forgotten it as on my iPod.

But here wending my way home by train it seems to fit my mood.

This is not Schubert’s original lied by the orchestrated version by Max Reger, a lieder composer himself. Indeed composers as diverse as Britten, Brahms and even Webern orchestrated some of Franz’s songs as well. And this disc is well worth a listen.

It’s a gem of a song and Reger’s orchestration in no way undermines the beauty of Schubert’s original. In fact the subtlety of the orchestral – almost earthy – writing adds to the song’s beauty.

In some ways it is a song where nothing actually happens. The sustained vocal line drifts – like the subject matter – above the murmuring accompaniment.

But Schubert knew what he was doing. It is this very simplicity that makes this song so very effective. No note is wasted or extraneous to the mood he creates.

And here, Anne Sofie von Otter, with Abbado at the helm spins out the vocal line with great poise and beauty.

As I said, a real gem.

Spellbinding Commitment – A Tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on June 4, 2013 at 9:31 am

Review: Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers (The Barbican, Monday 3 June 2013)

Anna Stéphany (Mezzo-soprano)
Renata Pokupić (Mezzo-soprano)
Karine Deshayes (Mezzo-soprano)

The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment

William Christie (Director)

Alex Ross – in his article on Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – wrote that the mezzo was “the most remarkable” singer he had ever heard. I never saw Lorraine Hunt Lieberson live, only ever hearing her on CD and seeing her on DVD. But even then her amazing ability to communicate the meaning of both the music and the words – exactly the “pull-down-the-blinds, unplug- the-telephone, can’t-talk-right-now beautiful” feeling that Ross has about her disc of Handel arias – leaves me in awe.

Last night’s final installment of the OAE’s series Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers was a tribute to the singer. The series has been incredible strong in terms both of programming and the high standard of the performances. Here’s hoping that they revisit this kind of programming in future – perhaps a tribute to Faustina Bordoni or another Eighteenth Century singer?

Both William Christie and the Orchestra itself had performed with Hunt Lieberson in the wonderful Peter Sellars Theodora and their performance last night was never less than intensely personal.

In fact I don’t think I have ever heard the OAE sound better. They have always been on of my favourite ensembles. The joy and pleasure they communicate in all their performances is well nigh unique, but last night they surpassed event their own high standard to produce the sort of gutsy, rich and beautifully articulate playing that provided the foundation for a memorable evening.

And William Christie – in his funky red socks – directed with such passion. His attention to each and every phrase, the wonderfully balanced tempi, the dynamic range and the sonorities he drew from the orchestra were evident throughout.

Never has the overture to Giulio Cesare sounded so grand – so grand in fact that the audience had to be prompted to clap, almost as if mentally they were waiting for the complete opera to follow. And in Theodora, Christie created a real sense of threat and urgency that I had not heard in the piece before.

Indeed, where normally the orchestral selections are more often that not viewed as ‘fillers’ between arias by most concert programmer, here together with the two concerti grossi, they were equal to the vocal numbers.

The Concerto Grosso in b minor from Opus 6 is not that often performed. A shame as it is one of the most beautiful and individual of the twelve in the opus. The last in the set and in the unusual b minor key, it is a model-perfect example of the genre and it was played with such intensity. The allegro is for me – in many ways – the ultimate piece of Baroque concerti writing – just listen the passage coming out of the first circle of fifths and you will see what I mean. The elegant and expansive ‘Aria – Larghetto e piano’ was perfectly paced and the final gigue – with its fugue – was sharply etched.

And throughout Kati Debretzeni, Alison Bury and Jonathan Manson shone in the shear vivacity of their playing.

The second concerto grosso from the Opus Three set continued in the same vein. The elegance of the first movement – again with some incredible playing by Mesdames Debretzeni and Bury – was followed by a poignant slow movement. Unfortunately the programme didn’t list the name of the principal oboist who spun that most beautiful melody above the celli obbligato. And in the final movement Christie hinted at its more Galant style.

The arias were drawn from roles most closely associated with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – Theodora, Sesto and Ariodante – and last night three mezzo-sopranos took to the stage.

Stéphanie d’Oustrac was sadly indisposed but was replaced by Karine Deshayes who displayed formidable technique and a dark mezzo in the role of Sesto. A brisk L’angue offesa, with its lush string writing, was confidently delivered but it was in Svegliatevi nel core that Ms Deshayes really shone.

The arias from Theodora – possibly the role most associated with Ms Hunt Lieberson – were sung by Anna Stéphany. Perhaps because of this closer association, the commitment of Ms Stéphany – who has a burnished, bronzed mezzo that was perfectly suited to this music – was complete. Rarely has As with rosy steps the morn been sung with such utter conviction and poignancy and the hushed da capo – most simply ornamented – only heightened the emotional intensity of this aria even more. It was one of the highlights of the evening. And her heartfelt Lord, To Thee each night and day with its contrasting middle section was as memorable in its utter simplicity.

I saw Renata Pokupić only recently as Tirinto in Imeneo and while her voice may not always have carried over the orchestra then, in this concert she had no such trouble. For her were allocated arias at the other end of the Handelian emotional spectrum – from Hercules and Ariodante – and she sung them both with vigor and emotional intensity.

Where Shall I fly? is one of the great mad scenes. Ever. Christie kept a tight handle on the alternation of tempi and accompanied recitative and aria to great effect, giving Ms Pokupić the freedom to express the horror of Dejanira’s actions and allowing her to navigate the vocal gear changes with ease. And what a gown.

Yet Dopo Notte was the highlight of the evening. It’s sometimes easy to forget that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson balanced finely wrought arias of emotional white heat with the trickiest coloratura that Handel wrote. Listen to her performance of this aria under McGegan. On stage, a now trousered-up Ms Pokupić equally sang it with the bravado it demands, flinging out with the coloratura with an abandon that belied her incredible technique. It was for me the second highlight of the evening.

The encore was the Musette from the sixth concerto grosso from Opus 6. Although it seems impossible, from somewhere the orchestra pulled out their most sonorous and beautiful playing of the night.

In the programme Martin Kelly, viola player in the OAE and its Vice-Chairman wrote that anyone who had heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was “spellbound by her commitment” and that the concert was to pay tribute to “the memory of a wonderful artist, a musical heroine, in glorious music by a genius, Handel”.

By God they succeeded.

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