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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.

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.

Stop Everything. And Listen. Especially To The Timpanist.

In Beethoven, Classical Music, Review on October 22, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Review: Symphonies 1-9 & Overtures. Katerina Beranova, Lilli Paasikivi, Robert Dean Smith, Hanno Müller-Brachmann. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and Chorus & Ricardo Chailly.

It’s difficult not to turn to clichés regarding Chailly’s recording of Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. First of all, it’s simply remarkable that Chailly has not attempted them before – either individually or complete and I understand that the set is made up of live recordings made over the last three years.

Quite simply I have listened to almost nothing else since I downloaded the set from iTunes. And I have listened to them from beginning to end – from the first chord of the First Symphony in C Major to the closing and triumphant bars of the Choral – without interruption and without repeating or skipping a track.

Chailly’s isn’t the only set of complete Beethoven symphonies I own. Naturally I have Karajan’s recordings of 1963 and 1967 as well as Rattle’s with the Vienna Philharmonic, Zinman’s superlative set with the Tonhalle Orchestra and Hogwood’s performances on original instruments. And I also have individual performances by the likes of Fricsay – his recording of the Eroica is one of my all-time favourites – Furtwangler, Haitink, Barenboim etc. However without exception I have not listened to any of the sets from beginning to end in one sitting.

Not until now. Not until Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig of which he has been Kapellmeister since 2005.

From the very beginning it’s clear that Chailly and the players have an incredibly strong and special relationship. Not only does the orchestra play with absolute precision, but Chailly draws from them a wealth of orchestral colour, breadth of dynamic range – including real diminuendi not simply a sudden cut in the volume – and precise yet flexible ensemble playing that immediately sets these performances apart. There is an intensity, a muscularity and vigour in the playing throughout this recording that is not matched with such consistency elsewhere in my opinion.

This isn’t the place to go through each of the symphonies individually. The devil is in the detail and discovering that detail is part of the wonder.

But as I said, from the first chord of the opening Symphony in C Major Chailly’s approach has a real clarity. For Chailly, the pizzicato strings don’t merely pluck the note, they actively attack it. For conductor and orchestra this clearly isn’t just a symphonic successor to ‘Papa’ Haydn, but a completely new sound world.

My old university lecturer once told me that what Beethoven did in his symphonies was to liberate the wind and brass instruments and in some cases used them almost like a military band. And I think that this is something that is clearest in these performances. The woodwind and brass do seem more ‘liberated’ than in other sets. I don’t mean the solo elements stand out more – that is true of the other performances – but rather, and this is particularly true in the first five or so symphonies, they are not merely ‘adding padding’, but actively contributing to the overall collage of sound. Listen to the trumpets in the Second Symphony for example.

Chailly’s choice of tempi has been remarked on in some reviews. Granted his speeds are generally on the swift side – even in the slow movements – but because of the attention to detail and the virtuosity of the playing, the speeds never seem hurried but instead, seem to grow out of an increasing sense of momentum that drives the individual symphonies through their respective movements to the last dying sounds as he lowers his baton after each and every finale. And of course his generally faster tempi add to the sense of drama that is delivered in spades in each symphony and every overture.

Take Chailly’s interpretation of the ‘Eroica’ for example. From the opening chords it’s almost like the French are almost at the gates of Vienna as Chailly shines a light on the more martial aspects of the symphony. It’s literally more ‘cannon shot’ than simple chords at the beginning and this immediately creates a sense of urgency and tension. But despite the tempo, the music doesn’t sound rushed – no notes or phrases are snatched – and Chailly delivers each and every of Beethoven’s carefully marked sforzandi with great precision. And listen to how Chailly brings out the horn line in the fugal passage in the development section. Marvellous. And for Chailly, the dissonant trumpet that follows almost immediately is given equal weight without being given the undue prominence accorded it by other conductors. The second movement, Marcia funebre, is beautifully judged – Chailly clearly choosing a tempo that could literally be marched to. You can almost imagine the flag-draped coffin on the gun carriage and crowds of people looking on and in some ways reminded me of the wind symphonies and other music of French Revolutionary composer, Gossec. Perhaps for me the Scherzo that follows isn’t the Allegro Vivace that I would have liked but instead of speed Chailly points out the delicacy and humour of the writing. The final movement is simply one long whirlwind of fantastic music making.

And there is a real transparency too. Chailly skilfully ensures that all the orchestral detail and the inner parts are given equal weight. In the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony for example, Chailly weaves the wonderfully delicate counterpoint together without sacrificing any of the thematic material one over the other. And the first orchestral tutti is quite simply breathtaking before Chailly winds down the sound with incredible mastery into the second subject with no sense of the awkward ‘gear change’ that happens in some performances.

While the first eight symphonies are incredible in their own right, the crowning glory of the set is the Ninth – Choral – Symphony. From the opening bars, where Chailly allows the music to emerge almost from nothing the orchestra’s playing sweeps everything out of its path under Chailly’s relentless grip on the tempo and dynamics. The third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile, is a heart-stopping moment and Chailly draws even greater warmth from the strings and woodwind without ever becoming indulgent. The singers – Katerina Beranova, Lilli Paasikivi, Robert Dean Smith, Hanno Müller-Brachmann – and chorus are exemplary in the final movement and how delightful to hear Paasikivi again after seeing her as Fricka in Hamburg in April earlier this. Chailly magnificently marshals and drives the increased forces into the final section, drawing disciplined singing from everyone involved to bring the symphony and the set to a brilliant close.

The performances of the overtures included in the set are equally well performed, with Chailly according them their symphonic due. Pace for not writing more on them individually but they are brilliantly performed.

So what of the timpanist? It’s often difficult not to point out individual soloists in each of the sections of any orchestra but here especial credit and mention must go to the timpanist. If my research is correct it is either a gentleman by the name of Tom Greenleaves or Matthias Müller. The playing and timbre are exceptional – something I imagine is not often said of timpanists but it needs to be said here. And thrillingly he is giving a masterclass in percussion during the orchestra’s time at the Barbican.

And the entire set is wonderfully supported by the warm and generous acoustic in which it is recorded.

While I am fortunate to have tickets to see Chailly and The Gewandhausorchester perform the Third and Eighth symphonies in London very soon, I will be making it a priority to visit Leipzig as soon as to hear them on their home turf.

In the meantime, and regardless of how many different recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies you own, buy this set.

Lock the door. Turn off your phone. Make a pot of tea. And listen.

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