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Posts Tagged ‘Albert Dohmen’

Driven To Distraction

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on September 28, 2012 at 6:37 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Excerpts, Richard Strauss) & A Florentine Tragedy (Zemlinsky)

Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 26 September 2012

Heike Wessels – Bianca
Sergei Skorokhodov – Guido Bardi
Albert Dohmen – Simone

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor – Vladimir Jurowski

There is always something driven about Jurowski’s conducting and this performance of excerpts from Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten and The Florentine Tragedy by Alexander Zemlinsky was no different. And while overall the impact was often nothing less than grandly – at times almost distracting – loud, there were moments when I wished that the conductor would have allowed the music to breathe a little more and there had been more finesse.

Having thought that the Strauss would have included vocal excerpts I have to admit to just a little disappointment that the chunks of FroSch presented at the Royal Festival Hall were purely orchestral. Personally the excerpts did not work for me not because there was no singing but simply they didn’t hang well together. A fact that would not have been improved had there not been pauses between sections. I am pretty sure that there is an orchestral realisation of this opera as a complete work (I could be wrong) but for me the pauses simply exacerbated how disjointed it all felt.

But having said that orchestra’s playing was of a high standard. Jurowski coaxes incredible playing from the London Philharmonic and on the whole they produced a healthy sound. But there were moments where his focus on forward momentum was undermining. For example, the wonderfully expansive main theme was hampered by a less than expansive approach and that wonderful moment with the solo cello and lower strings in the Second Act lacked any sense of wonder or warmth for me. And while you couldn’t fault the pinpoint precision or rhythmic vitality that Jurowski imbued the excerpts with there was a general lack of lushness that is so needed in this of all Strauss’ music. Indeed by the end it felt not unlike an incomplete tone poem.

It’s worth noting however that Jurowski will conduct a new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten – an opera that I love – at the Met in 2013 and judging from this ‘highlights package’ it certainly holds promise.

The second half was given over to Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy and the performance was dominated by Albert Dohmen’s Simone. The concert programme made passing reference to similarities with Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier which while pertinent was a bit of a shame as it did spotlight that while Zemlinsky was an accomplished composer, he cannot stand comparison with Strauss himself. While the base musical vocabulary might be the same, in the hands of Richard Strauss it becomes something magical whereas in the mixing bowl of Zemlinsky it sounds more than a little, well, pedestrian. However there were some beautiful moments. For example how Zemlinsky underlines the passage when Simone condemns his wife to a life at the loom in the orchestra and the closing moments when Simone and Bianca are reunited – for how long you are left to wonder? – although the abrupt ending I think has more to do with the level of Zemlinsky’s talent than anything else. It was interesting however to hear how Zemlinsky also used a waltz theme in the Tragedy and Jurowski’s brutish, almost violent treatment of it.

As I said, Albert Dohmen dominated both the music as written by Zemlinsky himself and musically too. I last heard Dohmen in Berlin in a concert version of Tannhäuser under Janowski. At the time I noted some slight intonation problems but there were no such problems as Simone. Vocally secure and with clean diction perhaps the only thing missing was a sense of the sinister in his characterisation.

I admit that whenever I see a Russian singer listed my heart sinks a little. However I was pleasantly surprised by Sergei Skorokhodov’s performance. His tenor is relatively light in tone and colouring but he managed to rise above the orchestra when required and sang cleanly. Again there was a lack of characterisation but perhaps this is more to do with Zemlinsky’s music than anything else. I see that he has plans to sing Bacchus in Ariadne at Glyndebourne and Froh in Munich, both of which would be interesting to see.

It’s a shame that Zemlinsky didn’t afford Bianca a greater role so that we could hear more of Heike Wessels. Hers was a rich and vibrant mezzo that not only perfectly suited the vocal line but she did make her character less of a cipher than her colleagues on the stage. Again I see that she is singing Waltraute under Janowski in Berlin next year and perhaps a trip to Mannheim is worth considering to see her either as Eboli or Kundry as listed in her biography.

Again the orchestral playing was exemplary and strangely Jurowski seemed to focus more on the detail in Zemlinsky’s score than he did in the Strauss in the first half. Perhaps an unconscious investment to ensure that Zemlinsky’s music wasn’t in too sharp a negative relief to FroSch? But it was in the Zemlinsky that Jurowski’s norm to drive the music forward paid off as it careened to its inevitable ending yet sadly abrupt ending.

Overall an enjoyable evening but Jurowski’s over-driven reading of the pieces did leave me wanting for greater lyricism.

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Wolfram Alpha – A Lesson In Perfection

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on May 6, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Review – Tannhäuser (Wagnerzyklus, Berlin. Saturday 5 May 2012)

Tannhäuser – Robert Dean-Smith
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christian Gerhaher
Elizabeth – Nina Stemme
Venus – Marina Prudenskaja
Landgraf Hermann von Thüringen – Albert Dohmen
Walter von der Vogelweide – Peter Sonn
Biterolf – Wilhem Schwinghammer
Heinrich vin Schreiber – Michael McCown
Reinmar von Zweter – Martin Snell
Ein Junger Hirte – Bianca Reim
Edelknabe – Sabine Puhlmann, Isabelle Voßkühler, Roksolana Chraniuk & Bettina Peck

Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Rundfunkchor Berlin

Chorus master – Nicolas Fink
Conductor – Marek Janowski

First of all plaudits to Marek Janowski for his bold plan to perform in concert and record for posterity all of Wagner’s main operas in and around the year of Wagner’s centenary. So far together with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and an assembly of accomplished singers he has performed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die Fliegende Holländer and Tristan und Isolde with the first two already pressed as CD sets.

At a time when classical record companies are on the whole veering away from recording complete operas, Janowski’s determination and artistic commitment makes a significant and important contribution.

One of the strengths of a concert performance of opera – you can argue – is that it removes the distraction of the staging. I am not in any way saying however that concert performances are in any way better – although judging from some of the stagings I have seen, a concert performances would have been preferable. But rather that they require a different kind of concentration and result in a different emotional response.

And of course, there are ‘straight’ concert performances as that of Tannhäuser in the Großer Saal of the Philharmonie Hall in Berlin, or there are semi-staged performances such as Opera North‘s brilliant Das Rheingold.

In the case of last night it was – bar a single but not overly distracting element – a memorable night with performances of the highest musical standard.

From the opening chorale of the overture it was clear that Janowski was going to take this Tannhäuser at a brisker pace than normal. Without sacrificing any clarity at all, the result was a compelling performance with Janowski demonstrating a clear and intelligent understanding of the overall structure of the opera as well as a deep sensitivity for the singers and the challenges that this opera throws at them.

The orchestral playing of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin was of the highest standard with a beautifully calibrated combination of warmth and bite in the strings with accurate and delicate woodwind and bright brass support. If I had one small gripe it was the affected performance of Thomas Herzog’s cor anglais playing. Being an oboist myself it all seemed a tad too ‘dramatic’. And it almost felt as if his bell-swinging was distracting the already nervous Ms Reim.

And similarly the Rundfunkchor Berlin was superb – resonant, clear and rising to the challenge of each climax while juxtaposing them with the most impressive hushed – almost reverent – singing when required. The chorale at the opening of the third act was particularly spine tingling. I’ve not heard choral singing of this standard apart from the LSO Chorus in the BBC Philharmonic’s Mahler in Bridgewater Hall for a very long time.

Nina Stemme was the original reason for purchasing a ticket for this concert. I had missed her in Tristan und Isolde with Janowski in March due to work commitments and having never seen her in this role this more than assuaged my irritation at missing her Isolde. I have seen her in the Loy production of Tristan at Covent Garden (where I was fortunately enough to be able to see all the action from my seat unlike others) as well as a magnificent Brunnhilde in her first complete Ring in San Francisco.

She is without doubt one of – if not the – leading Wagnerian soprano at the moment because, in short, hers was an incredible Elizabeth. There is definitely something of Birgit Nilsson in her incredibly rich, flexible and dynamic voice, even throughout its range and clarion-clear. Not only did she display great vitality and gusto in Dich, teure Halle, grüß ich wieder at the beginning of the second act – more than ably supported by the grand sweep of Janowski and the orchestra – but was able to also deliver the quieter, more introspective parts of the piece with great skill. Allmächt’ge Jungfrau, hör mein Flehen! was one of two highlights of the evening. As far from the majestic sweep of Elizabeth’s opening number, this is possibly – with its delicate woodwind scoring – Wagner’s most exposed writing for any of his female characters. It neither fazed nor intimidated Ms Stemme whose rapt performance had the whole audience completely motionless and mesmerised. And in the closing scenes of Act Two she more than ably – and with incredible musicianship and precision – held her own again all her male counterparts and the orchestra and chorus as well.

Venus is a thankless role. She’s not a nice woman and the music that Wagner wrote for her reflects this. As a result it requires a singer not only of great vocal strength but also intuition. The Venus of Marina Prudenskaja nearly had it all. She possesses a dark soprano that suited the role and if at times her intonation went astray in the search for dramatic realisation it was a small price to pay. I see that she will sing Waltraute in the Wagnerzyklus Götterdämmerung that I look forward too. And I wouldn’t mind seeing her in recital as well, particularly perhaps in Wagner’s own Wesendonck lieder.

Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram was a lesson in perfection. I remember seeing Covent Garden’s production in 2010 when Gerhaher was unavoidably delayed by snow. His role was more than competently picked up at the time by Daniel Grice and he arrived just in time for the final act.

Renowned as a lieder singer of great talent, it is clear that Gerhaher’s expertise in this genre pays huge dividends when it comes to his performance in opera. His baritone was rich and mellifluous, and as with Ms Stemme, even and resonant throughout his register. But it was his complete mastery of the text, colouring and inflecting his voice as the words demanded, that demonstrated his incredible talent and made his a Wolfram to remember.

On this occasion his O du mein holden Abendstern was incredible and similarly it topped off what was simply the strongest performance of the night. Pace Ms Stemme but I did notice on more than one occasion how even you were ensnared by his performance. His song in the first act was beautifully poised and underscored with seamless legato and wonderfully controlled dynamic range. Last night Gerhaher more than proved he was the ‘alpha’ male amongst all vying for Elizabeth’s hand. In the real world Tannhäuser wouldn’t have stood a chance.

And special mention too for Albert Dohmen’s Hermann von Thüringen, Peter Sonn’s Walter von der Vogelweide and Bianca Reim’s Junger Hirte. Again Dohmen’s Landgraf may have had moments of intonation trouble but it was an impressive portrayal and Sonn’s elegant tenor rang out above both his colleagues and the orchestra. I see he sang David in Janowski’s Die Meistersinger so I might just have to purchase it. Ms Reim had a very clear and appealing soprano but again – and clearly it was a case of nerves and perhaps the distraction of Herzog’s manic gesticulation of his cor anglais – she suffered some uncomfortable intonation problems. But nonetheless a good performance.

So finally to the hero – or anti-hero? – of the piece, Tannhäuser himself. Originally billed as Torsten Kerl it was in fact Robert Dean-Smith. Having seen Dean-Smith only recently as The Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten in Vienna I was surprised to be disappointed. His voice sounded strained and one dimensional for most of the opera and he seem to struggled with the legato – almost quasi-Italianate – lines that Wagner wrote for the character. It wasn’t an unpleasant performance but disappointingly it was a lacklustre one. Perhaps this was also because the incredible performance of Gerhaher through Dean-Smith’s inadequacy in this specific role into uncomfortable sharp relief. By the end of the evening his Tannhäuser was neither sexually charged nor heroic for me. A shame as it was the one thing that marred what was otherwise a memorable evening.

And the whole evening was driven forward by Janowski’s incredible performance on the podium. It was sheer brilliance. From the opening hushed chorale to the final chord his Tannhäuser was one of dramatic urgency without ever letting the detail of Wagner’s score or the beauty of the singing be lost. His understanding of Wagner and the highest standard of playing and singing he gets from his ensemble is awe-inspiring.

Quite rightly the Berlin audience went crazy after each act and at the end.

I haven’t listened to Janowski’s 1980 Ring cycle for a while now, but when I get back to London I will be making room on my iPod for that as well as those instalments of his Wagnerzyklus that are available on CD.

And I cannot wait for him to mount the podium for an all-new recording of Der Ring. While its a shame that Ms Stemme will not be involved to record her first Brunnhilde I am sure it will be as thrilling and memorable a set of concert performances as last night in Berlin.

Personally I cannot wait.

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