Posts Tagged ‘Anne Schwanewilms’

Ja, Ja.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on May 10, 2014 at 9:25 am

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Excerpts) & Mozart Symphony No. 38
(Barbican Hall, Thursday 8 May 2014)

Marschallin – Anne Schwanewilms
Octavian – Sarah Connolly
Sophie – Lucy Crowe

Additional singers – Gerard Schneider, Thomas Atkins, Johannes Kammler and David Shipley.

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Mark Elder (Conductor)

What a magnificent evening of performances that made me fall in love with Der Rosenkavalier all over again.

But before the sumptuous world of Richard Strauss, Elder and the orchestra gave us a taut yet beautifully shaped performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38. Within its three movement structure there are hints of Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro – a smart piece of programming alluding to love, intrigue and lust on which Strauss’ own opera set in roughly the same era is based.

If the orchestra played with grace and vitality in the first half, then in the second they launched into the introduction of Der Rosenkavalier with unabashed vigour and enthusiasm. There was no doubt in Elder’s mind what was going on in the Marschallin’s bedchamber as the curtain rises.

I don’t think I have heard the LSO sound – well – so European in some time. The string playing was warm and luscious, the winds luminous and the brass – and especially the horns – exultant.

They literally reveled in Strauss’ music. When accompanying the singers they were sensitive to the mood and the words but when needed the sound they produce was prodigious. The waltz interlude at the beginning of the Third Act extract, for example, was both vulgar yet triumphant.

And rising above Strauss’ opulent orchestration was a trio of singers who could not be bettered.

While it is hard to single them out individually, I must admit that Anne Schwanewilms established herself as the pre-eminent Strauss interpreter. I have long admired not only her concert and stage performances, but also her recordings and cannot fathom why she does not perform more often in the UK.

Our loss significantly.

As the Marschallin at the Barbican she was vocally formidable. But not only did she display a vocal authority – scaling down to the smallest yet still distinct softness as well as soar above the orchestra without a break in tone or vocal colour – but also a depth of understanding of how to communicate the Hoffmansthal’s words. Her crystal clear diction was coupled with an innate sense of the conversational nature of Strauss’ vocal line when needed – lingering on words that demonstrated an insight and level of musicianship that is hard to match today.

Da geht er hin was an incredible performance both in terms of her singing and her characterization. Her Marschallin was a woman of small, measured – almost calculated – gestures but they were gestures that spoke volumes. At Die Zeit im grunde, she literally bled her voice to a vocal pale that was chilling.

Sarah Connolly was her equal as the boisterous Octavian so acutely in lust – not love – with her. Connolly again reveled in Strauss music, effortlessly rising and falling with the vocal line, with a lustrous tone that sparkled.

And as Sophie, Lucy Crowe immediately captured the essence of the very short extract from the beginning of Act Two. A devilish part there was no hint of stress or strain as Strauss sent her into the vocal stratosphere.

That moment when Octavian and Sophie’s eyes meet over the rose was beautifully timed.

Also there was a real sense of luxury in having four male voices and again they all sang their small roles exuberantly.

But of course it was the trio that the audience was waiting for. And thankfully Elder and his performers gave us the necessary lead in into what must be Strauss’ most glorious pieces of music, and one of the most glorious scenes in opera.

That moment when the winds strike their chord and Octavian turns to Marie Theres’ was magical. And listening to Ms Schwanewilms unfurl that magnificent melody of resignation I would venture, broke a few hearts in the audience.

Definitely mine.

And as the three singers weaved around each other, Elder masterfully edged them closer and closer to that thrilling climax with the Marschallin’s In Gottes Namen leaping out clearly over the orchestra.

I’ve said before that for me the most critical words in this opera are the final words sung by the Marschallin.

And here, Anne Schwanewilms filled that single phrase– Ja, ja – with such emotion that in the final closing duet – with Strauss’ tangy harmonies in flutes and violins – Elder captured the sense of uncertainty of the young lovers future.

Indeed, it was an evening when the singers and the orchestra, marshaled by Elder, managed to create the same level of excitement and emotional weight as if we had watched the entire opera.

And I only wish we had.

But these extracts from Der Rosenkavalier will remain with the audience for a very long time.

And perhaps we shall see more of Anne Schwanewilms in the UK.


Women on the verge.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on February 2, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Review – Elektra (Semperoper, Dresden, Friday 31January 2014)

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis – Anne Schwanewilms
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – René Pape
Aegisth – Frank van Aken
Companion of Orest – Peter Lobert
The Maids – Constance Heller, Gala El Hadidi, Simone Schröder, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Nadja Mchantaf
The Overseer – Nadine Secunde
Young Servant – Simeon Esper
Old Servant – Peter Lobert

Director – Barbara Frey
Bühnenbild – Muriel Gerstner
Costumes – Bettina Walter
Lighting – Gérard Cleven
Dramaturgy – Micaela v. Marcard

Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden
Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden

Christian Thielemann (Conductor)

If the rest of Richard Strauss’ 150th anniversary maintains the standard of Semperoper’s Elektra, then 2014 will be more than a memorable year.

It will be a fitting homage.

The singing, the playing and – for me at least – the production came together almost perfectly.

In terms of the singing, if there was ever an opera equivalent of Fantasy Football League (please can someone invent it) then this cast was a ‘dream team’.

Is there a soprano on stage today who is a more convincing Elektra than Evelyn Herlitzius?

In compete command of her vocal technique, her rigorously disciplined instrument permitted her to take vocal risks that, combined with some finely tuned acting, made her characterisation so visceral. Yet at the same time she balanced it with an innate and musically intelligent sense of shade and colour. I don’t think I’ve heard the Recognition scene sung with such emotional and musical inteliigence, both Herlitzius and Pape completely committed to and immersed in that wonderful moment.

Therefore I find it incredible that we haven’t seen Ms Herlitzius in London. But then the same can be said of Ms Pieczonka in our capital and not forgetting that Anne Schwanewilms has only recently made her debut at the Met.

Such a towering performance from so physically slight a singer could not but cast a shadow on the other members of the cast.

But only slightly.

Anne Schwanewilms’ Chrysothemis contained all the trademark intelligence and eloquence that this soprano brings to Strauss. Her bright, piercing soprano for the most part sailed over the orchestra and as with her troubled sister, Schwanewilms is an instinctive actress. She portrayed both the often-missed vulnerability of this character as well as her exasperation and desperation. Her final return to the stage dressed as the never-to-bride, even at that moment conveying the forlorn hope that she might marry even after the double murder, and punctuated with the most heartrending calls for her brother will remain with me for a long time.

Who doesn’t admire and love Waltraud Maier both as singer and actress? Just as her Waltraute for Barenboim, Ms Meier’s Queen demonstrated that this soprano is a seasoned veteran who brings a real intellectual depth as well as formidable interpretive skills to any character she portrays.

Onto this Klytämnestra, Maier overlaid a real sense of fragility onto the more expected paranoia. Her scene with her daughter not only laid bare these feelings as well as her wariness and fear of Elektra, but also the unbreakable Mother-Daughter bond not often seen in productions. Just before the scene ended there was an unexpected moment of tenderness between the two that made Klytämnestra’s final exit, clearly accepting her fate as foreseen by her own daughter, all the more chilling especially as it was as if she was entering a tomb.

However at points it seemed as if Ms Maier was too immersed in the character. Her projection dimmed to too much of a whisper as if internalising only to herself the emotional journey the queen was going through.

It was also wonderful to hear René Pape in the role of Oreste. His dark timbre was perfect, suitably grave yet burnished and I have to admit in a production of generally small gestures his acting was powerful.

Where other productions of Elektra are often let down, the principals here were brilliantly supported by the rest of the ensemble. If I had to single out one other member of the cast then it would be the Fifth Maid of Nadja Mchantaf. Velvet-toned and even throughout her range she brought a real sense of dimension to this short-lived role and is definitely one to watch.

And in the pit, Christian Thielemann was magnificent, marshalling singers and orchestra with incredible authority and knowledge of the score. I personally think his affinities lie closer to Strauss than Wagner, and last night only confirmed that belief.

From the very first notes, he drew exemplary and confident playing from the orchestra. Where some conductors miss or submerge the detail in the mistaken belief that Elektra should simply assault the eardrums, Thielemann uncovered the lightness amidst the darkness and transparency within Strauss’ sometimes ‘over-orchestrated’ textures. And while he never let us forget that this is the composer’s most expressionist work, he celebrated the lyricism imbued both in the soaring melodies and motifs and similarly he was also not above judging when the orchestra – dominating the emotional mood with a motif or theme – rose over the singers.

More so than I’ve heard in previous productions of Elektra, Thielemann was not scared to allow the music to breathe, unfettering phrases and just as importantly seeking out the silences which are so essential in creating that sense of impending dread far more effectively than a hack and thrash battle through to the end.

It might not have been to everyone’s taste but I enjoyed the fresh perspective of Barbara Frey’s production, her first for Semperoper.

Let’s not forget that Elektra – both for Hofmannsthal and originally for Euripides – is ultimately a family tragedy. This was Frey’s focus but she also suggested new perspectives and interpretations.

For this director Klytämnestra may have wielded the axe, but all three women were complicit in Agamemnon’s death.

Elektra for example isn’t dishevelled and abandoned. Rather, in a dress more suited for an evening of revelry than the mourning weeds she more often dons in productions, she is no outcast.

Chrysothemis’ appearance from the very beginning not only reinforces her role as go-between but also voyeur but her final appearance in that extravagant wedding dress again hinted at a more secure position within the household.

And this was was a production of small gestures and actions. It was like watching a slow fuse burn and in some ways reminded me of Almodovar. Small gestures and tics – like Klytämnestra’s rubbing of her arm, Chryosthemis raising her arm in despair, the way the Maids hunched protectively together – replaced the histrionics.

And Frey had clearly spent time with the singers. As well as the Mother-Daughter relationship, Frey and the singers also re-examined other pivotal moments.

There was a surprising sexuality to Frey’s Elektra. Her flirting with Aegisth for example hinted at something darker in her personality. And as she tried to persuade her sister to commit the murder, in that moment as she caressed Chrysothemis, she morphed into lover and future husband. The look of subsequent horror on Chrysothemis’ face isn’t only the result of thoughts of matricide but also – perhaps – seeing a side of her sister she wished she hadn’t.

The aforementioned Recognition scene was built not only on the singing and orchestral playing under Thielemann, but also the direction on stage. This wasn’t an emotional roller coaster or brutal revelation that it sometimes is. After the initial shock Elektra and Orest rediscovered their childhood love. I, for one wasn’t jarred by the use of children as their younger selves and the way Herlitzius and Pape acted with one another – ending as it did with their foreheads press together as if accepting their own fates – was beautiful. Orest’s seeming reluctance to commit murder was similarly well observed and even Elektra’s final ‘dance’ was more in her own mind’s eye than for the audience.

And by keeping all the violence – including the brutal murder of the Fifth Maid – off the stage, Frey force the audience to focus on the main characters as well as the music and thereby distilling the emotions created even further.

Even the set was suggestive. The decorative balcony, the clothes of the main characters were reminiscent of the era of Strauss and Hofmannsthal themselves. Yet it was clearly a home in transition. The hole in the wall where Elektra concealed herself, the spare paneling against the wall and piled on the floor indicated to me the final stages of redecoration. it was as if they were trying remove any evidence of Agamemnon himself but ultimately had failed. For above their heads was the motto Justitia fundamentem regnorum – loosely translated as ‘Justice is the foundation of kingship’. An all too ominous aide memoire – none of them could neither escape the murder committed nor, with the accompanying lion’s head motif of the house of Atreus above it the spectre of Agamemnon himself.

And while the lighting was for the most part simple there was a single moment of breathtaking beauty – that moment when Orest first appears. Suddenly the house is dark except for a single beam of moonlight cascading into the house from one side which – for whatever reason – reminded me of the light in the Secessionsgebäude in Vienna.

Yet for all this, at no point did the production overpower the music making. Rather it added to the whole as an equal partner.

And it was this equilibrium between all the parts – singers, players, conductor and director – which made this Elektra so magnificent and memorable.

Kaiserin Conquers.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on November 11, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Metropolitan Opera, Thursday 7 November 2013)

Die Kaiserin/Empress – Anne Schwanewilms
Der Kaiser/Emperor – Torsten Kerl
Barak, the Dyer – Johan Reuter
The Dyer’s Wife – Christine Goerke
Die Amme/ Nurse – Ildikó Komlósi
The Messenger – Richard Paul Fink
The Falcon – Jennifer Check
The Hunchback – Allan Glassman
The One-Eyed – Daniel Sutin
The One-Armed – Nathan Stark
A Voice From Above – Maria Zifchak
Voice of the Young Man – Anthony Kalil
Watchmen – David Won, Jeongcheol Cha & Brandon Cedel
Servants – Haeran Hong, Disella Làrusdóttir & Edyta Kulczak
Voices of the Unborn – Jihee Kim, Ashley Emerson, Monica Yunus, Megan Marino, Renée Tatum & Danielle Talamantes
The Guardian of the Threshold – Andrey Nemzer

Director, Set, Costume & Lighting Design – Herbert Weinicke
Stage Director – J. Knighen Smit

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

Die Frau ohne Schatten seems to be emerging slowly from its own shadows.

This production – a decade after it first nodded at the Met – joins an increasing number that are being staged including Covent Garden’s production by Claus Guth that was first seen at La Scala last year.

On the whole the Met’s revival is incredibly strong both it terms of its musical and production values. The major roles were well cast and the requirement for Cecil B DeMille scale casting of smaller roles was similarly smartly done.

I am surprised that this was Anne Schwanewilms’ debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Considering she is one of the leading Strauss sopranos singing today I do wonder why she has not sung Ariadne, the Marschallin or the Countess at the Lincoln Centre.

However on the strength of her performance as the Kaiserin – the strongest of the evening – I hope that the Met will book Ms Schwanewilms more regularly in future. For it was, musically and dramatically, a performance of great intelligence and sensitivity. From her first appearance – which makes or breaks this role from the start with Vielleicht träum ich mich züruck – Anne Schwanewilms sang with impressive authority. She was vocally bright and agile, floating Strauss lines effortlessly and rising above the orchestra. And yet when needed, the soprano shaded and coloured her voice – no more so than when realizing that the Kaiser will turn to stone should she not obtain a shadow she chillingly sang Der Kaiser muß versteinen. Her dream sequence in the Second Act was both eloquent and dramatic but it was her performance in the final act that crowned her performance. As she confronted both her father Keikobad as well as her own burgeoning conscience as a woman, Schwanewilms truly showed what a magnificent singer-actress she truly is. The hairs on the back of my neck – and I have no doubt everyone else’s in the opera house – were standing on end by the time she summoned up the final courage to stand up to Keikobad (and for humanity) and defiantly proclaimed Ich will nicht.

It was an outstanding performance vocally matched by an incredibly strong dramatic performance. At the beginning Ms Schwanewilms literally glided across the stage almost Melisande-like in her movements. Even in the human world, she portrayed an almost dream-like persona in her movements and interaction with the other characters. But as the drama unfolded her attentions and reactions to Barak and his wife became more human in a way meaning that her final defiance of her father was dramatically more realistic.

As The Nurse – an almost impossible role in the wrong hands – Ildiko Komlósi was similarly magnificent. In possession of a rich and darkly hued mezzo soprano, Ms Komlósi more than negotiated the demanding role written by Strauss. As well as being able to cut through the orchestra and dominate the vocal ensemble when required, Ildoko Komlósi also masterfully shaded and textured her singing particularly when tempting the Dyer’s Wife. Again dramatically The Nurse was convincing as a character showing her disgust not only at the human life she had to endure to get her mistress a shadow but also towards the Kaiser.

As I have said before Strauss can be pretty thankless when writing for male voices and the roles in FroSch are now exception. But here Torster Kerl as the Kaiser and Johan Reuter as Barak excelled. Kerl – an excellent Tristan for Glyndebourne – sailed through Strauss’ music and over the orchestra effortlessly. Wenn das Herz aus Kristall was suitably beautiful above Strauss orchestration in its grace and vocal seamlessness.

And on the strength of his Barak in New York I am very much looking forward to Johan Reuter’s performance in the role at Covent Garden in 2014. Like the other main characters he was vocally and musically impressive. His performance as the first act closed was as heart-rending as his attempts to kill his wife at the end of the second act was frightening. And with Mir anvetraut in the Third Act, Kerl sealed the deal as an utterly compelling Barak.

I am currently nonplussed by Christine Goerke. I recently saw her Elektra at Covent Garden and – truth be told – was not as bowled over as others with her performance. As I said at the time she has the heft and volume but wasn’t always totally secure vocally. And it seemed the same with The Dyer’s Wife. In those moments when the focus was on her dramatically – as in the Second Act – her voice was forced, creating a distracting vibrato that undermined what was otherwise a strong and musically nuanced performance. And as with the rest of the cast her acting was incredibly strong. The love and care with which she attended the birdcage atop the fridge, and the underlying love she bore Barak juxtaposed with the frustration she felt with her life was tangible. But clearly the Met audience love her.

In the smaller roles Richard Paul Fink as The Messenger and the three Watchmen – David Won, Jeongcheol Cha & Brandon Cedel – particularly stood out for the strength of their performances.

In the pit, Jurowski drew superlative playing from the Met’s orchestra but I felt – as I did when he conducted Strauss in London – that he drove the music too hard and therefore missed those opportunities that Strauss wrote when the music should expand and glow. For example, the glorious theme in the First Act for the Kaiser had none of the sweep and grandeur it needed and that wonderful moment in the Second Act – the solo cello and lower strings so reminiscent of Strauss’ future Metamorphosen – was most perfunctory and cold in its delivery. He did seem to relax for the Third Act but a bit more ebb and flow would not go amiss.

Herbert Weinicke’s production was truthful in that – as per Hoffmannsthal’s original vision- it was a juxtaposition of exotic themes such as Arabian Nights and the bleaker human condition. And the machinery of the production, with its rising and falling sets was impressive and – compared to LePage’s ‘Monster’ – almost silent.

Yet Weinicke and Knighten Smit invested in detail. I have already mentioned the carefully characterization of the main players but it went further. The world of the Kaiser and Kaiserin displayed not wealth but an emptiness and a coldness that underlined the state of their relationship. Indeed the mirrored walls seemed to echo not only that coldness but to me the fact that every aspect of their life was in view. The Falcon – beautifully performed by Scott Webber – was directed to the music with great sensitivity. In the First Act for example, it seemed almost foetal in it’s encounter with the Kaiserin.

The world below similarly was cluttered with debris and some of it was emotional – the birdcage I have mentioned but also the partitions of the dwelling hinting at secrets between Barak and his Wife. And one thought crossed my mind as I watched her dealings with Barak’s brothers – did she not want children not so much for selfish reasons of a better life but perhaps because she saw in their disabilities her future children?

Die Frau ohne Schatten is not an easy listen but the Met’s production – with its strong ensemble cast and smart production – should not have to wait another decade to make it to the stage.

And similarly, I hope Ms Schwanewilms becomes a regular artist on that stage too.

2012: The Good. The Bad. The Stupid.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 4, 2013 at 8:58 am

2012 was meant to be about getting to Leipzig to hear the GewandhausOrchester and Riccardo Chailly. And about trying to listen to more new music, at least one new piece every fortnight.

Sadly, I can’t say that I achieved either.

But it has been a good year in terms of music in my life, a good year for the ‘bad’ music in my life and let’s face it, the classical music world wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for the occasional ‘stupid’ things as well.

But starting with the good. And in most cases the excellent.

Renée Fleming tops the list not only for the performances that I attended but for the CDs that have given me not only hours of pleasure but lifted my spirits on many an occasion.

Her disc of Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleaux is one that I appreciate more each and every time I listen to it. There is a depth and integrity to the performances that is perfectly matched by the more burnished – almost golden – tone of her voice. Of the recital, it is Messaien’s Prière Exaucée that I return to most often.

In terms of live performances, Ms Fleming has delivered three of my most memorable concerts of the year. In February she made her debut as Ariadne/Prima Donna at Baden-Baden, in an intelligent and beautifully nuanced production by Philippe Arlaud. She is today’s Strauss interpreter par excellence, and her Ariadne – warm, dignified and soulful – was truly remarkable. And she was supported by an incredibly strong cast, from The Composer of Sophie Koch and Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta to a particularly strong performance by Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus.

Similarly, her Arabella in Paris in June. While Philippe Jordan was not the most sympathetic conductor, and the set felt somewhat lost on the stage itself, Ms Fleming and Michael Volle in the lead roles were superb.

But most memorably and most recently was Ms Fleming’s performance at the Barbican. In a carefully constructed recital, she took the audience on the most magnificent journey through the closing years of the Habsburg empire to the dawn of fascism. From Mahler to Schoenberg, Ms Fleming once again demonstrated her musical and vocal prowess. And when, in her encores she glitched, she did so with great humour. As I said at the time I hope that in 2013 she will make a recording of this recital. It can only be brilliant.

Staying with Vienna, Robert Carsen’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Wien Staatsoper in March was a homage to the city itself. Compared to the two previous productions I had seen – in Copenhagen and Edinburgh – this was by far the more successful in interpreting the at times dense symbolism of the story. And Carsen was aided and abetted by an incredible cast, led by Adrienne Pieczonka and Evelyn Herlitzius as the Empress and Dyer’s Wife respectively and Robert Dean Smith as the Emperor. And in the pit, Franz Welster Möst drew superlative playing from the orchestra. It’s a shame that this production hasn’t been captured on DVD.

Soprano Sandrine Piau literally wowed the audience of Wigmore Hall with her Mozart recital in October. Combining Mozart’s arrangements of Handel arias with some of his own arias drawn from his youth Ms Piau, ably supported by the Orchestra of Classical Opera conducted by Ian Page gave a performance that was nothing short of brilliant. But to the delight of everyone who attended she saved the best til her final encore – an absolutely heart-rending performance of Verso gia l’alma col sangue from Handel’s Aci. Galatea e Polifemo. Brava.

And finally hats off to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for being – in short – the most cheerful, energetic and enthusiastic performers of 2012. Not only is their music making of the highest standard but they continue to raise the bar when it comes to reaching new audiences and the inventiveness of their programming. Their Nightshift series is brilliant and their most recent event, celebrating the music of Handel with brilliantly amusing anecdotes by John Butt demonstrates that they know how to make classical music seem alive and relevant to the audience. And their first two concerts in the series Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers with superlative performances by Anna Catarina Antonacci and Sarah Connolly bode well for the remaining concerts in 2013. Definitely performances to book if you haven’t done so already.

Other memorable performances were Janowski’s Tannhauser for Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram slightly pipping Nina Stemme’s Elizabeth and a live stream of the final installment of Kriegenberg’s Ring in Munich.

Sadly 2012 wasn’t without its turkeys. Top of the list was ENO’s misjudged choice of director for their new production of Julius Caesar. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s vision was nothing short of facile and shameful as it completely undermined the strong performances overall of the cast. In a similar vein, Nigel Lowery’s production of Il Trionfo di Clelia wasn’t only let down by the pretension and ridiculousness of his ideas but by the ragged, almost poorly rehearsed playing of the City of London Sinfonia.

Sadly Opera North also didn’t quite hit the mark this year. Disappointing productions of Norma and Giulio Cesare – bar a strong performance by Sarah Tynan – were followed by a particularly poor Die Walküre. As well as being poorly cast, Richard Farnes never seemed to grasp the music’s sweep. I am hoping that they recover their mojo for Siegfried.

Robert LePage’s Ring Cycle finally ended with a fatally flawed Götterdämmerung. Not only was the production – symbolized forever by it’s Buckeroo Grane – poorly conceived together with the rest of the cycle, but a hostile reaction from the public and the critics led to both the director and Peter Gelb going on a poorly thought through offensive. LePage’s interview in the New York Times was nothing less than insulting, and Gelb’s attempt at censorship similarly ill-fated. Lepage’s reference to “the Machine” as a ‘poisoned gift’ in Wagner’s Dream, a documentary about the entire production and well worth watching, seems particularly apt.

Staying with bad ideas, the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera proved just how insulting the BBC thinks its audience is. This tick-box-arts-programming featuring a series of has-beens and nobodies not only insulted the intelligence of the wider audience but also ensured that the tired old myths and misconceptions about opera on the whole have been perpetuated. Let’s hope that Lord Hall of Birkenhead sorts it all out.

And John Berry continued his attempts to be hip with his introduction of a “no dress code” dress code at ENO. Stupid man.

But to end on a positive note, this year has seen some fantastic CDs issued. Top of the list and forgive my bias that “all-things-by-Joyce-DiDondato-are-fantastic” is her latest CD, Drama Queens. Not only is each and every track a marvel of musicianship and passion but her concert tour has been a storming success. Personally I cannot wait for her to perform in London this February. Valer Barna-Sabadus rose above the poorly named title of his CD to produce one of the best recital discs of 2012. Not many artists could pull of an entire CD of Hasse’s music, but Barna-Sabadus not only does so with verve but with a series of masterful performances. As I said at the time, Cadrà fra poco in cenere is simply beautiful. Two other discs that remain almost on constant repeat are Iestyn Davies’ Arias for Guadagni accompanied by the excellent ensemble Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen and Anne Schwanewilms’ disc of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder.

And for 2013? Well I have already mentioned Ms DiDonato’s forthcoming concert but there are other things to look forward to and to book. The OAE’s Queens, Heroines & Ladykillers series continues and in this year of Wagner a full Ring cycle is a must. But if not the Met, then perhaps Munich or even Palermo?

And while I have failed to get a ticket to Die Frau ohne Schatten with Anne Schwanewilms in Amsterdam, I have my eyes firmly fixed on a new production of FroSch at the Met this Autumn. And of course I hope to return to Vienna for either Die Walküre or Tristan und Isolde.

And in terms of forthcoming CDs who cannot be excited – or at least intrigued – by Gergiev’s forthcoming Die Walküre, a reissue of Anneliese Rothenberger singing the Vier Letzte Lieder and another instalment of of Janowski’s WagnerZyklus?

So it only leaves me to thank you all for continuing to visit my blog. I know that not all of you agree with my write-ups and I am always honoured when you leave a comment – good or bad they make me think and on occasion change my mind.

So while it’s adieu to an eventful and enjoyable 2012, in terms of 2013 I say “bring it”.

A Tale Of Two Strauss’

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on July 25, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Review – Vier Letzte Lieder. Anne Schwanewilms, BBC Philharmonic & Juanjo Mena.
Review – Vier Letzte Lieder & Arabella, Capriccio and Der Rosenkavalier (Excerpts). Anne Schwanewilms, Jutta Böhnert & Regina Richter, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln & Markus Stenz.

Last week I attended the BBC Philharmonic’s first BBC Prom in their run. The concert was Richard Strauss, Saarhio and Sibelius and included the Vier Letzte Lieder performed by Anne Schwanewilms.

I also recently and coincidentally purchased Ms Schwanewilms’ new recital disc of Richard Strauss that includes the Vier Letzte Lieder as well as scenes from three of his operas.

Ms Schwanewilm’s performance at the Proms has drawn a mixed reaction. It has been well documented that on the night she ‘fluffed’ a phrase in the third song, Beim Schlafengehen, and this seems to have been the focus – unfairly I believe – of almost every critique since.

She dropped an octave. Big deal.

People who condemned the whole performance based on that single transitory moment when everything didn’t quite fall into place do the entire performance an injustice.

I was there on the night and also watched the subsequent programme on BBC Four (Not on BBC Two I might add and another example of the BBC marginalizing classical music).

I admit that it was distracting in that single moment but the reality is that Ms Schwanewilms did more than recover and from beginning to end – from the opening phrase to Ist dies etwa der Tod – delivered a strong performance. Granted it has to be said that I did feel that the orchestra and Juanjo Mena were not always completely supportive in their playing. Indeed on the whole I felt that they took a while to warm up although their playing by Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony was back on track and had that Latin lilt that I had previously detected in Mena’s Mahler.

The challenge of singing the Vier Letzte Lieder in the monstrous cavern that is the Royal Albert Hall is that the songs lose much of their effect. As I have said before, the performance of these songs spans everything from the grand operatic gesture from the likes of Jessye Norman and Kirsten Flagstad to the more intimate performances as eschewed by everyone from Schwarzkopf to Te Kanawa.

For me Ms Schwanewilms’ performance at the Proms went even beyond intimacy to almost complete introspection. One critic referred to it as “glacial” but for me it was almost as if we were eavesdropping on a very personal and private moment at times.

Every phrase, every word was carefully placed and for the most part, her vocal control and manipulation of Strauss’ sweeping phrases was incredible. No more so that in the third song when she recovered and delivered a thrilling crescendo on Und die Seele unbewacht.

And after a cheeky smile shared with Mena, Ms Schwanewilms sailed into Im Abendrot and delivered a faultless performance that combined a great sense of musicianship with an inflection of the text that was masterful.

And the audience saw beyond the hiccup and applauded her performance both warmly and enthusiastically.

As an aside it was only when watching an interview with the singer during the BBC Four broadcast that I realized that Ms Schwanewilms was not in fact on top form on the night.

But if anyone wants further demonstration of her vocal abilities then listen to her new disc of the Vier Letzte Lieder as well as excerpts from Capriccio, Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier.

This is the second time – I believe – that she has recorded these songs. The first was with Mark Elder and the Halle and now she has recorded them with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz.

Here Ms Schwanewilms is on incredible form. While it is a studio recording, there is a vocal and orchestral sense of breadth and expansiveness that is missing from her live performance with the BBC Philharmonic and Mena and even from her performances with Elder.

Her voice is warm with a real sense of flexible strength throughout its range. And at the same time she displays an agility in terms of both dynamic range and vocal colour that is rare in today’s singers.

And as Ms Schwanewilms revels in the vocal lines written by Strauss as a valedictory homage to his favourite instrument, Stenz and the orchestra are always there right beside the soprano, intuitively following her phrasing as well as the light and shade in her voice.

And again – because Ms Schwanewilms is such an intelligent and thoughtful performer – it is never to the detriment of the words. Each word is carefully placed and coloured. Just listen to the closing bars of September for example, and even just the focus on Augen. Wondrous. And even more so as the horn soloist floats in afterwards.

And just as at the proms, Und die Seele unbewacht is an object lesson not only in vocal mastery but thoughtfulness as Ms Schwanewilms keeps the momentum going when most sopranos let the subsequent phrases lapse.

Im Abendrot is taken at a stately pace but not once is there any sense that Schwanewilms, the orchestra and Stenz are anything but in total control. And of course – and just as at the Proms – at Ist dies etwa der Tod singer and orchestra are faultless and – if I am not mistaken – Stenz slows the tempo ever so slightly to allow Ms Schwanewilms to place the final words with heartfelt emotion before leading the orchestra with great poise and warmth through the closing bars.

I think I own almost every recording available of the Vier Letzte Lieder. This recording by Ms Schwanewilms ranks in the top three.

I would happily recommend this disc on these four songs alone but Ms Schwanewilms performances in the excerpts from Arabella, Capriccio and Der Rosenkavalier are just as exceptional and thrilling.

It can never be a simple matter for either performers singing excerpts or those listening to successfully engage emotionally in the music. But this isn’t the case here at all.

I have to admit that I am a late convert to Arabella. It escapes me exactly why as the music is glorious and in the hands of as great a performer as Ms Schwanewilms my love of this scene – Das war sehr gut, Mandryka – is raised even higher. Stenz and the orchestra open the scene with such warmth and grace while avoiding the sense of cloying emotion that often invades this scene. In fact there are moments of real menace in the orchestral introduction before Ms Schwanewilms’ hushed first entry. From thence it is a performance of great eloquence and musical stature. Demonstrating the depth of her talent, each phrase is beautifully and fluidly spun out without any hint of stress across the wide vocal range required. And while she may be penitent there is a steeliness that makes me think that Schwanewilms’ Arabella is not a total pushover.

In Capriccio the closing monologue of this opera is seen simply as an opportunity for ‘beautiful sound’ and as such often comes across as an awkward postscript to the entire opera. Not so for Schwanewilms and Stenz who find the right balance between the Countess’ introspection and the drama that is still unfolding. There is no sense of sentimentality here.

Listen for example as the Countess sings the aria that has been composed for her and how Stenz drives the music onwards immediately after at Ihre Liebe schlägt mir entgegen. It’s as if the Countess cannot even stop for breath as her emotions tumble out until those closing bars as she looks at her reflection. Then – and only then – does Stenz pull back once again to afford Ms Schwanewilms the space to give due care and attention to the words.

Whether the word or music finally prevail I cannot say. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Ms Schwanewilms has worked it out.

Finally, the closing trio from Der Rosenkavalier is – even in the music of Richard Strauss – in a league of its own. That it was performed at his funeral says it all really. Joined by Jutta Böhnert and Regina Richter even the slightly recessed sound at the very opening cannot distract. Again here Stenz goes for an expansiveness of tempo that allows the phrases to play out beautifully and each of the protagonists to be heard equally as their counterpoint unfolds. And singers, orchestra and conductor move inexorably through the crescendo as equal partners to the Marschallin’s final In Gottes Namen.

Brilliant and a suitably thrilling end to a hugely enjoyable recital disc that underlines the immense and intelligent musicianship of Anne Schwanewilms.

Even if you own more than one copy of the Vier Letzte Lieder as well as the other excerpts on this disc this is a recital not to be missed.

A definite “must have”.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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