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Posts Tagged ‘Juanjo Mena’

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”.

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.

Mena’s Moto Perpetuo Mahler

In Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Review on September 30, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Review – Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”.
Ailish Tynan, Iris Vermillion, London Symphony Chorus.
BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena.
Saturday 24 September, 2011.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, Mahler is challenging to conduct convincingly. As well as being a master of orchestration and – what is often forgotten – having an incredibly keen sense of the orchestra’s colour palette and dynamic flexibility, he was himself an excellent conductor. Having been educated at the Vienna Conservatory he was well acquainted with – in fact acutely knowledgeable about – the music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven as well as of Wagner and additionally he was one of the few exponents of Bruckner.

All of these elements have to be considered, combined and balanced when it comes to performing his music. In the right combination, with an ensemble of the highest standard and under a conductor of intelligence, passion and experience, a performance can be truly remarkable.

And on Saturday night at Bridgewater Hall, at the inaugural concert of the BBC Philharmonic under their new Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena, all the elements came together, fused brilliantly and created just such a memorable evening.

Mena opened the first movement at a brisker pace than usual. From the first ‘bite’ in the tremolando strings and the rhythmically muscular cello entry – every note clearly discernable – it was clear that Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony was a piece that Mena was both steeped in and loved.

And in the opening section it was also clear that Mena’s approach would balance the “bite” with the lyrical. The violin theme is so often “chopped up” by conductors – even Jurowski in his recent and excellent recording – but Mena’s handling was much more song-like. And throughout the first movement, the attention was in the detail. Mena perfectly balanced the ‘walking bass’ against the woodwind so that as ever before I heard so clearly the inference to chorales.

In the first movement Mena also demonstrated a clear grip on the need for transparency and dynamic control. Throughout this movement and indeed the whole performance, he skillfully balanced the need for transparency so that Mahler’s detailed orchestration could be heard with a broad and at times astonishing dynamic range. It wasn’t until the cataclysmic chord halfway through the first movement that I thought that Mena finally unleashed the full dynamic power of the BBC Philharmonic. It literally made Bridgewater Hall hum. But I was wrong. He held back the full force of the orchestra until the final moments of the whole symphony and pinned the fact that he had – from the beginning – an unerring sense of the whole architecture of the symphony.

Mena took the landler-like second movement at a pace a hair’s breath faster than Jurowski. But while the latter conveyed more of a sense of ‘weight’ – and perhaps not the sense of ‘intermezzo’ that Mahler had originally envisaged – Mena struck a lighter, more genial note with an almost Latin lilt that was clearly conveyed by his own movements when conducting the orchestra. Methinks that on the dance floor Mena is light on his feet and a ‘mover’. However again transparency was never sacrificed for a sense of ‘moto perpetuo’ and at times Mena’s chambelike handling of the orchestra harked back to the symphonies of Beethoven.

The sense of perpetual motion in the second movement was carried over and maintained in the third movement. Yet Mena’s pointing up of the orchestral colours – particularly in the wind – created a different palette – nervous and threatening at the same time, ratcheting up the tension into the outburst from the brass. For the conductor this was a movement of distinct contrasts.

Iris Vermillion’s entry in Urlicht with “O Röschen rot!”, for which Mena daringly brought the tempo to its slowest ebb, was nothing less than magical. Hers is a rich and warm mezzo and she delivered a wonderfully sustained vocal line with clear diction and conveying a real sense of the words, particularly at “Ach nein! Ich liess mich nicht abweisen! Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott”. If you haven’t heard her then I would recommend her Abschied with Sinopoli or her recording of Alma Mahler’s lieder.

The final movement, opening as it does with the orchestra at almost full tilt created the right sense of rude awakening from the preceding bliss. Mena skillfully handled the off-stage performers against the full orchestra, managing the transition to the dialogue between the off-stage brass and the flutes. But it was the first hushed entry of the London Symphony Chorus with “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du” was breathtaking in its simple beauty. The sound they produced seemed to appear as if from nothing, perfectly balanced with clear diction and joined by the crystalline soprano of Ailish Tynan, a late replacement for the indisposed Susan Gritton. Ms Tynan’s voice glided over the chorus and melded beautifully with Ms Vermillion’s voice.

Mena kept control throughout the closing sections of the symphony, marshalling the soloists, chorus and orchestra to the thrilling climax at “Sterben werd’ ich, zu leben … Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du … Zu Gott wird es dich tragen!” and the closing bars of the orchestra. The silence at Mena lowered his baton, and the final sounds died away in the hall, was palpable.

Throughout the evening the BBC Philharmonic followed Mena with complete focus, instinctively translating every gesture and movement into music making of the highest calibre. Under Gianandrea Noseda the BBC Philharmonic developed a distinctly ‘European’ sound – warm strings, sonorous winds and some of the best brass playing I have heard. And under Mena this direction of travel seems set to continue. Is it perhaps no coincidence that Richard Wigley, General Manager and the orchestra have veered more towards European conductors than their other BBC orchestra colleagues? This distinction stands them in good stead and sets them apart. The other BBC orchestras are excellent but having heard them all at the Proms, and after last night, I believe that the BBC Philharmonic is the strongest of them all in terms of performance.

Mena’s control of speed showed a clear and in-depth knowledge of the overarching architecture of the symphony. From the brisker opening, through the incredibly slow yet serene Urlich to the closing bars, Mena had perfectly judged the tempi thoughout. Not only did he maintain a real sense of momentum as he unfold an incredibly musical interpretation, but never before have I heard the closing bars have such impact, not only in terms of sound but as a result of his perfect sense of proportion and balance in terms of tempo.

I look forward to future performances of Mahler by Mena and the BBC Philharmonic.

Saturday night’s performance of Mahler was – I think – one that the composer himself would have approved of.

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