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Posts Tagged ‘Martina Arroyo’

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.

Follow The Lieder – Richard Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder

In Classical Music, Review, Richard Strauss on August 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Polina Pasztircsák/Musikkollegium Winterthur/Alexander Rahbari
Martina Arroyo/Kolner Rundunk-SinfonieOrchester/Gunter Wand
Britt Marie Aruhn/Stockholm Royal Orchestra/Viktor Aslund
Regina Klepper/Neue Schwäbische Sinfonie/Gerhard Fackler
Dorothea Roschmann/Rotterdamm Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin

First of all, an admission. Richard Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder are in my top five list of vocal pieces that I love and listen to the most. This quartet of songs are up there alongside Die Walküre, Don Giovanni, Die Rosenkavalier and Giulio Cesare.

Of course a great deal has been written about the set and a great many sopranos have performed and recorded them. And I have a not inconsiderable collection of these recordings myself. When I scan my CD shelves I can start with Flagstad and then embark quite literally on an aural history – moving on through Steber, Jurinac and Nilsson before reaching Della Casa, Janowitz, Söderstromm and Schwarzkopf, then arriving at the likes of Isokoski, Fleming, Harteros and Stemme without forgetting Norman, Te Kanawa, The oft-neglected Tomowa-Sintow, Harper, Lott and Zylis-Gara.

But that is just scratching the surface. I’ve not mentioned performances by other famous sopranos such as Auger, Margiono, Bonney, Meier, Studer, Brewer, Voigt, Eaglen, Kenny and Popp alongside lesser known performers – to me at least in this repertory – such as Meyer-Topsøe, Kuhse, Sass and Merbeth.

And of course this doesn’t even begin to accord any prominence to the countless concert performances that I have attended. Not only by some of the singers that I have listed above, but others like Anne Schwannewilms for example.

Clearly the ability to perform the songs is de rigeur for sopranos and is often perceived to be a major milestone in their careers. It would seem that only a foolhardy singer would embark on a performance too early on as clearly they require not only formidable technique coupled with a voice at the height of its maturity, with control, fluidity and evenness of tone and depth throughout, but also a keen instinct in terms of interpretation.

Needless to say everyone will have their own ‘definitive’ interpretation and as I mentioned in a previous blog (http://bit.ly/q10MtR) it is only natural to benchmark any new – or newly discovered – recordings against these performances. Not always a valid approach I agree.

On this occasion, I cannot hold up my hand and point to a singular definitive performance. And in the same way – until today – can I single out a particularly disappointing performance. Generally speaking, when it comes to their performance, there are two main camps when it comes to Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder. In the first camp is the ‘grand gesture’ performance – big voices arrayed alongside the orchestra with intelligence. And sitting pretty in here are Flagstad, Nilsson together with singers such as Jessie Norman and Nina Stemme. Magnificent, broad performances. The other camp, and somewhat larger, houses singers who take a more private and personal approach. That is not to say that the ‘grand camp’ do not turn in performances of introspection and weight. Absolutely not. And in the second camp are the lies of Schwarzkopf, Della Casa, Te Kanawa and Lott. Beautifully crafted singing with an attention to both the vocal and the orchestral detail.

And for me, both performance camps are equally valid. And depending on my mood, what my ear – and soul – wants at that particular moment in time and, in occasion, who I am with, will determine exactly which singer I want to listen to.

Combined with the vocal capabilities of the singer and their ability to convey not only the words but the sense behind the words – true of any vocal performance let’s be frank – is the paramount importance of a genuine sympathetic conductor. Not only one who follows the singer instinctively but is, rather, a genuine partner throughout.

So it’s always with a sense of excitement that I discover a new recording. And the recent weeks has been like Christmas. Not only new recordings but – through emusic.com – unearthing recordings in their archive.

So over the past week or so I have listened to performances by Dorothea Roschmann, Britt Marie Aruhn, Martina Arroyo, Polina Pasztircsák and Regina Klepper. And admittedly some of these singers are new to me. I’ve listened to these in isolation, alongside each other and – of course – alongside previous performances.

Hungarian-born Polina Pasztircsák is new to me. Judging from her website and clips on YouTube she counts the Vier Letzte Lieder as something of a calling card, alongside Micaëla in Carmen. However ultimately her performances – coupled on the disc with Shostakovich, Bartók and Kodàly – are disappointing. While I am sure her performances of Handel, Mozart and Rossini are ideally suited to her voice, it does not suit these songs, or I would imagine, Strauss in general. Indeed I struggle to see her in the role of Bizet’s Michaela.

Richard Strauss was the ultimate lieder writer. Some of you may disagree, but Strauss had an erring instinct when it came to writing for the voice and wrote vocal lines that required perfect technique and – as I have said above – a rich, even and flexible tone throughout the register. And Strauss wrote vocal lines that were unforgiving if this was not the case. And sadly in Ms Pasztircsák, this is not the case. Over and above a slight yet ever-present wobble in her voice, her tone sounds thin and stretched as she reaches into the higher registers required even at the start in Früling. This is coupled by a lack of warmth, almost of brittleness which left me feeling that her vocal line was strained and pushed, particularly as she tried to accommodate the dynamic demands that Strauss also wove into the vocal line. In September she generally fared better, although from Sommer lächelt erstaunt und Matt in den sterbenden Gartentraum onwards the sound is tight and incredibly strained. And here, as in the rest of the cycle, it was evident that while her diction is very good, she didn’t or couldn’t convey the sense of the words themselves. Beim Schlafengehen, with it’s notable crescendo at Und die Seele unbewacht is, at the moment my favourite song of the quartet. Yet from the start she disappoints, although here it is clear that she is less than ably supported by conductor Rahbari or the orchestra. A sluggishness – and not altogether to do with the tempo – and bland, lacklustre playing, even in the violin solo, mar the song throughout and her return at the crescendo is an ‘unevent’. It’s a welcome relief when the final chord fades in preparation for Im Abendrot, but this disappoints from the beginning. Taken at a dangerously slow tempo considering a lack of vocal security in Ms Pasztircsák, the orchestra disappoints at once with the horns failing to bloom right at the start. From her first entry the wobble is clearly evident and I can’t help but wonder if this is Ms Pasztircsák attempting interpretation. If so, it’s misjudged and distracting. Again the voice strains and most notably at the very moment that the voice should be everything – at precisely Und die Seele unbewacht . As with the preceding song, it’s almost a relief when the final chord fades. Ist dies etwa der Tod? Perhaps, but not in the way Strauss envisaged it.

Even in the most disappointing performances there is always a moment, or a few moments of beauty or insight. Sadly for Polina Pasztircsácon the Musikkollegium Winterthur and Alexander Rahbari this is never the case. Not a recording I shall return to often, if at all.

However from here on in there was a marked improvement in and pleasure taken in listening to the performances.

Martina Arroyo until now has always been a soprano – a spinto – that I have associated with Verdi. And it is in these roles that I have much admired her. Arroyo has a dark, rich soprano, which is at the same time agile and beautifully balanced. So it was with some surprise – and trepidation – that I stumbled across her recording with Günter Wand and the Kolner Rundunk-SinfonieOrchester. The trepidation was totally misplaced. These are wonderful performances that clearly place Ms Arroyo in the first camp and right by the campfire! And for those who have always considered Wand a slow or measured conductor, take a listen – he takes the songs at a fairly fast pace without detracting anything at all simply because his attention to detail and an acute understanding of Strauss’ lines combined with the sheer joy in Arroyo’s performances, work their magic. Granted closer listening reveals some orchestral slips but never enough to marr the performances.

Arroyo revels in Strauss’ vocal lines and imbues them with a real sense of fluidity, and while her voice may sometimes sound a little strained at the top of her register her real sense of musicality shines through. Indeed, from the very start in Frühling I got a real sense that for her the song might be about the end of life but a life that should be celebrated. The opening of September demonstrates how vital the relationship between soprano and conductor is in these songs with Wand’s pinpoint delicacy superbly supporting without ever intruding on the vocal line. Interestingly it’s in this song that I winged for a but more flexibility in tempo from Wand, particularly as the song ends down into the horn solo – but that’s purely a personal observation.

The first vocal entry, Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht, in Beim Schlafengehen often sets up the whole song for me. An intuitive performer carefully places the words almost like a weary sigh and while Arroyo doesn’t quite succeed like Anja Harteros for Janssons, she isn’t far off and indeed makes the whole opening phrase one of weariness. And of course Arroyo and Wand do not disappoint at Und die Seele unbewacht, with Wand teasing out a beautifully rendered violin solo that melts into Arroyo’s thrilling crescendo with the momentum carried right through to the end, with a wonderful chest note from the soprano on Nacht before sailing to the song’s conclusion. Wand achieves a most wonderful orchestral bloom at the beginning of Im Abendrot that distracts from the speed as he launches into the final song before slowing imperceptibly for Arroyo’s first entry. And Wand again pulls back with marvellous effect at So tief im Abendrot allowing Arroyo to perfectly deliver the closing line before the orchestra continues to wind down under Wand’s careful watch.

Again it’s hard not to think, when listening to this performance, that is not so much a sad valediction of life but rather a celebration and an almost keen acceptance of it’s end. And for that, and Arroyo’s wonderful singing and Wand’s superb conducting this is definitely a recording that I will continually return to.

Neither Britt Marie Aruhn and Regina Klepper are sopranos that I knew before discovering their performances here. Swedish Aruhn has a bright yet light soprano, however a lack of depth means that ultimately her voice isn’t ideally suited to these songs. But she is clearly an intelligent performer and while she doesn’t truly get behind the words, she doesn’t make a fist of her performances. She more than adequately matches the flexes of the vocal line with ease and while she does manage a pretty impressive crescendo in Beim Schlafengehen, in the third song she does display some vocal insecurity with a tendency to steer north of the written note combined with some Swedish-inflected German. But all in all Aruhn, ably if blandly supported by the Stockholm Royal Orchestra and Viktor Aslund, delivers a simple, unobtrusive performance which in it’s simplicity makes for a refreshing, no frills performance.

From the start, with her clear and precise diction it’s obvious at Regina Klepper specialises in lieder recitals, as she wraps herself in and relishes in the words of Hesse and von Eichendorff. Launching into Früling at a speed even faster than Wand, Klepper has an even, resonant voice that lilts attractively against Strauss’ song lines, with little show of stress and intelligent and consistent control of dynamics. The tempi remain fast throughout the cycle but never with a sense of feeling rushed. For me, the obvious care and joy that Klepper instills in the texts, and the confident support from Gerhard Fackler, who conducts the warmly resonant Neue Schwäbische Sinfonie make these performances stand out for me. Similarly her accompanying performances of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder make this a recital worth investigating and I am keen to hear more of Regina Klepper.

I have long been an adored of Dorothea Roschmann, particularly enjoying her performances of Handel and Mozart. She is an intuitive singer who pays a great deal of attention to the words and communicates them. And here js no exception. Overall in her Vier Letzte Lieder, Roschmann doesn’t disappoint. Intelligently supported and guided by Nézet-Séguin – who conducts a very accomplished Ein Heldenleben on the same disc – she delivers a well sung and finely nuanced performance with a keen focus on the words of the poems. In parts there is even a hint of the radiance lustre so often lacking in other performances, but there is also on occasion a hint of strain, particularly in the wide ranging vocal lines of the first song.

In a sense what Roschmann sings here is a very credible ‘first’ recording of Strauss most beautiful legacy for the soprano voice. I hope – like Te Kanawa and Fleming – that she is given the opportunity to re-record them again. Perhaps with Thielemann as Fleming did when her voice has gained some lustre and a more burnished tone.

So, with the exception of Polina Pasztircsák, I cannot complain with any of the four very enjoyable recordings of the Vier Letzte Lieder that I have listened to over the last few weeks. Each, in their own way, says something unique and different in terms of interpretation and all four both surprised me and made me listen anew to the songs themselves. I will undoubtedly dip into all of them again but if I had to choose one from the remaining four? It would be Martina Arroyo and Gunther Wand every time.

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