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Posts Tagged ‘Renée Fleming’

Habe Dank!

In Review, Richard Strauss on April 10, 2016 at 8:24 am

Review – Renée Fleming ( Barbican, Wednesday 6 April 2016) 

Renée Fleming (Soprano) & Hartmann Höll (Piano) 

For some reason, this felt like a valedictory concert. I sincerely hope not. I know that Renée Fleming is drawing a curtain on her stage performances but I’m hoping that she will continue recitals for many, many years to come. 

Entitled “Love, loss and fury” the selection of lieder ran the whole gamut of human emotion. Perhaps overall there was more love and loss, than fury except for the somewhat inevitable comment on Donald Trump. 

Ms Fleming’s introduction prior to Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben stated that she had only recently started performing this cycle. Overall it was a convincing performance but I think that it will get even better over time. With more involvement and projection of the text and perhaps less emotional constraint this could very well become a centrepiece of Ms Fleming’s future recital repertoire. 

The Rachmaninov that followed was much more emphatic and much more alive. Setting the scene immediately with O, dolgo budu ya (In the silence of the secret night), Ne poy, krasavitsa, primne was the highlight of the first half, demonstrating Ms Fleming’s innate ability to spin out the most beautiful legato line. 

The second half was dedicated to two of the soprano’s passions – Richard Strauss and new music. 

Jazz musician and composer Patricia Barber’s set of songs demonstrate a confident and mature talent. Perhaps some of the songs could do with being slightly tightened and it would potentially be interesting to hear these restored for a smaller chamber ensemble. Of the five songs, it was Morpheus which was the most memorable. With its insistent repeated note buried under rich textures, it most closely captured the words being sung. 

Yet it was the Strauss, here and in the encore, which stole the entire evening. Ms Fleming has had a career-long love affair with Richard Strauss. Some may disagree with me, but she is one of the best interpreters of his lieder performing today. Vocally, they fit like a glove and emotionally, she invests more in his lieder and operas than in other music. Each song was exquisite in its performance. The skittishness of Das Bächlein was perfectly captured, and there was some stunning colouring from Hartmann Höll in Ruhe, Meine Seele. The sense of loss and nostalgia in Allerseelen – perhaps one of Strauss’ most beautiful lieder – was almost tangible and contrasted so perfectly with the triumphant, blazing Zueignung

Three contrasting encores ended the recital. After a sultry Summertime and a faultless O, mio babbino caro the only way to end the evening was with Strauss. And Morgen!, Strauss’ wedding gift to his difficult wife was the only and perfect choice. Here, as throughout the evening, Höll showed himself to be an intuitive, insightful and sympathetic accompanist and Ms Fleming’s performance of this gem reminded everyone in the hall not only of her love for this composer, but also what an exceptional performer she is. 

Habe Dank Ms Fleming and come back soon.

Aria for … Thursday – Marie Theres! … Hab’ mir’s gelobt

In Aria For ..., Opera, Richard Strauss on June 13, 2013 at 10:41 am

Belatedly, my own celebration of Richard Strauss’ birthday (June 11 1864).

A deliberate but obvious choice.

The trio from Der Rosenkavalier.

I think it is the most beautiful moment in all of Strauss’ music. While I admit to bias as it is my favourite of all his operas, I also seem to remember reading that it was sung at his funeral at his request.

And here, sung by Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Barbara Bonney, it is perfection.

The overlapping counterpoint of the three voices after the Marschallin’s initial opening phrase – itself so full of regret – builds inexorably towards what can only be described as a most amazing wall of sound before it recedes for the duet for Octavian and Sophie.

It’s so tempting just to sit back and just wallow in the glorious music that Strauss wrote for this trio. But while the music is sublime it always raises in my mind the ‘what if’?

With its resplendent horn scoring as the voices soar higher and higher, it seems the older aristocrat seemingly accepts her fate with ‘…als wie halt Manner das Gliicklichsein verstehen. In Gottes Namen’.

But does she? After many years and many, many performances I have come to the conclusion that – for me – the entire opera hinges on two words.

Just two words.

After the duet between the two young lovers the Marschallin returns with Faninal. As they spy Octavian and Sophie he comments ‘Sind halt aso, die jungen Leut’!’. To which Princess Marie Therese von Werdenberg replies ‘Ja, ja’.

How those words are delivered, almost spoken, is critical. They define the Marschallin herself.

This might seem like a gross over simplification and don’t get me wrong, Der Rosenkavalier is the most magnificent opera in every sense of the word.

But for me throughout the opera it has been the Marschallin who has pulled the strings. Perhaps Octavian’s newfound love has always been on her terms from the start? She entered into the plot right at the beginning when she suggested Rofrano as the Rosenkavalier. It’s not too far a supposition to suggest that she would know of – if not met – Faninal. And therefore knows he was seeking a husband for his daughter.

And doesn’t the music of the returning duet hint at a less than happy ending for the couple with the almost bittersweet piquancy of the descending motif in the flutes?

Perhaps in Sophie the Marschallin sees her younger self? Perhaps she is simply replaying a scene that happened to her in her own youth?

History repeating itself.

And each and every time, it is at precisely at that moment that I hear myself catch my breath. Most productions play this trio very traditionally, rarely finding the balance between the young lovers and the actual closing moments of the opera.

But the production tat sticks most in my mind as it seemed to hint at that very point was at Cologne Opera. It was the production where Kiri Te Kanawa decided to perform on stage for the last time in this. As one of her signature roles it couldn’t be missed. The production itself was a mish-mash of ideas but at the then it wasn’t her page that returned to pick up the handerkerchief.

It was the Marshallin – rushing back to retrieve this token in an almost desperate manner as the music finished and the curtain fell.

I think Strauss and Hoffmansthal would have approved.

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”.

Golden

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on December 10, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Review – Vienna, The Window To Modernity (The Barbican, Sunday 9 December 2012)

Renée Fleming (Soprano)
Maciej Pikulski (Piano)

Wolf – Goethe Lieder
Mahler – Rückert Lieder
Schoenberg – Ewartung Op. 2 No.1; Jane Grey, Op. 12 No. 1
Zemlinsky – Fünf lieder auf Texte von Richard Dehmel
Korngold – Selected lieder & Walzer aus Wien, Frag mich aft

Richard Strauss – Zueignung
Delibes – Les filles de Cadix
Korngold – Marietta’s lied

Concentrating on the period between 1888 and 1933, Renée Fleming’s recital underlined how the tectonic plates of harmony and structure that had underpinned music for literally centuries were slowly disintegrating.

The first half was devoted to the music of Wolf and Mahler and I quite fancied that her outfit, with its muted tartan pattern was reminiscent in some way of the final years of that century.

Ms Fleming is an accomplished recitalist and all-round performer. She draws the listener in not only with the beauty of her voice but also with the depth of her interpretation.

However at the Barbican it took longer than expected. Despite professing to a cold there was no drop in the quality or intensity of her singing, rather – I feel – it was her choice of opening lieder.

I am not convinced that her voice is suited to Wolf’s Goethe lieder. Without a doubt they were performed well – technically to say the least – but the never felt fully invested in. I did wonder, in fact, had she performed his Mörike Lieder would they, with their dark toned hues, been more successful as Anakreons Grab – with its Mörike leanings – was the most successful of the quintet.

However she was definitely on top form for Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. I hope that at some point soon Ms Fleming captures these songs on disc. Her voice, as I have mentioned before, has developed a richer, more burnished hue, combined with her continued ability to spin the most liquid vocal line, that are so important for these songs. The opening song, with its almost limpid line, Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft! floated out across the audience, beautifully accompanied by Pikulski. Similarly the control she displayed in Liebst do um Schönheit, modulating her voice through the dynamics, was breathtaking. Um Mitternacht showed off Ms Fleming’s polished lower range as she carefully placed each and every word of the text and in sharp relief to the sparkling, almost deliberately brittle jauntiness of Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder.

But the preceding four songs were but a warm up. Ich bin der Welt adhanden gekommen was a coup in terms of a performance that had everything in terms of the highest level musicianship, interpretation and mesmerising singing. A song of resignation, never have the final two lines sounded so beautifully poignant.

A recording please.

Ms Fleming returned for the second half and delivered a theatrical coup even before she began to sing. Wrapped head to toe in shimmering gold – a quality and colour that could easily be used to describe her own voice – she was a literal embodiment of a Gustav Klimt character. And her reference to the artist was not lost on the audience.

Indeed, was Ms Fleming’s greater engagement with the audience in the second half a realisation that perhaps she had not enraptured them sufficiently before the interval? If so, it was a masterstroke. I recently read in an interview with Opera News how Susan Graham also talks to her audience. I think it’s a great advantage to engage the audience in a lieder recital and I see that Mesdames Graham and Fleming are “recitaling” together which should make for a chatty evening.

The composers of the second half – Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Korngold – inhabited a Vienna on the edge of the tonality and Ms Fleming delivered the selection from each composer not only with great poise but again an underlying technical precision and burnished tone that was remarkable.

Indeed it is her touchstone relationship with the lieder of Richard Strauss that informed the brilliance of her performances.

The rarely performed Jane Grey by Schoenberg for example was imbued with great drama. It was almost as if Ms Fleming could see the execution of this hapless young girl before her very eyes.

Similarly she captured the symbolism of Dehmel’s verse and the music it inspired from Zemlinsky beautifully. The abrupt ending of Auf see never ceases to catch my breath.

While it was clear that Korngold’s Was die mir bist? – written for his mother – was the clear favourite for Ms Fleming, personally it was Sterbelied which was my favourite in this final selection. Again, Ms Fleming has over the years become more than adept at colouring individual words that is so perfectly suited to the lieder of this period.

The recital proper ended with Walzer am Wien by Korngold – a fitting glittering, skittering end piece to a brilliant recital.

However, no Fleming recital would be complete with a selection of encores that didn’t include Richard Strauss. At the Barbican she gave us a beautifully rendered, impassioned Zueignung. This was followed – by her own admission – with a piece she had never performed before, Delibes’ Les filles de Cadix. Despite a humorous fluff halfway through it more than demonstrated that Ms Fleming can do vocal fizz with the best of them.

But she ended the evening with a masterful performance of Marietta’s lied. Again her voice has developed a richer, bronzed toned that now makes her performance of this simply magical.

Throughout the recital she was intuitively and sensitively accompanied by Maciej Pikulski. He matched every single mood she sought to convey with elegant and intelligent playing.

I hope it is a recital relationship that continues.

So, all in all a successful evening. Despite a somewhat cool start, Ms Fleming delivered an exceptional evening of lieder that are clearly close to her own heart that resulted in a well-deserved ovation.

An evening as vocally golden as her gown.

Brava.

Renée Fleming – Un moment exquis

In Classical Music, Review on June 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Review – Poèmes. Ravel – Shéhérazade; Messiaen – Poèmes pour Mi; Dutilleaux – Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou & Le Temps l’Horloge.
Renée Fleming, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France & Alan Gilbert; Orchestre National de France & Seiji Ozawa

I purchased this disc on the day it came out some time ago but for reasons of work, travel and repeated listening I haven’t had a chance to commit my thoughts to ‘byte and metadata’. But following Ms Fleming’s brilliant performance in the title role of in Arabella in Paris I resolved to write about this marvellous disc.

For most people including myself Renée Fleming is more usually associated with the music of Richard Strauss – her recent debut as the Prima Donna and heroine of the title in Baden Baden’s recent and excellent production of Ariadne auf Naxos for example – and Mozart as well as, but a lesser extent, the bel canto composers. Even her foray into cover versions of pop songs was an interesting and not-unsuccessful venture.

A self-confessed Francophile, her latest disc finds her exploring the music of French composers Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleaux. However Ms Fleming has been performing the music on this disc for some time in the case of Dutilleaux’s Le Temps Horloge and more recently for Ravel’s piece.

Continued listening to this disc either in part or from beginning to end simply underlines for me the depth and integrity of Ms Fleming’s musicianship as well as her ability to communicate the even through what some might find the toughest listens.

Singing in French can sometimes cruelly expose a singer’s diction yet throughout the recital the language holds no challenges for Fleming. Her clear diction is combined with pinpoint accuracy in placing even the trickiest consonants.

And in committing her performances to disc for the first time she brings the inevitable comparison with Regine Crespin for Shéhérazade and Pollet for Poèmes pour Mi.

But while these two singular performances are excellent – and to the latter I would add Anne Schwanewilms’ performance of the Poèmes – personally I believe that Ms Fleming more convincingly captures the aura – almost a voluptuousness of sound without sacrificing the need for clarity – of these individual pieces more convincingly, aided and abetted throughout by her orchestral accompanists and warmer acoustics.

As I’ve remarked in previous blogs Renée Fleming’s voice has evolved and developed in recent years. Her last recording of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder with Thielemann saw a more burnished, richer tone which was even more in evidence when she performed this quartet of songs more recently in London under Eschenbach. And this more burnished tone does not come at the sacrifice of anything else in her vocal armoury. Her technique remains formidable with no loss in her ability to spin great, expansive legato lines underpinned with fine diction.

And all these elements of her musicianship come to the fore in these four song cycles. Indeed her credentials in Strauss create the very foundations on which this disc is built as she finds a lyricism in this music that people might not associate with these composers, bar Ravel of course.

From the shimmering opening of the opening song in Ravel’s Shéhérazade Fleming’s intention is clear. Her evocation of Asie – listen to her handling of the third repetition – the orchestral skittering and her clear declamation set the mood immediately.

The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Alan Gilbert provide the lush accompaniment that brings Fleming’s interpretation to life as singer and orchestra ebb and flow through Ravel’s masterpiece. Alert to the rhythms that Ravel splices to the sonorous harmonies – quite Debussy-esque in places – as well as the almost percussive wordplay in the text itself, the interplay between Fleming and the instrumentalists is nothing short of magical and creates the sense of wonder that underpins the entire cycle. The sense of momentum through ‘Je voudrais voir’ from both Fleming and the orchestra to the resultant climax is thrilling and perfectly balanced with the closing bars and the final violin solo.

In La Flûte Enchantée, Fleming voice and the flute obbligato seamlessy and sensually entwine and play above Ravel’s most delicate and shimmering orchestration.

In the final song, L’Indifférent, Ravel focuses his luxuriant sound world around sonorous pallet imbued with woodwind colour. The entire song leaves the vocal line perilously exposed above the most delicate orchestration yet Ms Fleming displays complete mastery of her technique and understanding of how to inflect the vocal line to produce quite possibly the most beautiful track of the disc.

In short Fleming’s performance of Shéhérazade is nothing short of a music-based opiate.

Written in 1936, Messiaen’s Poèmes Pour Mi – where Mi was his affectionate pet-name for his wife, has always struck me as having more than a passing nod to the influence of jazz with its moment of quasi vocal improvisation in sharp relief to the more precise and percussive accompaniment. This is of course ironic since the composer apparently detested the genre.

The nine-song cycle not only requires a soprano with absolute vocal authority and ability to negotiate both music and words, but a conductor and orchestra that can create Messiaen’s unique sound world. And this is evident from the opening song in Poèmes, Action De Grâces. Listen to the closing bars as Fleming intones Alleluia above flute and shimmering strings for example, or the beautiful placement of words and sound at the beginning of Paysage, where the strings skitter away leading to warm and fluid wind playing and holds true to the final song Prière Exaucée. In this last song in the cycle, the juxtaposition of the percussive brass alternating with the tightly knit ensemble playing between singer, flute and strings before Fleming revels with the orchestra in the rush of orchestral colour and rhythm as the cycle closes is ravishing. Throughout Alan Gilbert’s conducting and real sense of colour is absolute and thrilling and together with the players matches Ms Fleming’s emotional intensity in each and every song.

Dutilleaux is only known to me through his Oboe Sonata which I enjoyed learning at university. His musical language is more influenced by Stravinsky but with repeated listening I heard increasing similarities with Messiaen’s Poèmes.

His Deux Sonnets De Jean Cassou create contrasting sound and rhythmic worlds. The first song with its insistent rhythms and sense of urgency – the opening brass reminding me somewhat of Debussy’s Le Mer – is finely balanced with the dreamy, almost soporific second Sonnet where once again Fleming’s technique and complete vocal control negotiates the broad legato phrases spun by Dutilleaux with ease.

The five movement Le Temps L’Horloge – taken from a concert performance – was written for Renée Fleming with the composer going on the record to say that he was inspired by her voice “voice’s character” and “power of expression” and again he plays with the sound world, as well as a harpsichord in the opening song I am pretty sure that the third, Le Dernier Poème, featured an accordion. I have to admit I did not enjoy this song cycle as much as Dutilleaux’s previous work or the other works on the disc. While the cycle is clearly written around Ms Fleming at the end I did wish for a greater sense of contrast between the individual songs. However, the final song, Envirez-Vous stands out. By the cycle is performed brilliantly and the audience show their appreciation at the end.

All in all, Poèmes is an exquisite and interesting recital disc. Renée Fleming, both conductors and the orchestras create a heady musical atmosphere that with repeatedly listening reveals a little more within the music.

L’achetez immédiatement.

A Glass Half Full

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on June 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Review – Arabella (Opéra Bastille, Sunday 17 June 2012)

Arabella – Renée Fleming
Mandryka – Michael Volle
Zdenka – Julia Kleiter
Adelaide – Doris Soffel
Graf Waldner – Kurt Rydl
Matteo – Joseph Kaiser
Iride Martinez – The Fiakermilli

Director – Marco Arturo Martelli
Lighting – Friedrich Eggert
Costumes – Dagmar Niefind

Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris
Conductor – Philippe Jordan

Twice in the course of Richard Strauss’ opera Arabella – his final collaboration with Hugo von Hoffmansthal – the protagonists make a reference to a glass of water. In the First Act Mandryka relates how a potential bride would offer a glass of water drawn from her father’s well and present it to her prospective husband, and in the Third Act Arabella offers him the said glass of water as an act of both forgiveness and acceptance.

If the water drawn was a reflection of this production, the glass would only have been half full.

A shame as a single element disappointed throughout – Philippe Jordan and the Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris.

Arabella is directly evolved from the lyricism of Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Die Äegiptische Helena, the chamber music sensibilities of Ariadne auf Naxos and the more conversational style of Intermezzo.

Therefore to be successful, it has to be conducted with an understanding of all the elements that Strauss had reached at this stylistic crossroads – not only of the nuances in the orchestration and the instrumental colour with which the opera is richly imbued but just as importantly a sensitivity to the ebb and flow of the vocal line.

Only then can Arabella be done full justice.

At this particular performance, Philippe Jordan disappointingly did not deliver. Not only did he conduct with metronomic precision but his tempi always felt a fraction too fast. And he failed to draw the magnificent playing I am accustomed to from this orchestra. On the whole they were lacklustre with none of the depth or colour required in every Strauss opera.

And Jordan’s unsympathetic performance in the pit directly impacted on the singers at times.

Renée Fleming sang the title role. As I have said before Renée Fleming is one of the leading – if not pre-eminent – Strauss sopranos performing today. Over the last few years her voice has developed an even more beautiful and burnished tone without any sense of sacrifice in flexibility or evenness throughout her range. I think back most recently to her Ariadne in Baden Baden under Thielemann or her concert performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder with Eschenbach.

Clearly with a sensitive and intuitive partner in the pit, Ms Fleming is a formidable singer. However as Jordan failed to give her the space or opportunity to spin out this heroine’s lines it took a while for her to warm up. There were one or two moments very early on where as a result, I believe, of trying to get Jordan to be more expansive she unexpectedly over emphasised individual syllables. And some of those moments which demanded a greater freedom of tempo – I talk here of her duets with Zdenka and Mandryka in the First Act respectively and more crucially, in the close scene at Das war sehr gut, Mandryka – the magic was undermined. With a less accomplished singer those moments might well have been tarnished or lost altogether. Fortunately for the audience, Ms Fleming has the voice , technique, musicianship and natural affinity for Strauss to carry through. As a result her Arabella was marvellous.

Having seen Michael Volle as Kurwenal in Loy’s production of Tristan und Isolde for Covent Garden I was impressed by his Mandryka which was strong both vocally and character-wise. With his rich baritone he delivered a role of intelligence and musicianship and while he may have slightly tired towards the end, he was a suitably dramatic and vocal foil to Fleming’s Arabella.

Both Julia Kleiter and Joseph Kaiser are new singers to me but they performed outstandingly as Zdenka and Matteo respectively. Again, Jordan’s rushed tempi and anti-lyrical inflexibility caused Ms Kleiter to pinch a few of her higher notes but her voice has a bell-like silvery tone. Kaiser has a pleasing tenor with suitable heft. A future Bacchus perhaps? Arabella’s parents – Kurt Rydl and Doris Soffel – completed the central ensemble, giving these two characters who are more often than not simply two-dimensional that added depth and human side. Never have I heard Adelaide sound so weary as when she expresses disappointment in her husband to Mandryka. In a single moment. Outstanding.

The remaining cast were good, the only disappointment being the Fiakermilli of Iride Martinez. While she may have had the agility for the coloratura, her voice was simply too thin and at times not only pinched but awry of pitch as well.

Having seen what I believe to have been Marco Arturo Martelli’s Tristan und Isolde ‘in a box’ as it were in Dresden, I was not surprised that he placed the entire opera within a single set, relying on revolving walls to create the different scenes. It was a nice touch when they revolved revealing sky to imply a balcony or window, but in the ball scene the lighting was too simplistic. It reminded me more of the coloured block lighting used by department stores or bars to create a sense of ambience. And what a shame that the only scenic backdrop was in the final act.

I can never make up my mind with the current directorial affectation for onstage action before the opera proper starts. Sometimes it works, particularly in the case of an overture. Here it didn’t. Having lackeys remove furniture as the audience entered the auditorium lacked any impact as it was too drawn out. And why was nothing made of the increasingly large pile of bills on the table. Also, in the original aren’t the Waldner’s staying in a hotel in Vienna?

But most disappointing was the block – quite literally – of stairs at the end. It was almost as if they were an afterthought. I’m not asking for a sweeping staircase complete with ornate balustrade, but any sense of potential drama having Arabella come down this flight of stairs was lost.

Perhaps Arabella is slightly too intimate an opera for a stage the size of that at Opéra Bastille? At times it seemed that there were large expanses of empty space in an opera that is so often focused on one or two singers and that Martelli didn’t know how to move his singers across it. His use of alter-Arabellas at the end if the Second Act was almost inspired. But the revolving walls had me worried that the dancers would waltz into them or, considering there wasn’t enough depth, that they would careen into one another. Either plenty of practice or luck meant there were no collisions but I sensed more than a few near misses.

And one final distraction worth mentioning. I am pretty sure that I spied Peter Gelb in the audience. He took his seat as the orchestra started and I am pretty sure that The Sunday Times critic Hugh Canning was trying to spot if he had returned after the interval. He didn’t. Perhaps he realised this production of Arabella wasn’t for his own House or he was on the lookout for a new baton for the Met.

Ultimately this production of Arabella belonged to the singers. Their musicianship and sense of ensemble ensured that their performances were incredibly strong. The few fault lines that did appear momentarily in their performances had more to do with what was – or was not – going on in the pit. Jordan was single-mindedly an unsympathetic Straussian from beginning to end, never once revelling in the wonderful lyricism that Richard Strauss had written on every single page of this score.

So if Gelb was indeed looking for a future baton, Jordan did himself no favours with this performance.

Viva medici.tv – Ariadne auf Naxos (Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden)

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on February 26, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Review – Saturday 25 February 2012

Ariadne/Prima Donna – Renée Fleming
The Composer – Sophie Koch
Zerbinetta – Jane Archibald
Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith
The Music Teacher – Eike Wilm Schulte
Majordomo – René Kollo
Harlequine – Nikolay Borchev
Scaramuccio – Kenneth Roberson
Truffaldino – Steven Humes
Brighella – Kevin Conners
The Dancing Master – Christian Baumgärtel
Lackey – Roman Grübner
Naiad – Christina Landshamer
Dryad – Rachel Frenkel
Echo – Lenneke Ruiten

Director & Set Designer – Philippe Arlaud 

Costumes – Andrea Uhmann
Conductor – Christian Thielemann
Staatskapelle Dresden

Having seen The Met’s production of Götterdämmerung, as a HD live transmission a few weeks ago it seemed but a small step to watch a live stream of an opera via my laptop from the comfort of my own home.

It is something I have always considered doing but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon medici.tv that I decided it was time. And it had everything to do with lure of Ariadne auf Naxos from the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden. Plus the fact that my MacBook Pro has a rather generous screen.

First things first. medici.tv is an exemplary service and technically the live stream was faultless. Good value at about 7€ a per month a quick scan of its catalogue persuaded me to take out a subscription – even if some of the performances and recitals are currently geoblocked in the UK.

However the main driver for watching the performance was Renée Fleming’s role debut as Ariadne/The Prima Donna. And having seen her live as the Marschallin and Madeleine, the Countess in Capriccio she did not disappoint. I have said it before, Renée Fleming is a brilliant Strauss interpreter – his vocal lines suit her perfectly, and over the years her voice has developed an even warmer and burnished tone throughout its range without losing any of its flexibility. Es gibt ein Reich was simply beautiful – and Fleming demonstrated not only the smoothest of legato phrasing but complete control of the dynamic range of the scene with light and dark shading of her voice. However while this was for me the highlight of the evening – when she sang ‘totenreich’ it sent a shiver down my spine – hers was a faultless performance throughout. In particular her final duet with her Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith – was wonderful, again with not even a hint of strain.

I had previously seen Sophie Koch at Covent Garden – first as Octavian and then in her role debut as Brangäne in Loy’s much-maligned – but personally loved – production of Tristan und Isolde. I do hope ROH revive it. As The Composer – looking somewhat like Charlie Chaplin to me – she had a pretty convincing grasp of the taxing vocal line that Strauss had written for the character. However there were times when there was clearly strain at the top of the voice and occasionally a more fluid legato line was wanting. However a strong performance nonetheless.

The surprise of the evening was Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta. Not only must the soprano who takes on this role be a formidable singer, she must also be a good actor. Ms Archibald had both in spades. Not only did she inhabit the character completely – flirtatious, vivacious and, to me at least, more than a little wise – but she had great stage presence. Even over broadband. And vocally she was impressive. Her performance of Grossmächtige Prinzessin! was not only vocally impressive but intelligently performed. Quite rightly she was applauded at the end of the scena and at the end of the performance.

Similarly it was great to see The Majordomo reprised by René Kollo. Often taken – and usually with great aplomb – by actors Kollo brought his vast experience, including the insight of singing Bacchus himself, to the role. Masterful.

Strauss has never been kind to his tenors. I think of The Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten for example, and similarly in Ariadne auf Naxos he doesn’t seem to warm to them much. The vocal line often sits uncomfortably high for many singers but in Baden-Baden Robert Dean Smith acquitted himself brilliantly. Vocally clear and bright his final duet with Ms Fleming was, as I have said already, wonderful. You could almost believe they were wandering off into the sunset.

It’s often easy to forget that – possibly more than his other operas – Ariadne auf Naxos is an ensemble piece from the very beginning. And the ensemble at the Festspielhaus was excellent. However special mention must go to Roman Grübner for his clear voice and slick acting as The Lackey, he three nymphs – Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel and Lenneke Ruiten – and the comedia dell’arte inspired troupe – Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners as well as Christian Baumgärtel’s Dancing Master.

And what of the production? This is the fourth production I have seen. I’ve watch the Metropolitan Opera production on DVD and many moons ago saw the production at English National Opera in the early 1990s (quite possibly my first exposure to the work as well as to Richard Strauss). More recently I saw the production at Covent Garden complete with its rising floor.

I have to admit I enjoyed the Baden-Baden production. It was unfussy and simple and clearly Phillipe Arlaud was more than inspired, it seemed, by Hollywood. I have already mentioned Koch’s Chaplin-esque Composer but even Renée Fleming had the hint of a 1950s starlet about her. Although her outfit in the Opera reminded me tangentially of two unrelated things. Firstly her look brought to mind Elizabeth Connell who sadly died recently. But also of the costume allegedly worn by Mary, Queen of Scots for her execution – a black gown hiding a Catholic-martyr red dress beneath. And Zerbinetta has something of the Sally Bowles about her.

And clichéd though it might be, the sight of Ariadne and Bacchus walking off into the night was simple and effective.

It all worked and I don’t think Arlaud deserved the boos when he came on stage.

The conductor, Christian Thielemann, is more than an accomplished interpreter of Strauss and he led the Staatskapelle Dresden throughout with great distinction and clear love for the score. And while it might be almost impossible to judge this from a live stream to a laptop, there was clearly a strong connection between the pit and the ensemble on stage.

So a night of firsts. Ms Fleming’s first ever Ariadne, and I hope that one day I will see her perform the role live on stage. For me, my first ever live-to-laptop streaming. And it’s definitely something I will be doing again. I can’t say it will ever replace the thrill, excitement and atmosphere of a live performance but time and money preclude me from attending every thing I might want to see.

And I heartily recommend that everyone sign up for medici.tv.

A great find.

Viva medici.tv – Ariadne auf Naxos (Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden)

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on February 26, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Review – Saturday 25 February 2012

Ariadne/Prima Donna – Renée Fleming
The Composer – Sophie Koch
Zerbinetta – Jane Archibald
Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith
The Music Teacher – Eike Wilm Schulte
Majordomo – René Kollo
Harlequine – Nikolay Borchev
Scaramuccio – Kenneth Roberson
Truffaldino – Steven Humes
Brighella – Kevin Conners
The Dancing Master – Christian Baumgärtel
Lackey – Roman Grübner
Naiad – Christina Landshamer
Dryad – Rachel Frenkel
Echo – Lenneke Ruiten

Director & Set Designer – Philippe Arlaud 

Costumes – Andrea Uhmann
Conductor – Christian Thielemann
Staatskapelle Dresden

Having seen The Met’s production of Götterdämmerung, as a HD live transmission a few weeks ago it seemed but a small step to watch a live stream of an opera via my laptop from the comfort of my own home.

It is something I have always considered doing but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon medici.tv that I decided it was time. And it had everything to do with lure of Ariadne auf Naxos from the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden. Plus the fact that my MacBook Pro has a rather generous screen.

First things first. medici.tv is an exemplary service and technically the live stream was faultless. Good value at about 7€ a per month a quick scan of its catalogue persuaded me to take out a subscription – even if some of the performances and recitals are currently geoblocked in the UK.

However the main driver for watching the performance was Renée Fleming’s role debut as Ariadne/The Prima Donna. And having seen her live as the Marschallin and Madeleine, the Countess in Capriccio she did not disappoint. I have said it before, Renée Fleming is a brilliant Strauss interpreter – his vocal lines suit her perfectly, and over the years her voice has developed an even warmer and burnished tone throughout its range without losing any of its flexibility. Es gibt ein Reich was simply beautiful – and Fleming demonstrated not only the smoothest of legato phrasing but complete control of the dynamic range of the scene with light and dark shading of her voice. However while this was for me the highlight of the evening – when she sang ‘totenreich’ it sent a shiver down my spine – hers was a faultless performance throughout. In particular her final duet with her Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith – was wonderful, again with not even a hint of strain.

I had previously seen Sophie Koch at Covent Garden – first as Octavian and then in her role debut as Brangäne in Loy’s much-maligned – but personally loved – production of Tristan und Isolde. I do hope ROH revive it. As The Composer – looking somewhat like Charlie Chaplin to me – she had a pretty convincing grasp of the taxing vocal line that Strauss had written for the character. However there were times when there was clearly strain at the top of the voice and occasionally a more fluid legato line was wanting. However a strong performance nonetheless.

The surprise of the evening was Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta. Not only must the soprano who takes on this role be a formidable singer, she must also be a good actor. Ms Archibald had both in spades. Not only did she inhabit the character completely – flirtatious, vivacious and, to me at least, more than a little wise – but she had great stage presence. Even over broadband. And vocally she was impressive. Her performance of Grossmächtige Prinzessin! was not only vocally impressive but intelligently performed. Quite rightly she was applauded at the end of the scena and at the end of the performance.

Similarly it was great to see The Majordomo reprised by René Kollo. Often taken – and usually with great aplomb – by actors Kollo brought his vast experience, including the insight of singing Bacchus himself, to the role. Masterful.

Strauss has never been kind to his tenors. I think of The Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten for example, and similarly in Ariadne auf Naxos he doesn’t seem to warm to them much. The vocal line often sits uncomfortably high for many singers but in Baden-Baden Robert Dean Smith acquitted himself brilliantly. Vocally clear and bright his final duet with Ms Fleming was, as I have said already, wonderful. You could almost believe they were wandering off into the sunset.

It’s often easy to forget that – possibly more than his other operas – Ariadne auf Naxos is an ensemble piece from the very beginning. And the ensemble at the Festspielhaus was excellent. However special mention must go to Roman Grübner for his clear voice and slick acting as The Lackey, he three nymphs – Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel and Lenneke Ruiten – and the comedia dell’arte inspired troupe – Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners as well as Christian Baumgärtel’s Dancing Master.

And what of the production? This is the fourth production I have seen. I’ve watch the Metropolitan Opera production on DVD and many moons ago saw the production at English National Opera in the early 1990s (quite possibly my first exposure to the work as well as to Richard Strauss). More recently I saw the production at Covent Garden complete with its rising floor.

I have to admit I enjoyed the Baden-Baden production. It was unfussy and simple and clearly Phillipe Arlaud was more than inspired, it seemed, by Hollywood. I have already mentioned Koch’s Chaplin-esque Composer but even Renée Fleming had the hint of a 1950s starlet about her. Although her outfit in the Opera reminded me tangentially of two unrelated things. Firstly her look brought to mind Elizabeth Connell who sadly died recently. But also of the costume allegedly worn by Mary, Queen of Scots for her execution – a black gown hiding a Catholic-martyr red dress beneath. And Zerbinetta has something of the Sally Bowles about her.

And clichéd though it might be, the sight of Ariadne and Bacchus walking off into the night was simple and effective.

It all worked and I don’t think Arlaud deserved the boos when he came on stage.

The conductor, Christian Thielemann, is more than an accomplished interpreter of Strauss and he led the Staatskapelle Dresden throughout with great distinction and clear love for the score. And while it might be almost impossible to judge this from a live stream to a laptop, there was clearly a strong connection between the pit and the ensemble on stage.

So a night of firsts. Ms Fleming’s first ever Ariadne, and I hope that one day I will see her perform the role live on stage. For me, my first ever live-to-laptop streaming. And it’s definitely something I will be doing again. I can’t say it will ever replace the thrill, excitement and atmosphere of a live performance but time and money preclude me from attending every thing I might want to see.

And I heartily recommend that everyone sign up for medici.tv.

A great find.

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.

Time Stood Still.

In Classical Music, Review, Richard Strauss on December 16, 2011 at 11:06 am

Review – Renée Fleming, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach

Renée Fleming is one of today’s leading interpreters of Richard Strauss – if not the leading exponent of his music. Of course I may be biased as she is one of the few sopranos that I will readily travel abroad to see in performance, but there is no denying that her interpretations of some of his greatest characters are second-to-none. Here I refer to her Marshallin that I have seen more than once and her Countess in Capriccio for example.

Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder are at the pinnacle of any soprano’s repertory and Ms Fleming herself has recorded them twice superlatively, first in 1996 with Christoph Eschenbach and then again in 2006 with Christian Thielemann.

There is no denying that these four songs are a perfect match for Ms Fleming’s incredible voice and innate sense of musicianship. Over the years she has a developed the closest performance relationship with each of the individual songs as well as the set as a whole.

And nothing was clearer than in her performance of these songs at the Royal Festival Hall conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. There was almost a sense of reunion considering that Eschenbach also conducted Ms Fleming on her Strauss Heroines disc – another perfect recital.

However, before Ms Fleming took to the stage, the concert started with the overture to Wagner’s Tannhauser. Eschenbach is a thoughtful conductor and clearly is a ‘devil-in-the-detail’ man. He drew an almost ‘Germanic’ sound from the orchestra as the opening bars unfolded, the woodwind beautiful pointed and the cellos were breathtaking in the richness of their opening entry. The ensuing allegro, taken at a speed more resolute than Bacchanalian was, nonetheless, a pretty thrilling experience with conductor pulling out orchestra detail that is often missed. Brass were suitably weighty but never threatened to drown out their colleagues.

However nothing could have prepared me – or the audience – for what came next. I admit that I had listened to Ms Fleming and Eschenbach’s 1996 recording of the Strauss earlier in the day, and was reminded of the slower than expected tempi adopted. Yet their performance hadn’t suffered any for those slower speeds and gave Ms Fleming the opportunity to dwell lovingly on Strauss’ vocal line, creating a particular intensity

At the Royal Festival Hall, Fruhling opened at a slightly faster pace than in their recording but Eschenbach highlighted the exquisite orchestral detail that is so often missing in other performances. Ms Fleming’s burnished and bronzed tone sailed through in the vocal line, rising effortlessly above the orchestra, and diction perfect. Her entry at Du kennst mich wieder was a wonderful lesson in control.

From September and the subsequent songs however, Eschenbach slowed the tempi down considerably – perhaps even slower than their original recording. The effect was amazing. It concentrated the attention of the audience completely. Indeed, such was there concentration that I almost felt that many didn’t even breathe during the songs themselves which would have accounted for an almost excessive barrage of coughing in between.

The slow tempi proved no obstacle for Ms Fleming. Indeed for her it seemed an opportunity to revel in, and almost caress, Strauss’ expansive vocal lines and pay particular attention to the text, investing each individual word with significance. In complete control of her voice, she coloured individual phrases, displayed great dynamic control.

In some way, Ms Fleming and Eschenbach created an incredibly intimate performance, almost as if she wasn’t singing to the audience as a whole but to each and everyone one personally.

In Beim Schlafengehen, never have I heard the orchestral texture at Hände laβt von allem Tun drive home the literal sense of the words as Eschenbach eased back even more on the tempo momentarily. Additionally I would more normally want a greater sense of crescendo at Und die Seele unbewatcht, yet the sense of intimacy already created by soprano and orchestra made the restraint shown all the more thrilling. As she drew the song to its final close, she once again displayed absolute control of the vocal line, making each closing phrase an expansive breath. Mesmerising.

Despite a slightly muffled start to Im Abendrot, the final song was truly valedictorian as the soprano placed each word carefully before the audience, wrapped as ever in her wonderfully rich tone. As in the earlier three songs, Eschenbach never permitted the orchestra to play over the voice, again adding to that sense of real intimacy. The flute birdsong, often played intrusively against the soprano, was delicately placed and played throughout.

And indeed as Ms Fleming moved towards the final line of the poem Eschenbach pushed the tempo even slower. Suddenly time seemed to literally stop as she intoned Ist dies etwa der Tod?. Indeed it felt as if Eschenbach and Fleming were literally leading us through the final moments of the narrator, his/her heartbeat gradually slowing from the opening bars of Fruhling as death approached.

As her final note died away, Eschenbach led the orchestra to the final bars and let the sound die away naturally. Indeed while the London Philharmonic seemed to struggle in following Eschenbach on occasion in the songs, the rapt ending they delivered more than made up for any previous inconsistency.

Renée Fleming and Christoph Eschenbach delivered a mesmerising performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder. Clearly they share a longstanding and deeply felt relationship with the songs over many years. As I have said in a previous post, there seem to be two camps when considering performances of these songs – the ‘grand gesture’ versus the more intimate performance. This was clearly in the second category Personally, the focus and concentration, combined with a real sense of musicianship and involvement in the songs took the whole experience to a deeper level.

Ms Fleming returned to the stage – to rapturous applause – for a single encore – Strauss’ Waldseligkeit. This is a darkly-hued work, emerging from an orchestral denseness that was perfectly captured by Eschenbach and the orchestra. Ms Fleming brightly rose above the orchestra, negotiating the awkward – and unexpected – harmonic shifts with ease and grace and once again demonstrating her Straussian credentials.

In the second half Eschenbach led the London Philharmonic through Beethoven’s Seventh symphony. I say ‘led’ as, still deeply in awe of Chailly’s Beethoven with the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig, while the symphony under Eschenbach was well played, it was the notes that were well played rather than interpreted. However it was still a credible performance and brought the evening to a strong and enjoyable end.

Yet the evening belong – inevitably – to Renée Fleming and her performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder. Indeed I always judge a good evening by my choice of music as I head home. If the concert is anything but excellent, chances are that I will select something different. If the performance was exceptional then I am drawn to listen to the same piece.

On this occasion? Ms Fleming’s 1996 recording of the View Letzte Lieder conducted by Maestro Eschenbach.

Bliss.

Related Blogs:
1. Follow The Lieder – Richard Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder

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