Posts Tagged ‘Richard Strauss’

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.


Semi-Detached Strauss

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on November 8, 2012 at 11:51 am

Richard Strauss – Three Hymns & Opera Arias (Soile Isokoski, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra & Okko Kamu)

Soile Isokoski is among today’s cohort of Strauss sopranos. I have seen her as both Strauss’ Marschallin and Countess, as well as in concert recital. She is also a fine Mozartian and is a singer I will continue to keep an eye out in terms of seeing her live.

And now, following an excellent recording of Strauss lieder including the Vier Letzte Lieder as well as a disc of opera arias, Ms Isokoski returns with a second Strauss recital of his Drei Hymnen as well as selected cuts from Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier and Capriccio.

Undeniably, Ms Isokoski has the bright and clear soprano suited to Strauss (and Mozart) in terms of its flexibility and range. Underscoring the beauty of her voice is a firm technique which allows her to spin the oft-required long-breathed phrases with relative ease.

But while all the notes are there and the sound Ms Isokoski produces is beautiful and sometimes verging on the stunning, with this recording – and on those occasions when I have seen her on stage – there is something lacking.

It’s characterisation.

Occasionally there’s a hint of it. Often not more than a fleeting hint as she glides over the music. And it is over the music she glides rather than immersing herself in it. As a result, her Ariadne sounds no different to her Marschallin or to her Capriccio Countess.

There’s a sense of detachment from both the music and the words for the greater part of the recital. Clearly it’s always a challenge to perform excerpts ‘cold’, but even then there can – and should – always be a greater investment in the words. And particularly in the case of Strauss where words were as important as the music he writes for them and around them.

Yet it is clear that the problem doesn’t lie exclusively with Ms Isokoski. Okko Kamu and the players of the of the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra provide some of the most lacklustre and bland playing I’ve heard for a long time. Kamu leads the orchestra, but there’s no sense of direction or dramatic focus.

For example, Es gibt Ein Reich is taken at a brisker pace than expected. Nothing wrong with that except that there is very little, if any, ebb and flow in the music. More disappointingly, there is little dynamic shading, rhythmic snap or colouring in the wonderful orchestral textures that Strauss wrapped around the vocal line. The result is that the wonderful climax, the sense of excitement – rapture almost – as the scene draws to a close isn’t there.

Similarly in the two selections from Der Rosenkavalier. The first excerpt, Die zeitgeist, die ist Ein sonderbar is an unusual choice coming as it does within the larger set piece dialogue with Octavian. Perhaps it would have been better to dispense with this and extend the more famous monologue Das geht er hin and get a real Octavian in and run through to the end if the act? Sadly Ms Isokoski is one dimensional in this monologue from the start even failing to relish “der aufgeblasene schlechte Kerl” and while there are hints of an attempt at deeper characterisation it doesn’t really go anywhere. And again Kamu trips the orchestra along at a pace with just a little more flexibility that previously.

The orchestral introduction preceding the Countess’ monologue from Capriccio is, I’m afraid to say, not so much bland as lazy. There is no sense that Kamu is marshalling his orchestral forces sufficiently or with any sense of the overall architecture. The horn player hits all the notes admittedly, but under Kamu there is no sense of momentum towards the wonderful orchestral surge that takes up the theme. And the final and what should be magnificent orchestral climax is marred by over played brass.

The monologue gets off to a noisy start and Ms Isokoski shows more promise initially than in the preceding scenes. In fact in terms of balance it is almost as if she has moved slightly forward of the orchestra. Sadly when she get to Kein andres she falls back into singing the notes. And simply singing the notes. There is no mystery in this scene.

Not surprisingly Ms Isokoski and the orchestra come off slightly better in the Drei Hymen on poems by Hölderlin. There’s a more distinct – almost luscious – bloom in the orchestral music – particularly in Hymne an die Liebe – and she is definitely more engaged in the music. But again what is lacking is an overall sense of direction. These are not short songs. The opening song is just shy of nine minutes but loses momentum at the midpoint from which it never really recovers. And while Kamu and the orchestra start well with the filigree scoring of Ruckkehr in die Heimat and there is some robust rhythmic interplay which spurs on Ms Isokoski, once again it seems to fizzle out. The same of the final song, Die Liebe which is possibly the most successful of the three and the most convincing track on the disc. Punchy brass at the beginning bode well and there’s some jaunty wind playing in the central section. But the conductor doesn’t really weave it all together so that the impact of the closing section, at which point Strauss pens one of his expansive and beautiful vocal lines and nostalgically winds the music down, is lost.

So in many ways this is a frustrating album. Ms Isokoski sounds beautiful. Admittedly there is the smallest hint of strain at the top of her range – which I think has more to do with the vocal athleticism that Strauss requires of any soprano – and some creeping vibrato but the sound she produces is beautiful.

But there is a lack of substance and depth. Of interpretation. Of wonder.

So is it a case of unsympathetic support from Kamu and his players? There’s no denying that the orchestra can play the music but there’s a nagging doubt in my mind that they go from the first bar to the last just paying the notes on the stave, led but not directed by Kamu.

I just have to wonder if, under a different baton but not necessarily a different orchestra, Ms Isokoski would have fared better and the result might have been a more accomplished, heartfelt and convincing set of performances?

Driven To Distraction

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

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

Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 26 September 2012

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

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor – Vladimir Jurowski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A ‘LuSch’ FroSch in Clever Vienna

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on March 21, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Wien Staatsoper, 17 March 2012)

Der Kaiser/Emperor – Robert Dean Smith
Die Kaiserin/Empress- Adrianne Pieczonka
Die Amme/Nurse – Birgit Remmert
Barak The Dyer – Wolfgang Koch
Sein Weib/The Dyer’s Wife – Evelyn Herlitzius

Director – Robert Carsen
Conductor – Franz Welser-Möst
Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra & Chorus

Vienna, the home of The Secession, Freud, Jung and arguably the creative and spiritual home of Richard Strauss himself. The premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten (‘FroSch’ as Strauss affectionately referred to it in correspondence with his librettist, von Hofmannstahl) was held in the city in 1919 and Richard Carsen’s thoughtful and well-paced production is in some ways an homage to the city itself both musically, culturally and philosophically.

It’s impossible not to start with Carsen’s production itself. I have previously seen his Iphigénie at Covent Garden with Susan Graham and was impressed with the real sense of claustrophobia he created which added to Gluck’s drama.

In the same way, this was possibly the strongest production of ‘FroSch’ I have seen either on stage or screen. It achieved an almost perfect balance of superb singing combined with intelligent and vital support from conductor and pit and married to an insightful yet challenging production.

And all this in Strauss’ most complex and challenging collaboration with von Hofmannsthal.

Over and above the incredible density of the libretto with its symbolism the biggest challenge for any director is how and where to set the opera. Kasper Holten created and successfully delivered a well-executed fantasy world with nods to manga and animé; Jonathan Kent‘s production opted for a fantasy world that confused chinoiserie and the Ivan Bilibin’s Russian fairytale illustrations with a backstreet launderette in Putin’s morally and politically corrupt Russia. While these interpretations worked – bar the incredibly flawed and poor music-making of Gergiev and his untidy band from the Mariinsky – in the sense that they placed von Hofmannsthal’s drama in a make-believe world they both left me wanting for a deeper emotional interpretation of the drama.

Refreshingly, Carsen’s production firmly rooted the drama in a modern yet simultaneously a timeless world where the emotional drama was played out through the lens of psychoanalysis, a fitting tribute to the city where the discipline was born. I say timeless as the staging and the costumes alluded to succeeding centuries. The Nurse for example looked like she’d stepped of the latest TV hospital drama, but the robes of Empress and Dyer’s Wife and the shirt collars of the Emperor and Barak hinted at the previous Secession era.

The opera opens in a bedroom. The Nurse, in a white coat of the medical fraternity is observing her patient The Empress who is sleeping. The Messenger arrives – The Nurse’s medical colleague – and consults The Empress’ notes while delivering the ultimatum that unless she gains a shadow the Emperor will turn to stone. In a clever coup-de-théâtre the backdrop then fades to reveal a mirror image of the original room and the entrance of The Emperor. Yet this alter-space had one tiny and significant difference – the photo on the desk was not of The Emperor, but with it’s black ribbon at one corner, it was the photo of a dead man.

Keikobad – father of The Empress – is dead.

In a single fade and with so subtlety placed a visual motif I almost missed it, Carsen has revealed his intention and direction of travel. He has abolished any sense of fairytale and instead we are in the world of a daughter locked in a world of grief which is impacting on her marriage. As a result the symbolism of gaining a shadow takes on new perspectives. Not only is The Nurse the only character who is able to cross into The Emperor’s world as well as the various planes that Carsen constructs as the drama unfolds, but the very nature of what the ‘shadow’ represents is open to interpretation.

When The Empress wakes up it is clear that The Nurse is more psychoanalyst that pill-administering doctor. The significance of the three-day deadline takes on a new hue. To cure her. To find a breakthrough in her breakdown.

For Carsen, when The Empress begs The Nurse to take her to ‘the human world’ to find a shadow this isn’t about a physical journey but rather a journey into her own mind. That is where the problem lies and it is the intervention of psychoanalysis that will uncover it.

Again Carsen’s attention to detail and obsession with telling a clear narrative come to the fore as the fade returns us to the alter-world but this time a world wrecked and ruined with broken furniture and the chaos of mess. Clothes everywhere and tables overturned.

And The Dyer’s Wife is The Empress alter ego except she is dishevelled, distressed and desperate. Carsen’s reinterpretation of the relationship between the two women is a masterstroke. He removes the normal physical tension between these two protagonists and instead melds them into one. And he created a similar parallel between The Emperor and Barak. For me the question posed was this – was The Empress truly in her own mind or was what we were seeing in Barak and his Wife the true reality of her life?

It was here that the subtlety of the lighting became even more evident. The creation of shadow and shade is an important tool in any theatre or opera director’s kit of parts and when used with intelligence can be incredible effective. Here it was clear that careful thought had been given to its role. Tellingly Carsen ensured that The Empress never cast a shadow. She was always in the shade – a voyeur within her own mind. And only The Nurse was visible to Barak’s Wife.

Strauss’ opera is full of challenges and none is more challenging than how to handle the somewhat unexpected Night Watchman’s chorus that closes the first act. Holten for example placed them off-stage as his Dyer’s Wife – Linda Watson – gazed longingly at the metropolis that eluded her.

Carsen’s solution was similarly tidy. He used it as the leverage to literally lift the walls of the set and symbolically I believe to lift the walls of The Empress’ mind. The start of the intervention that might lead to a cure.

The Second Act continued along this route with the same attention to detail by Carsen and his creative team. Interestingly the appearance of a true nude – and more than physically beautiful – young man (where do they find them?) elicited no response from the Viennese audience. In London such a theatrical – and justifiable act – would have raised sighs of indignation or titters. But in this act, the most incredible moment – both dramaturgically and musically – was the dream sequence. With Kammersängerin Pieczonka hanging precariously – so it seemed – from her vertical bed we finally came to confront what we had always suspected had led to her ‘breakdown’ – the death of her father. Using a film projected onto gauze we switched from Ms Piezoncka’s amazing performance to a film of her adolescent-self going through the door of her father’s bedroom and inadvertently witnessing his death. Again Carsen tied his interpretation back to the text of von Hofmannsthal with closing images of the father tying a pendant – the talisman of the libretto – around his daughter’s neck. It was gripping and literally the stuff that psychoanalysis is made of.

In the Final Act the momentum continued. First of all, and in a scene similar to that in Copenhagen Barak and his Wife were alone on a bare stage, enclosed in cubes of light. As each came to the self-realisation of their love together then a door – the door from the previous film – opened at the back of the stage. The first step in freeing the alter egos of The Empress’ mind and beginning her own journey of recovery.

And Carsen’s interpretation of the Empress and The Nurse as they journeyed towards Keikobad was deftly dealt with. The Empress realises what she must to as a giant version – and I do mean giant – of the door to her father’s bedroom opens at the back of the stage. And The Nurse is left to face The Messenger/Doctor who proceeds to pull apart The Empress’ file page by page. As he abandons her, the prone bodies that have been lying on the floor – and perhaps her past patients – rise up and mob The Nurse, their own cases studies in hand.

The penultimate scene returns us to the bedroom of The Empress. Here the symbolism of the water in the previous film is brought to the fore as she finally faces up to her fears over the death of her father. It is not The Emperor that is turning to stone but her marriage bed before she finally gathers the strength to symbolically pull away the covers. Again the whole scene – so brilliantly directed – was made all the more luminous by Ms Pieczonka’s mesmerising performance and the incredibly simple but effective achievement of her shadow.

Again the final scene presents a challenge. For Holt it was an opportunity to raise – if rather late in the day of the production itself – questions over the pro-life argument. I can’t even remember how Kent managed it as by then all I wanted to do was leave.

For Carsen it seemed to be a combination of a metaphysical response to the proceeding drama mixed with – if I am honest – it seemed to me a 1950s Hollywood film interpretation of, well, Heaven. And weirdly it worked brilliantly. In front of a plain white canvas which so effectively projected the shadows – children of those on stage – the closing scene became a paean to love. It should have been schmaltzy but it simply wasn’t. And it worked.

To put it simply. Carsen had taken an incredibly complicated fairytale and remodelled it – bravely and I think successfully – as a modern love story.

And if Carsen’s vision was strong and consistent then the singing was some of the best have seen not only in FroSch but in a long time on any stage.

As I have said previously, Strauss does not write music that is kind to men. With the exception of Baron Ochs and the Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier, the roles for men in this and Ariadne for example are unforgiving. So full marks to both Robert Dean Smith and Wolfgang Koch for riding for the most part above the orchestra and delivering musically accomplished performances.

All the off-stage roles – and in particular Chen Reiss – was similarly of a high calibre. But it was the three leading ladies who stole the evening.

The Nurse is an incredibly challenging role and after a slightly shaky start Birgit Remmert delivered a strong and characterful performance. Hers is a dark timbred soprano and while she occasionally displayed some vocal unevenness manoeuvred the demands of the score with success.

Evelyn Herlitzius as The Dyer’s Wife was mesmerising and she brought to the role hints of both Elektra and Salome. Vocally bright and clear for me she on occasion tended towards stridency although I think that perhaps this was more a case of pacing herself than vocal problems. Her acting was faultless and for me the most telling moment of her incredible talent was at the very beginning of her appearance when she almost – but only almost – seemed to fold into herself and surrender to her husband’s affections before turning on him.

However the highlight of the evening was The Empress of Adrianne Pieczonka. An eminent Straussian – most memorably I saw her as the Marschallin in Munich – she delivered an incredibly strong, insightful and musical performance. The Empress is not an easy role buy any means but Ms Pieczonka not only managed the vocal demands of the score itself not only in terms of the soaring vocal lines but also rode above the orchestra while maintaining the highest level of musicianship and intelligent interpretation. Her is a voice of great warmth and depth with a lustrous even tone through her entire register. Combined with an innate sense in terms of acting the role, never have I seen or heard the penultimate scene performed so wonderfully. And as I have said, her dream sequence was mesmerising. Indeed the Wiener Zeitung’s review – “Märchenhaft schattige Kaiserin” – was full of praise for her performance and called her inspiring (“begeisternd”).

And in the pit, Welser-Möst commanded the score and drew the most luxuriant and luminous playing from the orchestra. The brass were bright, the woodwind were pointed and the strings burnished. A Straussian par excellence, he unfolded Strauss’ wonderful music but never lost sight of the transparency needed even in the most heavily orchestrated moments to ensure that the singers were supported. And above all else, Welser-Möst demonstrated – and as the programme argued – that Die Frau ohne Schatten is the last ‘Romantic’ opera.

I hope against hope that this production will be recorded in some format. It was one of those rare nights when the highest level of musicianship was drawn from an amazing ensemble of singers which then combined on stage under the careful and intelligent direction of Carsen to produce a most memorable evening.

If I could I would return this weekend (24 March) and experience it all over again.

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.


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

“Muses to Murder” – Wagner & Strauss Scenes

In Classical Music, Opera, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner on November 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Review: Elizabeth Connell, Queensland Orchestra & Muhai Tang.

First of all let’s dispense with the title of this CD. It always perplexes me why labels sometimes feel the need to label recitals with the most ridiculous titles. While this might not be the worst, it’s almost definitely in the top ten perhaps because at the end of the day it’s a rather broad and sweeping title that isn’t strictly accurate. Who did Brunnhilde murder? Whose muse was she? Certainly not Siegfried’s. Nor Wotan’s. And murder-one-step removed – in fact revenge in one instance – slightly muddies the waters.

However the unfortunate title cannot distract from the fact that Elizabeth Connell delivers a very credible and rewarding recital disc. Ms Connell is – as witnessed by her amazing performance of Turandot at Covent Garden in 2008 – an accomplished and intelligent singer with strong, bullish top notes, excellent control throughout her register – with wonderful low chest notes and a bright gleaming top – and in terms of dynamics and tone she has the heft needed for the most challenging roles. And coupled to this is her accomplished ability to deliver the words clearly and with real meaning. Being an ‘old school’ dramatic soprano I can almost imagine her earliest teachers – and perhaps even Reginald Gooddall during her participation in his masterful Ring Cycle for Sadler’s Wells Opera as one of the Valkyrie – recounting “Diction, diction, diction” in her formative lessons.

Ms Connell tackles the two most popular bleeding chunks’ of Wagner – Isolde’s Liebestod and the Immolation scene from Gotterdammerung as well as scenes from Elektra – interestingly though not the Recognition scene – Salome and Ariadne auf Naxos.

It is always a challenge in recital either on CD or stage to launch from a standing-start into the most dramatic of scenes, particularly in Wagner and Strauss. And here Ms Connell goes straight in with the opening monologue from Elektra – Allein! Weh, ganz allein. A rhythmically opening from the orchestra, with plangent winds helps to set the scene – and generally throughout the Queensland Orchestra, conducted by Muhai Tang provides very strong support. Listen, for example, to the carefully placed and precise brass chords at “Agamemnon, Agamemnon, Wo bist du, Vater?” and the lilting walz at “wie ein Schatten dort im Mauerwinkel zeig dich deinem Kind”.

Her opening “Allein” belies the power and heft that Ms Connell gradually and with control unleashes as the music moves beyond the Agamemnon motif to the first iteration of the ‘dance’ motif carried with great momentum forward by the orchestra to the end of the scene. As well as pointing out the more lyrical elements of Strauss’ line it is also notable how the soprano brings to the front the almost sprechtimme-like elements of the vocal line (“wir treiben sie vor dem Grab zusammen, und sie ahnen dem Tod und wiehern in die Todesluft”) and similarly her attention not only to diction but the actual meaning behind the words is nothing more than ‘muscular’. Listen her delivery of phrases such as “Es ist die Stunde, unsre Stunde ist’s, die Stunde, wo sie dich geschlachtet haben” through her retelling of her father’s murder for example. Revelling in the words, this is clearly a role that sits at the centre of Ms Connell’s repertory.

Es gibt ein Reich from Ariadne auf Naxos takes us to a more pastoral plain and displays Ms Connell’s more lyrical side. Along with the Marschallin’s scena – “Da geht er hin, der aufgeblasne, schlecte Kerl” – in the first act of Der Rosenkavalier, this is one of my favourite Strauss monologues and what’s makes this performance stand out over and above her creamy, warm tone is her rhythmic alertness without any sense of snatching any of the notes that can sometimes be missed in other performances. For example at “Wie lechte Vögel, Wie welke Blätter, Treibt er sie hin”. Again she carefully paces her voice making her entry at “Du wirst mich befreien, Mir selber mich geben” all the more thrilling with Tang giving her just the slightest opportunity by reining back the tempo.

And with that gentle yet musically persuasive aria we are suddenly back in the more neurotic sound world of Salome. Tang launches the orchestra straight in with great vigour and Connell’s somewhat brittle opening vocal line seems totally appropriate. Again she both revels in and points up the more lyrical elements of this closing scene as well as clearly annunciating the more ‘spoken-style’ passages, switching from one to the other with incredible ease which only helps to underline the character’s neuroses. In terms of dynamic control here she displays incredible control by scaling her voice right back to match the chamber-like orchestration of most of this scene. But heft is never far from reach with thrilling effect. But nothing underlines her characterization of the character as her entry at Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan, clearly indicated as “listlessly” by Strauss, and Connell draining her voice of all colour until the final closing phrases when she returns her voice to full and radiant bloom alongside the orchestra itself repeating Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ich habe ihn geküßt, deinen Mund before Strauss brings proceeding to an abrupt and violent end.

Tang leads the orchestra in a rather literal almost academic performance of the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde to take us to Ms Connell in the Liebstod. In truth her Wagner performances on this disc are not exactly on par with the scene from Strauss earlier but they are still riveting.

As Isolde I was left wanting for that added dimension to her voice similar to that in both her Elektra and Salome previously. As before she clearly has the heft for the role but every so often the lyricism that the Liebestod requires was missing. But as with the Prelude, there was something distinctly ‘academic’ about the orchestra’s support and in this piece, more than in other Wagner, the momentum and support of the orchestra is all important if the soprano is to feel confident in the soaring vocal line.

The Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung however is ‘on the money’. Crisp rhythms from the orchestra are carried through into Connell’s vocal line in a way that many performers fail to do. And again, she marshals her vocal forces with intelligence and with some distinct word painting. Listen for example to der Reinste war er, der mich verriet! Die Gattin trügend and indeed the carefully placed syllables and dynamic control of Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott have never before sounded so chilling. Less a daughter wishing her father well than a woman seeking revenge.

Tang and the orchestra are more intuitive in this scene that previously in Tristan und Isolde. Tang maintains the momentum throughout and there is – as I have mentioned – a rhythmic alertness to the playing together with bright and pointed wind and brass playing. Connell reacts positively, saving her finest vocal heft for the closing moments with the conductor never letting up on the momentum and not – as some conductors have a wont – to pull on the brakes immediately after Selig grüsst dich dein Weib. Instead Tang maintains the direction of travel with the orchestra as the major leitmotivs of The Ring fill the final bars and only finally gives slightly more breadth to the Redemption theme, quite literally, the closing bars.

Elizabeth Connell delivers a musically intelligent recital. It is always a challenge when delivering ‘bleeding chunks’ of Wagner and Strauss to create a real sense of characterization. Connell rises to and – with the exception of her Isolde and only slightly less so – exceeds the challenge. She creates a series of credible portrayals and demonstrates that she is a leading dramatic soprano in this repertoire.

Hopefully her next disc will not be hampered by the antics of the label’s marketing department.

Vacant Valery & His Kinder-Egg-Emperor

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on September 3, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Die Frau ohne Schatten (Mariinsky Opera, Edinburgh, Friday 2 September 2011)

The Empress – Elena Nebera
The Emperor – Avgust Amonov
Barak – Nikolai Putilin
The Dyer’s Wife – Ekaterina Popova
The Nurse – Elena Vitman
A Spirit Messenger – Evgeny Ulanov
Barak’s Brothers – Andrei Popov/Andrei Spekhov/Nikolai Kamensky
Voice of the Falcon – Tatiana Kravtsova

Original Director – Jonathan Kent
Revival Director – Lloyd Brown
Design – Paul Brown
Video & Projection Design – Sven Ortel, Nina Dunn
Conductor – Valery Gergiev

An overwhelming sense of disappointment. Not the best ending to a night at the opera – particularly after the excitement of the first night – but it’s the only way to describe how the Mariinsky Opera production of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten left me as I walked away from the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. All the more so following the inspired – if sometimes flawed production – I enjoyed in Copenhagen a few months back.

On paper the billing was promising. Having seen Gergiev conduct many times before – including an extraordinary Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet – and the promise of an intelligent production from Jonathan Kent, the augurs were good. Of course with any Mariinsky production you expect some of the singers to be hit and miss, but nothing can – in my mind – account for last night. The Mariinsky is probably unsurpassed in terms of their Russian repertoire and I’ve only read about their faulty staging of The Ring. But their decision to stage this Strauss opera needs either major improvement or total abandonment.

It’s a shame as the production itself had some interesting features but ultimately they didn’t knit together cohesively, almost ended in farce, and undermined von Hofmannsthal’s original intentions. When I was young I had a book of Russian fairytales – including Baba Yaga and The Frog Princess – illustrated by Ivan Bilibin and it’s clear that Jonathan Kent and Paul Brown were similarly inspired by Russian tales as well as by the chinoiserie movement for the spirit world of the Emperor and Empress with it’s oversized flowers and golden statuesque beasts. However perhaps the fly-eyes on the hapless Falcon would have been better left to Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon. The use of projections – and a general theme of water – implied that this kingdom was underwater. In stark contrast the world of Barak and his wife was as clearly set in modern day – presumably – Russia, with launderette-style washing machines and a suitably grey and crumbling work/home environment.

As I said there were some nice touches. During the first dream sequence in the Dyer’s home, for example, harem handmaidens came out of the washing machines and the use of footage of babies against the wall of the Dyer’s how was effective. On the other hand there was some choreography that was misjudged – in the opening scene the movements of the Emperor’s guardsmen made me think of nothing less than those of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard Of Oz. Perhaps that was the intention.

As in Copenhagen‘s much more effective production, the Mariinsky used projections throughout the operas to effect both scene changes (some of which featured noisy stage hands barking orders at one another) as well as to add to the drama unfolding on the stage. The falcon and flocks of bird featured heavily as did a vocabulary of rolling clouds, waves and water. Apart from a desire to see more variation in the flocks of birds, the projections were generally effectively used – Francesca Zambello take note – and in particular the sunburst reaching down into the water the final scenes was almost – but not quite – breathtaking.

While the setting of the first two acts were traditional almost to the point of predictability, the final act was confused, contrived and ultimately almost farcical. Opening quite literally with the world ‘upside down’ – or indeed underwater although this wasn’t entirely clear – Barak’s car and a tree, both upended, were gradually joined by other ephemera from both the real and spirit world. Against this backdrop the Dyer and his wife wandered aimlessly across an empty set until they eventually disappeared into the background to be replaced by The Empress who took to the stage, amid golden light and glitter and what can only be described as a misshapen plastic ‘egg’. Clearly this was meant to entomb the petrified Emperor, but I don’t think I have ever encountered anything as incongruous, clumsy and so simply badly judged on stage for some time. It reminded me of nothing less than the Kinder Eggs I used to have when I was a child. After it had been subjected to intense heat. No amount of grace could enable any singer to emerge from this deformed Perspex ovoid with any grace and dignity and the moment was only saved by the clever use of lighting to create the Empress’ shadow.

Yet the effect was broken at the end as the back of the stage opened up to enable a crowd of Russians to amble like zombies to face the audience. Clearly they were meant to be Russian as there were men in uniform amongst them – either a clumsy tribute to Gergiev’s protector Putin or a simple reminder of the continued power of Russia’s military state.

It was a relief when the curtain fell.

In terms of the singing, it was almost uniformly bad. Overall not only was their German poor and their diction dire, but the quality of the singing itself left a great deal to be desired. The stand-out performer was Nikolai Putilin’s Barak. His deep and resonant bass, rich and even throughout and coupled with a real sense of musicianship and knowledge of the role, showed little strain even by the end and mostly rose above the clamour Gergiev and the orchestra were making in the pit. Apart from Putilin, the rest of the ensemble struggled both with their roles and against their own limited talents. ‘Next best’ but leagues behind her husband, was the Dyer’s Wife of Ekaterina Popova. While she has a large voice she seemed unable in the first two acts, to control either her intonation or dynamic range. While she fortunately rallied for her short scene at the opening of the Third Act, this is clearly not a role suited to her voice. The same is true of Elena Nebera’s performance as The Empress. Again she has a rich soprano voice but didn’t seem to be in complete control of her own instrument, leading to both intonation problems and an acute inability to sing Strauss’ fluid lines. She also had a troubling habit of stopping for a split second before attempting any note above the stave. Avgust Amonov’s Emperor was poor from the start. Weedy and strained vocally, he cracked from his opening scene and never recovered. Drowned by the orchestra – not completely his own fault – this is not a role he should have in his repertoire and I am equally surprised – or is it horrified? – to see Cavaradossi, Calaf and Siegmund among his other roles. I shudder to think.

In the smaller replies, Evgeny Ulanov was an accomplished Spirit Messenger but Tatiana Kravtsova was simply miscast as The Voice of the Falcon. She failed to annunciate the words, negotiate the vocal line or create any sense of drama. Again she bills herself as a Violetta – not a role I would want to sit through.

But of them all Elena Vitman’s The Nurse was the worse. Over and above the dreadful ham acting – Ms Vitman, there must be more in your acting vocabulary than hand wringing – she simply didn’t have the vocal capabilities for this demanding role which requires an innate sense of musicianship and strong characterisation rather than the vamped up pantomime portrayal she delivered. For a role that is almost excessive in its vocal demands and almost constantly on stage, who at the Mariinsky thought Ms Vitman was a suitable choice? Her voice was ungainly, uncontrolled, out of tune and on more than one occasion when it became too much for her, she resorted to something resembling bad sprechstimme. Appalling.

The various choruses – adult and children alike – were lacklustre and indistinct in their singing and again intonation problems abounded.

So this leaves us with ‘Maestro’ Gergiev and the orchestra. As I said at the beginning I have seen him conduct many times and remember a particularly spectacular Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet and the LSO. His Die Frau was poor – devoid of the passion and insight for which he is renowned and indeed whenever I looked toward him there was a single look on his face – of vacantcy. There was no sense of finesse in the playing and the orchestra seemed to have one volume – loud – which was coupled with some cloudy brass playing and dodgy intonation from the strings. The opening of the Second Act, where Strauss wrote some particularly ravishing music for solo cello and strings that looks forward to Metamorphosen, was particularly lacklustre and bland and the closing bars of the final act were ragged and messy. It was almost as if Gergiev hadn’t looked at the score since the Mariinsky last toured with it, if in fact he had studied it at all.

One wonders whether Gergiev – already so greedily over-committed for the sole purpose of self-aggrandisement – is a good choice as President of the Festival? Will it mean more mediocre performances from the Mariinsky Opera and other companies that he is associated with? A cultural suffocation of the Festival to appease and satisfy his ego?

Of course, this isn’t the first – and won’t be the last – time that I attend a performance that is disappointing. However, the majority of the time, even the most disappointing productions have redeeming features – a smart director that makes you think, a reasonable cast of singers, an intelligent conductor.

Not on this occasion. Mr Gergiev, can I have a refund please?

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 ( 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 – 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.

Which Performance? The potential pitfalls of recommendation.

In Classical Music, Opera on June 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Listening to Chopin Ballades, Baracolles & Fantasie Op. 39, Krystian Zimerman.

A few days ago a friend of mine asked me to recommend a recording of the Vier Letzte Lieder by Richard Strauss for a member of his family. I should disclose immediately that these marvellous lieder are among my most loved pieces of music. Ever. I must own every single available recording and listen to all four songs at least once or twice a week. My relationship with these four wonderful songs is, however, for another time.

However it did get me thinking about the whole idea of recommendation. I suppose one of the reasons for this blog – particularly as I scribble about CDs – is to recommend particular performances and performers. I don’t pretend to be a professional musician or a professional critic (again, a subject of another blog methinks) and I don’t delude myself that people will agree with what I say. But I hope that my observations give people food for thought. Writing this all down definitely makes me think more – both during and after the exercise.

So anyway, my friend knows my love of – or perhaps it is an obsession with – these masterpieces by Richard Strauss and asked me for a recommended recording that he could give as a gift. For a bit of background I gave the person in question a recording of the songs many years ago. At this stage I won’t say which recording. And we have attended performances of them together more than once.

I was about to fire off an immediate response based on my most recent listening and stopped dead. At that point I realised that this wasn’t just about offering an recommendation and therefore an opinion – take it or leave it – but more than that. He was asking me to select a recording which he would then be giving to someone else. In a sense then, the recommendation was a two-part transaction.

I suppose it is the same for everyone when it comes to buying someone a CD as a gift. For me the initial impetus is the performance itself. I’ve bought and enjoyed a particular performance for whatever reason and then – be it as a spontaneous gift or for a particular event – I will then buy it for a specific person. First and foremost for me it is because the performance itself is outstanding in terms of musical standards but secondly because it’s – for want of a better phrase – had an emotional impact on me. Let’s not kid ourselves, we have all been to performances and listened to discs that have elicited a strong emotional response. For me, for example, Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind! either at the end of a complete Die Walküre or as a bleeding chunk as on René Pape’s recent CD gets me every single time. God knows what I will be like in under two weeks when I see it in San Francisco as part of my first complete Ring cycle!

So, here’s the first transaction. You choose to buy a particular recording of a specific composer, performer, performance etc as a gift because you personally enjoyed it. But more importantly there is an emotional dimension to the choice as well. Because you choose it for that particular person based on your friendship, the nature of the event or moment and finally because of what it says about your friendship and the emotional connection you want to make. On the last point it could simply be because you want them to – hopefully – enjoy it as much as you did, or because – as is sometime the case – it marks a moment in your relationship. Or because you think that it will be of some kind of help or support.

However if they are in fact asking for a recommendation as a gift does that change anything? Should it change anything? One of the fundamental reasons for giving someone the CD is because you have enjoyed it yourself. And it would be mad to think that that enjoyment wouldn’t necessarily be the same ‘second hand’ as it were. However the emotional dimension will not be there. Unless of course they are giving the same CD to someone under the same – or similar circumstances – that it was originally received.

Enough to make your head spin? Did mine. Especially when you think of how many recordings of the Vier Letzte Lieder there are to consider.

Of course I could have recommended the recording I had originally given him but somehow that didn’t seem like the right thing to do. There had been a specific reason for that recording at the time. In fact it was because it was the first recording I had purchased. Other recordings – although not necessarily better recordings – had been made since then. So having first thought the answer was easy I now face a pleasurable task. Selecting which performance to recommend. Not an unpleasant task I have to admit. I already have reduced the mental shortlist to four recordings. But there are many factors to consider.

So all I have to do now is sit back. And listen.


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

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