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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Hampson’

How Do You Save A Concert With Karita?

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on January 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Review: The Rest Is Noise Inaugural Concert (Royal Festival Hall, Saturday 19 January 2013)

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
Four Early Songs, Op. 33
Notturno, Op. 44 No. 1
Dance of the Seven Veils & Final Scene, Salome, Op. 54

Karita Matilla (Soprano)
Thomas Hampson (Baritone)

London Philharmonic
Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

An all-Strauss concert heralded the start of the Southbank’s The Rest Is Noise festival – literally chapter one in a one-year musical traversal of Alex Ross’ book of the same title.

It’s an ambitious and creative approach to the book. As well as concerts, talks and films are scheduled to bring 20th Century music to life for the audience.

So it’s a shame that the opening concert didn’t quite live up to the artistic and ambitious endeavor of the festival itself. Bar the most obvious programming of the evening Jurowski and the soloists didn’t manage to generate that frisson of excitement that underlined the reason why Ross embarks on his book with Richard Strauss.

The last time I heard Jurowski conduct Strauss was a mixed affair and the same was true of this opening concert. Also sprach Zarathustra – while smartly played by the London Philharmonic – was no nonsense – in fact almost perfunctory – in its delivery by the maestro. Played almost as an academic exercise, Jurowski gave no quarter or flex to allow the music to breathe. When speaking afterwards, Jurowski spoke of the piece’s nihilism. Clearly his idea of nihilism is to get to the final bar as quickly and unapologetically as possible with no pause for thought or reflection.

I just hope that by the time Jurowski gets to Die Frau ohne Schatten later this year that he has – for wont of a better phrase – relaxed into Richard Strauss a great deal more.

Sadly the four early songs that followed fared little better. Neither Verführung nor Gesang der Apollopriesterin were the best choices for Karita Matilla. Or vice versa. There is no denying that Matilla is still an incredible singer but she simply wasn’t able to negotiate the broad sweeping phrases as written by Strauss and in some cases not only quite literally ‘gulped’ them out but struggled at both ends of her register. There was little finesse and no colouring in her performance and as a consequence this inevitably meant that at times her diction was below par. I see that she is schedule to sing the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos. An unusual decision based on her performance of these two songs.

Thomas Hampson fared better. Marginally. A career of lieder singing was evident in his performance and focus on the words but he struggled not only against the orchestra at points (which male singer doesn’t in Strauss?) and again he wasn’t quite able to negotiate the range that Strauss had written in to the vocal line.

However again while Jurowski coaxed some resplendent playing from the orchestra I was not always convinced of his sympathy either for supporting either singer or the music itself. It was almost – despite his own comments to the audience about the influences of Wagner and the like – that these songs were a sideshow to what was to come.

The second half was immeasurably better but not always for reasons of musicianship.

I have not heard the Notturno performed in the UK before and not for some time generally. It is an interesting piece with Strauss being inspired by Richard Dehmel’s poem to create a new and beautifully evocative palette of colours for a chamber ensemble that he was not to do again. As well as echoes of Mahler in places it is definitely forward looking but whether it had an influence on later composers is debatable. Strauss’ own retreat from this sound world proves that he was himself experimenting. Here Jurowski seemed to relax into the music more. Perhaps it was the intimacy and focus of the piece that inspired him as he allowed the players greater freedom and weaved the textures produced together around Hampson who sang with great diligence and some theatricality. However this piece is cruel in its exposure of any singer and here Hampson didn’t quite manage the lower parts of the vocal line and could perhaps have been braver in his interpretation. Hopefully however we will see Notturno become a rare, if not absent, addition to the performance schedule here in the UK.

And so to the closing music of the concert.

Personally I think that Strauss’ Dance of the Seven Veils could almost conduct itself. Beautifully orchestrated and cunningly constructed it moves inexorably to its denouement and for the conductor the challenge is to marshal the orchestral forces to ensure it doesn’t burn out too quickly, tease out the orchestral colours and inject a sense of sexuality and swagger. Jurowski did the first, mostly did the second but the third was sadly lacking. Again there was a sense of the perfunctory to his leadership that while it meant the Dance was beautifully played it didn’t quite have the sensuousness that would lead one to want to give Salome someone’s head.

And Karita Matilla’s Salome? Was she – as Hampson said – one of the greatest Salome’s alive? Did she deserve the standing ovation?

Yes.

And no.

Clearly this was the moment in the concert that Ms Matilla was completely focused on and she gave a mesmerizing – at times electric – performance. I could have been mistaken but did the Southbank lighting technicians bathe her in a red light. Why? It was not needed. She completely immersed herself in the character and music of Salome and while the sounds that she produced were not always beautiful, they were completely in character. When needed she cut through the orchestral most brutally but could then reduce herself to an almost Sprechstimme-like whisper. She pulled out all the stops and had clearly decided that this was not a moment for vocal beauty but rather a moment to forge an interpretation based on raw – almost physical – emotion.

And it worked in the confines of the concert hall.

And it was clear that wherever she went Jurowski was duty-bound to follow. The roles were reversed and she was in control. For the first time he seemed to release himself from some kind of self-imposed straitjacket and pushed himself and the orchestral to their limits. He mined the rich textures and colours that Strauss had written but more than that he surrendered and gave space for the lyricism that this closing section is steeped in as a juxtaposition to the music of Salome’s own deranged mind.

Together Matilla and Jurowski sought out and found beauty in the brutality of Strauss’ music. For the first time that evening you could completely understand why Alex Ross chose Strauss as the first chapter in his book. It swept away all the disappointment of the rest of the concert.

Quite rightly the audience showed their appreciation. But it was for Matilla’s memorable not musical Salome.

The evening was quite literally saved by serving up a head on a plate.

Review – Orchestral Songs, Gustav Mahler (Katarina Karnéus/Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki. BIS)

In Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Review on July 24, 2011 at 10:56 am

It’s to Norman Lebrecht and his marvellous book, Why Mahler?, that I owe a debt of gratitude to for helping me to develop a deeper appreciation, enjoyment of and ultimately love for the music of Gustav Mahler. Before reading it, I had struggled with his symphonies and lieder, more focused on waiting for the final bars than listening to the music itself. As I have said in a previous blog, I also think there is something to be said about learning to appreciate and enjoy certain composers as you get older and experience more. For me, Mahler is in that category.

Having developed a deep love of his symphonies – bar perhaps the Fourth, which I still struggle with – I moved onto his lieder with renewed interest.

Mahler naturally bestowed on his lieder the same attention in terms of orchestration and structure but his attention to the words – and by this I don’t only mean the texts themselves which were always so carefully chosen – but also the actual sound of the individual words and syllables themselves, was remarkable.

In any performance therefore of his vocal works all these elements – the orchestral writing, the structure, the words and the sound colours deliberately created – need to be considered and balanced against one another to create a perfect fit. And therefore the singer, orchestra and conductor must be in total synch.

Naturally no performance or recording can be perfect. The best we can hope for is ‘definitive’. And even then more than one recording or performance can be so-called.

And again these choices can be – and are – subjective. It can depend not only on different individual expectations but also on mood, time and environment.

But nonetheless ‘definitive’ is a good yardstick when confronted by a recording that confounds and ultimately disappoints. As does this recording of Mahler lieder by Katarina Karnéus. Having listened to this recording over many weeks, I always felt myself drawn back to Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Fritz Wunderlich and Thomas Hampson.

Winner of Cardiff Singer in 1995, Swedish-born Karnéus has several lieder recital discs under her belt and her recitals of Sibelius and Grieg are particularly notable. Interestingly her very first recording accompanied by the estimable Roger Vignoles featured four of the Rückert lieder featured in the new recording, leaving out Um Mitternacht. I returned to these original performances – granted with piano rather than orchestral – for comparison.

Understandably the performance – piano as opposed to orchestral accompaniment – is different. However the key elements of any performance, particularly Mahler’s lieder, remain the same – clarity, diction, nuance and depth and a supportive accompanist.

The disc opens with Kindertotenlieder and I was immediately struck by the richer, more resonant timbre of Karnéus voice, ideally suited to this repertoire. Nun will sie Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n, with it’s exposed opening and transparent scoring starts well enough with plangent oboe playing but as Karnéus unfolds the vocal line there is more than a little hint of imprecision in terms of tuning which is further marred by her use of vibrato. Vocally Nun seh’ Ich wohl is an improvement with Karnéus keeping a tighter control on the vibrato and unexpected blooms in her singing. Karnéus’ attention to the text occasionally seems overdone, as if she has confused pointedly annunciating almost every syllable as a means of interpretation.

Wenn dein Mutterlein is similarly distracting and towards the end at – O du, des Vaters Zelle – her intonation once again goes wayward.

Oft denk’ Ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen is performed well enough but comes across as dispassionate and almost bland, with no sense conveyed – as by Janet Baker for example – of empty hope.

The final song in the quintet, In diesem Wetter, ultimately betrays one of th key reasons why the performances are so uncompelling. The orchestra under Mälkki is unsympathetic and plain. They fail for example in managing the driving opening of this song, with its sforzandi and pointed wind and brass figurations in comparison to either Barbirolli for Baker or Boulez for von Otter.

And yet the performances of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen are worlds apart in terms of performance and noticeably improved. The opening two songs, Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht and Ging heut morgen übers Feld are more distinctively played by the orchestra and as a result Karnéus’ own performances seem freer and less constrained and rhythmically alert with no sense of any intonation problems. Similarly in Ich hab’ ein gluhend Messer, the orchestra finds the necessary bite which in turn encourages Karnéus own performance. Here she finds the right balance of word colour and interpretation as opposed to the worrying heavy annunciation of Kindertotenlieder. As a result, the ending of this song is bitingly bleak.

The opening song of the Rückerlieder, Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, seems to go at one hell of a pace but in fact in comparison with other performances – bar Baker and Christianne Stotlijn – this seems to be the performance norm. The orchestra continues to hold up its own side of the bargain, ably supporting Karnéus in this song as in the remaining songs of the cycle. For example, the gentle momentum of Ich atmet einen linden Duft! is well controlled below the vocal and wind lines as is the fluidity required in the string accompaniment of Liebst du um Schönheit.

By reversing the order, Karnéus ends her Rückerlieder cycle with Um Mitternacht and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. With the former we are once again in the exposed orchestral world of the opening song of the disc, but the level of emotional intensity ism maintained almost throughout building successfully to In deine Hand gegeben! to the end of the song with Karnéus in fine voice.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is for many the yardstick for any performance of this song cycle. And Karnéus does not disappoint with an expansive performance of this fine song. And while she may not quite achieve the serenity of Janet Baker, Und ruh in einem stillen Gebiet!, so delicately underpinned by the orchestra is a beautiful moment. And Mälkki succeeds in winding down the closing bars effectively.

It’s a shame that the opening performances of Kindertotenlieder mar what ultimately could have been a fine recital disc. Karnéus has the voice ideally suited to this repertoire – and I look forward to hearing her in Richard Strauss – and considering the quality of both the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Rückerlieder I have to wonder if it was a lack of rehearsal or empathy that leads to a disappointing Kindertotenlieder.

But ultimately this new recording doesn’t quite clinch it for me. While Katarina Karnéus turns in a competent performance of two of Mahler’s song cycles, ably accompanied for them most part by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Susanna Mälkki, the final impression is one of disappointment which has me reaching for other performances.

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