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Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Jurowski’

Not So Polish-ed

In Classical Music, Review on March 6, 2016 at 2:46 pm

Review – Tchaikovsky, Zemlinsky & Szymanowski (Royal Festival Hall, Saturday 5 March 2016)

Symphony No. 3 “Polish” (Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky)
Six Maeterlinck Lieder (Alexander von Zemlinsky)
Stabat Mater (Karol Szymanowski)

Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano)
Elzbieta Szmytka (Soprano)
Andrzej Dobber (Bass)

London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic

Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

A concert in part to celebrate the 1050th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland was somewhat of a schizophrenic affair.

There is a quasi-correct connection between Tchaikovsky’s mis-named “Polish” Symphony No. 3 and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater commissioned by the rather racy Princesse de Polignac. However I couldn’t find a direct connection with Zemlinsky except the fact that Louise Zemlinsky’s mother died in a concentration camp in Poland. But I think that is a coincidental connection rather than a deliberate one.

Apart from historical schizophrenia, it was also a schizophrenic event in terms of the overall musical performance. As I’ve commented previously, Jurowski can coax magnificent playing from his orchestra but he often shows little sympathy for singers that made for an almost missed opportunity with regards to Zemlinsky’s Maeterlinck Lieder.

We simply don’t hear Anne Sofie von Otter in London often enough and last time it was in the ill-thought out The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. She is an incredible and intelligent performer and she brought the whole of her musical experience and insight into the performance of these six songs. Poor Zemlinsky, he lost out to Mahler in more ways that one both as conductor, composer and lover but these songs are under-rated. Ms von Otter brought each song to life through a clear love and understanding of the texts. Never has Und ich sah den Tod, der ewartetihn auch (and I saw Death waiting for him as well) been so perfectly placed word for word and the opening of the fifth song, Und kerht er einst heim sounded both so wistful and yet full of forlorn hope. And again she drove the text forward to the final tragic words.

Yet while Ms von Otter shared a wealth of experience and a surge of emotion to each song with the audience, Jurowski’s support was almost perfunctory and at times, overwhelmed the singer. Zemlinsky’s orchestration creates a very particular sound world and we only caught occasional glimpses of it.

Anyone fortunate enough to see Król Roger at Covent Garden will recognize the heady, almost opiate-laden palette that Szymanowski uses and his Stabat Mater is not exception. What stood out most from this performance was the quality of the choral singing – impressive, clear and impassioned. The trio of soloists was a mixed bag. At first, I thought that Jurowski might have asked the singers to dispense with vibrato because of the almost Choirboy-ish timbre and delivery of soprano Elzbieta Szmytka. However this was dispelled by Ms von Otter own impassioned delivery of the Polish text. Personally and thinking back to Georgia Jarman, I would have preferred a soprano with more depth and richness for this vocal line. The third soloist. Andrzej Dobber had a resonant if slightly indistinct bass and seemed most subsumed by Jurowski’s conducting.

The concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony – erroneously labeled the “Polish” symphony. It always feels like the ‘middle child’ of the composer’s six symphonies (seven if you include Manfred). It follows the creative freshness of the firs two symphonies, and while it teases at the last three in the set, this five movement work always feels more academic experiment than symphony. Personally, anyway.

It was well-performed, with Jurowski revealing much of the inner detail, however it didn’t seem to hang together coherently. But ultimately this has more to do with the symphony itself that the excellent playing of the London Philharmonic and in particularly some of the individual players and in particular the first bassoonist.

I’m not sure that the evening warranted a standing ovation from some parts of the Festival Hall (I think there was some partisanship going on) and I continue to hope that Jurowski will find a more sympathetic approach when he next performs with any singers.

Kaiserin Conquers.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on November 11, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Metropolitan Opera, Thursday 7 November 2013)

Die Kaiserin/Empress – Anne Schwanewilms
Der Kaiser/Emperor – Torsten Kerl
Barak, the Dyer – Johan Reuter
The Dyer’s Wife – Christine Goerke
Die Amme/ Nurse – Ildikó Komlósi
The Messenger – Richard Paul Fink
The Falcon – Jennifer Check
The Hunchback – Allan Glassman
The One-Eyed – Daniel Sutin
The One-Armed – Nathan Stark
A Voice From Above – Maria Zifchak
Voice of the Young Man – Anthony Kalil
Watchmen – David Won, Jeongcheol Cha & Brandon Cedel
Servants – Haeran Hong, Disella Làrusdóttir & Edyta Kulczak
Voices of the Unborn – Jihee Kim, Ashley Emerson, Monica Yunus, Megan Marino, Renée Tatum & Danielle Talamantes
The Guardian of the Threshold – Andrey Nemzer

Director, Set, Costume & Lighting Design – Herbert Weinicke
Stage Director – J. Knighen Smit

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

Die Frau ohne Schatten seems to be emerging slowly from its own shadows.

This production – a decade after it first nodded at the Met – joins an increasing number that are being staged including Covent Garden’s production by Claus Guth that was first seen at La Scala last year.

On the whole the Met’s revival is incredibly strong both it terms of its musical and production values. The major roles were well cast and the requirement for Cecil B DeMille scale casting of smaller roles was similarly smartly done.

I am surprised that this was Anne Schwanewilms’ debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Considering she is one of the leading Strauss sopranos singing today I do wonder why she has not sung Ariadne, the Marschallin or the Countess at the Lincoln Centre.

However on the strength of her performance as the Kaiserin – the strongest of the evening – I hope that the Met will book Ms Schwanewilms more regularly in future. For it was, musically and dramatically, a performance of great intelligence and sensitivity. From her first appearance – which makes or breaks this role from the start with Vielleicht träum ich mich züruck – Anne Schwanewilms sang with impressive authority. She was vocally bright and agile, floating Strauss lines effortlessly and rising above the orchestra. And yet when needed, the soprano shaded and coloured her voice – no more so than when realizing that the Kaiser will turn to stone should she not obtain a shadow she chillingly sang Der Kaiser muß versteinen. Her dream sequence in the Second Act was both eloquent and dramatic but it was her performance in the final act that crowned her performance. As she confronted both her father Keikobad as well as her own burgeoning conscience as a woman, Schwanewilms truly showed what a magnificent singer-actress she truly is. The hairs on the back of my neck – and I have no doubt everyone else’s in the opera house – were standing on end by the time she summoned up the final courage to stand up to Keikobad (and for humanity) and defiantly proclaimed Ich will nicht.

It was an outstanding performance vocally matched by an incredibly strong dramatic performance. At the beginning Ms Schwanewilms literally glided across the stage almost Melisande-like in her movements. Even in the human world, she portrayed an almost dream-like persona in her movements and interaction with the other characters. But as the drama unfolded her attentions and reactions to Barak and his wife became more human in a way meaning that her final defiance of her father was dramatically more realistic.

As The Nurse – an almost impossible role in the wrong hands – Ildiko Komlósi was similarly magnificent. In possession of a rich and darkly hued mezzo soprano, Ms Komlósi more than negotiated the demanding role written by Strauss. As well as being able to cut through the orchestra and dominate the vocal ensemble when required, Ildoko Komlósi also masterfully shaded and textured her singing particularly when tempting the Dyer’s Wife. Again dramatically The Nurse was convincing as a character showing her disgust not only at the human life she had to endure to get her mistress a shadow but also towards the Kaiser.

As I have said before Strauss can be pretty thankless when writing for male voices and the roles in FroSch are now exception. But here Torster Kerl as the Kaiser and Johan Reuter as Barak excelled. Kerl – an excellent Tristan for Glyndebourne – sailed through Strauss’ music and over the orchestra effortlessly. Wenn das Herz aus Kristall was suitably beautiful above Strauss orchestration in its grace and vocal seamlessness.

And on the strength of his Barak in New York I am very much looking forward to Johan Reuter’s performance in the role at Covent Garden in 2014. Like the other main characters he was vocally and musically impressive. His performance as the first act closed was as heart-rending as his attempts to kill his wife at the end of the second act was frightening. And with Mir anvetraut in the Third Act, Kerl sealed the deal as an utterly compelling Barak.

I am currently nonplussed by Christine Goerke. I recently saw her Elektra at Covent Garden and – truth be told – was not as bowled over as others with her performance. As I said at the time she has the heft and volume but wasn’t always totally secure vocally. And it seemed the same with The Dyer’s Wife. In those moments when the focus was on her dramatically – as in the Second Act – her voice was forced, creating a distracting vibrato that undermined what was otherwise a strong and musically nuanced performance. And as with the rest of the cast her acting was incredibly strong. The love and care with which she attended the birdcage atop the fridge, and the underlying love she bore Barak juxtaposed with the frustration she felt with her life was tangible. But clearly the Met audience love her.

In the smaller roles Richard Paul Fink as The Messenger and the three Watchmen – David Won, Jeongcheol Cha & Brandon Cedel – particularly stood out for the strength of their performances.

In the pit, Jurowski drew superlative playing from the Met’s orchestra but I felt – as I did when he conducted Strauss in London – that he drove the music too hard and therefore missed those opportunities that Strauss wrote when the music should expand and glow. For example, the glorious theme in the First Act for the Kaiser had none of the sweep and grandeur it needed and that wonderful moment in the Second Act – the solo cello and lower strings so reminiscent of Strauss’ future Metamorphosen – was most perfunctory and cold in its delivery. He did seem to relax for the Third Act but a bit more ebb and flow would not go amiss.

Herbert Weinicke’s production was truthful in that – as per Hoffmannsthal’s original vision- it was a juxtaposition of exotic themes such as Arabian Nights and the bleaker human condition. And the machinery of the production, with its rising and falling sets was impressive and – compared to LePage’s ‘Monster’ – almost silent.

Yet Weinicke and Knighten Smit invested in detail. I have already mentioned the carefully characterization of the main players but it went further. The world of the Kaiser and Kaiserin displayed not wealth but an emptiness and a coldness that underlined the state of their relationship. Indeed the mirrored walls seemed to echo not only that coldness but to me the fact that every aspect of their life was in view. The Falcon – beautifully performed by Scott Webber – was directed to the music with great sensitivity. In the First Act for example, it seemed almost foetal in it’s encounter with the Kaiserin.

The world below similarly was cluttered with debris and some of it was emotional – the birdcage I have mentioned but also the partitions of the dwelling hinting at secrets between Barak and his Wife. And one thought crossed my mind as I watched her dealings with Barak’s brothers – did she not want children not so much for selfish reasons of a better life but perhaps because she saw in their disabilities her future children?

Die Frau ohne Schatten is not an easy listen but the Met’s production – with its strong ensemble cast and smart production – should not have to wait another decade to make it to the stage.

And similarly, I hope Ms Schwanewilms becomes a regular artist on that stage too.

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.

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