Monday, 31 October 2011

Fidelio at the Wiener Staatsoper: o schwere Prüfung

Wiener Staatsoper, 27/11/2011

Robert Dean Smith | Florestan
Waltraud Meier | Leonore
Albert Dohmen | Don Pizarro
Markus Marquardt | Don Fernando
Lars Woldt | Rocco
Anita Hartig | Marzelline
Benjamin Bruns | Jaquino

Bertrand de Billy | Conductor
Otto Schenk | Director

The one word to sum up this Schenk Fidelio is vacuity. Some would argue that the term applies equally well to all his productions, but this staging is lacking in more than just ideas. Take the blocking: has Schenk ever been more static than this? It’s a good nine-tenths park and bark for the singing and there’s astonishingly little movement to accompany the spoken action. Stage entrances/exits, the digging of the grave (though not the actual grave-digging duet), and some wincingly awful high-fiving of the prisoners at the end is about it. To cap off the snoozefest there’s no variety in the sets and costumes beyond brown, beige and grey.

Arcadi Volodos at the Musikverein

Musikverein, 24/10/2011

Schubert: Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 784
Brahms: Drei Intermezzi, op. 117

Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S. 178

Has Arcadi Volodos decided yet what kind of pianist he wants to be when he grows up? His playing was never without its depths, but has steadily been acquiring greater introspection as of late, and he’s now inclined to dismiss the flashy 1997 debut recording which launched his career. That’s all very well, but in this recital I thought he struggled to reconcile his growing seriousness of purpose with the vestiges of virtuosity that have yet to be shaken off if he ever decides to go the full Lupu.  

I mention Lupu because at times this felt like a tribute act, with Volodos reclining into his straight-backed chair, his centre of gravity removed from the keyboard and everything coming from the fingertips. A considerable deftness to the touch ensued: at turns, Volodos draped the sound in velvet, made his melodic lines glisten and sing, and pulled off the most improbable of sudden decrescendi with apparent ease. If that wasn’t always exploited to compelling musical ends it’s because he was too concerned with shaping the phrase at hand to contemplate larger expressive plans. The opening of Brahms’s op. 117 no. 2 wasn’t played so haltingly, but the self-containment of those initial statements came close. The five-bar phrases of no. 3 flowed more convincingly, the problem here more the weak regulation of tempi and rubato, with the return of the opening material sounded rather more overwrought than what had come before.

It was, oddly, the Schubert, rather than the Liszt, where the bravura failed to mesh with Volodos’s more deliberative side. The quietly determined focus of the first two movements at first seemed to underpin the insistence of the triplets in the third, but the contrary-motion arpeggios were insufferably glib and octaves at the end rattled off like a Czerny study, their impact as a closing gesture lost.

The Liszt was a strong account, if not one for the ages. I’m inclined to overlook the odd moments of crashing and banging as it was only the four repeated quavers, hammered until metallic, which seemed truly desensitised. The transformation of that theme didn’t work out too persuasively either. Tone in the bass got a bit muddy at times but was generally robust; expression and complexity of touch was, as in the Brahms, left to the right hand. How much sense he made of the work’s mystifying form is debatable, but it wasn’t too linear and proportions didn’t seem so off.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Michail Jurowski and the Tonkünstler

Musikverein, 23/10/2011

Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, Michail Jurowski, Boris Berezovsky

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, op. 30
Chaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture
Prokofiev: Orchestral Suite from Romeo and Juliet

A few months ago I swore never to see Jurowski Sr. again, after hearing him bulldoze his way through some music that never did him any harm. I didn’t count on the Tonkünstler holding out one of my favourite Russian pianists as bait, because there I was at the Musikverein last Sunday nursing this fantasy of listening to Boris Berezovsky and blocking out the rest. The obviously foreseeable put paid to that idea even sooner than expected. Whatever Berezovsky was trying to set up with his opening theme – not too pointed and curiously inscrutable for a tonic-dominant pivot – was ruined by an extravagant cello entry. The rest of the strings followed suit with wide vibrato and self-indulgent phrasing, their massed sound making more impact than Berezovsky’s crashing chords, even after he resorted to banging (which isn’t like him at all). The unusual development sections of the second and third movements were incoherent on the orchestral side, with Jurowski typically oblivious to Berezovsky’s more searching efforts. The cadenzas provided the only unobstructed glimpses of thoughtful pianism, and were brought off with effortless facility and supple touch as long, flowing paragraphs.

The Chaikovsky wasn’t quite as crass as I’d feared, but only because of technical mishaps. The cor anglais sounded like a duck with laryngitis and strings were far from smooth throughout the love theme section. Climaxes were deafening, with a migraine-inducing timpani roll at the end. The Prokofiev was played more capably, but excessive volume remained a problem and any one of the published versions would have been better than Jurowski’s mismatched selections. Montagues and Capulets was competently belligerent, so no different to how it’s routinely played and the best that could be hoped for under the circumstances. Tempi elsewhere were driven and tone washed-out. How awful Jurowski’s Shostakovich must sound hardly bears thinking about.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Cornelius Meister and the RSO Wien

Musikverein, 16/10/2011

RSO Wien, Cornelius Meister, Baiba Skride

Klaus Lang: Siebzehn Stufen (world premiere)
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47
Shostakovich: Symphony no. 9 in E flat major, op. 70

The highlight of this concert was the premiere of Klaus Lang’s Siebzehn Stufen, which is fairly close in concept to the Unanswered Question, only eight minutes longer and great deal more intricate. The detail had been meticulously rehearsed and needed little nudging for clarity from Cornelius Meister, who focused on giving the work’s slow-moving transitions structural definition. The two surges towards the end (echoes of La Mer?) followed logically from what came before, but weren't signposted too obviously, which seemed both the composer’s intention and the best musical outcome. The Unanswered Question’s woodwind layer was given over to the percussion, of which there was more than at a Martin Grubinger concert, although the antiphonal rustling of plastic bags – heard in its proper musical context, an effect considerably less banal than the action sounds – was ruined by the zipping open of handbags and beeping of digital cameras. The unwelcome audience participation was a shame, as Klaus Lang toils away in relative obscurity in Styria and doesn’t get as nearly much attention, let alone performances, as Vienna-based composers.

The Sibelius was a little disappointing. The power and projection behind Baiba Skride’s mellow, viola-like tone was impressive considering how little she forced the sound. Unfortunately there was also much old school portamento, which had me stumped for a comparison until I remembered Elgar’s recording of Nimrod, in which the violins see fit to play much of the theme with just the one finger (needs to be heard to be believed). The playing was also dogged by intonation difficulties, particularly in the final movement. Meister didn’t make this score sound as fresh as some of the other warhorses I’ve heard him conduct, but the playing was strong and struck a good balance between dominating and merely accompanying. Tempi were more expansive than usual, but, as with Meister’s Glagolitic last season, the elasticity was too much of an end in itself.

Aside from a small piccolo fluff the RSO didn’t put a foot wrong in the Shostakovich. There’s work yet to be done, but performances as secure and responsive as this bear little resemblance to the way they were playing this time last year. Again, Meister could have done more with the score, but there was no haranguing or getting stuck in motoric ruts (not that the 9th is so bad for that, but there are moments when it can happen). The Moderato was the best movement, with sinewy string playing and a gentle fluidity to the phrasing in the woodwind solos.

For a Meister concert this wasn’t quite as special as I’ve come to expect. But with playing this solid, the RSO Wien is fast establishing itself as the most consistent of the three major Viennese orchestras.

Lothar Zagrosek steps in for Fabio Luisi

Musikverein, 14/10/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Lothar Zagrosek, Jasminka Stancul

Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 24 in C major, KV 467
Mahler: Symphony no. 7

So a star conductor gets poached by the Met, leaving a Viennese musical institution in the lurch. It’s a familiar tale in these parts, and Fabio Luisi’s may yet become as embellished in the telling as Mahler’s, if Thomas Angyan’s comments to the New York Times are anything to go by. For an orchestra in serious need of artistic leadership – Chefdirigent designate Philippe Jordan isn’t due to pick up the pieces until 2014 – the Wiener Symphoniker have taken things rather more stoically, and while it’s nice to be spared a public falling out I do hope there’s some whinging going on behind closed doors. Luisi’s last-minute cancellations have led to some crummy guest conducting, and this concert was the worst so far (Christian Arming’s dull Mahler 3 in June doesn’t seem nearly so bad now). His Symphoniker engagements this season include a further three programmes at the Musikverein and two at the Konzerthaus, split between December, which seems safe enough, and May, when he may or may not end up conducting the Met’s Ring. Luisi trained in Austria and is doubtless aware of how seriously Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln – an immovable feast on the Musikverein calendar – is taken here. Perhaps he might make his excuses a bit earlier for that one.

Lothar Zagrosek, of Decca/Entartete Musik renown, was supposed to be at his Italian holiday home, learning Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra. But even with an Einspringer stepping in as late as this to conduct Mahler’s least-played symphony there’s only so much sloppiness I’m inclined to overlook: woodwind intonation throughout was foul, no brass top note went unblared or timpani note unthumped, and entries were shockingly clumsy – most disappointingly in the first movement, when the recapitulation of the second subject was cued well after the harp glissando had reached its top B. Anything marked mf or above was played with deafening volume, including the ugly snarl of the tenor horn solo, but the mandolin, guitar and anything else less than mp was inaudible – the Bernstein doctrine of Mahler dynamics, taken to extremes that surely even Lenny himself would find ludicrous. And with distended Luftpausen to rival Gatti and all the affectation of Rattle at his worst, Zagrosek’s reading of the work, if we must call it that, was a travesty from beginning to end. Were it not for a brisk finale the performance would have exceeded Klemperer in length; the first movement only expired, along with much of the audience, after a draining thirty-five minutes.

The Mozart was better: just the one moment of dodgy woodwind tuning, and the orchestra together for most of the time, if on the heavy side. Jasminka Stancul’s playing was assured and clean, but allergic to risk – with the expressivity of her phrasing crossing the line from carefully considered to canned. It was good to finally hear a Fazioli at the Musikverein, but for all Stancul’s calculation she failed to get a handle on the much smaller difference in decay between octaves C4 and C5, and the melodic line in the Andante was bumpy. The lightness of her touch worked most effectively in the Allegro vivace, but musically it was only a touch less hemmed in than the first two movements.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Wien Modern begins early at the Konzerthaus

Konzerthaus (Berio Saal), 11/10/2011

Hsin-Huei Huang, piano
Claudia Doderer, installation & light

Salvatore Sciarrino: Notturno no. 1 (1998), Notturno no. 3 (1999-2000)
Tristan Murail: La Mandragore (1993)
Beat Furrer: Drei Klavierstücke (2004)
Iannis Xenakis: Mists (1981)

The consistency of events like Wien Modern and ensembles like the Klangforum and Arnold Schoenberg Chor means that postwar music of middling to high difficulty rarely gets subjected to a bad performance in Vienna. Even venues and ensembles with more limited resources – like, respectively, the Alte Schmiede and the Pierrot Lunaire – don’t often disappoint. As this concert wore on I thought the playing reached the level of a respectable Alte Schmiede event, but judged as an engagement at the Konzerthaus it fell somewhat short. Hsin-Huei Huang is a capable pianist with a number of contemporary music credentials on her résumé, but there was the sense in this concert of full pianistic potential already reached, with many moments where she seemed simply overwhelmed by the demands of the music.

The two Sciarrino pieces, practically unperformable in the dry acoustic of the Berio Saal, were given a hesitant and technically unsteady performance. The descending chords of no. 1 were placed awkwardly, with little sense of line, and tempi were considerably slower than my recording (Nicolas Hodges, highly recommended). The Murail was played more fluently and pedalled better. Huang seemed to understand that the recurring notes – C sharp, and later D sharp – have a special significance in this piece, though little sense was made of the concluding section, which ended abruptly. Beat Furrer’s Drei Klavierstücke are three very different but not so unusual pieces; the second similar to the second movement of Ligeti’s Musica ricercata, the third full of ironic tonal passages interrupted by a right hand ostinato which Huang managed capably. Claudia Doderer’s art installation – a white sail and a small heap of stones – finally acquired some relevance in the Xenakis. It’s hard to say exactly what a couple of interesting lighting changes added to the music, but it was imaginatively choreographed and here Doderer (an Achim Freyer student and long-standing Klaus Lang collaborator) seemed to understand the music she was working with. Huang’s scales had good clarity and sense of direction, but the ‘mists’ sounded random and lacking in expression (as strangely interesting as it was to hear such apparent disregard for the rigour of Xenakis’s internal logic).

Sunday, 16 October 2011

La Traviata at the Wiener Staatsoper

Wiener Staatsoper, 09/11/2011

La traviata (new production)

Natalie Dessay | Violetta Valéry
Charles Castronovo | Alfredo Germont
Fabio Capitanucci | Giorgio Germont
Zoryana Kushpler | Flora Bervoix
Donna Ellen | Annina
Carlos Osuna | Gastone
Clemens Unterreiner | Barone Douphol
Il Hong | Marchese d'Obigny
Dan Paul Dumitrescu | Dottore Grenvil

Bertrand de Billy | Conductor
Jean-François Sivadier | Director

Jean-François Sivadier is, relatively speaking, the most technically competent French director Dominique Meyer has inflicted on the Staatsoper over the last twelve months. He fills a bare stage with action from beginning to end and it’s not unremittingly exasperating to watch or choreographically inept. That isn’t to say his efforts beyond this are any good – they generally aren’t – but there’s enough flexibility for a Violetta with initiative to dispense with the distractions and salvage some of the human drama, which is to say, disappointedly, that the best hope for this production is for the action to hew more closely to the text. Natalie Dessay, despite her reputation as a singing actress, is not that Violetta.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Radu Lupu and the Wiener Symphoniker

Konzerthaus, 07/10/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Heinrich Schiff, Radu Lupu
Weber: Overture to Oberon, J. 306
Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 5, op. 73, 'Emperor'

Heinrich Schiff has never distinguished himself as a conductor and his true calling remains being a cellist as well as one of Europe’s most highly respected cello teachers. He got a decent response from that instrument in the Weber, the few bars of viola and cello divisi in the introduction played with a burnished, horn-like sound. But one moment does not a concert make, particularly when the direction of anything else you care to name is so incompetent.

I know the Hindemith well from my student orchestra days, and dare say we sounded more coherent when note-bashing our way through it for the second or third time than the Symphoniker did on Friday. With no indication from Schiff that any voice should be prominent except, astonishingly, for the horns, the first movement was a cacophonous mess. The Scherzo’s incremental build-up in momentum was cocked up with an early crescendo and the D major rupturing of the ostinato sounded oddly inconsequential. The less said about the jazz-inflected counterpoint the better. There was some evidence of coordination in the Andantino but Schiff couldn’t settle on a tempo, and the fourth movement was the same blustery racket as the first. Our conductor’s laboured exhortations in the final movement, either ignored or simply too unintelligible to be followed, pointed towards Star Wars brass from which we were thankfully if only serendipitously spared. This is a straightforward work which practically conducts itself, but poor playing in every instrumental department is perhaps an indication that not all the blame for this travesty should be piled at Schiff’s door.

The Beethoven saw some improvement, though tempi were dangerously unstable and I do not exaggerate when I report that the performance would have fallen apart had it not been for Radu Lupu’s stealth conducting, something he is often mistakenly fingered for doing but was beyond doubt here. The slight raising of the left hand before resting it on the keys was subtle enough the first time and became, before long, a blatant upbeat-downbeat motion. In a rare moment of alertness Schiff caught wind of this and there was a passive-aggressive body language exchange before the second movement which Lupu stopped from escalating with a nonchalant shrug. Naturally the first thing he does after the wretched thing is over is leap up and give Schiff a long warm hug. Aside from him being a mensch I don’t really know what to make of that.

On the orchestral side it may have been an incoherent Emperor, but it was worth hearing for Lupu’s exceptional control and anti-struggle for the heart and soul of modern-day pianism. Like most pianists Lupu is aware he will hit a wrong note just as it is too late to correct it and unlike most pianists he adjusts the force he will strike the note with so rapidly that you barely notice the error. Weight is applied from the fingers and rarely distributed uniformly, though never, with touch this commanding, just because he can. He has long been the wise old man of voicing, but the perception here was of a different order to his usual cautiously considered manner; something more acute upon which hung the defining aesthetic questions of what it means to play the piano in this day and age, only for him to reveal, much like Michelangeli, at once how inescapable and irrelevant those questions are. In this performance we saw, however tamed, much of his once barnstorming technique intact, and yet reconciled and even intimately attuned with the poetic character works under his hands so often take on, as if they were always meant to be played that way. The Fourth may seem the more obvious Lupu vehicle because we are used to looking at works like the Emperor in a certain way, and as belonging to a certain kind of pianist. Lupu never really bothers to argue otherwise in his typically eloquent fashion, though with the dialectic present in his playing on this occasion the indirect indictment could not have been more damning.

His encore was, of course, the E flat Intermezzo from op. 117. There is always his widely acclaimed recording of these Brahms piano works to fall back on and the style has not changed appreciably, but in the treatment of musical line I sensed something quite different, with at the considerable risk of misinterpretation, with Schenkerian underpinnings. To write about such playing in the seemingly prosaic terms of analytical technique is regarded in certain quarters as heresy, though it might equally be said that eschewing the role such formal matters play in our aesthetic satisfaction is to embrace crackpots such as Hanslick and theories of conveniently indefinable autonomous beauty. In any case, Lupu has lived with these pieces for half a lifetime and would not be able to perform them the way he does without understanding their inner relationships, but to project, through voicing alone, a middleground rich in musical possibility while maintaining the op. 117 illusion  that only the simplest of means is used – is a feat which shows his touch and insight to be truly singular.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Tonkünstler

Musikverein, 02/10/2011

Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Sharon Kam

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 1, op. 11
Iván Eröd: Konzert für Klarinette und Orchester (premiere)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, op. 67

The Tonkünstler have a fairly regular Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening slot during the Musikverein season and though demand isn’t as high as for the Vienna-based orchestras, they are capable of outplaying the Symphoniker (generally considered Austria’s second orchestra). Their young chief conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada owes his big break to them and can usually be relied on to elicit commitment and intensity beyond the call of Sunday afternoon duty. I mention this because their season didn’t get off to a great start last weekend and I have to tell it like it was. But normally I’m rooting for these guys.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Andrey Boreyko and the Wiener Symphoniker

Musikverein, 1/10/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Andrey Boreyko
Iwona Sobotka, soprano
Jadwiga Rappé, alto
Artur Ruciński, baritone
Brahms: Nänie, op. 82
Szymanowski: Stabat Mater, op. 53
Ives: The Unanswered Question (revised version from 1930-35)
Schubert: Symphony No. 7 in B minor, D. 759
I hadn’t heard of conductor Andrey Boreyko before this concert. A cursory Google search revealed that he failed to deliver after promising the world to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, but has won critics prizes in Germany for his non-conventional programming. Nänie and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater bear out the latter and I can only imagine that Winnipeg must have been more about personality or politics than musicianship, because this was the Symphoniker concert of the season to beat. Naturally not a single Viennese critic bothered to show up.

It was good to hear Nänie at the Musikverein. I find it the more inspired of the two late choral works and there’s an interesting historical connection with the hall.Boreyko began things worryingly, looking like a sped up video of someone measuring for curtains and subdividing like crazy. I struggle to fathom what message he was trying to communicate, but the singing and playing didn’t sound at all chopped up or indeed like the German Requiem (a tempting default for the Singverein) and that works for me. There was no sense of the music sounding obsessed with its inner workings either, which happens so easily with Brahms. The chorus was really great here: just a small moment of tenor strain, which passed quickly enough, and some impressively pp high soprano entries.

The understatement of the Brahms carried over well into the Szymanowski. His rapid arm movement all but gone, Boreyko handled this delicately, with no trace of blurring where there might have been muddy swathes of sound. All three soloists were curiously unaffected by the ‘ferne Klang’ singer’s curse of the Musikverein and their performances felt like a thoughtful, collective effort to do well by this underrated work. There was a clarity to Iwona Sobotka's Barainsky-like soprano which worked well in that moment with the oboe solo and alongside Jadwiga Rappé's dark, thick alto, despite the contrast in colour. Soloists for choral and orchestral works at the Musikverein don't often mesh like this.

The strings in the Ives sounded uncannily like a certain American symphony orchestra, which is unusual as the three major Vienna string sections don’t often shed their spots. Woodwind interjections weren’t as punchy as the norm, but sounded a great deal less contrived for it. Boreyko segued directly into the Schubert, a stunt I wouldn’t care for too often, but it wasn’t at all attention-grabbing and if a conductor is going to concatenate two works, there are worse choices. The first movement was strong, if never much more than respectably so. Boreyko was bolder in the Andante, which was more memorable even if the ideas weren’t always convincing. One of these was the emphasis placed on the dominant in all the V-I cadences (a case of reading and strongly disagreeing with Susan McClary?). The oboist who had done so well in the Szymanowski had a bit of a dodgy entry, coming in flat on the C sharp of the second theme. Boreyko dropped what he was doing to pick up the pieces and ended up making something special of the phrase that possibly wouldn't have happened otherwise. With no newspaper reviews and a tepid ovation, it's up to the orchestra to decide if we see more of him with them in the future. I hope that happens.

*Webern had a fondness for Brahms's more obscure choral and orchestral output, and conducted Nänie at the Musikverein more than once in his capacity as musical director of the Singverein der sozialdemokratischen Kunststelle, a semi-professional chorus run by the Austrian Social Democrats. In a move that makes this programme look timid, he once followed the Gesang der Parzen with Eisler’s Solidaritätslied.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Claudio Abbado's HIP Prius

Musikverein, 28/09/2011

Orchestra Mozart, Claudio Abbado

Rossini: Overture to L’Italiana in Algeri
Mozart: Symphony No. 35, ‘Haffner’
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4, ‘Italian’
Rossini: Overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia (encore)

The Bologna-based Orchestra Mozart is somewhere between the third and sixth ensemble Claudio Abbado has founded, depending on how you define founding. It is also one of only three orchestras which Abbado has committed to performing with for the indefinite future, together with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Lucerne Festival Orchestra. There’s no cause for concern if you’re thinking that of these three the Orchestra Mozart is the one he’s most likely to tour with – and not because Abbado has a habit of changing his mind. Their playing under his direction is immaculate, light as a feather, and fresh. Tempi are lively and focus is for the most part on phrases rather than lines, but Abbado has them play on modern instruments and motivic underscoring seems very much structurally directed.

The Haffner had all of this, but proportions were a little off. The second subject of the Andante was sufficiently rushed to make the movement seem episodic. The opening of the Presto was held back to tension-deflating effect, presumably the opposite of Abbado’s intention. After a very strong first movement, these little things bothered me.

I had fewer reservations about the Mendelssohn. The opening phrase sprang into life with remarkable spontaneity, and the balance between reproducing carefully rehearsed phrasing and letting go was sustained throughout the movement. The last movement felt similar but could have been taken at a slightly steadier pace for the sake of the woodwind filigree. An old school Romantic approach to the Andante can make its textures sound like organ music (pesante bass always a giveaway), as does the HIP treatment, I think, in its own way. Light vibrato and a more sustained, expressive melodic line isn’t enough, as Abbado seems to have realised; inner voices sounded carefully shaped and checked more than once for balance. What can I say? It’s very rare that this movement doesn’t make me think of Mendelssohn’s sixth organ sonata.

The familiar may not have always sounded so new in this concert, but Abbado’s classical style is about reconciling the polar opposites of performance practice in imaginative and well-grounded ways and it’s worth hearing him conduct the Orchestra Mozart just for that.