Saturday, 31 March 2012

Stefan Herheim's dithryrambic Lulu

Semperoper Dresden, 25/03/2012

Gisela Stille | Lulu
Terje Stensvold | Dr. Schön, Jack the Ripper
Christa Mayer | Countess Geschwitz
Jürgen Müller | Alwa
Ketil Hugaas | Schigolch
Painter, Negro | Nils Harald Sødal
Barbara Senator | Dresser, Schoolboy, Groom
Professor of Medicine, Banker, Professor | Joachim Goltz
Aaron Pegram | Prince, Manservant, Marquis
Almas Švilpa | Animal Tamer, Athlete, Theatre Manager
Romy Petrick | Fifteen-year-old girl
Angela Liebold | Her mother
Sabine Brohm | Artist
Ilhun Jung | Journalist
Allen Boxer | Servant

Cornelius Meister | Conductor
Stefan Herheim | Director

This Lulu is such a technically elaborate spectacle that I would have happily paid more for my ticket just so that the stagehands might have been afforded American rates of pay for the evening. I am however going to pass over the density of detail for two reasons: very few stones are left unturned in La Cieca’s closely observed deconstruction of the deconstruction, which is worth a read; and secondly, I want to cut to the chase of some problems I had. It won’t quite trommeln down but I’m afraid I do have some rain to sprinkle on Herheim’s parade.

Henze am Gürtel

The place to be tonight is not the Großes Festspielhaus but obviously the Volksoper, which is premiering a double bill of Pagliacci and Henze’s Das Wundertheater. There was a Werkeinführung for this on Wednesday and I covered it for Bachtrack. Normally I wouldn’t write about Werkeinführungen but when I contacted the Volksoper a veritable Chanfalla told me that we would get discussion on a symposium level and much musical accompaniment. As it was I had to endure director Thomas Schulte–Michels spring random tangents like ‘my most influential teacher was a theologist, so naturally he had many mistresses’. There was also an element of ‘we’re doing Henze, how daring’ to which I can only respond Das Wundertheater, Ein Landarzt, Das Ende der Welt.

I’ll be catching the production itself later in the run as Berlin Phil in Salzburg always brings out the Wiener envy here and so I have the opening Osterklang concert later (the Beethoven oratorio Christus am Ölberge with Jordan/Botha/Nylund/Finley, looking forward to it).

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

800 years of the Thomanerchor

Thomaskirche, 24/03/2012

Fest-Motette for the 800th anniversary of the Thomanerchor: Thomanerchor (dir. Georg Christoph Biller), Regensburger Domspatzen (dir. Roland Büchner), Dresdner Kreuzchor (dir. Roderich Kreile), Choir of King’s College Cambridge (dir. Stephen Cleobury)

Bach: Fantasia in C minor, BWV 562/1 (Thomasorganist Ulrich Böhme)
Anon., 15th-century: Alta Trinità Beata (combined choirs)
Victoria: Hosanna filio David (Regensburger Domspatzen)
Di Lasso: In monte Oliveti (Domspatzen)
Duruflé: Ubi carita et amor, Notre Père (Domspatzen)
Eben: Cantico delle Creature (Domspatzen)
Schein: Wende dich, Herr, und sei mir gnädig (Dresdner Kreuzchor)
Brahms: Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, op. 29/1 (Dresdner Kreuzchor)
Martin: Gloria from the Mass for double choir (Dresdner Kreuzchor)
Weir: Illuminare Jerusalem (King’s)
Maw: One Foot in Eden (King’s)
Swayne: Magnificat (King’s)
Bach: Singet dem Herrn nein neues Lied, BWV 225 (Thomanerchor)

Last Saturday saw the conclusion of the Thomanerchor’s annual Festwoche in the 800th year since their founding, which meant that the usual 15:00 Motette was expanded into a choral extravaganza involving two other German choirs and the choir of King’s College Cambridge. I went along to this and feel a little sheepish about reporting on it as I actually missed the main attraction... (the Thomaner sang perennial Bach cantata favourite Singet right at the end and with Parsifal starting at 17:00 I couldn’t stay, sadly).

The Saturday afternoon Motette has scant liturgical content (a thinly disguised sermon and two responses on this occasion) and though applause is verboten it’s really a concert in all but name. With four choirs involved in this Fest-Motette a sprawling grab bag of choral pieces spanning five centuries was perhaps inevitable, though the amount of excerpted content was mildly exasperating (I would have gladly heard a full Martin Mass from Dresden’s Kreuzchor). And then there were the plain odd choices. King’s has somewhat of a Leipzig touring history but this hallowed ground limits – or should have limited – their options, lest we forget that England’s great choral tradition notwithstanding, the last two centuries of English choral repertoire is, to put it kindly, weak. Cleobury of course understands that you can’t very well sing Stanford or Parry in the Thomaskirche, and for King’s guest Motette the previous night he had opted, wisely, for Byrd, Tallis and Purcell. More of the same would have been wiser still, given that the Weir and Maw selections put neither of these two composers in a flattering light, the Maw anthem, ‘One Foot in Eden’, most egregiously – what wretchedly pusillanimous compositional poverty here, even for weekday evensong filler. The current crop of King’s tenors don’t sound as pinched and adenoidal as the ones in my not-so-distant Cambridge day, but talking of crops one of their familiar affectations reared its head on that word (so plosive it was downright silly, in the Maw). More worrying was the wayward intonation and poor ensemble.

While King’s hardly covered themselves in glory, the two German choirs I heard offered a feast for the ears and mind. What tenderness and sensitivity to the Dresdner Kreuzchor’s Brahms! Their gentle way with the text also showed us that diction need not be grotesquely distorted for it to possess clarity. The Kreuzchor also sang quite the most modernist account I’ve heard of Frank Martin’s Gloria, which was considerably more structurally assured and musically forceful than choirs which reduce Martin’s highly individual style to the work of an eccentric like Hauer, or even worse, to something postmodern before the fact (this is very tempting with Martin but necessarily dismissive of his structural integrity).

The Regensburger Domspatzen’s Duruflé Ubi registered as a whispered entreaty, which I found compelling, and their jaunty Eben (not, admittedly, his best piece) as, well, a vehicle for them to live up to their name, which I didn’t. Their Victoria and di Lasso were finely crafted and pointed to a vibrant polyphonic tradition.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Parsifal in Leipzig

Roland Aeschlimann’s production is a mystical mishmash of colour symbolism and Christian, Buddhist and Pagan imagery which doesn’t tell us what to think but is too much of a jumble to stimulate reflection.
The set is pared down to a collection of abstract shapes: Venetian blinds in the background for Monsalvat, a suspended disc for the Grail hall which doubles up as the backdrop for Klingsor’s castle in Act II, and rows of painted Buddha figures for Kundry to unwrap in Act III. A register of the Grail knights is printed on the raked stage apron, but apart from Kundry briefly trying to scrub off the name of Amfortas it plays no part in the action. Parsifal’s entrance and scolding got things moving after a static start to Act I, but the Personenregie could have gone much further and still not have strayed far beyond the letter of the text. In Scene II the Grail Knights enter cloaked in vast tubes and leave us with no doubt as to how rigidly they are set in their ways when they park them on the stage with thudding firmness. An alphabet soup graphic is projected onto the suspended disc, which shifts when Amfortas raises a mirror, revealing a Stargate portal with something indistinct glittering at its finite point. Adding to the puzzling accumulation of all things symbolically loaded is that the mirror projects an image of the Turin Shroud.
Musically things were excellent (who knew Ulf Schirmer had it in him?), so do click through to Bachtrack to read the rest. The production wasn’t all that bad and I thought the ending was strong, but the Konzept was lacking in what one might describe in German as ‘klare Vorstellungen’ (which absolutely doesn’t mean spelling things out, far from it). The entire opera also took place behind a full-stage scrim, which soon got annoying as Aeschlimann’s use of colour isn’t that sophisticated and the stage is so dimly lit it was less like watching a live show than something which transferred poorly to video sometime around the mid-1970s.

Image credit Andreas Birkigt

Missing me already?

Well, his recent autobiography was released with the threatening title I’m not finished yet... And on the basis of the Staatsoper’s 2012-13 season announcement, which makes the moribund Holender 1990s look like some magnificent golden age, we can only pray.

Talking of Holender, I never bought the line that Dominique Meyer’s hands were tied – a line which he himself peddled, and ungratefully so, as Holender really did set his massive ego aside to be as accommodating as possible in the wake of Meyer’s late appointment. Big changes which Meyer wanted – like baroque opera – were ready to go in his first season.

And so this, 2012-13, was his first season in ‘full’ control, though none of the journalists in Meyer’s pocket are bothering to recall the big deal he was making of that as recently as a few months ago. Now the excuse, swallowed hook, line and sinker if the Feuilleton inches are anything to go by, is that the Staatsoper is touring to Japan this year, it’s an expensive undertaking, and so they were practically forced to settle for this crummy slate of new productions. All the big promises – like a big operatic commission every season, starting 2012 – seem to have fallen by the wayside.

Franz Welser-Möst’s role in all of this has hardly been positive. There’s no question he’s in charge even if he isn’t running the show, but while he is very good at thwarting Meyer’s more dubious plans – and don’t think that the Martinoty Così was the only one – he’s hardly brimming with ambitious artistic ideas of his own. I honestly don’t believe he has any vision for the house beyond securing first refusal on Strauss, Wagner and Janáček for himself and getting his pal Sven-Eric Bechtolf to direct everything.

On a far less depressing note the Theater an der Wien’s 2012-13 schedule is out, and while a Keith Warner Mathis and more Guth Monteverdi are the only two things I absolutely have to see, it’s not short on interesting choices. I would be more enthusiastic about the prospect of seeing Fidelio staged in this theatre were it not for the C-word in the pit.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Dead horse flogged

Semperoper Dresden, 23/03/2012

Heggie/McNally: Dead Man Walking

Antigone Papoulkas | Sister Helen Prejean
John Packard | Joseph De Rocher
Sabine Brohm | Mrs. Patrick De Rocher
Fiona McAndrew | Sister Rose
Jeremy Bowes | George Benton
Gerald Hupach | Father Grenville
Birgit Fandrey | Kitty Hart
Matthias Henneberg | Owen Hart
Elisabeth Wilke | Jade Boucher
Tom Martinsen | Howard Boucher
Sangmin Lee | Motorcycle Cop

Stefan Lano | Conductor
Nikolaus Lehnhoff | Director

This death row opera tries to make two points: that capital punishment has no place in a humane society and that the criminal justice system should afford bleeding heart nuns every opportunity to practise come-to-Jesus reconciliatory voodoo. The second is actually pushed far more forcefully than the first, turning what would have been a straightforward Zeitoper into a protracted commentary on transgression and forgiveness. But dialogue (and breakdown thereof) on a level that Poulenc achieves is not to be found here: Joseph De Rocher’s wearying road to confession is paved with superficiality and treads dramatic water to put off what is an utterly inevitable declaration of guilt, to which a last-minute manipulation of his fears only adds a self-defeating note of extraction. Beyond mild denial we don’t get  any indication of what makes his character tick; a scene intended to show us that De Rocher is human involves him and the nun bonding over Elvis and was contrived to the point of unwatchable (this, of all places, was the time for meaningful dialogue, not awful karaoke). There was much more that could have been cut with no great loss to the drama: the interminable drive to the prison, the sister’s dream (the loose end of her doubt gets tied up with a convenient vision of the crime scene), and an overextended interlude for the inmates to leer at the visiting nun.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Change of scene

Well-intentioned, but... pigtails?
So much for German punctuality: I had a work thing in Berlin yesterday which veered so widely off schedule I couldn’t make it to Dresden in time for Achim Freyer’s Zauberflöte. But I’m here now and will be reporting from the Semperoper over the next couple of days. The highlight, on Sunday, is one of the toughest operatic nuts for Regie to crack, Lulu. Reimagining Berg’s stage directions and detailed understanding of the tone rows are more or less an inseparable thing, though Stefan Herheim probably doesn’t need telling that… I’m also curious to see what our very own Cornelius Meister makes of the score. No doubt the loss is all mine, but tomorrow’s premiere of what is billed in these parts as Schwanda, der Dudelsackpfeifer didn’t appeal, and so I’m off to Leipzig for their Parsifal. Tonight I went to my first staged American opera in a good few years, Dead Man Walking. A review – mostly negative, I’m afraid – will be up tomorrow or on Sunday.

This has nothing to do with Dresden, but Alex Ross has posted something thoughtful on Bruckner 9 which you should read. For a Bruckner edition to ruffle so few factional feathers is very rare, though I think this strength, if we should call it that, is also SPCMs fatal weakness. I can only add to AR’s comments that while only composing thirteen bars of new material avoids yes, speculation, this timid finale sounds composed by committee.* I think that methodological eclecticism is a good thing and so am inclined to take completions as they come – the studied, self-effacing approach gave us Schubert’s Tenth (Newbould), the sparseness of which works well I think, whether Schubert intended to leave it like that or not. Levin’s Mozart Requiem may be more rigorous than the modern alternatives, but I don’t find the writing convincing and have always preferred Süssmayr (do the blunders really justify throwing the baby out with the bathwater?). A modernist completion of Bruckner 9 would make for an interesting project – Georg Friedrich Haas the obvious candidate – but between this and the overly cautious latest SPCM revision there is room for a daring imagined glimpse of how Bruckner might have surpassed himself.

*I wasn’t at the Berlin or New York concerts, but did listen to it in the BPO’s Digital Concert Hall.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Frau ohne Ahnung

Wiener Staatsoper, 20/03/2012
Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Robert Dean Smith | The Emperor
Adrianne Pieczonka | The Empress
Birgit Remmert | The Nurse
Wolfgang Koch | Barak, the Dyer
Evelyn Herlitzius | The Dyer’s Wife
Wolfgang Bankl | Spirit Messenger
Chen Reiss | Guardian of the Threshold, Voice of the Falcon
Norbert Ernst | Apparition of a Youth
Zoryana Kushpler | Voice from Above
Adam Plachetka | The One-Eyed Man
Alexandru Moisiuc | The One-Armed Man
Herwig Pecoraro | The Hunchback
Zoryana Kushpler, Ileana Tonca, Caroline Wenborne, Stephanie Houtzeel, Nadia Krasteva, Monika Bohinec | Servants, Voices of the Unborn
Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Marcus Pelz, Clemens Unterreiner | Voices of the Nightwatchmen

Franz Welser-Möst | Conductor
Robert Carsen | Director

For once the Wiener Staatsoper has an unimpeachable excuse for corner-cutting a major revival, but the lack of a Generalprobe doesn’t explain away all the tech and other staging problems which plagued this performance. Par for the Staatsoper course, some might say, that Adrianne Pieczonka should stand shrouded in darkness and yet still cast a hulking great shadow on the wall (blocking markers, who needs those?), but this was just one of the less perverse problems. There were some signs of life to Robert Carsen’s Personenregie, but nothing that couldn’t have done with further resuscitative poking. Despite some very good playing in parts, the same goes for the score under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Wien Modern 2012 announced

Wien Modern announced its 2012 festival today and here is a translation of their press release I made earlier:

Wien Modern celebrates its 25th season in October and this year’s festival will open on the 22nd with Kloing! and Hommage à Klaus Nomi by Olga Neuwirth. The opening concert will take place at the Theater an der Wien and is the first collaboration between our two organizations. The Klangforum Wien will play under the direction of Clement Power with Andrew Watts (countertenor), Marino Formenti (piano) and Lillevan (video and live video).

Olga Neuwirth is the subject of this year’s composer focus, sponsored by the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation. To mark the anniversary artistic director Matthias Lošek has invited Lothar Knessl, one of the festival’s founders and grand seigneur of contemporary music [sic], to curate a series of concerts. Knessl, who turns 85 this April, will present his personal choices from the last 24 years and music new to the festival, or as he puts it, ‘what deserves to be played again and what has not yet been played.’ Excitement is guaranteed!
The 2012 Erste Bank composition prize has gone to Beat Furrer, whose prize commission will be performed by the Klangforum Wien on 3rd November at the Konzerthaus.

I wasn’t going to comment but can’t resist, and not just to say that Wien Modern desperately needs a new copy editor. It’s always worth remembering that without Beat Furrer’s advocacy we wouldn’t have the Klangforum. But yet another prize? The Erste Bank prize is a commissioning vehicle which comes with a few thousand euros, and there are many promising composers working in Austria who could do with even that (not to mention the recognition) a lot more than Furrer, for whom this kind of cash will make little material impact. Tomasz Skweres, Sonja Huber and Lukas Neudinger are three that immediately come to mind; all young, though that shouldn’t disqualify them, and hard-working, with a decent handful of substantial works already behind them. And what about us, the public, who have to listen to this commission? Don’t we deserve to hear something written by a composer for whom this prize actually means something? Something ambitious we won’t forget in a hurry? And does a short piece for bass flute and double bass really fit that description? Because that’s what Furrer’s composing.

By far the more positive news is that the composer focus will be on Olga Neuwirth, though starting with the Nomi Hommage (not, it must be said, her best piece) somewhat misjudges the level of audience Wien Modern attracts. The failing of a recent London Sinfonietta In Portrait concert shows that with Neuwirth the more challenging music cannot be avoided if her dialectic – the difficult works are rarely as inaccessible as they first appear and the more straightforward works often get understood with as much clarity in one sense as they do another – is to be appreciated. And looking at the full Neuwirth programme, which Wien Modern hasn’t released (it’s on her website), there are a few missed opportunities. I don’t mean things like a full staging of Bählamms Fest or Lost Highway – though if the TadW is looking to take over the Kammeroper and co-operate with Wien Modern, then why not? – but pieces which haven’t even been recorded yet, like the Jelinek oratorio Aufenthalt or the orchestral work anaptyxis. That said, Olga has clearly been involved and it’s not a bad programming effort – certainly an improvement on the Cerha focus last year (which started big with the complete Spiegel and then tailed off rather embarrassingly). Details are as follows:

"Hommage à Klaus Nomi - a songplay in 9 fits"
Marino Formenti, Andrew Watts, Klangforum Wien
Eröffnung von Wien Modern, Theater an der Wien

"Construction in space"
Klangforum Wien

"Remnants of songs...An Amphigory"
RSO Wien, Antoine Tamestit, Dir.: Susanna Mälki; Konzerthaus Wien

"incidendo/ fluido" "In Nacht und Eis" " aduras... in memoriam H."
"Akroate Hadal"
"torsion: transparent variation"
Talea Ensemble, Konzerthaus Wien

"...ce qui arrive..."
ICE Ensemble, Konzerthaus Wien

16.11. 2012
Orchestra piece to be announced
RSO-Wien; Dir.: Cornelius Meister
Musikverein Wien

Sunday, 18 March 2012

ensemble LUX: GF Haas, Furrer, Freisitzer, Lachenmann

Bojidara Kouzmanova, Thomas Wally, Julia Purgina, Mara Kronick
Alte Schmiede, 16/03/2012

ensemble LUX, with Einspringer Gunde Jäch-Miko (for Wally) & Andreas Lindenbaum (for Kronick)

Georg Friedrich Haas: String Quartet No. 2 (1998)
Beat Furrer: String Quartet No. 2 (1988)
Roland Freisitzer: Pythoness at Tripod  Hommage to Patrick White (2010)
Helmut Lachenmann: Gran Torso (1971/76/88)

The ensemble LUX is a relatively new string quartet, and for the moment their activity is limited mostly to Vienna – which in practice means the Alte Schmiede, where they are the ensemble in residence this season. Their music-making is technically sharp and genuinely felt, and I hope that their rising profile will lead to success on the international contemporary music circuit. It is too early to say at what level, but with two of their members unexpectedly indisposed for this concert the remaining half of the quartet experienced life in the Arditti/JACK/Diotima leagues thanks to 
longstanding Klangforum members and deluxe Einspringer Gunde Jäch-Micko and Andreas Lindenbaum.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Loose lips never sank Franz's ships

The Staatsopers FroSch Generalprobe

Speaking at Vienna University’s theatre studies department ahead of his Frau ohne Schatten tomorrow night, Franz Welser-Möst was asked a number of questions about Robert Carsen’s revival, which in typical FWM style he took to mean questions about Christof Loy’s widely panned Salzburg production.

‘Ironicizing the ending of this opera is like ironicizing the ending of The Magic Flute. You just can’t do it,’ said Welser-Möst, who added for good measure that Loy had ruined the entire opera for him. ‘The ‘Christmas in Vienna’ resolution was like some bad operetta plot which belongs in Bad Ischl, not Salzburg.’ Welser-Möst also said that to perform the opera uncut was fine as a ‘one-off summer thing’ but wouldn’t do for the Wiener Staatsoper. ‘We must cut because we need to have a production in the repertoire for 20, 30, 40 years,’ he said (never mind that Dominique Meyer was hired with the express remit to stop this from happening).

We never did hear much about Carsen, though some other unrelated opinions Welser-Möst offloaded included his strong views on sets. It turns out he is the self-appointed head of what must surely be christened the Staatsoperbühnenbildaufsichtsrat, which is charged with clearing sets for productions as far off as 2015. FWM said that while one can’t predict the finished product or what will happen in rehearsal, it shouldn’t stop the house’s artistic leadership from urging directors to ‘think twice’ about ambitious scenery – and he says he’s already had to intervene with a production that will premiere this October. And when a director’s Personenregie gets too much for a singer, it’s perfectly fine to jettison that too – as he advised Simon Keenlyside before the Staatsoper’s Onegin, though in this case it’s hard to say what could have been so demanding. ‘I am absolutely not a stage director and have no desire to be one’, FWM added – except, that is, when he’s telling stage directors how to do their job.

Welser-Möst concluded by urging us all to come to Die Frau ohne Schatten and then, unable to stop himself, adding that the Generalprobe had to be cancelled after what has to be the most ironic power outage in all of opera left nobody in the building with a shadow.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Thielemann Ringfunk

Christian Thielemann was quite candid about the ‘Nein’ to a CD or DVD release of his recent Vienna Ring, and one of the Staatsoper’s worst kept secrets is that Franz Welser-Möst wielded his GMD veto in the matter.* But the performances were recorded by the ORF and will receive a belated radio broadcast, of which there is no official confirmation yet, though word from Ö1’s leaky sieve is saying 27th & 28th April and 1st & 5th May (available live and on listen again for 7 days here).

The lack of anything approaching sufficient orchestral rehearsal disfigured this entire Ring, with Thielemann visibly beleaguered by the Herculean labour of simply keeping ensemble. My thoughts on the first three evenings (Götterdämmerung was too depressing to write about) were blistering and though I’d liked to be proved overly harsh, the chances of these broadcasts living up to the gushingly extravagant reviews of the Viennese critics are low.

Thielemann returns to the Wiener Staatsoper for Parsifal next month, the new Salzburg Ariadne next December, and a new production of Hänsel und Gretel in 2015.

*To be scrupulously fair, Welser-Möst says inviting Thielemann was his initiative, and who knows, perhaps at some point he wants to record what was, after all, originally his Ring.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Nézet-Séguin takes Wiener to their happy place

Konzerthaus, 12/03/12

Wiener Philharmoniker, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Hélène Grimaud

Brahms: Piano concerto no. 1 in D minor, op. 15

Chaikovsky: Symphony no. 6 in B minor, op. 74 ‘Pathétique’

There was much talk of mutual respect at their recent Künstlergespräch, but in reality Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the easiest pushover the Vienna Philharmonic has had in a long while. A conductor so obligingly taken advantage of can be the orchestra’s cue to switch over to autopilot, with shameless levels of complacency and preventable sloppiness, but under Nézet-Séguin they showed exceptional discipline and were captivating from start to finish.

Hanno Müller-Brachmann & András Schiff, one year on

Konzerthaus, 11/03/2012

Schubert, from Schwanengesang:

Der Atlas, D 957/8
Ihr Bild, D 957/9
Das Fischermädchen, D 957/10
Die Stadt, D 957/11
Am Meer, D 957/12
Der Doppelgänger, D 957/13

Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht, op. 96/1
Es schauen die Blumen, op. 96/3
Meerfahrt, op. 96/4
Sommerabend, op. 85/1
Mondenschein, op. 85/2
Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenz, op. 71/1
Vier ernste Gesänge, op. 121
Brahms: Drei Intermezzi, op. 117
Schumann: Dichterliebe, op. 48

I just commented about how anything is possible in the Konzerthaus’s much-improved acoustic and stand by it even though Lieder recitals should ideally not be happening in 1,800 capacity halls (which may be average by American standards but for the seats the Großer Saal has a lot of square footage and a big stage). In some ways the big hall has its advantages over the neighbouring 700 seat Mozart Saal: singers can often overpower the smaller hall and pianos acquire a brightness which is hard for even the most sensitive of pianists to shake off. In this Liederabend András Schiff had no problems projecting some soft playing to the back of the hall (where I was seated), and did an admirable job of making the space sound intimate. But Hanno Müller-Brachmann seem preoccupied which making himself heard and the corresponding loss of subtlety was a great pity.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Bruckner from Budapest

This concert saw the Budapest Festival Orchestra reduced to a period ensemble of fewer than ten musicians plus soloists for Bach’s cantata ‘Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht’, and after the interval packed closely together as they filled the large stage of the Konzerthaus with forces well in excess of the not insignificant minimum required for a big Bruckner symphony. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, but after the rather scrappy Bach it was a rare delight to hear a fresher sound working to unexpectedly magnificent effect in Bruckner’s Seventh.
It was hard to put the unusual sound of the BFO’s Bruckner into words – the trombones sounded distinctively theirs but the Wagner tubas as if they’d been cued by Thielemann, and though these oddities of timbre made for a mishmash, I couldn’t fault the balance of it. An dose of, um, monumental irony came courtesy of PORR, one of Austria’s biggest construction firms and sponsor of this concert. To read more of the review, click here.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Linz announces programme for new Musiktheater

What Linz isn't planning (image taken near the new Musiktheater)
I gave this a full day to see if anyone might claim that Linz is building a new Führerstadt, but reticence is golden and we should savour it while we can. Anyway, after decades of debate and a negative referendum result campaigned for, incidentally, by the far right Freedom Party, Linz’s new opera house/musical theatre is finally opening next year. And not with an event that will actually er, consecrate the new venue, but rather an open air (and abridged) Parsifal staged by La Fura dels Baus. The Bühnenweihfestspiel itself will take place a day later, on 11 April, with the premiere of Philip Glass’s new opera The Lost, directed by David Pountney and based on the 2006 play Spuren der Verirrten by Peter Handke, whom I’m disappointed at for allowing his brilliant work (I have seen the play) to be adapted, to paraphrase Strauss, by a third-class second-rate composer. One thinks of Jelinek and Neuwirth and what might have been...

A new production of Der Rosenkavalier will transfer from the old Landestheater to the new Musiktheater on 15th April, with Anne Schwanewilms as the Marschallin and Kurt Rydl as Ochs. A studio space called the ‘Blackbox’ will host the premiere of Opernmaschine, a new experimental work by Peter Androsch, and the foyer will be used for Kinderoper, beginning with Helmut Schmidinger’s Lynx, der Luchs. Both Androsch and Schmidinger are from Upper Austria.

The main stage of the new Musiktheater will also be used for ballet and musical theatre. For further details about the planned opening events click here. For artists’ impressions of the new building check out the Musiktheater’s website.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s schweigsamen Frauentag

To honour the venerable old white men  of conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker have their ‘Philharmonische Feierstunde’ tradition, which is essentially a glorified press conference in which both parties bask in the glow of mutual adoration. Less likely to set off the gag reflex are the more informal Gespräche they occasionally put on for bright young things like Yannick Nézet-Séguin. YN-S will conduct the Philis in St. Pölten and Vienna this weekend, and sat down with chairman of the orchestra Clemens Hellsberg at the Haus der Musik yesterday evening for an interview which out-Faymanned our wily Blair-like chancellor.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Frankly first class

Generalmusikdirektor of the Wiener Staatsoper Franz Welser-Möst was at the palace today to pick up a gong, the palace being the Hofburg and the gong the Austrian Cross of Honour for Art and Science, First Class. It’s the second highest honour musicians can receive after the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art (Ehrenzeichen), which has gone to the likes of Ligeti, Kurtág, Kleiber and Boulez. Previous recipients of Welser-Möst’s Ehrenkreuz have included Frank Sinatra and (the real) Maria von Trapp. Many of the other cross holders prove that there’s as much honour to the Austrian honours system as the British (a red or black party card helps grease the wheels), though W-M seemed more flattered than most and blew the necessary hot air about this award showing that Austria places real value on ‘high culture’. More warm words were spoken by his Liebslingsregisseur Sven-Eric Bechtolf and Austrian President Heinz Fischer. Making a neat Vienna/Cleveland reference, the Steude Quartet (all members of the Wiener Philharmoniker) performed Schubert’s Quartettsatz and the first movement from Dvořák’s ‘American’ quartet.

Welser-Möst with his wife Angelika and Bundesheinzi
Image credit: APA / Herbert Pfarrhofer

Tuesday, 6 March 2012


At the moment the Wiener Staatsoper is rather a sausage to me, as the Viennese are fond of saying, but there are three revivals worth noting am Ring this month: Robert Carsen’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Cardillac, and Claus Guth’s Tannhäuser. Tannhäuser, with Bertrand de Billy and Peter Seiffert, is the one I’m most likely to give a miss, having already seen the production (which hasn’t revived well). Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Strauss and Hindemith, with Wolfgang Koch and Evelyn Herlitzius reprising their roles from the Salzburg FroSch and Adrianne Pieczonka as the Kaiserin. In more dubious productions, Dmitri Hvorostovsky sings Simon Boccanegra (already underway) and Nina Stemme Tosca (from the 19th).

Monday, 5 March 2012

Semi-skimmed semi-opera

The first production of The Fairy Queen was staged at the Dorset Garden Theatre in London and was one of the biggest Restoration spectaculars of the time. Eyewitness accounts describe a fountain which shot a jet of water four metres into the air and dragons which formed a bridge through which swans would pass and be transformed into fairies. Robert King explained that we would have to project our own wild flights of whimsy onto a backlit screen (seemingly on loan from a Silicon Valley product launch), but that his ensemble would take us back in time to Purcell’s unusual sound world.
You really would need time travel to avoid the conclusive scotching such claims have received. To read more about how Robert King’s HIP TARDIS didn’t quite bring the musick to the Theater an der Wien, click here.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Unbearable length of being

Konzerthaus, 02/03/2012

Marc Minkowski, Les Musiciens du Louvre

Symphony no. 1 in D major, D 82
Symphony no. 4 in C minor, D 417 ‘Tragic’
Symphony no. 3 in D major, D 200

Marc Minkowski’s three day survey of Schubert’s symphonies has been heavily promoted around Vienna with the poster caption ‘Angst vor der Neunten’. There wasn’t much of that in the first concert, or indeed anything to give the performances some much-needed definition. These symphonies are being recorded for DVD release and this first instalment of 1, 3 and 4 will make for a mediocre addition to the Schubert discography.

Desert Island Disc

Vasilis Triantafillopoulos and Herbert Schäfer’s set is abstract and owes much to the aesthetic of Wieland Wagner’s Bayreuth productions from the 1950s: a bare white disc covers the stage, with scene changes marked by occasional rotation or steep raking (revealing an underbelly of girders painted an incongruous shade of red). Sometimes a mirror is lowered to give an elevated view of the disc from above, which led to some striking images. A smattering of props gives a vague sense of the plot: ladders for the enchanted forest which holds Odysseus’s men captive on Circe’s island, and rifles for when they assemble a militia. Costumes are nondescript modern for the cast and white straightjackets for the chorus. The one provocative visual is a scene straight out of Abu Ghraib to show Circe’s abuse of power, in which the chorus is blindfolded, bound, and smeared with stage blood. From there they move on to paramilitary uniforms, though the effect was more anonymizing than threatening, and I wondered why [director Torsten] Fischer didn’t make this an onstage costume change, to communicate at least some sense of insurrection.

I went to the Theater an der Wien’s new Telemaco and didn’t think much of the crashingly dull ideas- and narrative-lite production. But musically things were solid. I have no idea what undemonstrative soul seems to have possessed René Jacobs, but the playing (the Akademie für alte Musik were in the pit) maintained improbable grace and restraint under his direction. Vocally David DQ Lee is no Bejun Mehta but there can’t be many Telemaco Einspringer, and he sprang ein exceptionally well for such short notice. Click here to read my full review, many more production images follow the jump.