Thursday, 31 May 2012

This is the way the season ends

I have tentatively decided for 3, 5, 6 and 8 on the grounds that they are tend to be the least performed, not to mention the least well-performed; a Bruckner marathon interests me no more than non-stop Mahler did this time last year (as good as some of it was). I write, of course, of Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, whose Bruckner/Mozart juggernaut continues with all nine symphonies (in numerical order) at the Musikverein between the 7th and 17th with only two nights off. The Wiener Philharmoniker perform their Festwochen duty with Mehta’s Gurre­-Lieder this weekend, and return with Rattle on the 14th with a Brahms, Webern, Schumann programme which will later tour to England, France and Slovenia. Their annual Schönbrunn Sommernachtskonzert, this year with Dudamel, let us pass over in near silence… Also at the Musikverein this month: Mozart, doubtlessly clipped into oblivion, courtesy of Harnoncourt and the Concentus; Elisabeth Leonskaja’s Emperor concerto with Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos and the Wiener Symphoniker; a Viennese stop for the Vengerov comeback tour; the Webern Symphonie Orchester’s annual Musikverein gig, this year with Kirill Petrenko; a Robert Holl Liederabend; and tomorrow, to mark um, 142 years of the Brahms Saal, a recreation of its inaugural concert.
The Dream of Gerontius is kind of a biennial thing now in Vienna and after its last (somewhat mixed) outing with the Wiener Phil and Rattle, the Wiener Symphoniker, Wiener Singakademie and veteran Elgarian James Judd come right on schedule at the Konzerthaus (the 5th and 6th). Elgar used to be somewhat of a wissenschaftlich second string so I’ll be writing about this elsewhere; these performances also held out the prospect of drastic times with the Heppster, but he cancelled and is replaced by Michael Fabiano. Cornelius Meister and the RSO Wien end the season on an even more obscure note with Jaromir Weinberger’s Wallenstein in concert on the 15th, and for a baroque operatic rarity there’s J. C. Bach’s Zanaïda with David Stern’s Opera Fuoco, this Sunday. The excellent Im Loth contemporary series comes to a close on Monday with pianist Siegfried Mauser and a programme of Rihm, Henze and Dusapin; on the 17th and 19th András Schiff and Lars Vogt give Klavierabende (Vogt’s is the last in this year’s Thomas Larcher cycle). Talking of Larcher, Mark Padmore gives another Liederabend on the 21st with this intriguing programme.

The Wiener Staatsoper perfunctorarily, because it’s, well, the Wiener Staatsoper: an FWM-led, Daniele Abbado-directed and star-studded Don Carlo is the last premiere of the season on the 16th; two more performances of Gruberova’s Roberto Devereux remain (5th and 10th); FWM does his equivocal thing to Tosca once more (on the 4th, Karel Mark Chichon takes over for the rest of the mini-run); J-L Martinoty’s Figaro returns, for which I might steel myself; Harry Kupfer’s Elektra gets its annual outing with Linda Watson, Anne Schwanewilms, and house Klytämnestra Agnes Baltsa;  and a Damrau/Beczala Lucia finishes the season. The Theater an der Wien is dark this month aside from two remaining performances of Deborah Warner’s Traviata on the 2nd and 5th. I never did write that promised post about the Wiener Festwochen, but nothing so far has really gripped me apart from Peter Handke’s new play, outside of this blog’s remit; there is one more performance of Luca Francesconi’s Quartett tomorrow which I will be going to.

The Stromschiene series at the Alte Schmiede reaches its culmination this weekend with diverse events you can see listed here; I will make it to their triple bill on Saturday evening and dip in and out of the accompanying symposium as time permits. Contemporary happenings elsewhere include Helmut Lachenmann in residence at the Arnold Schönberg Center this month (a lecture and some concerts are listed here); this year’s Grenzwort programme, which continues on the 8th and 15th in Subterrarium’s Friday night slot (I went last week and was impressed); three more events in the Ruprechtskirche new music series (not as consistent as the Schmiede, but occasionally interesting); and friend of this blog Tomasz Skweres, who has a Musikverein event on the 12th. And yes, Lydia Lunch actually is in town at the moment.  

The Postmodern Condition

Here are a pair of Konzerthaus reviews from last week which slipped through the cracks, of Lisa Batiashvili’s string trio and  the Hamburg-based contemporary group Ensemble Resonanz. Not the best of weeks for me and postmodernism, and I’m still undecided about what a recycled in vain did for me, but as compensation there was some good playing from time to time, and Lachenmann. Lachenmann watchers be aware that for Bachtrack’s broader audience there is a generalization of what he writes about the techniques of Notturno; but if perforated sound, among other things, can seem much more than a mere technical term, it is because of musicians like Francesco Dillon.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Deborah Warner's Traviata misses the wood for the trees

(Günter Haumer’s Douphol here btw, not Saimir Pirgu’s Alfredo)
Such was the original title of my review, which you can read here. Warner writes in the programme booklet that she has seen many Traviata productions which bored her and one which she felt couldn’t be bettered (rip-off couch pictured). But even copying Decker the entire way through would have made for a more bearable evening that this stale-on-arrival, vacuous ‘updating’. Never mind that the characters don’t get defined or placed in any graspable social world, as theatre this was one long embarrassment from start to finish: Germont walking into Violetta’s life with utterly random blocking, that eye-scarring matador scene, and Violetta’s fall, as if hitting the ground as quickly as possible were some competitive event. Really a litany of ineptitude and mindlessness could be compiled here; suffice it to say one wouldn’t have to visit many local barns to witness more competent Bauerntheater.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Hengelbrock/Ott: Not a great night for Liszt. Or Haydn.

Konzerthaus, 23/05/2012

NDR Sinfonieorchester, Thomas Hengelbrock, Alice Sara Ott

Haydn: Symphony no. 70 in D major, Hob. 1/70
Liszt: Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, S. 124

This is not to be taken as a review since I left in the interval. But since I rarely do this – even with Harnoncourt et al. I stay to the bitter end and try to maintain as open a mind as possible – I will permit myself some remarks.

The Konzerthaus was packed for Alice Sara Ott, a pianist I’ve never heard live but am vaguely familiar with by name; she’s around the same age as Lise de la Salle (i.e. young) and professionally their profiles are similar – no string of big competition wins to propel them into the limelight, but rather careers which seemingly blossomed overnight. De la Salle I’ve heard a few times and will go out of my way to hear again since the news that she has, wisely for now, restricted herself for now to 45 concerts a year; she is already a pianist of great technical ability and interpretive depth. Ott, for the sake of my eardrums, I will be avoiding. Much of this Liszt concerto was mercilessly bashed into oblivion, her way of striking a note always unpleasantly catching the metallic edge of the string. I had taken bare feet as some kind of aversion mechanism, but was wrong – wave upon wave of attack built up into a vast muddy cloud which she would only clear at the most bizarre moments. Technically things were very insecure and I think my jaw dropped a good few inches when she launched into La campanella for her encore – a piece surely only to be attempted when one feels in absolutely optimal pianistic condition. I braced myself but was still left speechless – 30% of the notes is putting it very generously, and with each blunder there was the increasing desperation, flailing around, and banging which anyone similarly unfit to play the work will know well. You hammer out the notes you can and just pray to God that nobody notices the rest. I wanted to feel sorry for Ott here but think that there was much hubris involved in what was, quite simply, the worst train wreck I have witnessed on a Viennese concert platform.

But not staying for the second half had less to do with Ott than the thought of what would come. The NDR Sinfonieorchester appear to have caught some hyper-mutated form of Norrington’s Stuttgart bug – which considering that HIPster Thomas Hengelbrock has only led them since last year is some fast work. In the Haydn symphony some vibrato was permitted and period instruments were confined to the brass, but these were tiny concessions compared to the playing and direction we had to endure – truly Haydn with its heart, soul and spirit ripped out, and the cadaver systemically defibrillated for disturbingly perverse thrills. Hengelbrock continued in this vein for the Liszt with a HIPster’s skewed understanding of what constitutes authenticity for 19th-century music (overblown ad absurdum). After the interval I would have heard Brahms 1 humourlessly forced to fill out a similarly ludicrous straightjacket, and fled at the thought.

Gergiev/LSO: Honour your Russian Master(s)

Konzerthaus, 20/05/2012

London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, Sun Young Lee

Stravinsky: Feu d’Artifice, op. 4
Chaikovsky: Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Yevgeny Onegin, op. 24
Chaikovsky: The Tempest (Burya), symphonic fantasy after Shakespeare, op. 18
Stravinsky: The Firebird (1910 ballet score)

On Sunday I went to three concerts, and mention this only – the irony of a Barenboim/Gergiev bookend aside – to note that the third was a contemporary event, which is getting short shrift on this blog at the moment – and later there will be a plug post with some comments on why that might be. For Gergiev and the LSO a briefly sketched report follows the jump simply because it’s one of those weeks.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Barenboim/Wiener Mozart: so alt und doch so neu

Musikverein, 20/05/2012

Wiener Philharmoniker, Daniel Barenboim, Dieter Flury

Mozart: Symphony no. 39 in E flat major, KV 543
Ibert: Flute Concerto (1934)
Mozart: Symphony no. 41 in C major, KV 551 Jupiter

A programme similar to one fellow HIP sceptic Boulezian recently attended in London, though with Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic it’s not so much about rolling back tendentious tides as carrying on as if Mozart had never been reduced in such crass and undignified ways. But while with this orchestra one never expects to escape the sound of the past the weight of institutional tradition at least seemed lifted, and so, as it became clear in rather more unabashed terms, as to advance the cause of Mozart interpretation further in one morning than it has been in this city for many years.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Fischer-Dieskau’s modernist legacy

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died today at the age of 86, left few corners unexplored in the song output of the Second Viennese School, promoted neglected figures like Winfried Zillig, and early in his career established important creative relationships with Hans Werner Henze and Aribert Reimann. He subscribed to the separation of artistic and political spheres, though his Eisler recordings (with Reimann at the piano) seem to me to pursue an interesting dialectic between his Lieder style and traditional Eisler delivery, and pacifist concerns connect his three other major premieres (Britten’s War Requiem, Hartmann’s Gesangsszene, and von Einem’s An die Nachgeborenen cantata).

But for a Youtube tribute I find myself returning to Reimann, whose composing career Fischer-Dieskau did so much to promote; knowing only the recording of Lear it was interesting to come across clips of the Munich Ponelle production, and the Berg-style Ausschnitt works very well for that kind of thing, really an excellent appetite whetter.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Herheim’s Serse brings down the house

Komische Oper, 13/05/2012 (production premiere)

Xerxes | Stella Doufexis
Arsamenes | Karolina Gumos
Amastre | Katarina Bradic
Romilda | Brigitte Geller
Atalanta | Julia Giebel
Ariodate | Dimitry Ivashchenko
Elviro | Hagen Matzeit

Stefan Herheim | Director
Konrad Junghänel | Conductor

If a tree is just a tree and no sheep humps it, then are we still in a Stefan Herheim staging? This director’s brand of Wunderregie is typically so dizzying to follow that this Serse seemed unusually free of complication.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Die Entführung eines Konzepts

When performed as it was in the 2010 première run of this production, Helen Malkowsky’s take on [Die Entführung aus dem Serail] strips the opera of its contrived exoticism, redraws Osmin as a figure of basso buffo fun, and presents a sympathetic and tender Pasha Selim with whom the captive Konstanze has a fascination that can’t just be put down to Stockholm syndrome. A veritable psychodrama, taut as a wire until the very final Janissary chorus, is staged in the furtive looks exchanged between the pair – and also in a voicing of the spoken text, which, for depth of oral interpretation, would pass muster on one of Vienna’s principal theatrical stages.
Unfortunately, this cast did not repeat the thespian-grade acting performances of 2010. It doesn’t seem that Malkowsky was on hand to supervise this revival as all the nuance and tension of her direction is gone, leaving the Pasha as a mild-mannered lepidopterist (naturally more of a watcher than a collector), which makes little sense when we observe that Konstanze could walk out of his butterfly house any minute she wanted, but offers no self-rationalization for staying. Not untypically for repertory revivals, the one character who still comes across as obviously directed is the crudest, namely Osmin, whose falling down, sexual innuendos and other sub-Benny Hill antics quickly wear when left to carry the show.
Burgtheater would be overstating it, but the quality of the thesping when I saw this Entführung in 2010 rivalled anything you would see at, say, the Theater in der Josefstadt. I suppose expecting to see that in the revival was a little hopeful, but what remains of Helen Malkowsky’s Volksoper production makes the abduction of Elfriede Ott look intelligent. See here for more.

Oh well, the real reason I went to this was to remind myself that this opera does not call for a prostitute’s nipples to be sliced off and presented to the lead soprano. Or indeed masturbation, urination as foreplay, or forced oral sex. That’s right, I’ll be in Berlin on Friday to see what Mozart intended merely as a ‘humorous tale’ (never mind the very real threat of piracy in the late eighteenth-century, which even affected opera companies, or that Mozart was Mozart, and capable of making his operas mean more than one grossly simplistic thing). Besides Bieito’s Entführung I’ll also be catching the premiere of Herheim’s Serse and a load of contemporary stuff, though posting will be slow on this as my reason for going to Berlin is, as always, work.

Accordion night at the ÖGZM

Alte Schmiede, 04/05/2012

Ensemble Wiener Collage: Sylvie Lacroix (flute), Wolfgang Zuser (flute), Stefan Neubauer (clarinet), Reinhold Brunner (clarinet), Alfred Melichar (accordion), Jaime Wolfson (piano, conductor), Mathilde Hoursiangou (piano)

Georg Aranyi-Aschner: Erinnerungszwischenspiel for flute and accordion
Alexander Wagendristel: für 3 raben no. 9 for flute, clarinet and accordion (1998)
Daniel Salecich: ein ... atmen for flute, accordion and piano (2004)
Peter Köszeghy: TOTEM (Into the Pandemonium) for flute, clarinet, accordion and piano
Sylvie Lacroix: Trio for flute, bass clarinet and accordion
Alexander Wagendristel: Honeycomb for flute/piccolo, clarinet, accordion and piano (2011/12). World premiere
Manuela Kerer: air de souffleuses for flute and clarinet

The Vienna Philharmonic sponsors a network of chamber music ensembles to which most members of the orchestra belong. It’s a system which has been in place for some time, harking back to the orchestra’s origins, and performances by the various groups are frequent. Just the other month I wrote about the Ensemble Wien, which contains none of its founding members but maintains its unusual Vln/Vln/Vla/Db configuration and is now headed by this blog’s favourite Wiener concertmaster, Albena Danailova. For those rare Philharmonic birds with a thing for contemporary music there is the Ensemble Wiener Collage, which brings together these musicians with some familiar faces from Vienna’s contemporary music scene. Like the Ensemble Wien their set-up is unconventional, with an accordionist in the mix, Alfred Melichar, whom I heard on Friday evening at the Alte Schmiede in a concert sponsored by the broad church contemporary music association, the Österreichische Gesellschaft für zeitgenössische Musik.

I have written elsewhere about the ÖGZM’s origins in connection with Vienna’s factionalized postwar avant-garde and will simply note here that it is a fascinating tale involving the equally formidable extramural forces of inchoate Cold War cultural politics and, stretching out from the other U.S. seaboard, Arnold Schoenberg’s long tentacles (his finger kept in many a Viennese strudel by loyal acolyte H. E. Apostel). The ÖGZM’s self-declared aim sixty years ago was to transcend strife, which it did with varying success, and its setting aside of aesthetic agendas persists to this day but has led to questions about the purpose of the association. It is a Verein which tries to be all things to all composers and maintains that the individuals who co-operate with it ‘feel they belong’ [sich dem Verein zugehörig fühlen], though the names missing from their roster of members show how little its activities are valued.

This was in part borne out by Friday’s programme, much of which was derivative, and somewhat ironically, of composers considered too unreliable for the ÖGZM. That Manuela Kerer’s air de souffleuses, to take one example, shamelessly ripped off Peter Ablinger without use of his electronic trickery was interesting, up to a point. This piece could have gone much further and Kerer, at her best, has the imagination to do that. Other decent if none too inspired writing came from Georg Aranyi-Aschner, who exploited the accordion’s strengths while minimizing the various drawbacks that come with bellows, and Peter Köszeghy, whose TOTEM (Into the Pandemonium) was the most tightly constructed piece of the evening. Accordion-inflected spectralism – just to prove it can be done rather than saying anything essential – came from Daniel Salecich.

Always thoroughly rehearsed and game, so I sensed, for music less non-controversial than that sanctioned by the ÖGZM, Wiener Collage comes close to sure-fire Klangforum standards with the consistency of its spirited and technically impressive performances. I would have made more notes about the playing had I planned to blog about this; let it simply be said that if composer-conductor Jaime Wolfson can hold my interest with this fare then I hope to see him lead a Klangforum concert someday. A night of perfectly ordinary pieces played well then, and no crime for new scores to offer nothing more, but composers capable of quickening the pulse mostly operate outside the egalitarian ÖGZM’s staid comfort zone.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Olivier Py’s Hamlet: the play’s the thing

Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet has riled and infuriated ever since its 1868 première, though for many it is merely an object of derision: one 1869 correspondent to the satirical magazine Punch admits not having seen the work but nevertheless disparages it as ‘Omelette’, a musical burlesque, and pillories Thomas’s fondness for drinking songs with the lines ‘To drink or not to drink? That is now the question / A glass of wine, I think, is good for the digestion’. Hamlet has however acquired its devotees, for whom the meaty title role and a more substantial part for Ophelia than in the play are too full of vocal highlights to ignore, and when the Metropolitan Opera staged the work in 2010 (the first time since 1897) the New York Times ran a spirited defence of Thomas, saying that mauling the Bard is nothing new and that the opera ‘generates its own theatrical frissons when placed in the right hands and treated sympathetically’.
It was interesting to see my first production of Hamlet, even though I doubt I’ll ask for this assignment ever again. That NYT piece almost gives special pleading a bad name, and certainly throughout three and a half hours of Thomas’s anaemic note-spinning I struggled to maintain concentration no less than when I’d been listening to it on disc beforehand. Constant repetition in the mad scene does very little for me, however much a certain dulling of the senses may be construed as serving some dramatic purpose, and ‘Être ou ne pas être’ is an unforgivably banal setting of the monologue. The livelier stuff comes across much better – the Trio I’ve taken a liking to, and I’m with the NYT writer on the drinking songs, which are never merely about merriment, as Py’s staging shows. About Py: this is a play’s the thing production, though not a very logical one, and as I explain in the full review he rather hoists himself with the petard of his dramaturgical notes. Minkowski was indeed that good, as he tends to be with these nineteenth-century French mediocrities; not once at sea, as he can often seem. With reference to this music, this conductor and the German verb ausmachen one could very well make a characteristically Viennese observation that cuts both ways. But having questioned before how Minkowski ever made it to the podium there is no need for that, only the recognition that on this occasion the orchestra truly inhabited the piece under his direction.

This, by the way, is a co-production with La Monnaie.

Christine Schäfer, almost mad, smears herself with mud to attract some game-for-it water nymphs in wolfish garb

Ich will den Kopf eines Soprans

‘This is the Wiener Staatsoper,’ added Dominique Meyer, ‘we can improvise the rest.’ No return to the bad old days then, as Emily Magee, who is standing in for Renée Fleming in Arabella, is in turn released from her previous Salome engagement and replaced by Lise Lindstrom. Nice move, Dominique. All three dates are awkward for me, but I will try to catch the last performance.

In related news, tonight’s Ingolf Wunder Mozart Saal recital that I told you all to go to is postponed until 13th November because of illness.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Berlin Phil Europakonzert attracts Adabei 1 percent

A space best left to equine performers
Spanish Riding School, 01/05/2012

Berliner Philharmoniker, Gustavo Dudamel, Gautier Capuçon

Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, op. 56a
Haydn: Cello Concerto no. 1 in C major, Hob. VIIb/1
Beethoven: Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

This Europakonzert involved turning Heldenplatz and Michaelerplatz into open-air showrooms for top of the range VWs, and the shambolic sight of these vehicles showing off their supposed ease of parallel parking amid a procession (for our interval amusement) of Fiakers led by Lippizaner rejects suggested that the parties hoping to make promotional hay out of this event had got their wires somewhat crossed. Vienna’s shameless Tourist Office probably got the most of it, as they so often do: the programme booklet was fully on message with all the usual crap about tradition, in contrast to a hapless member of the VW board who pushed the analogy between the Technik of his engines, the Berlin Phil, and the Lippizaner so floridly that we all enjoyed a good giggle at his expense. In the audience the corporate suits from VW and Porsche stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb with their Karl-Heinz Grasser hairstyles and egos, but if the shoulder pads and botulized faces elsewhere made this look like your typical Musikverein crowd, it wasn’t really. Just moneyed Adabeis with no musical taste.