Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Friedrich Cerha receives the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize – some links

It was announced some months ago, but in Munich on Friday Friedrich Cerha received the honour referred to in the DACH countries by the awful sobriquet ‘Nobel Prize of music’. A friend asked why Cerha hadn’t received this award earlier and I responded that at this stage, when it can no longer confer the kind of prestige so repellent to him, seems only appropriate. At the ceremony Peter Hagmann gave a speech which can be read excerpted here (de). In English, there is this great UE interview and, on the Ernst von Siemens website, an essay by doyen of the Viennese contemporary music scene and close friend of Cerha, Lothar Knessl. Auf Deutsch again, percussionist Martin Grubinger conducts an interview with Cerha which touches on his youth, the question of biography in his music, and the percussion concerto written for Grubinger. The mention of coming of age in 1930s Austria brought to mind a favourite story not mentioned in these links, which is that Cerha’s immersion in the music of the Second Viennese School came due to the Entartete Musik exhibition which finally rolled into Vienna during the summer of 1939. While the exhibition attracted the usual crowds (even if the Volk, drawn by the taboo placed on these artworks, didn’t come for the reasons the Nazis intended), the first floor of the Künstlerhaus was unguarded and given over to listening booths, providing a refuge where the young Cerha and others, including Paul Kont, could study a wide array of materials undisturbed. As he still tells this astonishing tale today, the inspiration he was able to draw as a fledging composer was entirely facilitated by the fastidious censorship of Goebbels.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Mark Padmore & Christianne Stotijn close Konzerthaus season

Schumann’s op. 39 Liederkreis, Britten’s Abraham and Isaac canticle, and Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared make for a Heideggerian flavour of thematic programming which requires more than reflexive, one-moment-to-the-next performances, as I explain at length in my Bachtrack review. The Britten I wasn’t so bothered about, having been one of those awkward kids who wouldn’t take evasion for an answer when interrogating the parish priest about the ethics of filicide, but the prototypically Wolfian Liederkreis really needs more than a conventional response. The Janáček, which I barely know compared to the other two items, seemed to have more depth.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Lars Vogt in recital at the Konzerthaus

On Tuesday I saw Lars Vogt and wrote a review for Bachtrack. Then isn’t anything to add except that I think I will continue persevering with him.

In Salzburg news, Harnoncourt has come out swinging for Team Pereira.

Jaromír Weinberger’s Anschlussoper

Last Friday I went see the RSO Wien and Singakademie under Cornelius Meister perform Weinberger’s Wallenstein in concert. The programme notes and JSTOR were a fat lot of use and my review, which you can read in full here, ended up being more about the piece than the performances:

On paper Wallenstein is an operatic setting of Schiller’s dramatic trilogy of the same name, and presents a fall-from-grace story arc ending in the murder of its titular character, military leader Albrecht von Wallenstein, a historical character active during the Thirty Years’ War. Wallenstein commands the respect of his men, though his own loyalty to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II lessens with each day he spends in purposeless conflict with his Swedish enemy. Overtures are made to the Swedes which Wallenstein hopes will push the emperor towards peace, though his co-conspirator Octavio Piccolomini has secretly remained loyal to the emperor. Piccolomini turns Wallenstein’s army against him and the drama closes with a bloodbath, bringing an end to Wallenstein, his brother Terzky and his wife, and his comrade Illo. Max, Piccolomini’s son, had in an earlier scene fallen in love with Wallenstein’s daughter Thekla, and with his loyalties wretchedly divided between his father, Wallenstein and the emperor, he ventures into futile battle with the Swedes to meet certain death, after which Thekla dies of grief.
A straightforward political allegory may be deciphered here, drawing from Weinberger’s personal situation and the circumstances of the work’s première (at the Vienna State Opera a matter of months before Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany). Wallenstein bears a dedication to the then Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, who was struggling to maintain Austria’s independence in the face of German aggression; Schuschnigg’s predecessor Engelbert Dollfuss, who had brutally suppressed Austria’s labour movement and established authoritarian rule in 1933, had been assassinated by Nazi agents in a 1934 attempted putsch, and it is quite probable that like many in Austria’s Jewish community, Weinberger, a composer of Jewish origin who escaped into American exile in 1939, supported the Dollfuss regime for its scaling back of anti-Semitic measures and commitment to the Austrian nation-state. And so in Wallenstein, the parallels are painted with a broad brush: the absolutist, intolerant Ferdinand II as enemy belligerent represents Germany, while Wallenstein is a stand in for the slain Dollfuss. Historical loose threads are left hanging aplenty, perhaps because rather than in spite of Max Brod’s libretto driving the point home with unmistakable clarity. It is indeed a strange achievement of this opera that the seriousness of what is at stake registers so strongly that Weinberger can be himself – a nostalgia soundtrack for the former Austro-Hungarian empire – and the entire thing (almost) doesn’t sound absurd. Grim scene-setting with ominous martial music gives way with ease to oom-pah bands and Slavic-inflected melodic lyricism; ethereal moments bordering on atonality dissolve into plush Korngoldian statements with heart firmly on sleeve. For the Max and Thekla sub-plot Weinberger transitions into full-blown operetta mode.

It’s not the kind of historical claim I am normally inclined to make after one hearing and no reading, but ‘Dollfuss: The Memorial’ was a point made with no great subtlety and as no other critic mentioned it I thought it needed saying. The historiographical dust is far from settled on Dollfuss, or indeed on Austria 1933-38 altogether: at the rehabilitative end of the spectrum there are the Dollfuss articles of founding father of modern Austrian Studies R. John Rath and other publications drawing attention to the workings of the Ständestaat, while those who would not have us forget that Dollfuss did away with parliamentary democracy maintain value in the term ‘Austrofascism’. Few of the terms which attempt to mediate – clerical authoritarianism, parafascism, and the like – carry a flattering ring, and a standard complaint among my historian friends is that Anton Pelinka and Günter Bischof’s recent reassessment didn’t deliver on the detachment it promised.

And if our accounts now almost eighty years after the fact are still pushing agendas of one political colour or another, then what of Weinberger writing in 1937? Early indications showed that this would be a hagiographic tribute akin to those published in the Jewish press after the Dollfuss assassination, full of statements we can all too easily see the desperation and folly of now (‘Herzog Wallenstein soll uns immer Führer sein’ cry his men, Nuremberg Rally style). And yet Weinberger – or more precisely his librettist Max Brod – digs a little deeper in Wallenstein’s monologues, one of which mirrors Dollfuss’s transformation from cautious democrat whom the Social Democrats could do business with to the authoritarian leader of 1933 (ending in ‘I have ensnared myself in a pernicious web of my own making, and only violence can tear it apart’). The Max and Thekla subplot follows the pattern of films like Der Kongress tanzt, using politics as a screen for escapist romance, though Weinberger at least cannot be accused of failing to confront us with what the two lovers yearn to escape from. This opera is not as subtle as Mathis der Maler, though given the grave circumstances of its composition one could hardly expect it to be.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Hellsberg’s Angels announce 2012-13 season

What better time to unleash that monstrous pun than the week in which the Wiener Philharmoniker announce they will be playing more music by dead white men.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Separated at Salzburg birth

Sven-Eric Bechtolf & Martin Amis
I promise not to make a regular habit of sharing my random U-Bahn thought of the day. Anyway, here’s some actual Salzburg news: unless he gets the budget he wants, Salzburg Intendant Alexander Pereira has threatened to resign before he’s even overseen his first festival. He previously got an increase from €52m to €57m, was offered €60m for next year as a final compromise, but wants €64m. (Your 64 million dollar question puns on a postcard please). The antics notwithstanding, I remain for now in the can’t-we-just-wait-and-see Pereira camp. The whole thing does however threaten to become rather embarrassing as so far the only political faction showing support for the Pereira position is the far-right FPÖ. (The Salzburg Kuratorium won’t consider it, but Pereira wants to shore up the budget using his Zürich corporate sponsorship model, which appeals to the FPÖ’s tea party instincts). Seeing as the answer to the 64 million dollar question is probably no, we are therefore looking at the prospect of heading into this summer’s festival with an ego-bruised Intendant whose only new friends are a bunch of fascists. Won’t this be fun.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

FWM: ‘I don’t have time for football or pandering’

The Staatsoper’s Don Carlo prima is coming up on Saturday, which means that it’s time once again for our beloved GMD to demonstrate his congenital inability to give anything like a normal press interview. It is perhaps forgivable that one might not want to, um, play ball with inane questions about Euro 2012 – more Krone than Kurier, this – and making instead statements about anal-retentive timekeeping and the plebeian nature of football will doubtless have been met with many a murmur of approval around the breakfast tables of Hietzing. Alexander Pereira comes in for the customary abuse, because it’s not premature to question his judgement before we’ve seen any results, whereas the Meyer/FWM duo’s ‘late’ appointment merits critical restraint until at least 2015. Other stones thrown from the Staatsoper’s glass house include a curious remark about Pereira’s ‘excessive’ fondness for A-list talent. Amid the mouthing off there is, astonishingly, some room for comments about FWM’s first Staatsoper Verdi: alongside Parsifal and Così it’s one of his three favourite operas, or so he says; it’s NOT being done for Verdi 2013 (like football, anniversaries are beneath him); it needs a strong cast (er yep, no stars here); and having done some reading on Philip II lately he’s instructed the Staatsopernorchester to listen out for the polyphony of Victoria in the score. OK, maybe not that last one. But Lord knows it won’t sound like Verdi. Full interview (de) here.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Quartett à deux

Last Friday I was at the Wiener Festwochen’s annual contemporary opera, Luca Francesconi’s Quartett, and wrote about it for Bachtrack. More thoughts about this Liaisons dangereuses adaptation and La Scala co-production after the jump.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Wagner in Wels

From the Wagner Festival in Wels, pictures from a gala concert held on Friday to mark the retirement of Hans Sotin after a 40 year career. It would be equally amusing and disturbing if that Gibichung throne didn’t come from their current production of Parsifal.

Images by Klaus Billand of the Merker

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Mehta/Wiener Phil Gurre-Lieder: more Gänsefuß than Gänsehaut

All FFM possibilities exhausted? Try Ur-Gurre
Musikverein, 03/06/2012

Wiener Philharmoniker, Zubin Mehta

Violeta Urmana, Tove
Nikolai Schukoff, Waldemar
Daniela Denschlag, Waldtaube
Gerhard Siegel, Klaus Narr
Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Bauer
Thomas Quasthoff, Sprecher

Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien
Wiener Kammerchor
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor

It doesn’t pay to be too picky about live performances of Gurre-Lieder: the discography has only ever brought forth partially satisfactory Besetzungen; even though none of the orchestral parts are unmanageable, the sheer size of the thing is intimidation enough; and from a conducting perspective there are numerous ways to perform the piece (and numerous thickets to get lost in). But with an orchestra of this calibre – and rarely does the Wiener Philharmoniker forget to remind us of how good they consider themselves to be – one expects a certain standard. This Gurre-Lieder had its moments, and provided one was content to hear it as a wash, it was more or less satisfactory the entire way through. Whether it stood up to much close listening is more debatable.

Friday, 1 June 2012

No more Mr Nice Geyer

If you want a friend in this town...
After Matthias Hartmann, Roland Geyer used to be the most likeable Intendant in Vienna. But lately the Theater an der Wien boss has shown a ruthless streak, and I’m left scratching my head about what he hopes to achieve.

Take the William Friedkin/Hoffmann scrap. (In a nutshell: the production premiered in March to mixed reviews; soon after Friedkin was unceremoniously fired and the news announced that Geyer himself will restage the opera for its second outing in July). I thought Friedkin’s worst sin was superficiality, and am inclined to put harsh dismissals from critics who nevertheless mumbled flattering things about the costumes of Jérôme Deschamps’ Mahagonny down to local politics (M. le Staatsoperndirecteur’s pocket is nice and warm). It might also be said that Hollywood is not the usual place one goes looking for thought-provoking Regie, and Friedkin’s past form with opera is well-documented (‘fizzy’, ‘flamboyantly farcical’, ‘frivolous’). And if the TadW is now concerned with underwhelming productions then surely second thoughts are merited about more Gluck from Torsten Fischer, among other things – naturally I root for this house more than the Staatsoper, but productions I haven’t found myself qualifying in some way have been thin on the ground this season. Anyway, having never directed an opera Geyer now takes over at incredibly short notice a production in which everything bar the sets (on which an agreement has been reached) will have to be substantially overhauled to avoid legal complications. Even with Petra Haidvogel as backseat driver I will be amazed if this comes off smoothly.

In other news, the hostile takeover of the Kammeroper has now come full circle with this week’s announcement of five new productions for 2012-3 under the mouthful of an aegis ‘Theater an der Wien in der Kammeroper’. The two highlights are Orlando and a new chamber opera by Hans-Jürgen von Bose; I am not sure what attraction La Bohème compressed into 90 minutes is supposed to hold, and though a Curlew River/The Prodigal Son double bill spares Vienna a Britten centenary drought, it should rightly be counted as a Neue Oper Wien rather than TadW premiere. Echoing the old Kammeroper’s commitment to fostering new singing talent the TadW has set up a new Young Artists programme-cum-ensemble, from which all the operas will be cast; in addition, seven ‘JET’ soloists will give recitals during the season. One thing to be said for the change of hands is that budgets are likely to be managed more efficiently (never saying no to directors in October always led to a drop in production values come May under the old regime), though all things considered there’s barely an artistic cigarette paper between this and what routinely came before, except that before they were forced to scale back their season the old Kammeroper would put on six new productions, four of which I could get enthusiastic about. If this is all there is to the TadW’s creative destruction then it is deeply regrettable that Isabella Gabor and Holger Bleck were forcibly relieved of their passionately-run opera company in such appalling fashion.