Friday, 31 August 2012

Salzburg 5: Die Soldaten

The German thinker Theodor Adorno once wrote that a musical setting of Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, considered in its own literary right a masterpiece, may well have proved redundant. The reason Berg’s opera Wozzeck succeeded, he argued, was not simply because Berg was Berg, but also because he had acquired the necessary historical distance to begin adapting the text to his own musical ends. Almost a century separates the play and the opera, and as Adorno puts it, ‘what Berg composed is simply what matured in Büchner in the intervening decades of obscurity’. At the same time, he adds, ‘the music capturing that aspect has a subtly polemical quality.’ 
The same writ much larger could also be said of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten, composed between 1958 and 1964 and regarded as a turning point in his output. His source text of the same name had been written by Jakob Lenz almost two centuries previously and though Zimmermann remains largely faithful to it, there is little mistaking that the military life Lenz observed at close quarters and set down in literary form was reshaped to reflect Zimmermann’s own demoralizing experiences of military service during World War II. At the same time, the opera is not tied with any real specificity to events Zimmermann witnessed, for its pessimism runs much deeper, taking on the polemical dimension Adorno identifies in Wozzeck. Zimmermann believed dehumanization and brutality to be largely independent of historical and cultural circumstances, and that, just as they have been present throughout our past, so are they destined to recur ceaselessly throughout our future. (Noting in the score that the opera is set in Flanders, Zimmermann adds that the time is ‘yesterday, today and tomorrow’.) The one prospect of an end to the violence is an irreversible escalation, visually captured in the image of a mushroom cloud which Zimmermann asks for footage of at the end of the opera (a video not shown in this production), and indicating that the only exit from this self-inflicted vale of tears is total self-obliteration.
Maybe Zimmermann’s pessimism is too much. But there seems to me no dodging the universality in which he couches his claims, and if a stage director must bind the action to a historical epoch, as Alvis Hermanis did by using World War I as the backdrop for this production, then its message needs to project above the period detail. Some use of symbolic gesture stood out, as at the very end, but other elements were either all too readily understood (the Marie double traversing the tightrope, provocative horse-riding to signify loosened morals) or underdeveloped. It is no use, as Zimmermann acknowledged, expecting degradation on an opera stage ever to resemble lived horrors, and he emphasizes the importance of metaphor in his stage directions for Marie’s rape. But Hermanis’ recourse to rolling the characters around in hay for this and anything remotely erotic, which may have been welcomed as a tasteful solution by Salzburg’s more easily scandalized patrons, soon began to look too well-behaved; whether symbolically or otherwise nobody on stage suffered losing their dignity.
I wrote at some length about Die Soldaten and the rest can be read here. My hopes weren’t high for the production, having seen Hermanis direct Das weite Land as a hopelessly crappy remake of Vertigo (normally a fortress of Regie, the Burgtheater likes to throw a bone to the conservatives from time to time), but it was competent, lively, and doubtless preferable to the kind of deadening staging Peter Stein, originally rumoured to direct, now churns out in his dotage. But still, World War I. Shown to be about as disturbing as a day trip to the Cotswolds.

It is not that the work resists being wedded to one place or epoch, as I perhaps imply in the review, but rather that it dissipates its own boundaries, resisting the alienation engendered by being a ‘work’, and not just in the artifactual sense. As made plain in the music, Zimmermann is concerned with Adorno’s Zerfall (disintegration) right from the beginning. There is much more to be said about this, but for a production which speaks eloquently and treats Zimmermann as a critic of society in the way Adorno understood Berg to be, this Kupfer staging is essential viewing:

Image credit: Ruth Walz

Traditionsreiche Häuser

Matthias ‘life in Luxembourg is now more difficult for me than necessary’ Naske speaks to Der Standard’s Ljubiša Tošic about an appointment that wouldn’t be very Viennese without bumps along the way. Sinkovicz also weighs in with an article less about the Konzerthaus than his usual toadying to Thomas Angyan. At least droning on and on about the wonderful Musikverein has never compromised his journalistic ethi... oh wait, I’m forgetting his wife got the contract for this book.

Turning away from the Konzerthaus: I’ll have a round-up of September’s goings-on out tomorrow, but as it begins today here are some links to events happening tonight, tomorrow and on Sunday at Porgy & Bess, the jazz club in the first district. Earlier this year the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York celebrated its tenth anniversary and three concerts held to mark that will be recreated in Vienna, one including the Klangforum. If I weren’t in Salzburg again this weekend I’d be checking this out.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Kerres successor fixed

So that was quick. The Konzerthaus hasn’t confirmed yet, but presumably thinks that swiftly announcing a replacement will quell speculation and make the whole thing look a little more planned. Vienna doesn’t tend to do fair and open competition when it comes to Intendanten and official appointment processes, insofar as they exist, tend to get undermined by parties with interests to protect (Dominique Meyer was the Vienna Philharmonic’s candidate for Staatsoperndirektor). But let it at least be said that the Vienna Philharmonic pulls strings openly and without shame; the whiff of a backroom stitch-up is worrying in this case even by Viennese standards, since despite this leak there is no indication yet of how the decision was reached. I wrote yesterday of it being time for a woman and in any transparent process Angelika Möser, current general secretary of Jeunesse who already worked for over ten years at the Konzerthaus, would have been a candidate.

And so my prediction of yesterday turned out half-right: new Intendant Matthias Naske is an outsider who has led the Philharmonie Luxembourg, by most accounts impressively, since 2003, but also a born Wiener who cut his Intendant’s teeth at the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Camerata Salzburg and Jeunesse, which he led from 1996 until his Luxembourg appointment. Having overseen the 2005 transition to a new building evidently inspired by a vacuum cleaner filter, Naske has stamped a profile on the Philharmonie identical to that of the Konzerthaus: orchestral programming is split between the local Philharmonic and top international visiting ensembles; as in Vienna, November sees a contemporary music festival; and HIP, jazz and world music are treated as important elements of the house’s artistic mission. Both halls run a strong Kinder programme and excellent ticket deals for students. Naske is said to love the financial side of the job and his PR team has shown a flair for offbeat advertising:

So whats not to like? Nothing really, except for the small matter of him starting at the Konzerthaus in September 2013 and being contractually bound to Luxembourg until December 2015. The Viennese call this trying to sit on two Sesseln and do not like it when their Intendanten are seen not to be Wienertreu, even if with the 2013-14 programme largely fixed Naske’s first year will be a light one. In the Luxembourg press he speaks of not wanting to leave the Philharmonie in the lurch, but to survive in Vienna there is no option but for that to happen. The appointment has also done nothing to quieten the expected Hinterhäuser muttering – his interim stewardship of Salzburg has been sensationally mythologized as the stuff of Festspiele legend and he has a free year before taking over the Festwochen in 2014, or could even run both that and the Konzerthaus, so his supporters suggest.

Then there is the question of what the Konzerthaus is thinking in all of this. Trusty leakers Gert Korentschnig and Christoph Irrgeher claim that Kerres, whose contract was extended one year at a time, jumped before he was pushed by a dissatisfied Präsidium looking for a change of direction. A sure sign that this is however purely personal is that the style and records of Kerres and Naske at the Konzerthaus and Philharmonie respectively are virtually indistinguishable. The courtesy of allowing an Intendant a dignified departure is also being eroded by anonymous whingers with spurious grievances: last year’s 99th season was respectable if smaller in scale than usual so that monies saved could be rolled over into the generous budget for a special season to mark the house’s 100th anniversary, though despite the commonsensical logic this is now seized upon by those who feel the Präsidium is best defended by lame straw clutching. In truth, last season was hardly disappointing and painting Kerres’ programming for the coming one as Pereira-like is daft.

Yesterday I was urging the family reasons shtick to be taken credibly, though of course in Vienna no amount of intrigue should ever be discounted. So much of it turns out to be true. But Kerres is reportedly already receiving job offers and hopefully from institutions that will appreciate him more. This blog wishes him all the best.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Salzburg 4: Ceci venit, vidit, vicit

Giulio Cesare, an opera populated with manipulative characters that only interact with each other when shared interests are at stake, is a receptive vessel for a scornful indictment of imperialism and the dubious alliances it forges. With recourse to the obvious present-day target it is perhaps also a concept already fully mined by Peter Sellars, who in the late 1980s presented Caesar as a high-handed U.S. president out to further American interests in the Middle East, and revisited themes of Western moral hypocrisy in his 1996 Glyndebourne staging of Theodora. This Salzburg production, first seen at the Whitsun festival in May, has been criticized for unimaginatively retreading that ground and is in many ways a weak imitation, down to its kitsch-infused aesthetic and the silly dance moves of its flak-jacketed henchmen. What isn’t derived from Sellars, mainly the work’s baroque theatricality, becomes the lowest farce: when it is time for the colossal irony of Cleopatra clothing herself as Virtue on Mount Parnassus in order to seduce Caesar, Cecilia Bartoli mounts an atomic bomb and like Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove, rides her phallic weapon home in both senses of the word.

More here. Nothing to add to this one; if you want to watch the full production Intermezzo has embedded Youtube of the May Arte broadcast which I imagine won’t linger around for too long.

Image credit: Hans Jörg Michel

Salzburg 3: Wiener, Haitink and Bruckner, was sonst

There are few living conductors with Haitink’s experience and wisdom in performing Bruckner, and his readings typically speak with great authority while eschewing the portentous bombast that popular belief would hold responsible for alienating listeners from these symphonies (I do not believe they were ever commonly conducted like that but Haitink rejects it all the same). As in much of his Bruckner conducting, Haitink was concerned in the first movement with two goals: sticking to a moderate tempo and maintaining at all times a decent sense of flow, and showing how Bruckner stirs his protean themes into being and subsequently develops and transforms them. Usually these two aims are kept in masterful balance, fusing to produce Bruckner’s famous architectonic spans, but here there were points at which more time might profitably have been taken without losing sight of the broader sweep; pressing through the finer detail diminished the impact of the movement’s massive contrasts. Haitink’s build-up to the final climax was however carefully prepared and the force of the very end beyond devastating.

For more, see here. Bernard Haitink is not a regular visitor to Vienna and I had forgotten how much he likes to keep his Bruckner moving. I’m not sure if I care all that much for it, and detect an underlying sense, whether intended or not, of responding to alleged formal problems which any reasonably thorough analysis, not to mention successfully expansive performance, will prove simply not to exist; Wittgenstein’s observation that Bruckner composed in his head and Brahms with his pen is the oversimplification he qualifies it as.

One detail in Haitink’s performance I wish more conductors would follow was the lack of undue prominence given to the quotation in the first movement from the Seventh Symphony’s Adagio; it is more than a casually tossed-in aside and assumes greater motivic significance with the contrapuntal treatment given to it at the end (this appearance looked over in many a performance, though not here).

Some Philharmoniker notes: the final movement of the Beethoven (fourth piano concerto, with Murray Perahia) was in desperate need of a cello solo from Franz Bartolomey and an indication of how sorely he will be missed. If there is section principal material lurking amongst his colleagues I am yet to hear it, and fresh blood may well be needed – heavens forbid, even a starke Frau. As for behaving like a section principal, if Christoph Koncz – the blond second violinist who looks as if he should still be in the Boy Scouts – could restrain himself from grinning like a overexcited baboon at the prospect of climaxes in the music (here the D major summit  of Bruckner’s first Steigerung), the orchestra would be a little more watchable.

Bernhard Kerres to quit Konzerthaus

Bernhard Kerres has only been Intendant at the Konzerthaus since 2007 and will see out the coming 100th anniversary season before leaving next June, according to an announcement reported yesterday evening. The Viennese press is full of idle chatter about the millions of debt the house still owes from a comprehensive renovation carried out over ten years ago, and of public subsidies stagnant since the 1990s. Kerres wouldn’t be the first Intendant to get worn down by Viennese cultural politics, though most don’t leave without a good old scrap and he never struck me much as a quitter. There is a possibility then that the routine ‘family reasons’ and other excuses may well not be the smokescreen they seem; I probably see more of him in evenings during the season than his young daughter does (extraordinarily, he goes to everything), and his background, having trained as a young man to be an opera singer, is as a business high-flyer of the type that get itchy professional feet every few years. In any case the Intendant business isn’t something one simply leaves and expects to drop back into so doubtless he will have thought about this carefully, and whatever the reasons for the departure he leaves having established a reputation as a hard-working Intendant and easily this city’s best in the musical sector.

A few names will inevitably ricochet around the Viennese echo chamber over the coming days and weeks, most prominent among them Markus Hinterhäuser (not going to happen). My money for the dark horse goes on Matthias Losek, whose much-vaunted city hall connections got Wien Modern a 5% subsidy increase last year. But in all likelihood it won’t be a Viennese insider and possibly even non-Viennese altogether. In this, Vienna’s progressive house, time is also way overdue for a woman.

I perhaps don’t say this often enough about the Konzerthaus, but Herr Kerres leaves behind a house in terrific artistic shape. Sure, there could always be more new music in the Berio Saal and the Wiener Symphoniker’s repertoire is in urgent need of freshening up, but, forgetting for a minute the impressive number of stars and international orchestras which drop in, the programming the house helps to shape either directly or indirectly offers something for an astonishingly wide range of audiences and challenges them never in a hectoring way but by opening concert-goers’ ears to a lot more than what they already know (now, one of the fastest selling subscription packages if not the fastest is the Klangforum Wien’s). That relies on a trust built up over successive seasons that the Musikverein, which in cleaving to the Austro-Germanic canon year after year sees no broader artistic responsibility to be discharged beyond catering to its hidebound subscribers, will remain too complacent to do for many, many seasons to come. For Bernhard Kerres’ own reckoning of his achievements in post and a press release in English, follow the jump.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Ready to Rabl

Der Standard: The Rolex clocks hanging everywhere around the Festspiel buildings look pretty tacky. 

Helga Rabl-Stadler: These clocks are a service for those who don’t wear a watch.

Spend as many years in the ÖVP as the president of the Salzburg Festival has and that’s how silly your spin would end up looking. Elsewhere this interview is about as fearsomely combative as Austrian music journalism gets: why is the festival not sold out? Why is Pereira obsessed with the moneyed classes? Isn’t the idea of exploiting spirituality for the commercial purpose of selling more tickets simply disgusting?

Rabl-Stadler may be ÖVP but can deflect tough questions well even if there are some answers unique to Salzburg, like that elitism is the core value informing her commercial strategy (‘the limited number of good tickets is our best marketing tool’). She adds that the Friends of the festival get heavily reduced tickets and deserve them since they raised nearly two million euros for the Felsenreitschule’s new roof. This method of distribution is also a simple way of cutting losses for events that haven’t sold out. As the interviewer Thomas Trenkler mentions, 750 euro tickets for the new Festspiel ball not only seem absurdly extravagant but are also far from sold out, and Rabl-Stadler hints that these may also be offloaded to the Friends (‘don’t worry. The ballroom floor will be full of people’).

When asked about Pereira, Rabl-Stadler says he goes to great lengths for the artists and that they are satisfied with him (note that this dodges a Netrebko question). As for his claim that the festival was in dire straits before he took over, she comments that every new Intendant loves to sing a ‘Rettungsoper’, which may best be translated into English as crooning the Michael Kaiser song. And of course he is interested in artistic matters, she adds, but he does talk too much about money.

As yet unleaked plans for 2013 are kept firmly under wraps; there is a mention of the Kaufmann Don Carlo and confirmation of FWM’s series of Da Ponte operas with Sven-Eric Bechtolf, ‘which Welser-Möst already blabbed’ (priceless).  Instead it is up to Gert Korentschnig of the Kurier to spill some beans: he reports the somewhat WTF rumour that under Daniele Gatti the Wiener Philharmoniker is to perform onstage for Stefan Herheim’s Meistersinger. And with singers including Michael Volle (Sachs), Roberto Saccà (Walther), Juliane Banse (Eva) and Markus Werba (Beckmesser), the word to describe the casting, as always under the new regime, begins with Z. No, not Z-list.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Klangforum in the Zacherlfabrik

Zacherlfabrik, 19/08/12

Members of the Klangforum Wien:

Lorelei Dowling – bassoon solo
Olivier Vivarès – clarinet solo
Christoph Walder – horn
Gunde Jäch-Micko – violin
Sophie Schafleitner – violin
Andrew Jezek – viola
Benedikt Leitner – cello
Michael Seifried – double bass
Krassimir Sterev – accordion
Florian Müller – piano
Lukas Schiske – percussion

Klaus Lang: hungrige Sterne for clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, viola, cello, double bass
Georges Aperghis: Simulacre IV for solo bass clarinet
Katharina Klement: einen Moment bitte for bass clarinet, horn, percussion, accordion, piano, violin, cello, double bass
Johannes Maria Staud: Celluloid for solo bassoon
Bernhard Gander: khul for string quartet

Vienna offers few must-see musical prospects for balmy nights in August, but halfway through the summer doldrums the Klangforum Wien gives a concert in the quirky orientalized surroundings of the Zacherlfabrik, a one-time insecticide factory, which routinely proves the highlight of the cultural venue’s short summer season.

Monday, 20 August 2012

La donna del lago: lady overboard

On Friday I went to the Theater an der Wien’s final offering of the season and wondered at what is up with Roland Geyer, thinking he can cast this opera:
Within twenty years of the opera’s composition Sir Walter Scott’s Highland epics had spawned a further two dozen operatic spin-offs, but far from venturing onto psychodramatic territory as Donizetti did in Lucia di Lammermoor, Rossini only seldom permits the emotional immediacy of an unadorned vocal line. The ensemble numbers yield only fleeting moments of self-contemplation for the characters to examine their actions and it is mostly in the orchestration, continued in the vein of Rossini’s Otello and a world removed in many places from the customary sunshine and verve of his comedies, that a genuinely dramatic urgency is to be heard. Ultimately Rossini’s cautious classical instincts prove dramatically fatal as there is not enough thematic material to go around the cast and characters are often found expressing violently conflicting sentiments to the same recurring musical strains. 
While the score may well be more sympathetically appreciated as a vehicle for a first-rate bel canto cast, there can be no talking in relative terms of the level required; Rossini’s ruthlessly difficult vocal writing spares no mercies and demands luxury casting for each of the four big roles. The cast fielded for this production all tried valiantly but, with one exception, came repeatedly unstuck.
For more, see Bachtrack. One generous thing I could have said about Malena Ernman’s Elena was that her acting really sold the perky kookiness Christof Loy created for the role based on Joyce DiDonato’s stock character. By the same token I didn’t touch upon her erratic volume and poor breathing technique for fear of piling on, but there were those things, impossible to ignore, as well. Quite unusually for the Theater an der Wien this performance was booed pretty much the entire way through and there were some interval theatrics in the foyer with one aggrieved gentleman delivering his finger-pointing judgement on the singers for us all to hear (and that before the disastrous Act II trio). In all likelihood Staatsoper loyalists starved by the Sommerpause who have temporarily migrated to a house they view as Vienna’s operatic upstart; curiously these people never behave like loggionisti when there’s cause to am Ring.

I was in two minds about the staging, co-produced with Geneva (where it played in 2010 with DiDonato as the lead): the drama is, admittedly, thin and the humour Loy brings to it thankfully more British than German. But there’s little more to the Konzept than a series of unrelated situational sketches, and the plot turns he can’t contrive a solution for are lazily consigned to an upstage theatre within a theatre. For more photos follow the jump.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Holländer made to order in Bayreuth

Bayreuther Festspielhaus, 12/08/12

Der Holländer | Samuel Youn
Senta | Adrianne Pieczonka
Daland | Franz-Josef Selig
Erik | Michael König
Der Steuermann | Benjamin Bruns
Mary | Christa Mayer

Conductor | Christian Thielemann
Director | Jan Philipp Gloger

Familiarity washed over me as I watched this Dutchman, with its inordinate fondness for park and bark punctuated by would-be zany ideas without so much as a passing thought given to the organization of pretty much anything. Oh Regie, already looking like your fourth revival, I know thee well! Under the now verflogene Holender the Wiener Staatsoper routinely dished up such disjointed Wagnerian fare, exhibit A being Barrie Kosky’s Lohengrin, so outlandish in its ineptitude that Günter Krämer’s Tristan places a distant second, though after seeing this new Bayreuth production I’m inclined to think more generously of Christine Mielitz’s McMarxist Holländer.

Christof Hetzer’s set consists of an elaborate futuristic structure kitted out with flickering digital counters and prone to fancy shit breakouts of neon-lit pyrotechnics, and as an elderly German gentleman helpfully explained to me as if I were five, that’s the Frist and the sea sorted. The downside is not only that it comes at the expense of getting stuck in a bad sci-fi movie c. 1982 but also that the music and light show becomes irritating very quickly and, more glaringly, a device leaned on to distract us from the absence of meaningful interaction between the characters. The Dutchman, a frequent flyer businessman carrying cabin luggage stuffed with mysteriously luminescent cash (a new meaning for funny money?), enters in low-key fashion, the opportunities presented by the music simply squandered, to greet two men in a boat, after which the blocking is doggedly static until Mammon’s lure stirs industrial capitalist Daland into life. This becomes a fulcrum which throws the weight of the scene onto their merely plot-advancing transactional deed, with director Jan Philipp Gloger seemingly deaf to the monologue and equivocal retelling of the Dutchman’s predicament to Daland.

For the immaculately crafted metamorphosis from the rhythms of the steerman’s song to the undulating motions of the spinning chorus a self-contained platform is wheeled forward and we find ourselves in the midst of a desk fan assembly line. Having constructed a Dutchman-themed den in her corner of the factory Senta retains an individuality denied, in somewhat forced fashion, to the dehumanized drones surrounding her. There was some dodgy action with a Dutchman doll during the ballad but otherwise this and Erik’s dream was uneventful, and apart from a neat reveal for the Dutchman (amid his own shrine) the lengthy duet fell flat, with Gloger unwilling to acknowledge the point at which Senta and the Dutchman emerge from their own thoughts and address each other. Distance was maintained and not so much as a glance made (even though this production does not play with the idea of the Dutchman as Senta’s fantasy or projection) until the very end and an inexplicably gratuitous bout of lip-locking.

The sailors’ chorus is given over to a product launch for Daland’s latest fan model, with the steersman drilling his sales reps in the art of the pitch. Sabotage in the form of arson comes from the rival salesmen of the Dutchman’s crew though the tension soon subsides, of all things, into ballroom dancing. Upstage Senta has once more donned the blood-flecked cardboard angel wings of the duet and over an upstage fire ritual formalizes her attachment to the Dutchman. Following her death the curtain rises to reveal the torch she had held for him commodified into Daland’s latest product, or rather reified. Undercutting the transfiguration to make points about commodity fetishism and the tenaciousness of false consciousness emerged from no credible critique sustained throughout the opera and seemed unearned, even indulgent. How convenient also that it avoided having to deal with Senta’s sacrifice and what her transfiguration might possibly be taken to mean.

A couple of the performances were at home with the more humdrum parts of the staging: Michael König’s unspectacular Erik was forgotten practically as soon as he exited the stage, and I had expected more from one-time Vienna regular Franz-Josef Selig (Daland), whose voice and demeanour seem a great deal less commanding than they once were. The Wiener Staatsoper’s very own Benjamin Bruns was on better form than I’ve seen him recently but tended to sing the Steuermann as if giving a Schubert Lieder recital. Samuel Youn, the last-minute replacement following the mishandled Nikitin incident, was a wooden presence as the Dutchman, which may almost certainly be put down to Gloger’s sparse Personenregie, but made up for it vocally by showing off some impressive baritenoneral assets with burnished tone at the top and rich, rounded low notes. Adrianne Pieczonka was on soaringly dramatic form by the end but pushing her voice only slightly earlier in the opera had led to a good few curdled notes, and a somewhat erratic vibrato distorted her phrasing from time to time. Her ballad dragged, the urgency of Senta’s narrative and redemptive obsession never fully registering. Thielemann’s tempi were otherwise well-judged and there was a turbulence to the playing at times that might almost have come from Barenboim, though elsewhere, and Wagner’s great fondness for Johann Strauss notwithstanding, a curious Viennese dialect intruded – lilting strings, the carefree slickness of movement, and a spinning chorus close to an operetta parody – which, like excess whipped cream left lonely once one’s Sachertorte is long gone, had no integrated place in the broader sweep of his account.

On to Lohengrin then this afternoon; of course I went to Parsifal on Saturday, but will write about that later.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Salzburg 2: Lupu & Eschenbach

Always a privilege to hear this:
Aside from the lucidity brought to matters of style, the wonders of the Lupu touch were once more a thing to behold: the decay-defying length and depth of his chords, prominent in the second movement, and gorgeous legato maintained across the most improbable of leaps; the seamless switch from his customary poetic silkiness to a glistening clarity when pointing a phrase a particularly way or drawing attention to Beethoven’s descending bass lines; and the ghostly quality of his pianissimo – truly the quietest in the business – which remains capable of sparkling through thick orchestral textures and reaching the back of any hall.
There’s more on his Beethoven 3 in the full review. I wrote about Lupu once before, here, also prattling on a bit about Schenker, which has got to be self-defeating any way you look at it, but I did it anyway and very seriously I took it too.

This concert also marked the first time in a while I’ve seen Eschenbach, having almost forgotten in the meantime how good he can be. The Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra also played Till Eulenspiegel and the Concerto for Orchestra, giving the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester a run for their money and a few other youth orchestras besides.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Salzburg 1: Jansons does his thing & Wiener do theirs

Work took me to the spectacular scenery of the Hohe Tauern mountains this weekend and either side of that trip I fitted in a pair of concerts at the Salzburg Festival. On Saturday, Mariss Jansons with our dear old Wiener, which I wrote about for Bachtrack:
Strauss’ Don Juan has a long tradition as one of the Vienna Philharmonic’s more dazzling curtain-openers but a recent tendency, even with Gustavo Dudamel, who conducted this work with the orchestra last autumn, has been for more subdued accounts which downplay the brilliance and virtuosity of the orchestral writing. At the Salzburg Festival on Saturday a thrilling opening flourish by the first violins put paid to that straight off, sparking a fire underneath the introduction which in turn came off with such infectious spontaneity it was as if hearing this warhorse for the first time all over again. 
As those familiar with his work have long appreciated, such is the heady experience of seeing an on-form Mariss Jansons in pursuit of unclaimed interpretive territory. But while Jansons denied the playing none of the colouration which once led the Viennese critic and exasperated opponent of programme music Eduard Hanslick to charge Strauss with blending ‘all the elements of musical-sensual stimulation to produce a stupefying pleasure gas’, this Don Juan seemed to come to more than the sum of its flashy and tender parts. Episodes were seamlessly knitted together with none of the dreaded lurching which can afflict this piece and Ein Heldenleben; overall form was too grounded in the programmatic side to sound like an imposed sonata movement, though deft handling of the various motifs and themes was not without its structural logic; and the content of the programmatic element allowed for both a human portrait and the more philosophical treatment present in the Byronic reflections of the Nikolaus Lenau poem from which Strauss took his inspiration. The Philhamonic’s playing was a textbook display of the staggering perfection they are capable of when they put their minds to it, with lushly surging strings in their B major cantilena, exquisite filigree in the woodwind solos, and a quite breathtaking unison horn entry towards the end.

For more, see here. There followed an underwhelming Nina Stemme (Wesendonck Lieder) and a messy Brahms 1, but I conclude with a more charitable appreciation than usual of the Philharmoniker’s perverse wont to be phenomenal one minute and downright mediocre the next. Mainly because the Strauss really was that extraordinary, and yes, also a little because I find Brahms 1 ludicrously overwrought at the best of times (if only the less daft elements of Schumann’s advice had been heeded, that’s all I’m saying).