Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Invitation for ridicule

The Wiener Staatsoper propositions you with the following:

The Wiener Staatsoper will host a new exhibition, to open on 28 March 2013, on ‘Richard Wagner and the Vienna Opera’. As part of this exhibition the audience is invited to contribute their thoughts on the question: can Wagner be described in one word? We don't imagine he can, but we ask the members of our public anyway: what is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Wagner? Please send us your suggestion to dramaturgie [at] wiener-staatsoper.at. A selection of the words we receive will feature in the exhibition.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Rattle/OAE: Mozart on mute

Musikverein, 27/1/2013

Sir Simon Rattle
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Symphony no. 39 in E flat major, KV 543
Symphony no. 40 in G minor, KV 550
Symphony no. 41 in C major ‘Jupiter’, KV 551

Salzburg’s Mozartwoche is currently in full swing but Vienna doesn’t take well to being outshone during the season and, for motives only a Freudian psychiatrist could explain, the Musikverein tends to up the star wattage for this particular week in January. The big name Thomas Angyan pulled out of the hat for today, the 257th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, was the same as for Mozart’s 255th anniversary, though Simon Rattle actually conducted Mozart this time around and appeared not with the Berlin Philharmonic but rather his regular guesting gig, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (which is currently on European tour).

It would take a special performance to begin to compare to the last time I heard these late symphonies but far from showing what Rattle is capable of on a good day, or indeed something running the less flattering Rattle gamut of inconsistent to infuriating, this was vanilla Mozart of the type that wouldn’t protest too much were it to be relegated to elevator music (or to give a Musikverein analogy, deemed fit for the commercially-driven indignities of the bewigged ‘Wiener Mozart Concerts’ that typically occupy the Brahms Saal next door). I write about it here without a great deal of reflection as so much of it already drained from my mind on the U-Bahn ride home.

The OAE didn’t play badly and brass accuracy on these unforgiving instruments was generally excellent if not quite untouchable. Winds went rapidly out of tune and to have paused for adjustment between movements would have been no small mercy. Under Rattle the strings produced a lush roundness that tried almost to ape Viennese-style golden tone, but in straining to do so and pushing these instruments in tonal directions for which they are not configured this gave way in a number of places to outright thinness and astringency. Abbado has been dabbling for a while in this kind of hybridity but I don’t know what to make of its more perverse practices and results, except that if Taruskin can ever get over his hostility to modernism then we appear to be in need of a revised edition to Text and Act.

Rattle kept hard-driven tempi at bay but pulse was consistently at a level where the great disfigurement of much otherwise decent Mozart playing, contrived urgency, repeatedly intruded; and all the more fraudulently as this music-making never seemed to want to truly possess the vitality that was in abundance at Jordi Savall’s Resonanzen concert the other day. Rattle doesn’t go out of his way to stylize this music but of his efforts at shaping the less successful touches were all unmistakably his and, unluckily, what might be considered as insight too generic to pass for genuine individuality (though as a seasoned visitor to the Musikverein, he knows the bewitching pianissimi this hall’s acoustic makes possible – and never failed to get them). The Jupiter’s counterpoint knitted poorly and there was little interplay between voices elsewhere; inner voices were often prominent for no clear musical reason and when a line was articulated it rarely ran a fully conceived course. If Barenboim was deriving tension and order from textural planes, Rattle was hoping to get it from vertical rigidity, in an all too commonplace misreading of galant periodicity which stripped too much of the richness away from the writing. The Musikverein likes to group big names in subscription packages labelled ‘Meisterinterpreten’ and judged by that billing, Barenboim’s Mozart was Hegelian and Rattle’s Harnoncourt with an unprepossessing human face.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Resonanzen: Savall & Hespèrion XXI

In der allgemeinen Verwirrung war nicht klar, ob es ursprünglich Savalls Absicht war, Stücke hintereinander aufzuführen, welche auf den gleichen harmonischen und rhythmischen Abläufen basieren - und so Längen entstanden, in denen sich eines wie das andere anhörte.
Hearing one piece was as good as hearing them all; for some reason during this concert that hoary chestnut got stuck in the German-speaking part of my brain and, being capable of only thinking in one language at a time, ultimately came out as something neither English, German, nor particularly musically literate. Following the altered programme was similarly confusing, but despite the organizational shambles and more than a few longueurs the playing was at least unfailingly vibrant and infectious. This was the first time I’ve heard Savall live and what is systematically denied by our local ayatollah of period practice – musicality, a collective sense of expressive freedom, and purely unforced Heiterkeit – was thrown into stark relief. For more, see Bachtrack.

Friday, 25 January 2013


This Sunday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and ahead of this, in fact this afternoon, the Austrian Parliament will host the premiere of Peter Androsch's opera Spiegelgrund. Part of the vast Steinhof psychiatric hospital complex designed by Otto Wagner, Am Spiegelgrund was a Viennese children's clinic that became a place of mass euthanasia following the Anschluss with Nazi Germany.

The performance takes place at 17:00 Vienna time and will be broadcast on ORF III starting at 17:20, and also available to watch for free via a live internet stream provided by Samantha Farber and the team at sonostream.tv. The live stream starts at 17:00 and offers subtitles in English.

A press release has been made available in English with further information about the opera and some comments from Nationalrat president Barbara Prammer:

Austria’s Parliament is breaking new ground in its commemoration of the victims of National Socialist tyranny. “There will be a time when Holocaust survivors will no longer be among us and will not be able to tell subsequent generations of their horrific experiences,” National Assembly President Barbara Prammer said of the upcoming world premiere of the opera Spiegelgrund this Friday, 1/25/2013, at 5:00 PM in the historic Federal Assembly Chamber. In this work, composer Peter Androsch of Linz thematises the murder of at least 790 sick or disabled children at the Children’s Department of Vienna’s Spiegelgrund psychiatric hospital during the Third Reich. “This opera is touching, striking, and is an appeal to all of us to assume responsibility and to decisively reject discrimination, racism and anti-Semitism time and again,” Barbara Prammer said. The world premiere of the opera Spiegelgrund serves to commemorate the victims of Nazi euthanasia and is Parliament’s contribution to the United Nations’ International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which since 2005 has reminded the world of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on 27 January 1945.

What happened at Spiegelgrund?

After the “Anschluss” in which Austria was annexed to National Socialist Germany in 1938, the ideology of “racial hygiene” also gained a dominant role in Austria. The medical community was assigned the task of “eradicating inferior persons from the National Socialist ethnic community.” The murder of the mentally disabled, psychologically ill and maladjusted was a precursor to the policy of exterminating Jews, Romanies and Sinti.

A centre of National Socialist death medicine was the state psychiatric hospital Am Steinhof. There, thousands of patients were murdered, among them at least 790 disabled children and youth in the children’s department Am Spiegelgrund; they were poisoned with barbiturates, enervated with cold water showers and Speibinjektionen and suffered fatal infections as a result. These crimes remained unpunished, as it was not until the 1990s that criminal proceedings against the doctor in charge, the prominent neuropathologist Heinrich Gross, were initiated. After the war, Gross still published his “research” at Spiegelgrund and acted as a forensic expert. The trial against him could not be completed due to the accused’s inability to stand trial. The mortal remains of the children of Spiegelgrund, which continued to be used as medical compounds for a long time, only found eternal peace in the 21st century, in an honorary grave from the city of Vienna.

The opera Spiegelgrund

The composer Peter Androsch describes his opera as a triptych with three panels and three spheres: Law, Children’s Song and Memory. Spiegelgrund contains texts by the literary scholar and cultural journalist Bernhard Doppler, the dramaturge and author Silke Dörner and the ancient historian and biographer Plutarch. Recitatives bring historical explanations. In grappling with the ideology of National Socialism, Androsch leads the spectator all the way back into antiquity. For good reason, too: Hitler admired the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus and the Spartans’ military state, where—according to Plutarch—all life was subordinate to war, where deformed children were abandoned at birth, where gruesome methods of raising children reigned and slaves were regularly killed. At this point, the contrast between Hitler’s archaic Sparta image and the stage ambiance of the world premiere might become noticeable, the cheerful Greek style of the architect Theophil Hansen, who gave the Reichsratssaal an amphitheatre shape and decorated it with images and statues of Attic democrats and Roman republicans in order to reveal the ancient roots of democracy.

By contrast, in Peter Androsch’s opera, the children’s song “Kommt ein Vogel geflogen” (A Bird Comes Flying) makes the homesickness of the tortured children at Spiegelgrund palpable, while Memory quotes reports of survivors, in order to gradually overcome speechlessness and find words for the horror: “carts full of dead little children, like thrown-away dolls.”

Responsible for the production of the opera Spiegelgrund by Peter Androsch is the Anton Bruckner Private University of Upper Austria, which is dedicated to classical music education and simultaneously fosters contemporary opera and the reappraisal of works by persecuted and ostracised composers.

Collaborating on the performance are: Thomas Kerbl (conductor), Katerina Beranova (soprano), Robert Holzer (bass), Alexandra Diesterhöft (child’s voice), Karl M. Sibelius (narrator), Ensemble 09, Alexander Hauer (stage direction) and Ingo Kelp (stage lighting).

Monday, 21 January 2013

Rodolfo, io voglio dirti un mio pensier profondo

For his second production at the Kammeroper, Australian baritone Ben Connor once again nobly ditches his pants for the sake of opera. La bohème opens tonight and is given in a 90-minute adaptation which uses Jonathan Dove’s chamber orchestra reduction overlaid with music by Turkish composer Sinem Altan and Turkish-German DJ İpek İpekçioğlu. The production is directed by former Konwitschny assistant Lotte de Beer, who, inspired by her experiences as a drama student, has crafted a satirical vignette of bobo trustafarians whose countercultural artistic pretensions are belied by their privileged backgrounds. Performances run until February 24.

Image credit: Barbara Zeininger

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Jedes Ding hat seine Zeit

Der Rosenkavalier
Wiener Staatsoper, 9/1/2013

Die Feldmarschallin Angela Denoke
Baron Ochs | Peter Rose
Octavian | Stephanie Houtzeel
Faninal | Clemens Unterreiner
Sophie | Sylvia Schwartz
Marianne Leitmetzerin | Caroline Wenborne
Valzacchi Michael Roider
Annina | Ulrike Helzel

Jeffrey Tate | Conductor
Otto Schenk | Director

There comes a moment in life, it is said, when one realizes that one is no longer young. It does not inevitably follow that one is old or indeed incapable of going back to younger ways, embarrassingly or otherwise, just that one begins to evaluate one’s existence and internal standards in a different way. In this sense Der Rosenkavalier is less about the passage of time than the transformative power of self-awareness, which the Marschallin steadily gains in shortly after Ochs, a man entirely without it, barges his way into her escapist romance. He is far more of a mirror than the one in which she imagines her fading looks, and his timing, gender and character are no accident. The foil to his predatory hedonism reveals itself as a bittersweet empowerment which, far more importantly than the giving up of Octavian, the Marschallin uses to set Sophie on a more positive matrimonial course than that she has enjoyed (we sense from her reaction to Octavian’s breezy, unaware comments about the Feldmarschall’s exploits in the Croatian forests that her husband’s trophies swiftly lose their fascination once mounted). Ochs, who remains in denial, will not allow one setback to prevent him from chasing skirts, but while the Marschallin will never look at romance or herself in the same way again, more than mere impulse governs the near certainty, as Strauss himself later felt moved to flippantly point out, that Quinquin will not be the last youth she takes as a lover. A common observation draws the Marschallin of Act III as a female equivalent to Hans Sachs, but a more optimistic possibility Hofmannsthal leaves open is that she and Sophie have transcended the dualism of the Madonna/whore archetype.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

2013 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize goes to Mariss Jansons

The Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis, considered the most prestigious award in the German-speaking classical music world, is split fairly evenly between composers and musicians with the odd token musicologist acknowledged every decade or so. In honouring performers the prize aspires to recognize a certain intellectual contribution and so Mariss Jansons counts as one of the more unusual choices in recent years, in that his musical intellect is chiefly preoccupied with thought in music. To see this as a departure one need only look at other conductors among the previous recipients, whose careers also encompass thought, whatever one might be inclined to think of it, on music: Boulez, Harnoncourt, Barenboim, Gielen. Inadvertently or otherwise the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung has also dragged Viennese musical politics into the decision, as the chair of their jury and president of the board of trustees is none other than Musikverein Intendant Thomas Angyan, a figure so closely allied with Jansons professionally and personally that the only way for him to play a plausibly neutral role in this process would have been through recusal once Jansons’ name was admitted to the short list. Whether the foundation or Herr von Angyan, as he is known in Switzerland, will be interested in offering such a clarification is another matter.

The prize money has been increased this year by 50,000 euros to 250,000 euros, and just as Barenboim directed the bulk of his Siemens award to renovation work at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Jansons will be donating his 250k to the construction of a new concert hall to supplant Munich’s Gasteig. 

Image credit: Manu Theobald, from the obligatory Ernst von Siemens photo shoot

Thursday, 10 January 2013

A final word from Luc Bondy

This year’s Wiener Festwochen mark the end of Luc Bondy’s seventeen years in Vienna (fourteen of those as Intendant), a passing which has been mostly greeted with what might be termed Wurschtigkeit. Nobody less than the sainted Markus Hinterhäuser is to take over in 2014, after all, and great things are expected of him. Still, there is no reason to throw the 2013 edition out with the bathwater even if the offerings are as characteristically uneven across divisions as last year and the year before. Stefanie Carp, director of theatre and least work-shy of the festival’s ruling troika, has for instance again assembled an embarrassment of riches that surely places the Festwochen as one of the leading European festivals of its kind for drama. For concerts the story is much the same as in previous years, with programming possessed of no distinctive festival identity, though as this year’s host the Konzerthaus is also celebrating its 100th anniversary and has accordingly devoted the bulk of its Festwochen budget to the Vienna, New York and Berlin Philharmonics. The two major operatic projects are Il trovatore, which wraps up the Festwochen’s wretched Verdi series, and a tour stop for George Benjamin’s Written on Skin

The festival’s socio-political projects are once again more closely aligned with the theatre division, though musical highlights involve a Christoph Marthaler production that will see music from Jewish composers persecuted or otherwise affected by the Nazis performed in the Austrian parliament, a music theatre piece inspired by Mexico’s drug war from Vienna-based composer Diego Collatti, and what is billed as a Twitter opera from Franz Koglmann. A particularly active Into the City programme will be announced in full later, but some details are given here. The theatre programme is as international as always, including productions from Festwochen regulars Martin Kušej, Robert Lepage, Bondy himself, and many others. Of particular note is a return to Vienna for Nicolas Stemann, peerless director of Elfriede Jelinek’s stage works, with another media-focused project that will almost certainly prove more provocative than Koglmann’s.

Back in 2001 Luc Bondy gave the Festwochen a much-needed reboot and for some years pursued – by Viennese standards – a radical course that harvested improbable commercial success. But by the time of his latest contract extension he was reflecting that he had stayed in Vienna for too long and the public perception in recent years, confirmed all too often in press conferences and interviews, is that bar Carp his team treads water shamelessly. Stéphane Lissner, who in addition to contributing nothing to Into the City couldn’t be bothered to turn up to his own press conference this year (‘he probably missed his flight’, fudged Bondy half-heartedly), should have been pressured into resigning years ago. A golden handshake would have been small beer set against the absurd cost of his further employment. It will not take much for Hinterhäuser to better the festival’s musical output, but as noted, expectations are high and perhaps unhealthily so.

The Wiener Festwochen take place this year from May 10th to June 16th and full listings can be found here.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Getting Anna Bolena rolling

Musikverein, 3/1/2013

Anna Bolena | Edita Gruberova
Giovanna Seymour | Sonia Ganassi
Enrico VIII | Riccardo Zanellato
Lord Percy | José Bros
Smeton | Hagar Shavit

Lord Rochefort | Daniel Kotlinski
Hervey | Andrew Lepri Meyer

Conductor | Pietro Rizzi
Münchener Opernorchester 
Münchener Opernchor

Anna Bolena is very much fresh in the minds of the Viennese, but beyond Anna Netrebko’s spellbinding performance the opera’s 2011 outing at the Wiener Staatsoper did not move me much. Further beyond that is my general problem of failing to square, pace Gossett and artistic maturity, a composer who takes his historical narrative so very seriously with the formulaic vapidity of the music inspired by it. The seeds of high tragedy are there in some musical sense but banalities win out time after time, even when the artistic whole, with the nobly-borne fate of a self-ensnared victim at its centre, aspires to something considerably grander than melodrama.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Philharmonic archives and the Austrian art of remembering

            UPDATE, 5/3/13: further posts on this topic can be read here and here.

The 2013 New Year’s Day concert of the Vienna Philharmonic is now over, with the focus this year less on women (see this new post from William Osborne) than darker aspects of the orchestra’s history, a debate that invokes the concert’s origins but which also encompasses a broader subtext about Austrian attitudes towards working through the past. The catalyst for this has been the disclosure of a postwar postscript to the 1942 awarding of the Philharmoniker’s Ring of Honour (Ehrenring) to Baldur von Schirach, a one-time Nazi Gauleiter of Vienna and war criminal convicted of the deportation of 65,000 Viennese Jews to Nazi extermination camps. Schirach was sentenced to 20 years in Spandau for crimes against humanity and following his release in 1966 an emissary of the orchestra was sent to give him a replacement copy of the ring (details of the whereabouts of the original may be found be Henriette von Schirach’s book Der Preis der Herrlichkeit). Although the orchestra remembered the support Schirach gave them during his time in Vienna, it neglected to formally commemorate its six Jewish members murdered in the camps, among them Julius Stwertka, who was protected for a time by Furtwängler but eventually found himself rounded up in Vienna on the orders of Schirach’s deportation policy.* This astonishing revelation comes from Richard von Schirach, who writes in his book Der Schatten meines Vaters that his father failed to show any remorse following his release from Spandau. Schirach comments that he does not wish at present to disclose the identity of the Philharmonic musician who delivered the ring, but the orchestra’s archive possibly holds a paper trail. The 1966 incident is not mentioned in Demokratie der Könige. Die Geschichte der Wiener Philharmoniker, the official history of the orchestra.