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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Rattle’

The last time Bizet’s Carmen was performed in the Berliner Philharmonie was under Herbert von Karajan in 1985 – Agnes Baltsa, José Carreras, Janet Perry and José Van Dam in the leading roles, exactly as in Salzburg a couple of months later, albeit with the Vienna Philharmonic. This recording is one of the references in the discography, not exactly as a paragon of French style, but as a breathtaking tour de force from the Berliner Philharmoniker. This evening, the memory of Karajan seemed to be haunting the place. There we were – a concert performance from Carmen, as in Salzburg, with the venerable orchestra and star-studded cast, as in the old days. As much as Karajan, Simon Rattle seemed determined to inscribe his name in the history of performance of this opera. This was very much a symphonic performance, with the Berlin Philharmonic as the main soloist, dazzling the audience with the most exciting orchestral playing one will probably witness in his or her lifetime under the loving eye of a conductor who read the score afresh and unearthed everything that was there to be found. As much as I like Karajan’s recordings (all of them – the old ones with Giulietta Simionato and Nicolai Gedda, the film with the invincible Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers and the above-mentioned Baltsa/Carreras), I am afraid that Rattle has gone even deeper in his understanding of this opera. The tempi are excitingly fast, except when singers need a bit more space for expression, the rhythms are irresistible, the tonal palette is surprisingly wide (some really earthy sounds from the Berliners), the passages supposed to be merely “exotic” seemed to spring from a performance of a zarzuela and some some moments were truly revelatory – for instance, the usually superficial quintette Nous avons en tête une affaire sounded almost Stravinskian in its kaleidoscopic instrumental effects and sharp rhythms, the entr’acte before act III refreshingly devoid of sentimentality and, in the “flower song”, there was nothing like a soloist and orchestral accompaniment: it was a collective musical statement, of surpassing beauty. I guess everyone in the Philharmonie will never have again the same pleasure on hearing Bizet’s most famous opera. If one does not concentrate too much in the singers.

Well, I actually wrote the last sentence to make some suspense. There is no tragedy to report here, but there was nonetheless room for improvement. When Carmen is referred to in the libretto as a bohémienne, I am sure that the idea was not the Czech Republic. All right, Magdalena Kozena is from Moravia and wouldn’t qualify anyway, but I am sure that my 12 or 13 readers are probably curious to know how she fared in this role. The fact that hers is a light and not big voice is not a novelty – Teresa Berganza, for instance, was a famous Carmen, and her repertoire was Rossini; Anne Sofie von Otter’s Carmens were not truly famous, but she did sing it, more than once etc etc. It must be said that Kozena has experience in French repertoire – I have seen her sing mélodies very commendably, she has sung Mélisande, Lazuli in  Chabrier’s L’Étoile, French baroque music, she even recorded a CD with Marc Minkowski in which she sings one scene from Carmen. So, in a nutshell, she knows the style, the language and her voice has indeed gained in weight and size. Her middle-register was far more solid than I could have predicted and the low notes were almost all of them there, practically without the help of breaking into chest voice (what the French would probably consider “authentic”) and, differently from the last time I saw her (the above-mentioned L’Etoile), I didn’t hear the sort of constriction and brittleness that sometimes affected her singing when things got high and loud. It remains the fact that her voice in both ends of her range lack impact – she would often disappear in ensembles (the repeated “la mort” in the card scene would be overshadowed by Frasquita and Mercédès), and although she could hit exposed high notes all-right, maintaining them cost her a big effort. So she generally just touched them and either cut them short or filled-in the note value with downward portamento. The last scene had to be dealt with with some “acting with the voice”, but there weren’t any ugly sounds. So the question is – has the effort paid off? Well, she was a musicianly Carmen, her phrasing unusually elegant and truly rooted in French style (I mean – I guess, one would need a crystal ball to understand what the French consider “French style”), she has really given great deal of thought about the text and the music and, although her personality is not really close to what Carmen is, she tried to emulate a Carmen personality: hand on the hip, barefoot, throwing her chin up, swinging her hair, you name it. Berganza, for instance, who was really Spanish, never tried any of that – and her more libertarian than libertine Carmen fitted her bright, light elegant voice. But, to sum it up, yes, it was musicianly and the voice is beautiful – but, again, Tatiana Troyanos, for example, had all that – and the voice too. If you want a blond Carmen today, Elina Garanca, for instance, gets the job done far more easily. But it seems that if you are a mezzo, you basically cannot die without singing this role…

Jonas Kaufmann is a famous Don José – probably the finest today. He was not in excellent voice and his once fine attack of notes now is marred by pushing and the lacrhymosity is getting more and more pronounced. That did not prevent him from producing some big heroic acuti and also from singing with nuance, offering floating mezza voce in his duet with Micaela and, if his pianissimo on the high b flat was not smooth as it used to be, he does sing it (who else does these days?!). I have the impression that the frequentation of heavier roles is making the experience of singing roles like this less fun than it used to be – no wonder he couldn’t resist to sing his “Ma Carmen adorée” “before the time” and call it a day…

Baritone Kostas Smoriginas too produced some big heroic high notes and, almost as everyone else, found the role at times too low-lying. I only found it puzzling that his was the less “attractive” voice among the pleasant-toned (and very good) low-voice singers this evening – Christian van Horn (Zuniga), Andrè Schuen (Moralès) and Simone del Savio (Dancaïro). His French is perfectible too (Rattle used the Oeser edition – although Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was the only native speaker in the cast, the level of pronunciation was generally high, especially Kaufmann’s).

In Karajan’s 1985 performance the chorus from the Opéra was imported from Paris, and it was a wise choice, for the chorus of the Deutsche Staatsoper struggled a bit, especially with the conductor’s fast tempi and loud orchestra. The Staatsoper’s child chorus must be mentioned for their amazingly clean performance – the best I have ever heard.

I leave the best for last – the lovely Genia Kühmeier, a radiant Micaëla. What a special singer she is – and to think that there are so few recordings with her… It’s a shame!

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Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmonic are on their way to producing a complete Mahler symphony series of live recordings, of which I could only attend a performance of the 2nd so far – a pleasant experience that led me to consider that this is one of the strongest features of the English conductor’s repertoire. The Mahler items are often paired with unexpected pieces – last time it was Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw followed without pause by the symphony, and this evening the last two scenes from Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen opened the concert. As the program reminds us, both pieces ultimately speak of eternal renewal – as a matter of fact, the very last scene in the opera was played by the composer’s request at his funeral. In it, Rattle offered luxuriant orchestral sound and relished on the coloristic effects, sometimes at the expenses of his soloists – not Gerald Finley, I am glad to report. This is the first time I have seen the Canadian baritone live and he more than fulfilled my expectations. Although it is not a dramatic voice, it is so flawlessly, cleanly and clearly produced that he does not find any problem in piercing through a thick orchestra. Moreover, he has very crisp and vivid declamation and could find spontaneity in the difficult declamatory nature of these scenes, especially for a non-native Czech speaker – now if you want to know how good his pronunciation is, you’ll have to ask someone else. As for his diction, I am able to confirm that it is crystalline.

Those who like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde have been very lucky  – this is the second time in a relatively short time the Berlin Philharmonic performs it this year. Last time, Claudio Abbado had given a clearly analytic and exquisite-toned yet somewhat cold performance of this piece, one that couldn’t be more different from that heard in the Philharmonie this evening. To start with, Rattle favors an earthier sound from his orchestra and, even if he is not less clear than Abbado, the sense of structural coherence takes second place to the intent of extracting the last ounce of feeling from each moment. The result not only is a far more flexible tempo (with the occasional transitional bumpiness), but also an extra degree in intensity. I found it a difficult yet finally rewarding account of this well-loved score. The first movement, for instance, had a rather sensuous sound picture and moved forward impulsed by regular surges of energy that made the whole quite uncomfortable and slightly awkward, but never dull. The performance would settle into something less unpredictable in the middle movements, with chamber-like sonorities that never sounded too well-behaved and really expressive solos – again brilliant woodwind and French horns, but not only. Everyone in the orchestra seemed connected to a sense of story-telling and theatricality – even the accompanying figures in the harps seemed more dramatic than usual. In Abschied, Rattle risked everything – this is a piece in which one can always cheat with sentimentality, but not this evening; no easy trick has been tried. Tempo, accents, dynamics – everything served one unified expressive purpose. Sometimes, one would miss a more exuberant crescendo, while something more understated had been chosen, but the approach paid off exquisitely in the otherworldly conclusion, far more fitting in its unexaggerated feeling to the text than the bombastic gran finale sometimes preferred elsewhere.

It is curious that Rattle has invited Abbado’s mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter, whose performance had been, well, disappointing. Her voice is rather modest for this piece, but I wonder if she was not in a good day last time. This evening, while she still has her moments of inaudibility, she was clearly in better voice. Her low register sounded more positive, the tonal quality was attractively velvety and one could see that she felt that she had enough leeway to concentrate on tone coloring. It was a truly inspired performance, very sensitive to the poetic moods and emotionally generous – from the heart to the heart. Tenor Stuart Skelton was evidently extremely nervous in his debut with the Philharmonic. I have to confess that his whole stage attitude was very distracting and I avoided looking at his contortions, fidgeting, bending backwards, semaphoric movement with the arms, you name it. The voice itself is very pleasant and warm and he is capable of nuance, but his whole method is a bit chaotic – his voice is often unfocused and he pushes too often for comfort. When he does let a high note spin and acquire momentum without pushing it, the sound is huge and exciting, but his high acuti were often matte and covered by the orchestra and cut short rather than rounded off. I don’t know how he sounds in more relaxed circumstances – I only wonder how exhausting singing the way he sang this evening must be. In any case, he could find the right note of raw energy in the first song and quite successfully scale down in Vor der Jugend.

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Before Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker add Stefan Herheim’s production to their Salome, the audience in Berlin was treated to two concert previews in the Philharmonie, which – if I am not mistaken – also mark Emily Magee’s debut in the title role. I can only imagine that this is a favorite score for the members of the Philharmonic, for they played with the kind of engagement that only now and then seems to appear in “Rolls-Royce” orchestras.

If I had to declare which was my favorite concert with the BPO and Simon Rattle, this would probably be it. The Philharmonic denied its musical director nothing: the strings particularly protean in varying from the noblest, warmest and fullest glimmering sounds to the most colorful descriptive effects; inspired and dramatically aware solos from woodwind and brass and impressively kaleidoscopic collective effects,  especially in the closing scene. Rattle presided over the ensemble with a loving eye, bringing the lyricism to the fore, giving time for this music to breathe and relishing the harmonic complexity by highlighting every little tiny dissonance in the score, for illuminating results. However, there remains the problem of balancing soloists and the formidable orchestra, especially in concert version. Although I generally accuse the English conductor of being inattentive to his singers, I have to acknowledge that this time he really tried. He opted for the difficult compromise of finding the optimal point in which the orchestra could keep its refulgence without entirely covering singers’ voices. A risky choice that required permanent adjustment. It is true that he proved to have amazing control of his musicians, by demanding very precise dynamical up and down-scaling in volume while avoiding abruptness entirely. As always, this had a cost. First, a sense of cautiousness haunted the first half of the opera, with the extra effect of a certain “hysteria” in the moment when the instruments were alone at last. Although it was undeniably exciting to hear the Philharmonic unleashed, these moments require not only more “space” to grow but also depend on the Straussian hallmark chiaroscuro to come to life. As it was, things had to develop from 95% to 100% in moments like the passage which depicts Jochanaan being brought out of his cistern. On the other hand, the Dance of the Seven Veils lacked spirit – beautiful as the sound was, the orchestra seemed too ready to let it all out instead of relishing the art-nouveau filigree concocted by Strauss. In the closing scene, Rattle finally seemed to have chosen the orchestra over his soloists – and, although the poor singers had to work hard for the money, the orchestral performance was so dense, so multi-layered that one could not help surrendering. The composer himself referred to his opera as a “scherzo with a tragic ending” and the conductor proved this evening to have understood that. Probably never since Böhm’s CDs from Hamburg (alas, with a sub par orchestra) had I heard a performance in which the thematic material presented as “atmospheric” in the Jochanaan/Salome scene was so precisely restated in the final scene now under a quasi-grotesque coloration. I would be curious to know how this is going to work in the Grosses Festpielhaus.

Every time I write about this opera’s title role, I repeat that a natural Salome has a bright voice above all to allow her to pierce through the orchestra without having to switch to fifth gear every time things get difficult. But the likes of Ljuba Welitsch are unfortunately very rare. With her creamy-toned floating soprano, Emily Magee hardly fits the description. It is true that her voice is big enough, but its delicate hue is too often overshadowed by the orchestra and the low notes basically remain on stage. That said, among the almost invariably miscast singers I have seen in this part, she was probably the best. First of all, she has really solid technique and never, ever forces. As a result, her soprano is never less than round, easy and pleasant. Although one could see that this is a difficult role, she didn’t have to work herself up to deal with it, but rather manage her resources with shrewdness. By the moment when most Salomes are screaming themselves out, Magee still produced flowing Straussian lines, the occasional pianissimo and remained true to intonation, although you wouldn’t always hear that.  Second, she has no problem with high notes, what is always reassuring when one is about to hear a long piece of excruciatingly difficult singing. Finally, her Salome is refreshingly spontaneous. Although her voice does not have a virginal quality, she eschews vulgarity and affectation, suggesting quite appropriately rather a perverse child coveting a toy she cannot play with. Moreover, she handles the declamatory writing adeptly and has relatively clear diction.

Iain Paterson’s spacious, noble and ductile baritone works beautifully in the role of Jochanaan. He too suffered from the competition with the orchestra and seemed a bit tired by the end of his long scene with Salome, but this did not prevent him from offering an intelligent and theatrical performance. A name to keep. Stig Andersen did not seem to be in a good day – one would hardly guess that he has sung Wagnerian roles by what one heard this evening – but he did sing the part of Herod; even the most verbose moments never lacked a flowing singing line, not to mention that he colored the text with unusual intelligence. I don’t feel like being objective about Hanna Schwarz: she is great and that’s it. At this stage of her career, her voice is not exactly beautiful, but still impressively forceful and focused. If someone found no problem in a loud orchestra this evening, this would be her (and a powerfully dark-toned Rinat Shaham as the page of Herodias). And there is not an ounce of nonsense in that woman – she is simply mesmerizing. Last but not least, among the minor roles, Oliver Zwarg’s deserves mention as the First Soldier.

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My six or seven readers know by now that I am not a fan of Simon Rattle and that I usually find his Wagner too bombastic and lacking depth, but I had never had the opportunity to hear Violeta Urmana’s Isolde live and decided to take my chance. I won’t keep you in suspense – it was more than worth the detour. Rattle’s Tristan (judging from his rendition of the second act alone) is still work-in-progress, but the “preview” made me curious for what is to come. I am tempted to say that the chemistry between the conductor and the Berliner Philharmoniker is not really positive for Wagner, but I would need a crystal ball to say that (moreover, it would be dishonest to do so, considering that my experience is reduced to one concert in the Philharmonie and one DVD from Aix), but the fact is that the presence of the Staatskapelle Berlin, an orchestra that has learned its Tristan to perfection with Daniel Barenboim, proved to have a very positive effect on Mr. Rattle. I would be lying if I said that the orchestral playing was less than ardent, passionate, inspired. It would be also a lie to say that the success is due to the orchestra’s quality alone, for Rattle’s approach to the score is very different from Barenboim’s.

Although the many facets of this evening’s performance do not really build into a coherent view of the score, they are really fascinating in themselves. First of all, Rattle’s choice of tempi belongs to a tradition (the absence of a tradition maybe?) entirely different from Furtwänglerian suppleness and gravitas. If it would be possible to say something like that of a Wagnerian performance, Rattle’s was quite a tempo, the sense of a continuous and consistent beat seemed to focus the whole scale of his performance. The choice of the word “focus” is not accidental – this predilection for forward-movement allied to very precise playing of the orchestra brought about a real sense of horizontal clarity to the proceedings. The care with highlighting the Hauptstimme, connecting the singer’s parts to the “singing” line in the instruments (for illuminating effects in the Liebesnacht) helped further more the sense of continuity. This alone made it a special evening.

If my six or seven readers are still reading this paragraph, they might be wondering where the drawbacks are. So here they come. First, I wonder how wise it was to choose, in the context of this a tempo approach, such a fast “basic beat”. While it kept the more meditative moments particularly taut, it made the more urgent moments frantic: I would not say awkward, for the orchestra did a splendid job out of it, but the effect was a bit mechanical, the sense of transparency suffered a bit and singers were having the worst time of their lives spitting out things like habichdichwiederdarfichdichfassen [gasp]anmeinerbrust. Second, dynamics. Karajan must be smiling in his grave, for the playing with dynamics would made his EMI Tonmeister in his recording with Helga Dernesch and Jon Vickers proud. I have just deleted the adjective “fussy”, for the score shows that Wagner has indeed written those dynamic markings and they do not sound so extreme in a less hectic pace. In that sense, a Furtwänglerian Luftpause now and then would have made miracles. Third, if Rattle could keep his audience in the edge of their seats with his faithful obedience of the many Sehr drängend in the score, the general atmosphere was already urgent enough and in the end nervousness had the edge on variety of expression. And Wagner wrote a lots of ausdrucksvoll in the score too. Finally, a true Wagnerian conductor knows that he cannot conduct against his singers, especially in the concert hall with the big orchestra just behind them. All this is only a matter of fine-tuning, and although it was a problematic evening (the audience, for instance, did not seem particularly enthusiastic* – I would guess that the problem with singers should be largely to blame), it was also an intriguing and ultimately refreshing performance.

Although Violeta Urmana sang quite commendably, I would guess that maybe she was not in her absolutely best voice this evening. She could be just be heard over the orchestral fortissimi, but her voice often acquired a metallic harshness in those moments. The more difficult high notes posed her no problem (she should be proud of her flashing high c’s, for instance), but as soon as the orchestra’s voluminousness reached comfortable levels, the warmth of her voice could be felt and she would finally feel at ease to do what makes her a particularly welcome Isolde: singing those sensuous phrases with absolute femininity in  her round, full middle and low registers and her rich, vibrant top notes and lovely soft attacks that make all the difference of the world. There are far more intense and exciting Isoldes out there, but I have a soft spot for Urmana’s musicianly, seductive account of this role – even in an evening when the circumstances were not really congenial. With her dark, round and creamy mezzo-soprano, Lioba Braun has surprisingly clear diction and, thank God, can float her Habet acht! soaring phrases without any difficulty. Franz-Josef Selig’s voice is really beautiful and he handles the text with the care of a Lieder singer; his König Marke is indeed touchingly sung. He showed some instability in high notes when he had to sing fully and loud, but that is only a detail. The casting of Hanno Müller-Brachmann for just a couple of notes as Kurwenal and of veteran Reiner Goldberg as Melot is almost a show-off.

Although Robert Dean Smith was supposed to sing Tristan this evening, he fell ill and was replaced by Ian Storey, who is in town for his Énée at the Deutsche Oper. Considering how difficult his role in Berlioz’s Les Troyens is, it was quite generous of him. But these things have a price. Storey has some very big heroic top notes, but I have the impression that a bar fades out in his battery-level display for each one of them. While he still has the energy to tackle them, it is quite impressive, but when he reaches low-level, then one can feel how strenuous it all is. This evening, his battery leaked out very fast – and the conductor probably is to blame. If you are a tenor and already had to sing the first part of the love duet as loud and as fast as he had to this evening, your heart must be aching for him right now (and remember that the concert naturally offers the uncut version of the duet). Around Heil dem Tranke, his voice was completely gray, he had to duck some notes, sang others in falsetto, I have the impression he even had to clear his throat at some point. He must be a very persistent man and deserves all my admiration, for, although he had to use all the tricks in his sleeves to keep singing, he never really gave up and never lost sight of interpretation, shading his tone when required and singing full out when maybe someone wiser would have thought about that twice.

*At least compared with the standing ovation reserved to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Barenboim as soloist. To my own shame, I have to confess that I’ve had such a busy day that I could not really concentrate to hear it and refrained from writing anything for that matter.

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