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Posts Tagged ‘Berliner Philharmoniker’

Karl Marx probably did not have the Berliner Philharmoniker in mind when he said that history repeats itself first as tragedy than as farce, but Simon Rattle’s series of remakes of Karajan’s festival opera recordings with glamorous casts puts the trajectory of the famous German orchestra in perspective and makes one wonder about the British conductor’s contribution to its prestigious history.

One would not call Rattle a Mozart conductor, although his live recording of Così Fan Tutte speaks in his favor in this repertoire – but it seems that Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is a milestone in the career of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s most important conductors: Furtwängler, Karajan and Abbado. A good friend of mine would say that, if a conductor is not able to conduct a solid performance of this opera, he (or she) is not really apt for German repertoire.

I have heard that Rattle’s Zauberflöte in Baden-Baden have not received positive reviews – and this has been seen as a good example of how one should look forward for his recently announced resignation. As a matter of fact, if one compares this evening’s performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker’s discography, this is probably the less coherent and most problematic of all. Some will point out that Karajan’s Berlin recording is far from exemplary – and I would agree – but it has a very clear concept, which the conductor realizes with absolute conviction. Listening to this evening’s performance, I often had the impression that the concept here was basically trying to be different.

When I wrote the last time Bizet’s Carmen was played in the Philharmonie, I said that the performance had been held under “the loving eye of a conductor who read the score afresh and unearthed everything that was there to be found”. If the approach made Bizet’s music more eloquent, I am not sure about its success in Mozart. First of all, as much as I dislike Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s fussy acc. and ritt. in his Zürich recording, there seems to be some method into that, questionable as the results are. This evening, the fact that the rhythmic structure of various numbers were artificially undermined in order to highlight one or other word of the libretto did not seem to make particular sense – some other numbers (Wenn Tugend und Gerechtigkeit or Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehen for instance) were so hectic that one could not help feeling sorry for choristers and soloists spitting out the text in high velocity. Even when the beat did not show any eccentricity (as in Sarastro’s arias), one felt that the music was not being given enough time to breath and produce its effect. There were moments too, when one could see how effective things could be if they had been left alone - Der Hölle Rache, for instance, was very excitingly played in a very organic manner. As a matter of fact, the Berliner Philharmoniker never ceased to marvel with full-toned, clearly articulated playing. Seid uns zum zweiten Mal wilkommen had beautiful effects in the strings. The Rundfunkchor Berlin too sang with impressive accuracy. The excellence of these musicians alone made the performance worth the while, but one would wish nonetheless to see their talents employed to portray a less capricious and more integrated vision of this work.

The cast here assembled is particularly glamorous in small roles, but features some upcoming singers in main roles. Klemperer did the same when he had, for instance, Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp in his recording – and he proved to have bet in the right names. Here one is not so sure. One can see a touch of Kiri Te Kanawa in Kate Royal’s voice, but only now and then. At that point of her career, Dame Kiri was already a flawless Mozart singer, while Royal has too many awkward moments. She does have imagination – her Ach, ich fühl’s (not surprisingly her best moments) was less generically expressive than illustrative of the text. It did catch my attention. Replacing Simone Kermes – an odd choice for the role anyway – Ana Durlovsky proved to be very attentive to the text and to have a warm low register and very clear fioriture, but it is a helplessly light voice for the Queen of the Night, especially in the higher reaches. Benjamin Hulett (Pavol Breslik takes the role of Tamino otherwise) too has a light voice for his part and had his taut moments, but the voice is so pleasant and his sense of style so sure that one tended to take his side. Michael Nagy was an almost ideal Papageno: his baritone is warm, his diction is crystalline, his tonal variety praiseworthy. He masters the art of being funny without overdoing it. Dimitri Ivashchenko finds no difficulty in the writing of Sarastro and fills the hall with dark and focused sounds. Sometimes one misses some nobility of tone and emotional generosity, but maybe I’m spoiled by René Pape’s performance in the Staatsoper.

Some have found the idea of casting the Three Ladies with Annick Massis, Magdalena Kozena and Nathalie Stutzmann exaggerated. I haven’t – I found it very exciting to see their combination of their unique vocal and expressive qualities. I am not so sure about the idea using the deleted cadenza for the opening number, though. José Van Dam (Sprecher) does not sound as a veteran singer at all and the three boys from the Aurelius Sängerknaben sang beautifully too.

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I have noticed only this evening in the Philharmonie that I had never listened to a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in Germany before! Because of its tremendous difficulties, it is not that ubiquitous, but I am glad I could finally get to hear it with the Berlin Philharmonic, which was this evening’s brightest feature. I personally dislike performances of this work that veer into the hysterical or the overstated – and the Berliners’ golden sound and unforced volume is the aural definition of “solemn”. Although the Chorus of the Bavarian Radio is not the clearest in articulation that I have heard, it is certainly one of the smoothest sounding – especially the sopranos – and that too concurred to the poise and scale of this performance. I know that Herbert Blomstedt has an extensive Beethovenian discography, but I am not acquainted with it and have never heard him conduct live before. If the conductor is to be congratulated when the orchestra – even an acknowledgedly excellent one – produces such powerful and exquisite sounds, then Blomstedt is to be praised. Other than this, I have found nothing truly impressive. If clarity means you can hear what every instrument is doing, then the performance was clear. But if by clarity you mean the ability to show where what every instrument is playing fits in the big structure, then it was not. In the hall, I felt that the performance lacked animation, that the accents were not truly incisive and that the level of ideas about this music was low. At home, I’ve listened to five minutes of my old Karl Böhm DG recording and the sensation was that of looking through spectacles at something you had previously seen without them.

Finding the right soloists can be an almost impossible task in any of Beethoven’s vocal pieces, but here he truly outdid himself. The choral parts are almost unsingable – and the solo ones require something similar to the Trovatore quartet (check Toscanini’s NBC live recording). This evening, for instance, a fine group of singers was gathered, but they still proved – as it usually happens -  small-scaled in the hall. The counterpoint in the solo contributions in the final section of the Gloria (in gloria dei patris – amen” was very difficult to make out. In the Sanctus, you could clearly understand why some conductors prefer to use the chorus in passages such as the Pleni sunt coeli. This evening you had to guess 95% of it. Replacing Elza van den Heever, Ruth Ziesak has no problem with the high tessitura and floats mezza voce in the top of her range without effort. Hers is a light but very bright voice that runs in the hall when not under pressure. I had never heard Gerhild Romberger before and was immediately attracted to her fruity, dense voice. She is billed as a mezzo soprano, but “contralto” may be a more accurate description. She had to work hard for lightness in the upper part of her range and was a bit flat in the amen section of the Credo. For a dark voice, it is a particularly forceful one (she often overshadowed the tenor, which is most extraordinary). Richard Croft sang with extreme good taste, tackling fioriture and softer dynamics adeptly, but his voice is either too small and/or too velvety to pierce through the Berliner Philharmoniker. I have already seen Georg Zeppenfeld sing the bass part in this work – and my conclusion is that he was not in his best voice this evening. It  lacked focus throughout and he seemed to be saving for the Agnus Dei, where he has a bit more to sing alone. Finally, I must mention Guy Braunstein’s full-toned yet crystal-clear solo violin in the Benedictus.

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The Berlin Philharmonic has its name inscribed in the discography of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. Although the Austrian conductor was usually associated with large orchestral sound built around a thick string section, he took the world by surprise with what his detractors called “chamber music” sonorities for his tetralogy in Salzburg (and in the studio). The casting of a “Mozartian” Sieglinde was also unexpected. In any case, the results were distinctive enough – some people cannot live without Karajan’s Die Walküre, in which the most “intimate” opera in the cycle is performed “in human scale”.

I have become used to Barenboim’s “force of nature”-approach to the Introduction to act I and Rattle’s subdued take on it puzzled me a bit. When his “Mozartian” Siegmund began to sing surrounded by the gentlest version of the Berliner Philharmonic sound, graced by Rattle’s often admirable sense of detail and tonal colouring, one could think of Karajan’s recording. But then the evening’s Sieglinde had a far more substantial voice – and one couldn’t help noticing that when she was singing, the Karajanesque smoother sounds would develop into something more traditionally “Wagnerian”. This incongruousness would rob the whole act of a backbone – there were moments, many of them effective, but they vied with each other for a concept. The orchestra proved to be impressively Protean under these circumstances – clear and flexible either in capital or small-letter.  Act II had no such ambiguities – it had the appearance, but only intermittently the spirit of a traditional Wagner performance, while act III was probably started with a caricature of a “traditional” Wagner performance in a very brassy and unsubtle Walkürenritt. Towards the closing scene, the performance would regain purpose – in spite of the increasing blunders in the brass section – in a wide-ranging account of Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde – the first orchestral “interlude” a breathtaking example of gradual crescendo, the second expressively hushed and unhurried. My “in a nutshell” would be “a wonderful torso”. I have the impression that the last performance, which is going to be broadcast live in the Digital Concert Hall (this evening’s could be heard live in the Radio Berlin-Brandenburg) will be more consistent.

Although our good friend Jerold doesn’t buy the idea that good singers are in constant development, I am happy to report that the invaluable Evelyn Herlitzius seems to be proving my point. Compared to her performance in the Deutsche Oper’s Ring two years ago, this evening’s Brünnhilde was a complete improvement and consistent to her last Straussian performances both in the Berlin Staatsoper and in the Salzburg Festival. Although one can see that singing at full powers is still her strong feature, she is now readier and more comfortable with holding back and producing legato and shaded dynamics when necessary – with no loss of security and sheer power in her acuti (as her daredevil ho-jo-to-ho’s showed) Sometimes she even ventured out of her comfort zone in trying softer singing in some very tricky spots. This, allied to her customary rhythmic accuracy, clear diction and complete emotional involvement, made her act III really vivid and gripping (even if one will recall other singers who have offered something more touching).

I had seen Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde only once, in a very atypical day. This evening, in healthy voice, she showed herself rich-toned and even through the whole range, especially in unforced, big high notes that blossomed from the heart of the orchestra. Her experience in this role shows in her thorough understanding of dramatic situations and keen verbal pointing. One can see that she knows where a bit more tonal variety would make some difference, but her attempts in mezza voce were often colorless. I am not sure what to say about Lilli Paasikivi  – her middle-size mezzo achieves its goal in Wagner by means of a metallic edge (especially in its almost spoken low register) that makes it sounds curiously shrewish. As a result, her Fricka was particularly waspish.

Then there is Christian Elsner. Has there been any other Siegmund in the last decades with a discography as a Lieder singer? I am not saying that there is not a Siegmund somewhere in Christian Elsner – one can take a glimpse of it in his rich, natural low notes – but what one hears could be described as if the mind of Christoph Prégardien has been transplanted into the body of Johan Botha. When the line is lyrical and undemanding, Elsner’s voice has a boyish, reedy quality reminiscent of Siegfried Jerusalem’s in his old studio recording of Die Walküre with the Staatskapelle Dresden and Janowski, with an extra Schubertian poise. However, when things become really Wagnerian, he basically lacks the technical resources – his high register wants slancio and sounds bottled up, legato evaporates, a nasal quality creeps in and he is often covered by the orchestra.

Although Terje Stensvold is by now a veteran singer (he is 68), his voice sounds as a man’s half his age. I had never seen him before and I wonder why he isn’t more of a household name. At least among Wagnerians – he is the kind of Heldenbariton more comfortable in the baritone than in the bass end of his voice, but his sound is so focused, big and bright that you can always hear him, even in his lower range, which sometimes acquires a yawny mature-Hotter sound. He is not very specific in his declamation (what can be a problem in act II), but has very clear diction and phrasing. All in all, an impressively reliable performance in a very difficult role. Mikhail Petrenko’s Hunding is becoming a bit mannered, but it is still a dark, big voice that works very well in the Philharmonie. Although Rattle drawned his valkyries in brass, one could still catch some interesting voices there, particularly Andrea Baker and Susan Foster.

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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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In less than an hour, tickets to Claudio Abbado’s three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, Maurizio Pollini and Anna Prohaska had been sold out.  Me and many other concert-goers would have been deeply frustrated, if the maestro and the Philharmonic had not offered more than a consolation prize: an extra concert as a tribute to Gustav Mahler, who died exactly 100 years ago in Vienna. Famous soloists were invited and the hall was almost completely packed.

The program’s first item was the adagio to the 10th Symphony (in Deryck Cooke’s edition), which is rightly regarded as Mahler’s visionary swansong. I cannot think of a more ideal interpreter of this music than Claudio Abbado – not only has he a vast experience with XXth century music and offered an impressively clear and consequent view of the score, but he did not fail to bring his heart to it. The various moods of this expressively wide-ranging piece were intensely shown to an audience mesmerized by the otherworldly sounds of a transfigured Berliner Philharmoniker. What glorious sounds! Being there is something one could tell his grandchildren about.

After a superlative experience such as this, the stakes were very high, even for Abbado himself. I am not saying that he would not be able to outdo himself in the Lied von der Erde, but the fact is that I am not sure if his choice of soloists, distinguished as they are, was right for this music in that venue. Well, this is not exactly right: Jonas Kaufmann is, of course, a very good choice for the tenor part. Although he was not in his absolutely best day (the lachrymose attacks inexistent before the Met’s Siegmunds persist and his attempts of mezza voce were more into the falsetto field), the liquid quality of his high register is praiseworthy. The excruciatingly demand of heroic acuti was supplied roundly, richly and forcefully. I have very good and fond memories of Johan Botha in Munich back in 2007 (with James Levine and the Munich Philharmonic) and I still think that this music ideally requires a more dramatic and brighter voice in order to allow the conductor to really unleash his orchestra. But Kaufmann’s sense of line and cleanliness of phrasing are worth the trade-off.

Back in 2007 in Munich, I also had the opportunity to see Anne Sofie von Otter in that piece. Back then I had already found her unsuited to this piece. Four years haven’t made the situation better – hers is a helplessly light voice for it. Of course, her good taste, clear diction, exquisite pianissimi are welcome, but she was often overshadowed by the orchestra, sounded uncomfortable in her low register and caused the conductor to reign in his orchestra. This fact alone made the performance sound restrained and a bit cold as a whole. A conductor as Abbado knows how to play things to his advantage – with very clear but restricted sound from the strings, pride of place was given to exquisite solos from his woodwind section (Emmanuel Pahud deserves particular mention) and French Horn players, a sense of chamber music was achieved. However, Abschied  requires far more emotional generosity, more contrast, more sense of an all-embracing orchestral picture in the “tutti”.  Beautiful as it all was, this should not be Abbado’s and maybe also Jonas Kaufmann’s last “word” about it.

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Christian Thielemann’s reputation as a Straussian conductor is somewhat older than his as a Wagnerian, and I would dare to say that, although he is often mentioned as some sort of Bayreuth’s great hope, R. Strauss’s music is still the repertoire where all his strengths lie. His instincts are basically almost invariably right in this music, his ability to produce perfectly transparent textures in large scale is admirable, and the sense of forward movement and objectivity that make his Wagner sometimes insensitive drain his Strauss of all hint of sentimentality.

This evening, the conductor decided to explore some rare Straussian pieces with famous soloists to draw a larger audience. The orchestral numbers were composed in circumstances that explain their almost complete oblivion today: the Festmusik for the city of Vienna was a 1942 official command and, although the Festliches Präludium was composed in 1913, it was performed in the celebration of the German chancellor’s birthday in 1943. While the former is a quite uninteresting piece for brass instruments and timpani, the later is an impressive (if rather shallow) tour-de-force for organ and great orchestra expertly calculated to produce a standing ovation (as in this evening). Thielemann resisted the temptation of overdoing the effect and gave a sober yet powerful rendition of this exuberant score.

The conductor’s sense of balance proved providential for his soloists – Renée Fleming offered a gorgeously and stylishly sung Traum durch die Dämmerung over a delicate carpet of orchestral sound. Winterliebe requires a lighter touch for its upwards melisme that made it a bit difficult for her to pierce through, but she still then eschewed any vulgarity. The Gesang der Apollopriesterin (op. 33-2) showed the soprano in her best form and behavior – savoring the text, coloring it with imagination and producing beautiful round top notes throughout. In Waldseligkeit, she could not find the necessary ethereal mezza voce, but her voice has inbuilt floating quality and she handled the lower end of the tessitura better then most. Thomas Hampson’s baritone is a bit higher than almost everything he sang this evening requires; he could barely be heard in the bottom of his range and exposed high notes were a bit rough. Nonetheless, he showed himself as an ideal interpreter for the somber declamation of both the Hymnus (op.33-3) and the Notturno (op. 44-1) and still produce the right hearty enthusiasm for the Pilgers Morgenlied (op.33-4). Thielemann provided kaleidoscopic sounds, perfectly blended to his singers, knowing the right moment when he should and could boost his orchestra and when to scale it down to give pride of place to vocal effects.

Both singers would appear again in the big romantic scene in the second act of Arabella. Fleming’s clear diction and creamy tones worked to perfection. When she decides to put her jazzy mannerisms aside (as in this evening), one can really understand why she is considered the leading Straussian of her generation. Hampson had to work hard for impact, but blended exquisitely in Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein. The audience would also be treated to the prelude to act III, where Thielemann proved not only to have a superior understanding of the structure of this passage, but also to make it sound consequent, polished, animated and surprisingly beautiful. The Berliner Philharmoniker responded in the great manner during the whole evening. I really can’t wait to hear his Frau ohne Schatten in Salzburg this Summer.

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Almost all tickets for three evenings sold in a couple of hours – Claudio Abbado’s mystique is more alive than ever, especially in what regards his collaboration with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Although many a detractor would blame the Italian maestro for the loss of Karajan’s deluxe sonic perspective, I reckon that, in hindsight, the nay-sayers may be shedding tears for the glory of days past. In a few words, among all concerts in the last twelve months, this was simply the one in which I could understand why the Berliner Philharmoniker is THE Berliner Philharmoniker. Until today, I had found it a very good orchestra living of its reputation rather than living up to the competition with rival formations even in the immediate vicinity, such as the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester Berlin, which seems incapable of producing a routine performance. Under the baton of Abbado, the BPO has an entirely different sound: glittering, slim-toned strings that produce cantabile even in the most awkward phrases, round-toned brass, expressive woodwind solos in the context of the most perfectly balanced ensemble: worlds apart from the rather purpose- and shapeless loudness sold as “punch” by the present chief conductor.

Before you ask me if I was entirely satisfied with this evening’s concert, I tell you that this is secondary to the fact that, regardless of WHAT was being played, the way HOW the orchestra played the pieces in this rather strange program takes pride of place in assessing the whole experience. To start with, I do not think that the orchestral arrangements of Schubert Lieder was a sensible choice of program. The tessitura in these songs was settled by the composer with the idea that the singer would have only a piano to deal with, allowing him or her to explore some less powerful areas in his or her range. In the orchestral version, cutting through the orchestra around the register shifts in the mezzo soprano voice proved to be tricky even to a technically accomplished singer such as Christianne Stotijn. Gretchen am Spinnrard was particularly challenging – the Dutch mezzo’s voice is not particularly large and she had to apply a little bit more pressure to her tone, which finally sounded anything but young or lovely, and the anxiety seemed to come rather from the singing itself than from the expression of Goethe’s text. Abbado has a vast experience with singers and helped her throughout Berlioz’s bombastic orchestration of Erlkönig, in which her characterization of father, child and phantasm did not truly came through into the auditorium. The choice of Nacht und Träume only seemed to confirm my impression – over the background of an orchestra reduced to pianissimo, Stotijn could finally relax and let us hear the natural warmth and smoothness of her voice. I bet she could do even better with the original piano accompaniment. Maybe a naturally larger-voiced singer with a more solid middle register could have done the trick – but why bother if we can always hear Schubert the way Schubert wanted it to be?

The Song of the Wood-Dove from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder was introduced by the orchestral transition from Waldemar’s last song to his beloved Tove – and Abbado treated the audience to a universe of exquisite, sensuous and multicolored sonorities. Unlike many conductors, he never lets himself be overwhelmed in this music and treats the complex rhythmic and harmonic structures with extreme cleanliness and organization. Compared to this passage in his 1995 complete recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, I found today’s performance even more coherent and forward-moving. Christianne Stotijn had her underpowered moments, but when she find space to gather her resources, she produced some interesting effects. What is beyond doubt is her dramatic commitment, but I have the impression her voice lacks volume for this repertoire.

One would have to wait for the end of the intermission to discover the real Schwerpunkt of this evening’s concert. Brahms’s Rinaldo, a cantata for tenor and male chorus, is anything but popular, and Giuseppe Sinopoli’s recording with René Kollo for Deutsche Grammophon is hardly the ideal invitation to get acquainted with the piece (Abbado’s old recording with a not-entirely comfortable James King is currently out-of-print in many countries). That said, if you had first met the work this evening, you would probably find it a neglected masterpiece. The Berlin Philharmonic played it with Beethovenian intensity without ever trespassing the limits of Classical shapeliness, something I guess Brahms himself would have appreciated. In Abbado’s hands, the score oozed energy allied with elegance – and the forces available were simply ideal. Beside the gleaming orchestral sound, the combined forces of the men from the Rundfunkchor Berlins and the Chorus of the Bayerische Rundfunk offered exemplary tonal homogeneity and clarity in the delivery of the text and, last but not least, the soloist for the difficult tenor part could not be better. Although Jonas Kaufmann still has to deepen his acquaintance with the piece (and I am not saying this because he had the score in his hands), there is simply no-one who could sing this music as beautifully and stylishly as he does. His dark-hued tenor is admirably flexible and never lets legato go, even in some particularly contrived turns of phrase, and climactic top notes resounded in the Philharmonie without any hint of effort. I have no doubt that, should this performance be released on CD, it will be a reference for this piece.

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This was a night full of surprise. First, the première of Siegfried Matthus’s Konzert für fünf, for wind quintet and orchestra. The work begins and ends with the conductor’s solo on the timpani, and the piece fulfilled its promise of being structurally clear “conversations” for the soloists, the rhythmical alertness of which bordered on a bolero, but it was the tango offered as an encore by the soloists that got the warmest applauses.

After the intermission, the audience was treated to highlights from Wagner’s Göttedämmerung (Siefried’s Journey on the Rhine, Brünnhilde and Waltraute’s scene, Siegfried’s funeral march and the Immolation Scene). The performance took some time to take off – the first excerpt seemed built “from the outside”, as if the conductor did not find the inner truth of the piece and tried to force animation in the proceedings for awkward effects, but the soloists seemed to add some dramatic sense to the performance. The graphic effects of the magic fire, the flying horse, the Valkyries’  battle cry were thrillingly executed. From this moment on, the Berliner Philharmonic had more than the occasional moment of one could remember the big, powerful and exquisite sounds of its golden days.

Katarina Dalayman’s warm-toned dramatic soprano, noble phrasing and clear diction make her ideal for the womanly aspects of Brünnhilde, but the warrior goddess recalled in the opera’s closing scene tests her weaker lower register. On her favour, she seems to have a neverending supply of big firm top notes, but the unfavourable tessitura of the Immolation Scene tired her a bit. I have the impression that Die Walküre should not be her best moment in the Ring as a whole. As Waltraute, Karen Cargill proved to be a truly interesting artist. She is a most intelligent singer, with solid technique, dramatic imagination and crystal-clear German, but she seems to be more a contralto than a mezzo.

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It seems that Riccardo Muti has decided to launch a campaign to make Italian concert repertoire more widely known by audiences throughout the world. I have seen an all-Italian-music concert in Japan and this evening half program was dedicated to Italian music – his calling card, the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and his fellow Neapolitan Martucci’s La Canzone dei Ricordi.

I have seen Muti play Verdi’s most famous overture more than once, but today’s performance featured truly intense playing from the Berliner Philharmoniker, scintillating strings and inspired solos by the woodwind soloists included. Martucci’s song cycle is a tougher cookie: one of those piece with immediately expressive atmosphere that seem nonetheless to be going nowhere. The orchestra offered exquisite sounds and Violeta Urmana was an ideal soloist – the tessitura is very favourable to her zwischenfach soprano, here at its creamiest, her Italian diction was crystal-clear and she added her customary elegance to these songs that really do not invite Puccinianisms. However, Berliners have already their opinion about what they like best and reserved their most enthusiastic applause for Schubert’s Symphony no.8, performed tonight at its most gutsy and exciting, with animated and astonishingly precise (if not necessarily apollonian) playing from the orchestra.

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