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Posts Tagged ‘Mahler’

When Brazil transferred its capital city to Brasilia in the 1960’s, a curious decision has been made: a great share of public investment in culture bestowed in the country’s most prestigious cultural institutions in Rio de Janeiro has been withdrawn while no counterparts have been established in the new town. As an example, Rio’s Theatro Municipal was an important opera house until then – Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Magda Olivero, Astrid Varnay, Mario del Monaco, Cesare Siepi performed there in their prime. The loss of State subsidies slowly buried that beautiful theatre in oblivion and Brazil lost its only international acknowledged operatic venue.

Unfortunately, Brasilia’s Teatro Nacional Cláudio Santoro has never been a replacement. It is a large theatre amazingly uncomfortable for the audience, famous for its impressively poor acoustics and also the home of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Teatro Nacional – OSTN (I  refuse to write OSTNCS – who had anyway the brilliant idea of adopting such a long and unpronounceable abbreviation?!). Despite everybody’s good intentions, this orchestra’s performances were amateurish at most (I remember a particularly embarrassing performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana) and I only decided to see the all-Mahler concert today because it is really rare to find a performance of Das Lied von der Erde anywhere. Fortune favours the bold – the event proved to be an unforeseen good surprise.

I knew that the orchestra has a new musical director, Ira Levin, whose concert performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre (act I only) with Violeta Urmana in São Paulo caused me a very positive impression last year – but I didn’t know he is one of those conductors who have the talent to build the sound of an orchestra. Of course, the OSTN is light-years away of world-class standard, but at least it can now claim the status of a serious professional orchestra. Thanks to Mr. Levin, the OSTN has finally left its childhood and made its first steps to adult life. I hope it is not only the good results of a new acoustic shell in wood, but for the first time in my experience this orchestra was capable of producing full tone in loud dynamics and to retain tonal quality in softer passages. More than that, it is now capable of producing consistently accurate phrasing – even the brass section was relatively catastrophe-free during the whole concert. Considering how fast the improvement has been produced, I can only believe that Ira Levin’s tenure is going to be the beginning of a new era for Brasília’s classical music scene.

Having all that in mind, I think I can allow myself to say tonight’s was a truly acceptable performance of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and particularly Das Lied von der Erde. Levin wisely decided to play safe, opting for considerate tempi, softer orchestral sound and preferred strife for polish to excitement. Sometimes the result were rather well-behaved than impressive, but again no wise conductor would aloofly force an immature orchestra into calamity all in the name of genius. I can also say Mr. Levin has a good ear for soloists. In the Gesellen songs, Homero Velho was more correct than inspiring – his baritone is forward and focused through the whole range and he can relax to produce piano singing, but the overall impression is a bit stiff and not entirely smooth in the ear. His best moment was Ich habe ein glühend Messer, when the edge in his voice fits the vocal lines better. The soloists in the second part of the program would offer performances of higher caliber. I will speak of the tenor first.

I had seen Brazilian tenor Martin Mühle’s Tamino maybe five years ago in Rio and I will not beat around the bush – it was awful. His voice had then an annoying bleating quality and his sense of pitch could only be described as “random”. I don’t know what he has done since, but I cannot believe this is the same singer – he must have worked really seriously in his technique in the meanwhile. Although he still has some minor pitch problems around the passaggio, his voice has developed into something like a bright and firm jugendlich dramatisch tenor with really golden full-toned top notes. One could see he was a bit tense in the impossible Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, but even in the less smooth patches his voice was always cleanly and richly produced. This was indeed a most satisfying performance, more compliment-worthy considering the difficulty of this piece. 

Although Denise de Freitas describer herself as a mezzo-soprano, her voice has an undeniable contralto-ish tint about it. I had seen her only once in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel many years ago and found her very very good, but I have the impression her voice had a lighter colour then. In any case, it is a slightly-veiled voice, rock-solid and finely focused. The basic tone made me think of Iris Vermillion (in Sinopoli’s studio recording), the differences being: Denise de Freitas is more comfortable to produce mezza voce, but darkens too much her vowels, what results less than clear diction and a more perilous break into chest voice. Sometimes the sound around the passaggio was somewhat hollow and overplummy. This was definitely a problem in the fast low phrases in Von der Schönheit such as Über Blumen, Gräser, wanken hin die Hufe. I also wished she refrained from the occasional resource to portamento, which sounded a bit unstylish to my ears. That said, this is a singer with extraordinary charisma, imagination and concentration. Her Abschied offered a valuable sense of story-telling and emotional development. 

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In a series of concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst chose for his second program Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, a piece the main difficulty of which in live performances seems to be awake genuine enthusiasm in the musicians while keeping the complex ensembles functional and transparent. The Austrian conductor certainly succeded in eliciting elegance and clarity. But truth is that the performance rarely went beyond politeness. Those accustomed to Bernstein’s intense approach could even found it dull – the translucent strings did not produce the volume of sound one expects in this this music and did not blend very well with a brass section that sounded as if those instruments could have caught the flu. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, on the other hand, poured forth smooth well-balanced sounds. It is a pity that the climactic last movement did not take off – there had not been the necessary building tension to pave the way for it. Unfortunately, both soloists were rather small-scaled for the venue – Malin Hartelius’s ill-focused singing did not carry into the auditorium and the usually excellent Bernarda Fink failed to float her high register and had to distort her vowels to make for the demands on soft dynamics.

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