Friday, 31 August 2007

Bayreuth 2007: Villa Wahnfried

The major tourist attraction in Bayreuth besides the Green Hill, Villa Wahnfried was Richard Wagner´s residence, located in the center of Bayreuth, the place where he wrote his later works and where he is buried in the garden.
I am in the library in Villa Wahnfried, surrounded by Wagner´s books together with about 20 other visitors listening to old Bayreuth Festival broadcasts (I continue to be amazed at the quality of singers in the 1920´s and 30´s that I have never even heard about). And Maria Callas as Kundry.
Apart from the obvious interest at being in Wagner´s house, seeing the piano used in composing the Meistersinger etc., the most interesting exhibitions here contain the large collection of old stage photographs from the Festival House from 1876 and onwards documenting performance practices in Bayreuth and putting quite a few things into context – at least for me: No wonder, the Chereau staging caused such controversy in 1976 judged by photos from the preceding 1970 Wolfgang Wagner Ring. And again, judged by the stage photos, Meistersinger seems to have always gotten a fairly conservative treatment in. Which may again explain some of the reactions to Katharina Wagner´s new Meistersinger, which is modern in the set-up but not in any way controversial compared to stagings of Wagners works seen elsewhere.

Wagner´s grave covered with flowers from the American Wagner Association:

Quite a few curiosities are on display here, such as a letter from the 1980´s (!) addressed to Herr Richard Wagner, asking him to declare his bank affiliations!

And displays of curious Festspielhaus statistics, such as the duration of all performances from the 1930´s and until 1983 (where the display unfortunately ends), telling us that the greatest time difference of a single performance was between Toscanini and Boulez in Parsifal (Toscanini being 1 hour 8 minutes slower than Boulez). And Barenboim in 1982 conducted the slowest Tristan since Toscanini, who in turn was probably the slowest conductor ever heard in Bayreuth (at least until 1983). I also found the plexi-glass model of the orchestral pit very informative. And the letter to Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner in 1953 complaining that the new stagings of Wagner´s operas in Bayreuth violated Richard Wagners wishes…
In the publicly available computers you may search information on Bayreuth performances until this year. Looking out the window, you look at Wagner´s grave in the back yard covered with flowers from various Wagner Societies. The whole place looks bit run down however, and would greatly benefit from renovation, and maybe some facilities – such as a café etc. The garden is a very nice place to hang around.
Concerts take place here during the festival on non-performance days – this year Robert Holl has sung “Winterreise” and this evening a piano recital with works by Brahms and Beethoven is scheduled.

Also in the garden: The grave of Wagner´s dog.

Bayreuth 2007: Parsifal

Parsifal. Bayreuth Festival 2007. Production: Christoph Schlingensief. Cast: Alfons Eberz (Parsifal), Judit Nemeth/Evelyn Herlitzius (Kundry), Robert Holl (Gurnemanz), Jukka Rasilainen (Amfortas), Karsten Mewes (Klingsor). Conductor: Adam Fischer.

To open at the the 2004 Bayreuth Festival and directed by German provocateur and installation artist Christoph Schlingensief, this Parsifal has been surrounded by controversy and debate ever since. It now plays for the last time and will be replaced by a new Parsifal directed by Stefan Herheim next year.

Parsifal occupies a special place among Wagner´s works in Bayreuth, being written specifically for this stage, where it premiered in 1882. The longest queues outside the Box office are always seen before Parsifal, and this year I noticed people starting to queue up for next days Parsifal, the moment Götterdämmerung of the day before, started.

First of all, this is not the shocking production many, of whom few have actually seen it, will have you believe.

Schlingensief works with a revolving circular set simultaneously displaying several tableaus and with superimposed black-and-white video projections representing either Namibian landscapes or the process of cellular division observed by an electronic microscope.
At these tableaus, different situations were played out involving several non-speaking. He creates an eclectic mix of several cultures: Carribean (several semi-naked black women in Caribbean dressing), African (predominantly video projections from the directors previous trip to Namibia) as well as Christian (multiple symbols relating to Jesus Christ, sin, foregiveness etc.).
A rabbit appeared several times – as a ragged doll, a live animal (which by the was was adopted by the alto soloist Simone Schröder after the performance) and finally as the infamous decaying rabbit corpse. The large on-screen projection showing the decaying rabbit during the final four minutes of the opera was in fact a very powerful image, and the only aspect of the production which I felt had a real potential for controversy. Amfortas appeared in a non-speaking role throughout the opera – especially in the scene between Parsifal and Kundry, and Klingsor put in an extra appearance as well by having his feet washed by Kundry in the 3rd act.

A tentative suggestion as to what may be Schlingensief´s main point: Redemption by intercultural exchange/assimilation? Or maybe not at all.

What remains, however, is that Schlingensief has created a very flickering production. Had he been more disciplined, I would expect his artistic points to have emerged more clearly.

Schlingensief has in fact not directed Wagner´s Parsifal, but created an installation work of art, which I´d be tempted to name “Schlingensief with underlying music from R. Wagner´s opera “Parsifal”". Which does not principally bother me, were it not for the fact, that too much attention was taken away from the music by all the happenings on stage. Furthermore, I was rather busy trying to sort out the multiple ideas presented on stage, making the entire experience rather stressful. Not to mention, I am unconvinced I understood it.

Surprisingly I found the audience perhaps even more undisciplined than Schlingensief. There was an immense amount of noise in the Theatre. A couple of people chose to leave approximately 1 minute into the prelude, scrambling down the hard wooden stairs, before the curtain was up. And throughout people were whispering loudly to their companions about the happenings on stage.

The audience response was predictably not positive. You are not supposed to like this production. I was, however, surprised about the scattered applause after the 1st act, sinceI expected it to be customary not to applaud here. By comparison, in Munich, earlier this year, the auditorium was dead-quiet after the conclusion of the first act.
Patrons have been rumoured to leave this performance after the first act, and accordingly I spotted several people with suche karte signs waiting outside the Festival House after both the first and second act, something I did not see during intermission at the other performances apart from Götterdämmerung (I didn´t see anybody leave, though).

Evelyn Herlitzius was vocally indisposed and acted the part of Kundry, while it was sung outstandingly by Judit Nemeth. Jukka Rasilainen was in good voice as Amfortas, but tended towards yell at certain dramatic points. Robert Holl was in rather good, though not brilliant, shape as Gurnemanz and Karsten Mewes is necessarily in very good physical shape, as he impressively climbed backwards 20 steps up a steep ladder in the middle of his solo. That apart, his Klingsor was rather anonymous. No doubt due to the Festival House acoustics, Alfons Eberz voice, as did most of the others, seemed larger than earlier this year at Deutsche Oper.

However, Parsifal really is a conductors opera. And in that regard I was disappointed by Adam Fischer´s static and anonymous reading.Far away from the glittering brilliance of a Christian Thielemann or the compelling drama of a Daniel Barenboim, which may be heard virtually around the corner.

In brief, there is no musical reason to go and see Parsifal here, house acoustics and history apart, particularly not when you have a vastly superior Parsifal playing just 400 km away. Hardly satisfying for the Bayreuth Wagners.

In summary, I was almost disappointed by the predictability of the staging, expecting major provacations based on available press reports. However, if Schlingensief becomes more organized, he may actually be a rather superb opera director.

Bayreuth 2007: What to wear?

What are you supposed to wear once you have secured your ticket to the Bayreuth Festival?

I noticed, that dress code was not universally applied. Men usually wore jacket and tie, though I didn´t see any white jackets. Women generally wore long or at least knee-length dresses in rather conservative style. Far from as posh as in Salzburg, however.

I had heard that you´d dress more formally for Parsifal - but that was not my impression (see photographs below). On the contrary – the most formal dressing, in particular with the men, were seen at Götterdämmerung.

From Meistersinger intermissions:

From Parsifal intermissions:

From Siegfried intermissions:

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Bayreuth 2007: Götterdämmerung

Götterdämmerung. Bayreuth Festival 2007. Production: Tankred Dorst. Cast: Stephen Gould (Siegfried), Linda Watson (Brünnhilde), Hans-Peter König (Hagen), Andrew Shore (Alberich), Mihoko Fujimura (Waltraute), Edith Haller (Gutrune). Conductor: Christian Thielemann.

We have now reached the end and may conclude: Tankred Dorst does not present any other ideas in this 2007 Nibelungen Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth Festival than the co-existence of humans and mythological figures in parallel worlds. Neither does he believe in detailed stage direction. Or special effects (apart from stage smoke):

We are at a temple close to the Rhine. Pictures of the Valhalla Gods are hanging high above and the people are divided between ordinary men and women (who sacrifice male-sized golden sapphires) headed by Gunther and Gutrune in black-and-white evening dress, and Hagen´s green-clad men. Siegfried arrives complete with bare-chested suit from the wilderness and is predictably tricked by a relatively anonymous Hagen. The Rhinemaidens emerge in the desolate concrete graffiti wasteland known from Rheingold, now with a modern-day couple resting on a bench above them seemingly oblivious to their existence and Siegfried is killed after a modern-day boy has drawn the outline of a dead body with chalk on the floor.

The staging exhibits a curious lack of theatrical effects. There is no dragon, though there is fluffy smoke. There are no giants, just ordinary-sized men with the obligatory Star Trek costumes). Alberich doesn´t transform in Rheingold, instead we see more smoke. And the Immolation Scene is reduced to the burning for four pictures of gods, though with plenty of smoke..In the final scene we see a modern-day couple taking a stroll with a bicycle. The point: I am not sure. There doesn’t really seem to be one. Other than the co-existence of humans an mythological figures in the world. But to what purpose? With what intentions?

And on a related note: Why do you have to kill each other with a sword in a manner where it is quite obvious that the sword runs parallel to the body? The same goes for a spear? Can this not be done more convincingly in 2007?

Linda Watson was vastly better than in Siegfried, reaching the rather passable in the Immolation Scene. Though, clearly she is past her prime. Stephen Gould still hit almost all the notes, with considerable strain though, but had to yell a couple of times and was quite visibly tired towards the end. Hans-Peter König sings Hagens notes, though is completely without menace. Again Mihoko Fujimura proves why she, despite a beautiful timbre, essentially is miscast in the dramatic Wagnerian repertoire. Edith Haller´s fresh and clear soprano was the undisputed highlight of the evening, indeed one of the highlights of the entire Ring.

And again. I can say nothing on Thielemann´s conducting, that I have not already said – his reading of the score combined with the unique acoustics of the Festspielhaus makes this one of the most memorable orchestral performances I have ever witnessed. In an entirely other league than the singers.

As I’ve noticed particularly here in Bayreuth, the applause is very differentiated. Standing ovations to Christian Thielemann. And quite a lot applause in general as people were applauding and tramping their feet for 25 minutes. If this is for Thielemann, it´s well deserved – otherwise I was a bit curious to witness such a long applause for this, otherwise not exceptional Ring.
Apparently this Ring was booed in the first re-run this year, but no boos were heard today.
I mistakenly thought that the entire orchestra was to appear on the stage after the completed cycle, but apparently this is a Bayreuth tradition unfortunately only reserved for premieres.

This Nibelungen Ring opened in 2006 to largely negative reviews from both German and International press (Thielemann apart), with which I largely agree. The main idea that the world of the Gods and myths exist parallel to, and unseen by the modern day world seems promising, but Tankred Dorst does not develop it further. Combined with the lack of direction and simple drama this is a quite uninspiring staging of the Nibelungen Ring. Dorst has said that he deliberately chose to keep politics and power out of the staging, which is fine. He just didn´t seem to replace it by anything else.

In short: This is Christian Thielemann´s Ring.

See also: Rheingold, Walküre and Siegfried reviews from the same cycle

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Bayreuth 2007: Siegfried

Siegfried. Bayreuth Festival 2007. Production: Tankred Dorst. Cast: Stephen Gould (Siegfried), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Andrew Shore (Alberich), Linda Watson (Brünnhilde), Albert Döhmen (Wotan), Mihoko Fujimura (Erda). Conductor: Christian Thielemann.

Tankred Dorst has taken us to school in this third installment of his 2007 Bayreuth Nibelungen Ring:

Mime lives in a deserted biology classroom, trying to mix potions while scribbling illegible signs on the blackboard. Siegfried is the ever-hopeless student, who simply forges the Nothung by waving his hand. Curiously dressed, by the way, with a costume depicting a bare hairy chest.

Located deep under a highway in the middle of a forest, with modern-day construction workers camped in a tent, is Fafner´s lair.
In the only exception to the lack of interaction between the human and mythological world, a teenage boy is lurking around Fafner´s nest, looking curiously into the cave. Hagen, perhaps? Eventually Fafner appears from beneath through heaps of smoke and after his death, a wood-bird tour guide with an arrow points Siegfried along the highway to Brünnhilde´s Rock, or rather: Brünnhilde´s cave.

The following confrontation between Wotan and Erda, which takes place on an otherwise empty stage flooded by a clear blue light is stunning and the most beautiful image of the entire cycle. We then descend to Brünnhildes subterranean cave, where Siegfried wakes Brünnhilde, who in return succeeded in ruining the entire scene:

Linda Watson´s Brünnhilde was, to be polite, less than mediocre. Shrill, off-pitch and wobbly. While admittedly a difficult part to cast, it simply must be possible to do better than this. The final scene was simply nightmarish. Not to speak of the lack of chemistry with Stephen Goulds not overly impressive Siegfried: Stiff acting, flat singing and clearly at the ends of his reserves.

Of the remaining, Albert Döhmens Wanderer is not bad at all, though neither is it particularly interesting. Andrew Shore relied too heavily on sprechgesang for my tastes, while Gerhard Siegel as Mime was the most convincing character on stage.
Mihoko Fujimuras Erda remains beautifully sung, though entirely undramatic in both presence and singing.

In stark contrast to this largely mediocre singing was Christian Thielemann’s conducting, of which I am running out of praise. Amazingly beautiful. On levels with the greatest on record as well.

See also: Rheingold, Walküre and Götterdämmerung reviews from the same cycle.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Bayreuth 2007: The brass octet

The traditional brass octet playing a motive from the upcoming act from the balcony. of the Festival House. The motive is played once 15 minutes before, twice 10 minutes before and three times 5 minutes before performances begin at the Bayreuth Festival. Photos from Meistersinger 19th of August.

Bayreuth 2007: Walküre

Walküre. Bayreuth Festival 2007. Production: Tankred Dorst. Cast: Endrik Wottrich (Siegmund), Adrianne Pieczonka (Sieglinde), Albert Döhmen (Wotan), Linda Watson (Brünnhilde), Michelle Breedt (Fricka), Kwangchul Youn (Hunding). Conductor: Christian Thielemann.

Tankred Dorsts "the Gods live in a parallel, invisible world"-Nibelungen Ring theme has now reached the second evening with Walküre at the 2007 Bayreuth Festival.

We are now in a formerly grand estate. A street pole smashed through the wall. Nothung, needless to say is stuck inside. Following the triangular drama of Star Trek look-a-likes Hunding, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Wotan is confronted by Fricka in front of a line of old dusty statues. Oblivious to these happenings, modern-day workers go about with their work. We then descend into the Walküre Rock, here a Cave lined by uneven rocks, with an open entrance at the back during which the various characters appear.

It did not seem like Tankred Dorst brought any other ideas than the parallel mythological/modern-day world into play. And the complete absence of interpersonal drama, which make up a large part of the opera was notable and vastly responsible for this rather inadequate Walküre-staging.

One singer truly stood out: Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde. A beautifullyl warm and dusky tone combined with fine acting as well. As Siegmund, Endrik Wottrich disappointed, seemingly lacking warmth in both voice and acting. Kwangchoul Youn sings Hunding´s notes, but conveys none of the menacing aspects of the character.

Albert Döhmens voice is still in place as Wotan, though his characterization is rather monodimensial. The complete lackof chemistry with Linda Watsons equally monodimensial Brünnhilde is, unsurprisingly, not helpful. Especially when she is short on the charisma account as well, though she does hit the notes, but with an offensive vibrato. Michelle Breedts Fricka is as shrill here as in Rheingold. On a positive note, the collective team of Valkyries were excellent with some very fine voices among them.

Again Christian Thielemann and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra were the heroes of the evening. Grandiose. Insightful. Beautiful. And contrary to the cast: Not heard better anywhere else.

See also: Rheingold, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung reviews from the same cycle.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

What I did to get tickets for Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival this year..

Drove 12 straight hours on the german highways in pouring rain, all night - leaving immediately after Rheingold while my friends stayed back in Bayreuth, drank beers and waited for me to return with the tickets hoping I´d survive the german highway….. to return completely exhausted just in time for Walkure - but with the tickets (all completely legal by the way).

What I could have done? Probably just queued in front of the Box Office for a couple of hours…

More on the ticket situation coming up shortly…

Bayreuth 2007: Rheingold

Rheingold. Bayreuth Festival, 2007. Production: Tankred Dorst. Cast: Albert Döhmen (Wotan), Andrew Shore (Alberich), Michelle Breedt (Fricka), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Mihoko Fujimura (Erda), Edith Haller (Freia). Conductor: Christian Thielemann.

Tankred Dorst, 81, is everything, except an opera director: Reknowned in Germany as both poet, playwright and filmmaker, he stepped in at short notice to direct this Nibelungen Ring, which opened at the Bayreuth Festival 2006, after the cancellation of Lars von Trier. "My advantage is that I don't have to continue a career as an opera director", as Dorst pointed out.

Indeed, or rather unfortunately, his lack of experience with the operatic medium, as this was in fact the first oper he staged, proved a major liability in the entire cycle.

The binding idea seems valid enough on paper: The world of the Gods exists parallel to, and unseen by, the modern-day world. However, Tankred Dorst entirely failed to bring this concept alive: There was no hint at individual characterizations or dramatic interaction between any of the characters. We were presented with stand-up-and-deliver acting reminiscent of the 1960´s, without conveying the essential inner drama of the work.

Initially, the pink Rhinemaidens appear between giant blue boulders imitating the bottom of the Rhine with the Rhinegold glittering behind them. The Gods live in a concrete wasteland with graffiti-splashed bare grey walls. From there we descend into a power plant where Alberich rules. In many scenes modern-day people are seen in everyday activities oblivious to the presence of Gods and Giants, such as the power plant worker checking a gauge during Wotan and Alberich´s confrontation in Nibelheim. Furthermore, all mythological figures are curiously dressed in clothes looking like a mixture between Star Trek and japanese couture.

Albert Döhmen´s Wotan was slightly under-characterized, but his voice seems adequate for the part, without being exceptional. Michelle Breedt disappointed as a shrill-sounding Fricka. So did Andrew Shore as Alberich. Gerhard Siegel´s Mime was both well characterized and acted, and also Edith Haller stood out as Freia with a clear soprano and convincing acting. Mihoko Fujimura´s Erda has a very beautiful timbre, though entirely devoid of the primeval drama essential to Erda.

The real star of the evening, however, was Christian Thielemann, deservedly greeted with standing ovations. Starting out courageously slow, the music spread out like a fan, grandiose, with myriads of details such as the violins were imitating the waves of the Rhine, just like small bubbles. Thielemann is dramatic without being shallow. Emotional without being melodramatic. Obviously with the magnificent acoustics on his side, making the orchestral sound slide up underneath the singers and spread out into the audience. This is one of the major Wagnerian conductors of the Century.

I was told that uncommon for Bayreuth, no changes had been made by Tankred Dorst to this years production compared to the opening in 2006. Dorst himself simply says he told the singers to "fill their characters with something of themselves" – maybe a slightly more detailed stage direction would have been helpful.

Further reviews from the Cycle: Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung

Friday, 24 August 2007

Benvenuto Cellini in Gotham City at the 2007 Salzburg Festival

Benvenuto Cellini. Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg Festival 2007. Production: Philipp Stölzl. Cast: Burkhard Fritz (Benvenuto Cellini), Maija Kovalevska (Maria), Kate Aldrich (Ascanio), Mikhail Petrenko (Pope Clemens). Conductor: Valery Gergiev with the Vienna Philharmonics.

Berlioz´ rarely performed opera Benvenuto Cellini opened at this years Salzburg Festival in a staging by German director Philipp Stölzl, who has build a career directing music videos and commercials for clients such as Faith No More, Madonna, Sony and BMW. Asked about his thoughts on Benvenuto Cellini, Stölzl admitted to not really having attempted an analysis of the opera, but aimed primarily to entertain the audience in a sort of three-hour-music-video way. Which is exactly what he did.

The setting is futuristic and visually arresting with a rooftop view over a Gotham City clone complete with robots and flying cars. Apparently Stölzl and his team spent an entire week within the Salzburg Festival Hall earlier this year working with the lighting technology, which indeed is marvellously displayed here. A production almost tailor-made for the DVD release now scheduled for Autumn 2008.
The story of how Benvenuto Cellini managed to create a statue of the Pope and at the same time marry his beloved Maria was told relatively straight forward, despite Cellini flying around in his helicopter accompanied by his assistant Ascanio, here a robot.

Criticized by the press of being too superficial (I suppose you would have to agree – even the director himself agrees), it was nevertheless very entertaining and the audience clearly loved it.

Musically, the performance was top-class with Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonics. However, I am uncertain about the qualities of the score itself – is this really a neglected masterpiece? The orchestration did seem rather square at times and the melodic inspiration not always levelling with Berlioz´ best works. Or perhaps Gergiev did have an off night after all (to be fair: I don´t think so)...

Cancellations by Neil Schicoff (caused by the stressful situation surrounding him not being appointed Intendant of the Vienna State Opera after Holender retires in 2010) and Vesselina Kasarova (ankle injury during the Munich Alcina run), led to the engagements of a quite ordinary Burkhard Fritz in the title role as well as the outstanding Kate Aldrich as Ascanio.
Upcoming 27-year old Russian soprano Maija Kovalevska as Maria has a slim and clear but ultimately anonymous voice, and came across as rather cold on stage, perhaps intentionally. Mikhail Petrenko as Pope Clemens, here a wasted rock-star surrounded by bodyguards, has a rather fine voice, but seemed dramatically quite tame, hopefully intentional considering his upcoming engagement as Hunding at the Metropolitan Opera later this season.

The street in front of the Salzburg Festival Hall is closed for the duration of performances, making it the place to sip drinks and see (and being seen by, most importantly) others during intermissions. Excellent views of the mountain and castle make the whole operatic experience here very exclusive, helped by the 360+ Euros charged for prime seats obviously..

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Boulez/Barenboim in Salzburg

Founded in 1999 by Daniel Barenboim (Argentinian-Israeli I believe) and the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra consists of young musicians (under 25) from Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt and is “an orchestra agains ignorance” according to Barenboim.

This year, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has been invited by the Salzburg Festival as Orchestra in residence – and scheduled for concerts in the Salzburg Festival Hall as well as afternoon sessions in the newly renovated university aula just opposite the Festival Hall. I attended two excellent afternoon sessions lasting roughly from 3 to 6 pm for the bargain price of 10 Euros.
The sessions were designed to discuss several aspects of the music, with demonstrations by the orchestra and questions from both audience and orchestra members (luckily for me, in English).

I believe, the theme of the first afternoon (with Barenboim) was “sound and silence” and that of the second afternoon “structure” (with Pierre Boulez).
The first afternoon started with the orchestra played excerpts from Schönberg`s Variationen für Orchester op. 31 and the Tristan chord and the rest of the afternoon was a sort of master class with Daniel Barenboim and the young British conductor Robin Ticciati, who conducted the Leonore Overture (no. 3). The dialogue between the two conductors was excellent, Barenboim came across as very open-minded, and kept telling Ticciati he was conducting the overture with excessive dynamics in the strings (funnily the very same thing Barenboim himself is often criticized of doing - not by me however). Orchestra members had suggestions as well and the whole thing was very entertaining.

The second afternoon “structure” was with Pierre Boulez (one of my favourite conductors) and gave great insight into his way of working with an orchestra. It was also the first time another than Barenboim conducted the orchestra. Boulez conducted Bartok´s Four Orchestra Pieces – first excerpts from each of piece demonstrating how to structure the music and then the four pieces uninterrupted. And it was clearly demonstrated, that although this orchestras claim to fame is the mixed middle-eastern background, it is an astonishingly good orchestra! The way they played those Bartok pieces was just excellent – and this is not easy music to communicate. Audience members trying to show off their knowledge of modern music, certain performances etc. rather than curiosity regarding the questions they were asking unfortunately dominated the questions session. Not too surprisingly, Pierre Boulez at one point stated, that he preferred an acid response to no response at all (when asked about audience reactions to modern music). And that a high quality performance is tremendously important in atonal music, where the communication of structure is mandatory for understanding the pieces. And that performances in the 1940´s and 1050´s of Bartok frequently were awful, because neither conductor nor orchestra got the notes right, not to talk about the structure in the music.
In short, two excellent afternoons with an excellent orchestra. I don´t think the members are professional musicians (yet), but they played like they were. Indeed, a very good initiative.

Mariss Jansons with Beethoven 9 in Salzburg

Competing for attention last Friday night with both Claus Guth´s Nozze di Figaro next door and Mozarts C-minor mass, the guest performance of Symphonieorchester des Bayerische Rundfunk conducted by Mariss Janssons nevertheless completely sold out the Salzburg Festival Hall.

The concert started with Honeggers 3rd symphony, a work I was not familiar with by a composer that I am not extensively familiar with either – a tonal piece with floating harmonies. According to seasoned concert-goers, the coupling of the Beethoven 9th with a “modern” piece is now common practice. The Beethoven, of course, was the main thing. And the performance was greeted ecstatically by immediate standing ovations by the entire audience, which I was a bit curious about. I mean – the performance was good – but I missed some structure and dynamic particularly in the first and third movement.
Four stellar soloists were hired for the occasion: Krassimira Stoyanova, Lioba Braun, Johan Botha and Thomas Quasthoff – although the female parts are so small that I wouldn´t think it worth the effort to hire stellar female singers, since you hardly hear them sing and I guess just about any soprano and alto would do justice to the very small parts. Furthermore, Thomas Quasthoff´s lyrical bass-bariton does not seem ideal for the bass part (the largest solo part).

Magnificent Pollini recital in Salzburg

Arriving at Salzburg train station 30 minutes before performance start and rushing to the Festival Hall arriving there exactly 5 minutes before the start of this sold-out performance – without a ticket - things didn’t really look that good. Then something amazing happened: While desperately looking around for tickets, I was suddenly approached by a young man asking me if I wanted a ticket, which he would then give me for free due to illness in his family – so that’s how I had a prime 13th row in the middle 90 Euro seat for this sold-out recital for free!

There are very few artists who have changed my way of viewing the works of a composer, with Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin being one (and Pierre Boulez/Debussy another). Not previously interested in Chopin’s music, which I have always found sentimental, I picked up this recording a couple of years ago by chance. And was immediately blown away by the playing, which shows a completely different Chopin than I had previously been acquainted with - magisterial, commanding, not without emotions, but never sentimental. To date I have never found interpretations as convincing as his in this repertoire.

First half of the recital with Schumann (see program below) started out well, but it was the Chopin program in the second half that blow the audience away. It was everything this music should be – magnificent, dynamic, commanding, with plenty of emotion but never sentimental. Deservedly greeted with standing ovations by the audience and three encores (all Chopin). I was later told that Pollini´s recitals may be of very fluctuating quality – and that this was an exceptionally good evening for him. It was definitely an exceptionally good evening for us lucky people in the audience.

Recital program below:

Robert Schumann Allegro op. 8
Robert Schumann Kreisleriana op. 16
Frédéric Chopin Prélude cis-Moll op. 45
Frédéric Chopin Ballade Nr. 2 F-Dur op. 38
Frédéric Chopin Deux Nocturnes cis-Moll und Des-Dur op. 27
Frédéric Chopin Scherzo Nr. 3 cis-Moll op. 39
Frédéric Chopin Polonaise As-Dur op. 53 – "Héroïque"

Thursday, 16 August 2007

working holiday..

Very much against my will, this blog has been quiet the last month.

The reason: I have been working hard, while living in this house:

which (by the way) has this view:

running alongside this scenery every evening:

- while working hard to make some money to go to Salzburg and Bayreuth (yes - after 20 years of listening to Wagner I am finally going!), from where I will be reporting extensively....
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