Sunday, 25 December 2011

Don Giovanni alla Scala

Booking Christmas holiday travel a couple of months ago, I decided to make a stopover in Milan to catch La Scala’s new Don Giovanni. There’s a long tale of ticketing woe (you don’t want to know) that ended – very luckily – in a Regiekarte. This cost $$$ that I didn’t pay so I shouldn’t complain, but six boxes away from the stage you miss stage right entrances/exits by a whisker, and as far as I could make out (I only watched the first half of the ARTE broadcast), some of Leporello’s antics. And the angle of the sightline isn’t great. I did however get to see and follow facial expressions in a way that’s tricky with opera glasses and the sound was excellent, so it wasn’t all bad.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

L'Orfeo as transfigured by Claus Guth



The last production I saw of L’Orfeo explored the idea of music as a manipulative force, suggesting disturbing consequences to the docility it can engender. Director Claus Guth is less concerned with Orfeo the musician, and makes minimal acknowledgement of the work’s pastoral and mythic elements. He focuses instead on the consequences of Orfeo’s union with Euridice, suggesting that it is so powerful that their individuality has been subject to irreversible change. With Orfeo’s subjectivity half-demolished by the union, life after the death of Euridice ceases to be possible, and much of this production is devoted to Orfeo coming to terms with the reasons for his fate.

Click here to read more of my review. I don't have anything to add, but if you click through there are some cast details and many more images from the production.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Thibaudet lends grace and depth to Liszt


Musikverein, 15/12/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Fabio Luisi, Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Strauss: Don Juan, op. 20
Liszt: Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major, S. 125
Brahms: Symphony no. 2 in D major, op. 73

This concert saw some transcendental Liszt sandwiched between two disappointments. After Dudamel and the Phil I was ready – and expecting – to hear a more persuasive Don Juan. The Symphoniker’s was the better played by a whisker, and while Luisi’s single-minded determination to keep things tidy and transparent was something I could go along with (good, after the other week, to hear things like the flute really leading the modulation into the G major idyll), it gradually dawned that a visualization of the study score was occupying my thoughts more than the music. And with that at the forefront of my mind, I couldn’t help but compare Dudamel’s Heldenthema, which pointed the way to a rondo despite distorted tempi elsewhere, with the slipperiness of Luisi’s theme. Is the formal elusiveness of the work (sonata, rondo, a combination, or sui generis are the hotly debated options) really better met with evasion than examination? Odd expressive touches and the glow of the strings notwithstanding, a sense of interpretative blankness sapped the clarity of interest.

Luisi’s preoccupation with matters of balance – not quite opera conducting, but close – worked to greater effect in the Liszt. Jean-Yves Thibaudet couldn’t have asked for more support and didn’t once have to force the sound as he did with the Concertgebouw a few weeks ago. There was much more clarity in the bass, and the passagework saw less all-purpose sparkling tone and more seamless legato, with the contrast of a slightly padded touch giving way at astutely judged moments to notes that glistened only as much as they needed to (very characterful and somewhat of a Thibaudet signature). And for all Barenboim’s insight and experience as a chamber musician, I do not recall him, in his June performance of this concerto (with Boulez, also Musikverein), complementing the horn and cello solos half as sensitively as Thibaudet did, or elevating the pivoting of underlying harmonies to something of transformational significance. The playing may have sounded more like Chopin, but there was some powerful Liszt advocacy going on in this performance. My orchestral musician companion also noted that with Thibaudet paying close attention to the musicians to pick up his cues, he’s rarely seen such an orchestra-friendly pianist.

The Symphoniker’s Brahms 2 was only good for prompting the familiar question of why is it that pedestrian Brahms performances are so much worse than merely bad ones? The orchestra was on autopilot for the first three movements, and Luisi’s only contribution was to keep things moving fairly briskly (though that this is no silver bullet for avoiding monotony was all too evident). Things picked up a little with the final movement, but the middle sagged as much as what had gone before. Brass at the end were excellent even if the effort made was too little too late.

Image credit: Kasskara / Decca

Friday, 16 December 2011

Wiener Festwochen 2012 announced


Austria may have given Edward Bernays to the world but the basics of promoting a cultural event entirely eluded this Festwochen press conference. I wasn’t at the Café Prückel but heard as much as I could take on the radio, including some stupefying scripted remarks by Stéphane Lissner, who has lost all interest in the Festwochen and turns up nowadays just for his sizeable retainer. All that is left is to helplessly nod at Franz Welser-Möst’s assessment of his contribution as ‘meagre’. One might have expected Luc Bondy to make a more credible go of the spin, but there was nothing in his remarks to suggest that the programme, with the honourable exception of the theatre section, might rally to confound his drawn-out Viennese twilight, or recapture at least some of the iconoclastic spark of his Festwochen salad days.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Peter Konwitschny makes an offer you can't refuse


Wiener Staatsoper, 11/12/2011

Janáček: From the House of the Dead (new production)

Sorin Coliban | Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov
Misha Didyk | Luka Kuzmič
Herbert Lippert | Skuratov
Christopher Maltman | Šiškov
Gergely Németi | Aljeja
Alexandru Moisiuc | Prison Governor

Franz Welser-Möst | Conductor
Peter Konwitschny | Director

Take a critically acclaimed production of this opera like, I don’t know... (I kid). But Chéreau is as good an example as any for being intelligently sympathetic (and I choose a good production deliberately). We see, among other things, suffering, injustice and isolation. Peter Konwitschny sees ‘sparks of God’ who are getting too much of a free pass and a campfire solidarity which is profoundly unrealistic.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Dudamel does OK and nichts mehr

Musikverein, 10/12/2011

Wiener Philharmoniker, Gustavo Dudamel, Matthias Schorn


Strauss: Don Juan, op. 20
Herbert Willi: egó eimí - Concerto for clarinet and orchestra
Mendelssohn: Symphony no. 3 in A minor, op. 56


My expectations were low, but this wasn’t a bad concert. Dudamel had rehearsed the Phil well and seemed quite measured on the podium. This begs the question of what is it like when he’s not being self-indulgent? Considering that this orchestra has played much worse but is capable of much better, pretty average.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Luisi’s Symphoniker Abschied begins


Musikverein, 04/12/2011

Wiener Symphoniker, Fabio Luisi, Martin Haselböck

Hindemith: Concerto for organ and orchestra (1962)
Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie, op. 62

I doubt that Martin Haselböck’s performance of this Hindemith concerto will have convinced many of the composer’s merits as a writer of organ music. There was some effort to achieve the legato that Hindemith’s organ writing needs to give it line, but Haselböck has been a stranger to finger substitution for too long and to my relief, eventually gave up. Elsewhere the breeze-blocks-for-feet pedal technique and erratic hand coordination was almost as bad as when he unwisely attempted to play Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H. at this instrument’s inauguration concert in March. More irritating for being preventable was the poorly chosen registration. Depending on your view, Hindemith took too little interest in this or intentionally left organists to figure out what works and what doesn’t – an example of that being Haselböck’s bizarre octave displacement of the cantus firmus line in the variations, with a 16’ bassoon (in right hand, not the pedals). How convenient, also, that this reedy, thick and loud stop drowned out some left hand passagework beyond Haselböck’s current technical abilities. For lazy organists like me that’s a time-old trick for getting through tricky bits of Duruflé. But it shouldn’t be happening at the Musikverein.

At least the Symphoniker proved competent. The opening was muddy, but they soon settled down and playing was generally accurate and textures clear. Fabio Luisi’s chances of conducting this work again in the near future are slim and perhaps that’s why he didn't seem to have spent much time with the score – Hindemith’s fascinating formal organization didn’t come across at all clearly. But he held things together well and tempi and balance were fine. It was more disappointing that Haselböck made both the score and instrument – soft targets enough – sound so unmusical, with playing that bore little resemblance to the decent recording of this work he made with the Symphoniker some years ago. Some enterprising soul has put that up on Youtube and it’s recommended for the thoughtful direction of the Symphoniker’s chief conductor at the time, the underrated Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Peter Konwitschny in hospital for the last six weeks


They couldn't keep it a secret for any longer, reports Bild. On Thursday it was disclosed that Peter Konwitschny has been an inpatient at Graz's Universitätsklinik for the last six weeks, suffering from exhaustion. Doctors let him out for his Queen of Spades dress rehearsal and premiere; it isn't known how long it will take for him to recover.

Assistant director Wolfgang Türks took over rehearsals for The Queen of Spades, which explains a few things. The Leipzig prima of Konwitschny's Macbeth on the 10th will go ahead without him and is being overseen by two assistants, one of whom, Heide Stock, worked on a Graz Macbeth directed by Konwitschny in 1999. Presumably similar arrangements have been made for the upcoming Wiener Staatsoper premiere of Konwitschny's From the House of the Dead, first seen in Zurich last June.