Thursday, 28 February 2013

The others have fluff

Some links for die restliche Woche:

“An owlish man with a broad forehead and wire-rimmed eyeglasses” – FWM and the Wiener Philharmoniker visit Toronto.

From the Musikverein, La damnation de Faust in a recent performance with Tugan Sokhiev and the Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse is up on medici.tv, while the webcast of Edita Gruberova’s La straniera remains available until tomorrow.

Tune into SR 2 at 20:00 CET for Georg Friedrich Haas’ ... wie stille brannte das Licht in a new arrangement. For further details see UE and the Philharmonie Luxembourg.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Marie-Claire Alain, 1926-2013

Marie-Claire Alain, a towering figure of the organ world, has died at the age of 86. During the last fifty years she and Jean Langlais were the doyenne and doyen of French pedagogues, and many a leading British organist braved pre-Tunnel hovercraft trips to take part in her class. For the younger generation there were her US and UK masterclasses, a breath of fresh air in a stifling hothouse consumed with finding the next 16 year old Wunderkind to collect the FRCO with all the prizes, and unhealthy competition for the King’s and Christ Church organ scholarships. Not one for didactic instruction, her gift was thoroughly non-prescriptive demonstration which sought to patiently nurture latent – or indeed repressed – individuality. Alain did not teach the kind of classes where she had to polish up half a dozen Litanies, but if she had, no two performances would have sounded remotely the same.

It was however clear that she had mellowed in recent years; a development, at least judging by her Bach teaching, that could perhaps be pinpointed to her final integral recorded during the 1990s, HIP-influenced as it was, with curious extremes of tempi and an emotionally detached manner (magnificent highlights such as BWV 543 notwithstanding). I recall an interview with David Sanger in which he called her a ‘charming though quite dogmatic teacher’ – back then, entirely conceivable – and that side of her came to the fore in these recordings. Sanger himself was for decades a rite of pedagogical passage for British organists and his great wisdom and exactitude, not always forthcoming in equal measure, will be remembered in much the same way. Private lessons could be like root canal surgery and his Oundle classes nothing short of ritual humiliation, however well-meaning, as he indicated himself (‘some of the young people who come to Oundle really have very little idea. But hopefully they go away better able to play things properly [my emphasis]). By the time I encountered Marie-Claire, in 2004 or thereabouts, she seemed, without explicitly letting on, to have the measure of what was going on in the training of young British organists, geared as it was to note-perfect, mechanized trio sonatas calculated only to appeal to Stephen Cleobury come the fiercely contested King’s trials. To the Royal College of Organists, too, freedom in Bach meant one thing: freedom from error; with musicality counting for no more than it would in the notorious transposition exercises (a tone or semitone up or down, at sight). The Marie-Claire I played for seemed closer to the freer organist of the second integral, obsessed less with control than independence of mind. Fussily-maintained consistency of articulation in the trio sonatas bored her, and besides that nothing further about the creative pinnacle of Bach’s organ oeuvre needed to be said. She never contradicted other teachers.

Alain’s legacy as an organist and tireless advocate for her brother (and French Romantic school more generally) is no less formidable, though of the three-and-a-half Bach integrals, of which only the second and third are widely available, I find myself alternating regularly however much more I’m drawn to the second. The one constant I look for is the same personality she encouraged in others, as shown in this vivid first movement to the G major trio sonata:


The punctilious RCO examiner would doubtless clock her for those two faltering moments – one rushing, the other a dead cert for their favourite euphemistic phrase, ‘slight hesitancy’ – but everything about the performance simply sparkles. It is a salutary reminder of our primary duty to these trio sonatas, to bring them to life.

Friday, 22 February 2013

The Jewish Museum, Wiener Philharmoniker and public debate

An informative article published in the New York Times yesterday is the second English-language report on the sensitive topic of restitution and Vienna’s Jewish Museum, an institution increasingly criticized over the past few years for showing little interest in examining the provenance of its holdings. Quotes from Danielle Spera, the museum’s director since 2010, put her efforts in a sympathetic light, and though the museum’s recent closure seemed to be as much about needless cosmetic remodelling as necessary renovation, it would appear that some action concerning research was taken well before this story broke in Der Standard last month. The Standard’s writer, Thomas Trenkler, offers further local insight hitched to a few trenchant observations. Referring to legislation passed in 1998 which saw an increase in objects subject to restitution in federal museums, he comments that “one museum was however viewed as sacrosanct: Vienna’s Jewish Museum, opened in 1993 in the Palais Eskeles. For years the museum withheld information about the provenance of its collections or simply swept the issue under the carpet. Those who asked questions at press conferences were viewed as disrespectful and received a pat response”.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Next stop Ehrengrab

Ehrenmitgliedschaft of the Musikverein, normally a one-foot-in-the-grave honour, was quietly awarded to Franz Welser-Möst this weekend.

Image credit: Dieter Nagl

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Kaplan’s Mahler: Der Mensch liegt in größter Peinlichkeit


Konzerthaus, 17/2/2013

Mahler: Symphony no. 2 ‘Auferstehung’ (new arrangement for chamber orchestra by Gilbert Kaplan & Rob Mathes)

Gilbert Kaplan, Janina Baechle, Marlis Petersen

Wiener KammerOrchester, Wiener Singakademie

I went to this performance with the lowest expectations I have brought to any concert and it would be unfair to say they were not fulfilled. Gilbert Kaplan, should anybody need reminding, is a Mahler-obsessed multi-millionaire who over the last thirty years has opened his chequebook to the world’s leading orchestras and in the process become the world’s most familiar recreational conductor. The Second Symphony, which Kaplan holds in cultish regard, is the only work in his repertoire and according to this New York Times profile from 2008, he has performed it around a hundred times with close to sixty orchestras, and broken sales records with his recordings. As the Times also notes, Kaplan has received a generous number of glowing reviews, the consensus among them being that whatever technical facility he lacks as a conductor is more than offset by rare critical authority as a Mahlerian. The most widely read of the less flattering notices (which, note, Kaplan dismisses as politically motivated) was penned by no critic, but New York Philharmonic trombonist David Finlayson, and goes about as far in the opposite critical direction as is imaginable. Hence my expectations.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Stranger in the night

Musikverein, 8/2/2013 

Bellini: La straniera 

Alaide | Edita Gruberova
Arturo | José Bros 
Valdeburgo | Paolo Gavanelli
Isoletta | Sonia Ganassi 
Osburgo | Randall Bills
Il Priore degli Spedalieri | Sung Heon Ha
Il signore di Montolino | Leonard Bernad 

Conductor | Pietro Rizzo 
Münchener Opernorchester
Philharmonia Chor Wien

Another month, another bel canto gala with Edita Gruberova. The Viennese could get used to this. While this Straniera didn’t quite crackle with the same electricity as January’s Anna Bolena, it delved further into the melodrama the two pieces have in common and sounded a good deal less titillating than it had any right to be.

FWM/Wiener Philharmoniker: The Bruckner Problem Complexified

Musikverein, 13/2/2013

Franz Welser-Möst

Frank Peter Zimmermann
Wiener Philharmoniker

Berg: Violin Concerto
Bruckner: Symphony no. 4 (1888 version, ed. Korstvedt)


In der Wiener Oper, im Wiener Burgtheater wurde nichts übersehen; jede falsche Note wurde sofort bemerkt, jeder unrichtige Einsatz, jede Kürzung gerügt, und diese Kontrolle nicht etwa nur bei den Premieren durch die professionellen Kritiker geübt, sondern Tag für Tag durch das wachsame und durch ständiges Vergleichen geschärfte Ohr des ganzen Publikums. Während im Politischen, im Administrativen, in den Sitten alles ziemlich gemütlich zuging, und man gutmütig gleichgültig war gegen jede „Schlamperei“ und nachsichtig gegen jeden Verstoß, gab es in künstlerischen Dingen keinen Pardon; hier war die Ehre der Stadt im Spiel. Jeder Sänger, jeder Schauspieler, jeder Musiker mußte ununterbrochen sein Äußerstes geben, sonst war er verloren. Es war herrlich, in Wien ein Liebling zu sein, aber es war nicht leicht, Liebling zu bleiben; ein Nachlassen wurde nicht verziehen. Und dieses Wissen um das ständige und mitleidlose Überwachtsein zwang jedem Künstler in Wien sein Äußerstes ab und gab dem Ganzen das wunderbare Niveau.

So blathers Stefan Zweig in Die Welt von Gestern about Vienna’s cultural heyday, likening its bourgeois base to parasitic loggionisti. Were the Wienerinnen and Wiener of today so fastidious they might very well recognize that performances of Bruckner 4 stand or fall on decent standards of brass playing, and that between the rock of complacency and hard place that is the infernal Wiener Horn, this familiar corner of the Austro-German canon has for a while not been the impregnable core repertoire the Vienna Philharmonic so firmly avows it to be. At the Musikverein on Wednesday, clean brass entries were like hen’s teeth and with notes falling in all manner of unusual orders, the horns appeared to be improvising a new critical edition (nominally the orchestra uses Korstvedt nowadays). As farce, this rivalled the Messiah on crack.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Horses for courses

Just as Hans Werner Henze, citing among other things the suffocating hegemony of the Darmstadt aesthetic, abandoned Germany for Italy, Maderna left Italy in 1963 to take up residency in Darmstadt and German citizenship. There the parallels end, for Maderna arrived in Darmstadt at a time when Cagean experimentalism was a far greater influence on European serialist thought than the post-Webern legacy commonly misrepresented as imposing doctrinal discipline on all conceivable compositional parameters. Whether it is due to this or the slipperiest of versatile idioms, his output has largely fallen through the historiographical cracks except for a small number of works including the late opera of sorts Satyricon, which works well both as a staged piece and in concert.

The Klangforum Wien performed Satyricon in concert at the Theater an der Wien and I wrote about it for Bachtrack. Completely different but no less lurid, surreal and of its time is the Fellini take on Petronius: