12 Oct 2011
Mahler 8, Royal Festival Hall
Following Lorin Maazel’s lifeless first movement from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony
On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.
Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
Following Lorin Maazel’s lifeless first movement from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony
(reviewed here, with Das Lied von der Erde), I could not believe that the Eighth would prove worse. It did — considerably so.
The ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ opened in strong, muscular fashion, yet ominously, not only was it metronomic but one could hear every beat, just as in the previous concert. Then there came an extraordinary slowing down, or rather grinding to a halt and staying there, for the entry of the soloists, who, cushioned by a Philharmonia Orchestra reduced for some time to the level of mere accompaniment, sounded more like a Verdi ensemble than voices in the heavenly firmament. The solo voices, moreover, were weirdly positioned: not just in the sense of being behind the orchestra (though raised), but also placed antiphonally at the uppermost two corners of the stage, as if the conductor or management were worried where co-educational singing might lead. The soloists coped variably: Stefan Vinke’s voice stood out, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, amongst the men, whilst Sarah Connolly proved strongest from the opposing camp. Sally Matthews often sounded strained — though who would not at such a tempo? — whilst Ailish Tynan occasionally contributed an unpleasant edge to proceedings. Even when the pace sped up dramatically, only rapidly and arbitrarily to slow a little later, there was no sense of what any of the words, let alone the music, might mean. It all sounded very hard work, certainly not ecstatic, or even joyful. Whilst the Philharmonia played well in purely technical terms, the orchestra had forced upon it, especially during the development section, an inappropriately fierce attack, a fair aural reflection of Maazel’s stabbing beat. Even string pizzicato sounded as though it might slice one’s hand off. A painful horn fluff in the lead up to the double fugue can be readily forgiven, but the vulgarity with which Maazel directed the brass thereafter cannot: even Solti would surely have blanched at such a loud, brash, artificially ‘exciting’, indeed deafening, noise. And so it went on and on, recapitulation without end.
The Introduction to the second part took us back to the painful audible micromanagement of the Tenth’s ‘Adagio’: every subdivision of every beat bludgeoned into the collective consciousness, every note a thing-in-itself, apparently unconnected to any other, everything taken very, very slowly. There was no sense of line, let alone of landscape — and that in this most extraordinary of aural canvases. It felt like an unpleasant visit to the dentist rather than a view of the forest, let alone a voyage into a world of metaphysics. Though the strings sounded resplendent here, one could only regret the sad waste of their talents. Later on, it became increasingly apparent that, the skill of the players notwithstanding, both orchestra and hall were simply too small. In a decent performance, that might have mattered more.
Back, then, to the slow progress of the second part. The chorus — and there was little or no fault to find in any of the choral singing, always impressive in tone and heft — entered to the most rigid of conducting, as if at rehearsal speed. When Pater Ecstaticus responded, at something akin to a reasonable tempo, that inevitably sounded disconnected from what had gone before. Stephen Gadd, a late replacement for Brindley Sherratt, sounded somewhat threadbare as Pater Profundus: whatever his vocal type (he was listed as a baritone), ‘profundus’ was not the first description to come to mind. Tempi continued to veer arbitrarily, though more often than not they continued to be eked out, sub-division of beat to next sub-division, a test of endurance that did not quite correspond with my understanding of the work. The Mater Gloriosa seemed less to ‘float’ into view than to crawl. He-si-tant-ly.
Again, the soloists proved a mixed bunch. Vinke’s intonation wavered, which is perhaps putting it mildly. (His voice seems to have deteriorated markedly since the first occasions I heard him in Leipzig, where he truly seemed a new Heldentenor hope.) Connolly again proved the most interesting and vocally refulgent of the women, assisted by baleful trombones, which, in a rare moment of musical insight, seemed to transport us back to the Second Symphony. Anne-Marie Owens, however, was tremulous, and blurry of diction. Ailish Tynan proved bizarrely lacking in purity of tone: an impetuous Gretchen is as bad an idea as it sounds. The first syllable of ‘Hülle’ (as in ‘der alten Hülle sich entrafft’) varied between at least three, probably more, different pitches. As for her closing attempt to present Gretchen as diva, one can only respond wearily that that is not quite what Mahler, let alone Goethe, had in mind. Sarah Tynan, however, delivered her lines with palpable, winning sincerity from one of the boxes.
Immediately after those words from the Mater Gloriosa’s, there came, sadly, the only moment with true power to disconcert, to trouble. An unfortunate double bass player fell from her chair and apparently knocked over her instrument, having to be helped from the stage by other members of her section. It was a highly unnerving accident, but the show, alas, went on. Whatever redemption might be, Maazel’s performance lay beyond it. The conclusion to the ‘Chorus Mysticus’, it will not surprise anyone to learn, was dragged out mercilessly, quite negating occasional signs of life at its opening.
I am not someone who usually notes, or indeed notices, durations of performances, but there was something of a discrepancy between the programme’s anticipated timing (eighty minutes) and a 7.30 p.m. concert, which, whilst admittedly starting six or seven minutes late, came to an end slightly after 9.15. The first movement alone must have lasted half an hour. Slow tempi can often be revelatory: consider Klemperer. And then try not to consider Maazel. Nevertheless, the moment Mahler was finally put out of his misery, some members of the audience began to holler loudly and rose to their feet. It was time to catch the bus home.