Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger commemorated at the Proms

Two French commemorations - ‘anniversaries’ always seems the wrong word - and surely is - here: the centenary of the deaths of Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger.

Pique Dame in Salzburg

It was emeritus night at the Salzburg Festival with 75 year old maestro Mariss Jansons conducting 77 year old stage director Hans Neuenfels production about Pushkin’s 87 year old countess known as the Pique Dame.

Lohengrin at Bayreuth

Three electrifying moments and the world is forever changed.

Salome in Salzburg

A Romeo Castellucci production is always news, it is even bigger news just now in Salzburg where Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian has made her debut as the fifteen year-old Salome.

Vaughan Williams Dona nobis pacem - BBC Prom 41

Prom 41 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBCSO in Vaughan Williams's Dona nobis pacem, Elgar's Cello Concerto (Jean-Guihen Queyras) and Lili Boulanger . Extremely perceptive performances that revealed deep insight, far more profound than the ostensible "1918" theme

John Wilson brings Broadway to South Kensington: West Side Story at the BBC Proms

There were two, equal ‘stars’ of this performance of the authorised concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Royal Albert Hall: ‘Lenny’ himself, whose vibrant score - by turns glossy and edgy - truly shone, and conductor John Wilson, who made it gleam, and who made us listen afresh and intently to every coloristic detail and toe-tapping, twisting rhythm.

Prom 36: Webern, Mahler, and Wagner

One of the joys of writing regularly – sometimes, just sometimes, I think too regularly – about performance has been the transformation, both conscious and unconscious, of my scholarship.

Prom 33: Thea Musgrave, Phoenix Rising, and Johannes Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, op.45

I am not sure I could find much of a connection between the two works on offer here. They offered ‘contrast’ of a sort, I suppose, yet not in a meaningful way such as I could discern.

Gianni Schicchi by Oberlin in Italy

It’s an all too rare pleasure to see Puccini’s only comedy as a stand alone opera. And more so when it is a careful production that uncovers the all too often overlooked musical and dramatic subtleties that abound in Puccini’s last opera.

Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton journey through the night at Cadogan Hall

The mood in the city is certainly soporific at the moment, as the blistering summer heat takes its toll and the thermometer shows no signs of falling. Fittingly, mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton presented a recital of English song settings united by the poetic themes of night, sleep, dreams and nightmares, juxtaposing masterpieces of the early-twentieth-century alongside new works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Australian composer Lisa Illean, and two ‘long-lost’ songs by Britten.

Vanessa: Keith Warner's Glyndebourne production exposes truths and tragedies

“His child! It must not be born!” Keith Warner’s new production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa for Glyndebourne Festival Opera makes two births, one intimated, the other aborted, the driving force of the tragedy which consumes two women, Vanessa and her niece Erika, rivals for the same young man, Anatol, son of Vanessa’s former lover.

Rollicking Rossini in Santa Fe

Santa Fe Opera welcomed home a winningly animated production of L’Italiana in Algeri this season that utterly delighted a vociferously responsive audience.

Rock solid Strauss Salomé- Salzburg

Richard Strauss Salomé from the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, a powerful interpretation of an opera which defies easy answers, performed and produced with such distinction thast it suceeds on every level. The words "Te saxa Loquuntur" (The stones are speaking to you) are projected onto the stage. Salzburg regulars will recognize this as a reference to the rock foundations on which part of the city is built, and the traditions of excellence the Festival represents. In this opera, the characters talk at cross-purposes, hearing without understanding. The phrase suggests that what might not be explicitly spoken might have much to reveal.

Prom 26: Dido and Cleopatra – Queens of Fascination

In this, her Proms debut, Anna Prohaska offered something akin to a cantata of two queens, complementary and contrasted: Dido and Cleopatra. Returning in a sense to her ‘early music’ roots – her career has always been far richer, more varied, but that world has always played an important part – she collaborated with the Italian ‘period’ ensemble, Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini.

Parsifal: Munich Opera Festival

And so, this year’s Munich Opera Festival and this year’s Bavarian State Opera season came to a close with everyone’s favourite Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal, in the final outing this time around for Pierre Audi’s new production.

Santa Fe: Atomic Doesn’t Quite Ignite

What more could we want than having Peter Sellars re-imagine his acclaimed staging of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic at the renowned Santa Fe Opera festival?

Santa Fe: Continuing a Proud Strauss Tradition

Santa Fe Opera has an enduring reputation for its Strauss, and this season’s enjoyable Ariadne auf Naxos surely made John Crosby smile proudly.

From the House of the Dead: Munich Opera Festival

Frank Castorf might have been born to direct From the House of the Dead. In this, his third opera project - or better, his third opera project in the opera house, for his Volksbühne Meistersinger must surely be reckoned with, even by those of us who did not see it - many of his hallmarks and those of his team are present, yet without the slightest hint of staleness, of anything other than being reborn for and in the work.

Haydn's Orlando Paladino in Munich

Should you not like eighteenth-century opera very much, if at all, and should you have no or little interest in Haydn either, this may have been the production for you. The fundamental premise of Axel Ranisch’s staging of Orlando Paladino seems to have been that this was a work of little fundamental merit, or at least a work in a genre of little such merit, and that it needed the help of a modern medium - perhaps, it might even be claimed, an equivalent medium - to speak to a contemporary audience.

Donizetti's 'Regiment' Ride the Highway: Opera della Luna at Wilton's Music Hall

'The score … is precisely one of those works that neither the composer nor the public takes seriously. The harmony, melody, rhythmic effects, instrumental and vocal combinations; it’s music, if you wish, but not new music. The orchestra consumes itself in useless noises…'

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Einojuhani Rautavaara [Photo by Heikki Tuuli]
02 Jun 2014

Gerald Finley, Wigmore Hall

For the final recital in his three-concert residency at the Wigmore Hall, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley offered the familiar and the new in striking juxtaposition, Franz Schubert’s posthumously published Schwanengesang enclosing Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Rubáiyát, which was written specially for Finley.

Gerald Finley, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Einojuhani Rautavaara [Photo by Heikki Tuuli]

 

Schubert’s seven settings of Ludwig Rellstab, which form the first part of Schwanengesang, frequently evoke the murmuring brooks and whispering breezes so common to the Romantic landscape, and pianist Julius Drake can deftly paint an aural soundscape, the rippling, rustling motifs always even, clear and subtly supporting the voice. But, what was noticeable through this first sequence of songs was how often Drake was the driving force shaping the songs’ narrative and architecture. The baritonal register at times shifted the accompaniment into deep realms, and as the dark bass lines articulated the progressions, at times poised, then pacing forwards with composure, it was as if the pianist’s left hand was sketching the underlying structure while the figurations and melodic interjections and dialogue above coloured in the details of these vignettes of unrequited love.

Above this sure foundation, Finley was relaxed and eloquent in ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s message) and ‘Frühlings-Sehnsucht’ (Spring longing). He produced intensity within the quietness of the former, rising gently to convey the poet-speaker’s affectionate appeal to the brook to ‘Rausche sie murmelnd/ in süße Ruh’ (Murmur her into sweet repose). Finley was not afraid to delay and emphasise the anxious questions — ‘Wohin?’, ‘Warum?’ — which close each stanza of ‘Frühlings-Sehnsucht’, while Drake ensured that the ceaseless breeze swept up each hesitant pause into the subsequent verse. The minor tonality of the final verse and the singer’s more agitated, earnest tone communicated the poet-speaker’s growing unrest, and Finley’s closing avowal that ‘Nur Du!’ (only you!) could set free the yearning in his heart was earnest and dignified.

‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) was warm and hopeful, although the telling alternations of major and minor were an affecting reminder that the courting singer is denied the vision of his beloved he desires, and Finley’s concluding phrase, ‘Komm’, beglücke mich!’ (Come, make me happy!), suggested his fear that she may not even hear his song. Fear grew to anguish in ‘Aufenthalt’ (Resting place), Drake’s pounding triplet-quavers, with their chromatic harmonic twists, confirming the baritone’s assertion that his grief remains, ever-unchanging. The emphatic diminished chords which open ‘Kriegers Ahnunhg’ (Warrior’s foreboding) were similarly unsettling, and the separate verses of the ballad progressively intensified the soldier’s turmoil, from his dreamy recollections to turbulent intimations of the battle ahead. Finley soared smoothly in the more expansive, arcing lines of the ultimate stanza, and the open tone of his farewell, ‘Gute Nacht!’, resting on the dominant above the final cadence, captured the poignant irony of the tender address.

The highlight of the Rellstab sequence was ‘In der Ferne’ (Far away), Drake’s theatrical prelude and inter-verse commentaries bursting forth, then retreating, creating a sense of high drama. The baritone’s wonderful pianissimo at the bottom of the voice, at the close of the first verse, unnervingly evoked the fleeing fugitive, forsaking family and friends; a shift to the major key, and the firm rocking octaves in the piano left hand, suggested faith that the lover’s message would be carried by the wind home to his beloved, but Drake’s furious ending pitilessly shattered hope, the minor cadence a sustained, brutal cry of denial. The departure in ‘Abschied’ (Farewell) is less melancholic, and Finley brought a warm lyricism to the repeated valedictions, ‘Ade’, while using the minor inflections in the closing verse to convey regret.

The driving excitement of the opening of ‘Der Atlas’ — the first of the Heine settings, which followed the interval — signalled a new tension and economy of expression, the poet’s sparser lines inspiring Schubert, and the performers, to greater intensity. Finley’s power, control and range were much in evidence, in the bitter blast of sorrow that wounds the poet-speaker’s heart and in the hushed pain of his wretchedness. Similarly, while the restrained unison which commences ‘Ihr Bild’ (Her likeness) was bleak and mournful, there was a gentle release as the beloved’s smile was recollected, before Drake mercilessly drove home the poet-speaker’s realisation of loss in the postlude.

‘Das Fischermädchen’ provided some emotional steadiness, before ‘Die Stadt’ (The town) rang with tremulous intensity. Drake’s eerie octave oscillations and upper register interjections created a strange, hallucinatory air which lent a dark hue to the poet-speaker’s view of his home, an unease which burst forth in urgent despair, Finley moving from stark restraint to passionate despair as the sun rose to illuminate ‘jene Stelle,/ Wo ich das Liebste verlor’ (the place where I lost what I loved most). I was impressed not only by the performers’ alertness to Schubert’s pictorial details, but also by their sure sense of scale and structure in ‘Am Meer’ (By the sea), from the chorale-like piano melody which embraced the singer’s voice at start, suggesting the gleaming surface of the sea, to the brooding chords of the conclusion.

Adopting a deathly tempo for ‘Der Doppelgänger’ (The wraith), Drake’s Hadean, circling ground bass, and the repetitive returns of Finley’s declamatory melody possessed the sombre ring of mortality, the baritone imbuing anguish with beauty. The shift to the seemingly lighter-spirited ‘Die Taubenpost’ (Pigeon post) — the last song that Schubert composed — can be difficult to accomplish, but the drifting quality of the question which closes the preceding song, ineffably released some of the tension, while there was no lessening of the sensitivity to textural and harmonic nuance thereby making ‘Die Taubenpost’ a fitting conclusion to an ongoing narrative of yearning: ‘Sie heißt — die Sehnsucht!/ Kennt ihr sie?’ (her name is — Longing! Do you know her?)

Separating Schubert’s two poets was a new work by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, which sets Edward FitzGerald’s English translation of Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám. Rautavaara’s characteristic sound-worlds — by turns mystical, meditative, rhapsodic — are a fitting complement to Khayyám’s lyric quatrains which, rather than delineating a narrative, present the profound feelings and philosophical reflections of the poet on subjects such as religion, love and death.

Originally composed for baritone and orchestra, the composer has prepared a version for piano. He explains in a programme note that each song continues into the subsequent instrumental interlude, which prepares the song to follow (although the songs can be performed separately). In ‘Awake!’, Drake’s rippling harp-like cascades, intimating their orchestral origins, presented a rich Romantic vista of an emergent dawn. The baritone’s broad phrases soared powerfully, the sumptuous dark tone glowing, the text clearly articulated and inflected.

‘And Lately’ was preceded by a thoughtful stillness, the close middle-range lines gradually expanding, exploring harmonic shades and melodic pathways, the hands ever more distant. The Britten-esque vitality of the text setting in this song — Finley’s diction was superb throughout — brought energy and interest. ‘Here with a loaf of bread’ seemed less successful in terms of its rhythmic engagement with the text; and, this brought to attention a recurring ‘weakness’, namely the repetitive nature of the melodic development — perpetually roving stepwise motion, in uniform rhythmic values, which, despite Finley’s sensitivity and lovely sustained, even voice, failed to make a lasting impression. ‘We are no other than a moving row’ introduced more dynamic conflict, in the contrast between the voice’s meandering and the piano’s repeating notes, and the performers built passionately to the song’s climax before a subdued close, underpinned by wavering piano gestures.

The improvisatory piano interlude preceding ‘Oh, make haste!’ gave way to a grander, swinging rhythmic momentum in the opening stanza, reminiscent of the muscularity of some of Vaughan Williams’ songs, before the rippling runs of the opening returned, creating a fervent intensity for the work’s conclusion: ‘The Stars are setting and the Caravan/ Starts for the Dawn of Nothing — Oh, make haste!’

Rautavaara has said that he advises his composition students, “Don't ever try to force your music, because music is very wise and it has its own will. It knows where to go. You have to listen to it, to listen your material which you have chosen. Start with that and then the material will dictate where it wants to go. It's much wiser than you are. Don't push yourself, but try to find out what the music wants to become.” (Interview with Bruce Duffie, http://www.bruceduffie.com/rautavaara.html).

Certainly, this rhapsodic sequence had a roaming, sinuous quality, as if the melodies were searching for their form. Perhaps this is in keeping with the spirit of Khayyám’s philosophy for a rubáiyát is a collection of quatrains which may be re-arranged depending upon one’s interpretation of the poet’s meaning. The result is an appealing work — with diverse timbral and harmonic colours and a vocal melody which soars ardently — but one which is ultimately not very memorable. But, it was, as was this entire programme, performed with generous commitment by Finley and Drake.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

Gerald Finley, bass-baritone; Julius Drake, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 31st May 2014.

Schubert: Schwanengesang; Einojuhani Rautavaara: Rubáiyát (world première).

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):