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Reviews

09 Sep 2019

Prom 65: Danae Kontora excels in Mozart and Strauss

On the page this looked rather a ‘pick-and-mix’ sort of Prom from the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Greek conductor Constantinos Carydis, who was making his Proms debut. In the event, it was not so much a Chinese take-away as a Michelin-starred feast for musical gourmands.

Prom 65: The Kammerphilharmonie Bremen conducted by Constantinos Carydis play Mozart, Beethoven and Richard Strauss

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Danae Kontora (soprano)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

An assemblage of instrumental items by Mozart, Richard Strauss and Beethoven might have proved difficult to sequence and balance. To close with Beethoven’s 40-minute Seventh Symphony threatened to overwhelm the slighter Mozart amuse-bouches - a three-minute Cassation, some short arias - heard previously. And, while both Capriccio and Ariadne auf Naxos see Strauss exploring the very nature of opera itself, the opening sextet from Capriccio - elegant, wistful and ardent by turn - might seem a strange bedfellow for Zerbinetta’s’ Grossmächtige Prinzessin!’ with its worldly advice on life and love.

In the event, it all made perfect sense. And, the charm and success of the evening was due in no small part to the contribution of Greek soprano Danae Kontora. Based at Oper Leipzig, Kontora has performed across Germany and with Greek National Opera and Israel Opera. Next season will see her make her debut at the Vienna State Opera. As far as I can tell this was not just her Proms debut, but - other than performances at the Edinburgh International Festival, as Woglinde in a concert-performance of Götterdämmerung a couple of weeks earlier, and as a last-minute stand-in Woodbird in Siegfried in 2018 - also, to date, a rare appearance in the UK. I hope some of country’s casting agents were in the Royal Albert Hall and have started making the calls and contacts that will bring Kontora back to London soon.

How both Mozart and Strauss would surely have delighted to hear their music performed with such effortless, silvery sweetness - the drama so fluently expressive, the vocal peaks reached so pure and integrated within a cohesive architecture. Both the concert arias by Mozart that we heard were written for one of his singing students, Aloysia Weber Lange, with whose voice Mozart became infatuated and for whom he composed at least eight arias, all difficult and all exploiting her strong upper range. When she was only sixteen years old, Mozart commented, in a letter to his father, “she sings most admirably and has a lovely, pure voice”, and a little later: “"As far as her singing is concerned, I would wager my life that she will bring me renown. Even in a short time she has already greatly profited by my instruction, and how much greater will the improvement be ...”.

The text of ‘Popoli di Tessaglia … Io non chiedo, eterni dei’ is Alcestis’ entrance scene in Gluck’s Alceste, in which she beseeches the gods, in a noble, dramatic and intensely personal lament, to spare the life of her husband, Admetus, King of Thessaly. Kontora walked regally onto the platform during the closing bars of the overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Carydis guided the mood from spirited to sombre, the strings sighing achingly as oboe and bassoon twisted in torment. Dignified and strong, in dramatic, grand recitative Kontora presented Alceste’s pleas plaintively but proudly, as oboe and bassoon obbligatos wove expressively around her entreaties. The orchestral colour softened during the gentle syncopations of the subsequent major-key Andante sostenuto e cantabile, preparing for a fluent, warm prayer in which the vocal decorations unfolded silkily, the coloratura crystalline, and which was followed by a fired-up Allegro assai - all vigorous strings and punchy horns - in which Kontora demonstrated both control and agility. If her first soaring ascent to a high G was a fraction short of the target, then she nailed it absolutely the second time round, the tone of her soprano remaining full and true however high she climbed.

When, in Vienna in 1783, Weber Lange was to appear in Pasquale Anfossi’s opera Il curioso indiscreto, Mozart - who had by then married Constanze, Aloysia’s sister - composed three arias for insertion in Anfossi’s score, two of which were written for his favoured soprano. ‘No, no, che non sei capace’ presents Clorinda’s indignant denials when accused by her husband of infidelity. The haughty dismissals of the recitative were all the more dramatic for having emerged from the stately grace of the preceding Cassation, with Carydis emphasising dynamic contrasts and sforzandi, the strings dancing on tiptoe in the pianissimos and digging in brusquely in the fortes. Kontora sailed brilliantly and tirelessly through the roulades and fireworks, making light of the virtuosity and inserting some expressive decorations of her own to shape the transitions between the various sections and moods.

One might imagine that a string sextet would seem a little ‘lost’ in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall but, on the contrary, the six instrumentalists of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen perfectly captured that ‘distant but immediate’ quality of the sextet which opens Strauss’s Capriccio - which is, after all, designed to evoke the eighteenth-century world in which the opera is set and to inspire a strong emotional and visceral response. As we listened ‘from afar’, the players seemed immersed in their music-making, but their collection expression had the power to reach out across the Hall. Once again, the vocal solo emerged from the preceding instrumental music, a simple piano chord bringing to a close the strings’ sentimental winding and the subsequent piano-based sonority, with cheeky woodwind interjections, established a light-hearted, even cabaret-esque, mood.

There was a beguiling directness about this Zerbinetta’s advice to the despairing Ariadne: every word was crystal clear, the sentiments sincere, the recollections of past romantic encounters and adventures carefree - utterly untrammelled by shadows or regret. The insouciance - complemented by capricious flute and oboe echoes - was balanced by sudden surges of heartfelt fellow-feeling and musical intensity, as when Zerbinetta impresses upon Ariadne that she is not alone in her anguish - where is the woman who has not suffered it? Independence of spirit and exuberance gradually infused her honest recollections of romance, flourishing in a gloriously flowing declaration: ‘I deceive him in the end yet love him truly.” The elaborate listing of past lovers was a delight of floating flightiness, the accompanying musicians playing with chamber-like intimacy combined with dramatic expressiveness, while Zerbinetta’s reliving of her erotic transportation and surrender was by turns ecstatic and then pensive, almost ethereal, enhanced by a beautiful cello solo, finally summitting in fountains of roulades and trills, as clean as a whistle even on the highest sustained Ds.

The first half of the concert had concluded with a lovely performance of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony. On the podium, Carydis exudes energy and a confident appreciation of the dramatic sweep of the whole, bending his knees to lower his arms to the floor, seeming to dig deep into the air, and then rising again, embracing all in his outstretched arms which wave, arc, sculpt and dance. Clearly the detail has been done and dusted in rehearsal, and players and conductor can confidently communicate their collective understanding and feeling. Cardyis encourages quite a raw sound at times, with little vibrato, but the Bremeners can sing softly and sweetly too. Such contrasts were even more strongly felt in the final work of the Prom, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

I’ve recently been reading Beethoven for a Later Age by Edward Dusinberre, the leader of the Takács Quartet, in which the violinist, reflecting on the alternative endings of the Op.130 quartet and the ambivalences and contradicts that dominate the composer’s late style, remarks perceptively that the essence of the apparently irreconcilable contrasts in Beethoven’s music, evident from the earliest works, is the discomforting juxtaposition, even co-existence, of the ethereal and the demonic. Dusinberre views this disconcerting conflict as evidence of Beethoven’s ‘ambition to integrate lightness and weight, youthfulness and experience, comedy and tragedy’. This performance of the Seventh Symphony seemed to embody that quest for integration, and if such a quest must end ultimately in failure, the pursuit will be unsettling and inspiring in equal measure - and in this case, incredibly uplifting, as the Prommers’ roar of applause - and the affectionate embraces with which the musicians showed their gratitude to each other, as they left the stage - confirmed.

Claire Seymour

Prom 65: Mozart - The Abduction from the Seraglio K384, Overture; Aria: ‘Popoli di Tessaglia! - lo non chiedo, eterni dei’ K316; Cassation No.1 in G major, Andante; Aria: No, no, che non sei capace’ K419; Symphony No.35 in D major, ‘Haffner’ K385; Richard Strauss - Capriccio, Sextet; Ariadne auf Naxos, ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin!’; Beethoven - Symphony No.7 in A major

Danae Kontora (soprano), Constantinos Carydis (conductor), Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

Royal Albert Hall, South Kensington, London; Saturday 7th September 2019.

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