Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review of Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall; Skrowaczewski conducts Hartmann and Bruckner

Stanisław Skrowaczewski is a force of nature. Now in his late 80s he led the Berliner Philharmoniker in an energetic and intense program that was transmitted live as part of the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall.

The program opened with the Gesangsszene for baritone and orchestra by Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Written in 1963 and left incomplete but fully formed at the composer's death, it is a work based on a text by Jean Giraudoux that contemplates the destruction of empires.

Baritone Matthias Goerne joined the orchestra as soloist. I last reviewed Goerne for the Boston Globe in his recital with Andreas Haefliger at Tanglewood on August 2, 2010. In this performance Goerne focused the muscular and presentational elements of the work, very different from the chant-like qualities that Fischer-Dieskau often sought when he performed it.

This is music of isolation, and unaccompanied music, be it the extended solo flute music of the opening or unaccompanied vocalizing, is central to its construction. Skrowaczewski took a tempo precise enough that the Berliner Philharmoniker could create breathtaking blazes of coordinated outbursts. These razor-sharp incisions underscored the sense of abandonment in the text. After a distorted fanfare and a staggering dance that ended with a brief timpani solo there was silence. The solo flute returned making this a work about cycles; about rebirth.

"In jedes Vogellied hat ein grauenhafter Ton sich eingeschlichen;" sang Goerne in the final section of the piece, "ein einziger nur, doch der tiefste Ton aller Oktaven – der des Todes." (In each bird's song a horrible tone has crept in, one only, but the lowest note of all the octaves - that of death.)

As it closed even singing was abandoned as Goerne articulated lines about the end of the world, unaccompanied, and after the final word he froze and remained staring at us.

Goerne delivered the tricky high tessitura of this music with great elegance and his sense of timing led to a powerful and dramatic presentation. There were times within the digital concert hall that the orchestra seemed to push harder than necessary, and in the climactic utterance: "und der Tod," the ensemble didn't allow enough room for him to properly cut through. Would it have been different in the hall itself?

After intermission we heard the 1889 revision of the Bruckner Symphony No. 3.

The Hartmann work became a prism through which we heard new things within the Bruckner. It was impossible to hear the flute solo just before the gesangsperiode or before the development of the first movement without thinking of troubled birdsong.

Isolation is not usually something one notices in this symphony--but it is there. Disconnected phrases from the first proclamation theme interrupt the progress of the development, and there is a startling false return of the gesangsperiod music before the start of the actual recapitulation. The second movement, in E-flat major, felt elevated and floating, and Skrowaczewski allowed full value to each of the unexpected silences cut from spinning motives.

Before leading the orchestra into the third movement, Skrowaczewski paused and smiled at the strings. It was all they needed. Unlike the Hartmann Gesangsszene this work would seek, and ultimately find, reintegration.
Skrowaczewski energetically led the orchestra through the surprising key changes that are used to shock this work out of its minor key opening. By the end of the work it was the parenthetical "Lansamer" interlude in C minor, with its lovely but lonely melody for the cello section, that marked the progress of integration in this performance.

After the celebratory closing, Skrowaczewski paused briefly, then with a flourish he set his baton on the conductor's stand and accepted applause. He was so well received that the audience continued clapping even after the orchestra had left the stage. Skrowaczewski made one last appearance to the delight of the hall, walking to the edge of the steps and waving.

It was a thrill to have the opportunity to hear this great conductor, who represents one of our final connections to an age that is all but lost. How wonderful to have this performance preserved in the archives of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Met Live in HD Review; Trovatore with 5-star 4-tet. Also David (McVcar) versus Goliath?

"Everybody's CRAZY in this opera," said Dolora Zajick during the Met Live in HD intermission interview. "Crazy with passion and madness: some are mad with love, some are mad with revenge, and some are just insane."

The central characters in this opera are pressurized and we feel their frictions through extended arias that each map emotions over changing terrains. Trovatore requires a first-rate vocal quartet in its primary roles and this Met production delivered a 5-star ensemble. It was centered on Zajick, who made her Met debut with the role of Azucena in 1988, and who gave a detailed and vivid portrayal of this detailed and vivid character.

Zajick was joined by tenor Marcelo Álvarez as Manrico, Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora, and the great  Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna.

Álvarez impressed with high quality quiet singing in his third act aria which made the dramatic gestures in the lines seem almost super human. Radvanovsky impressed with singing that sounded the edges of crying. She made us care about Leonora; a character in some productions that comes across as having too much free time. Hvorostovsky was so likeable and charismatic that it was hard to hate Di Luna even after a couple of old-school murders.

Contributing significantly to the ability of the singers to shape this performance was a creative production concept by David McVicar. Part of the complexity of this opera is that it was written as a series of episodic discoveries. McVicar allowed these episodes to be seamless by setting two scenes on a rotating disc that moved back and forth to allow one scene to meld into the next. This concept intensified the feel of the narrative.

This rotating disc helped tell the story. This kind of technology is lost in the fuss surrounding the Lepage machine. But the McVicar production used technology to improve the impact of the singing and to teach us something new about the possibilities of the opera narrative itself.  Can the same be said of the Lepage production?

Here is a battle of David (McVicar) versus Goliath (Lepage).

Where do you stand in this debate? Has the Lepage machine contributed to the way we understand Rheingold and/or Walküre? In spite of the injuries, the misfires, the expenses, will this production become the new operatic paradigm? Both productions were memorable for having fabulous casts with exceptional singing, but which production ultimately told the story better?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Met Live in HD Review of Die Walküre; Waiting on the Machine

The transmission of the Met Live in HD performance of Die Walküre was delayed by almost 45 minutes. We all imagined what the reason could have been--an emergency substitution? James Levine's health?

It turned out to be Robert Lepage's mechanical set, nicknamed "The Machine" doing what it it is best at--creating unnecessary distraction.

The problem was described in great detail just after the first act was concluded. "Each of the planks that make up the set have an encoder aboard," explained Met Technical Director John Sellars. "The encoder tells the computer where that plank is in relation to the axis. Without information from the encoder the computer won't know where the plank is, so they won't know how to map the video images onto the plane, and they wouldn't be able to make all the shapes with the machine. We had to make sure that that encoder was correctly seated and reading properly in order to get the show started."

The encoder was not correctly seated but we were. Because we were ready, anticipating the opening of Die Walküre, this delay created what felt like an additional preludial Act that attached to the opera itself.

This was the machine's revenge. I imagined the machine speaking in the voice of HAL from 2001; A Space Odyssey: "I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do."

Next time leave the thing unplugged and start without it. The voices and the wonderful attention given to the careful unfolding of the music itself by Levine and the Met orchestra were all we needed.

The machine projected images of storm and forest as the opera opened. This made energies in the music more literal. Later, during Siegmund’s Monologue, stick figures like cave drawing come to life were projected onto the machine which acted as a screen. It made energies in the music more literal. We didn't need either of them. Or, the same concept could have been transmitted through simpler, more direct technologies.

"I am caught in a trap of my own making," sang Bryn Terfel as Wotan in his famous Act II monologue. In this production the line could have been sung by Lepage himself.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Meditation on May by Tchaikovsky, Nicholas Breton, and Natalia Bezuglova

The Russian magazine "Nouvellist" commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve short piano pieces inspired by the each of the twelve months. The corresponding music appeared in each publication in 1876. Collected in publication later the work became "The Seasons," Op. 37a.

Pianist Natalia Bezuglova catches the breathless harmonic sweep of the lyrical music that opens this piece. The diatonic melody is harmonized in an ascending scale that forms an octave frame on the dominant instead of the tonic. This is the sound of seasonal transitions, colder than one imagines, but with also filled with sweetness.

The English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626) also caught this transitional side of May in his book "The Twelve Moneths."

"It is now May," wrote Breton, "and the sweetnesse of the aire refresheth every spirit: the sunny beames bring forth faire Blossomes, and the dripping Clouds water Floraes great garden.”

At [0:40] Bezuglova gazes up to absorb the darker world of B-flat major. It is a harmony that was a Tchaikovsky specialty in which an added 6th [G] feels at home, and the [F] in the bass continues the to create frictions and an unsettled peacefulness.

At [1:23] the Allegro giocoso reminds us that May is also a season of activity. The camera angle retreats from Bezuglova's hands and we see an expression of the physicality of oscillation transmitted from deep within this music in B minor.

"The tall young oke is cut downe for the Maypole," writes Breton of the active May, "the Sithe and the Sickle are the Mowers furniture, and the fayre weather makes the Labourer merry."

There is a wonderful and unexpected moment in this work when the music happens upon F-sharp major [1:51] and celebrates its own arrival in this bright key one-half step below the tonic to which we will return.

"It is the moneth wherein Nature hath her full of mirth, and the Senses are filled with delights," wrote Breton. "I conclude, it is from the Heavens a Grace and to the Earth a Gladnesse. Farewell."
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