Posts Tagged ‘András Schiff’

Horses for Mozartwoche

Friday, February 24th, 2017

Vocal soloists, the Salzburger Bachchor, Les Musiciens du Louvre and the Académie Équestre Nationale du Domaine de Versailles perform Mozart’s Requiem in the Felsenreitschule

Published: February 24, 2017

SALZBURG — The gimmicky proposition of Mozart’s Requiem enhanced with equine ballet dominated this year’s Mozartwoche schedule, and no doubt budget. It capped, in a way, five iterations of the festival lavishly managed by Marc Minkowski and his front-office counterpart Matthias Schulz, and it brought in for the second time the French conductor’s compatriot Clément Marty, called “Bartabas,” to choreograph the horses and riders of his Académie Équestre Nationale du Domaine de Versailles. Conventional fare for 2017 included the Vienna Philharmonic in three programs, concerts by five other orchestras, and much chamber music.

Minkowski kept the Mass tempos brisk Jan. 29, and textures fairly clear given the stashing of all voices and instruments in the Felsenreitschule’s arrayed stone arches. The vocal quartet (Genia Kühmeier, Elisabeth Kulman, Peter Sonn, Charles Dekeyser) and the Salzburger Bachchor sang with poised radiance; Les Musiciens du Louvre, unable to hear each other normally, appeared keenly attentive to Minkowski’s distant signals, but their instruments did not fully project.

Eight blue-eyed, cream-coated Lusitanos, new to Austria, trotted, walked or stepped in calm, tidy formations through most of the score. Brief sudden flurries punctuated this tame pageant when the composer seemed to prompt, for instance for the Confutatis, and Bartabas’ own “Soutine,” a black stallion, effected a silent spotlit solo roly-poly before the Sanctus, a kind of seventh-inning scratch likely meant for contemplation. But aside from occasional grunts, snorts and ear-flappings (often a tempo), the Académie’s efforts added little in drama or spirituality.

Minkowski instructively framed the main work, without ballet. Mozart’s pensive A-Minor Miserere for three voices (1770) established the choral sound unopposed, its alternating verses sung to plainchant. Then came the Symphony from Händel’s Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline “The Ways of Zion Do Mourn” (1737), whose first chorus lends the theme for the Requiem’s Introito. Afterwards, the familiar Ave verum corpus refocused ears and eyes on Salzburg’s polished choristers.

In the Eroica Symphony the previous evening (Jan. 28), Thomas Hengelbrock’s understating of rhythmic accents created irresolute impressions. But the NDR conductor traced the second movement’s deathly promenade in gripping dynamic detail, courtesy of the Vienna Philharmonic strings, and to the Finale he brought weight, drama, and the broadest lyricism, riding confidently on Beethoven’s counterpoint.

The Großes Festspielhaus concert began with the overture to Don Giovanni, played vigorously and with considerable power. These qualities carried over to Mozart’s D-Minor Piano Concerto, K466 (1785), suiting Leif Ove Andsnes’ conception of the solo part: lucid, to a degree elegant, not especially charming. Beethoven’s cadenza in the first movement sounded splendid yet out of place; Andsnes opted for Hummel’s in the third movement, concise and less Romantic. There were occasional problems in the horns and trumpets.

Cappella Andrea Barca, regular guest of Mozartwoche, upheld its sterling reputation in a generous Mozarteum matinée Jan. 29, captained from memory by András Schiff. The Prague Symphony (1786) emerged in deep, neatly distinguished colors, product of a light string body resonating low on the hall’s cozy platform, with violins divided and a bass on either side. Beguiling flute, oboe and bassoon work did the composer proud; rhythms were pointed smartly. Haydn’s Clock Symphony (1794), after the break, traded elegance and humor as required. Cellos anchored the Cappella’s consistently handsome sound.

Schiff opened and closed the program playing concertos on a modern Bösendorfer: a witty account of Haydn’s D-Major Piano Concerto (1780), its contours inflated and flattered by the warm acoustics; and a gracefully phrased Piano Concerto in A Major, K488 (1786), indeterminate in mood, but with its illusive logic held together convincingly across all three movements. Bravissimo.

Photo © Matthias Baus ISM

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Mozartwoche: January’s Peace

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Winter view south-east from the Mönchsberg in Salzburg

Published: February 15, 2016

SALZBURG — There is a pleasure in arriving in Salzburg with snow on the ground. Or maybe the word is reassurance: the city will be real, not a theme park; the people mostly locals, despite the hollowing out of property ownership here; the profile quiet, even intimate, affording a chance to connect with the past. Of Salzburg’s festivals, the snowiest inevitably is Mozartwoche, planned and manned by the Mozarteum to straddle the composer’s birthday, often by more than a week. Last year’s edition achieved a coup by returning horses to the Felsenreitschule, for Davidde penitente as realized by “French equine artist and theatrical genius” Bartabas; next year, managers Marc Minkowski and Matthias Schulz let Bartabas loose on Mozart’s Requiem (Mel Brooks having declined) and promise some thirty concerts besides, including three by the Vienna Philharmonic, with Haydn as “focus composer.”

Mozartwoche 2016, placing Mendelssohn in focus, opened Jan. 22 with spoken words lauding the long contribution of Nikolaus Harnoncourt not only to Mozart’s music but specifically to this festival, where he was again due to conduct before declaring several weeks ago his instant retirement. The packed day teamed Katia et Marielle Labèque with the Mozarteum-Orchester in the morning, continued at 3 p.m. with an András Schiff recital, and ended soberly with Mozart masses at the Großes Festspielhaus led by John Eliot Gardiner. Rewards were many, irritations few.

The matinee sorely needed a conductor to temper dynamics and coordinate the shaping of lines. Where was Ivor Bolton? It began with a Mendelssohn Trumpet Overture (MWV P2, 1826) that knew no piano. Next came Mozart’s E-flat-Major Concerto for Two Pianos (1781) and chronically clunky phrasing by the French sisters; this was redeemed somewhat by a neatly sprung Rondo. Quality rose with a still loud, yet spry, Schauspieldirektor Overture (1786), the music’s inventiveness laid out vividly. The teenage exuberance of Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Major for Two Pianos (MWV O5, 1823), in conclusion, proved a good match for the Labèques; alas they then imposed a duo encore (and an insipid one, the last of Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos, 2008) to ruin our exit.

The Mozarteum’s Conrad-Graf-Flügel and Walter-Hammerflügel (1839 and 1782) stood side by side on the platform for Schiff’s recital. Mendelssohn came first: the Variations sérieuses (1841) and the F-sharp-Minor Sonate écossaise (1833), played on the later instrument with its charming pearly highs and fuzzy, attenuated lows. Schiff made inspired sense of the lines in both works and bound Mendelssohn’s ideas together expertly without shying from a breakneck pace where needed. The Walter’s clarity and evenness through the range made a stark contrast, its modest sound easy to settle into in this artist’s hands. Ideal tempos and immaculate voicing sustained Mozart’s late major-key sonatas, in C (für Anfänger), B-flat and D; the poise of Schiff’s playing overcame passing glitches.

Gardiner’s highly musical, not especially spiritual, reading of the Große Messe K427 (1783) closely resembled the adjusted Aloys Schmitt reconstruction he recorded in London decades ago. His crisp rhythms and airy textures, and the way these flattered the score’s abundant lyricism, seemed designed to please, as if Mozart had composed the truncated service just for today’s Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. From this listener’s seat, vocal soloists Amanda Forsythe, Hannah Morrison (sopranos), Gareth Treseder (tenor) and Alex Ashworth (bass) could not be seen or properly heard, but the choir, also mostly out of view, sounded disciplined. Orchestrally it was a performance with resilience, wary balances, individual style; veteran sackbuttist ‎Stephen Saunders managed to nod off during Forsythe’s Et incarnatus est, nearly losing his instrument off the riser’s edge. A horseless Mozart Requiem followed the break; for practical reasons we could not stay.

Photo © Tourismus Salzburg

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Widmann’s Opera Babylon

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

Jörg Widmann’s opera Babylon

Published: November 23, 2012

MUNICH — Scorpion-Man prowls the rubble of an unnamed flattened city at the start of Babylon, Jörg Widmann’s new opera, wailing as he moves. We should care.

Seven scenes, a Hanging Garden interlude, and three costly theater hours later, he is back, doing his thing over the same debris, also multiplying himself, and alas we have not cared or even learned what he represents. Perhaps he is us sad cityites, predatory and detached from our souls.

Widmann’s librettist for this Bavarian State Opera commission (heard and seen Oct. 31) is the post-humanist philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, whose worries, intra-urban and intra-galactic, drive Babylon in one big circle against the backdrop of the 6th-century-BC Jewish exile.

Sloterdijk’s narrative feebly pivots on a love-interest, in the persons of exile Tammu and local priestess Inanna. The character Soul is catalyst in a progression of these two that ends, before the circle has closed, in a concordance of Heaven and Earth (cue sweet music).

Along the way, Tammu gets drugged, laid, sacrificed, resurrected, and flown away with his gal in a spaceship. After administering the drug and enjoying her man, Inanna’s one job is to descend post-sacrifice into the Underworld and retrieve him, being sure not to lose sight of him as they make their way out together.

If this suggests a too-rich stew of Isolde or Norma and Euridice with Tamino, it is. But we are in Babylon, and your bowl arrives as the Euphrates overflows, the New Year rings in at the Tower of Babel, and Ezekiel dictates the Word of God, not to list the antics of seven Sloterdijk planets and fourteen Poulenc-ish sex organs.

Born here in 1973 and locally esteemed, Widmann as composer is much identified with Wolfgang Rihm, one among several teachers and influences. He is, besides, a bold and expressive clarinetist: a 2012 Salzburg Festival performance of Bartók’s Contrasts with Alexander Janiczek and András Schiff all but vaulted off the Mozarteum’s platform, and a 2011 Munich partnership with the Arcanto Quartet found rare vigor as well as cozy plushness in Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet.

The Nabucco-era subject had taken the composer’s fancy long ago. Ideas sprouted. A raucous Bavarian-Babylonian March emerged as orchestral fruit last year, bridging the millennia if not exactly the cultures. At some point came the link with Sloterdijk and the decision to plough forth with an opera, Widmann’s sixth piece for music-theater.

Undaunted by the librettist’s loony layers, Widmann supplies for Babylon music of chips and shards and sporadic mini-blocks. 160 minutes of it.

He savors direct quotes, splintered just past the point of identifiability. These he takes from jazz, operetta, lute song, Baroque dance, cabaret, Hollywood, symphonies, band repertory. He crafts brief, pleasingly original blocks of sound in various forms — brass swells, percussive glitter, choral refrains, woodwind banter — deploying them to varying effect. He is a gifted colorist, writing with virtuosity for all sections of the orchestra, in this case a large one, heavy on low winds and percussion.

Vocally the writing is less fluent, less confident. Abrupt ascents are a peculiarity. The tessitura of all three principal roles — Inanna, the Soul and Tammu — lies coincidentally high for each of the voice types (two sopranos and a tenor). Vocal lines are often aborted, mid-flight, again producing small blocks.

Widmann’s chipboard elements are arrayed in rapid indigestible sequences some of the time (Scene III’s orgy). Elsewhere, thin writing overstays its welcome or fails to develop in sync with the cosmic-Biblical scheme (Scene V) — the “prolix musical treatment” George Loomis noted in his review.

Enter Carlus Padrissa, the busy Spaniard known for constant stage movement. Hired to define and motivate the opera’s characters and unite the threads in text and score, Padrissa delivers, well, movement.

The gloomy arthropod’s rubble swiftly morphs into moveable letterpress type: Cuneiform, Katakana, Cyrillic, Hebrew — ah, Babel, the universal translator — to be piled up by mummers, piled down, carried off, brought on. Nearly incessantly. Flown and raised platforms support and transport sundry participants, some of them needed. Projected screen-saver lines depict the restless Waters of Babylon. Moving photographic images reveal holy verse, hell fire, a meteor (or ICBM) crashing to Earth. There is always plenty to watch.

Still, two problems dog Padrissa’s circus-like approach to opera, evident in his 2007–9 Valencia Ring and 2011 Munich Turandot: movement everywhere deprives the action of focus; and physical space required for upstage activities (open wings, as in ballet) deprives the singers of sound boards (in the form of sets) to reflect and project their voices. So it is with Babylon.

In the Turandot — due by chance for Internet streaming in its revival on Sunday (Nov. 25), here, and significant for the textual decision to end where Puccini ended — the voice-projection problem is addressed by having much of the principal singing occur drably near the stage apron.

In Babylon it is addressed with amplification*, subtly on the whole, though on Oct. 31 individual vocal lines resounded unnaturally at several moments.

Generalmusikdirektor Kent Nagano brought to the new opera his dual virtues of judicious tempos and attention to balances. The orchestra played compliantly, David Schultheiß working as poised and able concertmaster. Anna Prohaska and Claron McFadden coped deftly with the vocal stratosphere as Inanna and the Soul. Gabriele Schnaut brought rolling majesty to the Euphrates personified. Countertenor Kai Wessel exuded glum fortitude as Scorpion-Man. Jussi Myllys, the Tammu, relished having more to do than in his numerous recent Jaquinos, serving Widmann’s music earnestly. Willard White, as Priest-King and as Death, growled and boomed with his customary expertise.

When final blackness came, the polite Bavarian audience registered its ennui not with boos but with the barest, most ephemeral applause. Reconciling Heaven and Earth had proven easier than reaching across the proscenium.

[*Bavarian State Opera in a Nov. 26 message noted that “amplification was used for some parts” of the opera and that Widmann “actually marked the use of amplification for the scenes with heavy orchestral instrumentation in the score.”]

Photo © Wilfried Hösl

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