Strauss’s Feuersnot at Carnegie Hall

Jacquelyn Wagner and Leon Botstein

Feuersnot is like the Richard Strauss of the tone poems invading the opera house. It’s his second opera, from 1901, a short exercise in post-Wagnerian nose-thumbing that is more a series of picaresque adventures than a grand coherent drama. But it’s got some fun music and I’m glad that the American Symphony Orchestra dusted it off at Carnegie Hall on Sunday.

The plot would seem to offer a real playground for a creative director, though this presentation was in concert. On Midsummer’s Eve in medieval Munich, the sorcerer Kunrad is spurned (and mocked) by Dietmut, the maidenly object of his affection. In return, he extinguishes all of the town’s fires (“Feuersnot”–want of fire). Dietmut is persuaded to change her mind and her deflowering provides the most lyrical Straussian music of the opera (orchestral–but rather calmer than the Rosenkavalier prelude).

That doesn’t sound like much of a plot but there’s some congenial local color of Bavarian drinking songs and local citizenry and such, and a bit of backstory too–Kunrad (AKA Strauss) is taking the place of a departed, older sorcerer (identified musically as Wagner) and is trying to figure out a new way of going about things. The story amounts to a parody of Wagnerian metaphysics: a Tristan love duet parody complete with Stabreims just before Kunrad is left hanging midair in a basket (I tell you, a staging of this opera would be a good time) and, in the finale, a redemption by love that is abrupt and really more like a redemption by lust. Strauss–and, even more importantly, librettist Ernst von Wolzogen–seem to suggest the emptiness of these idealistic Romantic gestures. It’s unclear what their replacement would be—I guess you have to wait for Salome for that—but in one act of around 95 minutes, Feuersnot does not wear out its welcome.

Alfred Walker

This early twentieth-century satire is such a perfect fit for Leon Botstein that it’s kind of surprising he hadn’t conducted it long ago. He pretty much kept it together: it’s an uneven score but some of the loud bits are rousing and the love scene has authentic Straussian Schwung. The Singspiel-like bits that portray Old München are less interesting. Most impressive in this performance was the Manhattan Girls Chorus, whose part in the score was long and complex (often involving what I presume were either old Bavarian folk songs or verses intended to sound as such). The Collegiate Chorale was also excellent. While Strauss is, I think, criticizing much of Wagner, he did seem to enjoy writing Meistersinger-like crowd scenes, too.

The soloists were also very good. As Dietmut, Jacquelyn Wagner’s even, clear soprano is ideally suited to Strauss, and her high notes were particularly strong. This can’t be an easy role and she was consistent and rock-solid throughout. As Kunrad, Alfred Walker projected well with a bass-like sound (he’s credited as a bass-baritone) that sounds like it could be impressive in Wagner, though his monologue could have benefitted from a little more variety that’s also Strauss’s fault. There are a ton of supporting roles, none of whom are given a terribly distinct musical profile (as the army of Rosenkavalier supporters are, for instance). Dietmut has a trio of Rhinemaiden-like friends and most of the professions of München are represented. Most of the singers were on point if not particularly memorable, two exceptions were Branch Field’s gruff Innkeeper and Clay Hilley’s large-voiced Baliff (given the magnificent name of Schweiker von Gundelfingen). Despite a note proclaiming that Bavarian dialect would be in use, it mostly sounded like Hochdeutsch to me.

It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s an amusing work that I was glad to hear.

Strauss, Feuersnot. American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, 12/15/13. Conducted by Leon Botstein with the Collegiate Chorale, Manhattan Girls Chorus, and many soloists.

Photos copyright Jito Lee

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Elina Garanca’s Carnegie Hall recital

I went to hear Elina Garanca’s New York recital debut on Saturday and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

Elina Garanča can always be counted on
for a coolly polished performance. Her silvery mezzo is beautiful, even
throughout her range, and impeccably on pitch. She is musically
tasteful, and her sound has grown in recent years. But something often
seems to be missing. While she’s too accomplished to call bland, her
performances rarely show evidence of a beating heart. On Saturday night,
her Carnegie Hall recital debut kept in character, showing an excellent
singer rather than an effective communicator.

You can read the rest here. For all I know Elina Garanca is the nicest, warmest person in the universe, but she still has trouble portraying humanity onstage. This recital was very well-prepared and she really was trying, but the effort was all too obvious.

I’ll be going to Giulio Cesare at the Met at the end of this week.

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Nina Stemme comes out ahead in Carnegie Hall’s Salome

I went to Salome at Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra and Nina Stemme and Eric Owens and Franz Welser-Möst and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

“When I looked at you, I heard secret
music,” says Salome in her monologue to the severed head of John the
Baptist. Richard Strauss’s opera trades in the unseeable and the
unknowable—from the range of metaphors applied to the moon to the nearly
impossible staging of a ten-minute striptease performed by a dramatic
soprano—which makes it unusually well suited to concert presentation.
Strauss’s high-octane, atmospheric music can seem all the more lurid and
mysterious when its subjective visualization is left to the imagination.
When the stage seems to agree with Herodias and show that the moon is,
in fact, merely the moon, things are rather less interesting than the
swirl of images in the orchestra.

In Thursday night’s presentation by the Cleveland Orchestra at
Carnegie Hall, these depths were reached only sporadically, and the
performance served largely as a showcase for the stunning performance of
Nina Stemme in the title role.

You can read the whole thing here. Stemme was magnificent and Welser-Möst disappointing. Do all the conductors now consider swiftness and textual transparency the absolute highest virtue (HIP birds coming home to roost?)? Or have I just overdosed on Fabio Luisi? I’d kind of like to hear someone try something dense and thick for a change. Stemme could certainly handle it. Most of my recent Salomes have been lyrics with ambition and I found a real dramatic voice refreshing, particularly Stemme, who is loud but at the same time still so nuanced. I am greatly looking forward to hearing her sing Brünnhilde this summer.

photo © Roger Mastroianni

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Berlin Phil descends upon New York

I only made it to one of last weekend’s Berliner Philharmoniker concerts. It was the first one, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

The composers Debussy, Dvořák, Schoenberg
and Elgar and aren’t often associated with each other, but they
featured together in the first of three concerts in Carnegie Hall with
Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. The works on the program,
it turned out, all dated from the 1890s and all were program music. But
Rattle and the orchestra, while technically flawless, only seemed to
connect with the material at some points.

Read the rest of the review here. I’ve usually been a big Rattle fan. I went to college in Philadelphia, where he visited the orchestra every other year and we never missed a program. But this one left me in the end less thrilled, much in the same way I found his Salome last spring in Salzburg–flawless but chilly, in a repertoire in which coldness does no favors. But the Enigma Variations, a piece I’ve never been crazy about, was pretty spectacular. I do like the Dvořák too, which is never sugary and always subtle.

Those things could not be said of Jack Sullivan’s program notes. In the note to Dvořák’s Golden Spinning Wheel, he perpetuates the dangerous cliché that the Germanic composers of this period wrote in a generic mainstream style driven by intellectual processes and education, while the “nationalist” composer such as Dvořák (or Chopin, or Glinka, or Liszt) is more “authentic,” unstudied, and instinctual. Sullivan’s Dvořák communes with the Czech spirit at a primordial level, but to get this he distorts a number of facts. While Czech folklore was very important to Dvořák, this did not preclude him being literate and cosmopolitan as well–just like most composers of any nationality.

He describes The Golden Spinning Wheel as one of four “orchestral ballades” that Dvořák “knocked off” in 1896, which he describes as based on a “folktale” and “fairy tale.” “Knocked off” is a condescending way of putting it–would we ever say that Brahms knocked off something? And the second half simply isn’t true. The Golden Spinning Wheel is based on a poem by the Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben. Its sources are folkloric to be sure, but Dvořák was working from a literary source, not transcribing the spirit of a fairytale from his grandma.

Sullivan describes the form of the piece thusly:

Dvořák often used classical sonata form in his symphonic works, but the structure of The Golden Spinning-Wheel, based directly on the verbal rhythms of folklorist Karel Jaromir [sic] Erben’s text, is as far from Viennese classicism as possible, giving the piece a liberating unpredictability that was later celebrated and built upon by Leoš Janáček.

Oy. So here we have the first mention of Erben, whose responsibility for the source material is never further clarified. Then we have a description of something that sounds like a proto-Janáčekian speech-melody technique. I don’t know this piece enough to say if it’s present or not, but even if it is, “verbal rhythms” work on the local, phrase level, which has nothing to do with whether the piece is in sonata form or not.

But most seriously, what is this form that is “as far from Viennese classicism as possible”? It’s… a rondo. An odd rondo, with a lot of little ternary forms in the episodes, but a recognizable rondo nonetheless. Rondos are one of the foremost Viennese classical forms. Of course, many folk forms also contain similar forms with a recurring section. The stark binary between Czech and not-Czech music just doesn’t exist. Prague is not, after all, very far from Vienna.

Updated to Add: The program note for the Enigma Variations identifies Variation VI (Ysobel) as being a violin solo. It’s a viola.

(By the way, I often write program notes myself. If you need some, call me.)

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Honegger’s Joan of Arc at Carnegie

I rarely miss a concert with a really big and really obscure piece of music. Naturally I went to see Marin Alsop conduct Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

The short life and terrifying death of Joan of Arc are the subject of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher
(“Joan of Arc at the Stake”), a curious masterpiece of an oratorio
dating from 1938. The nearly-forgotten work received a well-deserved
resurrection by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at
Carnegie Hall on Saturday night.

You can read the full review here.

Addendum: It’s a peculiar work and I’m not sure if I’m really inside the style yet, but I’m glad that I heard it. I’m reluctant to pass strong aesthetic judgement on it because I don’t have a very firm grasp on Honegger in general, but I’m inclined to put it more in the category of intriguing curiosity than important rediscovery.

According to this from the Baltimore City Paper, the orchestra-overpowering chorus was around 120 strong.

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Gheorghiu and Kaufmann turn violet again in Adriana Lecouvreur

(Not in concert.)

I went to see the ever-elusive Angela Gheorghiu and the happily ubiquitous Jonas Kaufmann in the Opera Orchestra of New York’s concert Adriana Lecouvreur at Carnegie Hall last night and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:

“I will return! I want to again be
intoxicated by the triumphant smile of art!” proclaims the actress
Adriana Lecouvreur in the extravagant opera of the same title. With this
role, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu returned to New York in the first
performance of the Opera Orchestra of New York’s Carnegie Hall season.
After financial difficulties the company itself has been making a
comeback as well, under new musical director Alberto Veronesi. For over
40 years, the group has produced concert performance of lesser-known
operas with outstanding casts, and this evening was a fine continuation
of that tradition, with strong performances from Jonas Kaufmann,
Ambrogio Maestri, and Anita Rachvelishvili in the other major roles.

Click here to read the full review.

I saw them in this last year in London and then I was conflicted between being overwhelmed and oddly not-quite-whelmed. In concert, this opera actually seems to work better. The music isn’t quite top drawer but it has a kind of sincerity and directness that can be both beguiling and exciting. This came through more clearly without having to think about the silly plot or David McVicar’s futile attempt to give the happenings some symbolic substance. The opera has emotional power but it lacks strong dramatic syntax, and it’s better when you focus on the former strength rather than the latter weakness. (It should be noted, though, that Angela’s couture for this concert was most impressive as well, both dresses very 1970’s, the first resembling a disco ball and the second a low-cut nightgown with a rhinestone belt and attached cape.)

This didn’t stop me from writing down some silly surtitles, though:

  • Love is a flame, friendship is its ashes.
  • I love him with the fiery recklessness of one who has had her heart taken for the first time.
  • You’re the sun that gilds the eternal Arctic night.
  • Their eyes flash like pairs of blades, showing no mercy.
  • Our love defies fate, eludes death in golden dreams.

Nevertheless, I was totally crying at the end, go figure.

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The Mariinsky, Gergiev and Daniil Trifonov

On Tuesday I went to see the Mariinsky Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. To quote anonymous advisors of Rick Perry from a week or so ago, we’ve got a tired puppy (I mean the orchestra, not somewhat puppy-like pianist Daniil Trifonov, who was not tired at all). But they were still exciting! I wrote about it for Bachtrack. You can read it here.

The orchestra’s sound came as a bit of a shock after all that Viennese refinement. I think I like it, but I may be allergic to that soft-reeded sound of Russian woodwind sections.

Off to the Don tonight.

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