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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Jonas Kaufmann’s miller in Jersey

A number of New Yorkers stopped making fun of New Jersey for long enough to go hear Jonas Kaufmann sing Die schöne Müllerin in Princeton last night (at least judging by the small mob headed towards the Dinky at the end). It was worth it: this was a really great performance, and surprisingly  different from his recording of a few years ago. On the whole, this one was far more interesting (and the recording is not bad!).

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano
. Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin. McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ, 1/17/2013.

I should first say that unlike at Kaufmann’s Met recital and last summer’s Winterreise, this time I actually sat close enough for a proper Lieder experience (and this theater was much smaller, as well), so that might be part of the reason I thought it was so good. You pick up a lot more at close range; this rep wasn’t written for people in the Family Circle.

Kaufmann fully identifies with the miller character rather than going for the slight narrative detachment or touch of ironic commentary of many lieder singers. This might make his Müllerin more compelling than his Winterreise—the miller goes through a much more drastic transformation and range of moods. This was a compelling journey with a not-so-stable character, delivered with beautiful musicality, excellent diction, and an engagingly natural and outgoing stage presence that supported his embodied (rather than narrated) interpretation.

It might be a little hard to buy Kaufmann’s Heldentenor-tending voice as the rather wimpy and tentative miller boy. What hunter wouldn’t run if faced with his mighty high Gs in “Der Jäger”’s “kehrt um”? And the burly heft of the arpeggios in the “Was ich hebe, was ich trage” section of “Am Feierabend” belied this first line of the stanza, “Ach, wie ist mein Arm so schwach!” Peter Pears or Mark Padmore he ain’t. (Not that Padmore can’t work up a good bellow when he wants to, but he uses the visible strain and effort expended for dramatic effect. With Kaufmann there is no obvious effort.) But it makes sense once you think of it as an internal monologue; the miller’s frustrations can be scaled to a Heldentenor range of desperation. And most of this was delivered at a moderate to soft dynamic level, with big voice moments being the exception.

I really liked what Helmut Deutsch did with the piano part, producing a smoothly-flowing brook that never clunked but shifted colors and textures very subtly. Kaufmann was also subtle and varied, particularly in the strophic songs, where he followed the narrative of the text through the repeating music. His miller started off earnest and curious but already by “Dankgesang an den Bach,” the first sign of the girl, less enchanted than perturbed. “Der Neugierige” was one of the highlights of the cycle, the first two stanzas halting and broken, the rest slow and sustained.

The “Dein ist mein Herz” refrain of “Ungeduld” got a varied treatment from soft to thundering, and you got the feeling that the affection between the miller and his would-be girlfriend had never really been mutual. “Des Müllers Blumen” showed a smooth legato, and “Mein!” returned to a kind of rushed desperation. Some of the grace notes may have been sacrificed for the sake of Lohengrin (but in the video linked above Peter Pears misses a few of them as well).

After “Pause,” the rest was pretty much bleak. He already seemed to suspect that green was trouble from its first appearance (it was at this point that I realized I had subconsciously chosen a green sweater that morning–must be reading Intermezzo too much), and “Der Jäger” and “Eifersucht und Stolz” were taken at a rapid pace. “Trockne Blumen” I found most interesting. The final, E major section is often treated as a euphoric vision of the afterlife–the dead flowers in the miller’s grave are transformed into blooming ones, which remind the girl of his faithfulness to her–here the flowers served as a vengeful, nasty reminder that she done him wrong. This miller isn’t about to forgive his (mostly imaginary) girlfriend so easily.

This even extended to “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” mostly done in hushed mezza voce but becoming vehement at “hinweg, hinweg.” Apparently the brook isn’t forgiving either, though very end was more peaceful. Unusually, we got an encore, which was the eminently appropriate “Der Jüngling an der Quelle,” another boy contemplating watery abandonment, with the attendant rippling piano figures.

A really absorbing and interesting performance, and probably the best Liederabend I’ve heard from Jonas Kaufmann.

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Jonas Kaufmann’s summer Winterreise

Schubert’s Winterreise is a journey further and further into the narrator’s own psyche. As he wanders he flees the diegetic noises surrounding him–the barking dogs, the posthorn, the cracking ice–and yet the icy cold articulates his inner self, even in its self-deception…

Aw shit, if you care about that you probably know about it already. You just want to hear about how Jonas Kaufmann’s big comeback recital went, don’t you?

Festspiele-Liederabend: Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/18/2012. Schubert, Winterreise.

Kaufmann is returning after an unplanned vacation of three months. He’s near the top of today’s very short list of major operatic stars, and in my mind on an even shorter list of major stars who are, at least most of the time, also genuinely interesting and creative artists. So his welfare seems a matter of public good, besides I tend to like him a lot and was anxious to hear how it was going.

Nothing seems amiss, this recital was beautifully done. After a bit, that is. Kaufmann got off to an unsteady start, and when he began sounding rather growly I wondered if he had spent the three months off becoming a baritone. There were some awkward gear shifts between catatonia and anguish in “Gute Nacht” and some slightly off timing in “Der Wetterfahne.” Helmut Deutsch was, as always, the pianist, and I find it hard to write much about him. He has excellent taste and does some lovely harmonic things and that river was very nice, but he never deigns to take the spotlight.

It was around “Der Lindenbaum” that Kaufmann found his stride, so to speak, durch Eis und Schnee. He sang much of the time around a lovely mf/mp area with creamy and smooth tone, which became darker and gnarlier only at higher volumes and pitches. This was his best dramatic effect–to unleash the Heldentenor when you don’t expect it (such as in the middle of “Wasserflut,” and not in the obvious forte moments). He can also do a remarkable gradual crescendo over the course of a song, notably in “Auf den Flusse” “Die Krähe.”

It was, for the most part, a simple and straightforward interpretation, operatic in the sense that he is more interested in developing a character than a poetic text. But he was notably lacking in gratuitous sentiment and declining to milk many of the obvious moments for excessive pathos. “Irrlicht” was navigated at a very slow, flexible tempo but still somehow maintained a rhythmic pulse, and he let the text do the work at the end of “Einsamkeit” (“war ich so elend nicht”), not overacting vocally. If anything, this performance could have done with more intensity and drama behind the lovely singing (I wished the ending of “Mut!” had been bigger), but there’s a lot to be said for just telling the story in an emotionally honest and compelling way, and the occasional unexpected turn in the phrasing kept us from becoming complacent. The ending was genuinely sad, with a subtle decrescendo into quiet madness through “Die Nebensonnen” and “Der Leiermann,” the latter ending with a creepy crescendo at the very end.

This concert was obviously a big deal for Kaufmann, who at the curtain call seemed more overcome than I have ever seen him. In accordance with Winterreise tradition, there was no encore (because what can you sing after Winterreise?).

As a side note, I wonder who in the Bay Staats was responsible for choosing the stage’s decoration, a lone flower arrangement hanging out stage left, and why they chose sunflowers. As flowers go they are kind of an inspired choice (autumnal, the opposite of the bunten Blumen of May), but still, a random touch.

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Epic Met Lieder from Jonas Kaufmann

(Not at the Met.)

Just because one can sell almost the entire giant Met singing an arty Lieder program, as Jonas Kaufmann managed to do this afternoon, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good idea to do so. That being said, he showed up, hair decorously tamed for the occasion, and is singularly equipped to succeed in this format. He has the elegance and musical refinement to sing art songs but never quite loses the large-format emotionalism of a singing actor. I had trouble shaking the feeling that I was watching from Central Park, but a good concert it was.

Jonas Kaufmann in Recital, Metropolitan Opera, 10/30/2011. Helmut Deutsch, piano. Program: Liszt, “ Vergiftet sind meine Lieder,” “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome,” “Freundvoll und leidvoll,” Der König in Thule, Ihr Glocken von Marling, Die drei Zigeuner. Mahler; Five Rücker Lieder. Duparc, L’invitation au voyage, Phildylé, Le Manoir de Rosamunde, Chanson triste, La vie antéieure. Strauss, Schlechtes Wetter, “Schön sind, coh kalt die Himmelsterne, Befreit, Heimliche Aufforderung, Morgen!, Cäcilie. Encores: Strauss, ”Breit über mein Haupt,“ ”Ach weh, mir unglückhaftem Mann,“ Freundliche Vision, Zueignung; Lehár, ”Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.“

I’m getting a lot of Googlers who want to ID the encores. They were “Breit’ über mein Haupt,” “Ach weh, mir unglückhaftem Mann,” Freundliche Vision and Zueignung (all Strauss) and Lehár, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.” (Yes, I knew them all from ear, but I’m a Strauss nerd.)

This was mostly the same program I heard Kaufmann give last July (the Strauss set, whose order I did not like at all in July, has thankfully been reconfigured), and my impressions are pretty similar, though I thought Kaufmann was possibly in even better voice today than his excellent July outing. His tone is dark and substantial but he maintains a remarkable liquid legato and dynamic control that is amazing for a voice of his size, and he has formidable musicality and attention to detail. He can fill the Met and even raise its roof when required, but it still took me some adjustment to scale to something so delicate in a hall of this size.

I again didn’t think the Liszt set was that great, but maybe these songs are just not my cup of tea. (I am ready for Liszt Year to be over, honestly.) They are so generic in expression that they came off more as lessons in beautiful piano singing (“Ihr Glocken von Marling”), declamation (“Vergiftet sind meine Lieder”) or flowing rhythms (“Der König in Thule”) than as dramatic statements. Only the spooky “Drei Zigeuner” really picked up speed. (The Met obviously didn’t check with Kaufmann as to whether he was going to sing the coda of this song, which is marked as optional in my score–he did not but the text was still in the program. I think it’s better without.)

Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, however, were extremely good, with Kaufmann’s talent for singing and not getting lost in extremely long phrases allowing for slow tempos in “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” the latter registering particularly strongly in its stillness and desolation. I missed the woodwind glissandos in “Um Mitternacht” but for this song the piano version gets a great intense claustrophobia.“Um Mitternacht” was placed at the end, my preferred ordering (on my CD Bernstein puts “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” last, which makes the surrender of “Um Mitternacht” far less powerful and besides is just a bummer). Here the size of the Met actually began to prove useful, and Kaufmann put a lot of heft into the final section to good effect.

The second half’s Duparc set was less idiomatic; Kaufmann’s voice has warmth but it’s more like a fireplace than a sunbeam and the climax moments sometimes sounded a bit too muscular. But his French is excellent and his pianos continued to be gorgeous. Despite fabulous modulations, Duparc’s music can sound to me a little monotonous at times so I appreciated Kaufmann’s variety in tone color. I still haven’t figured out what in tarnation the secret of “La Vie Antérieure” could be, maybe I should write this M. Baudelaire and ask him. (Sorry if you could not tell I’m writing this after some wine.)

The naturalness and comfort of his Strauss made the Duparc sound downright studious. Strauss has this way in his songs and sometimes his operas of careening towards high As and Bs that sends most non-soprano singers for a total train wreck (it being difficult to careen up towards something)

from “Schlechtes Wetter”

but Kaufmann treats them like they’re not only the easiest thing but the best thing to show off his excellent and powerful high notes. “Befreit” might be sappy but it’s a song that always gets to me and as I said on Twitter afterwards that this particular rendition left me like a 13-year-old who has just seen The Notebook, I am not kidding here. These were mostly not witty Strauss songs (though we got one of those in the encores) but their big expression and sweeping romanticism were a good fit for the giant hall.

I have not mentioned Helmut Deutsch’s piano playing up to this point, which I think is fitting. He is absolutely correct and impeccably supportive, but very much in the background. Sometimes I think a stronger hand would have been more interesting, but there was nothing to object to by any means (except the clunker at the very end of “Cäcilie,” the final song of the program, when we got a major and a minor chord simultaneously–not a good end, and Deutsch stretched out the coda of “Breit’ über mein Haupt,” the first encore, perhaps in recompense).

Actually choosing the huge Met for his New York recital debut (as this was, amazingly) might have played rather well to Kaufmann’s strengths. He’s not working on as many levels as a Quasthoff or Gerhaher would be (I am also including the recitals I’ve seen him do in much smaller venues here), he’s doing tasteful, beautiful singing with direct expression that could reach me up in the Family Circle. So not such a bad idea at all. We got a whole cartload of encores, all Strauss (the highlight of which was an impassioned “Zueignung”) up to a marvelously schmaltzy “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” from Franz Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns, which is way less familiar here than it is with the blue-haired contingent in Austria and Germany, but still went down very well.

See you from the Tucker Gala next weekend, if not sooner.

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Liederabend Juliane Banse: Freudvoll und leidvoll

HI EVERYONE. I finally went to a concert again!  The material of Juliane Banse and Helmut Deutsch’s Konzerthaus Liederabend–songs by Loewe, Liszt, Britten and Marx–could not, with a few exceptions, be called lighthearted.  But after my last few Liederabends I was relieved that nobody died.  And besides, this was a beautiful program beautifully performed, and what more do you need than that?

Juliane Banse, soprano; Helmut Deutsch, piano.  Konzerthaus Mozart-Saal, 26/11/10.
Program: Carl Loewe: Ich denke dein, Sehnsucht, Meine Ruh ist hin, Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh, Der du von dem Himmel bist, Szene aus Faust (all op. 9)
Franz Liszt: Vergiftet sind meine Lieder S 289, Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam S 309/1, Es rauschen die Winde S 294/2, Es war ein König in Thule S 278/1, Der du von dem Himmel bist S 2791/1, Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh S 306/2, Mignons Lied S 275/1
Benjamin Britten: On This Island, op. 11
Joseph Marx: Septembermorgen, Windräder, An einen Herbstwald, Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht, Hat dich die Liebe berührt, Nocturne, Waldseligkeit, Pierrot Dandy
Encores: Liszt, Es muß ein Wunderbares sein; Robert Franz, Selige Nacht; Liszt, Freudvoll und Leidvoll

Much of this music was new to me (I already knew a few of the Liszt songs and listened to the Marx in advance).  But most of the texts were not.  The Loewe songs in particular present German Lit’s Greatest Hits, and even if your experience with German poetry is limited and your lieder knowledge is confined to the most popular stuff, you probably know many of them too.  We even had double settings of a few poems between the Liszt and Loewe sets.  And you might remember two of those Marx texts from Pierrot Lunaire.  Knowing the texts but not the music made for an interesting experience.

Banse gave an amazing physical performance in the Staatsoper’s Cardillac earlier this season, and here she was more expressive in face and sometimes gesture than many lieder singers.  Her voice is hard to describe.  It’s not exactly luscious, can sound dry, and sometimes a little hollow around the middle region and tense at the top.  But it has a unique face, and a sort of innate pathos that makes her a lot more interesting than a more generic singer.  And she really knows how to use it musically and expressively.  She is both direct and naturally dramatic in her use of texts and unerringly musical and in tune–and coordinated with the ever-present Helmut Deutsch.  Many of these texts have more famous settings, but Banse’s interpretations were so sincere and right that it felt like hearing them again for the first time.

This was a nicely structured program, building in chromaticism through the evening (with a break in the Britten).  Carl Loewe (1796-1869) is a composer known mostly to Lieder enthusiasts.  His Op. 9 songs are very Schubertian in style, simple on the surface but given expressive weight and depth as well as fine phrasing by Banse and Deutsch.  In “Meine Ruh ist hin,” Loewe’s Gretchen doesn’t have Schubert’s obsessive ostinatos and repetition, but rather an unsteady, disturbed jumping up to high notes. But the color of Banse’s voice felt better suited to the more generalized intensity of the following Liszt set, emphatic in the outburst of “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder” and rising to operatic heights in “Der du von Himmel bist.”  She showed fine restraint and pacing in “Es war ein König von Thule,” though Liszt is less a dramatic lieder composer than an atmospheric one.

Benjamin Britten’s first set of published songs, “On This Island,” was completely new to me, and the elusive and allusive Auden poems (from Look, Stranger!, BTW leaving out that comma is a hilarious typo), while in English, are a great deal to take in on a first hearing.  It’s  a set but the songs are independent from each other.  The musical language is strikingly simple and consonant, particularly in the peaceful, repetitive Nocturne.  Each has a distinctly drawn musical language: ornate coloratura and Baroque-isms in “Let the florid music praise!”, rhythmic ostinatos in “Now the leaves are falling fast,” and jazzy pop music touches in “As it is, plenty.”  Very enjoyable listening, but I would have to sit down with the texts to appreciate them on more than a coloristic level.  (I looked for the poems ahead of time, but Auden isn’t in the public domain and they aren’t on the interwebs.)

Joseph Marx’s songs have the lyric vocal lines of Richard Strauss combined with the more delicate and impressionistic piano parts of Ravel and Debussy.  It’s a good combination, and I particularly appreciated Deutsch’s contribution in these striking piano parts.  Like the Liszt, these songs were more generally expressive than word-specific.   The excited woman in love in “Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht” is particularly charming, and the set ended the concert, for once, in happy post-Romantic languor.  I will definitely be looking for more Marx.

The house was not quite full but the reception very warm, and there were three encores: two Liszt, one Robert Franz.  I did not take any pictures, when no one else is I always feel embarrassed and don’t.   Beautiful dress, though.

Also, Juliane Banse has a new CD of Walter Braunfels’s Jeanne d’Arc that I really really want to hear!  Props for very interesting repertoire choices.

Sorry to FURTHER epilogue-ize, but by the way I should mention that I actually DID go to something between this and my last review but I did not write about it because I should not write about something I only saw half of.  It really was that bad, honest.  It shall remain nameless.

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Die schöne Müllerin: Serious business

“Ich bin ja auch kein Gärtner,” proclaims the lovesick neurotic of Die schöne Müllerin in “Der Neugierige.”  “I surely am no gardener.”  I almost had to laugh, because I was sitting one row and two seats over from where I was the previous night watching a bushel of lovesick neurotics in La finta giardiniera.  While the loud backdrops were decorously covered by an enormous folding screen, the extra-shiny stage was unmistakable.

But unlike Friday night’s poor stuck victims, Mark Padmore and Till Fellner took us on a journey, as any good song cycle should.  Despite a rather cool beginning and some vocal limitations, by the end this was a very compelling interpretation, particularly because of the fantastic piano playing.

Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin.  Mark Padmore, tenor; Till Fellner, piano.  Theater an der Wien, 13/11/10.

Vocally, tenor and lieder specialist Mark Padmore has a narrow, pale “English tenor” type of sound, with great clarity but without a broad palette of colors.  His high notes often sound falsetto-ish and disconnected, and sometimes drift sharp.  I know that lush singing isn’t the reason to go to a liederabend, but as a big opera fan I always pay a lot of attention to vocal sound.  His type of voice is not really to my taste and this bothered me more than it should have.   His diction is fantastic and as far as I could tell his German is great.

His miller lad is an exceptionally serious one, and the first half of the cycle was in deadly earnest.  “Das Wandern” was more determined than exuberant.  The fast songs seem less joyful than nervously frantic, particularly the harsh da capo of “Am Feierabend.”  The tragedy of the second half was foreshadowed in halting, unexpected emphases–the “Ei willkommen” of “Halt” doesn’t actually sound that welcoming, and the obvious point of “Als wär’ dir was geschehen” in the very slow “Morgengruß.”  The “deins” of “Dein ist mein Herz” in  “Ungeduld” do Padmore’s voice no favors, but their thinness seems appropriate.  Less appropriate was the excessive falsettoing in “Der Neugierige.”  Interesting, but I wasn’t swept away yet.

I found the second half of the cycle much better than the first.  Padmore’s nervy approach seemed to pay off much more in the violence “Der Jäger” and the sorrow of “Die liebe Farbe.”  Narrative engagement, in short supply in the reserved first half, suddenly appeared, and he seemed to loosen up vocally as well.  By the last few songs, I was hanging on every word.  Dramatically speaking, Padmore serves more as narrator than protagonist, but sort of expressively breaks into the protagonist’s persona at a few of the most extreme points, very effectively. 

Till Fellner was an assertive and absolutely marvelous partner.  While Padmore’s singing was sometimes monochromatic, Fellner’s brook constantly changed colors and mood, sometimes surprisingly heavy (“Die böse Farbe”) or dry (“Der Neugierige”), but always interesting and attuned to the text without ever overpowering it.  He articulated the shape of each song that made far more aware of the harmonic underpinnings than usual, which perhaps indicates that I am usually lazy, but this time the music seemed to have grown an extra dimension.  Too bad they couldn’t have added a Schubert sonata to this program, as Padmore has apparently done elsewhere.

I have heard a lot about Padmore’s recording of this cycle with Paul Lewis (pictured above), which I am eager to hear as a companion piece to this one.  If only CDs weren’t so expensive!

Mark Padmore has written an essay on performing Die schöne Müllerin, which you can read here.  I can only give myself a B- on being an engaged audience member, I just don’t know this piece thoroughly enough, but I was doing my best.

Next: I’m leaving to get in line for Alcina in a bit.  It’s an improbably warm and sunny day and I’m worried the crowd will be large.

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