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.

Continue Reading

Wiener Philharmoniker buries Mahler again

Mahler died 100 years ago yesterday. This we know, thanks to a great deal of recent hullabaloo. While alive, Mahler was fond of thinking about death, which for his fans has endowed his passing with an outsized symbolic importance. This has led to a rash of morbidity and dubious biographical interpretation of his music (did you know the Symphony No. 6 was prophetic?*). I’m not a guest at this party. Death comes to us all, Mahler the Übermensch included. It’s something tragic and personal, not a piece of performance art. Memorialize the richness of the life, don’t fetishize its end. I do enjoy hearing Mahler’s music, though, and I went to the Wiener Philharmoniker’s memorial concert at the Staatsoper (Mahler’s old haunt) last night.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been boycotting the Philharmoniker for the past few months due to their sexism and general distastefulness, but the proceeds of this concert went to earthquake relief in Japan, so I made an exception.

Based on this performance, in which Daniele Gatti conducted the Symphony No. 9, the Philharmoniker didn’t care much about this event either. If they rehearsed for this concert, it didn’t do much good. This was disastrously sloppy playing with terrible ensemble, lots of intonation problems, and more wrong notes than you could shake a Wunderhorn at. (I’m looking at you, hornist in the second movement. BLAH bum bum bum Bum Bum. And you, flutist who got lost in the development in the first movement.) The brass and woodwinds (and out of tune chimes) were the primary culprits, but even the usually invincible strings sounded scrappy.

Gatti is an eccentric conductor, and the oddness of his stretched-out climaxes, dramatic pauses, lack of contrast, and strange balances only made things worse, losing any sense of shape in the first movement. The attempt at a thrilling accelerando at the end of the third movement fell apart in missed notes and poor ensemble. The strings came into better focus in the last movement, where Gatti alternated loud and full playing with intimate sections, but the ending was rather shaky. Total running time was around 90 minutes, on the slower side but not extreme. I assure you that this was not Gatti-is-weird interpretive peculiarity but objectively poor playing. I know this is an orchestra incapable of feeling shame, but I was actually shocked that they couldn’t do a little better for the Mahler memorial concert.** Silly me.

If this concert gets good notices in the press, I may scream. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer recently, I really want to write positive reviews, but that requires good performances.

If you want to watch Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s less geographically apt but probably infinitely less embarrassing memorial concert instead (with the Adagio from the Symphony No. 10 and Das Lied von der Erde), you can do so here.

*We were told all about this at an inane pre-concert lecture by dilettante Gilbert Kaplan, along with every other of the Top 20 Mahler Clichés. “Every emotion possible appears in Mahler’s music,” you know that?

**Conspiracy theories: a) since they weren’t being paid, were they stingy with rehearsals? b) Two women in woodwinds suggest presence of some ringers (yes this is pathetic but there are no women in the wind section on the roster). c) This symphony was originally scheduled for last fall but canceled due to a conductor change, and was not given a planned rehearsal workout then.

Gustav-Mahler-Gedenkkonzert (Symphony No. 9). Wiener Philharmoniker at the Wiener Staatsoper, 5/18/2011. Daniele Gatti, conductor.

Continue Reading

The Philharmoniker’s Mahler 6: More cowbell

The Philharmoniker is on tour this month with Semyon Bychkov, but before they departed, the sexist bastards are allowing us in Vienna a preview of their three programs in four concerts. This represents the sum total of their performances in the city this month. This is rather typical (unles you count the Staatsoper, which you shouldn’t). Three different programs is actually generous, comparatively speaking.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, the “Tragic,” is just about as imposing as No. 9, which I heard Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic give a few weeks ago. Unfortunately I felt that this performance was also lacking something, though I can’t quite put my finger on what. Maybe these are more my usual problems navigating Mahler’s unwieldy forms than the orchestra’s. It was extraordinarily accomplished on a technical level, with faultlessly clear textures and ensemble, opulent tone, and, with the exception of some overloud brass, barely a note out of place or balance. For those of you who collect critical editions, the scherzo preceded the andante but there were only two hammer blows.

I liked the restrained opening, and Bychkov and the orchestra never resorted to excess. However, I wonder if they perhaps should have–this is Mahler, after all.  Some odd tempos and an oddly episodic feeling made the entire performance never really pay off.  There were lovely moments: beautiful chamber playing in the winds in the first movement, that otherworldly strings/percussion passage, and particularly the opening of the third movement, which had a gorgeous gentleness. But the second movement lacked a certain element of caricature, and the lengthy last movement, until the exciting coda, again felt disconnected. In 90 minutes, you’d think it would add up to something.

Also, I couldn’t see the hammer due to a column. This was very disappointing. Is the Philharmoniker still using the Ur-Mahler Hammer? I think there is a good chance they are.

Wiener Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov, conductor. Musikverein, 2/2011. Program: Mahler, Symphony No. 6, “Tragic.”

Continue Reading

The Dude does not abide by Mahler

I have been skeptical of the Gustavo Dudamel phenomenon, because it seems like more a product of media hype than it does of musical inspiration.  It was nice to see a younger-than-average crowd at the Musikverein for Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Vienna tour concert on Friday (and I met an older woman who was at her first Musikverein concert, good to see her too), but I’m afraid that my first experience of Dudamel live was musically disappointing.

Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 9 is a challenge for any conductor, and I don’t think it’s one Dudamel has met yet. But to start, the orchestra sounded quite good. This was actually my first time hearing the LA Phil live, but it nevertheless felt like a homecoming for me, because they do sound American. The strings have more depth than many American orchestras, but I could ID the big brass and mellow woodwinds immediately.

It’s difficult to trace a path through the symphony’s discursive first movement. Dudamel got off to a technically secure start, with clear textures and good coordination, but the character was strangely broad, warm, and serene, lacking dynamic differentiation and movement through the many twists and turns of tempo. Mahler’s essential world-weariness and bitterness was completely lacking, and the lack of emotional momentum made the movement less a journey than an amble between equally important sights. Occasionally the winds and strings would lose each other a bit, and the brass section would drown everyone else out, but the lack of detail and of dynamic contrast were larger problems for me.

Dudamel seemed to take the bounciness of the second movement’s Ländler at face value, and it came across as cuter and less sarcastic than usual. This worked better than I expected, and by whipping the waltz up into something a little exciting, the piece finally began to go somewhere, though it still seemed oddly small-scale. The third movement was definitely the highlight of the performance, with vehement, vicious playing at a murderous tempo. Here, a certain lack of depth worked. The last movement was odd, taken at a very slow tempo (I think the running time was around 28 minutes), and displaying less resignation than bold passion. While this one-dimensional, deeply earnest, Beethovenian approach seems just wrong to me, it did work in a way, and the string sound continued to be good. But the various movements never quite added up to anything. I’m not saying that Bernstein morbidity is the only valid approach to this piece, in fact my favorite recording is austere Boulez, but without more character differentiation and gravitas, you just don’t have Mahler.

Daniele Gatti will be conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker in this symphony at the Staatsoper on May 18, which is such a crazy idea it just might work.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Musikverein, 2/4/2011. Mahler, Symphony No. 9.

Continue Reading

Riccardo Chailly and the case of the missing violas

(I would first like to welcome all of you who followed Franz Welser-Möst’s Facebook and Twitter links.  Danke schön for the link, Maestro, or rather thanks to whoever writes the maestro’s tweets and Facebook.)

The bows on the center-right side of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig were moving furiously, but I couldn’t hear a thing.  Herein I consider whether Schumann really was a crappy orchestrator after all, an obscure Mendelssohn piece that perhaps should stay that way, and some much more rewarding things about Friday night’s Musikverein concert, including some fine violin-playing from Frank Peter Zimmermann.

But first let’s talk anniversaries. Haul out your coffin full of poetry, because this year marks the 200th anniversary of Schumann’s birth.  It seems like we just had a Schumann year.   Because we did–2006 was the 150th anniversary of his death.  But like Prokofiev’s proximity in death to Stalin, Schumann had to share that anniversary with Mozart, and didn’t really get much attention outside pianists and a few lieder-singers.  This time he gets to share with both Chopin and Mahler.  So, yeah, screwed again, in Vienna at least.  Even the pianists and lieder-singers have other events to celebrate this time.

But his hometown orchestra, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, didn’t forget, even if their Vienna celebration was not always spotless.  They managed to sneak birthday boy Mahler in there too.

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly; Sept. 10, 2010, Musikverein.  Mendelssohn: Trompeten-Ouvertüre, op. 101; Schumann, Violin Concerto in d minor, WoO 23; Overtüre zu Lord Byrons “Manfred,” op. 115; Symphony No. 4, op. 120 (Mahler edition).

I don’t think Mendelssohn wrote any bad pieces of music, but the Trumpet Overture is not one of his more memorable.  Lots of contrapuntal business plus endless sequences means it always seems to be purposefully headed somewhere, but it never arrives at any good themes.  The orchestra was tight and precise, but the small string sections were frequently overpowered by the winds and the inner voices of the strings seemed inaudible, even in the dream acoustics of the Musikverein.  Eponymous trumpets sounded fine, but I would have traded this one in for a good Hebrides or Midsummer any day.

The Schumann Violin Concerto is a problem work, suppressed for decades after the composer’s death because it supposedly contained signs of his incipient madness.  There have been several rehabilitation attempts that claim the concerto’s strangeness is really great innovation.  Either way, the piece has some interesting moments but they don’t really hang together.  Frank Peter Zimmermann dispatched the awkward violin writing with effortless clarity and elegance and virtuosity in the last movement.  The already-quiet orchestra seemed to recede entirely at most points.  The many piano-like arpeggios sound like a warm-up for the Brahms Violin Concerto, Zimmermann put some good lyricism in them but I’m still not convinced.

The second half of the concert was much better.  Both the Manfred Overture and the Symphony No. 4 were performed in Mahler’s pared-down editions (I wondered if the man near me with an Urtext symphony score had brought it for comparison or was very confused).  Two anniversaries for the price of one!  Maybe it was the Mahlerization but the balance between strings and winds was considerably better, though I still had trouble with the strings’ inner voices.  I’m not sure what the tempo marking on the Romazne movement is (sorry, didn’t shell out for a program), but it sounded fast, almost an allegretto.  Lovely wind solos, though.  Chailly proved a master of pacing in both, particularly the symphony’s dramatic transition into the final movement, and the last few minutes of the symphony were fantastic, a great end to an uneven concert.

I know using Mahler or other touched-up editions is outré these days, but maybe Schumann does need it.  Chailly defends Mahler’s edition in an interview in the Musikverein magazine, saying that Schumann’s orchestration really was too thick and Mahler gets closer to what Schumann wanted to do.  I’m not even going there.  Not today, at least. Municipal elections are in a few weeks and four political parties are parked on the four corners of the intersection nearest my apartment, and I’m finding the steady pffffts of Die Grünen blowing up balloons distracting.  Those better be biodegradable balloons, guys.

Continue Reading