La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Bronfman, Bay and the ASO Bring Austin to its Feet with Brahms!

Brahms: Tragic Overture Op. 81
Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem Op. 20
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Op. 15

Yefim Bronfman, piano
Austin Symphony (ASO)/Peter Bay

Austin, Texas
January 12, 2013

What a year 2013 is going to be for commemorative celebrations! Verdi and Wagner will be honoured on the occasion of the 200th anniversaries of their births in 1813, and Benjamin Britten for the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1913.

In Britten’s case, the actual birth date is November 22, but conductor Peter Bay couldn’t wait that long. I don’t blame him; Britten’s greatness only grows with each passing year and every conscientious music director should be programming his music not only in 2013, but every year.

The Sinfonia da Requiem is an early work, written when the composer was 27. Prodigiously gifted, he had already written a great deal of wonderful music. As always, the piece was written quickly (in about six weeks, by all accounts) and shows Britten’s extraordinary talent for creating unusual sonorities – an alto saxophone makes an unexpected appearance - and transparent textures.

Britten's Struggle with Symphonic Form
As fine as it is, the Sinfonia da Requiem raises the question of Britten’s life long struggle with symphonic form; he never did write a “symphony” in the traditional sense. He always hedged the issue by composing works like Sinfonietta Op. 1 (a very early chamber piece), A Simple Symphony Op. 4 (a work designed to be played by an amateur string orchestra), and Spring Symphony Op. 44 (which is actually a large-scale choral work).

Then there is the piece we heard this evening, Sinfonia da Requiem Op. 20, which is as close to traditional symphonic form as we get from Britten (photo: right).

I suspect that like Brahms and many composers before him, Britten was intimidated by the prospect of having his work measured against the giants of the repertoire – Beethoven’s nine symphonies, primarily – and more recently, Mahler’s symphonies. He may also have been discouraged by the huge success enjoyed by William Walton’s Symphony.

Britten’s struggle with symphonic form aside, he was clearly far more at home with vocal music and realized early on that he had a rare gift for being able to set text to music. He could write “absolute” music when the occasion presented itself, but he had no deep-seated need to express himself in this way. More often he took his inspiration from poetry and prose.

Britten's Sinfonia de Requiem: Prelude to a Masterpiece
Having said all that, there is no doubt at all that the Sinfonia da Requiem is symphonic in its construction. Themes are presented in a more or less traditional way, developed and then recapitulated. As in most symphonies there are clearly separate movements although they are joined together. It is an impressive work, but one with nothing like the expressive power of the masterpiece of Britten’s maturity, the War Requiem.

The second movement of the Sinfonia da Requiem functions as the scherzo movement in symphonic form. Britten gives it the title ‘Dies Irae’ but it pales beside the comparable movements in the Requiems of Mozart, Berlioz or Verdi. It didn’t help that inthis performance, Peter Bay’s (photo: right) tempo for the Con anima section was slow and plodding, rather than forward-moving.

On the whole, however, Bay and the Austin Symphony gave a solid reading of the piece and deserve credit for reminding Austin listeners of Britten’s importance. Perhaps later in this commemorative year, Peter Bay will find room for more Britten in his programming.

The rest of the concert was devoted to the music of Brahms.

Brahms' Tragic Overture is a difficult work to bring off because it calls for a large string section, a resonant hall, and impeccable horn playing; unfortunately, none of these elements were present in this performance and the results were disappointing.

Bronfman's Brahms Has Austin on its Feet!
The rendering of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, which concluded the concert, was far more successful. The soloist was one of the most celebrated pianists of his generation, Yefim Bronfman

Bronfman, born in Tashkent, immigrated to Israel when he was fifteen. He studied at Juilliard and Curtis and has been an American citizen since 1989. He is renowned for his performances of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, but he’s equally famous for his readings of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

Earlier this season, Bronfman performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic and immediately after his Austin performances, he was scheduled to repeat Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Maazel and the New York Philharmonic.

In the Austin performance I attended, Bronfman had excellent rapport with Peter Bay and the ASO. The balances were ideal and the transitions navigated without a hitch. Soloist Bronfman tossed off all the technical challenges with no problem whatsoever, and played the lyrical episodes with grace and beauty. Despite all these positive elements, however, I felt there was something lacking.

I must confess that I prefer more ruggedness in my Brahms and, especially in the first movement of this concerto, more of a sense of struggle. The Adagio likewise was too comfortable. Bronfman chose a tempo that was too quick to allow for the soulful bass lines to be as expressive as they can be.

The section in the Adagio, in which the piano is accompanied only by horns, cellos and basses playing a low D, needed to be much louder and more sonorous. I noticed that the basses in particular were content to use a bowing that worked against that effect. Surely Brahms intended that the “molto cres. sempre” in the piano part be matched by the accompanying instruments; it is up to the conductors and the players to find a way of doing that.

The final Rondo is much more interesting if it has a touch of abandon; once again, Bronfman seemed too comfortable in his approach.

This reviewer’s critique notwithstanding, the Austin audience gave Bronfman a prolonged standing ovation - albeit not long enough to persuade him to give them an encore.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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Spotlight on La chauve-souris

by Joseph So

The quintessential Viennese bon-bon, Die Fledermaus is the most popular operetta in the world. Based on statistics maintained by Operabase, it received a total of 285 performances worldwide the last five seasons. This makes it the 15th most frequently performed opera. It caught the fancy of the Viennese public immediately at its premiere in 1874 and quickly established itself as the operetta of choice for festive occasions like Christmas and New Year. Some opera companies would splurge and expand the party scene to include surprise guests – famous singers, ballet dancers, comedians, even politicians. The spoken dialogues are frequently modified to include local and topical references. To ensure maximum impact, it’s often performed in translation in non-German-speaking countries.  

Tenor Marc Hervieux is Eisenstein in La chauve-souris for Montreal Opera (Photo: OdeM)

Die Fledermaus was the first operetta to break through the opera-operetta barrier - none other than the great Gustav Mahler gave it his seal of approval by including it in the Hamburg Opera season. A story about the shenanigans of the Viennese bourgeoisie, it treats essentially weighty subjects the likes of marital infidelity, impersonation, revenge, incarceration, and alcoholism with light-hearted frivolity. The excuse is “Blame it on the champagne!” and all is forgiven in the end – well, it only happens in opera!  Today, directors are fond of giving Die Fledermaus the “concept treatment.”  The most notorious was the Hans Neuenfels’ 2001 Salzburg production that led to major booing.  When done right, an updating can work. A much better received Christopher Alden production for the COC time-shifted it to the 1920’s, with strong elements of Freud, psychoanalysis, the subconscious, and even Fascism thrown in for good measure. Opera de Montreal’s Die Fledermaus, originally from Opera Australia, is resituated to Montreal in the 1930’s, promising “chic Westmount mansions, nightclubs, and a surprise appearance by a star.”  It features an all-Canadian cast well known to Montreal audiences, led by tenor Marc Hervieux.  

Given its effervescent score and great melodies, Die Fledermaus is a rewarding opera for singers. Both tenors and baritones claim Eisenstein as their property. Either way, this role demands great singing and acting. Rosalinde is usually sung by a full lyric and occasionally by a dramatic soprano. Her Csardas is a real showstopper. The maid Adele is Strauss’ gift to the coloratura, her delightful Laughing Song a highlight. The antics of the tenor Alfred serenading Rosalinde with snippets of famous arias always bring the house down. Prince Orlofsky is a great trouser role. Dr. Falke’s moment in the sun is his “Bruderlein und Schwesterlein,” a warm and fuzzy “feel good” moment. Die Fledermaus may not be very profound, but you’ll leave the opera house smiling.

Selected Discography

Audio Die Fledermaus is unquestionably the most recorded of all operettas. Generally speaking, the most memorable ones are from the 1950’s to the late 1980’s. A 1950 mono set on Decca has conductor Clemens Krauss with Julius Patzak, Hilde Gueden, Anton Dermota, and Wilma Lipp – still in the catalogue after 62 years!  In 1955, EMI executive Walter Legg produced a vehicle for his wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Rosalinde, conducted by Herbert von Karajan with Nicolai Gedda as a tenor Eisenstein and Rita Streich as Adele. Gedda went on to record it again in 1971 for Willie Boskovsky leading the Vienna Symphony on EMI.  In 1960, Decca recorded Karajan leading the Vienna Philharmonic with Waldemar Kmentt, Hilde Güden, and the famous Orlofsky of Regina Resnik. The most memorable feature of this set is the Act Two Party with a huge cast of mostly Decca artists including Renata Tebaldi singing the Vilja Lied and Birgit Nilsson warbling “I could have danced all night” – priceless!  And let’s not forget that grand master of Viennese style, Carlos Kleiber (1976) leading the Munich forces and a magnificent cast of Hermann Prey, Julia Varady, Lucia Popp, Rene Kollo, and Bernd Weikl (DG). 

Video The 1983 live performance from Covent Garden with Placido Domingo conducting a fine cast including Hermann Prey (Eisenstein) and Kiri Te Kanawa in one of her best roles as Rosalinde remains popular today. Also memorable is Karl Bohm (1974) conducting the Vienna Philharmonic with Eberhard Wachter as a baritone Eisenstein and Gundula Janowitz as Rosalinde. The great Wagnerian tenor Wolfgang Windgassen, past his prime, sang Orlofsky (DG). The 1986 Munich performance has Kleiber in magnificent form and a beautiful production but an uneven cast – Eberhard Wächter in poor voice as Eisenstein paired with a fine Rosalinde in Pamela Coburn (DG). The Metropolitan telecast in the same year had Jeffrey Tate conducting Håkan Hagegård and Kiri Te Kanawa as the upstairs couple, and the delightful Judith Blegen as Adele. This video also captured the Orlofsky of the late great mezzo Tatiana Troyanos.  Fans of Dame Joan Sutherland will want her cameo farewell appearance in the 1990 Covent Garden performance, with just a so-so cast conducted by Richard Bonynge (Arthaus). The last few years have not been kind to this opera – forget the 2001 Hans Neuenfels production for Salzburg unless you have a morbid fascination for a grotesque concept staging (Arthaus). Much preferable is the 2004 Glyndebourne production with Thomas Allen and Pamela Armstrong (Opus Arte). 

> Die Fledermaus at Opera de Montréal, January 26, 29, 31, and February 2, 2013.

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Sunday, 13 January 2013

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 14 - 20)

Mozart @257 Festival continues this week at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

For the second and final week of Mozart@257 Festival, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is programming his Symphony No. 40 K.550 on Jan. 16 and 17 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.  Also showcased this week are two great TS musicians - concertmaster violinist Jonathan Crow, and principal viola Teng Li, in Sinfonia concertante in E flat major for Violin and Viola. Rounding out the program is Serenade No. 12 for wind instruments K. 384a.  On Saturday Jan. 19 1:30 pm (repeated at 3:30 pm), guest conductor David Amado leads The Magic Horn, a youth-oriented program of works by Grieg and Saint-Saens. Joining the Orchestra will be the Magic Circle Mime Company.  Go to the TSO website for details.

Meanwhile a few steps east on Queen and University, the opening of Canadian Opera Company's Tristan und Isolde is getting tantalizingly close...just another week or so!  Do attend the free noon hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of pianist Mehdi Ghazi who is playing Bach, Beethoven, Ligeti and Liszt.  Be sure to show up an hour ahead to get a seat.

Tafelmusik is presenting Baroque London this week, Jan. 17, 18, 19, 10 at its unusual home of Trinity St. Paul Centre, and Jan. 22 at the George Weston Recital Hall. Jeanne Lamon leads the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in a program of Handel, Galliard, Guantz, Sammartini, Bononcinic and Pepusch.  An added feature is the appearance of RH Thompson who conceived and scripted the program.

Elza van den Heever and Joyce DiDonato in Maria Stuarda (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

While there's no live opera this week, but you can always attend the Met Live in HD showing of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda on Saturday Jan. 19 at certain Cineplex cinemas in town.  It stars two powerful women - mezzo Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart, and soprano Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth.  You may recall van den Heever wowed audiences here last fall as Leonora in Il Trovatore.  To sing the role of the Queen, the soprano shaved her head - talk about commitment to one's art!  Tenor Matthew Polenzani is Leicester and Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins is Cecil. Maurizio Benini conducts.

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