Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sonic Champagne from Berliner Philharmoniker on New Year's Eve

Pop! The cork flew from the bottle with the opening phrase of the Dvořák Symphonic Dance in G minor, Op. 46 no. 8. This concert of The Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Simon Rattle and transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall, seemed like a gift. It was not announced when the season was originally posted, but appeared a few weeks ago on their listing of scheduled live events.

The concert was titled Das Silvesterkonzert, and it had a formal but yet relaxed feel. The audience was even highlighted in soft bluish light. Annette Gerlach moderated the concert, saying a few words before each segment of music.

The event gave us a chance to hear pianist Lang Lang perform the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 with Rattle and the BP. This work is one of the two concerti on the disc recently released by the orchestra with Lang as soloist. Surrounded as it was by energized dance music, Lang had the perfect opportunity to bring out the playful edges of the Prokofiev third.

His technical machinery is remarkable. But what pleased most in this performance was his extremely quiet and tender sound in places like the nocturnal fourth variation of the second movement. The dotted rhythm octave-calls followed by whisper quiet figuration was haunting. Lang made the piano seem orchestral in its own right, but he also listened carefully to the orchestra, matching articulations and shadings throughout.

There is a passage in the lyrical central tableau of the third movement where many live performances lose fizzle. It begins with the passage for solo piano in D minor. But Lang played with the precision of a clock escapement, and kept the energy of the work leaning forward.

The live filming of this concert was also quite musical. Several angles showed close-up shots of Lang's fingerings, and the crisp energy of his articulations. There was a very clean shot of castinet playing in the first movement, and a very good balance between soloist and orchestra, which was useful in this concerto where the orchestra had such an important role in the narrative.

There was no intermission, but it nevertheless took several minutes for the mechanical lifts to swallow the piano into the stomach of the hall and to restore the stage for the remainder of the event.

A set of three more Dvořák Slavonic dances followed, this time from Op. 72. The orchestra performed No. 1, the Odzemek in B major, the slow and elegant No. 2 in E minor, and closed with No. 7 in C major. One always listens for the gear changes in this style. It is informative to hear how good orchestras anticipate and shape them. We got to see Rattle enjoy the two six-bar phrases in the middle of the C major trio in No. 2. His smile was all that was needed to communicate the lovely strangeness of these two phrases awash in a sea of longing set in four-bar phrases.

I'm not sure that the third movement of the Hindemith Symphonic Dances fit into this program, but it is rarely heard and was enjoyable for that reason alone.

A Khachaturian set followed with four movements from the Gayane suite, including the Sabre Dance, Dance of the Young Kurds, the adagio Gayane used by Kubrick, and closing with the wonderfully rustic Lezginka.

As an encore, Rattle played two works by Brahms, the Hungarian Dance No. 3 in F, and closed with the Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor.

Goodbye 2013, you have been (mostly) good to us. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Kaufmann and Harteros Impress on Bayerische Staatsoper.tv

 Tézier and Kaufmann at the end of Act III

Thanks to Bayerische Staatsoper.tv for an HD broadcast of La Forza del Destino from Munich that was part of their second season of live streams.

This performance was centered on Jonas Kaufmann who impressed in the challenging role of Alvaro, but also in a memorable effort by German soprano Anja Harteros (known to Met-goers from her 2003 Countess in Figaro, Donna Anna in 2004, and Violetta in 2008). Ludovic Tézier (Enrico in the Met's 2011 Live-in-HD Lucia) also excelled in the often overlooked role of Carlo.

The modernized staging seemed promising at first. A family prayed around a table, and as the overture moved through its sonic tableaux the actions onstage darkened and developed. Throughout the first act the drama intensified, and the infamous drop of the gun that led to the accidental death of the Marchese was done effectively, without appearing as operatic parody.

The first scene of the second act took place around the same table near which the Marchese was shot, and his body remained in place on the floor. The music was like a nightmare hallucination.

But things took a turn in the second scene of Act II, which was too brightly lit. The Verdi style at the time of La Forza experimented with ways of injecting humor into otherwise serious operas. The humor in this production was too often set as sarcasm. For example, Melitone was never funny. The scene felt long, and the music, as evidenced in passages like the rising sequences after the violin solo in B minor during the finale, lacked the edge that Met fans have come to expect from the Levine sound. The Escher-like set of Act III was distracting.

But accompaniments improved after intermission, with strong support in Act III (though there were several cuts that were distracting) and stunning sound throughout the second scene of Act IV.

Vitalij Kowaljow was double cast as both the Marchese and Padre Guardiano. This was effective because the shock of seeing him in Act II scene 2 (after his "first character" had been shot) added to the ghostly nightmare impact, but it also put him onstage during the close of the opera, where his double role helped tie together both the guilt of murder (as a ghost of the dead father) and the hope of redemption (as the padre).

Things came together in the final scene. A stage filled with leaning white crosses made a visually striking impact, and Kaufmann and Harteros lit it large.
The camera work was effective and one could opt to watch this transmission with English subtitles. It was an amazing gift to see this broadcast for free. The rest of the season includes six more live transmissions. I will be tuning in to each of them, and am already looking forward to Clemenza in February and especially to Die Soldaten in May!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

December in Good Cheer; A Family Concert in The Digital Concert Hall

In December we are drawn inward as daylight hours decrease and cold weather challenges us. It is hard to believe, looking out at our favorite trees and our sleeping gardens, that they could ever return to those rich colors we remember.
Inward is good. But to balance, we often feel need to celebrate in various ways during this season, to have some chuckles and to be entertained.

Two good opportunities:

The Strings and Percussionists of The Berliner Philharmoniker will present a Family Concert called "Stringle Bells" in the Digital Concert Hall (4pm Berlin time, which is 10am on the East Coast of the US). This event, hosted by presenter Sarah Willis, is sure to please.

After the concert you may be in the mood for a snack. There is no better musical snack than the show Prelude & Food, also hosted by Willis, which I have written about here. The series combines cooking with musical conversation, impromptu performances and cheer, and has just released a new episode featuring conductor Donald Runnicles.

More thoughts on the wonders of December from this blog featuring music by Tchaikovsky and observations by the English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626).
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