The only possible follow-up to Tristan could be the C major of Die Meistersinger, for Wagner, for Sachs, and for us. To round out what has trended as #Wagner200 on Twitter – follow me here – here’s the great quintet. Rafael Kubelik conducts Thomas Stewart, Gundula Janowitz, Sándor Kónya, Brigitte Fassbaender, Gerhard Unger, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
For Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday: Richard Strauss conducts the prelude to Tristan und Isolde with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1928. A great deal more could be said, but for the moment, need not.
As a cynical Brit and a ‘new’ New Yorker perched at the back of the packed Carnegie Hall stalls on Sunday, it was pretty hard to understand the adulation, the devotion, and the foregone triumph of James Levine’s return. Still:
With a gleaming, glistening chord of purest A major, the man New Yorkers love to call “the Maestro” returned to the concert stage. His last public performance was a Die Walküre in May 2011, one that took its searing emotional power by maintaining the constant impression that it was about to disintegrate musically, just as Wotan’s worlds fell apart on stage and the conductor’s body buckled. It was apt that it was Wagner with which the Maestro returned, in a shining evocation of the sacred land of the Holy Grail. With the prelude to Lohengrin, James Levine was back.
I was at that Walküre, one of the great musical experiences of my life. This wasn’t all on that level, particularly a Beethoven concerto with Evgeny Kissin that was so heavy I wondered whether the HIPsters might have had things right all along. But my oh my, what a supreme Lohengrin prelude.*
Read the rest of my review on Bachtrack here.
* Unintended symbolism, anyone? Wagner conducting from the land of the Grail, after Luisi? No?
Hannigan and Rattle have made [Ligeti's] Mysteries of the Macabre their own in recent years, and this was the second time in four years that they have performed it in New York…. I honestly can’t remember having had so much fun in a concert hall in quite some time. Mysteries is an aria sung by Gepopo, Brueghelland’s Chief of the Secret Political Police, a part ironically (and impossibly) scored for a coloratura soprano spraying gibberish all over the place. The nonsense is intentional, hilarious, and making an overtly anti-totalitarian (even anti-political) point, but it is gorgeously and meticulously crafted music too. Ligeti unnervingly treats the soprano voice as an instrument, and Hannigan is beyond capable of this music’s extraordinary demands. Hannigan and Rattle always play up the humor, as here did the Philadelphia’s players, many of them tearing up copies of the New York Times as part of their roles. (The ‘Arts’ pages, I wonder?) Hannigan – in a curt patent black leather cocoon, strap-up thigh-length boots, and ginormous heels – edged in from the wings, dispensing with her Gestapo trenchcoat in the body of the aria. The antics were farcically riotous, with Hannigan taking over the conducting duties at one point—and doing it rather well—before Rattle kicked her off the podium, literally. Rattle himself neatly made a political point in his written-in breakdown, screaming ‘No, no, no! I demand a filibuster!’ As Rattle picked up the coat, the standing ovation was long, and beyond deserved.
Typical of Sir Simon Rattle, this: great programming, bizarre execution. There was a sultry Webern Passacaglia, some soupy fragments from Wozzeck, the outstanding Ligeti, and a Beethoven 6 so swaddled in misguided micro-management that it lost all its joy.
Read the rest of my review for Seen and Heard here.
Jaw-dropping technical skill is unexceptional among pianists of Wang’s age, especially others in the first rank like Benjamin Grosvenor, Daniil Trifonov, and Khatia Buniatishvili. What distinguishes Wang from those three and a raft of others are her rhythmic forcefulness, the orchestral colours she garners from her Steinway, and her aggression at the keyboard. Underneath the virtuosity – and of that there is so much that her hands simply disappear in a whirl of speed – there is a quickly developing artist capable of emotional depth and a rare stillness in quieter, slower music, one who rightly resists the temptation to play Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven in public too early. Wang’s is very much young person’s pianism, but it’s so full of sass that it’s hard not to be convinced.
A good fortnight ago I promised reviews of Maurizio Pollini’s two Carnegie Hall concerts, in which he played Chopin, Debussy, and Beethoven. The end of term intervened, but a double review is now up on Seen and Heard here. It starts as follows:
Maurizio Pollini tends to provoke two reactions from those who hear him. On the one hand there are those who cannot connect with his performances, labeling them cold, unemotional, or distant, believing those adjectives to be negative. On the other hand there are those who see the opposite, reveling in exactly the things his detractors cavil about, or more rarely denying the terms of the argument altogether.
Essentially the debate revolves around the interconnected ideas of the pianist as heir to Liszt and the piano recital as something to make you swoon—that should convince through stylish virtuosity. Pollini has no truck with that. His pianism, like the conducting of Pierre Boulez, is radically un-Romantic, even anti-Romantic. For decades, unsurprisingly, he has therefore been seen as a merchant of pure technique. That caricature has always hidden something deeper, however, and in his advancing years, as his fingers become less accurate than they once were, his already indomitable artistic courage seems only to become more audible. The piano itself—a Steinway modified by Fabbrini in this case—is treated as a machine for intellectual ends, in the knowledge that brain and heart must be connected for the fullest of musical experiences. This is not playing to experience idly, to let drift over you. You, the listener, have to lean into it.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra has announced that Andris Nelsons will be its fifteenth and third-youngest Music Director. He begins as Music Director Designate next season, conducting a handful of programmes, and will start in earnest the following year. (For more on the BSO’s 2013–2014 season, read here.)
Recent wagers on this blog and elsewhere had Nelsons holding out for the upcoming vacancy at the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2018. Part of the reason for that was his ongoing commitments at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra where he remains in charge at least through the 2014–2015 season and potentially beyond. That might worry Bostonians still angry about James Levine’s time-share arrangement with the Metropolitan Opera, but it shouldn’t be too much of a problem, particularly as both orchestras have a year to sort their programmes out.
Moreover, I wondered whether Nelsons would really be tempted by a rebuilding project like that needed at Symphony Hall. He has a lot to do, including reconnecting the BSO with the city that hosts it, and breathing some life back into an orchestra that has, at least on my most recent hearings, become rather scrappy in its playing standards.
So it’s a bit of a surprise, but his appointment is really worth celebrating. Not only does Boston retain its ‘Big Five’ allure, but it gains as music director probably the world’s best conductor under the age of 40. It’s fantastic news for everybody.
Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, has scored quite the coup. Nelsons is a more inspirational and more interesting pick than Daniele Gatti, much as I admire and have advocated for the latter. He already conducts the core repertoire brilliantly, while his competitors at other prominent American orchestras are still learning. If next season’s Salome is anything to go by, he might also bring more opera to the Symphony Hall stage.
His appointment instantly makes the BSO the most exciting orchestra on the East Coast, and if Nelsons gives the orchestra the time it deserves, it promises to be a good few years up in the commonwealth – and, hopefully, longer.
(Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5)