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13.1.06

Wes Herd dies auch sei, hier muss ich rasten (and Mozart)

Robert R. Reilly has once again lent his ears, pen, and expertise to ionarts and we gratefully receive his review of last night's performance of the National Symphony Orchestra. Don't forget to buy Surprised by Beauty (and a copy for all your friends, too) - it's the right thing to do. $20 for a guilt-free conscience is a bargain, and with it comes a free and excellent (and bold) book about composers you have likely not heard about, but should.

available at AmazonW.A.Mozart, Symphonies 21-41,
J.Krips / Concertgebouw
Philips / Decca

Why juxtapose Mozart and Wagner in the same concert, I wondered as I approached the Kennedy Center for last night’s program of the Linz Symphony, coupled with a concert performance of the first act of Die Walküre. Perhaps because both works have great operatic music in them? I remember when it was the fashion to play an opera as if it were a symphony, and I also fondly remember how Josef Krips, in his marvelous Philips recording, treated this symphony operatically, with a wonderfully singing approach.
Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, From NSO, a Wagnerian Class Act (Washington Post, January 13)

Charles T. Downey, DCist Goes to the Symphony (DCist, January 14)

Tim Smith, Conlon lights up NSO concert stage (Baltimore Sun, January 16)
At first, I thought that was what James Conlon (back in town again after a Mahler 3rd in December) was going to try to do in his interpretation of the Linz. From the start, it was certainly not a big-band or a big-picture approach. But soon I began to wonder about the low energy level and leisureliness. The lack of drama was not compensated for by the kind of melting loveliness that a finely detailed performance of Mozart can deliver. The Andante bordered on the soporific. Then so did the Menuetto.

Conlon did not seem to be doing anything in particular with this music. It was under-characterized and suffered from a lack of crispness and a slackness of tempo. Small-band, small-picture. Where was the esprit? Where was the excitement? Conlon finally brought things to life in the last movement, but that was far too little to save an otherwise plodding performance of this symphony from its far too long warm-up.


available at AmazonR. Wagner, Die Walküre, Acts I & II, O. Klemperer (B. Seidler-Winkler) / Lehmann, Melchior, Hotter, et al.
Naxos Historical

After intermission, Conlon, mike in hand, turned to the audience and did a stand-up routine from the podium to justify doing Wagner. Did we really need that in 2006? (In any case, it did not seem to work with the several couples who walked out in the middle of the Wagner.) Then, he gave a synopsis of the plot, replete with jokes. Was I at a Young People’s concert? Why tell us, when you are about to show us (particularly when the Kennedy Center had thoughtfully passed out librettos)? Anna Russell did this kind of thing better.

However, Conlon did speak of passion, and from the first bar of the Wagner, he and the orchestra exhibited exactly that in this performance, which he movingly dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased Birgit Nilsson. Conlon’s heart was as obviously in this music as it seemed absent from the Mozart. Throughout, the orchestra was completely on the mark and played gorgeously (how often to you get to hear the glorious sound of 8 double basses?).



Anja Kampe, sopranoSoprano Anja Kampe gave a tremendously stirring performance as Sieglinde. (See the ionarts review of her previous appearance as Sieglinde in Washington). She has a very big voice and knows how to use its full range expressively. At first, Clifton Forbis as Siegmund seemed to have a somewhat constricted range and limited expression. But he was just warming up and later delivered some thrilling moments, most especially an electrifying “Wälse! Wälse! Wo ist dein Schwert?” Bass Eric Halfvarson as Hunding was a commanding presence with a full-bore bass voice that shook the hall with its rich sound.

The particulars of the performance are not really that important when something like this -- soloists, orchestra, and conductor -- coalesces into some supreme moments of expression that surpass them all, when the things at which they were aiming together have been achieved. There were moments like that Thursday night.

No one stood for the Mozart, but the audience was on its feet at the end of the Wagner. Deservedly so. Looking down from Valhalla, Birgit Nilsson must have been smiling.


Repeat performances will be held today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM.

11 comments:

George Pieler said...

I am somewhat stunned by this review.

The 'Linz' had ample energy and crispness and for the most part was superbly articulate. What it lacked was the fine detail and risk-taking that really brings the music to life: but even that (I agree here) was fully present in the finale. This is the trickiest of late Mozart, always going off an a tangent you don't expect. Very fine but not great Mozart: perhaps Mr. Reilly had a bad acoustic spot for this type of music.

In the Wagner all I can say is the details I think do matter. The NSO was not just good but approached greatness in executing this music, even the brass but esp. the strings. Conlon's intro, normally not an agreeable device, included the best 5-minute summary of the Ring I have heard and the Nilsson tribute. Not much cause for complaint. Each singer was excellent given the nature of their voices, i.e. Forbis has an inherently dry tight tenor not ideally suited but made the most of it. Halvfarson was the standout on voice and 'acting' which the singers did within constraints of concert performance. Kampe was stunning visually and had plenty of reserves when her voice had to ride the orchestra but otherwise is a 'lyrical' Sieglinde rather than a 'power' one like Nilsson. Nothing wrong with that.

Bottom line: Ionarts readers should NOT miss this concert. Standing o's are rare in DC and this is Conlon's second in a row (after the Mahler 3).

George Pieler

jfl said...

Comment on the comment: another reader writes:

""Mozart" was very predictable... nice&sweet. Substantially abbreviated NSO looked and sounded like a medium-size chamber orchestra. Nothing spectacular and exciting... but not bad... just plain nice. The audience clapped for a little bit after musicians finished playing."

somewhere between Pieler and Reilly and this opinion, I can well imagine what is was like. the difference seems to have been the angle from which this performance was perceived; not a different perception of the substance.

What baffles much more than anything in RRR's review is this line:

"Standing o's are rare in DC". George... you must be kidding - I know it. You go to far too many concerts to not know by now that standing it is a rarity to NOT get standing ovations in DC, rather than the reverse. I agree, though: For great Wagner I think we MUST go, indeed. (I'll be there tonight)

cheers,

jfl

george pieler said...

Sometimes the truth lies in between. Sometimes it simply lies on one side or the other, in this case mine.

Standing O's? Over many years my experience is they are rare: people usually want to get out as fast as they can (at Opera may be different, I have near-zero experience there). What IS true is the O's have no necessary relation to quality of performance but here I think justified. Ionarts-wise, I do think any review of a concert to be repeated should have a go/don't go recommendation of some sort, a service Ionarts is uniquely able to provide.

GP

Howard Segermark said...

Reilly is correct in his assessment of the Mozart, but he overlooked Conlon's inability to evoke the romance of the Linz.

Conlon's monologue about the Ring was inappriate and his cutsy jokes about twins getting it on were lame at best. He should stick to conducting and he did a great job on the Wagner. The singers conveyed all the intensity of their roles with quality performances. Would love to see them in a full production.
Howard Segermark

Ariadne said...

Wow, great post jfl. (Sorry I had to compliment you there, deal with it!)

Let's see, if I go to my business meetings tonight (Fri.) and tomorrow morning (Sat. 9-11), I can go to the Mozart/Wagner concert at 8pm that night, then Sunday morning at 11am go to the Marin/Fleischer (I heart Fleischer!), and still make it to the Phillps by 5pm for the concert featuring a work composed by fellow blogger MezzoGregory.

[http://www.musicalamerica.com/news/newsstory.cfm? archived=0&storyID=13223&categoryID=5&cookies=1]

It would be a full weekend, but I actually might do it!

jfl said...

"Sometimes the truth lies in between. Sometimes it simply lies on one side or the other, in this case mine."

Or - disturbing to a music critic as that option tends to be - we don't hear music the same way. (Well... we certainly don't, because emotions, past experience all play a part in it... but we may physicially hear different things, too - because some people hear overtones as dominant, some hear basic tones as dominant. Interestingly enough, the instruments that stimulate the left side of the "Heschl Gyrus" on the cortex (those where basic tones dominate: Percussion, Flutes, Trumpets, Piano, 1st Violins) are usually bunched on the left side of the orchestra, those that stimulate the right side of the listening cortex's "Heschl Gyrus" (those where overtones dominate: Sax, Tuba, Woodwinds, Violas, Celli, Basses, Voices) tend to be on the right side of the orchestra. I don't want to suggest that THAT is the reason for the disagreement... but it might as well be. At any rate - so far I've heard three opinions of the concert that would suggest that the Mozart was not exactly great. I still read your description as being on the positive side of that continuum - but if you wish it to be taken as an opposite and exclusively correct perceiption, feel free to do that, also.

I very much disagree with the idea that we ought to give a "go / don't go" recommendation for concerts with repeat performances. It would be presumtuous to do so in several ways:

1.) To deem our view the only deciding one as to whether to go or not... and

2.) That the critics' view and appreciation must be the readers' (i.e. me loving Historically Informed Performances - but you don't... I rave about it, you know better than to go)... and

3.) To insult the reader as to not being able to make up his mind on the basis of the information that this review (and others that the reader may have read) provide. If a reader can't make that decision based on the critique of the concert, a simple: "Do go" or "Don't go" isn't going to do much, either.

Good that Classical Music concerts still gets us going like that. If I could be assured of such, rather than short and snappy comments/contributions, I'd open my reviews up to them, too.

jfl

george pieler said...

No, idea is not a literal 'thumbs up thumbs down' but enough direction to let the potential listener make up his/her mind. "If you like X you should like this" would do just fine...just a few guideposts. Agree on hearing differences, I even mentioned Reilly's hall placement may have been a factor. In Chorister things are very, very clear & open.

You don't comment on issue of O's
but it may be situation has changed in recent years...statistical survey may be in order.

gp

jfl said...

I know where Mr. Reilly sat and I am certain that that was not the deciding reason for hearing things *that* differently (if it was *that* differently to begin with). I know some of those in the Chorister seats claim the accoustics to be good there; I haven't tried and am not likely to... as most people don't sit there.

Although it is admitted idle speculation, I think that Mr. Reilly's expectations/history with the Mozart symphony may have had more to do with it. (Those Krips recordings - although I don't have #36... only the recent Pentatone re-issue - are something else, alright!)

I think that a review is rarely so ambiguous as to not give the reader an idea whether they want to attend or not... and few readers don't already have a notion of whether they might want to go or not. In fact, I think that my reviews tend to be the most ambiguous ones on ionarts; the BSO review below being a case in point. (Then again, that's exactly how I felt about that concert, too, so it may be appropriate.)

As far as standing O's are concerned: The only difference between the regular and predictable standing ovations from performance to performance is the percentage of those who use it as an excuse to look for their car-keys. They are so prevalent here, that I regularly parrot those who call them "The North American Disease".

jfl

jfl said...

Having heard the Mozart, I will have to come down on RRR's side: It was more crummy than crisp, spotty and patchy, indeed... neither fish nor fowl; played like a band that doesn't play enough Mozart and Haydn. Don't agree with Howard that the blame is to be off-loaded all at Conlon's feet... can't teach an orchestra Mozart style AND Wagner both in one week. He's no Jesus... although the Wagner made me question that: Brilliant performances of one act. Glorious, indeed - and what an achievement for five days' worth of hard work.

Don't agree with his Nature-loving eco-analogy of the Ring (Wotan and the Kyoto-treaty? Nah...) and would not want to hear any Ring that, as Conlon stated, would last twenty hours. Then of course, drawn out like his first movement it would last 20 hours if applied to all 12 movements. But then that's the difference between playing one act and doing the whole thing in one night. Again: Glorious!!

jfl

george pieler said...

Wide range of views to be expected. Reasonable bounds of fair criticism. "crummy" "spotty" "patchy" for this particular Linz performance is absurd and much more hostile than Mr. Reilly's tempered critique or Howard's obvious strong view of how this music SHOULD sound; cannot possibly be defended as objective criticism I think.

gp

The Wash Post agrees with me. Thought you would like to know: fyi my own benchmarks are Beecham, Jochum & Klemperer. No this isn't up to that standard.

Ariadne said...

I love to read others' reviews and, after having read more than a few of any particular reviewer's posts, can usually tell if I would agree with their assessment of a concert or not.

Everybody's listening for something different, and comes to the table with different skill sets, too. For instance, knowing Charles is a pianist, I would probably tend to defer to his opinion on piano-related reviews.

In the final analysis, though, I have zero problem reading a given review (whether scathing, fawning, neutral, or mixed) and then going and making up my own mind. Isn't that the fun of it?