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19.12.08

Top 10 Live "At-Large" Performances of 2008

Ionarts has never reported so much from outside Washington, D.C., and especially I have spent a little more time than planned in Munich (and Salzburg). It's good to hear what orchestras, opera houses, and chamber musicians elsewhere are doing, if only to confirm that Washington can't compete, except on the chamber music front where what the Corcoran, National Gallery, and Library of Congress offer (largely free, no less) is truly world class. Here is our Top 10 list of performances from abroad, covering Salzburg, Naarden, Vienna, and Munich.

Semyon Bychkov, WDR Symphoy Orchestra, Vadim Repin (Philharmonie, Munich [Concerto Winderstein], January 21)

It started with Semyon Bychkov brought his West German Radio Symphony Orchestra to the Philharmonic Hall in Munich where Vadim Repin and the Beethoven Concerto were the bonus to a shrieking, thundering, icily quiet - in short: devastating - Shostakovich Fourth Symphony.

Sylvain Cambreling, SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden & Freiburg, SWR Vocal Ensemble Stuttgart (Herkulessaal [Musica Viva Festival], January 27)

Musica Viva - founded by Karl Amadeus Hartmann and organized by Bavarian Radio - is one of the most important contemporary music series in German, perhaps Europe. February of 2008 saw an entire festival in addition to the half dozen concerts sprinkled throughout the calendar, featuring two weeks packed with the new and newest in classical music, and a few classics like Stockhausen's "Gesang der Jünglinge" or Messiaen's "Un sourire", and a long overdue German premiere of Hartmann's symphony "L’Œuvre". Many of the new pieces were forgettable, even if they were interesting in the moment. Enno Poppe's "Keilschrift" and Younghi Pagh-Paan's "In luce ambulemus" for example, which preceded the one work that completely enthralled me in Cambreling's concert and indeed over the whole festival. Hans Zender's "Logos-Fragmente" (some parts of this work-in-progress were given their world premiere here) was that work and with three choirs trading lines, partly improvised, back and forth, and an orchestra interjecting violently here and softly there, I could not help thinking that Zender was easily the equal of his more famous German colleagues Riehm and Henze. Well, at least for the duration of the concert, I thought so. I doubt a recording can ever approximate the experience, but either Wergo or Hänssler Classics hopefully will try one day.


Christine Schäfer, Eric Schneider (Herkulessaal, Munich [Concerto Winderstein], February 19)

Another highlight came early: Christine Schäfer sang Schubert's Winterreise at the Herkulessaal. I began listening with some trepidation -- but by the time Der Wegweiser came around, I witnessed some of the most miraculous singing ever.


Jos van Veldhoven, Nederlandse Bachvereniging (Grote Kerk, Naarden, March 14)

The first concert of my "Easter Pilgrimage" was the best: What Jos van Veldhoven and his Netherlands Bach Society conjured in their performance of the St. Matthew Passion in the "Large Church" on the fortress-town of Naarden was magnificient in every way. The singers, down to the nervous two (!) choristers that sang the opening parts usually taken by mid-sized to large treble choirs, were marvelous and sounded fuller than can be imagined, given van Veldhoven's adherence to the "One Voice per Part" ideology that's the current fad in 'authentic' Bach performance. Well, this was no fad, and if Bach ever got his music to sound like this, there was surely, admittedly no need to use more voices.


Christian Thielemann, Vienna State Opera (National Theater, Vienna, March 20)

The second-to-last performance of that pilgrimage was another stunning feat. Not so much the Vienna State Orchestra, which flubbed here and there and engaged in its tendency to blare (a habit it will now be rid of by Welser-Möst). Not even so much the singers, although Stephen Milling (Gurnemanz), Thomas Moser (Parsifal), Mihoko Fujimura (Kundry) and Falk Struckmann (Amfortas) were all good -- and Fujimura (unlike in Bayreuth this summer) excellent, given her ability to combine singing and acting into one cohesive whole. Nor because the first act of Christine Mielitz' was busy, interesting, curious and the second - Kundry the drugged sex-slave of Klingsor - ingenious. (The third one, sadly, ran completely out of ideas and offered nothing.)

No, it was because of Christian Thielemann's conducting that was sheer brilliance. The utmost (but 'covert', undetectable) flexibility of tempos made Parsifal a four-hour continuity of keeping the ears interested, the singers supported, the hearts titillated. Incredible how easy it was to tell how much superior this performance was on account of its conducting -- and how difficult to put in words why. But everyone present knew. After the last chord, I was ready to hear it one more time. And that's why the Vienna public (and the musicians) swear by Thielemann when it comes to Wagner or Strauss.


Herbert Blomstedt, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Herkulessaal, Munich, June 13)

I've heard four Bruckner Symphonies this year with all three (big) Munich Orchestras. The Bruckner Eighth with Kent Nagano (1887 Nowak "Original Version")
was largely a dud, and what I heard of Mariss Jansons' Fourth was, the last movement excepted, not better. That leaves the Munich Philharmonic's Fourth under Thielemann and Herbert Blomstedt with the BRSO first at the Herkulessaal and then at the Benedictine Abbey of Ottobeuren. It's a difficult choice, but not the least because I prefer the Eighth Symphony over the Fourth (by far) I have to chose Blomstedt's subversively excellent performance at the Herkulessaal. It wasn't 'special' in any particular way, and for two movements it wasn't even very notable. But it was exceedingly well played - and by the third and especially the fourth movement, sheer quality not only won the day, it swept the listener away. Subtle, but making a lasting impression. Unfortunately the interpretation remained largely unchanged in the gorgeous Ottobeuren Abbey (Bernstein memorably conducted the BRSO there, too), while the acoustic differed wildly - with results less than what they could have been in what is one of the most overwhelming settings for a work like Bruckner's Eighth - itself likened to a "cathedral of sound". If I should be in Munich later this year, I'll be sure to catch his Bruckner-return this season: on May 7th and 8th, he will conduct the 9th alongside Mozart's 34th Symphony with the BRSO.


Thielemann, Munich Philharmonic (Philharmonie, Munich, July 17)

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra may be the best band in town (so says Gramophone Magazine, and I tend to agree), but the most interesting concerts - just about guaranteed to be special even to a hardened concert-goer - are those where the Munich Philharmonic plays under its music director Christian Thielemann. The 850th anniversary celebration for Munich included a free concert of the ‘city’s own’ orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It played before a crowd that got their tickets through a raffle – none were available for purchase. Unfortunately the relationship between cost and value was demonstrated by the absence of about a third of the would-be attendees. A shame for those who stayed at home, because the performance was as splendid as it was long, and then some. Tightly controlled force was exerted and special care lavished on transitions. Everything was homogeneous, nothing jerky or anything other than organic. Thielemann worked the compelling necessity, that inner inevitability, out of the music.


Quatuor Ébène (Large Concert Hall Mozarteum, Salzburg, August 18)

After a tense first half, the four fantastic
musicians of the Quatuor Ébène were letting their hair down in their debut recital at the Salzburg Festival. Bartók and Ravel were expectedly the ticket to excellence, but the highlight was Webern’s Langsamer Satz - Tristan & Isolde condensed into 9 minutes.


Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic (Large Festival Hall, Salzburg, August 31)

There were gems among the orchestral concerts I heard in Salzburg, too, and perhaps more impressive than the already impressive Cleveland Orchestra was the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. Partly, because of my low expectations after listening to some of their emotionally flat EMI recordings, presenting run-of-the-mill orchestral sound (their recent Mahler 9th is exempted from that), and they surpassed it with frightful ease. Partly because the program of Wagner's Prelude & Liebestod and Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony had greater potential to be gripping than even the most translucent Bartók... and so it turned out to be.


Kent Nagano, Bavarian State Opera (Bavarian National Theater, Munich, November 10)

Finally, if you are spending time in the town with one of the three great opera houses in the world (self-proclaimed, often alleged, and difficult to argue against, as it turns out), there ought to have been an opera performance deserving mention in this list. Indeed, there were a few, but above all the new production of Wozzeck which brings together excellence in the singing, acting, staging, orchestral playing, and conducting. What an intelligent, engrossing night out, despite the fact that the challenges Berg's music places on most listeners remain as true today as they must have then.


Post Scriptum: Mariss Jansons, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Philharmonie, Munich, December 19)

This just in: The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony was the epitome of excellence (and even excitement, this time) and it absolutely needs to be included in this list. I already didn’t include Sir John Elliot Gardiner’s November concert with the BRSO, where he had made them to sound warm and radiant like I have never heard before (they managed to sound like the Munich Philharmonic at its best which, in this case, is a compliment) in Shostakovich (op.110a) and Bartók (Third Piano Concerto – with an inspired Piotr Anderszweski as the soloist) – alas, Dvořák’s Seventh after intermission was not particularly special. Now this concert “was one of those nights that remind us why we still go to concerts and why our expectations are rightly so high when we do.” Pending Thielemann’s New Years’ performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, this was the crowning orchestral glory of the calendar year.

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