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Ionarts-at-Large: Beethoven for Voices

Within the span of a week, two of Beethoven’s grand vocal works were performed in Munich. In both cases it could be argued that the performances reinforced old stereotypes about Beethoven’s compositions for the voice, rather than dispelling them. At least the one about his writing being difficult for, perhaps even inconsiderate of, the singers and their natural abilities.

Mariss Jansons, still celebrating the 60th anniversary of his Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, led his band, the BR Chorus, and four soloists in the 9th Symphony. Christian Thielemann meanwhile conducted a mélange of Fidelio arias and all four Overtures in three concerts between October 25th and 28th.

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LvB, Sy.9,
Abbado / BPh (live, Salzburg)

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Kancheli, Lament,
Gidon Kremer

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LvB, Overtures,
Karajan / BPh

The performance of the 9th (October 29th, repeated on the 30th) is easily recounted: Faultless, with some of Jansons’ usual, lean, detailed, crisp Beethoven-zest, but apart from a Andante moderato nothing particularly outstanding about it. The chorus is incapable of doing anything less than excellent, and so they did. The four soloists gathered no glory; the high voices—soprano Luba Orgonášová and especially tenor Christian Elsner—tried more than they succeeded and sounded strained. The low voices—Lioba Braun and Gerald Finley—were, to the extend they were audible, quite pleasant.

Much more interesting was the premiered piece that went along with the 9th, part of a series of commissions by the BRSO for compositions that accompany their Beethoven cycle. Similarly scored and in mental, if not necessarily musical proximity, these modern works are meant to be good enough to stand on their own, of course, but in concert they also have the function—intended or not—to reflect on their famous counterpart. Jörg Wiedman managed nicely with his “Con Brio” that went along with the Eighth and Seventh, as did Rodion Shchedrin with “Beethoven’s Heiligenstart Testament” (along the “Eroica”).

This time it was Giya Kancheli’s turn, and he provided “Dixi”, for mixed chorus and large orchestra. The chorus works its way through more or less random Latin quotes and phrases tacked to another, the first of which is “Mortuos plango” (“I mourn the dead”). Probably a reference to conductor and Kancheli-mentor Jansug Kakhidze (1936-2002) to whom the work is dedicated while German audiences it might more likely have called Friedrich Schiller’s ballad “Song of the Bell” to mind, which is subtitled (so to say) with the three lines: “Vivos voco / Mortuos plango / Fulgura frango.” The result is very effective, not great, music that sounds like Carmina Burana as re-imagined by Arvo Pärt or a new Zbigniew Preis ner film score. Truly impressive-gorgeous are the hushed string pianissimos that emerge out of the reverberation of the tumultuous percussion fortissimos and the soft choral lines that similarly emerge. Kancheli delivered something nice and easy on the ears and not likely to truly disturb any of the anniversary attendees: contemporary classical music with areal, very immediate future.

The Fidelio assemblage looked a bit like strained programming from afar: Anything to get Christian Thielemann a little opera to enjoy (scheduled before it was clear that he’d soon get to conduct as much, real, opera as he could possibly hope for). But the experience, especially with all four Leonore/Fidelio overtures in one evening, was splendid. With Thielemann, who manages to infuse (German) operatic music with unparalleled drama, it becomes clear at once why “Leonore III” (chronologically the second overture) was thrown out by Beethoven, as the music to open his only Opera. It really would have told, or at least outlined, the entire story right away; with the rest of the work merely fleshing out the story with the details.

Despite the rifts, under Thielemann, the Munich Philharmonic hums along like a well oiled machine. The flexible tempi, the darkly varnished tone so different from Jansons’ Beethoven, and yet every bit as suited, it all makes for guaranteed excitement. Edith Haller, a soprano Thielemann knows from his Bayreuth Ring, and Klaus Florian Vogt—the weirdly fascinating tenor—contributed as Leonore and Florestan. She did so splendidly by determinedly plunging into the Fidelioesque concert aria “Ah! Perfido”, where the Mozartean character of the aria part became so evident that one would not have thought alien in the Magic Flute. Mme. Haller did so with a voice that, although not blessed with an excess of character or particular beauty, impressed with clarity, precision, control, and ease of volume. As a result, it was the considerable enjoyment that was memorable, not the voice itself.

Vogt is a stranger bird, altogether. With his odd, or perhaps lacking, technique, one wonders how many trained but struggling tenors listen to him thinking: “I’m stuck in the boonies and he’s got a world class career with that!?” Well, the difference is that whenever his voice ‘fits’, he has something no one else does. Since the listener/viewer only cares about the result, not what went into it, that’s more than sufficient. Klaus Florian Vogt’s special quality—“strange” doesn’t begin to describe its chorister-metallic-behind-the-forehead-bell-like character—certainly takes getting used to, but when he’s playing outsiders or introverted characters (Lohnengrin, Walter von Stolzing), that’s easy, because its distinctive character makes immediate dramatic sense. For it to make sense as Florestan, it will take longer than two arias in one evening. With him in that role, there is at least no doubt who’s wearing the pants in the two characters’ relationship—not just during, but also before and after his incarceration.

Picutres of Mariss Jansons & Christian courtesy & © Astrid Ackermann


Anonymous said...

Interesting. Vogt appears as the tenor on Paavo Jarvi's new LvB9, I believe. Let us know how you like that one (if it registers any opinion at all, that is).

jfl said...

It's on my desk, but I've not popped it in yet. Until I hear otherwise, I imagine him quite suitable for that role: difficult music where cutting through the orchestra is more important than sheer beauty or barreling through. Will make note when I discuss Jarvi's Beethoven, which has been an amazing cycle, to rival Osmo Vanska's.

jfl said...

p.s. quite good, really. Can't miss the fact that it's Vogt, alright, so if you hate his voice, this isn't going to change it. But the way he sails above the orchestra is impressive.