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Ionarts-at-Large: Berg is Best with Metzmacher

When the schedule dictates, compromises might include attending a matinée orchestral performance. No musician I know does AM particularly well, but with a program of Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina Preludes, and Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre, the last of the Munich Philharmonic’s three concerts in that series was unmissable.

For the Wagner and Mahler, baritone Michael Volle was won to perform alongside Ingo Metzmacher. After eight successful years in Zurich, Michael Volle became a cast member of the Bavarian State Opera in 2007 and in his five years there, he rose to locally acknowledged fame for reliable, even excellent performances. But fame at home is a tricky thing. Many talented footballers that make their way through the ranks of one team, from junior to Pro, find that they hit a ceiling beyond which they won’t be appreciated. Familiarity—and a decided lack of exoticism—has led to being taken for granted. They often hire elsewhere, with transfer fee and new salary indicative of their newfound respect away from home.

available at Amazon
A.Berg, Three Pieces for Orchestra et al.,
I.Metzmacher / Bamberg SO

available at Amazon
H.Pfitzner, Palestrina Preludes et al.,
C.Thielemann / O.d.Deutschen Oper Berlin

Pfitzner on ionarts:

Best Recordings of 2012 (Palestrina, K.Petrenko)

Best Recordings of 2008 (Von Deutscher Seele, Metzmacher)

Pfitzner and Schumann's Requiem (C.Thielemann / MPhil)

Palestrina (S.Young / Bavarian State Opera)
It’s perhaps a little similar with singers. Volle was appreciated as stalwart, not admired as extraordinary. He left the State Opera and now he is fêted as a soloist around all the renowned opera houses in the world. A little more at this all-too-early hour, in Mahler but especially in Wagner as Wotan would have gone some way in underscoring how extraordinary he is. But for all the difficulties of making oneself heard in Munich’s Philharmonic Hall, with an Wagnerian orchestra whirring behind him, Wotan’s Abschied could have been a good deal more poised, clearer, and audible. As it was, it fit in with a surprisingly slack, if largely accident-free performance from the less-than-sanguine strings & Co.

In Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Volle’s softness of hue on this occasion fit much better: There is no point heroically trumpeting about dead children with stentorian precision. And so he sang with a gentle transparency instead, which gave these Songs on the Death of Children touching nuance, occasional raspy notes and uneasy heights notwithstanding. The orchestra was more eager, too, in Mahler just before intermission, diving into “In diesem Wetter” with rare gusto.

So far so decent, but the bonbons were clearly Pfitzner’s Palestrina Overtures, tailored by the composer to better fit the concert setting, and Berg. Pfitzner—the composer, not the music—needs advocates like Ingo Metzmacher. There are enough politically charged music critics in Germany just waiting for Christian Thielemann to tackle Pfitzer on a more regular basis in order to insinuate—with words in hues of insidious brown—that “CT” is, gasp!, a conservative. Wink-wink-nudge-nudge.Metzmacher, with his solid background in championing “Degenerate Art” that the Third Reich had shunned, exiled, or gassed, is politically above suspicion to any left-leaning journalist. Since he has discovered Pfitzner a few years ago (resulting in terrific recording of Pfitzner’s Eichendorff Cantata) the responses are enthusiastic and fawning, and questionable motives aside, rightly so. The music is wonderful and the performances justify any enthusiasm. The Munich Philharmonic was one of Pfitzner’s favorite orchestras with whom he performed plenty, but that legacy has been long felt a poisoned endowment more than opportunity. Understandable, but musically a shame, because the tendency for a deep and darkly romantic sound makes the orchestra very suitable for Pfitzner’s music. That’s true even for the delicate Prelude to the First Act (where Pfitzner plays with a music at once wholly new yet harking back to the 16th century of his opera’s protagonist) and certainly for the wham-bang intensity of the second Prelude. It’s such satisfactory music that even a Pfitzner-friendly colleague suggested: “If you can have that, why bother with the whole thing in the first place.” (In our defense, we both last saw the opera in the drab Munich production; not in the superior Frankfurt outing.)

Saving the best for first, the concert-opening Berg Three Pieces op.6 was unlike any I have heard before: Rich, dedicated, and muscular, with plenty and raw meat especially in the Preludium, where a proximity to Wagner’s Walküre came to the fore that I had never picked up on quite like that. Transparency and lean textures are all well and good and appreciated in Berg, but this was a case in point that sumptuousness is also a most viable option. And still there was plenty room for delicacy amid

Whenever I lean back, wholeheartedly enjoying this glorious, ultimately romantic work, I also enjoy the smug, self-satisfied glow that comes from knowing that my musical tastes are merely 100 years behind. That’s good to know: by the time Beethoven died, I would have appreciated Johann Heinrich Buttstett and François Couperin.