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Heidi Melton Returns with Strauss

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Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, M. Stenz
(Hyperion, 2015)
Markus Stenz, the former Kapellmeister of the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, whom we have reviewed in Europe up to this point, will be Principal Guest Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra beginning next season. His tenure got a jump start with this week's concerts, on a German Romantic theme, heard on Saturday night in the Music Center at Strathmore. In the opener, the overture to Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz, Stenz displayed forceful ideas but not always a clear beat -- at one point, he seemed to mark the beat with lunges of his chest -- that the musicians seemed not always to understand, judging by some ensemble problems. The Romantic contrasts of loud and soft were appropriately dramatic, although the most outrageous coughing was timed perfectly for the softest moment of the piece. Really, people, cough during the loud parts.

The main attraction was Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, marking the return of American dramatic soprano Heidi Melton, who made quite a splash on the BSO's Wagner program two years ago. Melton's German remains beautiful, after training in opera houses in Germany, but her voice, while powerful, is not yet fully reliable at the top of her range. The first high note of the set, the G-flat in Frühling, was on the edge of control and intonation above the staff faltered in places, especially in the first song. The music just did not always seem to be securely in Melton's brain, and worry can lead to vocal uncertainty: while her chest voice was robust and luscious, the top notes could be spotty, like the little sixteenth-note figures up to G or F-sharp in September. Still, when it comes right down to it, much of these songs' impact comes down to the last quartrain of the third song, Beim Schlafengehen, and Melton had the vocal power for her "unfettered soul" to soar freely, as well as the shimmering pianissimo for the final song. The orchestral contributions were all fine, with Stenz holding back the full force of the score at times, and especially fine solos from the concertmaster, Jonathan Carney, the principal horn, and the paired flutes and piccolos of the lark-song at the end. Strained ovations earned a lovely encore, Strauss's song Cäcilie.

Other Reviews:

Simon Chin, Soprano Heidi Melton shows promise in Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs’ program (Washington Post, May 25)

Tim Smith, BSO offers hearty night of German classics with Markus Stenz, Heidi Melton (Baltimore Sun, May 22)
The symphonies of Schumann often leave me disappointed, as did recent performances of the first symphony and the third symphony. The second symphony, though, has a place in my heart, especially its perfectly constructed slow movement, and Stenz knew what to do with the composer's less than successful orchestration, making broad adjustments to the balances to bring out colors hidden by unwise scoring. The development section of the first movement had an urgent, agitated, but soft style, with a beautifully paced pedal point preparing the recapitulation. The scherzo was well drilled, in spite of a rather fast tempo and some oddly mannered distortions of tempo, and the slow movement was ardent and longing, with only the fugato section weirdly etiolated by an artificially soft dynamic. The fourth movement was also quite fast, and Stenz carefully brought out Schumann's reference to the slow movement's theme and the trumpet's octave motif from all the way back in the slow introduction to the first movement. With Schumann like this, there are great hopes for Stenz's time with the orchestra.

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