Chamber music and recital

Mohammad Reza Mortazavi

Date: April 5, 2018
Location: Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin.

Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, tombak and daf

Sandwiched between two Parsifal outings in Berlin is a recital by Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, an Iranian-born, Berlin-based percussionist now regarded as the world’s foremost virtuoso of tombak, a goblet-shaped hand drum widely used in Persian music. Tombak musicians snap and scratch their fingers on the drumhead to create sound. A wide variety of timbre is created by changing: fingering velocity, the duration of touch on the drumhead (a kiss vs. a snap), and contact friction (skin vs. fingernail). Mortazavi revolutionized tombak playing by introducing new techniques by the dozens, including heavy use of finger knuckles, use of one’s thumb to “divide” the drumhead into two sides with different tensions and therefore distinguishable pitches, and extensive use of the side of the drum for antiphonal clicks. In other words, Mortazavi has redefined tombak playing as an interaction between any physical structure of the drum instrument and any physical structure of the human hands. It is hardly surprising that Mortazavi’s unconventional playing has drawn the ire of traditionalists, who consider the pure art of tombak playing gravely endangered. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the new inventions introduce a richer texture of sound with heightened expressive capabilities.

The evening performance did not have a stated program – the proceedings seemed to be a direct result of Mortazavi’s, as well as the audience’s response to his music. In addition to tombak, Mortazavi also played the daf, a tambourine-like hand drum. In fact he played with two of them, one of which included a web of metal rings clung to the rim to effectuate breeze-like metallic jingles. All his pieces were constructed with multiple cycles of varying dynamics, surging to great heights and then receding to dark, hushed valleys. His fingering varied from a meticulous series of light tapping to a rapid firing of uninhibited fury. Using nearly all his fingers (except thumbs), he created perfectly aligned rolls of notes with a machine-like consistency. By changing placements of his palm on the drumhead, tones swerved from high to low, sometimes falling off a cliff on a whim, other times sliding slowly into an eerie oblivion. Some of his solos lasted well over fifteen minutes, with undulating dynamics, long plateaus of fiery jubilations, and cascading sets of tonal features. Mortazavi’s music is not, and probably not meant to be programmatic, but the rugged mountain ranges of the Zagros come to mind. Mortazavi was humorous too: after a long languish, he would end a piece with a crisp beating of the side of the drum or a comedic brush of the drum body’s decorative grooves. Or he would bookend a ravishing finish of blazing intensity with a lazy snap on the drumhead.

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Chamber music and recital

Mark Padmore / Wigglesworth / Cook

Date: April 4, 2018
Location: Kammermusiksaal at the Philharmonie, Berlin.

Schumann – Liederkreis Op. 39
Wiggleworth – Echo and Narcissus
Janáček – Zápisník zmizelého (The Diary of One Who Disappeared)

Mark Padmore, tenor
Ryan Wigglesworth, piano
Allison Cook, mezzo-soprano
Members of the Vocalconsort Berlin

Echo and Narcissus: A Dramatic Cantata is Ryan Wiggleworth’s setting of the Narcissus poem from Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. The piece is a perfect companion to Janáček’s The Diary of One, set to the text by Ozef Kalda, not least because Wiggleworth’s inspiration for the format of his work came from Janáček’s – a musical setting with a male voice as chief protagonist, a female voice as narrator, piano and an off-stage female choir in mind. Both pieces also tell the story of a man falling for the beauty of another (for Narcissus, the reflection of himself), enchanted in part by the glitter of the eyes: “He could not believe / The beauty of those eyes / That gazed into his own” (Hughes); “Pohledla po mně zhluboka / pak vznesla sa přes peň / a tak mi v hlavě ostala / přes celučký, celučký deň. (With searching eyes she looked at me / then swift as a bird flew / but left me yearning after her / for all that day, all that day through.)” (Kalda). Both men bid farewell to a land where their lives begin, but this is where the comparison ends: Wigglesworth’s ending is chilling, as if all lights around us are dimming to an eternal darkness. Janáček’s treatment is more upbeat, as the protagonist bids farewell with a new chapter of life already in mind – after all, he clearly knows he is eloping with his temptress Zefka. Where Janáček’s colorations ebb and flow, Wigglesworth’s palette is decidedly more somber. His piece ends with Mark Padmore repeating the word “farewell”, in a slow diminuendo and with two syllables in a descending semi-tone. The counterpoint is the off-stage chorus (situated at the back of audience balcony) repeating the same words in an eerie pattern of ascending harmonic progression. Wigglesworth’s writing here is simple, elegant, but dramatically effective, and I wish this work could find a place in the standard repertoire. Mark Padmore never over-dramatized (in contrast to Ian Bostridge’s; see earlier review here), but elucidated his lines clearly, with conviction and utmost reverence. This kind of treatment was particularly evident in Schumann, where his delivery flowed with conversational beauty, without the sort of overt, let-me-tell-you-something sort of didacticism prevalent with some of the more lieder recitalists today. His on-stage demeanor gave the effect of letting the voice and words speak for themselves, and he was merely a conduit between us the audience and the composition. Allison Cook was a fine singer who mustered different timbres as she cycled through bursts of singing, narrating, and whispering. Ryan Wigglesworth had a fine touch and sensibility on the keys. His prolonged pedaling of the final chord in Janáček punctuated the protagonist’s exhilaration, as if to reflect upon the more somber Schumann and Wigglesworth that came before.

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Opera

Parsifal

Date: April 2, 2018
Location: Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin.

Amfortas: Lauri Vasar
Gurnemanz: Rene Pape
Parsifal: Andreas Schager
Klingsor: Falk Struckmann
Kundry: Nina Stemme
Titurel: Reinhard Hagen

Staatskapelle Berlin
Staatsopernchor
Konzertchor der Staatsoper Berlin

Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Dmitri Tcherniakov, director

After nearly a decade of renovation, Staatsoper Unter den Linden re-opened its doors last year to the public. The renovation raised the height of the ceiling, resulting in a more imposing proscenium opening and an increase in the house’s cubic volume. The ceiling directly above the orchestra pit, which used to be arched like Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, is now flat. The design change seems deliberate, as if the orchestra is now boxed in its own chamber in contrast to its past, or in contrast to the somewhat reflective, angled opening of Staatsoper in Vienna. The box seems to yield a warm, comfortably reverberated sound that one would typically identify with Musikverein. On either side of the dome are white-colored lattice grills, parametrically designed with classical aesthetics. They are beautiful to look at, unobtrusive, and probably there to hide ventilation systems, acoustic manipulators, and the reverberation chamber that contributes significantly to the house’s warmer sound.

Staatskapelle Berlin on this occasion was nominally staffed, with small strings sections and no obvious doubling of instruments, except harps. Yet when Barenboim’s arms started to flap with resolute vigor, the orchestra responded, and surging sound followed. In the dynamically most intense passages, including the Transformation music and Klingsor’s entrance music, reverberation took hold and gave a golden-hued, blended sound. When Kundry wails in the beginning of Act II, the orchestra soared to the forefront, engulfing almost entirely Nina Stemme’s voice. Here, where wailing was identified as an integral part of the drama, Barenboim deferred to the orchestra, and the grounds of the house shuddered. In more delicate passages, one could easily hear the various delicious timbres of individual instruments. Muted horns sounded deliriously evil and intentionally vulgar, while timpani notes dropped like plump raindrops hitting cold oil drums. Such clarity was revelatory: when Parsifal’s heroic music escalated with urgency, one could hear the ghost of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier arising in the shadows.

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s direction places the drama in contemporary times, with video projections and modern costumes (compare, for example, to his Eugene Onegin for Bolshoi). The Grail knights look after a place of desolation; crumbling walls and frail clothing point perhaps to a post-apocalyptic world. This would be Tcherniakov’s version of our true nature. In plenty other productions, the director would dramatically move stage features and manipulate lighting during the Transformation music. Here, Grail knights stoically file in line and lay out a pile of wooden benches, randomly stacked and visible at one side of the stage, into a communal circle. No other stage movement is visible. No lighting is tampered upon. On the surface of it, the direction seems wanting as it lacks a magical moment to accompany the music that is about to soar to its dramatic (and dynamic) apex. But on deeper thoughts, this makes perfect sense: Wagner never intended the Grail temple to be a part of the natural world; it is man-made, by the brotherhood, to enshrine the Grail. The act whereby the brotherhood moves the benches into a circle not only plays to the notion that the temple is one of human creation, but also highlights some sort of ritualistic formalism innate in the brotherhood. Sure, there is no coup-de-théâtre moment, but Tcherniakov feels, rightly, that such manipulation is unnecessary as he commits to illustrating a deeper meaning – that, if not for any man-made difference, the natural world and our world is really one and the same. This concept is further illustrated in Act II: the physical construct of the production set remains the same, albeit in a shade of perfectly clinical white. Doors, windows, arches and passageways depicted in Act I are still present, albeit now in immaculate condition. Tcherniakov seems to be saying that, in effect, Klingsor’s castle is really the Grail temple, only in a parallel universe, where flower maidens, dressed in primly pressed dresses, are held in captivity. If the natural world is in Act II so bleached as to be discomforting and troubling, Tcherniakov is probably suggesting that the natural world is in Act I so breached by the action of the Grail knights as to be ruinous and destructive. The Grail temple is, in Tcherniakov’s vision, treacherous and damaging to the natural world.

What is there to be redeemed, and by whom? And what is worth redeeming? When Kundry finally dies, by a treachery in this treacherous world (more on that later), Parsifal redeems Kundry simply by bringing her away offstage. The rest onstage is unredeemed. The Grail is love more generally, or Mitleid more specifically. When Parsifal (redeemer) and Kundry (the redeemed) finally leave the treachery behind, the drama suddenly corroborates not only with their final predicament but, crucially, also with the Schopenhauerian instincts innate in Wagner’s work. Here, Tcherniakov’s presentation of Parsifal is unusual yet, at its core, faithful to the design and philosophy driving it.

Andreas Schager, in the title role, set ablaze with a trumpet-like voice with searing penetration. At “Erlöse, rette mich…Händen!”, Schager brought the drama to a swaggering high watermark. Nina Stemme provided lush nourishing lines as Kundry. While Wagner is known to leave Kundry awkwardly on stage for extended periods, Stemme made the best of her stage time by interacting timely with the flow of the drama. The best example is during Gurnemanz’s monologue: as the Grail leader re-tells Amfortas’ plight, she would slowly walk down stage and be revealed to Gurnemanz’s audience just as her name is called. Stemme’s portrayal of Kundry as less of a vamp and more of a natural being capable of Mitleid (e.g. careful folding of Amfortas’ clothes) made her character more human, and perhaps more identifiable as deserving of a final redemption. Lauri Vasar made impact dramatically as Amfortas but his voice carried little gravitas – whether due to vocal limitation or conscious stage direction, his performance is perhaps an alternative way for Tcherniakov to highlight the fallacy of a redeemable Amfortas. Vocally, Rene Pape nurtured his lines with natural beauty and clarity. His character is most revealing in Tcherniakov’s vision: one who longs for a natural world would end up stabbing Kundry; in a way, he has assisted her in finding redemption through death. Amfortas, Gurnemanz and the rest of the Grail knights are left in the status quo – a state of perpetual suffering – the sort of state defining all of us who are incapable to fathom, much less strive towards, the goal of the Schopenhauerian ideal.

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Opera

Tristan und Isolde

Date: June 18, 2016
Location: Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Tristan: Stephen Gould
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Sailor’s Voice: Attilio Glaser
Brangäne: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Kurwenal: Ryan McKinny
Melot: Jörg Schörner
King Marke: Matti Salminen
Shepherd: Peter Maus
Steerman: Seth Carico

Deutsche Oper
Donald Runnicles, conductor
Graham Vick, production

When Wagner conceptualized the music drama, he was heavily influenced by the works of Schopenhauer. The central theme of Schopenhauer –to achieve inner peace through renouncement of desires – seems most evident in Act 3, when Tristan longs for release from his tormented longing for Isolde, or in Act 2, when both Tristan and Isolde seem willing to obtain fulfilment through death. The metaphysical realms of these depictions are a boon to experimental theatrical directors, who to portray these realms use a variety of fantastical devices, whether color, as in Dieter Dorn’s production at the Met; or video, as in Peter Sellars’ production in Paris; or even geometric shapes, as in Katharina Wagner’s production at Bayreuth. Photo-realism is mostly avoided.

Paul Brown’s set in this Graham Vick production is contemporary, reminding us of a luxurious cabin in the early to mid-Twentieth Century. This photo-realism robs the audience of a chance to experience, perhaps through fantastical stagecraft or music, the unknowable reality. Tristan’s death is handled with the hero leaving the stage by going through a door and into a crowd of zombies. After Liebestod, Isolde likewise enters that door, signifying her rejoining with Tristan. In Acts 2 and 3, when the two lovers utter anything in the libretto that points to or sounds like death, stage extras would walk across the stage and scatter flowers on a casket, placed prominently in the middle of the stage. Or, before the first note is sounded, Tristan’s coffin is nailed. Or, in Act 1, the shepherd’s herd is reenacted by actors crawling in four limbs. Or, throughout the entire evening, a lamp the size of a SMART car is used to literally highlight a part of the stage relevant to the ongoing libretto. Even if light (and darkness) has symbolic meaning in the story, why does this have to be labored to such repetitious pathology? These depictions seem almost all too overt and pictorially descriptive, in stark contrast to an ambiguously (deceptively?) represented world or, to a false representation of what we believe as the physical world (?). The production here seems insensitive to the background history behind the piece.

But Tristan und Isolde shines or dies with the vocal cast and the orchestra. With that, the star that outshone all others was Stephen Gould, whose imposing voice, as Tristan, impressed immensely. His handling of the libretto’s words was deutlich, with the kind of regal clarity befitting the voice of a professorial Bundestag politician. Tristan’s fiendishly long phrasings and endings were handled with care. Unlike many North American heldentenors, Gould’s diction was natural and unforced. His top rang with the sort of metallic gloss one finds on a sports car freshly wheeled off from the factory. Compared with his Siegfried I heard in 2009, Gould seemed much more willing to control and pace his vocal output at the outset to avoid coarse shouting closer to the end. Significantly, he probably now owns one of the densest and most stentorian outputs at the lower end of Tristan’s tessitura, not just among his contemporaries but every recorded Tristan I have come across. By the midpoint of his great monologue in Act III, it was clear that he still had plenty of reserve power and did not sound tired at all. A high A-natural was ever-so-slightly mishandled in “Sehnsucht, zu sterben”, in his monologue lamenting his betrayal of Marke, but it neither disturbed the audience nor the singer himself.

Nina Stemme has perhaps the most reliable and steady Wagnerian voice today. She never shouts, and even if it sounds like shouting she does not look uncomfortable or overparted. One of her greatest gifts is a consistently perfect pitch, which allows more of the intricate chordal and chromatic interplay between Isolde’s voice and the orchestra’s to come through. Her legato passages, especially as the drama built up to the extinguishing of the light, oozed like warm cheese. The reliability of her voice could present a liability as well, as it lacks that tiny bit of fragility that, in my opinion, could be desirable in Isolde: after all, Isolde has to face loneliness, as well as a dying/dead Tristan all by herself. Her calm and steady “Mild und leise” at least added to, though not definitively, a proof of that theory. That being said, singing with reliability is miles better than singing with an undisciplined shrill.

In the Act 2 duet “O sink hernieder”, the vocal outputs were equally matched. Their melodic lines were handled with sincerity and aplomb, all the while navigating together with heart-melting unity. The overall musicianship of the rest of the cast was of the highest caliber. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Brangäne carried the day with vocal purity and dramatic persuasion. Ryan McKinny’s Kurwenal was rather invisible in Act 1 but warmed up enough to voice clearly and resolutely in Act 3. Jörg Schörner, as Melot, sounded properly angry and stole some luster from Tristan, as it should be. Matti Salminen starred triumphantly as Marke, portraying the king with regal composure in Act 1 and wretched devastation in Act 3. At curtain call, there was a short ceremony in which he was feasted with applause and flowers, as the evening’s performance turned out to be last stage performance.

Donald Runnicles, usually a reliable Wagnerian, conducted an orchestra who, for the most part, lingered without much to say. Passages that are supposed to sound ruhig came out lifeless. Heftig passages appeared grotesque. Solo violins and violas had no problem pumping out the right phrases but sounded coarse and tired. The star of the evening, crucially, was Chloe Payot, whose handling of the cor anglais passages was magnificently klipp und klar. In the orchestra’s defense, the general lack of a cohesive soul in the playing could be due to an exhausted orchestra having done evenings of Mozart (Abduction), Verdi (Trovatore) and Puccini (Tosca) on consecutive days prior to this Tristan performance.

Tristan und Isolde, Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo copyright: Bettina Stöß.

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