Orchestral music

Berlin Phil/Petrenko: Berg, Beethoven

Date: August 25, 2019
Location: Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg.

Berg – Lulu Suite
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9

Berliner Philharmoniker
Rundfunkchor Berlin

Kirill Petrenko, conductor
Marlis Petersen (soprano)
Elisabeth Kulman (contralto)
Benjamin Bruns (tenor)
Kwangchul Youn (bass)

 

Ushering the Berlin Philharmonic into the Petrenko era was a series of Beethoven 9 concerts, with two concerts in Berlin followed by stints at successive European summer festivals in Salzburg, Lucerne and Bucharest. This review from Salzburg was therefore Petrenko’s third concert as Chief Conductor of the orchestra. The program featured two works that could not be more contrasting in mood and nature: that of Berg, a plot of humanity’s despair and disintegration; and that of Beethoven 9, humanity’s hymn for universal brotherhood.

The Berg’s score, in the hands of an average orchestra, could feel weighty and muddled. But here, instrumental lines flowed in mid-air, with rhythms of four against three and two against three crisscrossing each other, like a feisty swarm of butterflies fluttering their wings vibrantly, yet cleanly and without touching each other. A good example was in the Rondo, with the music in reference to the escape plot to bring Lulu to Paris. Lulu is pretending to be an invalid, and the music that accompanies her act is lightweight, borderline comical. The woodwind counts in two and plays in triplets of notes, while the piano counts in three and plays triplets. The music was moving so quickly that the sequence would have been easily missed. But here, the Berliner’s execution was clean and clear, with rhythms held aloft in a delicious call and response. Another good example was how each long line of the Act 2 trombones, often as anchor or trailer to bright trumpet moments, never seemed muddled. Their exhibition was a masterclass of rhythmic diligence and persuasive phrasing.

Marlis Petersen, as Lulu, gave an impassioned performance. Her voice was suitably prepared at her entrance, as if she had been warming up her voice and singing Lulu’s part anyway while the Suite was in motion. Her diction was clear; and her delivery was supple.

If the ambiguously resolution of the last chords of Berg was intent to sink the audience hearts, the latter piece’s beginning fifths by Beethoven, if purely by its embryonic and yet-to-be-shaped intention, did not immediately prove to repeal the former. It was not until the triple forte section, when the third was finally introduced, that there was no longer any doubt about how, after Berg’s total repudiation of humanity, the evening was about to be rehabilitate. What came after was a rebuilding, chord by chord, layer by layer. Petrenko was patient, taking his time through the first three movements to build up motions, occasionally suppressing them just enough so as to enable a long arch leading to the fourth movement’s climactic end.

The Schreckensfanfare, approached with an unrelenting fury, ruptured the tension built heretofore. The double basses’ introduction of the title theme was so united in intonation, color and clarity, as if the basses were forged into one giant instrument. Tempo picked up slowly with briskness, in a statement of an increasingly vibrant life, even flirting slightly with the rushed side of things, as if to illustrate the vivacity in human emotion. But where the orchestra seemed to be juicing just above comfort, its sound came across more as confidently urgent than blindly hard-driven. When the proceedings got hot, musicians cooled down by playing farther behind the baton, most evidently by Emmanuel Pahud’s solo at the poco ritenente, just before the baritone’s first entrance.

Petrenko was not the only one making a prominent debut on this occasion. Benjamin Forster, who replaced the retiring Rainer Seegers as solo timpanist, made a glorious debut as solo timpanist, in this all-important part of the instrument’s classical repertoire. His playing style was minimalist and scrupulously efficient. And he seemed shy when Petrenko singularly called him out during the extended and thunderous applause.

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Opera

HK Phil/van Zweden: Das Rheingold

Date: January 22, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Wotan: Matthias Goerne
Donner: Oleksandr Pushniak
Froh: Charles Reid
Loge: Kim Begley
Fricka: Michelle DeYoung
Freia: Anna Samuil
Erda: Deborah Humble
Alberich: Peter Sidhom
Mime: David Cangelosi
Fasolt: Kwangchul Youn
Fafner: Stephen Milling
Woglinde: Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde: Aurhelia Varak
Flosshilde: Hermine Haselböck

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden, conductor

concert performance

In the span of one month two years ago, the Hong Kong Philharmonic went from being an orchestra with hardly any significant footprint in the Wagnerian repertory to one with a couple: the orchestra performed Holländer, with Opera Hong Kong, and then The Ring Without Words a few weeks later, with Maazel conducting. Coincidence does not come by easily, and certainly not in the world of art programming. Any avid follower of the HKPO back then could not possibly escape speculating on the prospect of something more dramatic lurking on the horizon. Without fail, the orchestra announced within a year that it would embark on its most ambitious project in its 40+ years of professional existence: Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Granted, over the past few years the HKPO has markedly improved to become a credible orchestral ensemble under music director Jaap van Zweden. Granted, the “HKPO Ring” would be performed over four years – one opera per year. That being said, one ponders whether making baby steps with Wagner’s other early-in-career romantic works would have been a better choice to get the orchestra accustomed to the physical and mental demands of Wagner’s music, or whether the Ring Cycle should be presented at all to a city that is heretofore, sadly, underexposed to and relatively unfamiliar with the composer’s music. But something must start somewhere, and that somewhere is now.

Van Zweden built up the E-flat chord of the opening bars with measured subtlety. His dynamics at the outset was so tightly leashed that one wonders whether he was deliberately trying to recreate the restrained sound of an enclosed orchestral pit. As the evening progressed, Van Zweden loosened much of that restraint, yet seemed determined to staying within a well-defined boundary of volume and exuberance. The maestro, attentive and committed to the score, showed no signs of fatigue despite standing on the podium throughout the evening. His timing at just a little over 2 hours and 30 minutes was fairly mainstream, but sounded slightly draggy during the Rhinemaiden scene at the beginning and the rainbow bridge passage towards the end. Except in respect of these varying tempi, he did not draw much attention to himself, deferring mostly to the singers and musicians. Without a culture of operatic playing – let alone Wagner’s – the orchestra by and large responded well and remained vigilant. Remarkably, the cellos unleashed a rapturous firework during Wotan and Loge’s descent into Nibelheim, and the violas displayed unfettered fury in the subsequent ascent. The 60+ strings stayed focused for much of the evening, with energy level ebbing only ever so slightly towards the end: when Donner is about to unleash his power in the billowing thundercloud, the strings did not manage to support with a corresponding rage. The horns, ever important in Wagner, had a “slip up” (pun intended) during the slippery reef scene, but otherwise compromised nothing of consequence. The woodwinds, particularly the clarinets, complemented with exquisite phrasings and a mystical voicing of their lines.

The ideal Wotan in Das Rheingold should sound confident, if not also slightly spiteful. But Matthias Goerne, in his debut as Wotan, was found sounding a little too sentimental and romantic, as if his character has been journeying forever and ready to face demise (Winterreise, anyone?). Perhaps his characterization today is better suited for the Wanderer in two years’ time. While Goerne gave a worthy output infused with a warm and sumptuous glow, his delivery lacked the sort of expansive projection required if he were to sing behind an orchestra in a real opera house, as opposed to in front of one in a concert hall. Peter Sidhom as Alberich sounded corrosive, dramatic, and well-suited for the role. Whether with a clenched fist while trying to catch the Rhinemaidens, or with a stomping foot during the love curse, Sidhom also managed to inhabit the role and, while reacting to the words and scenes, devoured the space with raw delirium. Kwangchul Youn nurtured a fatherly and buttery voice as Fasolt. With a heart-felt rendition of “Freia, die Schöne”, the Wagner veteran induced plenty of sympathy and awe from the audience (even a botched oboe clunker could not derail his triumph). As Froh, Charles Reid delivered his short stanza with a piercing projection and a shimmering metallic ring.

Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka was the evening’s most unfortunate miscast. The mezzo’s voice was full-throated and feisty, but sounded too much like a Sieglinde or a Kundry not to be a distraction. Kim Begley’s Loge had pitch problems as Loge, especially in the critical thematic passage “So weit Leben und Weben” when he sounded more like an old man droning about a minor league ballgame than an intellectual’s pontification of a man’s noble desire for a woman. Begley somewhat redeemed with lively acting and eye contact with the audience. David Cangelosi’s Mime was adequate but a bit too lyrical and not nearly menacing enough. Deborah Humble presented an Erda that was motherly and gracious, yet assured. Unlike the rest of the cast, who sang in front of the orchestra, Humble appeared on cue in the balcony behind the orchestra, dressed in a stunning velvet green gown. The color of her gown, which matched the concert hall’s green velvet upholstery, as well as her understated entrance on cue, said more about Erda the character than many productions today with luxurious sets possibly could.

Given its relative inexperience in the genre, the HKPO delivered well above expectations. Van Zweden was able to hold everything together with a coherent vision. If there were flaws, some musicians sounded rather clinical in their approach – as if they were playing for a Brucknerian perfection of harmonized cadence rather than a solo leitmotif in a dramatic passage. Some musicians looked (not necessarily sounded) towards the end as though they were relieved to be done with the evening than excited about bookending the beginning of the saga, as Wagner intended Das Rheingold to be. There are rumors that HKPO’s newly appointed principal guest conductor, Yu Long, will eventually bring this “HKPO Ring” to Beijing in 2017. Whether that is true or remains a good idea will depend on how well the orchestra improves upon tonight’s performance. The starting point has already arrived. The gold has been taken out of the Rhine. Yet there is still time.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.

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