Orchestral music

Cologne Guerzenich/Stenz/Meyer: Mozart, Strauss

Date: February 18, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

The 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival swung to a fantastic start with help by the Cologne musicians and maestro Markus Stenz. The evening was headlined by Sabine Meyer, who mechanized a rather bland Mozart clarinet concerto K.622. Meyer’s performance was not particularly objectionable, but neither was it particularly memorable. After the interval, the 100-strong Cologne wolf-pack filled the stage (by my count, five dozen strings, three dozen winds, six percussions, two harps and two keyboards) to deliver a jaw-dropping rendition of Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony. Another dozen or so wind players were offstage to perform the short but juicy hunter motif.

While the piece has subtle references to Strauss’ own Der Rosenkavalier and Wagner’s Parsifal, the symphony’s chief driving force is its programme: in twenty-two sections, the piece describes ascent to and descent from the Alpine peak. Along the way are thickets of rich forests, glaciers, brooks, mists and a gigantic storm. Doing homework prior to the concert has its rewards: while some music would seem like cinematic music (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the rest points to intricate details about nature: when woodwinds glide through their arpeggios, one could sense the motion of a virginal spring brook meandering away from the Alpine glacier. When brass starts to pounce, a raving storm is unmistakably at hand. Even without prior knowledge of Strauss’ programmatic focus, much enjoyment could be had by watching the musicians work through passages of glorious music. Watching the percussionist accelerating his arms to ratchet the wind machine, during the symphony’s storm section, was singularly the most dramatic (and wild!) experience one could enjoy inside an enclosed concert hall. Warm brass basked cuddly warmth and a yolky hue onto the meadows of lush strings. Cologne’s overall playing painted a sprawling Alpine dreamscape where movements evolved naturally, not hurried. Equally, Stenz was the consummate leader who unified the sound from over a hundred musicians into coherent scenes with precision and detail.

With the Strauss, nothing was short of superlative. But two encores that followed were a revelation altogether: the Vorspiel to Act III of Lohengrin, followed by a voice-less Walkürenritt in Die Walküre. Both beamed with regal luxury and breathed with furious detail – so much so that no evidence of exhaustion due to one hour of Strauss playing was left to trace. (Then again, a serious opera orchestra like Cologne would have gone through more than one hour (or two!) of intense Wagnerian grind by the time these two Act III gems are played: see my Cologne Ring review here.) Their playing was so fresh and detailed that it would not be entirely inappropriate to call it a master-class of Wagnerian musicianship. The Hong Kong Philharmonic shall take note. It was nevertheless a pity that the Cultural Centre’s main organ, a Rieger Orgelbau, was unused in the Strauss; a smaller and less impressive one on stage was used instead, allegedly because the Rieger could not be tuned appropriately to Cologne’s slightly higher concert pitch.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong, with Markus Stenz. (Copyright: Cologne Guerzenich Orchestra)


Cologne/Stenz: Wagner’s Ring in Shanghai

Date: September 16 – 19, 2010 (first of two Cycles)
Conductor: Markus Stenz
Production: Robert Carsen
Location: Shanghai Grand Theatre, Shanghai.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle looms over the city of Shanghai for the first time, thanks to the German government who brought Wagner’s music to Shanghai as part of its contribution to the Shanghai Expo 2010. Often labeled the “Green Ring”, this decade-old Robert Carsen production lends itself to a parable of the perils of untamed industrialization. The production, executed by the Cologne Opera, therefore also fits the “Better City, Better Life” motif of the Expo, which highlights the importance of sustainable economic development amidst our continued quest for rapid modernization.

The premise of the “Green Ring” rests upon the idea that the irresponsible mining of this precious natural resource sets in motion an inevitable tragedy as civilization becomes consummated by the excessive abuses of its agents, just as Alberich’s robbery in the Rhine triggers the series of events that lead to the fall of the status quo. In Carsen’s eco-minded vision, the irreversible purgatory wasteland, as revealed in the Norn scene, marks the predestined conclusion to an era where the illusion of free choices turns out to be excesses that destiny will eventually rein in, just as Wotan’s seemingly free choices are, after all, limited by the laws governing his conscience and the Gods. The freedom to industrialize, to contract and to rise at the expense of others has its consequences. And the singular consequence in Carsen’s allegory remains that profligacy, no matter what form, will eventually meet its due. While Carsen does not show any inkling of an alternative, his execution reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s argument that the Ring is essentially a socialist’s critique of industrial society’s excesses and travails.

Musically, Markus Stenz managed a tight reading of Wagner’s score. Unlike Karajan’s Ring or Knappertsbusch’s Ring or Boulez’s Ring, this Ring did not follow 20th century’s personality-filled declension of Wagner’s work. Nor did Stenz seem to be the kind of conductor who tries to insert his own nuances and mannerisms into the music. Rather, he proved to be a faithful pace-keeper, exercising plenty of control and keeping Wagner’s wheel rolling without calling unnecessary attention to himself. The orchestra was well balanced and didn’t sound strained, despite having to perform, with no obvious change in its main lineup, over four straight evenings. Not forgotten but most certainly forgiven, the only major blemish in those four evenings was a glaring mistake with Siegfried’s leitmotif, as the hero entered the Gibichung palace, which sounded horrifically misplaced, both contextually and texturally, and suggested nothing to anticipate Siegfried’s entrance.

Greer Grimsley presented a Wotan who was tortured as fate unfolded around him. In Das Rheingold, the American bass-baritone unleashed a roaring lord of the Gods, with a fantastic and secure top. His lower registers proved more problematic as he was unable to project elegant lines without sounding feeble and un-godly. He recovered mostly in the second and third evenings and, in particular, delivered one of the most memorable and fatherly mountaintop executions heard in years. As Loge, Carten Suess was badly cast as he possessed a pretty, almost boyish lirico spinto sound that lacked the heroic juice expected of the powerful demigod of fire. Martin Koch’s Mime was badly cast for exactly the opposite reason: Koch’s voice was too heroic and had too much of a projection, sounded like Hagen, and left one wondering what went so wrong in the casting department. Catherine Foster’s Brunnhilde was fabulous, even though the top C in her battle cry scene was rendered with too much of a staccato, a manner that seemed a bit artificial and almost too disconnected.

Lance Ryan, the reigning Siegfried at Tankred Dorst’s production at Bayreuth, sang a fabulously courageous Siegmund. He began the spring duet with aplomb and composure, and contributed much sappiness before Astrid Weber’s Sieglinde joined the melodic party. After taking a day off, Ryan returned as Siegfried in Götterdämmerung. He did not disappoint by navigating the technically impossible third act with plenty of gusto and with apparently zero effort. To top the night off, he lengthened the top note in “Hoihe”, with Stenz happily indulging his tenor for the extension. The showmanship could be repelling to some, but it’s difficult to argue against listening to a supremely confident Siegfried who can carry his voice into the far corners of the house.

If Grimsley’s voice was moribund but serviceable, Stig Andersen’s certainly was not. To be sure, Andersen’s voice was a refined one, and plenty of evidence could be found showing a methodical meticulousness in his phrasing and breath control. Unfortunately, that refinement seemed pointless as Andersen’s voice, perhaps due to age, was drowned out by the weight of the pit sound. In Siegfried, he labored through in the eponymous role with some visible strain. When Andersen seemed comfortable enough, he lacked any blood-boiling thrill. In the last scene, his voice was, understandably so, severely frayed after four hours of competitive singing, but was so drowned out by Foster’s fresh Brunnhilde that the soprano sounded as if she consciously tried to gear down for a less disturbing dynamic imbalance. Scatters of boos were directed at Andersen at the curtain calls, though they were largely overwhelmed by a warm response that seemed as much to laud Andersen’s performance as to devastate the unnecessary negativity, as if to prove the point that no Siegfried who could labor through four-plus hours of heldenlabor should be maliciously trashed.

By my book, there is no such thing as a bad Ring, and this one is no exception. A truly excellent Ring, at least to me, encompasses great musical execution, spectacular pyrotechnics (of which there was plenty), and a stage that, as James Levine has said many a time, lets Wagner’s story tell itself. Carsen’s green allegory could sometimes be distracting, but it neither impedes the music nor the singers who attempt it. By those counts, this Ring is a most excellent one.

Ring in Shanghai.

Wagner's Ring in Shanghai.