Showing posts with label Jonas Kaufmann. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonas Kaufmann. Show all posts

Monday, July 09, 2018

Problems with Pélléas

It's always interesting to read bad reviews, even if one cringes while so doing. But those that have attended the new Pélléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne have come with such a dose of vinegar that it makes one super-curious to see whether they're justified, and it's always hard to believe that they could be.

Oh dear.

Das Wunder der Heliane meets the ghost of Pélléas?
Photo: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd, by Richard Hubert Smith

Perhaps Stefan Herheim's concept would play better in central Europe or Scandinavia, where productions are often more heavily dramaturged [yes, I know, no such word] than is usually the case here, and where audiences have arguably grown to expect controversy on stage plus abstruse references laid on with the trowel. And perhaps the setting of Glyndebourne's Organ Room - recreated with useful additions such as concertina-folding organ pipes and sliding walls - would have played better if habitual Glyndebourne patrons had not seen umpteen other productions of other operas also set within Glyndebourne itself, to the point that this jumps aboard the most massive of local clichés.

It is nevertheless a valid starting point: the action takes place in a grand, dark, oppressive old house/castle and, as my companion for the evening remarked, how many of us have not wandered through such a place and wondered what secrets it is hiding in its past? (Or is Herheim trying to tell us something about the age-old secrets of Glyndebourne? I sincerely hope not.) Perhaps part of the idea is about the Christies staging dramatics in their organ room. But what is inexcusable is to have Debussy's final bars obscured by audience laughter as actors clad as present-day Glyndebourne punters wander onto the stage, looking around. No. Just no.

Everyone seems to be blinding each other. Yes, the text makes ample reference to blindness, but nothing in this text is literal: must it be spelled out to that degree? If there is a benefit to the storytelling, it's eluded me thus far. And Golaud, Pélléas and Yniold all frantically mime painting on empty easels. Yes, Debussy was a contemporary of the great Impressionist painters, but that doesn't make this appropriate, insightful or comprehensible, even if perhaps excusable.

What's with the Christ-like figure that appears in the middle of the organ, just as Arkel tells Mélisande she must issue in a new era...with a sheep draped over its shoulders? Sacramental imagery, says a Twitter contact. Yes, we get that (and Herheim changes Yniold's shepherd into a priest), even if we don't necessarily get its point - but the bottom line is that it looks completely ridiculous and everyone laughed, and you don't want that to happen in the middle of Pélléas.

Or maybe you do...and that would be worse, because it means you are not taking the work on its own terms or presenting your audience with something conceived in its true spirit, in which case why should we go? Moreover, having Golaud rape his own son/daughter Yniold is a major misjudgment in a scene that is upsetting enough as Debussy and Maeterlinck created it - and leaves Pélléas novices seriously confused ("But why does he do that?" "Well, actually, he doesn't...").

Nevertheless, there's a sprinkling of wonderful ideas too. Mélisande is portrayed (by the excellent Christina Gansch) as a complete pre-Raphaelite beauty, overwhelming in her seductive presence, and she seems to have healing powers; also, she recoils when Golaud faces her with his sword presented as a cross. There's always a mystery about her; no reason she shouldn't be at least partly supernatural. Golaud (a tour de force from Christopher Purves) is a violent psychopath, as destroyed by his own malady as any Otello. Pelléas is under-characterised, though mostly well sung by John Chest. The division of body and soul for Mélisande at the start of the final scene works nicely, as does having the ghost of Pélléas lurking around, waiting for her to join him – though I'm not sure why he has to run her through with a sword when she's about to snuff it in any case. Some of these images come over more as Das Wunder der Heliane than Pélléas, and I can't really think of two more different operas.

As you'll have gathered, a lot of visual ideas are crammed in here, layer upon layer upon layer. Yet Debussy's music is so subtle, so delicate, so hinted-at, that it's completely overpowered by the on-stage shenanigans. By the end one feels exhausted by all the "WTF now?" moments, and might be longing for the privilege of hearing a concert performance instead – preferably with Robin Ticciati conducting it every bit as beautifully, intelligently and ineffably as he does here.

In the past few years Ticciati has had to take some time off for a back operation, which has somewhat disrupted his tenure as Glyndebourne's music director. But in that time, he has been reinventing his whole approach to conducting (as he told me in an interview last year) - and now the results are becoming more and more interesting. Something in him has deepened and darkened and opened out. I'm getting the impression that we may have here a very significant musician indeed, someone who has further to go interpretatively than some of the supposedly glitzier, more superficially exciting podium presences. I hope I'm still around to see where he is in 25 years' time.

Nina Stemme as Kundry, with ex-equine friend
Photo: Ruth Walz

Concert performances, meanwhile, have a lot going for them. I spent yesterday afternoon and evening holed up with the webcast of Parsifal from the Bavarian State Opera, this being the first summer in a number of years that I'm not going physically to Munich. (Hallelujah, medals and science prizes galore, please, to whoever created the technology that makes webcasts possible and quality sound available on the computer.) What a musical treat: Kirill Petrenko on fire with spiritual joy in the pit, the orchestra playing the living daylights out of the piece, Nina Stemme the most astounding Kundry - and Kundry the most astounding Nina Stemme - that I've yet had the joy of hearing, Christian Gerhaher a dream of an Amfortas, Rene Pape channelling Gurnemanz in person, and Jonas Kaufmann tracing Parsifal's growth and strength incrementally, with That Voice. The production, by Pierre Audi, is strong, straightforward and clear, never confused or confusing. The Grail is meat in act I and music itself at the end of act 3: we are saved by art alone. Bravi. But the visual art is by the great Georg Baselitz and though many images are effective, at other times one just has to look the other way. A concert performance would solve that in one fell swoop. This probably sounds uncharacteristically philistine, so blame the heat if you like.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The day after the day before

Jonas Kaufmann, Jochen Rieder, BBCSO.
Photo: Mark Allen/Barbican
It's possibly some measure of my current distraction - with libretto, deadlines, nephew's wedding the other day and an ongoing situation with a very sick cat - that I completely forgot Jonas Kaufmann was coming to London to do the Strauss Four Last Songs, until the Barbican press office sent me an email saying, in effect, '...but don't you want tickets?'. So after Meghan and Harry had walked up the aisle - and so, in Harrogate, had our nephew and his own American bride, and so, in Cambridge, had Guy Johnston and Ali Digby (huge congratulations to music's loveliest new couple!) - and the sun shone and the Rev Michael Curry had wowed a rather startled congregation with his reminder of the powers of love and fire, off we headed for the City to see what the tenor of this event would be like.

One question that always applies at such concerts is: what else goes into the programme? Kaufmann's friendly conductor, Jochen Rieder, wielded the BBC Symphony Orchestra baton over a selection including Elgar's In the South, the second symphonic interlude from Strauss's Intermezzo and, to open, a work that I frankly thought I would never hear played live: Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Schauspiel Overture, written when he was 14. [Update: I am reminded that the CBSO did it a few years back and I missed it...] The drama in question has never been definitively identified: his adored Shakespeare is likely, and while The Tempest and The Winter's Tale have been suggested, Twelfth Night - as stated by his notorious critic father, Julius - is possibly the most convincing idea, given the bittersweet tone of the music, plus the mix of high spirits and big, generous tunes. But it's possible, too, that it's a non-specific concert overture and as such, it functions jolly nicely.

This Viennese gemütlichkeit, the expansive expression, the Klimt-like glistening of the orchestration, seemed to puzzle the Barbican every bit as much as the gospel choir inside St George's Chapel, Windsor, had earlier struck some churlish online wedding observers as "inappropriate". Of course, it wasn't - the bride is American and it represented her background. In the Barbican, Korngold was a Strauss disciple, so it was perfectly appropriate too. My dream is that one day the English will "get" Korngold. They still don't. It may be a long wait.

Kaufmann presented four Strauss songs in the first half - 'Ruhe, meine Seele', 'Freundliche Vision', 'Befreit' and 'Heimliche Aufforderung' - and the Four Last Songs in the second. I'm preoccupied with Lieder right now because I'm doing a comparative review of a certain song-cycle by Schumann and have been listening to dozens of recordings, day in and day out (Kaufmann has not recorded this cycle, so isn't in the survey). The ideal singer, in my personal view, blends tone, nuances of meaning and diction into one - it's amazing how often the balance between these elements is skewed. In this respect Kaufmann is an absolute master. What we heard last night, essentially, was a supremely intelligent, beautiful and detailed Lieder recital. But whether the orchestra bore responsibility (enough rehearsal? One wonders...), or the loud and muddy acoustic of the hall, or whatever, Kaufmann's tone - never huge in any case - blended into the textures rather than soaring above it.

You shouldn't go to a Kaufmann concert expecting ear-splitting volume, any more than you should go to his Otello expecting him suddenly to morph into Jon Vickers. He likes to sing softly. He goes for colour, nuance, text, intimacy - and these Strauss numbers are mostly not molto con belto-appropriate. Could any listener witness a fine performance of 'Befreit' and emerge unshredded? In this poem by Richard Dehmel, a man speaks to his dying wife of the joys they have experienced together and recognises the time ahead when she will be 'released' and he will see her only in his dreams. So, no, you cannot expect a singer to whack this out at high volume. You need some sensitivity from the orchestra. Or you need Helmut Deutsch at the piano instead.

Here's what Kaufmann said to me about the question of volume when I interviewed him a few years ago for BBC Music Magazine:

"I think you can touch the audience more with a soft sound than you can with any big note. I think you can impress people with big notes, but you can really move them and touch them with the soft ones. You need to have both. Even in the heavy Wagnerian repertory, no big note seems to be big if there isn’t a soft note as well. If everything is just shouted it’s not impressive – after five minutes you’re thinking 'we’ve heard that already'. When people are in misery, when people are suffering, you tell it with a soft voice – there are self-confessions and all these things, it doesn’t get shouted, it comes out naturally."


So, did the Four Last Songs work? In terms of pure artistry, of the mix of line and text and meaning, then yes, absolutely, with 'Im Abendrot' the finest of all: subtle, mystical, transformative. But can you get used to the sound of a baritonal tenor in these songs, instead of a soprano whose tone soars and slices through the textures? Kaufmann's didn't. He blended with the orchestra as if he were another instrument among them. In short, it was beautiful, it was a worthwhile experiment, but sopranos can probably rest assured they won't be losing these songs too often to their male rivals.

And one encore: 'Morgen', in which the orchestra was quiet enough and that soft, shining, intense Straussian beauty could reach everybody. Heaven at last.

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Friday, April 06, 2018

Psst, Kaufmaniacs: Tristan alert

Jonas Kaufmann is singing Tristan und Isolde, Act 2, in concert this week with Camilla Nylund (soprano), the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons. The New York Times has a sneak preview video, plus an interview by Joshua Barone. The singing sounds quite good.

Kaufmann.
Photo: Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Classical
NYLUND It’s actually very dangerous to drive a car and listen. You always drive much too fast. [She's not wrong - JD]
NELSONS A few conductors have died during “Tristan.” The reason is Act II. It might seem relaxing, but actually the heartbeat and the intensity and level of excitement — it’s so high that you can’t stand it for a long time. So I don’t want yet to die, but I might.
KAUFMANN Do it on Saturday, so at least we’ve done one concert.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

One for the Kaufmaniacs



I've just been watching the Andrew Marr Show, in which some government twonk has been banging on about how his colleagues in power ought to sound more optimistic about Brexit.

It's one of those New Age lispings from the '90s that if you believe in something hard enough, you make it magically come true. You turn it into a little rhyme known as an 'affirmation' and you sit in your room every morning and every evening repeating it and repeating it and eventually bingo, there it is on your pretty-patterned life plate. Only problem is that beyond your room you might find yourself up against other people believing in other things, or even those peculiar phenomena known as realities.

So I've fled in disgust and found you a trailer for the Jonas Kaufmann documentary to help cheer up anyone who needs a smile right now. See above.

John Bridcut's film, Jonas Kaufmann: Tenor for the Ages is on BBC4 at 9pm tonight. Don't miss it. You might learn a little more about what was going on through those two tempestuous years from Last Night of the Proms to Otello. The latter involved a last-minute sprint back to the dressing-room to fetch a forgotten sword - just after the opera had begun. The former involved Union Jack boxer shorts and we might just hear how he got them. (Well, we do hear. I'm not telling.) The good news is that the film will be on iPlayer for a month, so you can watch it online as many times as you like.

The broadcast is followed at 10.30pm by the showing of Otello itself, filmed at the Royal Opera House in June. Why such an event gets confined to BBC4 at dead of a Sunday night is actually beyond me. Perhaps the action is somehow, somewhere, considered too nasty, too tragic and too Italian [despite being by Shakespeare] to foist upon that relentlessly optimistic Brexiteering UK public? After all, optimism fixes everything, dunnit? [irony font applies]. Otello just wasn't optimistic enough when Iago began to pour the poison of doubt and jealousy into his ear. He could have won if he'd been optimistic, no?

Or is it more that he swallowed a heap of lies fed systematically to him by someone he trusted but shouldn't have? Lies that induced him to murder and suicide? Is that just too close to the bone?

Time was when Jonas Kaufmann singing one of Verdi's greatest roles would be primetime fare for mainstream channels, probably on a holiday or special occasion moment. If you're going to have an opera season, as the BBC is, why not really have an opera season? Why squirrel it away? What a missed opportunity. How very unoptimistic.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Something for the weekend: Paris with Jonas



Jonas Kaufmann's new album of French arias, entitled simply L'Opéra, is out next week. Being JDCMB readers, dear friends, you are probably going to like it, so here is Sony's beautifully made trailer, narrated by the man himself.

He strikes a fine balance between known and unfamiliar repertoire, with the presentation on the video informal but informative, classy but unpretentious. He's accompanied by the magnificent Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera from his home town of Munich, conducted by Bertrand de Billy. Ludovic Tézier joins him for the Pearl Fishers duet and Sonya Yoncheva for scenes from Massenet's Manon that even blissed out my cat, Ricki, not thus far noted for his appreciation of anything other than supremely refined playing of Mozart piano sonatas.

The album also includes dark-hued accounts of Massenet's 'Pourquoi me réveiller' from Werther and the Flower Song from Bizet's Carmen, but culminates in the glory of Berlioz's Les Troyens, performed with multifarious colour and vast, mature, refined authority. We hope you love it as much as we did.

Release date is 15 September and there's more info here.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Hotello

Kaufmann as Otello, Vratogna as Iago.
All photos by Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House

One of the first rules of reviewing is: do not start by talking about the weather. So to start on the Royal Opera's new Otello by pointing out that it was the hottest first night of the year - Jonas Kaufmann's role debut - as well as the hottest June day since 1976 just isn't on. Nevertheless, it was both. In the auditorium one experienced Keith Warner's postmodern new production and Verdi's sizzling score through the gentle rattling of ladies' fans, the flapping of tickets and programmes mimicking their effect, and the upping and downing of light on rogue mobiles as certain people in my row checked Facebook every ten minutes. (Why couldn't they just have donated their ticket to a fan who would have fully appreciated the performance?)

If the audience was finding it difficult to settle, the same couldn't be said of the music. Tony Pappano, first of all, is in his element in this opera. His shaping and pacing of the drama is breathtaking: mercurial, clear, enormously energetic and deeply intelligent. The building up of the scene where Iago gets Cassio increasingly drunk is just one example, beginning almost as a pub song, joshing about, before spiralling through a queasy mephistophelian intensification into violence. The chorus's staging is often static and stylised, very far from naturalistic, but they sound simply glorious.




Again, canny pacing is everything in Kaufmann's characterisation of Otello: confident and tender until Iago plants the seed of doubt, but thereafter tumbling in stages from loss of faith through cool, calculating and controlled resolve, into increasing torment and ultimate dissolution. At ease taking command, but tentative with his new wife as she leads him to the bedroom, this Otello is a man of war first and foremost, perhaps unable to cope with the shock of his own emotions. His progress towards murder for once makes considerable sense.

Deeply convincing and vocally gorgeous, full of careful shading with brilliance reserved for the moments it most counted, this was singing in 3D. If some people expected more volume, one can only reiterate that Kaufmann doesn't do volume for the sake of it and has never been the biggest voice on the stage, just the most beautiful and intelligent one (hmm, this is my second time this year writing that). It is no reason to reject the most complex and satisfying interpretation of this role that I've yet experienced.

Marco Vratogna, replacing the originally announced Ludovic Tézier as Iago, was the wild card of the evening, bursting into our consciousnesses in impressive style. Warner's production makes him explicitly the puppet master, controlling not only those around him but the symbols of Venice, the carnival mask, the winged lion, setting the hideous process in motion with ice-cold, psychopathic glee and resembling nothing so much as a Shakespearean version of Dracula with shaven head and bat-like cloak. He could scarcely lean on a wall without making it move. Yet his raven-dark, demonically powerful voice made Iago more than merely a copybook villain. Meanwhile, as Desdemona Maria Agresta sounded vocally effortless and presented the hapless heroine as a straightforward, uncomplicated, loving young woman, trapped in a tragic situation beyond control.

Agresta as Desdemona, Kaufmann as Otello in the final scene

Visually the production has some seriously striking moments. The set design, by Boris Kudlička, involves sliding panels that shift to show us blazes of light through glass, the bedroom through latticework, Otello's face highlighted in a window frame before the final scene, and Cassio's vertiginous descent into drunkenness, amid much else. The contrast between the public and the private moments is convincingly achieved, with Iago and Otello experiencing their oppressive solitary reflections in the darkest isolation. The aptly named Bruno Poet's lighting is, throughout, not only masterful, but often magical.

However, reflecting Otello as a tragic-faced lion-caricature in a mirror, smothering him with a carnival mask and bringing on a giant dismembered lion statue are gestures that seem to over-egg the Venetian pudding in a production that otherwise mixes and mismatches its eras to occasional ill effect. The tall ship rigged with beautiful sails arriving at the back in scene 1 is far indeed from the apparently contemporary hotel-style bedroom in which the murder takes place. And the costume designs by Kaspar Glarner, while offering flowing robes for Desdemona and that splendid cloak for Iago, experience occasional misjudgments. Emilia - the excellent Kai Rüütel - is encumbered by an impossibly stiff and outsize fake-Renaissance wig, and as for Otello's gigantic harem-style leather trousers (eh?) and the blue sparkly robe - think variety-act pseudo-magician - in which he arrives to kill his wife, these did few favours to either singer or character. If the point is that the story is timeless, we know that already and this doesn't help.

There's always some plonker who has to boo the production team, of course, and despite those few weaknesses they really didn't deserve it. It's a powerful, moving account of a towering masterpiece, with musical performances of a calibre that you won't find improved upon anywhere.

Otello is in cinemas next Wednesday, 28 June, so if you can't get to the ROH, do try and catch it on screen.

Details and booking here.


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Monday, February 13, 2017

Less cheering...


Eric Halfvarson, Karita Mattila, Jonas Kaufmann, Tony Pappano & the LSO
take a bow the other night. Now it's curtains...

Oh dear. The Kaufmann Residency has come to an untimely end. Jonas has bronchitis and the concert including the 'Four Last Songs' tonight has been cancelled. Or at least postponed - the Barbican says it will be rescheduled in due course.

So there we are. That's it from London's Kaufmann Central. The discount tent has been packed away, the thermos of tea drained and the last sarnies will presumably keep a day or two in the fridge. We were very lucky to hear that glorious recital last week and the delirious thrill of Die Walküre Act I, so probably we shouldn't be greedy.

We wish Jonas the speediest of recoveries. The offer of chicken soup still stands.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A post to cheer up the Kaufmaniacs... #kaufmannresidency

Oh dear. Jonas Kaufmann cancelled his conversation session at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama today, citing a cold and apologising for disappointing the public. We wish him a speedy recovery and hope to see him for some Strauss specials on Monday. Meanwhile, for the Kaufmaniacs who'd taken the day off specially to go along this afternoon, here are some cheering bits and pieces. Grab a glass of something nice and sit back...

HOW I DISCOVERED JONAS
This recording was the first time I ever heard Jonas's voice and I have never forgotten it. I knew nothing about him, had never even heard his name, and was sent his Strauss album to review, and out came this...voice. Blimey, guv....



WORDS OF WISDOM
Here are some choice quotes from my interview with him exactly three years ago, for BBC Music Magazine. It was February 2014 in New York, it was sodding freeeezing, the snow was piled six and a half feet high around the sidewalks and I turned up in a thick jumper, a hat that wrecks my hair and snow boots. He was rehearsing Werther intensively, but looked fresh as the proverbial daisy. We talked mainly about Winterreise. Also...

JK: “One of the key ingredients to make an audience suffer with you, feel with you, to make things credible and look and sound natural is that you must really believe in it. You need to fill up these wonderful compositions with sense, meaning and genuine emotion.

“I always refer to Herbert von Karajan’s words when he said that what we’re seeking as musicians is ‘controlled ecstasy’. The world around you – including yourself – has to believe that you are a hundred per cent this other person and only when this happens is it something real. But it’s a game, and at the beginning you don’t know how far you can go before you lose control.


“This feeling of almost flying, of almost convincing yourself you’re this other person, that’s what makes this job so exciting – and also in the end so easy, because since you ‘are’ that person, all the words you are singing or saying make total sense.”


WAAAGNER
Better? Let's have some appropriately Wintersturmerish Wagner, with thanks to the excellent quality of Medici.tv...


AND A SPOT OF LEHÁR WITH PLÁCIDO
If this next one doesn't work, nothing will! Come on, SMILE....


HOT TODDY
Last but not least, here is my dad's hot toddy recipe. Should dispel a cold in moments.

1 measure brandy (more if necessary)
A spoon of apricot jam, to taste (or alternative flavour, or honey)
A slice of lemon

Put ingredients into a mug. Fill with hot water. Stir well. Enjoy while listening to Meistersinger.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Wagner Evening #kaufmannresidency

Jonas Kaufmann in recital the other night. Photo: Alastair Muir/Barbican

State of being in the Discount Tent EC1 last night post-Walküre Act I: shaking a bit, hyperventilating slightly and maybe in need of a little lie-down, toast and a nice cup of camomile tea. But even the most soothing of brews doesn't cleanse that music from your system. Nothing new about saying Wagner is like a drug, but you can feel it physically in your bloodstream. It's a substance that burns you up from within via myriad points of white heat and you sense it endowing you with superhuman powers such as flight, or at least the ability to walk upside down on the ceiling. Coming down again is the difficult part.

We'll go back to that later, but first you probably want to know what the performance was like.

After opening with the Tristan und Isolde prelude, with Wagner's own concert ending (he tacks on the end of the Liebestod), Tony Pappano kept a tight rein and concentrated atmospheres in the orchestra for the Wesendonck Lieder, which Jonas Kaufmann - as far as we know, the only tenor singing them in this day and age - approached with every iota of the expertise he brought to his recital the other night. Colour, character, control, sophisticated phrasing, poised emotional content: this was a mesmerisingly beautiful interpretation, and one in which he somehow created the illusion, especially in the closing 'Träume', that he became the poetry - as if he had turned into Mathilde Wesendonck. Watching him return to his own self as the applause began was like witnessing some strange metamorphosis controlled by an invisible, internal Tarnhelm.

You'd think this demanding song cycle was enough for a singer who's recently returned after months off sick, but the second half was of course devoted to the whole of Act I of Die Walküre. A few things to consider at this point. First, Kaufmann's voice has always been about quality, not volume: never the biggest voice in the world, but simply the most beautiful and intelligent one. Also, when Bayreuth was designed for the Ring cycle, Wagner's idea was to keep the orchestra level down, with a sunken pit, so that the singers wouldn't have to yell to be heard. Last night, our Siegmund was flanked by two giant voices: as Sieglinde, Karita Mattila and as Hunding Erik Halfvarson. They stood where singers stand in concert performances: beside the conductor, at one with the orchestra. In that context Kaufmann's voice sounded like a gleaming gemstone within the entire diadem of sound-colours. But Mattila and Halfvarson (who of course hadn't sung the whole of the Wesendonck Lieder beforehand) put on the tiara and went surfing over the soundwaves.

Mattila, her tone full of complex, honeyed herbiness in the lower registers and rays of blinding sunlight at the top, seemed ecstatic, losing herself in the music and the role. Kaufmann's Siegmund was a bitter fighter on the run, filled with character and contained power, gradually regaining his passion for life and love and unleashing the full glory at full tilt when it was needed. Halfvarson proved a Hunding in whose house you'd be very afraid to stay, his towering stage presence and magnificent bass galvanising more acting contact than there had been hitherto. Pappano conducted like a man possessed, pacing the energy up to and beyond fever pitch; and one special hero is the LSO itself, but perhaps especially the cello section and its principal, Tim Hugh, who made incandescent gorgeousness out of his solos. The whole thing left even slightly-anxious-about-it people like me longing desperately for Rattle Hall to be built and give them a world-class acoustic with real shine and bloom... And yet the total effect, give or take these quibbles, was mind-blowing.

Heading back to the Tent I bumped into a friend and we said: "Great, so what time does Act II start?"

I'll never forget the first time I heard Die Walküre. I was 25 and working as assistant editor at Classical Music Magazine. Covent Garden was staging the Ring cycle and when my boss discovered I'd never seen it he said I must join him on his press tickets. I went with some trepidation; I had never even heard Act I of Die Walküre before, because I wasn't allowed Wagner, because HITLER. I remember coming out of the opera house in exactly the state above. Twenty-five years later and I know the piece really well, yet it still does that to me. Just imagine the first-timer impact.

So look. I have faced the Wagner-and-Hitler question again and again, and thought it through ad infinitum. The issue is difficult, it's painful, it's complex and for years I felt that avoiding this music was totally justified on historical grounds. Yet it has got to the point now where I could almost feel I was swindled. I was denied, then denied myself, this consciousness-altering musical marvel, this view from the summit of summits, because of Hitler. But that lets Hitler win. Now we must reclaim the music. The greatest music in the world - and this is some of it - should belong to us all. Nobody should be denied the experience of any form of great art because someone, somewhere, is telling them "this isn't for you".


Sunday, February 05, 2017

Black magic #kaufmannresidency

Back on stage! 

The one problem with recitals by Jonas Kaufmann is the absolute scrum at the ladies' loos. The Barbican's facilities are confusing because there are two entrances, one at either end, and sometimes there is one queue, usually two and occasionally three. During last night's interval they brought in ushers to do a spot of crowd-control.

The fans were out in force and for good reason. This concert by Kaufmann and "his" glorious pianist Helmut Deutsch kicked off the Barbican's Kaufmann Residency, four events between last night and 13 February. It was also the charismatic German tenor's first recital in many months, marking his return to performance with Deutsch after his lengthy period of recovery from a haematoma on a vocal cord (his first return to the stage was as Lohengrin in Paris, just two weeks ago). It must have been a relief to many that he was there at all. A slight air of tension hung over the auditorium as the beginning was slightly delayed and an unspoken anxiety of the "er, is he OK?" variety seemed to shiver through the waiting rows.

He was. And he started by thanking everyone for coming along, which got a laugh - many people booked their tickets a year ago and Kaufmaniacs have flown in from all over the world. He then explained that the iPad on its stand was there because this was his first recital in a while and it was simply to make sure he didn't make any any any mistakes. This introduction was to be one of the few light moments of the evening: the artists had selected a programme of dark, disturbing repertoire, the type that excavates the soul and holds it up for forensic examination. Kaufmann's depth of tone and actorly intelligence suits this repertoire exceptionally well. He is, as ever, the ideal tenor for those who really prefer baritones.

Deutsch and Kaufmann: a peerless partnership
Let's hear it for Helmut Deutsch, whose long and distinguished career as pianist, Lieder specialist and teacher seems to have reached its apogee in his work with Kaufmann. This musical magic is utterly a joint effort - and what singer could be so lucky as to have a pianist partner (don't even think about calling him an "accompanist") whose tone is so radiant, whose dynamics are so ideally judged, whose creation of atmosphere is simply peerless and whose support is ideal at every turn. If Kaufmann is Margot Fonteyn, then Deutsch is Rudolf Nureyev, lifting him effortlessly, letting him shine, while remaining a dazzling artist in his own right - though Deutsch is probably a bit more self-effacing about it than Nureyev might have been. The two together become more than the sum of their parts, the partnership a living entity in its own right.

Schumann's Kerner Lieder Op.35 was perhaps the closest set he ever composed to Schubert's Schwanengesang. A sequence of songs rather than a cycle, they are united by the poet Justinus Kerner's undertow of threat and despair: often composer and poet fuse to a degree that it is impossible to be certain whether Schumann is delving into Kerner to craft the poet's essence in music, or whether he has perhaps found in Kerner the perfect means to capture his own. He was much under the influence of Schubert at the time and Schubertian hints surface occasionally in the music: a Rosamunde rhythm in 'Wanderlied', subtle switches between major and minor in 'Erstes Grün' - and not so subtle ones in the set's showstopper 'Stille Tränen'. The final three songs, beginning with that, are united, too, by the rhythm of the text; Schumann makes the last two essentially into one, reiterating a questioning, lost-sounding figure with a cumulative effect that can be deeply unsettling. "Why are you so ill?...Nature heals me, but man will not let me rest," says Kerner. Schumann's likely syphilis? Schubert's? (And can one help but reflect that the music business may have put rather a lot of pressure on our performer of late?) In the final song, 'Alte Laute', the poet says he is trapped in a bad dream from which only an angel can wake him; and right now so is the world, and for a few moments the musicians on stage and their audience were entirely as one.

Kaufmann's core strengths are many, but two were of special value here. One is his quietness: reserving the big, open notes for special moments alone, his eloquence is as soft and dark as mink. It combines with that other magic ingredient, expert storytelling, to the effect that instead of going out to the audience by projecting at full tilt, he makes us go to him, creating an atmosphere of mesmerising intimacy that seems to shrink the hall. Every word and phrase has character and meaning, each song a base shade of voice colour specific to its needs; such is Kaufmann's ability to inhabit the music's secret spaces that you would understand the poet and composer's message even if you couldn't hear the words, though you always can. Control is vital, and the pacing that goes with it: the long build-up from near-whisper to full-on belt-out beauty in 'Stille Tränen' hit home. Kaufmann is a supremely controlled singer; in the partnership of head and heart, it's the head in the driving seat all the way, with the perfect understanding of how to prompt our hearts.

It's difficult to understand why Henri Duparc's mélodies are not performed in every song recital everywhere in the world, or why he might ever be considered obscure or somehow difficult. The French composer, a friend and contemporary of Fauré's, offers a heady synthesis of sensuality and seamless poise, the music bathed in luminous colour. Deutsch found the light within the richly written textures and Kaufmann the subtle lines and shaping: 'Phidylé' is allowed to sleep undisturbed in a radiant dream until the poet anticipates her kiss with a renewed power, 'Le manoir de Rosamonde' is terse, frightening and verging on the tragic as the poet flees the dog-bite of love and leaves its land undiscovered, and the set is framed with two Baudelaire poems about distant dwellings - 'L'invitation au voyage' and 'La vie antérieure', each evoking an idyllic landscape that is simultaneously within the soul.

A fan presents Kaufmann with a bouquet at the end
Finally to Britten, and if you don't know the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, it's time you did. Britten's settings in Italian, written in America during WW2, prove as expert as his English operas, and while this was a chance for Kaufmann to show his stylish Italian alter-ego, he also showed us how Britten's sensitivity was in its element in those moments of self-discovery, rising from the subconscious to catch the artist off guard, faced with the pain of his own passions. Britten's style occasionally can almost resemble Prokofiev here, especially in the third song, 'Veggio co'bei vostri occhi un dolce lume', which could have stepped out of a slow-motion dream-vision ballet; and Kaufmann again excelled in mezzo voce reflection, narrative and revelation, with heroics saved for when they were most needed, such as the final song, 'Spirto ben nato' - noble soul. Yes, exactly: this singing, this partnership, is noble soul incarnate, in its finest sense - happily, undimmed despite all.

One encore - Strauss's 'Nichts' - but there's plenty more to look forward to in the week ahead, which culminates in that composer's Four Last Songs.

And a good interview with Kaufmann in the Sunday Times, by Lynn Barber, here.


Friday, February 03, 2017

Welcome to Kaufmann Central!



He's back. Presented the other day with the Special 'Victoires de la mystique classique' Award in France, Jonas Kaufmann sang Rota's 'Parla più piano' (aka The Godfather) at the ceremony. This was it.

Now is the winter when my discount tent is pitched on the concrete outside the Barbican Centre. In these grim times we need something to look forward to, and if you happen to be a "Kaufmaniac" the ultimate thing to look forward to is about to happen, right here in sunny London.

Jonas Kaufmann is presented with the Special 'Victories de la musique classique' award in Paris. Photo: Edouard Brane

'Der Jonas' is coming to town for The Kaufmann Residency at the Barbican Centre. Between tomorrow (4 Feb) and Monday week (13th) he is giving three concerts and an open interview. Some of his fans here have been nail-biting a little over the past months while he has been off, recovering from what was apparently a hematoma on a vocal cord. The pessimists among us wondered if the residency would actually go ahead.

The other week, though, Kaufmann made a triumphant return to the stage in Paris as Lohengrin, and there's no sign of fading ambition. A new recording is coming out shortly (UK release in April), in which he sings the whole of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. And in case you haven't heard, news is out that a concert performance of Tristan Act II is planned for New York in April 2018. One hopes that may indicate the ultimate Wagner tenor role sidling gently into the repertoire...

He gave an interview to Paris Match talking about his return to the stage, saying that everything is going rather well.

Vous dites avoir eu encore des soucis de santé. Comment allez-vous ?
Je vais très bien maintenant, ma voix aussi. On a déjà fait des répétitions, tout est impeccable, grâce au temps de repos imposé. Mais ça a été un moment difficile à passer pour moi, d’autant que je ne suis pas quelqu’un de très patient. J’aime vraiment agir, prendre tout en main. Et j’étais là à attendre, sans avoir la possibilité d’accélérer les choses. Personne ne pouvait me dire si ça durerait deux semaines, un mois, deux mois… En quatre mois, l’hématome s’est résorbé. Tout est redevenu normal, les conditions sont donc idéales. Ce n’était pas mon premier choix de recommencer avec “Lohengrin”, même si j’ai déjà tenu le rôle plusieurs fois. Je connais cette production que j’aime beaucoup. Avec cette orchestration de Philippe [Jordan], j’étais sûr qu’il n’y aurait pas de risque. Donc, je suis très content.

Anyway, back to London. Here's what's happening. Everything is sold out, but do try for returns.

4 Feb: Recital with pianist Helmut Deutsch

Schumann Kerner Lieder, Op 35
Duparc
‘L´invitation au voyage’ 
‘Phidylé’ 
‘Le manoir de Rosemonde’ 
‘Chanson triste’ 
‘La vie antérieure’
Britten Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op 22


8 Feb: Wagner

Wagner Prelude to Tristan und Isolde
Wesendock 
Lieder
Act I from Die WalküreJonas Kaufmann tenor
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Antonio Pappano 
conductor
Karita Mattila soprano
Eric Halfvarson bass


10 Feb, 2pm, Milton Court: In Conversation

Jonas Kaufmann in conversation with young singers at Milton Court. 

Jonas Kaufmann talks to and works with aspiring singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama: an unprecedented chance to witness a master-musician discussing the practicalities and fundamentals of his craft in the informal atmosphere of Milton Court.


13 Feb: Strauss, Elgar, Korngold

The Four Last Songs. Yes, they're originally for soprano. Yes, that's just fine. And yes, the programme opens with Korngold's Schuaspiel Overture, which I have never before heard live and certainly not in London, and this requires its own pre-breakfast celebratory somersault.

Korngold Schauspiel OvertureStrauss Symphonic Interlude from Intermezzo, Träumerei am Kamin
Strauss
‘Ruhe meine Seele’
‘Freundliche Vision’ 
‘Befreit’ 
‘Heimliche Aufforderung’
Elgar In the SouthStrauss Four Last SongsJonas Kaufmann tenor
BBC Symphony Orchestra

I am intending to go to the whole lot. For the duration, JDCMB is becoming KAUFMANN CENTRAL. I'll be reviewing the performances, reporting on the conversation and keeping the Kaufmaniacs up to speed on how it's all going. Yes, it's escapism. Yes, I need that and so do a lot of us.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Wagner summer twilights

Meistersinger in Munich: Jonas Kaufmann as Walther. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

I've been away for a couple of weeks in Germany and Switzerland, starting the trip with two Wagner performances which might resurface somewhere in this year's Chocolate Silver Awards for Best Opera and Weirdest Moment respectively (admittedly there's plenty of the year left for others to exceed, but they'll have to try hard...).

I reviewed both events for the Critics' Circle website: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on the final night of the Munich Opera Festival, starring Wolfgang Koch as Sachs and Jonas Kaufmann as Walther, conducted by Kirill Petrenko - a dark-hued, clever, detailed, fascinating, roller-coaster production by David Bösch, set in 1968; and Parsifal at Bayreuth, the new and fervently anti-religion production by Uwe Eric Laufenberg, with Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role. The editors have entitled this one, with perspicacity, 'Twilight of the gods'.

'Weirdest moment' goes to the latter evening. Eating out with friends afterwards, we found ourselves in the same restaurant as Angela Merkel, who had been at the opera too, and she was perfectly friendly when some members of our group bounced up to her to explain how desperately sorry and embarrassed we are about Brexit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Jonas follows his Meistersinger stage debut with...

Quite a party. Photo: http://horizonteentdecken.de
OK, so you make your stage debut in Wagner's longest opera, then you go along to the first night party and start doing a spot of jazz? Only if you're Jonas, and you are. Here's the report: http://horizonteentdecken.de/der-meistersinger-jonas-kaufmann-als-crooner/

Reviews from Munich, and tweets by critics who were there, suggest that we who are due to see this later in the year (I'm heading for the last night of the BSO Festival on 31 July) are in for a musical treat, and that the modern-dress production works really well, give or take a predictable boo or two.

There's a video showing extracts at the Bayerische Staatsoper's magazine site:
https://www.staatsoper.de/medienseite.html?type=0&tx_sfstaatsoper_pi6%5Bimage%5D=17569&tx_sfstaatsoper_pi6%5Bproductions%5D=1144&tx_sfstaatsoper_pi6%5BmediaSettings%5D=mediathekPage&cHash=5c918baa3f7b8a8662501bef73388119

And let's have a quick fix of the preview:



Closer to home, Glyndebourne's revival of the David McVicar production is about to open, on Saturday, starring Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs. Details and booking here.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Tears, fears and healing at BBC Music Magazine Awards

The most touching moment of the BBC Music Magazine Awards, held last night at Kings Place, was when the Instrumental Award winner took the platform. Cellist David Watkin received his prize for his CD of the Bach Cello Suites from the hand of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, in some of whose orchestras David was lead cellist for around 20 years.

What was left unsaid was that this immensely-praised CD has had to be his last; in summer 2015 an autoimmune condition called scleroderma forced his retirement from the instrument. He continues to blaze across the early music skies, though, as conductor and devoted teacher.

In his acceptance speech he made the powerful point that if our field of music is to continue at all, we have to educate as many people as possible about it; and he gave his own children a special thank you. Storytelling, he said, is the single best preparation for giving a good musical performance, especially reading aloud to kids. His two have been treated to his rendition of the whole of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. "If you want to prepare, find some children and read to them. And do the voices!" he advised.

He accepted the award, too, on behalf of all undersung continuo cellists, those beings who often find themselves standing in the rain after playing every note of a long oratorio while a soloist who's sung for ten minutes of it swooshes by in a limo, splashing them as they go...

Just one highlight, there, of a terrific line-up to celebrate the best and most honest music-making on CD. Other winners included conductor Sakari Oramo, two of whose discs were nominated in Orchestral, and who won for his Nielsen Symphonies Nos 1 and 3 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic; Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque for their Vivaldi L'Estro Armonico; and the splendid young Schumann Quartet were there to perform a piece of Ives from the disc that scooped the Newcomer of the Year award.

Rosalind Plowright accepted the DVD award for Dialogue des Carmélites from Paris, directed by Olivier Py; she remarked that she was the only British cast member in a line-up of leading French singers as the doomed nuns, and had been asked to audition for the role to make sure her French was up to it. "I got the job," she declared. Record of the Year was the winner in the Opera category: Aida, starring Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. The fabulous baritone Ludovic Tézier stepped up as the cast's representative to collect the prize.

A special plaudit to the choir Tenebrae, who won for a disc of Brahms and Bruckner motets that was recorded in support of Macmillan Cancer Care. They were there and sang Bruckner's 'Christus Factus Est', and very gorgeous it was. We should all buy that CD.

You can see the full list of award winners and hear extracts from the discs here.

Many of the guest award presenters - including Ed Balls, Clemency Burton-Hill and James Naughtie - reflected on how playing the piano in public had proved far more frightening than standing at the dispatch box or broadcasting to three million people on the radio. But one award was presented by "Dr Christian" - the medical presenter of such popular-health TV programmes as Supersize Versus Superskinny - who made an impassioned speech about how important music is to him, and to so many of his patients as a veritable medicine for healing. Indeed, he thanked the music profession from the medical profession.

A beautiful evening, all in all, and one that left a tug at the heart. You realise the impermanence of things. You realise the dedication, effort, time, vocation and sacrifice that goes into the making of music and the vital nature of its support for our souls. It takes so long to build up that expertise and the structures that support its existence. It can all be swept away in the stroke of someone's pen. We can't let that happen if we want future generations to experience the joy and life-enhancing beauty we've been lucky enough to have ourselves. In Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just earmarked nearly $1.9bn for culture and the arts. Here, though, music education is fighting for its life and entire communities stand to be deprived of it and of the performing arts due to local authority cuts. And meanwhile, this is happening... Let's get a grip now, once and for all. Factory reset of human values, please!

Friday, April 01, 2016

Shock: London's new concert hall to be crowdfunded

In a move that has shocked the UK arts world, the government has let it be known that it will not be providing any cash towards the new Centre for Music in the City of London. Instead, the project's board members will be expected to raise the necessary money by crowdfunding. "It's a scheme that has worked perfectly well for everything from orchestral tours to new product design," a spokesperson for the DCMS pointed out. "Why not a concert hall?"

A group of experts has been assembled to devise the pledge rewards for the scheme, aiming to reach £270m by the end of this year. While details are yet to be confirmed, it is understood that ideas mooted include:

£5: MUSIC. A ticket to a concert in the first season;
£10: CAFFEINE. A ticket plus a coffee or tea in the first season;
£100: GRUB. Two tickets and a light meal in the canteen for you and your companion;
£500: SELFIE. You may go backstage and take a selfie with Sir Simon.
£1000: CHAMPERS. You may bring a bottle of champagne backstage and present it to a musician of your choice.
£10,000: KNICKERS. You may throw knickers to a musical star of your choice in concert at the hall. (NB Jonas Kaufmann incurs a premium of £2,500.)
£50,000: PHILANTHROPIST. All of the above, plus a suitably sycophantic interview in one of those magazines that supports the privatisation of absolutely everything.
£100,000: NAME. All of the above, plus an orchestral player renamed after you.
£250,000: NAME IN LIGHTS. All of the above, plus your name to be flashed in lights every night across the entire City from a big screen atop the hall.
£500,000: TICKETS. All of the above, plus tickets for every performance you wish to attend at the new hall for the rest of your life;
£1m: LUNCH: Lunch with a cabinet minister of your choice and whoever becomes London Mayor in May, at the closest Starbucks to Westminster (net donation to project: £500,000, once expenses are deducted).
£2m: CHOCOLATE! All of the above, plus a lifetime's supply of high-quality chocolate, not lower than 85 per cent cocoa solids.

JD particularly likes the sound of the final option, and once the film of GHOST VARIATIONS has scooped all the Oscars, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth and Sebastian Koch, directed by George Clooney, she hopes to participate with enthusiasm.




Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Jonas is coming to stay

Jonas Kaufmann in Gstaad. Photo: Raphael Faux
As the remnants of Storm Jonas blow into Britain (this means: it's gonna rain), some news from the Barbican should soon have Kaufmaniacs queuing up through the City of London. The actual Kaufmann is to have a ten-day residency at the arts centre in February 2017, featuring among other things two big Richards. He will be doing:

• a Lieder recital with Helmut Deutsch;

• Wagner! A concert including Act I of Die Walküre, with Winterstürme und alles, with Karita Mattila as Sieglinde and Eric Halfvarson as Hunding, LSO conducted by Tony Pappano. Plus the Wesendonck Lieder in the first half;

• Strauss! A programme with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jochen Rieder in which repertoire includes Strauss Lieder and...the Four Last Songs. I am especially pleased to report that this programme will open with Korngold's Schauspiel Overture...

• A public interview;

• Workshops with students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

The Four Last Songs - for tenor? well, why not? As long as the transposition works with the orchestra, there really shouldn't be a problem. Alice Coote has sung Winterreise to powerful effect. Kaufmann has already done glorious things with the Wesendonck Lieder. In the end, it's artistry that counts. Bring him on.

Of course, our hurricane-naming system in the UK differs from that of the US, so when Storm Jonas arrives on these shores its name changes to Gertrude.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Wintersturm Jonas

A very big snowstorm is apparently making its way towards the US's east coast. It's been named Winter Storm Jonas.

Can't help wondering if these things are named by an opera fan. What better excuse to have a quick Kaufmann Wagner fix?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Ever seen a violin like this before?

Testing a 'conical' violin made by Wolfgang Stegmüller of Munich

It's unlikely. Its inventor has patented it, so only he and his son can legally produce instruments to this model. It's 'conical' - the back is smaller than the front, so the ribs fan out and the effect on the sound gently but distinctly resembles a megaphone.

I met the inventor of the conical violin, Wolfgang Stegmüller, via a rather extraordinary coincidence in Munich this summer. We were hanging about backstage (my OH often plays in the Bayerische Staatsper Orchestra during the annual July festival) hoping to say hello to a certain very wonderful tenor, who was singing in Manon Lescaut that night, and while waiting we got talking to a fellow waitee who turned out to be a neighbour of his. When she heard what I do, she began to tell me about her friend the luthier who had invented a new design of violin. In a craft that dates back to the baroque era pretty much unchanged, you don't hear the words "new type of violin" very often, so I pursued the matter - and there he was in Schwabing, working with his son, also named Wolfgang, who trained in violin making in Cremona. We went to visit them and spent a fascinating day together, talking, looking, playing, listening and eating. My resulting article is up now at The Amati Magazine, here.

The Stegmüllers have now decided to come to the UK to display their work at the Amati Exhibition, which takes place at the Langham, London, on 1 and 2 November. And there, following his sell-out, knockout performance at the last Amati Exhibition earlier this year, the sensational Roby Lakatos will be back to play to us again, this time joined on the platform by the exciting young British violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, who wowed the Wigmore Hall yesterday morning. Tickets are on sale now, so be there! More info and booking here.