La Scena Musicale

Saturday, February 14, 2009

This Week in Toronto (Feb.14-20)

The big event in classical music in Toronto this week is the appearance of pianist Radu Lupu at Roy Thomson Hall, for two performances (Feb. 12 and 14 8 pm) in Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3, conducted by Peter Oundjian. Also on the program is Stravinsky's Scherzo fantastique and Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances. Beethoven No. 3 has appeared frequently in Lupu's program, ever since he won the top prize in Leeds in 1969 with this work. I did not attend the first show but I understand it was very well received, as expected of course, by the audience. Given the economic downturn, concert attendance has been soft lately, but the hall was near capacity, a credit to his drawing power. You can catch the second performance this evening.

On the operatic front, be sure to catch Fidelio (Feb. 15, 18) and Rusalka (Feb. 14, 17, 20) if you haven't already, at the Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre. I went back to see Fidelio a second time on Feb. 12, to hear Richard Margison taking on Florestan. His attack on the opening "Gott!" in his Dungeon Aria was completely pianissimo, without the typical crescendo - it makes for a very interesting effect. He sang very well and received a well deserved ovation at the end. Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka continues her very lyrical Leonore, full of womanly warmth and gleaming tone. Mats Almgren blew me away with his magnificent black bass, and I was particularly impressed with the totally convincing (vocally and dramatically) Marzelline of Virgina Hatfield. This Fidelio is not to be missed.

It doesn't get a lot of press, but the COC has a wonderful free concert series. On Thursday Feb. 19, the COC Ensemble Studeio artists will give a noon hour concert of Czech arias and songs by Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek and Fibich, under the direction of Liz Upchurch. The Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre is not large, so if you want to get in, do show up at least 45 minutes early to line up.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Decca: The word from Herbert Breslin

Here's a comment from Herbert Breslin:
Let's face it. The thrust of Decca's promotion, marketing, and publicity never materialized from London. For many years I was responsible for the public relations careers of Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Alicia de Laroccha, early Marilyn Horne and later Georg Solti. Without what my office accomplished, not one of these artists would have made the important, powerhouse career they did.
True, Decca produced the records and they were extraordinary. But the what then was taken over by me. Without the work by me as well as the work of important colleagues such as Edgar Vincent, Cynthia Robbins, among others, Decca Records would never have dominated the US marketing, Billboard charts and sales. 
Herbert Breslin
Norman Lebrecht adds:
Herbert's right, of course. So long as Decca was an independent, self-standing label, it made good records and employed a range of people, in-house and out, to promote them. Terry McEwen, who effectively created classical Decca in the US and invented the phenomenon Pavarotti (against some opposition from London), was the mind behind this strategy. See Herb's book for more, and mine.
Once Decca came under corporate control, these publicity skills withered. One of the so-called 'efficiency' arguments for gathering labels under one big roof is that centralised marketing will cost less and sow benefits across the board. Universal has given the lie to that.
Instead of records being driven by the excited imaginations of artists and producers, all big-budget projects at Universal arose from the whim of a corporate executive, serving some inarticulate policy paper that first got him the job. That's the tragedy of Decca, and so much else in the dying sector. Classical records could have survived a while longer as a cottage industry at Decca, Philips, Erato, Teldec and more. It's the corps that killed them.

Source: Artsjournal

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Met in HD: Lucia di Lammermoor

Soprano Anna Netrebko as Metropolitan Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor

(photo: Ken Howard)

The Met in HD telecast of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor was one of the most anticipated events of this opera season. Dubbed the "Dream Pair" by the German-Austrian press, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon have captured the imagination of the opera public, to a greater degree than even the "premiere stage couple" Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. Never mind that Netrebko and Villazon are married/attached to other people, opera buffs lapped up morsels of rumours about their potential romantic attachments, even though such rumours were likely the products of their respective publicists or overzealous recording executives! In any case, any performance starring AN and RV guarantees a sold out house. The pregnancy of Netrebko by Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott last year finally silenced the gossip columns. Their return to the Met this season marked her first since giving birth last September, and his first since suffering a much publicized vocal crisis. So all the stars were seemingly aligned for the operatic event of the season.

Alas, it came as a bitter blow to their fans that the telecast was without Rolando, who fell victim to - officially, at least - a cold. It was well documented that at the first performance on Jan. 26, Villazon was having vocal trouble right at the start and it didn't let up. In Edgardo's dramatic outburst following the Act 2 concertato, he could not sustain the high tessitura and stopped singing right in the middle. Conductor Marco Armiliato halted the orchestra, with the audience sitting in stunned silence for about 8 seconds. Villazon re-attacked the b-flat and managed to finish the scene. Peter Gelb came out at intermission to announce that the star tenor was not feeling well but would finish the performance. He was warmly received at the final curtain, more a sympathy vote than applause for the excellence of his vocalism. Those in attendance commented on how thin and wan Villazon looked, as if he was suffering from poor health. The second performance three nights later did not go any better. A day later, it was announced that Italian tenor Giuseppe Filanoti, who was in town to sing the Duke in Rigoletto, would replace Villazon. The saddest part was the news that the all-important telecast would be taken by someone else, in this case Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, who was in town to sing Lensky in Eugene Onegin. Beczala had previously sung the Met production with German soprano Diana Damrau, so it was not a problem for him to step at a moment's notice.

I admit arriving at the Sheppard Grande a bit disappointed at the prospect of no Rolando Villazon. But any disappointment was quickly erased the moment Beczala opened his mouth to sing. I had heard him last July in Munich as a pleasant if somewhat generic Werther. Well, as Edgardo, Beczala was spectacularly good. He sang with clarion tone, the timbre suitably Italianate, and he acted with conviction. He had excellent chemistry with Netrebko. Just to refresh my memory of him, I watched his Paris Opera Die Zauberfloete from 2001 for comparison. He sang beautifully but was too persistently loud as Tamino, so he has improved a lot over the years. His Edgardo was an altogether winning performance. As to Netrebko - having given birth just a few months earlier, she looked more zaftig than the usual Lucia. There was much nitpicking on various blogs about her singing of Lucia. Her assumption of this role in Munich Opera a couple of seasons ago was met with very lukewarm press. But I feel on this Saturday afternoon, she rose to the challenge as Lucia, singing with rich, refulgent tone, hitting all the high notes, including an excellent E-flat at the end of the Mad Scene, while ducking the first one. She can still do justice to this role, although for how much longer it is anyone's guess. The voice has gotten bigger, heavier, and less flexible. Her trill, never her forte, is no longer true, and her scale work is approximate. In a few years, I can imagine that she could be a very credible Manon Lescaut or Tosca. Interpretively that's a different story. Dramatically she is a good Lucia but not a great one. Simply put, she does not embody the character; she is too healthy-looking and not sufficiently unhinged to make you really believe her. Unlike Natalie Dessay who is utterly convincing, with Netrebko, one gets the feeling here is a soprano impersonating the mad Lucy on this particular afternoon.

The rest of the cast was strong. Polish baritone Marius Kwiecien is a youthful Enrico. He sang well although he pushed his compact-sized baritone dangerously. Also impressive was bass Ildar Abdrazakov as Raimondo. Fast-rising South African tenor Colin Lee was wasted in the small role of Arturo - let's hope he will be given bigger assignments at the Met. Only the dry and aging tenor of Michael Myers as Normanno disappointed. The atmospheric sets by Mary Zimmerman evokes the Scottish countryside. The colours are deliberately muted, recalling scenes from old English movies. Her stage direction is very middle-of-the-road and generic, nothing controversial, but just interesting enough to hold one's interest. The only misfire is to have Lucia's ghost appear at the end of the opera, physically helping Edgardo kill himself with the dagger - how hokey can you get! The host this time around was Natalie Dessay, whose English markedly improved since her last appearance, although she was hopelessly tied to her cue cards. The endlessly fascinating scene changes at intermission were almost as good as the opera itself. Marco Armiliato, now more or less a fixture at the Met, conducted stylishly if rather slowly. This Lucia, with two intermissions, stretched to almost four hours.

I was in Cinema #3 at the Sheppard Grande, and the transmission was once again near-flawless, with only a couple of split-second freezing of the picture. However, the sound coming from one of the speakers on the left wall (when facing the screen) in the middle of the cinema was distorted at high volume - it needs to be fixed before the next showing. Another problem had been the concession stand, which was always crowded and slow-moving. This time, a separate station selling regular coffee and sandwiches was set up in another location, easing the traffic greatly - kudos to the managment for listening to the customers. This is why for me the Sheppard Grande continues to be the theatre of choice when it comes to Met in HD. For those interested in catching Thais, an encore presentation is this coming Saturday. The next new show - Puccini's Madama Butterfly - is slated for March 7 at 1 pm.

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Symphonies without end

The editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has written a tender-hearted feature about his former schoolteacher, Derek Bourgeois, a composer who claims a British national record for writing the most symphonies.

With 44 in his folder, Bourgeois is well ahead of the unstoppable William Havergal Brian, who composed 32 symphonies, two-thirds of them between the ages of 78 and 96. One of Brian's works, the Gothic, drew a twitter of attention when it was taken up by a member of the Grateful Dead - I once discussed structure and tempo with Phil Lesh - but for the most part these mass-production outpourings seem destined to remain unheard.

Bourgeois, who had an early symphony performed by Adrian Boult, ascribes his neglect to the 'avant-garde', which seems unfair. He is a versatile composer with a solid career. A soundtrack for the BBC's dramatisation of Mansfield Park lingers in my ear and there's a trombone concerto on my shelf, recorded by Christian Lindberg. Does it not occur to him that, as he piles symphony upon symphony, musicians will shy away from sheer volume and give the whole lot a miss?

He is by no means the only man who cannot stop writing symphonies. The Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam, a full-bearded master of orchestras, has composed 215 symphonies, ten of them in the month of August 2008 alone. Segerstam is an exceptionally skilled interpreter, able to pull together a last-minute performance with a minimum of fuss. What is it that makes him carry on writing symphonies, and listing them at the Finnish Music Information Centre? Does he not appreciate that a snowball would stand greater chance of success and longevity in Dante's Inferno? 

Myself, I blame Papa Haydn. The format he invented for the symphony is so inviting that, like a cake mould, anyone with the right technique feels obliged to fill it. Haydn wrote 104 symphonies, certainly too many. 'He was the father of us all,' said Mozart. And so say Derek Bourgeois, Leif Segerstam, William Havergal Brian and all.

Source: Artsjournal

Monday, February 9, 2009

Walter Felsenstein Edition

Mozart: Don Giovanni (1966), Die Hochzeit des Figaro (1976), Beethoven: Fidelio (1956), Offenbach: Hoffmanns Erzählungen (1970), Ritter Blaubart (1973), Verdi: Otello (1969), Janáček: Das schlaue Füchslein (1965)
Various soloists; Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Fidelio); Chorus and Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin
Stage Director: Walter Felsenstein
Arthaus Musik 101 345 (10 DVD – 911 min)
**** $$$$

What a difference a year can make. The deluxe version of this box was released early in 2008 at a suggested retail price in excess of $500. The bargain version reviewed here may be had for as little as $200. It offers essentially the same exquisitely restored contents as the original and is worth every penny. A cornucopia of supporting documentary material has been retained. Interviews with Felsenstein, production notes and film clips from other performances during the period 1945-1961 enrich the experience of a ‘festival in a box’.

As LP Hartley noted, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Arthaus has served the cause of proto-historical opera on film admirably with vintage collections from the Glyndebourne Festival and Hamburg State Opera. The Walter Felsenstein Edition is doubly foreign because Felsenstein plied his trade from 1947 in the other Berlin: the Soviet zone of occupation. Communists exploited and manipulated the arts, and opera was no exception. Felsenstein toiled away for the greater glory of socialism despite the wretched living conditions of East Germany, the bloody suppression of the workers’ revolt of 1953 and the subsequent erection of the Berlin Wall. Violent enforcement of confinement made the place a mockery of the last scene of Fidelio. Felsenstein’s opera house would have been infested with KGB and Stasi informers. That said, the productions on view here reflect a high standard of artistic integrity – at what personal cost to the director, we can only guess.

The Felsenstein Edition bookends the Hamburg State Opera collection (Arthaus 101261) to yield a theatrical ‘Tale of Two Cities’. From the perpetual post-war squalor of East Berlin to the industrial and creative powerhouse of Hamburg in the 1960s was quite a stretch. Felsenstein produced superb interpretations of established fare while Hamburg (under the artistic leadership of Rolf Liebermann) experimented with world premieres of Menotti and Penderecki and may even have produced the definitive Wozzeck on film. The two houses meet head-on with Figaro and it must be said that Hamburg in 1967 prevails, with better singers and a superior conductor (Hans Schmitt-Isserstedt). The Hamburg gaiety comes across as genuine while Felsenstein’s principals are less forthcoming (or perhaps over-rehearsed). It is nevertheless worth watching. The drama of Don Giovanni seems to be intensified by the director’s discomfort with the subject. At 85 minutes, Felsenstein’s treatment of Fidelio may be more like a ‘film based on’ Beethoven’s opera, with plenty of thundering hooves for emphasis but it reveals the roots of his cinematic inspiration. Otello was the first production in colour made by Felsenstein, and it succeeds in no small part thanks to the alert conducting of Kurt Masur. The real gems of the set are the Janáček and the brace of Offenbachs. Cunning Little Vixen receives an ultra-naturalistic approach. The spellbinding score is superbly executed by Václav Neumann in the pit. Tales of Hoffmann and Bluebeard show that the operetta troupe of the Komische Oper included some brilliant comic actors. Names such as Hanns Nocker, Werner Enders and Melitta Muszely may be unknown to us but they were unbeatable in their specialty.

Arthaus lavished extraordinary care on the set and all items were provided with PCM stereo soundtracks. Felsenstein followed the quaint custom of rendering French and Italian librettos into German for the stage. To give him credit, he personally prepared every translation. The set provides an overview of the life’s work of a legendary stage director. It demonstrates that the past is worth revisiting and reminds us of how Felsenstein inspired the following generation of directors on both sides of the inner border.

- Stephen Habington

Buy this CD at

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Decca, the epilogue

It's all over, bar the paper shuffling.

In response to my column last week, the Universal Music Group issued a statement confirming
that Decca's crossover output will be absorbed into the parent company's UCJ. It maintains that the label itself will remain 'active' and that London will continue to be its 'creative centre'. It names this process 'realignment', which I shall promptly add to my growing lexicon of recession-era synonyms for corporate elimination.

The facts are simple. Without crossover, Decca is dead. Its pop side has been defunct for years and its few extant classical artists - Renee Fleming, Julia Fischer, Erwin Schrott - are being shunted over to Universal's other property, Deutsche Grammophon. 

Conversations with staff members suggest that all that will remain is an office front, one desk-jockey without a budget and a PA to answer the phone. A helpful cross-poster from the classical music forum brightcecilia comes up with much the same conclusion.

The death of Decca may be inevitable in present economic circumstances and it is certainly very sad. But, by covering up with factoids, euphemisms and simulations of continuing life, the bonus-seekers at Universal merely sustain the corporate make-believe that brought Decca to its knees in the first place. Some day Universal's head of classics and jazz will be called to account for demolishing a sub-culture by a thousand cuts over a dozen years. Maybe Georg Solti will come back to haunt the vandals from his Hungarian resting-place. Or Pavarotti's ghost will rise to sit on them. He knows where they live.

Source: Artsjournal

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Anne-Sophie Mutter bringing Mendelssohn to Montreal

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter rejoins the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal after an absence of 20 years in time to celebrate Mendelssohn’s bicentennial. Mutter’s program will include one of her specialties, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, op.64, also found in her new album Mendelssohn. Appropriately, 2008 saw Mutter receive the Leipzig Mendelssohn Prize as well as the coveted Ernst von Siemens Music award, thereby cementing her place amongst the elites.

Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Place des Arts: February 10, 11 at 8 PM.

In Saturday’s Montreal Gazette, Arthur Kaptainis interviews Mutter.

- Lisala Halapua

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