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11 Sep 2016

Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim: Mozart and Bruckner

La Philharmonie, Paris, Thursday September 8 2016

Conductor and piano soloist: Daniel Barenboim. Staatskapelle Berlin.
  • Mozart, piano concerto n°26
  • Bruckner, symphony n°6
I know nothing about acoustics and will only try to describe what I thought I heard from my single seat the other night. But scouting round the web for better-informed opinions about Paris's Philharmonie, I came a cross a blog called From The Sound Up, by an acoustical and architectural designer working in New York, and an article there entitled Why I can’t review the Philharmonie de Paris but why it’s worth trying anyway: a meditation on variability, which gives the impression that the sound in the new hall is especially varied. “Variation in the sound field is the topic of this post,” he writes, “because it is all I could think about after my experience in the brand-new (or, more accurately, yet-to-be-finished) Philharmonie de Paris. During a single concert, I experienced what might have been the worst concert hall acoustics of the tour, followed by what might have been the best.”

I was in a category 2 seat and found myself on the steeply-raked 5th-floor balcony that faces the orchestra, which a friend calls the "wall of death". For the category (and price: 90 euros*) this was surprisingly far from the square, central platform. With reverberation I've seen put variously at 2.3 and 2.6 seconds, the overall sound was, to me, "churchy" (my neighbour said "swimming pool" but I'd say that was an exaggeration; at the end of the concert he claimed they should pull the place down and start again from scratch).

On account of the distance, it was as if I were sitting somewhere in the nave and the orchestra were playing in front of the altar. The overall sound is warm and roundish and to some extent enveloping, and during quiet passages it's certainly nicely detailed, but when the "high" instruments - the flutes and above all the violins - play loudly, the reverberation kicks in to give a soupy sort of "Mantovani" effect, obscuring the detail. I think this is what some people mean when they say that there is a "halo" around the sound. Lower instruments, cellos and basses especially, fare much, much better.

The other issue, again at least from where I sat, was that when a score goes abruptly from very loud to very soft, which happens quite often in Bruckner, for the duration of the echo there's confusion, obscuring what follows.

Overall, I would prefer a drier sound. To my ear, that reverb. too often blurs details, and after an hour or so, because of the excess distance, I started to feel out of things and switch off. One day I will have to go back and sit nearer, to see if the effect is more inclusive – but as I said above, it looks, from what I've read here and there, as if it will be very hard to decide where exactly to buy a seat, the implication being not that sections of the hall are different, but that each individual seat – and even your position sitting in it – is!

A detail: by one of those odd quirks of acoustics, during the concerto, the sound of the piano hammers was distinctly audible, tap-tap-tapping like a disembodied woodpecker, about three rows in front of me, to the left.

Bruckner
The programme was oddly lop-sided: a 25-minute concerto followed by a 20-minute interval, and then the symphony. Why orchestras no longer play overtures baffles me. Will we never hear them again?

The concerto was Mozart exactly as I no longer want to hear him, by a sleek modern orchestra and on a gleaming piano the size of a ship with plummy sound and a dynamic range Mozart never heard. Barenboim certainly exploited the dynamic range very skilfully, but his performance sometimes seemed almost cavalier, rushing through the runs (what the French call “soaping” them) with fistsful of wrong notes. Not a great showing, though the audience seemed to like it. I'm told Barenboim is impatient about rehearsing and his concerto performances can therefore be “seat-of-the-pants” affairs. Maybe so.

The symphony was much better. The Berlin orchestra is wonderfully business-like and forthright (and would have done a great job in Egmont, if only we'd been allowed an overture), and Barenboim's approach, though very carefully crafted, handling Bruckner's tiered build-ups with admirable control and bringing delicate reverence to his “religioso” modulations, is relatively straightforward: more punchy than schmaltzy, not too much fiddle-arsing around with the tempi (mostly moderate to brisk), limited foot-dragging… It was lovely to hear the 6th played with such un-histrionic skill. To pick out a couple of details, it was a great evening for the principal oboe in the second movement, not such a great one for the principal horn, who fluffed quite a lot of notes. Tutti were impressively together, as usual with good German orchestras, and threw up great chunks of sound. But as I mentioned above, it all sounded a little too far off: I remained outside the music, not involved in it, and towards the end found myself thinking of dinner…

*Price for top ranking visiting orchestras. The usual rate in cat. 2 is around 45 euros.

For those wanting more about the acoustics, here's a link to the blog entry.

Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim: Mozart and Bruckner

La Philharmonie, Paris, Thursday September 8 2016

Conductor and piano soloist: Daniel Barenboim. Staatskapelle Berlin.
  • Mozart, piano concerto n°26
  • Bruckner, symphony n°6
I know nothing about acoustics and will only try to describe what I thought I heard from my single seat the other night. But scouting round the web for better-informed opinions about Paris's Philharmonie, I came a cross a blog called From The Sound Up, by an acoustical and architectural designer working in New York, and an article there entitled Why I can’t review the Philharmonie de Paris but why it’s worth trying anyway: a meditation on variability, which gives the impression that the sound in the new hall is especially varied. “Variation in the sound field is the topic of this post,” he writes, “because it is all I could think about after my experience in the brand-new (or, more accurately, yet-to-be-finished) Philharmonie de Paris. During a single concert, I experienced what might have been the worst concert hall acoustics of the tour, followed by what might have been the best.”

I was in a category 2 seat and found myself on the steeply-raked 5th-floor balcony that faces the orchestra, which a friend calls the "wall of death". For the category (and price: 90 euros) this was surprisingly far from the square, central platform. With reverberation I've seen put variously at 2.3 and 2.6 seconds, the overall sound was, to me, "churchy" (my neighbour said "swimming pool" but I'd say that was an exaggeration; at the end of the concert he claimed they should pull the place down and start again from scratch).

On account of the distance, it was as if I were sitting somewhere in the nave and the orchestra were playing in font of the altar. The overall sound is warm and roundish and to some extent enveloping, and during quiet passages it's certainly nicely detailed, but when the "high" instruments - the flutes and above all the violins - play loudly, the reverberation kicks in to give a soupy sort of "Mantovani" effect, obscuring the detail. I think this is what some people mean when they say that there is a "halo" around the sound. Lower instruments, cellos and basses especially, fare much, much better.

The other issue, again at least from where I sat, was that when a score goes abruptly from very loud to very soft, which happens quite often in Bruckner, for the duration of the echo there's confusion, obscuring what follows.

Overall, I would prefer a drier sound. To my ear, that reverb. too often blurs details, and after an hour or so, because of the excess distance, I started to feel out of things and switch off. One day I will have to go back and sit nearer, to see if the effect is more inclusive – but as I said above, it looks, from what I've read here and there, as if it will be very hard to decide where exactly to buy a seat, the implication being not that sections of the hall are different, but that each individual seat – and even your position sitting in it – is!

A detail: by one of those odd quirks of acoustics, during the concerto, the sound of the piano hammers was distinctly audible, tap-tap-tapping like a disembodied woodpecker, about three rows in front of me, to the left.

Bruckner
The programme was oddly lop-sided: a 25-minute concerto followed by a 20-minute interval, and then the symphony. Why orchestras no longer play overtures baffles me. Will we never hear them again?

The concerto was Mozart exactly as I no longer want to hear him, by a sleek modern orchestra and on a gleaming piano the size of a ship with plummy sound and a dynamic range Mozart never heard. Barenboim certainly exploited the dynamic range very skilfully, but his performance sometimes seemed almost cavalier, rushing through the runs (what the French call “soaping” them) with fistsful of wrong notes. Not a great showing, though the audience seemed to like it. I'm told Barenboim is impatient about rehearsing and his concerto performances can therefore be “seat-of-the-pants” affairs. Also that he takes too much on for his age. Maybe so.

The symphony was much better. The Berlin orchestra is wonderfully business-like and forthright (and would have done a great job in Egmont, if only we'd been allowed an overture), and Barenboim's approach, though very carefully crafted, handling Bruckner's tiered build-ups with admirable control and bringing delicate reverence to his “religioso” modulations, is relatively straightforward: more punchy than schmaltzy, not too much fiddle-arsing around with the tempi (mostly moderate to brisk), limited foot-dragging… It was lovely to hear the 6th played with such un-histrionic skill. To pick out a couple of details, it was a great evening for the principal oboe in the second movement, not such a great one for the principal horn, who fluffed quite a lot of notes. Tutti were impressively together, as usual with good German orchestras, and threw up great chunks of sound. But as I mentioned above, it all sounded a little too far off: I remained outside the music, not involved in it, and towards the end found myself thinking of dinner…

For those wanting more about the acoustics, here's a link to the blog entry.

12 Aug 2016

Leoncavallo - I Pagliacci

Apollo(n) Theatre, Ermoupoli, Syros, Friday July 15 2016

Conductor: Giovanni Pacor. Production: Detlef Soelter. Canio: Piero Giuliacci. Nedda: Eilana Lappalainen. Tonio: Massimiliano Fichera. Beppe: Ioannis Kavouras. Silvio: Joseph Lim. Pan-European Philharmonia. Greek Opera Studio. Ile de France children’s chorus.

Leoncavallo
In the middle of the 19th century, Ermoupoli, capital of Syros in the Cyclades, was a thriving shipbuilding and trading town and a more important port than Piraeus, rich enough to build a small Italian-style, horseshoe-shaped opera house. The Apollo (sometimes Apollon) Theatre was renovated at the turn of the present century, and I found myself invited to Syros for my birthday and to I Pagliacci there the next day.

It was a far better experience than anyone might have feared, a more-than-just-creditable performance, and quite a lot of fun. It was also an appreciable chance to get some idea of what opera in small and relatively remote houses was like back then. The intimacy with the singers (especially when the production, as here, invades the auditorium) makes it a very different experience from opera in gigantic places like the Met or the Bastille, and means soloists with voices that might not survive in New York or Paris can be cast with some success in Syros.

Though I suppose it isn’t logical, I know I’m inclined to be more indulgent and easily-pleased with small companies making the effort to stage operas in cash-strapped venues. My host evidently isn’t, complaining that the small stage was unnecessarily cluttered and that Bob Wilson (no less) would have done a better job by leaving more to the imagination. He was right, though, that the little stage-within-a-stage with its strings of light-bulbs and clown backdrop would have been enough; Nedda’s caravan, on the left, and the painted Italian village square all round, could have been dispensed with and would have left more room for the lively action.

It was a modern-dress production – among other things, no doubt saving money on costumes, though Canio had the apropriate baggy check clown pants and a trailing tailcoat in patches of black and grey and Nedda, once got up as Colombina, was in a red-spotted dress with yellow pigtails and exaggerated makeup. The Prologue was sung in the centre aisle and the chorus started out in the tiered stage-side boxes, waving flags (including the Finnish one, as the ambassador was, it was announced formally by someone from the Town Hall, present) and eventually entered through the house. The acting was sometimes, no doubt deliberately, melodramatic and the chorus movements were no worse (including the kids) than anywhere else in such cramped surroundings.

Massimiliano Fichera was both solid and enthusiastic and Joseph Lim was, if staid (not that there’s much you can do with Silvio), solid too: a pair of sound, well-trained young voices. Piero Giuliacci was a much better Canio than you might have anticipated in the circumstances. And the orchestra was perfectly competent and was even equipped with a proper set of tubular bells. Only Eilana Lappalainen was over the top (no, I didn’t say over the hill…): her voice was loud and squally, making Nedda’s awful bird aria even more chaotic than usual, and she’s a bit mature to be prancing round like a teenage ingénue in yellow pigtails, though she undeniably threw herself into it with near abandon. That didn’t, however, ruin the evening. I enjoyed my birthday treat.

Wenarto stages the tragic finale here.

2 Jul 2016

Sondheim - Sweeney Todd

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday June 26 2016

Conductor: Bassem Akiki. Production: James Brining. Sets & costumes: Colin Richmond. Lighting: Chris Davey. Sweeney Todd: Scott Hendricks. Anthony Hope: Finnur Bjarnason. Beggar Woman: Natascha Petrinsky. Mrs. Lovett: Carole Wilson. Judge Turpin: Andrew Schroeder. Beadle Bamford: Christopher Gillett. Johanna Barker: Hendrickje Van Kerckhove. Tobias Ragg: George Ure. Pirelli: Paul Charles Clarke. Jonas Fogg: Matthew Zadow. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

From La Monnaie's web-site:

'The production of Frankenstein - the new creation that La Monnaie commissioned from the American composer Mark Grey, based on an idea by Alex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus - is postponed to a later date. Instead of Frankenstein, we will close this season with another first for La Monnaie, which is also “out of the box”: namely Sweeney Todd.'

The Châtelet in Paris has been putting on Sondheim pieces for the past three of four years, but, having heard bits on the radio or web, I have steered clear. The Brussels matinée subscription is, however, a set menu: you take what you are given (though in this case not what was originally announced). So along we went.

Not entirely "out-of-the box", as the economical but effective sets used shipping containers: on the right, a couple of them, stacked, on the left, another, raised on scaffolding, between them an opening with an industrial curtain of vertical plastic strips. The boxes opened up to show rooms in Turpin's house or, on the left, the barber shop. The production was in that vaguely modern dress – not 50s, not 60s, not quite today either – we see so often. The acting, it seemed to me, was stage-school style – borderline hammy, trying hard but not quite succeeding. The dialogues and singing were all miked, so it was impossible to see who was saying or singing what, or judge of the performance. The text sounded like A. C. Douglas struggling to be humorous, and fake Cockney accents only made it worse. And, finally, the music confirmed what I suspected: I can't bear Sondheim. It's nails on slate to my ears ("Send in the clowns": aaaaaargh....). I know I'm in a minority, but I'm not alone: after mentioning it to a friend on Gmail, I received this:

"I LOATHE Sondheim. I presume you have seen this ('Waiting for the tune to begin...')"


So as soon as we could escape the stifling, noisy tent La Monnaie is currently using (and risks using for the whole 2016-2017 season), we did.

24 Jun 2016

VPO/Nott/Kaufmann: Beethoven, Strauss, Mahler

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Thursday June 23 2016

Conductor: Jonathan Nott. Jonas Kaufmann. Wiener Philharmoniker.

  • Beethoven: Overture Coriolan
  • Strauss: Tod und Verklärung
  • Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Not Jonas Kaufmann
I really must learn to pay more attention, when I get my season’s tickets from the TCE, to where they’ve put me. It was only when I arrived there last night that I realised I was on the front row, which in my opinion shouldn’t be sold as top category at all as there’s no hope, with your nose up the violin section’s trouser legs, of hearing properly balanced sound. For the sake of completeness, I’ll write up my thoughts, but whether they resemble anyone else’s experience will be anyone’s guess.

So I’ll be brief.



  1. The Coriolan overture, as played by the Wiener Phil., simply reminded me that these days I prefer to hear Beethoven played by smaller, “hipper” orchestras. It was at once massive and humdrum.
  2. It was about 30 minutes into the concert, as we at last plunged into a proper Straussian maelstrom, that things seemed to pick up, i.e. the orchestra started to sound like it was doing what it should by rights be doing. However, Jonathan Nott’s performance had neither the mystery nor the violence you might expect in Tod und V. and, though I don’t think I dozed off, I actually missed the moment of death. The Wiener Phil. Is capable of quieter playing than Nott seemed inclined to demand and anything less than mezzo-forte was a rarity.
  3. In the songs, there was at last true pianissimo playing when required, which I assumed to be in response to Kaufmann’s virtuoso performance: what the French call a “leçon de chant” – a lesson in singing, a wonderful display of technical mastery: dynamic range, variety of vocal colour, faultless tuning, daring breathing, delicacy of sentiment… His bright, ringing top notes, from the outset, and intimate, speech-like pianissimi (reminding me of Anna Caterina Antonacci) were both truly impressive. But the decision to sing all six songs meant Kaufmann’s lack of projection at the bottom was made evident – and I admit I missed a mezzo, however wonderful were his murmured “Ewig…” at the end. Wonderful to me, at least: I see on the web today that people are complaining he was sometimes inaudible from the upper balconies, partly because of his own interpretative choices and partly because of Nott’s nuance-lite conducting, straightforward to the point of insensitivity. At the end, I had the feeling Nott wasn’t quite up to the orchestra and soloist he found himself blessed with (replacing Daniele Gatti, off with a shoulder sprain).
Maestro Wenarto attacks "Von der Schönheit".

11 Jun 2016

Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Friday June 10 2016

Conductor : Jean-Claude Malgoire. Production and sets : Christian Schiaretti. Costumes: Thibaut Welchlin. Lighting: Julia Grand. Isabella: Anna Reinhold. Lindoro: Artavazd Sargsyan. Taddeo: Domenico Balzani. Mustapha: Sergio Gallardo. Elvira : Samantha Louis-Jean. Haly : Renaud Delaigue. Zulma. La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roy. Ensemble Vocal de l’Atelier Lyrique de Tourcoing.

Rossini
There’s something seriously wrong when the best-cast parts in L’Italiana in Algeri are Taddeo and Zulma. My neighbour thought it was “criminal” to push these gauche young singers on to the stage of the TCE in parts so far beyond their means. The audience was indulgent, but by the end of “Languir per una bella” there was already a hint of booing from high up on the left. I will say no more about the singing.

Jean-Claude Malgoire was something of a pioneer of the baroque revival in France, and this production was, if I understood correctly, intended to celebrate 50 years of his efforts. He started out back in the days when baroque ensembles were ragged and out of tune, and hasn’t changed a bit since. His orchestra sounded like a village band on a bad afternoon. The horn obbligato was a mess and in rapid passages even the upper strings became a barely audible blur. The bass drum thumped away with abandon, drowning out the poor soloists.

Malgoire has always had a singular gift for making even the most sparkling work boring: there wasn’t a single clap of applause after the overture, and as usual the tempi throughout what I stayed for were, with only the rare exception, plodding. No wonder, with the rise of the likes of Les Arts Florissants, Les Musiciens du Louvre and Les Talens Lyriques, La Grande Ecurie has faded into near-oblivion in its northern backwater.

The only redeeming features of this production were the sets, lighting and costumes. The sets in particular were simple and effective: three layers of gauze, overprinted with old engravings of an oriental city with domes and minarets, and of Moorish arches, atmospherically lit in various colours. There were carpets on the floor and rows of lanterns above. It looked at first as if we'd be spared the school-production awfulness that sometimes tempts directors in these works, but soon the familiar bags of pasta appeared and the silly dances started... There was little sign of directing skill: the younger soloists were awkward on stage, not knowing how either to move or stand still, or what to do with their hands.

A proper director with a better cast and Minkowski and his band in the pit could have made good use of the sets, but in the present circumstances, boredom, as my neighbour noted, had set in even before the overture was over. We left at the interval.

7 Jun 2016

Reimann - Lear

ONP Garnier, Monday June 6 2016

Conductor: Fabio Luisi. Production: Calixto Bieito. Sets: Rebecca Ringst. Costumes: Ingo Krügler. Video: Sarah Derendinger. Lighting: Franck Evin. König Lear: Bo Skovhus. König von Frankreich: Gidon Saks. Herzog von Albany: Andreas Scheibner. Herzog von Cornwall: Michael Colvin. Graf von Kent: Kor-Jan Dusseljee. Graf von Gloster: Lauri Vasar. Edgar: Andrew Watts. Edmund: Andreas Conrad. Goneril: Ricarda Merbeth. Regan: Erika Sunnegardh. Cordelia: Annette Dasch. Narr: Ernst Alisch. Bedienter: Nicolas Marie. Ritter: Lucas Prisor. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. 

Reimann
"Tout y était. Il n'y a rien à dire." So said my neighbour at the end, and he was right. What can you add when, for once, everything is at such a fervent pitch, with singing, acting and playing consistently, even triumphantly (if such a word can be used in the gruesome context of King Lear) meeting the enormous demands of an uncompromising score in an uncompromising production. I will put in a special word for the energy, commitment and generosity of Ricarda Merbeth and Bo Skovhus, here more impressive by far than I ever saw and heard them before, and for the phenomenal performance of Andrew Watts in a role seemingly calling for both baritone and countertenor voices in one. But this wasn't the kind of performance where you really want or need to single one singer out: the cast was, frankly, amazing and, after the traditional vaguely-chaotic start, the orchestra warmed up to its absolute best, playing up a storm - literally, of course, when called for, and to thunderous effect.

Calixto Bieito's production was simple, uncompromising, as I said and as you might expect, hugely demanding of the singers' acting skills and hugely successful in bringing them out: a directing tour de force, though in a fairly simple, single construction. The stage and proscenium were clad with black boards, as if tarred or charred, and during the opening scenes a kind of "curtain" of similarly charred or tarry-looking planks hung vertically across the stage. The lighting, mostly starkly white, softened with dry-ice haze, verged on expressionistic: searchlight-like spots criss-crossing downwards and beams cast between the planks by pinpoint backlights (that annoyed one member of the audience, who voiced his complaint about them loudly at the end of the first half). The contemporary costumes were, until grubbied or removed in the course of the play (Lear, for example, spent most of the second half in filthy boxers), the kind of dull, expensive clothes worn today by northern Europe's royal families. Goneril, Regan and courtiers scrabbled on the floor for bread broken off and thrown down by Lear.

When we moved to the woods, the vertical planks were partially lowered, some leaning forwards, others backwards, on their wires, making a giant thicket. In the second half, the piercing backlights were replaced by slow-moving, enigmatic projections in shades of grey. We could make out, at the rear through the chaos of planks, a very slow pan along a very old, possibly dead, body. Other images were less legible: densely wrinkled skin? An eye or some other viscously glossy, organic, living thing, very close up? As the action advanced and utter madness seemed gradually to grip everyone on stage, the planks continued to fall until they lay, parallel but uneven in height, on the stage, still attached to their wires. At the end, surrounded by death, Lear sat alone in his boxers with his legs dangling into the pit, head askew, mouth open, and the lights went out.

In such a harrowing staging, the "Pieta" references: Cordelia cradling Lear, then, later, vice-versa, seemed a touch corny to me (though not at all to my neighbour, who was impressed), in what was otherwise a near-perfect production: a monumental success. A magnificent end to the Paris Opera season - even more magnificent than the start, with Moses und Aron. I hope these can be taken as promising signs of what's to come (under Lissner, I mean). Chronic opera-going often, you may have heard me say, comes to seem a thankless obsession. When there's so much to get right, unsurprisingly a lot can and, as well all know, does go wrong. You even, sometimes, leave at the interval. But occasionally, along comes the kind of evening that reminds you why you keep going back. It makes up for the rest and reconciles you to your expensive hobby. This was one.