Philadelphia/Eschenbach in New York

Stanze *
Parsifal – Act III

Andreas Schmidt (baritone) *

Parsifal – John Keyes
Gurnemanz – Matthias Hoelle
Amfortas – Andreas Schmidt
Kundry – Roberta Knie
Philadelphia Singers Chorale

The Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 18 January, 2005
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

This program was an extraordinary combination of farewells, pairing the thoughtful poetry settings of Stanze, the final work of Berio, with some of the most deeply spiritual music ever written: Act III of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal. The concert program drew a less than full audience on the coldest night of this winter, but those who braved the freezing temperature were rewarded with two powerful, moving performances.

Stanze, an Orchestre de Paris commission completed just a few weeks before Berio’s death in May of 2003, received its world premiere in a performance led by Eschenbach in January of 2004. Eschenbach also led an Orchestre de Paris performance at the Proms last year. This January 18 performance followed close on the heels of the US premiere on January 14 and 15, with Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

Stanze comprises musical settings of five poems by an eclectic grouping of five poets. The work is sung in three languages – German, Italian, and English – and is scored for baritone, three male choruses, and large orchestra. Berio directs that the usual orchestral layout be inverted, with the low strings to the left of the conductor, and the violins to the right. The three male choruses were located behind the orchestra – left, right, and center.

Berio’s hugely affecting piece is an existential exploration of the themes of life, war, and death. The title refers not to the poetic stanzas of the work, but to ‘rooms’ – the five separate rooms inhabited by the poets. The intensely powerful texts are rendered even dramatic by its alternating slow and fast settings. In the first movement, Paul Celan’s “Tenebrae”, the voice of the solo baritone frequently hovers over a seemingly unrelated series of hesitant, low register chords from the orchestra. In an affecting postlude, which features saxophones, piccolo, and horns, the instruments pick up the vocal line. In the second movement, the choruses enter. Their quick-paced shouts provide a striking contrast to the baritone’s moderate dispatch of Giorgio Caproni’s poem of farewell to knowledge, love, and religion. In the central movement, an untitled text by Sanguineti, the baritone’s vocal line picks up speed as he depicts a powerful and forbidding deity, while the chorus vocalises an unintelligible text. The fast music of the fourth movement, with its prominent use of percussion and frequent meter changes, stands in fine contrast to the earlier movements, as does the biting humor of the text, Alfred Brendel’s “The news that…” a poem about finding divinity in the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka. The final movement, Dan Pagis’s “The Battle”, returns to the moderate pacing of the first song, but now with chorus, to present a bleak evocation of death.

Baritone soloist Andreas Schmidt turned in a splendid performance. He displayed an appropriately restrained intensity throughout all five movements, while varying his delivery to wide-ranging demands of the texts. The Philadelphia Orchestra under Eschenbach was wonderful throughout.

Equally impressive was the performance of Act III of Parsifal. The soloists were, for the most part, superb. Tenor John Keyes appeared unsteady at first but went on to deliver a rapt and eloquent rendition of Parsifal’s final narration. Matthias Hoelle gave a sturdy, warm-toned portrayal of Gurnemanz. Andreas Schmidt was vocally splendid and dramatically effective as the tortured Amfortas. Veteran soprano Roberta Knie, who stopped singing years ago when she was diagnosed with a potentially blinding eye condition, made a rare cameo appearance as Kundry, whose entire vocal role in Act III consists of two groans, one scream, and four sung notes. Knie’s ability to create a convincing portrayal from those few sounds and a minimum of movements was remarkable. Eschenbach elicited a radiant and expansive performance from the orchestra. The playing was consistently beautiful, with standout solo performances by the clarinet, oboe, and flute. In the glowing ethereal music of the last chorus, the Philadelphia Singers were magnificent.

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