Siegfried [Second day of Der Ring des Nibelungen – Music Drama in three acts; libretto by the composer; concert performance sung in German]

Siegfried – Jon Fredric West
Mime – Volker Vogel
The Wanderer – Evgeny Nikitin
Alberich – Sergei Leiferkus
Fafner – Mikhail Petrenko
Woodbird – Natalie Karl
Erda – Qiu Lin Zhang
Brünnhilde – Olga Sergeeva

Orchestre de Paris
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 16 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The annual presentation at the Proms of the complete ‘Ring’, continued with this distinguished performance of what was the original starting-point, dramatically speaking, of the whole cycle.

Less apparently ‘starry’ than the 2004 “Das Rheingold” (conducted by Simon Rattle) and last year’s “Die Walküre” (with Domingo and Terfel, conducted by Antonio Pappano), this “Siegfried” (the first complete performance at the Proms), perhaps inevitably, drew a decidedly less than capacity audience.

I had not previously considered Christoph Eschenbach as either an operatic or a Wagnerian conductor, nor was I aware that Orchestre de Paris has been participating in productions at the Théâtre du Châtelet since 1992. In fact, Eschenbach and his orchestra (of which he has been Music Director since 2000) were involved with Robert Wilson’s production of “Der Ring des Nibelungen” earlier this year at the Châtelet, as was several of this Proms’ cast.

The orchestral playing impressed right from the start; the musicians and Eschenbach conveyed the dark, brooding atmosphere quite superbly, aided by an excellent tuba whose insinuating lines were notable for their security of intonation and scrupulous observation of dynamics – the latter a feature of this performance as a whole.

One of the many pleasures of this “Siegfried” was being able to appreciate Wagner’s wonderful score – possibly the most ‘forward looking’ of the ‘Ring’ – without the visual distractions which often deflect attention from both the music and the composer’s intended dramaturgy. One need look no further than recent productions in London for instances of these. It is frequently the case that Mime is presented rather congenially, as a character that is ‘put upon’ and has to tolerate Siegfried’s uncouth behaviour. But the fact that Mime has reared Siegfried for purely selfish motives – namely the recovery of the ring – should not be overlooked.

Volker Vogel – the only German in the cast – suggested a more malevolent figure, frustrated and bitter to a degree. This he achieved through biting diction and firm delivery. His occasional resorting to half-speaking and -shouting odd phrases was not attractive, but at least he did not descend into the realm of caricature that often happens with this role.

As the eponymous hero, Jon Fredric West was a consistently fine exponent of this well-nigh-impossible part. His tenor has just the right weight – a real ‘Heldentenor’ sound, in fact – and he has the stamina to sustain the part throughout. West was also sensible in keeping something in reserve for the final scene with Brünnhilde. Many Siegfrieds have expired by this point – if not before – but West sang it uncommonly strongly and well, as if suggesting growing maturity on the part of the character. This made up for a less than ‘full-on’ climax to the Act One forging songs, well enough sung as they were. His ruminative moments were touching and one was genuinely caught up – and interested – in this Siegfried’s personality and predicaments.

Evgeny Nikitin presented a youngish sounding Wanderer (Wotan in none-too-subtle a disguise) but any lack of the sense of weariness was compensated for by fullness of tone and an authoritative delivery of the vocal lines. In his Act One exchange with Mime there was an unfortunate mistiming of some pre-recorded thunder. It was heard too early, thus spoiling the moment – the action, of course, intended to be co-ordinated with the music – when the stage direction indicates that a thunderclap is heard when the Wanderer’s spear hits the ground as if by accident.

I very much liked Eschenbach’s pacing of the drama. There was care for the shape of individual scenes, but a sense of inexorability led events onwards. The final pages of Act One were truly exhilarating – it was gratifying to hear the dotted rhythms in the trumpets so clearly articulated – rather than a mere quick dash to the double bar. Orchestra and conductor once again set the scene ideally for the opening events of Act Two.

Sergei Leiferkus suggested a resentful, fretful Alberich obsessed with the notion of the ring being returned to him. His is perhaps a lighter baritone than one sometimes hears in the part, but this made for a most effective contrast with Nikitin’s Wanderer and, later on, Vogel’s Mime. In these duets, there was good interplay between the characters again, fully engaging the audience’s involvement. Siegfried’s reflective passages in the forest brought forth some ravishing woodwind playing – flute, oboe and clarinet all first-rate – and expressive string sounds, with mellifluous violin and cello solos.

Fafner was first heard – very effectively – as a disembodied voice, and Mikhail Petrenko projected the character with appropriate dourness and menace. It was good to hear the ‘fight’ music without the moaning and groaning that are often heard emanating from whoever is playing Fafner – once more, Eschenbach was most effective at building to the climax of this scene – and in his death throes, Petrenko evoked genuine sympathy for the doomed giant.

I didn’t care too much for Natalie Karl’s singing of the Woodbird; something lighter and brighter was needed in place of her rather too forceful delivery. And her top notes did not sound effortless.

The stormy Act Three prelude was full of portent, and the Wanderer’s summoning of Erda authoritative. This is a very heavily scored scene and the orchestra was sometimes overpowering. This is probably a place where the ideal sound can only be obtained via Bayreuth’s ‘covered’ pit. Qiu Lin Zhang has a dark, contralto-like timbre and though her words were a little cloudy she nevertheless conveyed authority and wisdom in the few phrases Wagner allotted her.

The encounter between the Wanderer and Siegfried had all the feeling of growing tension that it should, both West and Nikitin relishing the text and engaging in effective interplay. The orchestral depiction of Siegfried plunging into the flames which surround Brünnhilde’s rock was truly cataclysmic, and Eschenbach realised a superb slowing-down towards its close, leading into the cooler, calmer airs when Siegfried emerges unscathed on the mountain-top. The violins were unimpeachable in their intonation and ensemble in this tricky passage.

Brünnhilde’s awakening, limned with delicate strings and harps (though only four, as opposed to the prescribed six) – found Olga Sergeeva conveying a warm, sensuous figure, initially resisting Siegfried’s protestations of love and finally capitulating. She and West sang the final moments with increasing ardour, backed by a sure and strong accompaniment. One or two odd infelicities apart (most surprisingly in the solo horn), the playing of Orchestre de Paris was consistent and responsive. A word of special praise must go to the bass clarinet whose extensive lines were most beautifully played, and caused one to reflect that Wagner’s writing for this instrument in the Ring was unprecedented.

But Christoph Eschenbach must take the ultimate plaudits for this very satisfying realisation of what is arguably the most difficult segment of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ to ‘bring off’ in performance.

Mozart the Dramatist

Idomeneo – Ballet music
Mitridate – Se viver non degg’io
Zaide – Nur mutig, mein Herze
Lucio Silla – Fra i pensier
Die Entführung aus dem Serail – Act II finale
La clemenza di Tito – Overture
Don Giovanni – Dalla sua pace
Le nozze di Figaro – Scene from Act III
Die Zauberflöte – Ach, ich fühl’s
Don Giovanni – Act II finale

Anne Leese, Rebecca Nash & Ailish Tynan (sopranos)
Ian Bostridge & Benjamin Hulett (tenors)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Kyle Ketelsen (bass-baritone)
Mikhail Petrenko (bass)

BBC Singers

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 15 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For the first Saturday of the 2006 Proms season the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Sir Roger Norrington gave a whistle-stop tour through Mozart’s operatic canon picking out well- and lesser-known chunks ostensibly to demonstrate the composer’s skills as a dramatist. Between each of the items Sir Roger gave a brief outline and commentary on most of the pieces played. Commentaries from conductors can sometimes be very arch or patronising, but Norrington managed to strike a reasonably happy medium and explained why he found the various excerpts interesting, and set them in their historical context.

The concert opened with the ballet music from the final act of “Idomeneo, Rè di Creta”, which seemed an odd choice to demonstrate dramatic flair as in most productions where the ballet is included it can appear to prolong an already long evening whilst adding little to the drama, and sometimes leaves the protagonists looking desperate to get to their dressing rooms to unwind! However, here it received an energetic and fizzy performance with some crisp ensemble, especially from the woodwinds. I particularly liked Norrington’s way of varying the tempo of the various sections; making one sit up and really notice the change of pulse. The players were very responsive.

After this we moved back in time to where the 14-year-old composer wrote his opera seria “Mitridate, Rè di Ponto”, which, as Norrington admitted, contains much music that is unremarkable, but does have some occasional delights. He cited “Se viver non degg’io” as an example and in the performance of Rebecca Nash and Ailish Tynan it certainly delighted. Nash started out with an ethereal floating cantilena and was joined in this duet of love by the higher, brighter soprano of Tynan. They blended beautifully and the florid passages where very accomplished and exact. Both sang without scores.

Following that we moved to a short episode from the incomplete singspiel “Zaide”, which was not performed in Mozart’s lifetime. This introduced us to Simon Keenlyside’s Allazim. Sir Roger told us he felt that composing music for ordinary characters rather than gods and patricians was more to Mozart’s taste, although this did not seem to be particularly borne out by the aria, attractively as Keenlyside sang it.

Back to opera seria and the New Zealand soprano Anna Leese gave a beautifully voiced account of Giunia’s aria “Fra i pensier” from Act Three of “Lucio Silla”, although not that well articulated in terms of diction. This is one of the highlights of that opera, and over a pulsing accompaniment the soprano is required to let her long lines soar and express her changing emotions throughout a wide vocal range. This is Mozart demonstrating an amazing development of skill in the three years since “Mitridate”, and allowing his music, both the vocal line and orchestral underlay, to point the predicament of the protagonist.

From there we moved eastward with the Act Two finale of “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” – an opera which seems to be out of fashion at present – perhaps owing to its depiction of a clash between Ottoman and Western values. Here Ian Bostridge and Rebecca Nash sang the patrician lovers Belmonte and Konstanze, with the earthier servant pair, Pedrillo and Blonde, sung by Tynan and Benjamin Hulett. The vocal and dramatic interplay was pleasantly acted out, with the characterisation of the two classes given vocal and dramatic point.

After the interval we moved to rather more familiar territory and mature works. We were given a crisp and controlled account of the overture to “La clemenza di Tito”, and then Bostridge gave a honeyed account of Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” from “Don Giovanni”, although it was shorn of its introductory recitative. This seemed an odd piece to choose in the context of ‘Mozart the Dramatist’ as it is possibly the least dramatic aria and moment of the entire work!

There then followed an extended episode from Act III of “Le nozze di Figaro” – the Count’s “Hai già vita la causa” and the following recognition scene. Simon Keenlyside, perhaps THE Count Almaviva of our day, sang his aria with his warm and focused baritone and his customary flair, and a keen matching of music and words. The recognition scene was also nicely played and sung, although perhaps Norrington pushed the tempo too fast to allow all the repetitive “sua madre / suo padre” bits to really make their comic impact. Kyle Ketelsen gave his Figaro some presence, but Rebecca Nash did not seem quite at home in Marcellina’s music. The Don Curzio of Benjamin Hulett was a delight and it was good to hear his character’s melodic line towards the end of the sextet being voiced by a young singer rather than a character-tenor whose voice has known better days.

In Pamina’s “Ach, ich fühl’s” the tempo did not give Ailish Tynan much chance to exact all the emotions from this beautiful aria. It seemed Norrington was determined to propel the music forward when all it, and the singer, seemed to want was a little more space. Tynan does not yet have the creaminess of voice for hers to be a great Pamina either, but she sang with a simplicity that was affecting.

Finally we had the finale of “Don Giovanni” – from the dinner scene to the end of the opera. Keenlyside reminded us that he is also a Don Giovanni of distinction, and Kyle Ketelsen was an attentive Leporello. Here the orchestra seemed to enjoy itself with the percussive knocking on the door of the Commendatore’s statue given at an amazing fortissimo, drowning the orchestra entirely. Mikhail Petrenko, standing in for an indisposed Brindley Sherratt, delivered a stentorian Commendatore and the male voices of the BBC singers sang the hellish demons. Again the pace was perhaps too frenetic for comfort and the ensemble thus suffered a little. The surviving characters subsequently were then allowed time to freely articulate their future hopes and aspirations and deliver the moral.

Ultimately, the earlier half of the concert was the more satisfying, perhaps because of the unfamiliarity of much of the music, but also because conductor, players and singers seemed to be savouring the less mature Mozart, and allowing the drama to unfold more naturally. Later on it seemed that Norrington was driving ahead at the expense of the drama, to Mozart’s detriment.

London Mozart Players

Moz-Art à la Haydn
Symphony No.14 in A, K114
Serenade in D, K250 (Haffner)

David Juritz (violin)

London Mozart Players
Isabelle van Keulen (violin)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 15 July, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

In the beginning was darkness … and silence. But, gently, there became audible little string phrases, like a growing dawn chorus of Vivaldian birds. By the time the stage lights came on, the cue for a tutti chord, we were in the middle of one of Alfred Schnittke’s Mozart-inspired ‘games in music’. Here it was Moz-Art à la Haydn, his 1977 version stemming from a surviving sketch of Mozartean pantomime music (K461d, from 1783) the reference to Haydn embodied in the ‘Farewell’ Symphony-like disappearing of the non-seated players at the end, with the final bars once again returning to ‘snippets in darkness’.

There’s something about Schnittke that transcends the gimmick, and this spirited performance (no half-pressure on the strings here!) was a good reminder of his unique way with the music of the past: definitely not pastiche! There was a further element of the visual, obviously unseen by listeners to BBC Radio 3 (although what seemed the unnecessary intrusion of added reverberation wasn’t lost on the ears! – Ed.) where rather noisily the violins and violas of the London Mozart Players rearranged themselves – here in a long line behind solo violinists Isabelle van Keulen and David Juritz – for the slower central section.

By the time we got to Mozart proper, I had only one complaint – that the curtains, necessarily drawn to achieve the blackout in which the Schnittke began and ended, were not opened to allow the beautiful July sunlight to shine through. That’s not to say there wasn’t enough sunny atmosphere engendered in the playing of the London Mozart Players, but one of the glories of Cadogan Hall is that during an afternoon (even an evening performance in summer) the natural light negates the use of electric light.

Other than that, there were no cavils at this Proms Saturday Matinee inaugural concert. There are four this year – spaced two weeks apart – and the London Mozart Players made a very welcome return to the Proms fold. Indeed, the Saturday matinees have been specifically created to celebrate British chamber orchestras (the Academy of Ancient Music, Britten Sinfonia and Orchestra of St John’s follow).

With a sound rich and buoyancy but not without a satisfying bite, the performances of Mozart’s A major symphony (catalogued as number 14) – finished on 30 December 1771 and generally considered to be the first in which he showed his true promise – and the Haffner Serenade (from five years later) tread a satisfying line between the old-style big-boned and heavy-handed style of Mozart and period instrument ‘authenticism’. It was a perfect blend, with Isabelle van Keulen as soloist in the ‘violin concerto’ that forms the second, third and fourth movements of the eight-movement Serenade.

As the first of many Mozart-themed 250th-birthday Proms concerts this season, this matinee concert set the benchmark high for others to match.

The First Night Of The Proms

Le nozze di Figaro, K492 – Overture; Porgi amor
Don Giovanni, K527 – In quali eccesso, O numi … Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata
Má vlast – Vltava
Te Deum, Op.103
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Barbara Frittoli (soprano)
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 14 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The intention to mark Mozart’s 250th-anniversary and Shostakovich’s centenary throughout this year’s Proms season was made explicit in this opening concert. Whether or not some of Mozart’s most popular operatic excerpts and Shostakovich’s most widely-played symphony need such exposure is perhaps a matter of debate. Sandwiched between these were works by Czech composers, obviously included to mark Jiří Bělohlávek’s becoming, with this concert, the next Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

A reduced string section was deployed for the Mozart and whilst the tempo was finely judged for the ‘Figaro’ overture (more properly the opera’s Sinfonia), one couldn’t altogether escape the feeling that this music was, to a degree, ‘lost’ in the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall. Nevertheless, this performance bubbled with high spirits and detail and dynamic contrasts were well attended to – as indeed they were throughout this somewhat disparate programme.

Barbara Frittoli captured the poignancy of the Countess’s ‘Porgi amor’, partnered by an attentive and expressive accompaniment. In Donna Elvira’s recitative and aria from “Don Giovanni” (replacing, without explanation, the excerpt from “Idomeneo” listed in the Proms brochure), the words in the former were superbly articulated, whilst the expressiveness of the latter was touching, and vocal hurdles easily negotiated.

The second of Smetana’s six symphonic poems that make up the collection Má vlast must be a piece which Bělohlávek has conducted many times. But there was no hint of routine in this performance; on the contrary, it was notable for its freshness and vitality. Some infelicities in the awkward opening section for the woodwinds did not detract from the effectiveness of the whole, the various episodes being distinctly characterised. The string playing was fine and the really quiet brass-playing impressive.

The opening of Dvořák’s “Te Deum” might suggest Bohemian village merry-making rather than a paean of praise to Almighty God, but the ebullience of Dvořák’s invention here and elsewhere was well conveyed, with the BBC Symphony Chorus making a most hearty contribution.

Dvořák divided the text into four movements, thus creating a symphonic design, though, surprisingly, he often passes by opportunities for specific illumination of the words. Barbara Frittoli’s radiant singing was once again affecting, and Sir John Tomlinson’s oracular pronouncements were tremendously powerful. Occasionally, one felt the need for a little more drive from the conducting and weight from the orchestral accompaniment, but Dvořák’s sometimes rather odd setting of the “Te Deum” was, overall, given a performance of some conviction.

Shostakovich undoubtedly realised that his Fifth Symphony would have to rehabilitate him in the eyes of the Soviet authorities, following official condemnation of his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, and one can imagine the composer’s relief when its first performance in January 1938 was a success with both the public and Stalin’s regime.

But it remains an ambiguous piece; is the composer writing what the ‘Party’ wanted to hear, or is there some kind of subversive subtext – perhaps most revealingly at the symphony’s close with its emphatic re-iterations of D major after so much music in the minor key? We can probably never know.

In any event, Jiří Bělohlávek’s reading felt far too ‘comfortable’. The opening string gestures lacked bite and the underlying tension in the subsequent high violin melody and its insistent accompaniment was absent. Even with the arrival of heavy artillery, in the form of weighty brass, there was insufficient menace or a feeling of danger. The tempo for this movement was relatively swift, but the gradual accelerations in the central section were not sufficiently emphasised.

Conversely, the comparatively measured speed for the scherzo played down the edgy quality of the music and there were some fussy – and ineffective – hesitations and speeding-up in the trio. The string-saturated third movement sounded much too luxuriant, more warm Vaughan Williams than icy Siberia, though there were some poignant moments such as the lonely oboe against violin tremolos and the sad tolling of harp and celesta at the close. The eventual ‘triumph’ (is it really that?) of the symphony’s coda did not feel as if it had been striven for and one had the sense that this was a late-Romantic symphony as opposed to one being conceived in more troubled times.

It was not evident that a close rapport had been established between the orchestra and its new Chief Conductor; perhaps a different view might emerge in time. Very often, the First Night of the Proms has something special to offer, be it in the form of adventurous programming or an especially illuminating performance. This first night actually felt quite ‘ordinary’, so we must hope that some sparks will fly over the course of the ensuing weeks.

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