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Richard Wagner

Sunday, August 28, 2016


My Classical Notes

Yesterday

Final Compositions By Shostakovich

My Classical NotesThe music of Dmitry Shostakovich is very much a reflection of the times during which he lived in the Soviet Union. Now we have a new recording that allows us to listen to his last three works. Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op. 141, performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Eduard Serov conducting. Suite on verses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, for bass & orchestra, Op. 145a, performed by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, Frantisek Vajnar conducting.k Novorosiisk Chimes, Op. 111b, performed by the Radio-TV USSR Symphony, Arvid Jansons conducting. Ever the humorist, Shostakovich delighted in placing references to his works and of other composers in his final, Fifteenth Symphony: in addition to the cryptic references to his own music, it includes an outburst of Rossini’s ‘William Tell’ Overture in the first movement; allusions to Mikhail Glinka and Gustav Mahler; and the use of Richard Wagner’s ‘Fate’ leitmotif from the Ring Cycle. There is little humour however in the orchestral version of the ‘Michelangelo Suite’: a cycle profoundly personal and deeply felt. ‘Novorossiisk Chimes’ (also known as The Flame of Eternal Glory or The Fire of Eternal Glory), Op. 111b, was written in 1960 for the war memorial in the city of Novorossiisk. The piece consists, mainly, of material Shostakovich had originally written in 1943 as an entry in a contest to compose a new national anthem for the USSR. Here is a recording of the symphony number 15 by Shostakovich:

Classical iconoclast

August 26

Durch Mitleid wissend - Bayreuth Parsifal 2016

Wagner Parsifal at Bayreuth: always a place of pilgrimage. But would Wagner himself have prefered po-faced reverence or thought-provoking engagement?   Wagner didn't do "pretty pictures". Of all his oeuvre, Parsifal is the epitome of an ideas-opera, where abstract concepts are central to the action. It is a medieval mystery play, writ large.  But what abstract concepts?  Religiosity or true religion? Formula or genuine faith?  Parsifal has acquired a veneer of  religiosity because audiences assume that an opera with Good Friday music and semi-religious symbols must somehow be "Christian". Yet the theology of Parsifal is thoroughly unorthodox. The Grail concept pre-dates Christianity and lives on in legends with marginal connection to what we know of the Early Church. The Knights Templar did exist but were ruthlessly suppressed. And that's even before we get to Klingsor and Kundry.  Take Parsifal at face value, and miss its true challenge.  Controversy! Parsifal with Muslims! Uwe Erik Laufenberg's new production for 2016 confronts received wisdom, so at first it shocks. But as with many new ideas, deeper consideration yields insight. The Knights Templar were a military order, created to drive Muslims out of the Holy Land.  So much for "Love thy neighbour as thyself".  Jesus wouldn't have been a part of this community. Connecting Parsifal to Islam is not nearly as scandalous as it might seem. In these times of hate, ignorance and intolerance, we need to rethink fundamentals and second-hand assumptions. Again and again, Wagner writes "Durch Mitglied wissend...."  ("Through Compassion, knowledge".) Images of water and purity, not bloodshed.  The Grail Community inhabit a desert, in every sense, bereft of replenishment.  Under this lovely marble dome, amidst rubble, they lie on stretchers, dying of thirst.  A light shines and a young boy appears, as does a realistic swan.  Kundry (Elena Pankratova) quietly cradles the living child, Gurnemanz (Georg Zeppenfeld) cradles the dead bird, raging at Parsifal (Klaus Florian Vogt).  A small detail, but one which speaks volumes. Amfortas (Ryan McKinny), fortified, appears as Christ Crucified, with a crown of thorns, arms outstretched. Amfortas is the son of Titurel (Karl-Heinz Lehner) , a semi-supernatural figure, but mortal.  Titurel's disembodied voice booms from above the stage. But what do his words mean "Muss ich sterben, vom Retter ungeleitet?" If Parsifal the saviour, who is he who is his father?  Parsifal is fascinated by who his mother might have been, but isn't much bothered by his father.  Who is Klingsor, one wonders? Whether one believes that Jesus was God made man to save the world, that is the fundamental precept of Christianity. It's not Muslims who could be discomforted by this approach to the opera, and understandably so, too. But Laufenberg's interpretation comes from the opera itself.  How does  Parsifal (first seen with a quiff) become entranced by the faith that the Grail Community believe in, even in their own flawed way?  I don't know how this is shown on stage, but in the film of the production, the long orchestral transit is illustrated by a depiction of the universe, with stars and planets: Extremely beautiful, very profound. Although the Parsifal bells are overwhelming, they fit wonderfully with this cosmic panorama.  The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra was conducted by Helmut Haenchen. Amfortas enters a glowing, light-filled bath.  The Knights, dressed as monks,  partake of the chalice (a Grail), in which wine has been transubstatiated into the blood of Christ.  Yet there's something very spiritual about this scne, lit in silvers and pastels. The monks embrace in fellowship. Parsifal, sitting among them, absorbs the mystery. No wonder he spends the rest of his life trying to come back. In Act Two, the "church" is transformed into an Islamic palace, the walls decorated with blue and white tiles, a pool in the background, a symbol of the Islamic concept of Paradise as a place with cooling water.  A figure dressed in white, his mouth gagged, sits while Klingsor (Gerd Grochowski) rages.  It's Amfortas, forced  into watching his past re-enacted. Klingsor, like so many demagogues, is obsessed by what he claims to hate. Against a background of crucifixes, he holds a crucifix and rants. Psychologically telling - Klingsor wanted to be like God, but is a loser.  His realm is delusion. The Flower Maidens are seductive, but they're not real.  Burkas (symbols of oppression) transform to semi nudity.  Just as the Grail Knights hate women, so does Klingsor, which makes Kundry's role in this opera so critical. Parsifal enters, as a commando: another provocative image these days when we see armed intruders of all types on the news.  As Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal, Amfortas and Klingsor watch from the shadows. Realizing how Amfortas received his wound shakes Parsifal to his senses. The overture to Act Three is illustrated by a film of a pool, with palm fronds in a misty haze, a subtle but deliberate reference to Palm Sunday and what happens thereafter.  Is Kundry in hijab, or is her headcloth the kind many women the world over wear? Is Gurnemanz in monastic robes, or does his waistcoat resemble that of a man in the Middle East?  A gunman in black breaks in, but Gurnemanz welcomes him as a guest, for it is a Holy Day. The gunman plants a cross into the ground. It's the long-sought spear that caused Amfortas's wound.  Wonderful acting from Georg Zeppenfeld, who portrays Gurnemanz as a mellowed old man who cries at the thought of Titurel's death.  I was rather less convinced when the set opened out to a vista of forests and waterfalls, with dancing nymphs - the Flower Maidens made pure? - but in a production with many other good ideas  a misfire like this is forgivable.  In any case, Wagner;'s stage directions refer to to a Quelle, grasses and Blume auf den Auen.  Mitglied ! This tender, almost domestic interlude serves to highlight the power of the Mittag music. Through rising clouds we spot the visage of Richard Wagner with a wry smile, and then see a marvellously clear shot of a church bell, while the Parsifal bells ring out.  Then we're back with the monks. Amfortas opens Titurel's coffin, but all that's left is dust. "Mein Vater". "Ein Mensch, wie alle" as Gurnemanz had earlier described him. Parsifal brings forth the spear, diguised as a cross.  Vogt's voice rings forcefully, but clear and luminous,  haloed by the orchestra.   Vogt is wonderful, the Parsifal of our times. "Oh! Welchen Wunders höchstes Glück!", his voice rings up as he holds the spear, which he then places in the coffin.  Amfortas removes his cricifix and throws it into the coffin. You can see why many would be discomforted by this, even they could cope otherwise. The monks and other men join in - possibly Muslims, wearing tunics and caps - placing precious objects beside the spear. Literally "burying the hatchet". This, not baptism. or any specific Christian rite, is the Höchsten Heiles Wunder! Erlösung dem Erlöser!  This new Bayreuth Parsifal might take some time to get used to, but it's well worth the effort since it's true to the libretto and to the deeper meaning of the opera.  It's not Christian. Mitglied is universal.  It also marks a new departure for Bayreuth, burying at least some of the bigotry of the past. 




Tribuna musical

August 22

Barenboim/Kaufmann, an anticlimax closing the Festival

This is a sad review, for after calling the preceding concert (Barenboim/Argerich/WEDO) the event of the year, readers may expect a rather enthusiastic response to the last session of the Festival. But I went to the Colón in morose mood, for three facts were inexorable: the programme was too short; it presented the famous tenor in baritone repertoire; and it´s simply and irrevocably unethical to repeat a major score in the same subscription series. What drove me mad was the fact that the season programme, distributed in March, says: "we will present the dashing debut of German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who will delight our public with the music of Richard Wagner, avid to know one the maximal lyric expressions of our time". And this is what we got: the Prelude to the Third Act of Wagner´s "The Mastersingers"; Gustav Mahler´s "Songs of a Wayfarer"; and Mozart´s Symphony Nº41, "Jupiter". I can accept the first item (it was the encore of Concert Nº5; the encore, not one of the announced fragments). But baritone Mahler? And the repetition of Mozart´s "Jupiter" (played in the initial concert along with Nos. 39 and 40)? Sorry, there´s a limit to arbitrariness, even coming from world figures like Kaufmann and Barenboim. About Mahler: was it the tenor´s wish? Or did he propose something else and Barenboim vetoed it? I don´t know, but I give you a piece of news: Kaufmann will sing in Santiago de Chile a programme of operatic arias from Italian and French composers: "Tosca", "Aida", "Carmen", "Cavalleria Rusticana", "Le Cid", "Andrea Chenier" and "Turandot". Mouth-watering indeed, although it has no Wagner. Two ways to have done a decent programme: a) change the Wagner symphonic pieces in the concert with Argerich with, say, Brahms´ Fourth Symphony, and play the same symphonic fragments around Kaufmann, singing arias from "Lohengrin", "Die Walküre" and "The Mastersingers" (he has just sung the complete "Mastersingers" in Munich). b) Do the same programme as in Santiago, adding symphonic opera music to round it off. I have perused the CD R.E.R. catalogue of 2000 in the entry: Mahler: "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" ("Songs of a wayfarer"). The character of the songs is clearly manly, but several ladies of great career haven´t resisted the temptation and have recorded the lovely music. But not one tenor risked recording it and for good reason: hear the young Fischer-Dieskau with Furtwängler and then recollect what you heard at the Colón with Kaufmann, and what a falling off! Is it an experiment and he decided to try it here? For I read that he has an even stranger idea: to sing both the tenor and the baritone parts in Mahler´s masterpiece "Das Lied von der Erde" (Song of the Earth"); and that lasts an hour! The voice sounded veiled and out of register, but the man is an artist and of course he phrased with expression and taste, splendidly accompanied by Barenboim and his WEDO (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra). Then came the very partial saving grace, after just 18 minutes of singing: the lovely "Winsterstürme", Siegmund´s aria from "Die Walküre". There his real voice appeared. And then, helpers moved the piano and Barenboim accompanied him in the Tristanesque "Träume", last of the Five Wesendonk Lieder: beautifully done, though he was poaching in soprano repertoire. At least in this case Kaufmann has two antecedents: Melchior and Kollo, but both with orchestrations not done by Wagner. Readers may remember that two years ago I wrote enthusiastically about his Alvaro ("La Forza del Destino") in Munich: even in a horrid staging there was no doubt about his exalted category. So he owes us a second visit singing opera and has shown bad judgment in his debut. I do hold great hopes for his forthcoming Lieder recital. It transpired that both Argerich and Barenboim were affected by the flu, markedly so when they repeated the fifth programme, in which there were no encores; and that Barenboim wasn´t cured on the concert with Kaufmann. There was no encore after the "Jupiter", to my mind played with less rhythmic bite than on the first concert (of course everyone was fresher then). I do hope that next year Barenboim will be more careful and ethical: he owes it not just to the public, but to himself. This is a very expensive series, and two concerts in it were clearly below par; a third one is a controversial decision, that of Arabic music. Let´s have a real Festival where everything is topnotch. A personal desire: he has expressed his enthusiasm with Elgar: wouldn´t it be a great contribution to bring the powerful Second Symphony? For Buenos Aires Herald



Tribuna musical

August 22

Argerich/Barenboim/WEDO: the event of the year

The Colón concert of Thursday, August 4th, was truly memorable. It was the fifth of the Abono Azul (Blue Subscription Series) and was repeated the following day (Función Extraordinaria, non-subscription). The artists were Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim leading the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO). This time the programme was long and satisfying, and all concerned were at their best. One general conclusion: Argerich and Barenboim are at the top of their profession and in their early seventies they show no decline. And the WEDO has improved greatly: it is astonishing that young people on a seasonal (not permanent) orchestra should show such maturity, both in the command of their instruments and in the integration of a common concept. There´s real talent in all of them, though of course they have the privilege of a great conductor that gives them style and unity. The concert began with a première: "Con brio" by Jörg Widmann. Barenboim had already promoted him in two chamber concerts with different programming of the Mozarteum Argentino (in the second he also played clarinet). This score for full orchestra lasts 11 minutes and although it isn´t divided into two parts it changes sharply after the first minutes, characterised by violent attacks followed by deep silences and by the mixture of musical sounds with noise as defined by Britannica: sound that interferes with other sounds that are being listened to. I wasn´t attracted so far, but later we hear recognisable melodies as well as fanfares and the mix becomes intriguing. My wife´s imaginative phrase accords with my reaction: "noises, echoes and resonances of bellicose actions in an inhospitable jungle". Barenboim led the piece with strong impact and the WEDO responded with exemplary discipline. The author made his bow and was warmly applauded. Franz Liszt´s Piano Concerto Nº1 is the most innovative and personal of Romantic concerti. In it (as in the Sonata) rhetorics are never vain; the ideas are substantial, moving and coherent. It is terribly difficult to play: Liszt did for piano technique what Paganini had done for the violin: an extraordinary expansion of the possibilities of each instrument. And his orchestration gives lovely solos for diverse players dialoguing with the piano. You need a true virtuoso that is also a great artist, and a very attentive and collaborative conductor: Sviatoslav Richter and Kyrill Kondrashin are a good reference, and so is Argerich on record with Abbado; live with Barenboim on this occasion will long be in the memories of those who were at this concert. I heard Argerich with Dutoit and the National Symphony in this concerto back in 1969; she was young and an amazing powerhouse. Forty-seven years later her incredible technique and stamina remain untouched (if I except her rushed and not altogether clean first entrance). The final minutes were as exciting as they were musical, always abetted by the best collaboration from the WEDO and Barenboim. There was a wonderful surprise: her encore wasn´t a short and easy piece from Schumann´s "Scenes from childhood" as she generally does, but an ideal performance of the best of Ravel: "Ondine", first number of "Gaspard de la Nuit". The fluidity of the playing in this devilishly intricate piece and the subtlety of her touch were an object lesson of Impressionism (as is her recording of 1974). The second part was simply the best Wagner playing heard here in a very long time. Maybe as far back as Leitner and Leinsdorf in the Sixties. Barenboim conducted at the Bayreuth Festival from 1981 to 1999, and he did the unparelleled feat of doing the ten great operas in a period of a few weeks in Berlin. Wagner is perfect for him: music of enormous technical accomplishment in which the system of Leitmotiven proves to be an astonishingly flexible array of moods and emotions. Wagner´s continuity imbricates easily with Barenboim´s rich intellect. The chosen 45 minutes are among the greatest orchestral music of the Nineteenth Century and had glorious performances: the interpretations were simply beyond reproach and the playing proved that the WEDO is strong in all departments, very minor smudges apart: the mellowness and musicality of the brass, the fine woodwind solos, the mahogany-hued strings always disciplined and intense, all made for a constant state of direct communication with the music. The "Tannhäuser" Overture (Dresden version) went swimmingly both in the solemn pilgrim melodies and in the bacchanical frenzy of the Venusberg. The most dramatically complex music came from "The Twilight of the Gods": the Dawn after the Norns´ scene is joined in the concert adaptation with the final pages of the Siegfried-Brünnhilde duet and goes straight on to the jubilant "Siegfried´s Rhine Journey". But Barenboim cunningly omitted the brilliant coda and went on as in the opera, where the atmosphere becomes gloomy as the hero approaches the Gibichung Palace, for in it looms Hagen, who will kill him in the Third Act; and this version even adds a transformed fragment from the end of the Second Act, that terrible conspiratorial Trio. It would have been better to go on without applause to "Siegfried´s Funeral Music" but that was not to be; anyway, that magnificent evokation was spine-tingling in this version. And the best possible conclusion for the programme, the Overture to "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg", to my mind the greatest ever written. The encore was complementary: the serene and sad Prelude to the Third Act of the same opera. For Buenos Aires Herald

Richard Wagner
(1813 – 1883)

Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 - 13 February 1883) was a German composer, conductor, theatre director and essayist, primarily known for his operas (or "music dramas", as they were later called). Wagner's compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex texture, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. Unlike most other opera composers, Wagner wrote both the music and libretto for every one of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works such as The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser which were in the romantic traditions of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner transformed operatic thought through his concept of the "total work of art". This would achieve the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, and was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised this concept most fully in the first half of the monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music. He had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which contained many novel design features. It was here that the Ring and Parsifal received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed today in an annual festival run by his descendants.



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