Thursday, November 30, 2006

Music In Hamburg

We heard quite a lot of music in Hamburg, largely because we knew it would please my parents greatly. We heard the equivalent of eleven concerts in thirteen days--quite a lot of listening--and the performances, save one, were all at a very high level (if seldom inspired). Hamburg is a very musical city, and we appreciated the opportunity to enjoy so many performances in such a concentrated period of time.

Our lone opera excursion was a performance of "La Boheme" at the Hamburg Staatsoper. The Staatsoper is a serious house, of course, but at present it is not experiencing a glorious era such as it has enjoyed at various times in its past.

In the 1890's, the Hamburg Staatsoper was Gustav Mahler's house--the house at which he achieved his exalted reputation before leaving to direct the Wiener Staatsoper--and in the early 20th Century Otto Klemperer was one of its chief conductors. From 1959 to 1973, this was the house that Rolf Liebermann transformed into one of the world's great opera venues. Today, the house is headed by Australian conductor Simone Young, and the house does not rank as highly as the German houses in Munich or Berlin or Dresden.

The Hamburg Staatsoper is the only long-established house in Germany that did not begin as a court opera. The company was founded by local burgers, and Telemann and Handel were an integral part of the company in its early years.

The previous building was destroyed during World War II's air raids. The current house, a blend of utilitarian design and materials and a few attempts at grandeur, opened in 1955. The auditorium is not bad; the exterior is merely functional.

As it turned out, the "La Boheme" we heard was a new production; we did not know this at the time we booked our tickets online.

The physical production was slightly odd, but not bizarre. Apparently the previous production of "La Boheme" in the house WAS bizarre. It was an Olivier Tambosis production, from 2000, and it was pulled from the repertory after only 28 performances. Tambosis is the party responsible for the Metropolitan Opera's unsuccessful physical production of Janacek's "Jenufa", a production that originated in Hamburg and is now shared with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and the Met. In fact, this production of "Jenufa" reopens in Hamburg tomorrow night, with Eva Marton as the Kostelnicka, before it reopens again in New York early next year.

The new Hamburg "La Boheme" was directed by Guy Joosten and conducted by Jean-Yves Ossonce. I had never previously heard Ossonce, and the only disc of his I have is Magnard's first two symphonies on the Hyperion label. Ossonce makes his U.S. debut in San Francisco next year. His conducting was light and fleet, with pointed rhythms, and it had momentum. However, Thomas Beecham and Herbert Von Karajan may rest in peace, knowing that they remain unchallenged in this score.

The orchestra was not especially good, and neither was the chorus. Both were at precisely the same level as the orchestra and chorus of the San Francisco Opera: serviceable but in no way distinguished.

The singers were all new to me. The Mimi was Alexia Voulgaridou, a Greek soprano, whose critical notices in the part were very positive. I found her to be unremarkable. The Rudolfo was John Matz, an American tenor, who received blistering notices. I found him to be unremarkable, too, but I did not find him to be deserving of so much critical invective.

The audience was a good one.

We heard three orchestral concerts in the Musikhalle, Hamburg's primary concert hall. The Musikhalle is a beautiful, neo-Renaissance structure that opened in 1906 and, miraculously, escaped any damage in World War II. It is amazing how many Hamburg buildings of importance survived the war, given how much of the city was destroyed during the 1943 firestorm. The Hamburg Rathaus survived the war unscathed, too, as did such early 20th-Century architectural masterpieces as Chile-Haus and DAG-Haus.

The first orchestral concert we attended in the Musikhalle featured the NDR Orchestra of Hamburg, conducted by Christoph Von Dohnanyi, the orchestra's current chief conductor. On the program were Bartok's Two Portraits, Opus 5, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3. Emanuel Ax was the soloist.

How can Dohnanyi, having been at the helm of the Cleveland Orchestra for almost twenty years, stand to conduct this mediocre ensemble? Does he need money to pay alimony to Anja Silja, his former wife? To me, it is incomprehensible how he can tolerate working with an orchestra of such middling quality.

The playing was clean--just--and the performances bland. Dohnanyi is one of those conductors who simply play the notes as written; he does not perceive his job as extending to "interpretation". During his Cleveland years, Dohnanyi would exhort the orchestra to avoid sentimentality and emotion, which may be why I have always found his performances to be unmoving and, ultimately, dull. The NDR concert we heard was definitely unmoving and dull. Emanuel Ax was, as always, competent--and uninteresting.

The second concert we attended at the Musikhalle was by the Orchestre Des Champs Elysees conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. The orchestra performed Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 and Schumann's Symphony No. 3, and the performances were spirited. The orchestra being an original-instrument ensemble, everything "sounded" and I enjoyed the performances immensely, although greater drama and "innigkeit" may be found in both scores than Herreweghe allowed himself to uncover.

Our third concert at the Musikhalle was by the Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. The orchestra performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, with Boris Berezowsky as soloist, and Mahler's Symphony No. 5. The Oslo Philharmonic is a fine orchestra, if not a great one, and I was tremendously impressed by Saraste's musicianship. Saraste has developed into a real conductor and a real musician--his Mozart exhibited great intelligence and great style and a perfect balance between the music's purity of form and the music's need for expression--and it should be interesting to see what he does with this orchestra over the next few years. Saraste's Mahler was slightly understated but convincing. There were a few inevitable flubs in the Mahler from the brass ensemble, but these lapses did not destroy the performance. In the Mozart, Berezowsky was obviously playing Mozart's notes, but the musical style was pure Saint-Saens.

The first church concert we attended was at the greatest Baroque building in all of Hamburg, the Barockkirche Niendorfer Marktplatz, an octagonal church commissioned by Danish King Christian VII when the area immediately outside Hamburg's ancient city walls was a part of Denmark. The church is of the greatest possible beauty, inside and out, with unusual and noble and striking proportions. The interior is lighted by windows on all eight sides, and a balcony encircles the entire interior. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. The concert was an all-Telemann affair, involving a chamber orchestra and soloists performing various concertos and vocal works by this Hamburg native. Telemann was no Bach, but we enjoyed the concert very much, in large part because the venue was so magnificent. I believe that we were the only non-natives present at this particular concert.

The second church concert we attended also involved music by a Hamburg native, Johannes Brahms. We attended a performance of his German Requiem at Hamburg's largest church, Saint Michaelis, another great Baroque building. Saint Michaelis has been rebuilt twice: first, after a disastrous 1906 fire and, second, after its wartime destruction. Saint Michaelis has a very famous choir, and its orchestra is fully professional, largely drawn from members of the Hamburg Staatsoper orchestra and the NDR Orchestra. The performance was a magnificent one--the choir was supurb, and the performance was sincere, unaffected, dignified and spiritual. Brahms' Requiem was written with the acoustics of this particular church in mind, and the church was a perfect venue in which to hear the work. The soprano soloist was Ruth Ziesak, a gifted singer known everywhere for her concert and opera performances.

The third church concert we heard was the dud: a performance of Durufle's Requiem in Saint Gertrud, a beautiful neo-Gothic church from the 1880's. The performance style would have been perfect for one of Bruckner's masses, but it was too heavy, too Teutonic, too massive and too uninflected for Durufle's 1947 masterwork. We were thankful that the work only lasts 35 minutes.

The two organ recitals we attended were at Saint Petri, a 14th-Century church undamaged during the war, and at Saint Jacobi, a church completed in the 16th Century that WAS bombed, heavily, during the war, but whose interior was largely saved by the Hamburg fire squadrons. Saint Jacobi has North Germany's most famous organ, one of the largest and most renowned organs in the world. Johann Sebastian Bach played the Saint Jacobi organ on his sole trip to Hamburg, and the organ has been carefully tended for over 300 years.

Our two Sunday morning church services also featured musical works incorporated into the services. We returned to Saint Michaelis for one Sunday morning service, and we heard Bach's Cantata BWV 56 performed as part of the service. On the second Sunday, we proceeded to Saint Stephan, a large church built after the war, to worship and to hear a performance of Mozart's "Coronation" Mass, performed by full chorus, orchestra and vocal soloists. We were amazed how very fine these church performances were (aside from that unidiomatic Durufle) and we were somewhat puzzled to discover that only Hamburg's Lutheran churches offer full-scale mass settings as part of their services--Hamburg's Catholic churches apparently do not devote the same lavish attention to music.

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