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Tabea Zimmermann

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


My Classical Notes

May 24

Time with Tabea

My Classical NotesI realized today that a long time has passed since I featured violist Tabea Zimmermann at My Classical Notes. We need to correct that! I have admired this fine musician in both chamber music settings and also as a concerto performer. She is originally from Germany, and she was married to an Israeli orchestral conductor, so she speaks excellent Hebrew, as well. I love her interpretations of music for viola and piano by Robert Schumann. She also frequently performs the Brahms viola sonatas. Today I have for you a lovely video of her concert in music by Mozart. In the video she shares a number of interesting aspects. While she speaks in Hebrew, there are English subtitles. And the music is fabulous:

My Classical Notes

June 10

Tabea Zimmermann: My favorite Violist

I sometimes tell people that in my next life I will play viola because I adore its dark and rich sound. today my favorite violist is Tabea Zimmermann. I find her to be a sensitive, musical, competent performer whose sound I love to enjoy. Her playing of Brahms, Schumann and Schubert can get me to stop doing anything and just listen. So… if you are so inclined, YOU might stop whatever you are doing, and see what I mean:




Tribuna musical

May 16

Wagner before Wagner: “Forbidden love” premièred at the Colón

The Colón hasn´t offered Richard Wagner´s "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" since 1980, though it is arguably the greatest German operatic comedy of the Nineteenth Century; this in a big opera house of important history is quite simply an aberration. And "Tannhäuser" isn´t staged here since 1994. The composer´s second opera, "Das Liebesverbot" ("Forbidden love"), written in 1835-6, is clearly mediocre, and the only reason to present it is that for aficionados it´s a curiosity that, warts and all, in its better fragments gives some inklings of the great Wagner revealed in 1841´s "The Flying Dutchman" (though premièred in 1843). In fact, his first opera, "Die Feen" ("The Fairies"), created in 1833-34, was belatedly staged posthumously in 1888, and there the hints of the future are more evident. And of course, in "Rienzi", on Bulwer Lytton´s novel about Rome´s last tribune, even if it follows grand opera lines; it was composed in 1838-40, and had its first hearing in 1842 at the Dresden Court Opera: Wagner´s fame got a decisive giant step. Wagner was only 22 when he started on "Das Liebesverbot", a free adaptation of a problematic Shakespeare comedy, "Measure for measure", transplanting it from Vienna to Palermo (Sicily). It´s one of three comedies called "bitter" or "dark", the others being "Troilus and Cressida" and "All´s well that ends well". They were written in the difficult years before and after the death of Elizabeth I (1603) and they offer "a distempered vision of the world", especially "Measure for Measure" (1604-5), "searching, unsettling and precarious play" (Encyclopedia Britannica). I haven´t been able to compare it with Wagner´s libretto, but I have to state that I find the latter an aberration of continuous contradiction and improbability, from the very premise: Friedrich, Governor of Palermo, imposes the death sentence to anyone that indulges in sex for pleasure, and this in the middle of Carnival celebrations. No less absurd is Isabella´s behaviour: a severe woman living in a convent, she does expose Friedrich´s hypocrisy (he desires her) but in the final scene she robs the equally hypocritical Luzio from the light-hearted Dorella (to whom Luzio had promised marriage) and leaves the convent. And so on. Wagner had been named conductor of the small Magdeburg opera house; facilities were few, orchestra and choir were weak and the cast very poor, but the composer wanted this ragged lot to learn a long and complicated opera in just ten days. The only two programmed performances failed utterly (the second was cancelled!), and Wagner tried in vain to obtain the support of other cities in the following years to offer "Das Liebesverbot" (curiously he didn´t even try to get them interested in "Die Feen"). So the opera lay forgotten for more than a century; and of course Bayreuth never staged the three initial Wagners. Until it was revived in 1923 in Munich with scant success. But matters changed in 1983 when Munich Opera´s Musical Director Wolfgang Sawallisch conducted all thirteen Wagner operas celebrating the centenary of his death: the ponderous (more than four hours) "big comedy"-"grosse Komische"- was judiciously pared down to two hours forty minutes, and with fast tempi and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle´s talented staging it became a success and was recorded live. I own that recording (edited much later, in 1995) and find it very good. It puts the best possible face on a problematic opera. The Colón production lasts about the same and is based on the score edited by Breitkopf & Härtel. And as so often nowadays, it is shared by several theatres to cut costs: originated in Madrid´s Teatro Real, it is co-produced by Covent Garden and the Colón. The London theatre is there for the simple reason that the stage director Kasper Holten (debut) was until very recently the Covent´s Opera Director (in a polemic tenure that allowed such things as a gory "Lucia di Lammermoor"). In fact this comedy is seldom funny and the music is a mixture of influences that go from Bellini to Auber and Weber. There are much better German comedies in those Romantic decades, but the Colón ignores them: Lortzing´s "Zar und Zimmermann" (1837), Nicolai´s "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (1849), Weber´s "Abu Hassan" (1811), Cornelius´ "The Barber of Baghdad" (1858). There´s some sparkle in the Wagner Overture and second Carnival scene, and a modicum of drama in the interview of Isabella and Friedrich; plus lyricism in Mariana´s aria (the rejected wife of Friedrich) and a nice duet of Isabella and Mariana. I single out the Isabella of soprano Lise Davidsen (debut, Norwegian, very tall, young and imposing): a stunning voice of ample volume and range, managed with great skill: a Senta or a Sieglinde in the making. I wasn´t impressed by the arid timbre of tenor Peter Lodahl (debut, Danish) as Luzio, although he moves well. Our Hernán Iturralde was a sturdy and professional Friedrich. Christian Hübner (German bass, debut) did a convincing Brighella (maybe the most authentic "buffo" role), an arrogant policeman happy to arrest and judge... but he goes to the clandestine Carnival: the rough deep voice is also accustomed to the great Wagnerian villains (Hunding, Hagen). The Spanish light soprano María Hinojosa did a charming Dorella and Marisú Pavón sang with fine line her Mariana. Tenor Carlos Ullán seemed uncomfortable in the role of the condemned Claudio. The others did well, especially Norberto Marcos (Angelo); Fernando Chalabe was Pontio Pilato (what a name!), Sergio Spina, Antonio; and Emiliano Bulacios, Danieli. Slovak conductor Oliver von Dohnányi did an effecrtive job of preparation, obtaining reasonable quality from the orchestra, and Fabián Martínez managed well the abundant choral music. As to Holten´s production, of course he didn´t respect the 16th Century specified in the libretto, and neon lights mixed with colorful buffo costumes and a handsome unit set full of stairs (a touch of Escher extravagance). Friedrich was ridiculed grabbing a teddy bear in bed. Stage and costume designer, Steffen Aarfing. Interesting lighting by Bruno Poet, and acrobatic choreography by Signe Fabricius (with good dancers hired for the occasion). There was a second, all Argentine cast. For Buenos Aires Herald

parterre box

March 7

Manhattan melodrama

Curtis Opera Theater mounted a musically remarkable account of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic on March 2. (It was repeated on March 4). Timothy Myers was the masterful conductor and drew superb playing from the Curtis Symphony Orchestra crowded into the pit of the small Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center. Adams’ amazing range of sonorities, colors, the richness of his almost romantic inspirations, his beautifully organized counterpoint and subtle use of motives and cells to create long melodies were wonderfully served. Small groups of instruments and soloists played with haunting beauty. Myers’ managed impeccable balances, integrated the electronic elements of the writing adroitly, and achieved a clarity of intent and rightness of touch to which the orchestra responded spectacularly well. It was only in some of the big muscular movements that there wasn’t sufficient force or always confidence, especially as the long evening wore on. The singing was just as impressive. The chorus (including many singers who have sung leading roles at Curtis) trained by Elizabeth Braden, the chorus master of Opera Philadelphia, was spectacular. In solo roles, graduate students trying parts meant for more mature voices, were splendid for the most part. All sang well, had Adams’ style and rhetoric down, managed clear verbal articulation, and phrased—where the production allowed—with artistry. The sole musical misfire was the amplification of the voices. Adams asks for this device, but it was crudely handled, flat, and occasionally distorted at the first performance. In this small theater less definitely would have been more. The piece itself is problematic, with phenomenally inventive music by the arguably great composer Adams, but with a preposterous libretto by the self-promoting Peter Sellars. So the story goes, Doctor Atomic was a “big idea” that occurred to Pamela Rosenberg, then of the San Francisco Opera, in 1999. She approached Adams who at first resisted the idea of a work about “The Manhattan Project” and the inventors of the atom bomb. He had been burned by the anger provoked by The Death of Klinghoffer and admitted in interviews that after all, he didn’t really like opera, Mozart perhaps being the exception. He hated Madame Butterfly. But Adams had a glimmer of interest when he learned that Oppenheimer—for all his vast culture — also hated opera! At any rate, Adams eventually was persuaded, finding a model for what he called “a post-nuclear holocaust sound” in the music of the great Edgar Varèse. The librettist for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, Alice Goodman, departed the project after two years, leaving Sellars to devise a text which is a mélange of actual quotes from the participants and astonishingly pompous literary citations. He also directed the world premiere. One can feel sympathy for the Curtis director, R. B. Schlather, tasked with dramatizing this sententiously ham-handed text. From a group of puppets spouting famous poems, he had to create recognizable human beings, people that an audience can understand and feel for. How? Schlather and his designer, Paul Tate dePoo lll, came up with a raised stone circle in the center of a bare stage, backed by a black screen. Characters often performed on the raised circle, but also played on the stage surface. In act two, the insufferable Native American stereotype character, Pasqualita, intoned her endless, unintentionally funny doom-laden chants circling around it, and, at the end, two children crawled out from under the circle to stare at the audience. Schlather took a very radical course with the performers. Given that his singers had neither the age nor the physical types of the middle-aged people they were impersonating, he deliberately went counter to any “realism” in the portrayals. The opera began with a young male figure in a variety of bedclothes flopping and jerking on the circle, performing acrobatic feats. Perhaps this was someone really dying of radiation poisoning? But no, it was Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Jonathan McCollough). Throughout the act, he rolled and toked joints (presumably laced with speed) to fuel further leaping, writhing and spasms while pulling items of clothing on and off. McCollough was truly brave. He committed fully to this extreme physicality even though he had an enormous amount to sing. He has a fine middle weight baritone and, remarkably, managed focused tone and clear diction—until the great aria that ends act one, Batter my Heart three-personed God, a sonnet by John Donne. But why this text? Why at his highest moment of self-understanding would a nuclear scientist about to unleash an unfathomably lethal weapon be invoking the Christian idea of the Trinity? Wouldn’t he be mourning what he has done, terrified at its implications, tremendously proud of his achievements and deeply ashamed? He gives a poetry reading—with the wrong stresses—instead? It is grotesque sentimentality. Schlather had McCollough jump around during the orchestral interludes in this aria, leaving him short of breath and unable to articulate the words. It was understandable, even honorable, for Schlather to footnote the sophomoric dishonesty of the text but those good intentions misfired, effectively sabotaging composer and soloist. Just as Schlather avoided the “suave, urbane” Oppenheimer, he avoided the “fiercely intellectual” Edward Teller. In this role, Tyler Zimmermann was also very brave, saddled as he was with the most embarrassing moment of an evening full of them. In act two, face painted as death, wearing only his underwear, he crossed the stage slowly with a begging bowl. Then he was parked upstage for the duration to laugh at the coming test. Zimmermann sang very well and articulated superbly but this was not a dramatic approach I can imagine any performer beinging off with success. Schlather was most successful perhaps in the love scene in act one. Mrs. Oppenheimer, Kitty (Siena Licht Miller), was treated as a graduate student of great allure and the sexual nature of her relationship to her husband was given a very erotic realization through intimate touching, the sensuous removal of some of Kitty’s intimate garments and a palpable sense of increasing arousal by both performers. Most of all, Miller sang Adams’ exquisite vocal lines with easy assurance. The best solo singing came from Evan LeRoy Johnson who spun out Wilson’s line with a beautiful tenor. Vartan Gabrielian was impossibly thin as the fat obsessed General Groves but he and Dogukan Kuran (Hubbard) sang very well. Sophia Fiuza Hunt loaned her lovely voice to Pasqualita’s groaner aria, “The Cloud-Flower Lullaby”. Schlather did have a few “big ideas” of his own. One was his depiction of acid rain, a massive drop from the flies onto the stage starting with black atom-shaped balloons and proceeding to all kinds of detritus, including a chair! (This required a massive cleanup effort during the intermission, more interesting than a lot of the show.) Curtis was brave to mount this work, and did wonderfully by it musically. As an opera it raised some fascinating questions; for example, it is possible for the composer to stand utterly alone and transcend his text? Can an opera ever work with what amounts to the Spinal Tap of opera librettos? Dr. Atomic does to a large degree in act one, but eventually Sellars’ inability to plot, over-reliance on exposition and addiction to quotation cause everything to stall. Adams might have been better off forgetting Edgar Varèse and studying Madame Butterfly. Photo: Karli Cadel



My Classical Notes

January 2

Zimmermann Plays Shostakovich

Recently, before going to sleep, I have been listening to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, as performed by Frank Peter Zimmerman. On the CD of the Month for January 2017, the same violinist plays for you music by Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 99 Violin Concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129 Performed by Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Alan Gilbert conducting. Composed almost 20 years apart, the two violin concertos by Dmitri Shostakovich were both conceived with the great violinist David Oistrakh in mind and dedicated to him. Shostakovich completed Concerto No. 1 in 1948, at a time when he had fallen out of grace with the Soviet authorities and it seemed uncertain if the work would ever be performed in public. This is reflected in the concerto which begins with a dark and solitary violin song over gloomy cellos and double basses. Throughout the work there are allusions to the composer’s situation, such as the D-S-C-H motif that appears in so many of his works and which in the second movement is closely related to a theme reminiscent of Jewish popular music, as a symbol of Shostakovich’s identification with the sup¬pressed Jewish culture. In the same movement there is also a theme derived from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mstsensk which in 1936 had caused the composer’s first denunciation by the Soviet regime. In 1967 Shostakovich wrote to Oistrakh, telling him about the completion of his Violin Concerto No. 2. The composer’s health had been failing for several years, and only the year before he had suffered a heart attack. In several of his late works there is a preoccupation with mortality, and the concerto exhibits a similar dark, introspective tone, especially in the central Adagio. Performing these two great works of the mid-20th century is one of the finest violinists of our own time, Frank Peter Zimmermann. The recordings were made at public concerts at the Hamburg Laeiszhalle, with the eminent support of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester – formerly known as the NDR Sinfonieorchester – conducted by Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor for more than a decade. Here is Mr. Zimmermann in the Concerto number 2 by Shostakovich:

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