The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

RSO Berlin: Beethoven Symphonies 4, 5. Missa Solemnis. Marek Janowski. Soloists, Rundfunkchor Berlin. Philharmonie Berlin.

Symphonies No. 4 in B-Flat, Opus 60 and 5 in C Minor, Opus 67. RSO Berlin, Marek Janowski. 09.05.10 Not reviewed: Quartet in C Minor, Opus 18, No. 4 - Apollon Musagete Quartett.

Marek Janowski and RSO Berlin committed to doing a complete Beethoven cycle, this past season, yet seem to have come up with at best variable results. Janowski found adequate dark mystery for the slow introduction to the Fourth Symphony. Classical proportions, in term of the Fourth’s outer frame, were mostly well respected, but in this most enlightened-classical of the Beethoven nine, the internal working out of so much within seemed at best only halfway profiled.

The Allegro vivace got to a robust start, but with constantly insecure upbeats – in four and triplet sixteenths, alternatively in the violins – at approximately moderate pace through all this. All the upbeats were given some heft, some, but just sounded too insecure to be convincing. Second theme in good principal bassoon was fine, but as true with other transitions in the first movement, with crudely punched accents from full orchestra preceding it. – falling on off-beats. Handling of progression through straight staccato half note octaves in mostly strings proved stiff and flaccid – and made for equally stodgy results for first theme in closing section to the Exposition.

Development was handled with supple grace - until violins started increasing their maddening pickups. Janowski rushed the Recapitulation to effect of all internal vitality getting taken out, making us wait until RSO Berlin woodwinds warmly made good again with second theme. All then proceeded to an excessively plodding finish.

The Adagio started with second violins loud on accompanying dotted rhythms and firsts sagging on theme, improved upon then by principal woodwinds getting it – very fine principal clarinet being allowed good space for sublimely profiled second theme. Consequents to the first theme got way too heavily underlined in their thirty-second note slow arpeggi underneath - as to have been figuration written good distance east sixty years later. Brief retransition making it to the Recapitulation was very heavily stodgy through both tutti and divisi violins. Duet of horns on closing theme, replacing the fine duet of bassoons earlier in the Exposition got worked instead of being quite allowed space to naturally shape their line; final chords came off very phlegmatic.

At good, vigorous pace, accenting for the scherzo, for not having been internally worked out, also came across stodgy, leaving one a growing, nagging sense of two-dimensional perspective throughout all of this. Winds sang well the trio section, but in section eventually getting too pushed by Janowski, pulsation got thrown off again. Transitions back into the scherzo and coda all sounded clunky and support in sustained slow trill in lower strings, for reprise of woodwinds theme in the trio got mismanaged as well.

Loud tutti chords in the finale bloated and got punched - only undercutting a fine perpetual motion from the strings only so far. Progress through so much transition on straight sixteenths and through tricky modulations easily became too hefty and streamlined at once, ironically enough - no room allowed for adequate separations to be made between groups of sixteenths where very necessary.

Amidst so much sloppy about Bernstein’s late 1970’s semi-live Vienna PO Beethoven set, nobody could miss the triplets he made out of ‘Fate’ opening the Fifth Symphony. Same held true here. Janowski then proceeded to attempt correcting this, but still clipping rests – rests of course on where is usually found the downbeat. Janowski found it on the off-beat. He then rushed the buildup to the first full-scale tutti or ritornello, to try compensating for rhythmic lapse just encountered – thus making rhythmic organization of the first movement of the Fifth something verging on comparable to Lutoslawski. Unmemorable, stiff handling of the second theme, answering crudely overstated French horn then proceeded from there. Over-insistence with transition into the recapitulation and heavy thuds accenting end of the coda all lacked poise and internal fire to sustain and motivate all around decent start to both Recapitulation and Coda.

Even with phrasing well some variations that followed, first theme dotted rhythms in the first theme lacked good profile to start the Andante con moto. No underlining of reaching the cadence in the cellos could be of help, but try Janowski did anyway. Janowski did infuse long sustained arch from first refrain to second variation with good sense of awe. Coming off repeat of this however, brass and winds conspicuously, sounded lost on their voicing, leading principal bassoon to come in for some of the same dotted half note chords (that strings alone had previously) with new pitches for two or three of them. Janowski then reined things in good and tight, but with pummeling next statement of the refrain. Transition through minor mode episode proceeded well, until self-conscious underlining of slow scale-wise passages in the winds. The shaping of this Andante overall, with fine resonance all across RSO Berlin, was good - such to have left it, if not the most inspiring profile, adequate.

Cellos and basses had to wait until shift to the subtonic (B-flat Minor) to find thematic shape.. Horns giving out ‘Fate’ in three managed to simultaneously be lean in tone and lumpy in accenting. Such stodginess did not fully lift until Trio section got underway. Extra lift, to pianissimo reprise of the scherzo turned precious, but good mystery was found for opening transition into the finale – Janowski letting it slip until right moment several bars later for things to break.

Janowski settled for docking to open the celebratory finale, then rushing through what followed. In order to maintain equilibrium, he heavily pointed off-beats in violins leading into transition toward the second theme – most of the transition once it had arrived spirited and in good shape. Pulling back string tremolo articulation of the second theme to mid-ground, especially upon repeating it, then turned things insipid. Janowski could not make his personalized accommodation of a lack of technique really quite adequately fit in with all the rest. Reference to triplet infused transition to the second theme Janowski layered on with scherzo-like lift, that upon reprise of it in full just seemed all out of context. Even Janowski’s attempt at lightness for mid-finale reprise of the scherzo fell flat – then several minutes later to find Janowski shot-gunning the suddenly faster section of the Coda – usual joyous conclusion here taking back seat to previous obstruction disrupting flow or charge ahead.

Janowski clearly comes from the Central European tradition – mostly its Eastern half we associate with Klemperer, Masur, Tennstedt, Sanderling, etc. His objective classical approach is hardly in doubt, but nowadays the lack of any real finesse and what even can come across as smugness both make things insipid. One easily finds accents too in his conducting too that have nothing to do with anything except to accommodate both his and his ensemble’s technical, musical, and aesthetic shortcomings.

Missa Solemnis, Opus 123, in D Major. Camilla Nylund, Iris Vermilion, Mark Padmore, Franz-Josef Selig, Rundfunkchor Berlin. Simon Halsey. RSO Berlin, Marek Janowski. 04.09.10

No greater challenge exists, not just among Beethoven’s works, than Missa Solemnis – a piece as symphonic in its formal elements as the symphonies themselves. For Janowski to have succeeded at the entire thing having held together speaks of some experience. However, it became clearly felt soon before halfway through this, very similar compromises as cited above continued happening – mostly within interaction between orchestra and chorus. There was thus so little aesthetic to have been gained from the experience. Easier slower passage such as opening ‘Kyrie’ ranked among only barely a handful of exceptions. The moderate pacing had appropriately weighty and measured feel to it. Janowski handled transitions, circumspectly balancing almost all therein, such as not only transition into, out of awkwardly written middle section, but through intimating secondary development within return to ‘Kyrie’ from “Christe eleison.’

Opening of the ‘Gloria’ and yielding thereof into ‘Et in terra pax’ posed no immediate problems, with underlying orchestral and choral support strong, and forward moving line maintained well. The first barriers to achieving clean attack from choral and orchestral forces for Janowski occurred with the ‘glorificamus te’ fugati that while concluding series of them made tentative accents of such. The yielding ‘Gratias, agimus,’ started off too loudly by Mark Padmore, came across very close to as tense, with accenting of Domine Deus’ tentative. Janowski then gave all from the subdominant minor consequents of ‘Domine fili’ through usually very interesting modulations and expressive underlining through ‘Qui tolls’ and ‘Suscipe’ minimal care - unyieldingly so – finally to the extent all direction to line got lost. Even through much interesting coloring going on, forward motion must not get betrayed – keeping whole picture in mind. However, this is also late period Beethoven, which aesthetically requires that such contrasting phrasing and other elements infusing it receive better hint than achieved here of what is their due.

Following phlegmatic close to final ‘miserere nobis’ or two, accenting to ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ proved choppy - separations therein too wide - and following fugue taken quasi-academically. Mark Padmore’s solo entrance withmundane fugue subject, was just that - strictly beat just as Janowski’s conducting of all the rest.. All cumulative sense was weak. Efforts at times to conserve energy were readily apparent, but the strain on all forces involved in taking onBeethoven’s superhuman development of his material through steadily moving forward, but obviously fatigued close to ‘Gloria’ was self-evident.

Opening to ‘Credo’ got some air taken out of it, by weak accenting, too loose a handling of its open chordal structure, and overall Biedermeier feel to enshroud it all; fugato of ‘consubstantiatem’ turned out positively jaunty here.. After Mark Padmore’s ringing, ardent opening to ‘Et incarnates est’, all mystery to so much awe and wonder got lost - with Iris Vermilion (mezzo) groping very well as how to make echo of the right sentiment here – over chords in RSO Berlin woodwinds. One then had to wait until end of ‘Passus’ to find due gravitas, mystery – beyond most generic. Energy conservation even here remained first priority. Mark Padmore alone made ‘Crucifixus’ meaningfully expressive.

‘Et resurrexit’ might have awakened a handful, but one must doubt if any more. Accents in rapid-paced violins, contrary to what might be expected form eastern central Europe, proved positively Rossinian and ensemble loose to reinforce a clearly anti-climactic sense to it all. From here through imposing ‘Et vitam venturi’ fugue - it became further and most evident something clearly wrong thus far with balancing between orchestra and chorus - chorus conspicuously placed well in front– enormous flaw too of Solti’s 1970’s Chicago discs of this - Lucia Popp soloist no less. Words should remain clear - none of this to turn into one great diaphanous blend, as for instance with von Karajan. However, once articulation of form gets lost even more so here, so does much else - as especially for what cause any of the words are set to music.

The fugue - right after hard jerk forward with single line of 'Et exspecto' that did not quite match any height of eloquence - proved a repeat of problems that had plagued this Missa Solemnis most of the way thus far. Choral sopranos got found high and dry for strained high B-Flats, plus a couple of sudden speed-ups in tempo detaching so much from all the rest, Camilla Nylund (soprano) rushed through her ‘Benedictus’- anticipating closing lines, soggy final choral ‘Amen’s and Philip Glass streamlined handling of rushing figuration in strings to attempt offsetting the anomaly of how all this occurred.

Soggy launch of ‘Sanctus’ came as no surprise - flaccid placing of accents all about. How one could miss shape to ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ – the simply laid out forthright fugato this is and that of brief ‘Osanna’ to follow was curious indeed – in anticipation of a flat-line while still sonorous Praeludium.. Solo violin obbligato to the Benedictus, unfortunately abetted by RSO winds toward the start of it, proved very shift, accent heavy with little point to it being so. It also proved awkward support for Camilla Nylund, who achieved sweet enough tone on top, good feel for her lines, but support issues of her own all the same. There could have even been quite a fight on her hands, but she graciously avoided such. Slow choral re-entry of ‘Osanna’ toward bringing things down to earth hardly achieved such; there was little here from which to have descended.

Franz-Josef Selig, who earlier proved curiously baritonal, made so very expressive the most of his opening lines in ‘Agnus Dei.’, providing first clear direction to line, even with the still ever dependable bassoons of RSO Berlin to have preceded him, and the steady, reliably very expressive Iris Vermilion – nearly his equal here – to follow him. Brass of RSO Berlin here though proved soggy through ‘Miserere nobis’ for what should instead be hieratic. Camilla Nylund, with melos, sounded refreshed from having emerged relatively unscathed from the preceding ‘Benedictus’ – real minefield that it could have become. Janowski eventually caught on with energy to spare to limn expressive obbligato lines in his violins, for us to hear expressive change of color and harmony through them – one of his better moments throughout the entirety of this.

Minimal calibration for accenting ‘Dona nobis pacem’, including for its martial accents, proved inadequate. Sweeping, broad statement to vulgar extent got made out of repeated cadential phrase out of this - such that closes the entire work, underneath weakly achieved, supported lines of staccato, light legato in first flutes and violins.

As for the soloists, Iris Vermilion, with rich, even tone, proved a strong asset throughout. Mark Padmore had issues with vocal placement vis-à-vis so much awkward writing, but along with his expressive account of ‘Crucifixus’, he was most effective in some of this part’s most incisive writing, i.e., the agitated pages during ‘Dona nobis pacem’ soon before the end. What sounded mediocre was going for kind of a fake head or falsetto for also in ‘Agnus Dei’ the writing in duet with the mezzo (Iris Vermilion), for what amounted to duet between two contraltos, even blues-y at it – with little from Janowski to counteract such - Angus Dei then, when it’s got the blues.

Padmore is remembered as the very fine Bach Matthew Passion Evangelist for Rattle last spring. Camilla Nylund faced here a part one size smaller than she is most accustomed to sing nowadays, but shaped it here as though having been all along a lyric - we know from not only recent choice of repertoire certainly a pushed lyric perhaps more often than should be. It only depends on what one’s standard is as to what should be expected of getting performed this peak among late 18th century and Romantic choral repertoire – a work so uniquely, elusively cast in such an intellectually achieved free-form orchestral layout. There still remain those capable of approximating well what aesthetic vision in mind here is - highly doubtful Janowski ever might join that select few.

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