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Wagner Nights

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/18/2001 -  10/19/01
Max Bruch: Kol nidrei
Elliott Carter: Cello Concerto (New York premiere)
Isabel Mundry: Panorama ciego (New York premiere)
Richard Wagner: excerpts from Goetterdaemmerung; Die Walkuere, Act I

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)
Elizabeth Connell and Angela Denoke (sopranos)
Peter Seiffert (tenor)
John Tomlinson (baritone)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano and conductor)

In the very complex scenario surrounding the attempts to perform the music of Richard Wagner in contemporary Israel, Daniel Barenboim has become a key player. Ironically under attack in Berlin for his Jewish ethnicity, the multi-faceted musician tried to mount a performance of Die Walkuere this summer but was rebuffed by the Knesset. His performance of the Tristan Prelude as a surprise encore instead caused a great deal of discomfort and controversy. The issue is so hydra-headed as to defy encapsulation, but one precept is clear: it will take a very diplomatic maestro to present any Wagner in Israel for many years to come. Although courageous and baldly frank, Mr. Barenboim’s recent essay on the subject for the New York Review of Books indicates that he is anything but conciliatory, being rather vulnerable instead to charges of insensitivity. However, in New York, a city with a much larger Jewish population than Tel Aviv, there is no such environment of constraint and so it is very exciting that he is bringing the formidable forces of the Chicago Symphony to town to perform evenings of Wagnerian opera from the watershed period of the composer’s mature output. To listen to the complete Ring at one sitting is to be provided with an abridged history of the music of the second half of the nineteenth century, in much the same way as a run through of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas (taking considerably less time) charts the course of the first half. The contrast between the opening elemental E Flat of Das Rheingold and the “redemption by love” ending of Goetterdaemmerung is the difference between traditional harmonic theory as codified by Rameau and the “music of the future” which would very soon lead to the revolution of Schoenberg. Along the way, the exploration of the “Tristan chord” changed how we all listen to music forevermore.

Night One: More Things in Heaven and Earth

I had the pleasure last winter of an extended conversation with Yo-Yo Ma and found him to be an exceptionally bright and enthusiastic gentleman. Although the topic was primarily his upcoming Silk Road Project, wherein he is attempting to integrate the music of ancient Asian civilizations into the mainstream classical concert world, we also touched briefly on the Cello Concerto of Elliott Carter. Ma told me that most of his time was then taken up with the practice of this piece because of its intense difficulty. It is impossible to say what Wagner might have thought of the work, but he would have at least had to acknowledge privately that it was his opening of the tritone’s Pandora’s box which led to its existence. It is unimaginable that music would have taken the direction that it did without the seminal work of the master and the independent creations of Debussy. Take either out of the equation and the entire history of twentieth century music veers wildly into another orbit.

Regular denizens of Carnegie Hall have experienced their Monty Python version of bringing out the score to the podium before (it takes three people), but, in the case of the Carter Concerto, there is ample justification as the physical enormity of the conductor’s part almost overwhelmed the stagehands, one of whom occupied his time by taking a measuring tape to the Maestro’s music stand. Most of the bulk was taken up with Mr. Ma’s profusion of notes (he also struggled as his own page-turner with a quarto volume containing the soloist’s part), the orchestral accompaniment little more than a compendium of percussion and microtonal effects reminiscent of the “night and the city” type of background created in the early ‘60’s by Bruno Maderna. In fact, the entire piece sounded vaguely like virtually every issue of Time Records from that period (audiophiles will know of this particular aesthetic) and perhaps this was an expression of Mr. Carter’s nostalgia, although his own music from those days was angular, academic and stylized. What was much more impressive was that the nonagenarian Carter could actually walk up out of the audience and onto the stage to acknowledge the applause (I tried this line out in the crowded gents during the interval and it received a hearty laugh). He, if not his composition, was warmly received by the crowd.
I suppose that Mr. Ma can also be forgiven for his schmaltzy performance of the Bruch chestnut, as it was his personal tribute to the late Isaac Stern. Perhaps his excessive vibrato was a nod to the sentimental playing style of the recently departed.

One would have thought that the combination of the fabled CSO brass and orchestral excerpts from ”The Ring” was a match made in Valhalla, but in actuality this was an extremely anemic performance. Siegfried had apparently dropped his horn into the Rhine during this journey and one could literally hear the bubbles emerge from its bell. The normally spectacular (and spectacularly loud) brass was rife with troubles this night and this unusual circumstance removed the veil from some of the other deficiencies of the group. Winds were hesitant, strings were colorless, several key entrances and the concert ending of the Rhine Journey were a free-for-all of individual unbalanced timings. It is rare for me to laugh at a symphonic experience, but, since all of the spawn of Alberich (the critical community) sit in the same section, it was impossible not to react to my colleague directly in front of me who could not refrain from shaking his head in disbelief. The orchestra perked up some when Ms. Connell came out to intone the ”Immolation” Scene, but even her powerful, if not terribly expressive, voice could not save the conflagration of slovenliness. Beyond its technical shortcomings, the interpretation of this positively sacred music was passionless, the key crescendi limp and unsatisfying. In New York, we proudly proclaim the presence of the greatest living interpreter of the Wagner operas; this reading was not even in the same league as the efforts of James Levine.

Night Two: The Blood of the Walsungs

Why is it that of all of the acts in the history of opera, it is Act I of Die Walkuere that is most often offered as an independent work? On one level it is a rather simple story of domesticity and repression, of true romantic love and erotic satisfaction. As Mann suggests, the story is primeval and, like everything else in the Ring, the men act like gods only when at their most human. Siegmund’s thirst at the very beginning is an emblem of the struggles and yearnings of us all. His chosen place of sanctuary is in reality owned by his mortal enemy (as is his object of desire). His description of his life’s travails in Winterstuerme is amazingly universal; his ultimate union with his feminine side (Sieglinde is not only his incestuous lover, but his twin) as thrilling as anything in Wagner’s beloved Greek drama. Perhaps it is simply this: we all can relate to that one sleepless night of orgiastic self-discovery.

With considerably lowered expectations but aware of the fabled Barenboim inconsistency, I settled in on this second evening for what turned out to be a genuinely fine performance of this magical opening act. Consciously keeping his instrumental forces in check all evening, Maestro endeavored, with considerable success, to rebalance the acoustics so that each and every tone of the singers could be audible rather than be swallowed up within this Fafnir’s cave of a hall. This relegation of the orchestra to the role of accompaniment simulated the Wagnerian pit well enough, but led to a corollary lack of dramatic tension in spots, the opening storm far from convincingly threatening. This descending section, brilliantly comprised of shattered shards from Wotan’s spear motif (a foreshadowing of his capitulation at the opera’s conclusion), should be not only forceful but pervasive. Paired with the eventual dawning of a new, nervous morning, the storm is the only presence of the gods in this act, the only one in the entire Ring consisting entirely of humans, and its taut ferocity is vital to provide contrast for the eventual tenderness of the siblings. Not that this Chicago version was entirely off the mark, but rather it was an emblem of their closeness but not actual penetration of the orchestral bull’s-eye.

The singing was uniformly very good, even approaching the great in spots. Angela Denoke’s Sieglinde was an excellent portrait, her proud soprano showing the strain of domestic servility without exhibiting any corresponding strain of vocal irresolution. Hers was a beatific presence, fitting for the Madonna of Siegfried (this is as close as Wagnerian mythmaking gets to virgin birth). John Tomlinson was a veteran Hunding, not as focused on hitting the exact center of his notes as delving deeply into his characterization. Positively heroic was Peter Seiffert, his large heldentenor filling and thrilling throughout, his two gigantic “Waelse” tones an exciting set-up for what disappointingly turned out to be a rather weak and fleeting penultimate note. My only real quarrel with this obviously extremely naturally gifted artist is in his coaching; some of these notes cry out for distinct, even exaggerated, crescendi to enhance both their vocal and dramatic effects. Mr. Tomlinson, for all of his impressively centered vocalism, lacks this level of coloration. But he is young yet; I am sure that his instrument will become even more expressive with time (as Domingo has recently demonstrated, it is possible to hit and sustain that last “Waelsungen” at an advanced age). Although there is never a moment in this most private of acts where any of the singers intone at the same time, it is still desirable for them to be interpretively on the same page. In this concert version, however, there was no sense of unity: Mr. Tomlinson reached into his extensive stage experience to visually recreate his character (rather well I thought) and gestured appropriately towards his two companions who never once looked at him or each other as they adopted instead a non-theatrical concert style of declamation, more as if they were soloists in an oratorio or symphony. It was difficult enough to suspend our disbelief and accept a Siegmund not in animal skins but rather white vest and tailcoat; the disparity of acting styles created a bit of a disconnect between performers and audience (or was this an attempt to show Hunding’s isolation from the divine world of the lovers?). To ice the cake of this identity crisis, there was a curtain constructed on the Carnegie stage which never either opened nor closed! Overall, this was a noble effort although, since I was neither shaking nor crying at its conclusion, not a sublime one.

Typically, two nights in the presence of this conductor culminate in maddeningly disparate results. My companion and I struck up a conversation with a gentleman as we were all stuck in the crush of exiting patrons. “Much better than last night” was his opening remark. As both a Jew and a Wagnerite, I would be nervous about Barenboim being my standard bearer in the minefield of Israeli musicopolitics; I would be much more comfortable with someone on whom I could rely to always produce a performance of the highest quality. This Daniel may be just a little too erratic to successfully penetrate this particular lion’s den.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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