Archive for Ludwig van Beethoven

Fidelio in Dublin

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday evening found me once again at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a performance of Beethoven’s only Opera, Fidelio, performed by Lyric Opera Ireland together with the young musicians of Sinfonua conducted by Tony Purser. The event was, of course, part of the Beethoven 250 celebrations that will be taking place all this year in concert halls around the world. The National Concert Hall isn’t really designed for opera, so the orchestra had to squeeze into the space between the front row of the stalls and the stage. I was a few rows back, but I could still read the scores on the desks!

A synopsis of the Opera is as follows.

Leonore (Sínead Campbell-Wallace) has disguised herself as a man, Fidelio, and has gained employment as assistant to the chief gaole, Rocco (Mikhail Svetlov), of the state prison in the hope of finding and freeing her imprisoned husband Florestan (Samuel Sakker). To complicate matters, Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline (Rachel Croash), has fallen in love with Fidelio, which annoys her suitor Jaquino (Patrick Hyland) even though he doesn’t know Fidelio is actually a woman. Leonore persuades Rocco to let her help him in the underground cells where the political prisoners are held in inhuman conditions. The prison governor, the villainous Don Pizarro (Gyula Nagy), learns of an impending inspection by the minister and decides that Florestan – who has been particularly cruelly treated – must be killed to hide the evidence of his abuse. Leonore hears of the plan to murder her husband and, as the prisoners are briefly allowed out into the sunlight, she searches in vain for Florestan among them. He is still in chains below ground. Eventually Leonore and Rocco descend into the darkness of the dungeon and find Florestan, near death, having a vision of an angel that has come to rescue him. Leonore looks on as Pizarro arrives and tries to kill her husband, but she stops him and reveals her true identity. In the nick of time (geddit?), the Minister, Don Fernando (Felix Kemp), arrives and, appalled by what he sees, commands that all the prisoners be released. Leonore sets her husband free.

Much of Beethoven’s music from his “middle period” – Fidelio was first performed in 1805 – is about the struggle for political liberty and social justice that was taking place throughout Europe at the time so it’s not difficult to see why he was attracted to this story. Although originally written in three acts, it is now performed in a version with only two. This gives the opera a fascinating structure. The music in Act I is clearly a nod back in the direction of Mozart, while Act II is dramatically different, specifically with a much wider range of orchestral colour, and is clearly a look forward towards Romanticism. There are no less than four published versions of the overture. Last night we heard the standard one often called Leonore No. 3, but more often simply known as Fidelio.

Fidelio is really a singspiel (a form of opera in which the recitative is spoken or declaimed rather than sung). In this performance the spoken dialogue was in English while the sung part was in the original German. There were surtitles too, so the plot was easy to follow. Given the constraints of the National Concert Hall the set was simple but nonetheless effective, and the a mixture of 19th century and modern dress. Part of the chorus performed from the choir stalls behind the stage. In the first act they were dressed as prisoners but during the interval they changed into ordinary everday clothes, a device I found very effective. A story of wrongful imprisonment is as relevant today as it was in Beethoven’s time. This point was emphasized near the end of Act I when the prisoners are briefly allowed out from their cells: children in modern dress mingled with them, holding photographs of people of all races and generations who have been unjustly taken away.

I thought the principals were outstanding. Sínead Campbell-Wallace (soprano) was a superb Leonore, both vocally and dramatically, Samuel Sakker (tenor) impressed, Mikhail Svetlov (bass) was in fine voice throughout, and (perhaps the pick of them all) Hungarian baritone Gyula Nagy was a wonderfully sinister Don Pizarro.

So far so good, but there were some less than ideal things about this production, chiefly the intonation. For many people the highlight of this Opera is the wonderful Prisoners’ Chorus (“O welche Lust….”) when the inmates of the gaol are temporally released to get some fresh air. They staggered onto the stage, eyes blinking at the light, but their incarceration had obviously robbed some of  them of a sense of pitch and the started horrifically out of tune. From time to time the orchestra – especially the brass – also struggled to find the correct pitch, producing some painfully jarring moments.

It’s hard to believe that it has been the best part of a decade since I first saw Fidelio, in a production by Welsh National Opera. Both that one and this one offered much to enjoy, but I still have to see a production that really does this work justice.

Beethoven from Brexit Day

Posted in Music with tags , , on February 4, 2020 by telescoper

I may not have been able to attend the concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Friday 31st January, but I did listen to it live on the Radio. Now you can experience the whole thing yourself via the Youtube recording of the live stream. The programme consisted of three pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven played by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin:

  • The Consecration of the House Overture
  • Violin Concerto (soloist Stefan Jackiw)
  • Symphony No. 7

I very much enjoyed listening to the concert, especially the up-tempo finale of the Seventh Symphony. I gather there was a problem with the live stream that meant the sound wasn’t broadcast along with the pictures, but they’ve fixed it on the recording so now you can experience both sight and sound from the NCH:

 

 

An die Freude

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , , on January 30, 2020 by telescoper

Freude, Schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuer-trunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Wem der grosse Wurf gelungen,
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein,
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!
Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!

Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur;
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod;
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.

Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels Prächt’gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
Brüder über’m Sternenzelt
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muss er wohnen.

by Friedrich Schiller (as revised by Ludwig van Beethoven)

 

Prokofiev, Grieg and Beethoven at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2018 by telescoper

This afternoon found me once again at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, waiting for a concert to start.

This time it was the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Tomáš Hanus. And very enjoyable it was.

The first number was a bit of a taster for the forthcoming WNO season, which includes Prokofiev’s War and Peace and Rossini’s Lá Cenerentola. The latter being the story of Cinderella, it made sense to include Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite from the ballet he wrote in the 1940s.

After that we had the evergreen Grieg’s Piano Concerto, by Grieg, played by the excellent Peter Donohoe, exactly how I like it: with all the right notes in the right order, and the Orchestra not too heavy on the banjoes.

Following the wine break we had Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a work which has to be one of his most uplifting pieces. Beethoven was very good at ‘uplifting’ so that means it is very special indeed.

A lovely concert, warmly received by the audience and a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

The Philharmonia Orchestra: Beethoven & Mahler

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on February 19, 2018 by telescoper

I spent yesterday afternoon at a very enjoyable concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a programme of music by Beethoven and Mahler given by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Principal Guest Conductor Jakub Hrůša. The picture above was taken about 10 minutes before the concert started, from my seat in Tier 1. Quite a few people arrived between then and the beginning of the performance, but there wasn’t a very big audience. St David’s Hall may have been less than half full but those who did come were treated to some fantastic playing.

The first half of the concert consisted of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (in C) with soloist Piotr Anderszewski. This work was actually composed after his Piano Concerto No. 2 but was published first. It consists of three movements, an expansive slow movement (marked Largo) sandwiched between two sprightly up-tempo movements, marked Allegro con brio and Rondo-Allegro Scherzando, respectively. I think the first part of the last movement, full of energy and wit, is the best part of this work and Anderszewski play it with genuine sparkle. His performance was very well received, and he rounded it off with a charming encore in the form of a piece for solo piano by Bartok.

After the wine break we returned to find the piano gone, and the orchestra greatly expanded for a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 , the fourth movement of which (the `Adagietto’) is probably Mahler’s best-known music (made famous by its use in Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice). This lovely movement is sometimes performed on its own – a practice Mahler himself encouraged – but I think it’s particularly powerful when heard in its proper context, embedded in a large orchestral work that lasts well over an hour.

Although nominally five movements, this work is really in three sections: the first section consists of the first two movements (the first starting with Trauermarsch (a funeral march), and the second a stormy and at times savage movement, punctuated with brief interludes of peace). The last section consists of the beautiful Adagietto 4th movement (played entirely on the strings) followed by an energetic and ultimately triumphant finale. In between there’s an extended Scherzo, which is (unusually for Mahler) rather light and cheerful. Roughly speaking this symphony follows a trajectory from darkness into light and, although it certainly doesn’t go in a straight line, and does start with a death march, this is undoubtedly one of Mahler’s cheerier works!

The Philharmonia Orchestra gave a very accomplished and passionate reading of this piece, with especially fine playing from the brass section (who have lot to do). The exuberant ending brought many members of the audience to their feet and rightly so, as it was a very fine performance – the best I’ve heard live of this work.

The WNO Orchestra at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on January 15, 2018 by telescoper

It has been a very busy weekend but yesterday afternoon I took time out to visit St David’s Hall in Cardiff to hear the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera conducted by Tomáš Hanus in a programme of music by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Dvořák. I’ve noticed that many of the international concerts that are a regular part of Cardiff life have been moved from weekday evenings to weekend afternoons. No doubt that it is for commercial reasons. I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of matinee concerts, but as it happens I’m not going to be available for many of the weekday evening concerts for the foreseeable future so I thought I’d give this one a go. The programme was a middle-of-the-road bums-on-seats affair, but if it brings people into the concert hall that is a good thing and it was nice to see a big crowd, including a sizeable contingent of schoolchildren, there to enjoy the show.

First up we had a favourite piece of mine, Beethoven’s  Egmont overture, inspired by the story of Lamoral, Count of Egmont whose execution in 1568 sparked an uprising Spanish occupation that eventually led to the independence of the Netherlands. It’s a stirring, dramatic work, ideal for opening a concert programme. I thought the tempo was a bit slow at the start, which made increase in speed towards the end a little jarring, but otherwise it was well played the full orchestra, arranged with six double-basses right at the back of the stage facing the conductor with the brass either side. That was very effective at generating a rich dark sonority both in this piece and in the Dvořák later on.

The next item was a very familiar work indeed, the Violin Concerto in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn. This is perhaps best known for its lvoely second movement (in which they key changes to C major) but the other two movements are really innovative and virtuosic. In the wrong hands the slow movement can be horribly schmaltzy but Norwegian soloist Henning Kraggerud managed to bring out is beauty without wallowing in its romanticism. It was a very fine performance, warmly appreciated by the audience. Henning Kraggerud treated us to an encore in the form of an intruguing piece by a musician previously unknown to me, Olof Bull, a fellow Norwegian and a contemporary of Mendelssohn.

After the wine break the main event of was another familiar piece, the Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) by Antonín Dvořák, a piece full of nostalgia for his Czech homeland written while the composer was living in America. It’s a piece I’ve heard very many times but it still manages to stay fresh, and yesterday’s performance was full of colour of verve. Tomáš Hanus (himself Czech) chose this piece as a tribute to an old friend who passed away last year, and it was was played with great passion.

I’d heard all the pieces in this programme many times, both in concert and on record, but they all stand up to repeated listening, simply because they’re so very good. I do like to hear new works – and do wish the programming at St David’s Hall were a little more adventurous – but they do have to make ends meet and there’s in any case much to enjoy in the standard repertoire, especially when it’s played by a fine orchestra. Such pieces can fall flat when you get the feeling that the musicians themselves are a bit bored with them, but that emphatically wasn’t the case yesterday.

It will soon be time to Welsh National Opera’s new season, with a new production of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino alongside revivals of Tosca and Don Giovanni. It’s going to be tricky to see them all, but I’ll give it a go!

The Emerson Quartet

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , on November 3, 2017 by telescoper

It’s been an enjoyably rich week for me in terms of cultural pursuits, rounded off in fine style last night with a visit to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for a concert by the Emerson String Quartet of music by Purcell, Britten and Beethoven. On Wednesday I made the mistake of going to a concert without having had any food, so this time I sampled the bar menu at the College before the performance. Very nice fish and chips, with very prompt service.

The first half of the concert consisted of three pieces by Henry Purcell, the Chacony in G Minor and two Fantazias (in D Minor and G Major, respectively). The Chacony (from the Spanish `Chacona’ via the French `Chaconne’) is a set of variations over a ground bass, while the Fantazias have a much freer structure with the instruments often mimicking vocal lines. This was followed by the String Quartet No. 2 in C by Benjamin Britten, the last movement of which includes a Chacony as a deliberate homage to Purcell (whose music Britten admired enormously). It was actually written to commemorate Purcell’s death (on 21st November 1695). Overall, though, this is more reminiscent of the approach of Britten’s friend Dmitri Shostakovich. It is full of jagged figures emerging from a background that alternates between dark and frenetic.

After the interval wine break, it was time for one of my favourite pieces in all music, the sublime String Quartet No. 15 (in A minor) by Ludwig van Beethoven (Opus 132). I’ve loved this piece for many years and it became even more special to me five years or so ago when I was recovering from illness. Until last night, though, I had never heard it live.

This is a long work, taking over 40 minutes to perform, dominated by the central third movement, which is headed with the words

Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart

I take the liberty of translating the first two words, using my schoolboy German, as “A Holy Song of Thanksgiving”; Beethoven wrote the piece after recovering from a very serious illness which he had feared might prove fatal. The movement begins in a mood of quiet humility but slowly develops into a sense of hope and deeply felt joy. The most remarkable  thing about this movement to me, though,  is that the music seems to possess the same restorative powers that it was written to celebrate. I certainly found it extremely therapeutic when I was unwell.

Hearing the whole piece live has a much greater impact than hearing one movement on record, and I have to admit I found last night’s performance quite overwhelming. Judging by the rapturous applause from the audience in the Dora Stoutzker Hall, I think a great many people realised that they had just heard something very special.

Music from three very different periods, by three very different periods, all played beautifully with great passion and imagination. What more could you ask for?

Well, we did get something extra – an encore in the form of one of Dvorak’s Cypresses (No. 7 to be precise):

The Vale of Clwyd

Posted in Music with tags , , , on August 19, 2017 by telescoper

Why did nobody tell me that Beethoven wrote a collection of 26 Welsh Folk Songs? I had to rely on BBC Radio 3 to educate me about them!

Here’s one example, Number 19 in the published collection, arranged for soprano voice with piano, violin and cello accompaniment and  called The Vale of Clwyd .

Here is a picture taken across the Vale of Clwyd, taken by Jeff Buck.

 

Photo © Jeff Buck (cc-by-sa/2.0)

 

Beethoven and Strauss at St David’s Hall 

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by telescoper

I’m a bit late writing about this because the last two days have been very busy, but on Wednesday evening (22nd February) I went to a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The first half of the programme featured two pieces by Beethoven, starting with a piece that was entirely new to me: his rarely heard concert overture Zur Namensfeier. It’s just a short piece (7 minutes long) and isn’t among Beethoven’s best compositions, but it did at least get the Philharmonia warmed up for the main event.

The Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) wasn’t immediately popular when it was first performed in 1809 – perhaps because it was considered a bit grandiose – but is now firmly established as one of the pinnacles of the repertoire. The soloist was the superb Pierre-Laurent Aimard who gave us an electrifying performance, though I did feel that some of the transitions from soloist to orchestra could have been a little smoother.

The second half of the programme was devoted to a single work by Richard Strauss, for which the orchestra was augmented  by the addition of brass and a larger percussion section.

For many people, the tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra is irrevocably associated with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey  as well as the BBC coverage of the Apollo moon landings. The opening section, representing sunrise (“as the individual enters the world, or the world enters the individual”), was memorably featured in both. Perhaps that association is why the opening section of this work sounds very modern, when it was actually written in 1896.

This is a spine-tingling piece to hear live, especially with the timpani, trumpets and splendid organ of St David’s Hall giving it everything.  The principal percussionist was clearly loving every minute.

But the sunrise is only one section of nine and it’s a pity that it’s often the only part we get to hear. The other sections are rather more recognisably late-romantic, but they cover a huge range as Strauss expresses in music various aspects of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche that inspired this piece.

The whole performance was brilliantly energised. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen got so carried away at one point that the baton slipped from his hand and flew into the First Violins. That’s definitely the first time I’ve seen that happen!
The concert ended to tumultuous applause: St David’s Hall wasn’t full, but the audience was very appreciative of an excellent performance. 

Llŷr Williams plays more Beethoven

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2017 by telescoper

Still determined to enjoy civilisation as much as I can while we still have it, last night I went to a splendid concert at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff featuring acclaimed Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams in the eighth (and penultimate) concert in a three-year series in which he is playing all the solo piano compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven.

The first half of last night’s recital comprised two very contrasting works united by the fact that both were dedicated to pupils of Beethoven. The first, the “Grande Sonata” No. 4 in E-flat major (Opus 7) dedicated to Anna Louise Barbara Keglevich (also known as Babette). This is an early work, in four movements in a relatively conventional classical style, and you can hear the influence of both Haydn and Mozart in it.

The second piece, much later and more famous, was the Opus 78 “a Therese“, dedicated to the Countess von Brunswick. This is a radically different piece, in just two movements, with a very brief slow introduction of just a few bars after which it is all at a sprightly tempo. It’s quite a odd work, really, and probably quite hard to play with flurries of notes coming thick and fast.

 

 

After the interval we heard two more sonatas, the connection between them being that both have nicknames: Sonata No. 15 (Opus 28) “Pastoral” and Sonata No. 26 (Opus 81a) “Les Adieux”. The nicknames given to some of these works are usually not by the composer and are sometimes rather misleading. The name “Pastoral” was attached by a music publisher not by Beethoven himself, but it does describe the mood of at least some of this piece, which does evoke the countryside. It’s a lovely work, actually, one of my favourites from the entire repertoire.

‘Les Adieux’ is a work in three movements describing respectively the farewell, absence and return of the Archduke Rudolf as he was forced to leave Vienna when it was attacked by Napoleon’s army in 1809.  The second movement’s moving expression of loss and loneliness, is followed by a jubilant finale marking Rudolf’s return.

That was the end of the advertised programme, but not quite the end of the concert because after very warm applause, Llŷr Williams returned to play a rather substantial encore – the 32 Variations in C Minor (also by Beethoven). It’s not quite as substantial as it seems, though, as each variation is only 10-15 seconds long.

Anyway, this was another  hugely enjoyable evening of piano music. I’m just sorry I came to the series rather late and there’s now only one left (in May 2017). Still, he happened to mention that the entire set is being released as an 11 CD Box set later this year…