New broom. Mare Nostrum, by Mauricio Kagel, as staged by Valentin Schwarz in Cologne. Intimations of Bayreuth's next Ring? Let's keep an open mind.
· Richard Wagner: Siegfried, Act III (abridged)(SWR Music, 2019)
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Pietari Inkinen
Lise Lindstrom, Stefan Vinke
Consider it a sneak preview! The conductor, Pietari Inkinen, of Finland, is one of the Johnnys, appearing here with the regional orchestra he has been serving as music director since September 2018.
If Wagner's not your bag, by all means skip ahead to the thumbnails beginning with Dance, an enchanting recital from Jason Vieaux, guitar, and the Escher Quartet.
More on Inkinen presently. But first, let's focus on his partner-in-chief, who will be facing the fiercest scrutiny. That would be the Austrian director and scenic designer Valentin Schwarz, barely out of school, who turns 31 next year. Which just so happens to be exactly the age of Patrice Chéreau, no less blank a page when he showed up for Bayreuth's Centennial Ring of 1976 and turned the cosmos upside down.
In 2017, Schwarz put himself on Continental impresarios' radar by winning the Ring Award, in Graz, Austria's Second City. As nearly as I can determine, the competition is open to professionally trained stage directors and designers who have yet to see their work produced in a professional theater. The organizers pick an opera, and the contestants have at it in drawings, models, concepts, production books, etc. Winning entries go on to a full realization on the stage of an interested company or companies.
The assignment in 2017 was Donizetti's Don Pasquale, a bauble surely beneath the notice of the Wagner mafia. Two years later, Schwarz's résumé remains wafer-thin—but does include a production in Cologne (a hop, skip, and a jump from Bayreuth) of Mauricio Kagel's Mare Nostrum. This late-twentieth-century what-if fantasy about the discovery of Europe by pre-Columbians from the Amazon is the kind of attraction the industry panjandrums turn out for. Photographs of the show look like Armageddon the morning after. Among the human refuse shuffles a half-naked old tramp, perhaps an angel expelled from the sight of God (hey, he's got the wings)... In short: grist to the dark Satanic mills that have sprung up on the Green Hill of Katharina's forebear, but for now, let's keep an open mind.
On to Inkinen, who turns 40 next year—and to whom falls the (formerly) paramount job of looking after all those notes of Wagner's gargantuan score. Younger maestros than this have conducted TheRingat top venues, probably even in Bayreuth (feel free to check). On the other hand, had the management been seeking a Grand Old (Dead White) Man, they would have recruited someone else. Inkinen's name has yet to emblazon many an elite marquee, to be sure, yet his extensive symphonic and operatic credentials on the international circuit are those of a versatile and seasoned pro.
It's misleading of him to label the curiosity at hand an abridged third act of Siegfried; more accurately, it's the final arc (going on an hour). Thus, of the four characters who appear in the act, the only two that remain are the brash young Siegfried and his predestined bride, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, who has been dreaming of him since the day after his conception, asleep on a mountaintop surrounded by magic fire.
Yet Inkinen begins, and I couldn't resist listening in on, the third act's short and much beloved orchestral preamble, which lifts off like the Apollo 11. (This is the point at which Wagner jumped back into the Ring after a hiatus of 12 years. Discouraged at the prospects for getting the cycle produced, he took a sabbatical to knock off a trifle or two he reckoned impresarios could throw on the stage with ease; these trifles turned out to be Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, each an Everest in its own right.) From there, we jumped to the point at which Siegfried realizes to his amazement that the beauteous warrior he has found sleeping in armor is a woman—the first he has ever seen. Eventually he kisses her, her eyes flutter open, she greets the light of day, and their ecstasies begin, at which point we had no choice but to fade out.
o Das ist kein Mann
o Brünnhildes Erwachen
o Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!
At the top, we found Inkinen exercising a certain restraint, apparently the better to unfurl earth-shattering grandeur when the brass choirs come crashing in. On that shred of evidence, his temperament tends to nobility rather than clatter. Later, we would find that he gives silences their full weight, allowing stillness to speak. The paired chords heard before Brünnhilde finally opens her eyes dissolve seamlessly from woe to nirvana. These are hopeful signs for next summer's Big Dance.
The singing, not immediately relevant to the Bayreuth lineup, didn't thrill me. Among current Siegfrieds, Stefan Vinke ranks higher for stamina than imagination; his Brünnhilde, Lise Lindstrom, sounds fresh and sweet and fathoms out of her depth.
I should add a caveat, though. You'd think that audio from the studio of a radio orchestra would be engineered to perfection. Yet on playback, the sound brought back loved-to-death vinyl platters of half a century ago. Was the fault in our equipment? I think not, given that everything else on our playlist came through just fine.
· Dance (Azica 2019)
Jason Vieaux, Guitar
For spice, we dropped in a movement from this album to close each half-hour segment of our 90-minute show, as follows:
o Aaron Jay Kernis,100 Greatest Dance Hits– IV. Dance Party on the Disco Motorboat
o Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Guitar Quintet Op. 143 – III. Scherzo: Allegro con spirito, alla Marcia
o Luigi Boccherini, Quitar Quintet No. 4 in D major "Fandango" – IV. Fandango
My exposure to disco pretty much begins and ends with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which Kernis's blowout reminded me of not at all, but it was smokin'. The Castelnuovo-Tedesco dispensed nostalgic salon strains of an exalted order. The Boccherini, spiked with castanets, slithering with silken glissandi, conjured up the bristling formality of Spain's Golden Age along with its deadpan peacock swagger.
· Silenced Voices (Cedille, 2019)
Black Oak Ensemble
o Dick Kattenburg, Trio à cordes
o Hans Krása, Tánec for String Trio
At around five minutes each, these miniatures offer an instructive study in contrasts: the Kattenburg tangy, densely woven, all of a piece; the Krása a potpourri of infectious dance forms. A pair of fine discoveries, expertly played.
· Schubert, Winterreise(Pentatone 2019)
Ian Bostridge, Thomas Adès
o Der Lindenbaum
Schubert's ultimate study of alienation has obsessed the tenor Ian Bostridge for three decades. This is his third recording, following his earliest with Julius Drake, a noted collaborative pianist, and a later one with Leif Ove Andsnes, a premier concert pianist. This time, he has teamed up with Thomas Adès, the noted British composer. (Collectors flash on the landmark interpretation by the tenor Peter Pears and the composer Benjamin Britten, laid down in 1963, long sacrosanct, but times are changing.) To judge by our excerpt—the first tumultuous, the second introspective, with a simplicity that has won it a place in every German heart as a virtual folksong—the performance is of a high imaginative order, allowing poetry and music to flow naturally. What the cumulative effect of the twice twelve songs of the cycle might be, it would be folly to speculate. But as something of a Winterreise obsessive myself, I won't pretend to have detected any game-changing nuances. Bostridge's tone seems fuller than it used to be, and also less reedy, which is purely to the good. Yet the timbre remains strikingly youthful, even adolescent, which is a little spooky.
· Bion Tsang/Dvorak, Enescu – Cello Concertos(Sony, 2019)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Scott Yoo, cond.
o Majestueux, from George Enescu, Symphonie Concertante for Cello and Orchestra, op. 8
As head of the string division and professor of cello at the music school of the University of Texas at Austin, Bion Tsang can have precious little time to trot the globe concertizing on the superstar circuit. And in truth, the huffing, Herculean charisma superstars of the cello often cultivate seems not to be Tsang's style. Rather than coax or struggle or attempt to subjugate his instrument, he lets it dance and sing. Where Enescu asks for majesty, majesty is what Tsang delivers—not the baser coin of pomp and circumstance but gold. With Scott Yoo and the Scots, he's in regal company.
· The Hope of Loving, Choral Works of Jake Runestad (Delos 2019)
Conspirare, Craig Hella Johnson, cond.
o Why the Caged Bird Sings
Alissa Ruth Suver, soprano
Extended choral programs of a meditative, overtly spiritual, or indeed prayerful bent, delivered entirely or mostly a cappella, have somewhat specialized appeal. Jake Runestad's music seems to fall within those parameters, but this free-standing 10-minute item—performed to immaculate perfection—strikes a chord that may well be universal. The title will remind many of the opening volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography. For good reason; Angelou lifted the line from a poem, set here in its eloquent entirety, by Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in 1872 to freed slaves from Kentucky. For the most part, Runestad follows the natural cadences of speech—long notes for "I know," short ones for "why the," back to long for "caged bird sings"—but here and there images spring to life in urgent gestures that land like hieroglyphics etched by the human voice; listen for the caged bird's wings, beaten bloody.