Wouldn’t that make a really good title for a pipe tune? But that aside Peter Oundjian is marking the end of his long run as Music Director of the TSO with a series of three Beethoven 9ths with Kirsten MacKinnon, Lauren Segal, Andrew Haji, Tyler Duncan and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir joining the TSO. I caught the second yesterday evening. It’s always a bit odd listening to a piece one has been familiar with for years. Will I hear or learn something new tonight? Will this performance probe the nature of the piece like I have never heard it probed? The Tafelmusik performance and recording of this piece did just that. I felt I was hearing it for the very first time. Alas, the only new thought I had last night was about how repetitive certain sections are. So there it was, an OK run through but no more. The soloists were fine, though perhaps possessing a weight of voice better suited to Tafelmusik at Koerner than the TSO in full cry in the unforgiving sonic deserts of Roy Thomson. I did think Ms. MacKinnon and the sopranos of the choir managed the fiendishly high setting of their part (probably a good job that Beethoven didn’t have to listen to complaints from his sopranos) very well. Nice work from the piccolo accompanying them too. Otherwise it was a bit unremarkable though that didn’t stop the obligatory idolatry from the RTH audience. Heaven knows what would happen if they ever heard a truly great performance…
This afternoon I saw Gerry Finley and Julius Drake in recital at Koerner Hall. In other words, two supreme exponents of the art of lieder at the top of their game in a hall with near perfect acoustics. They performed Beethoven and Schubert settings of Goethe texts, some Tchaikovsky and some Rachmaninoff, which gave Julius ample opportunity to show off. They finished up with settings of folky things by Copland, Barber, Respighi and Britten. The last was The Crocodile; a very silly and funny piece I hadn’t heard before. The encore was by Healey Willans and Gerry gave a very nice plug for the Canadian Art Song Project. Insert standard list of adjectival phrases describing top notch singing and accompaniment. My humble scribing is not worthy.
The St. Lawrence String Quartet opened this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival with a really interesting programme. They kicked off with the Haydn String Quartet No. 25 in C Major. This very much belied the idea that Haydn is a skilful but not especially inventive composer. It’s full of invention; especially rhythmic and really suited the intensely physical style of the St. Lawrences; especially the hyperkinetic first violin, Geoff Nuttall, who also contributed a rather extraordinary pair of socks to the evening’s festivities. Watching, too, is a different experience from listening and here pointed up the extent to which chamber music like this is a conversation between the players rather than a regimented or choreographed thing.
Yesterday at noon Ileana Montalbetti, currently appearing in the COC’s Götterdämmerung and pianist Rachel Andrist gave a recital in the RBA. It was five years to the day since they last performed together in that space. Then she was a promising young singer, now she comes over as a considerable interpretative artist. The voice is even bigger (and for a piano recital in the small and not very friendly to dramatic sopranos RBA(*) that was a bit of a challenge) but what’s notable is how much more drama and meaning there is in each number.
This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra’s Beethoven cycle with conductor Bruno Weil concludes with a recording of the 9th Symphony recorded live at Koerner Hall in February 2016. It’s very much a period instruments recording. This is most noticeable in the strings where the sound is softer than a modern orchestra with less “attack” and significantly less dynamic variation. No doubt the fairly small forces used reinforce this. There are slightly more than 50 instrumentalists in total. Overall, it’s an almost Mozartian sound.
Fidelio is an interesting piece. The music is great and it has a powerful, very straightforward, plot. There are no convoluted subplots here. But there is a lot of spoken dialogue which slows things down. Is it necessary? Claus Guth doesn’t think so and in his 2015 Salzburg production he replaces the dialogue with ambient noise and also doubles up Leonora and Don Pizarro with silent actor “shadows”; the former using sign language in the manner of the narrator character in Guth’s Messiah. It works remarkably well. The ambient noise sections are quite disturbing and the “shadows” add some depth, especially the frantic signing in the final scene. Perhaps worth noting that the “noise” contains a lot of very low bass and precise spatial location. It may need a pretty good sound system to have the intended effect.
I’m really not sure what to make of Jürgen Flimm’s 2004 production of Fidelio for the Zürich Opera House. It’s not offensive and it doesn’t really get in the way of the story but it seems quite devoid of originality beyond mixing styles in a way one might describe as anachronistic if one could figure out when synchronistic would be. Rocco wears a sort of frock coat with, apparently, goatskin pants, Marzellina’s dress looks probably 20th century, bolt action magazine fed rifles are apparently muzzle loaded and metal cartridge cases filled by hand. Then to cap it off when Don Fernando shows up he looks like he’s stepped straight out of a Zeffirelli production of Der Rosenkavalier. So “nul points” for coherence. For once one rather appreciates that so much of the action takes place in the dark.