December 31, 2015


Beethoven: Fidelio. Tom Krause, Theo Adam, James King, Eva Marton, Aage Haugland, Lilian Watson, Thomas Moser; Chor der Wiener Staatsoper and Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Lorin Maazel. Orfeo. $22.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 1; “Blumine.” Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. Ondine. $16.99.

      There is a delicious irony in the fact that the best-known, most-performed and most-respected French rescue opera is neither French nor an opera but a German Singspiel. Beethoven’s Fidelio encapsulates the concept of French rescue opera perfectly and follows it through elegantly and eloquently from start to finish. But it does have its rough edges, and one challenge for conductors and singers alike is how to handle them. Lorin Maazel’s answer at the Salzburg Festival in 1982 and 1983 was to smooth them over, to avoid everything from over-emoting to scenery-chewing villainy and to focus on the music and structure of Fidelio. The result was a very musicianly reading of the opera – but, unfortunately, not a very emotionally convincing or compelling one. A new Orfeo release, a live recording of the Maazel-led performance from 1983, makes the strengths and weaknesses of the conductor’s approach abundantly clear. One thing Maazel does very well is to integrate the first act into the opera’s totality: instead of being a rather trivial prelude to the far stronger second act, the first act here has its own shape and a clear relevance to the overall drama. Yet even here, the limitations of Maazel’s approach are apparent. The overture is straightforward: everything is in its place and as it should be, and the orchestral playing is absolutely first-rate, but there is something tepid about the performance. Likewise, Mir ist so wunderbar, the quartet that is the highlight of this act, is calm, wonderfully balanced but emotionally empty, with Eva Marton – elsewhere a very forceful Leonore – seeming to hold back her capabilities for better use later on. Pizarro’s I-am-Evil-incarnate aria, Ha! Welch ein Augenblick! – whose words will be perfectly and carefully echoed to very different effect at the end of the second act – is strongly delivered by Theo Adam, and the march is poised and carefully shaped, but the act proceeds throughout with a kind of placidity and measured pace that drains it of strong emotional connection.

     It is in the second act that emotional connection is front-and-center, and certainly James King’s opening aria exploring Florestan’s despair and flickering hope is both dramatically and musically effective. But his later confrontation with Adam is less intense than it can be, despite Marton’s very strong intercession; and although O namenlose Freude! cannot be anything but the emotional climax of the opera, here it is a touch too well-mannered to reach out to listeners with as much impact as it is capable of having. Interestingly, by far the most effective music-making here comes in the Leonore Overture No. 3, which Maazel, like some other conductors of Fidelio, offers after the rescue and before the final scene of triumph. Here, in what is essentially a tone poem encapsulating the entire opera, the Vienna Philharmonic explores the emotions of Fidelio to perfection, balancing the dramatic and the heartfelt, and Maazel leads with a sure hand and tremendous power. A full-length opera with this level of intensity would have been one for the ages. Instead, what listeners get here is a performance with musical strength and clarity, one in which smaller roles are elevated – Aage Haugland as Rocco is particularly good – while the main ones are somewhat diminished. This is an effective Fidelio, but Maazel seems to have thought so seriously about the musical aspects that he somewhat overlooked the work’s intended (and admittedly somewhat overdone) emotional intensity.

     Hannu Lintu seems likewise to have thought a bit too much about Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The issue here is not the inclusion, as a postscript, of the dropped Blumine movement – the movement has been offered with the symphony numerous times, either as an addendum or in its original place as the second movement of what then becomes a five-movement work. What is a concern is what Lintu has done by trying to push Mahler’s music into a shape beyond that of naïveté and intense expression – an approach that pays few dividends when dealing with a composer who was also a superb conductor and knew exactly what effects he was trying to extract, and how. Certainly the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays well for Lintu, with crisp rhythms and well-handled sectional balance, including some impressive turns by the brass. But Lintu asks the ensemble to do some things that do not fit Mahler’s symphonic narrative particularly well. The first movement, for example, is supposed to represent the awakening of Nature, but Lintu handles the very quiet opening as if Nature is already half-awake and eager to get on with the day. Then the movement, after proceeding at a mostly measured pace, becomes at the end a frantic rush to its conclusion – certainly not what Mahler was looking for. Lintu presumably thinks the speeded-up ending will generate additional excitement, but in fact it does the opposite, leaving listeners a touch breathless, perhaps, but likely wondering what all the tumult was about. The unwillingness to let Mahler’s tempos, especially the slower ones, unfold as the composer intended, permeates this performance, and the finale, which is admittedly episodic, particularly suffers as a result. By the symphony’s conclusion, there is a let’s-get-this-over-with feeling that is at odds with what Mahler certainly intended as a grand triumph over adversity. Blumine, in contrast, is handled gently and pleasantly, with fine solo trumpet work by Jouko Harjanne. The symphony’s finale actually contains reminiscences of Blumine – a fact that, if Mahler considered it when excising the movement, he decided did not much matter – and it is always pleasant to hear whence those remembrances come. But the main offering here, the symphony in its familiar four-movement form, comes across with less impact than it would have had if Lintu had paid more attention to Mahler’s thoughts on structure and tempo and less to his own.

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