Saturday, September 21, 2013

Slaughtered Strauss

Tonight, to Berlin’s lovely Konzerthaus, for the last of our chosen concerts of the season. Only, it won’t be the last … because I’m not going out on the least lovely concert of my season.

On paper, it looked great. A youth orchestra? Always love them. Conductor: David Afkham? I know I like him, from the MCO concerts. Programme: a new work (hurrah!), the Strauss four last songs (yes, yes, yes) and a bit of Bartok. Why not?

But between paper and the event, it went floppy.

We arrived at the hall – which we couldn’t get into last time – to find it amazingly more than half empty. Why? And yet, booking on line, we couldn’t get our favourite pair of seats. They were occupied by a parade of different people during the night. And … who were this strange, sparse audience. Mums and dads (they clapped between the songs and the Bartok movements)? For the Four Last Songs?

We started with the commissioned work which was called “strane costellazione” (e e cummings, please  note). I’m not sure why in Italian. Maybe composer Beat Furrer (Austria) has Italian connections. It was what I’d call a harmless piece. In fact, once I’d decided that it was depicting ripples and little waves trickling over the pebbles on a Riviera beach, I got on with it all right. But the little waves died away, and left me forgetting them.

Then came the Strauss. We all grew up with the Schwarzkopf record. It was the great love of my young days. The music and the singer. And it still is. This was to be the first time I had heard it live. And with a singer who professed to have studied with Schwarzkopf.

I can’t express my disappointment. The conductor worked his stockings off, the orchestra played the music loyally, and the singer…

Who hired Christiane Oelze, out of all the glorious (young?)  Strauss soprani that the world possesses, to sing this music, and why? I have written down ‘accurate, uninspired, elderly’. But it was worse than that. Her opening phases (and all the lower register) were inaudible over the orchestra, others were cut to bits by faulty breathing, although at least she stayed in tune. The quality of the voice was pale English-plummy-covered, fit for a small room but not for a small Konzerthaus. And you could see the effortful high passages coming. When I wanted a soar and a shiver … well, enough said. There was no excitement, no passion, no soaring, just colourless, distant almost-accuracy  … in this great music!

Mind you, it doesn’t help when in the middle of doing what should be a big sing, the lady bends over to turn a page! Glory is reduced to utter Prose. Which it was.

If I could remember the flood of hurt words that I poured out in the interval, I’d repeat them. But it’s nearly midnight and all I remember is my huge disappointment. And the weird grey crochet bodice the lady wore.

I felt that the second half surely would get better. Paul had heard the Bartok ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ before, and enjoyed it.

I didn’t. I found it characterless and shapeless, and the two children in front of me (who’d hated the soprano) agreed with me. Everybody played with a will, there were lots more oddities (we’d had piano plunking already), the ‘Junge Deutsche Philharmonie’, with its sawing row of oriental lady fiddlers, seemed to have been infiltrated by an elderly balding bass player … and it all sounded like musical wallpaper. Sorry, Mr Bartok. But maybe not wholly your fault.

So I came out of this evening with a feeling that maybe Herr Furrer’s piece was the least unsatisfactory item … and a mission to ask my musical friends: just who hires the singers for these concerts.

Now I’m going to you tube to listen to Schwarzkopf sing that that third song, before I go to bed ..

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