Festtage 2016; Los Angeles Philharmonic/ Dudamel review – Barenboim’s Easter parade

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Now they have leapt backwards to the First (just out on disc too). It’s easy to forget the longstanding Austro-German resistance to the English composer whose only wish was to be considered alongside Wagner and Brahms. The prejudice, as a programme note reminded us, was that Elgar wrote “more or less boring, old-fashioned oratorios” and pieces in an “overblown, hollow, unbearably imperial representative style”. Instead, Elgar...s music is multilayered, independent-spirited, instantly recognisable, a mix of the wild and the heartfelt, the frenzied and melodic, nowhere more so than in his Symphony No 1.

just out on disc too These fantastic Staatskapelle players proved the point wholeheartedly. With their noble, velvety strings, impeccable, burnished horns and brass and endlessly poetic woodwind, they shone radiant new light on this familiar work. Every detail was audible, sometimes startling. Elsewhere, paradoxically, it was the bigger picture that seemed to have changed shape: the first movement sounded almost exaggeratedly episodic, each musical idea a huge boulder interrupted by ravines of terrifying near silence, as if all was about to grind to a halt. But this slow, massive start laid the foundation for an account that gathered ever greater intensity and momentum. The lithe acoustic of the Philharmonie – available for use while the Staatskapelle’s sister orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, was away with Simon Rattle at the Easter festival in Baden-Baden – added to the gleam and freshness. The Staatskapelle and Barenboim have just announced a performance of that grandest of “old-fashioned oratorios”, The Dream of Gerontius. Soloists will be the world’s current top tenor, Jonas Kaufmann – who sounded not quite his absolute best in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen the same evening, but still gave enormous pleasure – and the revered British mezzo Sarah Connolly. I can hear Elgar pleasurably turning in his grave in a little Worcestershire churchyard.

Philharmonie Berlin Philharmonic in Baden-Baden Jonas Kaufmann Sarah Connolly Worcestershire churchyard

Jonas Kaufmann and Daniel Barenboim take a bow. Facebook Twitter Pinterest The opening event in this 20th anniversary Festtage was a first pre-Mozart opera for Barenboim, with Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in the shorter, Italian version of 1762. Barenboim has long maintained a quizzical, if not sceptical, attitude towards period performance but his views have softened. While far from “authentic”, he embraced the transparent, lighter style, using small forces – only a dozen strings – and less vibrato. The result was visceral and convincing. The American countertenor Bejun Mehta commanded the stage as Orfeo, pure-toned and sympathetic. Anna Prohaska made the role of Euridice more engaging and less peevish than usual (Gluck’s version goes in for a good deal of “why won’t you look at me” petulance), with Nadine Sierra a fine, androgynous Amor.

Orfeo ed Euridice Anna Prohaska Nadine Sierra For her last time in a role she has made her own, Waltraud Meier was still in outstanding form as Kundry

Jürgen Flimm’s staging suggested a fantasy in which the elusive Euridice was a figment of Orfeo’s dreams: a bridal gown without a bride, a torture-cum-mortuary rack on which he is the victim. Furies at the mouth of the underworld are like Ku Klux Klan knighthawks, the blessed spirits happy couples at a multiple wedding. Made “in cooperation with Frank Gehry Partners” (the 87-year-old architect had an early involvement then stepped back from the hands-on process), the designs concentrated less on interior world than world of interiors. The grave of Euridice is a chic empty room, a flickering gas fire indicating crematorium flames. The action then moves to a boutique hotel room, all white linen and minibar. Orpheus sprinkles ashes like black rose petals from his empty lute case. It looks beautiful and vacant. Gehry’s own fantasy only has lift-off in Elysium. Zigzags clutter the stage in a riot of colourful, free-form constructivism – a hallmark of his early buildings.

87-year-old architect Barenboim being Barenboim, who clearly doesn’t like to be left with a free evening, he packed in another couple of little fillers: Parsifal (including intervals, six hours), which will now become an annual Festtage tradition, and Mahler’s Ninth (90 minutes). Mahler’s last completed symphony, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, sounded earthy and rampant with its restless gallops and fugues and burlesques, snatches of melody made whole as each soloist – including the VPO’s stunning viola leader – passed the phrases between them. But the success of this work depends on the final-movement Adagio, which here culminated in a fittingly serene, tender lament.

Vienna Philharmonic New in 2015, when it was heavily booed, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production and designs for Parsifal – his first Wagner outside Russia – could be characterised as the one with the beanies, bobble hats and hoodies, in which the hero is a backpacker, Klingsor an obsessive-compulsive sociopath and his Flowermaiden daughters virginal girls in frocks and white socks who, in his creepy thrall, can never grow up. It is all those things, but has moments of insight and revelation, and tosses up unanswerable questions about tribalism, cult and ritual – not issues to shy away from. The Staatskapelle, which is also the orchestra for the Staatsoper, drew maximum compassion and fervour from the orchestral writing. The cast was one of the best in memory, with René Pape formidable as the wise if inflexible (though not vocally) Gurnemanz, Wolfgang Koch a Christ-like Amfortas and, for her last time in a role she has made her own, Waltraud Meier, alluring, seductive, and still in outstanding form as Kundry. Andreas Schager has everything needed to sing the title role: golden voice, limitless vocal resources, volume when required but softness too, and a boyish, physical energy. He hasn’t worked much in the UK. Watch out for this star heldentenor.

beanies, bobble hats and hoodies Staatsoper René Pape a role she has made her own Andreas Schager
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, with soloist Sergio Tiempo at the piano.
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, with soloist Sergio Tiempo at the piano. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Back in London, the musical world laid bare a few of its connections: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose home is Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, have had a residency at the Barbican with chief conductor Gustavo Dudamel. His last appearance here was in January when he conducted his mentor, Barenboim, in a Southbank concert to make the 60th anniversary of Barenboim’s London debut. I heard the first of three concerts last week, a rumbustious, nearly-all-American programme with UK premieres by John Williams and Andrew Norman – both making spectacular, shiny and sonorous use of the LA Phil’s extrovert qualities – and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The highlight was the Piano Concerto No 1 by the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera (1916-83), played with thunderous and balletic flair by the Caracas-born pianist Sergio Tiempo. Why Ginastera? Check the dates. It’s his anniversary.

Los Angeles Philharmonic Disney Concert Hall Gustavo Dudamel conducted his mentor John Williams Andrew Norman Sergio Tiempo The next night members of the orchestra and Dudamel, with soloists Joanne Pearce Martin (piano), Andrew Bain (horn), James Babor (xylorimba) and Raynor Carroll (glockenspiel) were masterly and scintillating in Des canyons aux étoiles…, Messiaen’s monumental homage to God, birdsong and the canyons of Utah. Deborah O’Grady provided scenic visuals. In the past I’ve shown a lack of enthusiasm for pictures at a concert, generally preferring them at an exhibition. This was, however, thoughtfully if somewhat literally done. It was also easy to look away and see, in one’s mind’s eye, the images Messiaen’s music so eloquently evokes.

Deborah O’Grady Classical music The Observer Opera Daniel Barenboim Jonas Kaufmann Gustavo Dudamel features Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email Share on LinkedIn Share on Pinterest Share on WhatsApp Share on Messenger

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