Petrenko, Kaufmann, Chereau and Kissin.

ArtsTalk Magazine’s YANNIK EISENAECHER spent Christmas and New Year in Berlin, a city with a unique cultural scene, especially in classical music. It has three world-class opera houses and seven world class orchestras (an all-time-record held together with Munich). In January, especially, there is a rich diversity in cultural activities take place in Germany’s (and arguably Europe’s) cultural capital. Yannik checked out the January highlights in Berlin for ArtsTalk Magazine, finding an operetta debut by the World’s best tenor, an opera by the world’s best opera director and many more exciting classical events.

New Year’s Eve at Dresden: Kaufmann’s Fledermaus debut. 30th December 2018, Semperoper Dresden

But we begin in Dresden, just a 90 minute drive away to the South. Why go there, you ask? Well, the programing of New Year’s Eve concerts in the capital this year was rather shallow compared to what Dresden had on offer. Dresden trumping Berlin is indeed a rare occurrence, so it was worth having a listen as the Messiah of Tenors, Jonas Kaufmann, gave his role debut as Eisenstein in The Bat in the New Year’s Eve Concerts of the Dresden Staatskapelle.

Since Christian Thielemann left to take exemplary charge of the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day Concert, Franz-Welser Möst conducted at Dresden. A true Austrian himself, Welser-Möst gave a thoroughly New-Year’s-Eve-ready interpretation of the score, with tempi and articulation slightly laxer than one is used to from Welser-Mösts’ usually more disciplined hands. But despite everything that Welser-Möst did with the fabulously trimmed Staatskapelle Dresden in the beautiful Semperoper opera house, the stage inevitably belonged to the singers this evening. Despite most of the dialogue being cut for TV-reasons, this was a Fledermaus as you will never hear it sung again.

Jonas Kaufmann gives his role debut as Eisenstein. He had sung the most dramatic of tenor roles (Otello) just days before in Munich and was now claiming the stage for the key role of German Spieloper. Only a thorough-bred opera singer, an animal of the stage could manage such a transition. Kaufmann never even needs the tele-prompter set up at the rear, and his voice is set so perfectly between tenor and baritone that he can find scrape even the smallest ounces of comic potential from the darkest corners of the score. Even though his performance might edge towards becoming silly here and there, his vocal performance is spotless.
No one has been able to persuade Elisabeth Kulman to do scenic operas for years. For this semi-staged Fledermaus she returns (just once) as Prince Orlovsky. Her Mezzo is of a unique instrumentality, she is able to trace Orlovsky’s characteristics with a remarkable security and sweetness. With her lyrical voice and (despite the slightly overdone Russian accent) perfect intonation, she reminds of Christa Ludwig and is undoubtedly one of the greatest mezzos of our time. This Orlovsky alone is reason to come and see this concert.

Rosalinde is in the capable hands of Rachel Willis-Sørensen, who is singing the role in Berlin as well and is breaking through as one of the most exciting young dramatic sopranos of today. The clarity in her voice and diction is simply astounding; she has the comic aspects of Rosalinde, the little tricks of where to make strong accents and how to elevate her character, down to a tee. Her Rosalinde is just as disloyal to her husband as he is to her and Willis-Sørensen breaks the double-edged moral of the story down beautifully. Andreas Schager completes the star-studded front-line as Alfred. Schager, who has spent the last couple of months on the Everest of the dramatic tenor repertoire (Tristan in Berlin and Paris, Lohengrin in Vienna and Parsifal at Bayreuth) is returning to his roots as an operatta singer and delivers such a strong Alfred, that Kaufmann’s Eisenstein is in for some serious competition here. Together with outstanding young soloists from the Semperoper’s ensemble in the minor roles, Schager completes a perfectly sung Fledermaus.

Kirill Petrenko and the Federal Youth Orchestra of Germany.
9th January 2019, Philharmonie Berlin

The Federal Youth Orchestra of Germany is one of the best in the world, this can be said without a blush. As the 100 musicians take the stage at the Philharmonie and begin jazzing away with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, they develop a transparency and command of the music that many professional orchestras would click their tongues at.

Despite all individual skill, some of this unique command also comes down to the man standing at the rostrum, and probably also the reason why many musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic are in the audience tonight: Kirill Petrenko, their future boss, is conducting. Petrenko finds a transparent path through all three pieces of the evening, sitting in the rehearsals for this one would have been pure joy. The lessons Petrenko gave the orchestra on listening to one another and articulating the Symphonic Dances with just the right amount of pizazz for an orchestra of young Europeans are surely immeasurable.

The other two pieces of the evening are William Kraft’s Concerto for Timpani and orchestra and Strawinsky’s Sacre. The Berlin Phil’s principle timpanist Wieland Welzel is the soloist in the Kraft concerto. After the remarkable transparency and rhythmic dissection in the Bernstein, the Kraft is an exciting exhibition of the unexpected wealth of possibilities with the timpani as a solo instrument. From simple finger tapping to some of the hardest rhythm and drumstick runs in the repertoire. I would urge you to look it up, there are several interesting recordings on Youtube, including with the Hong Kong and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestras. The piece ranges from modern film-music-flaire to the rhythmical precision and creativity of Boulez. It is a remarkable composition.

It is also an interesting evening in terms of musical politics and positioning: Kirill Petrenko introduces himself to the Berlin audience with the federal youth orchestra and can present his vision of modern music to his future Berlin audience. As the main piece, Petrenko presents a Sacre which almost touches on the edge of lyricism, leaving behind the robust, apocalyptic Berlin interpretations of the Rattle era. The one criticism often made of Petrenko is that he does not really let orchestras of the leash. With the youth orchestra, he makes an impassioned plea for his doctrine of control over an orchestra. Under his expert guidance, the youth orchestra carves a fine, precise path through the great rhythmical complexity of Stravinsky’s masterpiece. Whether the Berlin Philharmonic will need this much guidance through a piece which they have played roughly once a season under Rattle is of course a different matter.

At the end stands an outstanding performance by everyone on stage, with Petrenko guiding the listeners through some of the most rhythmically exciting works of the entire concert repertoire.

Mariss Jansons, Jewgenij Kissin and the Berliner Philharmoniker
16th January 2019 at Philharmonie Berlin

Mariss Jansons is back for his annual concerts with the Berlin Phil. Last year we had an impassioned performance of Schumann and Bruckner with up-and-coming pianist Daniil Trifonov as the soloist. This time around, Jansons brings another world-famous pianist with him, namely Jewgenij Kissin. Like Jansons, Kissin was also a musical discovery of Herbert von Karajan, who helped both artists along substantially in their careers.

The program is one of the most popular and youthful in the whole season, with Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra opening, and two popular showpieces, Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Wagner’s Ouverture to Rienzi, closing out the evening after the interval.

The Strauss is a wonderful beginning, since the long-running partnership between Jansons and the orchestra is at its peak here. This Strauss is not as grand and bombastic as the orchestra’s interpretations were under Karajan, but the colours are much more transparent and modern. They are pastel rather than primary, creative rather than conservative. The trio has a wonderful touch of swing, with the Berlin Phil’s DNA as a Prussian orchestra shining through. This is music which is ingrained in the orchestra’s core, in its ethos as a musical body. The grand-music making of the Karajan era may not be at the forefront of the interpretation, but traces of it remain: The majestic legato, the instinctive sense for the great arcs of suspense in the music, ending with crashing climaxes. The waltz of the second half is sterner in character, with Gabor Tarkövi’s outstanding trumpet solo changing the direction of the interpretation slightly, into something more disciplined and rigid. Nonetheless, this Zarathustra is a wonderful benchmark for German music making in the 21st century.

The Liszt Piano Concerto No.1 follows. Kissin enters the stage, and with his entrance comes a remarkable air of intellectualism and an invitation to get serious. Kissin’s touch at the piano remains remarkable and unique until today. He heralds as a representative from another musical age, with his remarkable strength and resolute impression. Kissin is one of the few pianists today who happily uses the pedal most often, washing away textures and building pictures of pure beauty rather than complexity. A different musical attitude, perfectly fitting to the highly virtuoso Liszt concerto. With Jansons steering the orchestra happily along a more transparent direction, Kissin has all the room to shine. The concerto ends in a whirlwind finale, and one his own compositions as an encore bring most of the hall to their feet for Kissin, something rarely seen in Berlin.

But the ending of this concert is perhaps even more brilliant, and this is thanks to Mariss Jansons’ skill in putting together interesting programs. Instead of doing the usual thing of letting the big main piece (Strauss) come after the interval, he started with the Strauss to leave the lighter second half free for the Liszt concerto and (almost as an encore) Wagner’s Rienzi Ouverture. Rienzi being one of Wagner’s early, Bayreuth-banned operas, it is the first truly serious grand opera by the Leipzig-born master. Jansons, who has never conducted a Wagner opera and rarely conducts overtures or preludes, has a most interesting take on Rienzi. The overture is fairly short, contains a wonderful love motif and a well-guided march-motif. Jansons carves out brilliant details from the score, carrying the march motif as gently as though he was conducting ballet. Then, in the grand finale, he gives in just that much to the whopping Philharmonic pizazz, to bring a glorious end to this family-get-together of German late romanticism.

Elektra at the Berlin State-Opera: Daniel Barenboim conducts the Chereau production with Ricarda Merbeth in the title role
27th January 2019 at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden.

The final step in this remarkable classical journey is the revival of Patrice Chereau’s world-famous Elektra production at the Berlin State Opera. Conducted by Chereau’s life-long friend Daniel Barenboim, this was the last production by the inspiring French director before his sudden death in the autumn of 2015. Chereau had gathered the very best of opera around him for his final production, including Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role (who sadly had to cancel for this run at the Staatsoper) and Chereau’s most ardent admirer, Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra.

Elektra is a strangely psychotic piece, transporting its characters to the edge of human capability. Most stagings of this opera allude to some apocalyptic or mythic Greek past, such as the famous Lev Dodin production from Salzburg (1995). Chereau, as he so often liked to do, did away with all prior conventions concerning this piece. This Elektra is set in a bare inner court space, where all the focus is not on some bloody antique spectacle, but on the human interactions that shape and give meaning in extreme situations. Chereau seeks to take out all superfluous operatic drama out of the piece, and focus on the personalities and what moves them.

He does this with surprisingly simple means: The curtain rises, and you simply see women cleaning the courtyard. The orchestra does not play a single note. The simple humanity of the singer’s movements, who are cleaning stage in silence, is a remarkable first impression of an opera that threatens to blast of into archaic drama as soon as the orchestra plays the first note. But even then, Chereau manages to keep so much the humanity in the piece. Ricarda Merbeth sings the title role and is perhaps the only slight hitch in the production’s concept. She only had two weeks to prepare, and naturally could not internalise the psychological complexity Herlitzius would have brought to the part. But Merbeth sings Elektra with a more youthful voice, a vocal range and stamina that allows her to fill the house easily. This makes her one of the exciting coming singers of Elektra, Isolde and (possibly) Brünnhilde.

A great Isolde of past times is Waltraud Meier. To be honest, I really only came for her tonight. Meier is a legend in German opera, having been the dominating Isolde, Leonore (Fidelio) and Sieglinde (Walküre) in the 90s and 2010s, as well as being quintessentially associated with Kundry (Parsifal). For 25 years, Waltraud Meier simply was Kundry, at all the big houses from Bayreuth to the Met. After stepping back from the big opera roles in 2016, still in her prime, she is now singing smaller roles such as Klytämnestra. Her timbre is simply unmissable, her pronounciation unique, and she gives a brilliant humanity to the mother, still searching for the comfort of her daughter, instilled into her perception of the role by her great hero Chereau.

The core ensemble is rounded off with the great bass René Pape as Orest. His bass is as strong and calming as ever, but this time around I am particularly impressed by Pape’s pronounciation. It is a key to Pape’s worldwide success in everything from Sarastro to Gurnemanz: Pape combines his deep bass voice, which could easily rumbling and unclear, with a special transparency that is immediately associated with him. Pape’s portrayal is as calm as ever, bringing a refreshing humanity and calmness to Orest next to all the hysteria.

Finally, Daniel Barenboim sits in the pit and conducts his Staatskapelle Berlin in a typical Barenboim-Elektra. Some incredible work on the colours makes for an evening, that is not exactly exciting in the modern sense. Where conductors such as Rattle and Salonen would let the percussion fly in strongly cut accents, Barenboim washes over some core strong points and instead opts for the unknown, the mixing of colours, a washed-through musical mass. This makes for an Elektra unlike anything you will hear anywhere else. Quintessentially Barenboim, a great round-off to probably the best production currently on show at the house.

And finally . . .

What a month. I was blown away by some of the outstanding events I was allowed to witness and look forward to many more great events in classical music coming up in the future.    Yannik Eisenaecher   February 2019

Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics