Festival de Música de las Canarias


[NOTE from Eugene:  Wolf asked me to help him finish his commentary on three of the concerts we heard recently on the Canary Islands that he thought would be of interest to Opera Jamboree readers. I am hardly a neutral translator. Inevitably some of my ideas work their way into Wolf's commentaries and critiques, occasionally causing seeming inconsistencies. We have been experimenting with different forms of openly and honestly dealing with this inner dialogue. The following commentary is one such experiment. Wolf's comments are in dark green, mine are in dark blue. I've tried to restrict my comments to complement Wolf's, but to leave the main structure and flow of ideas up to him. It is, after all, his column, and he is by far the better and more knowledgable judge of music. If this form finds acceptance, we may continue refining this dialogue form for further critiques.]

The Canarian wine was red and young and velvety with a slight fresh bubbliness. It accompanied our fish somewhat eccentrically, but was certainly the perfect partner for Christine's steak. (Does singing always work up a healthy appetite?)
We dined al fresco on the terrace of an elegant old hotel reminiscent of the once-prevalent British merchant community. Three extremely attentive waiters attended to our culinary needs, all three enthusiastically giving their opinions on the desserts presented on the sweets trolley. A wonderful dinner in wonderful company to round off a truly wonderful evening encounter with Beethoven's 9th.

I had a wonderful view of the Auditorio Alfredo Kraus from my balcony. The expressive and unusual architecture of this unique concert hall resembled by day a surreal lighthouse, by night a luminescent, over-sized Hopi eagle. Although the Gran Canarian capital city Las Palmas has less than half a million inhabitants, its 2-mile long beach reminded me of Rio de Janeiro. Rio, or even Bombay. A traditional urban habitat: beach and promenade as a place for playing football (soccer), for older residents to stroll and socialize, a place to see and be seen. Not a tourist ghetto for the Germans, English and Scandinavians as in other parts of the islands. The Auditorio: outside like an eagle, inside more like a huge seashell. Once inside you can't miss the bronze bust of Alfredo Kraus, the city's most famous son. Every time we went to a concert, we saw fresh flowers at his memorial bust. As far as I know, he gave a few concerts at his hall when it opened some three years ago.

Off the coast of Saharan Africa, but politically and culturally Spanish, the Canaries have become the destination for European snowbirds, akin to southern Florida. Ruggedly and actively volcanic, the occasional white sandy beaches are blown-in emigrants from the nearby Saharan desert. Mild year-round on the coast, the climatic zones zip by as you climb to higher elevations crowned by wind-swept snow-topped peaks. (Imagine placing Kilimanjaro and Miami Beach onto Santa Catalina Island.)

The Festival is on all seven islands (Teneriffa, Gran Canria, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, La Palma, Hierro, and Gomera). The main program, however, is divided evenly between the cities of Las Palmas on Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz on Teneriffa. You can hear good orchestras and good artists every night. The two local symphony orchestras of the two main islands have their own normal seasons and play only a relatively minor role during the Festival. The better known orchestra - and possibly musically the better of the two - is the Orquestra de Gran Canaria under Adrian Leaper, which has an exclusive recording contract with Arte Nova. (Same label which has David Zinman and the Tonhallenorchestra Zurich with an exciting new Beethoven symphony cycle.) Nonetheless, the lesser known Teneriffa orchestra gave a concert performance of Das Rheingold which we were unfortunately unable to attend. I emphasize the word "unfortunately", as the cast included Jane Henschel, Alan Titus, Eike Wilm Schulte, Philip Langridge, Thomas Sunnegardh, Ekkehard Wlaschiha, amongst others. I remember well Thomas Sunnegardh's Loge, one of the few highlights of an otherwise boring production of the Ring in San Francisco. Aside from Mariana Lipovsek's Fricka, most of the other great singers had only their voices on stage. I personally don't believe that the main reason Jane Eaglen dislikes modern stagings is that she is in danger of losing her breath if she has to move around too much. If they continue with the Canarian Ring, she'd be perfect as a static concert Valkyrie Brunnhilde  ;-).

Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic were appearing for four concerts at the Festival. We arrived in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria from Frankfurt with enough time to allow us to stroll along the beachfront and adapt to the comfortable climate before having to change into evening concert-going gear.

The concert on the day we arrived included singing: Beethoven's 9th with the NY Philharmonic under Masur. It was one of the very best interpretations I have ever heard. His style of conducting has changed, no longer a hotspur with the very fast tempi I had heard on video tape of a concert shortly after German Reunification. He was unexpectedly very free in his tempi that evening. This arbitrariness was fascinating as it seemed to be his "organic breathing" that evening. VERY much (and again for me unexpected) in the tradition of Furtwängler. I have to say it again: Masur's interpretation was unobtrusive and selfless. No "look at me I'm wonderful" posing. Exceptionally "urmusikalisch."

Kurt Masur, an exacting maestro of the old school, but without the vanity of many of his contemporaries. Subservient to the music while mastering it fully. Lacking the sharp contours of a Gielen or a Toscanini, the orchestra had an unusually mellow sound. Details were nonetheless accentuated. The tempi were dealt with freehandedly, making a comparison with Furtwängler or Celibidache inevitable. Especially the unexpectedly drawn-out moments and pauses packed an emotional wallop, though they were surely a challenge for the musicians.

The soloist's quartet was a dream of homogeneity. I particularly liked the soprano and bass very much. Christine Goerke did not allow her clear and articulate voice to dominate (as singers such as Schwarzkopf inevitably have done), but was a true "team player." Her voice projected the pristine joy her smile radiated. Christine Goerke's earrings sparkled discreetly against a backdrop of black-clad violinists. Yes, her smile betrayed pure enjoyment of the music long before her voice did - disciplined, perfectly and beautifully conveying the music as well as the content.
The quality displayed by the young German bass-baritone Müller Brachmann was a great surprise to me. Like a great Liedersänger he emphasized the words with a very warm timbre in spite of highly artistic legato singing.
Bass Hanno Müller-Brachman's moving "O Freude" almost jolted me out of my seat. For a brief moment I thought I was attending a Lieder recital.
The evening was a great success for all the artists. Not often in my forty years of concert-going have I heard such a good orchestra, to say nothing of the excellent choir.

I was able to hear Masur the next evening before taking ill. The program included one of my favorite symphonies: Bruckner's 7th. I was as much disappointed that evening as I had been enthused the previous evening. For my taste not enough structure, the tempi too slow. A boring romantic mishmash.
The mellow sound that worked so well with Beethoven's 9th flopped with Bruckner. The music failed to ignite; it floundered aimlessly amidst Bruckner's luscious harmonies.

I have to mention another concert with singing, which was the next-best thing I heard at the Festival. Bach's Passion of St. Matthew with Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert. The Evangelist Howard Crook and Raimund Nolte as Jesus were both very good singers. Crook, much like Peter Pears, seemed to be born to sing that role.
Probably of more interest to the voice-oriented was the English Concert and Choir under Trevor Pinnock with Bach's Matthäuspassion. The soloists - with the traditional exception of the Evangelist and Jesu Christ - sang as a part of the choir. Howard Crook as the evangelist was riveting with his crystal-clear voice, reserved in expression in marked contrast to the 19th-century "romantic" style one often hears. A very operatic work, with its numerous soloists singing first recitatives followed by arias. I liked Pinnock's clear rhythm and unsentimental interpretation. The small size of the soloist's choir prevented it from becoming overly bombastic.

My friend Eugene attended nine concerts, I only seven in two weeks because I was sick for several days.
Only two of the Festival concerts were singer recitals. We arrived a week too late to hear Anne Sofie von Otter with Zemlinsky Lieder.
On our last day, however, we attended a most interesting recital with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Las Palmas . It was the first time we had heard him live. In the beginning I was not too sure if I liked his way of singing, I had very mixed feelings. He is the type who seems to always need the big gesture. For me as a German, I'm glad that he didn't sing German Lieder .
I'm not sure if I would like to hear him with Kindertotenlieder.(which he sang in London) I'll try to explain with my bad English WHY I would be afraid to hear him sing Dichterliebe or cycles like that. His strength to me seems to be a wonderful legato, priority on the melody but not like Thomas Allen, Thomas Hampson or Mathias Goerne forming the words into the melody. His "Ombra mai fú" and Gluck (Orpheus) were not so good because he didn't pay particular attention to much of what he sang. In the first part he also sang 2 Don Giovanni arias and one Conte Aria. Suddenly he was present on stage, he was in his role and wonderful. A dozen Rachmaninnoff songs (available with him on CD) in the second part showed me the singularity and class of that singer. The encore was the big Rigoletto aria and the audience flipped out. This guy is always singing with overly dramatic gestures ("schaut her ich bin's"), always flirting with the audience. Therefore he was great with the arias. Although I didn't understand what he sang in Russian (and the translation was in Spanish) I was very impressed by his deep interpretation of Russian Lieder and he was great with introspective songs as well. I left the recital a week ago with the feeling: a wonderful middle-sized voice for the Italian (including Mozart) and Russian Fach. A most enjoyable evening.

-- Wolf(j) und Eugene

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Copyright:  © 2000 Wolf Janson & Eugene Schäfer

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