Friday, March 14, 2014

Music Review: Berg & Strauss Operas @ Carnegie Hall

Vienna: City of Dreams
Through March 16, 2014
Carnegie Hall, 7th Avenue & 57th Street, New York, NY

Barkmin (left) as Salome (photo: Chris Lee)
Highlighting Vienna: City of Dreams—Carnegie Hall’s celebration of the Austrian capital’s vast artistic and cultural heritage, which included many events in other New York City institutions—were concert performances of two one-act operatic masterpieces,  both associated with the Vienna State Opera and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Richard Strauss’s Salome.

Admittedly, these were safe choices as far as 20th century operas go—if someone had asked me (no one did for some reason), I would have chosen a lesser-known Strauss work like Daphne and Berg’s unfinished Lulu—but they were obviously picked for their relative brevity (each under two hours, perfect for a concert) and, perhaps most importantly, their ability to show off the Vienna Philharmonic as the finely-tuned instrument it is. And both evenings did just that.

Wozzeck might sound earsplittingly atonal to those used to more soothingly melodic Mozart or Puccini, but Berg’s gripping musical version of Georg Buchner’s tragedy about an ordinary man driven to murder and suicide by an uncaring world tautly tightens its dramatic noose until the haunting—and downright draining—final notes. Credit the orchestra, and Franz Welser-Möst’s sensitive conducting, for bringing out the opera’s contrasting brutality and beauty.

Matthias Goerne, who has made Wozzeck a specialty—stepping in recently at the Met for Thomas Hampson—sang the title role with emotive power, while Evelyn Herlitzius made his promiscuous girlfriend Marie compelling and sympathetic. If there was a blemish, it was the orchestra overpowering some singers, also a problem during Salome.

Of course, Salome is much more raucous, so an onstage orchestra drowning out singers isn’t surprising. But even if conductor Andris Nelsons didn’t always control the racket, big-voiced soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin never had any trouble—hers was a volatile, deeply unsettling Salome, which is what Strauss (and playwright Oscar Wilde) surely wanted for their teenage anti-heroine. And Nelsons did drive the orchestra through this brilliantly bombastic score for all it was worth, right up until its soul-shattering final chords.

Vienna: City of Dreams concludes with Vienna Philharmonic concerts on the 15th and 16th, the festival’s closing night. Schubert and Mahler make up the first concert, followed by a celebratory program encompassing the wide variety of styles (including Korngold's golden Violin Concerto played by Gil Shaham) in this most glitteringly musical of cities.

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