Festspielhaus Baden-Baden: November Review

A look back over the last month's events

4 December 2009

Renee FlemingThere are many reasons why one would like to spend one's retirement in Baden Baden, this attractive, cultured Spa-town, without sprawling industrial suburbs, beautifully nestled in the  foothills of the Black Forest, and where a waitress never fails to ask if you enjoyed your cup of coffee. There is one that the writer considers a very unique privilege to cherish.

The magnificent FESTSPIELHAUS, born ten years ago  amongst embarrassing politicking, and almost going bankrupt already in its second year, was saved and resuscitated without any state subsidy,   by the generosity of  wealthy  sponsors ( alas, one of its main benefactors still serving a long prison sentence for fraudulent activities) , and by the almost obsessional faithfulness of its large Circle of Friends  and an audience, almost completely drawn from a small , non-industrial area around it.

By maintaining eyelevel contact with the greatest and most significant performers , conductors , opera-producers,and orchestra-managements, the Intendant, Andreas Moelich-Zebhauser, managed to offer them all a venue to perform in, which they visit not only in the course of their jetting from continent to continent, but as a place where they relax and always try to stay  as long as they can manage.
With sometimes as many as a dozen concerts ,lieder, opera or ballett performances and even very popular pop-events in a single month, for most, almost  full houses in the enormous auditorium, the largest operahouse in Europe, beating even the Bastille  Opera of Paris with a few dozen seats, are guaranteed. Even Sunday morning matinee performances rarely draw  an audience fewer  than a thousand.

November  featured Thomass  Hengelbrook, one of the leading  authorities of church and baroque-music, Renee Fleming in songs by Richard Strauss, Olivier Messiaen and Henry Dutilleux. Cecilia Bartoli, in a ravishing costume with high panto-boots, disguised as a Castrato Singing Star, and combining her superb musicianship with an irresistibly charming stage performance, imperious, or  humbly melancholic in the next aria, just stripping her plumed hat,   dramatic  cloaks lined with flame-red brocade,  silky wests or donning billowing brocade trails , and impersonating a series of different characters just by her sparkling eyes and  a defiant turn of her head. A wonderful combination of high art and great entertainment!

Grigory Sokolov, that very private virtuoso,  having made his  enthusiastic audience ask for an encore for an unusually long time, suddenly softened and  gave FIVE brilliantly executed Chopin and Scriabin Valses and Etudes.

The awarding of the annual Karajan Prize to the inimitable Thomas Quasthoff, which he immediately dedicated to his foundations promoting young singers, was  ennobled by a performance of  Brahm's Liebesliederwalzer op 52 and 65, sung by  three of his protegees, he himself singing the bass part. A singer, who could read the Telephone Directory  and would deserve   applaus. He  was once refused a place to study at the Hannover Conservatory,an institution  he still avoids even to look at if he happens to perform in that town.

Murray Perahia  with the Academy of St,Martin in the Field, offered J.S Bach  Concert for Cembalo Nr.3 in DMajor and the Mozart Concerto 17 in D.Major, conducting from the piano in a fine and thoughtful performance. The orchestra started with  J.C Bach's  Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat Major, a work with scintillating and virtuosic  string and woodwind solos, performed with wonderful  delicacy and precision, without  Perahia conducting the ensemble.

To end the concert, Perahia conducted Mozart's Prague Symphony. While never diminishing my admiration for Perahia's  work as a soloist,  I did not yet find  his conducting very persuasive. It was difficult to  feel, that he contributed much   to the spirited and subtle performance of this wonderful orchestra. However, Perahia is a superb musician and whatever he does commands respect.

A performance of Haydn's: The Creation , Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir, both his creations, started with  most moving minutes depicting the Chaos, showing Haydn at his  devout  and innermost faith, overcoming  doubts that started emerging in him under the influence of the more enlightened spiritual atmosphere he experienced during his long and memorable stay in London. 

November ended with a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Lorin Maazel. That Maazel is a master of the technique of conducting, does not even need mentioning.  That he guided one through a monumental work of the majesty and beauty of Mahler's Ninth, almost as he were standing at the side of Mahler himself, occupied my mind throughout the performance.
The Philharmonia Orchestra, on tour with this work, being bussed from Concert Hall to Concert Hall in three countries  in seven  days and seven  performances,  responded to the tiniest flicker of Maazels fingers, just turning from one group of players to others in thoughtful anticipation, so characteristic  of his bodywork, eschewing large gestures  in  shattering climaxes.

This must be Mahler's most complex score and how Maazel created clarity in the midst of seeming chaos, must have helped even the most inexperienced listener to grasp the turmoil that went on in Mahler's head, already  sensing that his powers were  failing him.
A casual chat with some members of the orchestra is always a good  indicator of what they feel about the conductor. Tiring as this tour was, the admiration for  Maazel's  technical mastery, and even more for his human qualities and his genuine respect for the orchestra seem to be shared by all members.

Through a co-incidence, just a  few days ago  BBC3 compared the two latest CD recordings of this work, one by the Bamberg Symphony, brought by John Notts   to a much admired standard of excellence and  one by Alan Gilbert, the new Director of Music of the New York Phil, conducting the Stockholm Royal Symphony. The  presenters of the program found only praise for both performances , with a slight preference for Nott's recording.

I have been listening to this programme, with Maazel's performance still  reverberating through my head, and also found both performances most impressive. However , never did I feel so clearly how much closer    a live performance  can bring one to grasp the genius of the composer. Listening to Maazel's interpretation I almost felt that I have been conducting the work parallel with him, as it were, and that brought me infinitely nearer to Mahler than the beautifully engineered CDs of the same work.

Altogether, a month, that gave me and many thousands  of fellow listeners in the FESTSPIELHAUS a feeling that just by being a listener, one somehow contributes to make a concert evening something that transcends the walls of the auditorium.

by Francis Shelton

For further information visit http://www.festspielhaus.de/en/celebrate/.

linePlacido DomingoRelated articles:

News: SCO and RSNO announce 2009-10 seasons
News: Scottish Opera announces 2009-10 season
News: The Royal Opera announces the 2009-10 Season
News: Glyndebourne on Tour announces 2009-10 season


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