By Rodney Punt
HEIDELBERG, Germany — High on a hillside, the ruin of a once-proud castle looms with the weight of history over a mist-enshrouded town, invoking a mysterious Romantic past. Germany’s oldest university was founded here at the cusp of the European Renaissance in 1386, and for centuries its scholars attracted poets, musicians, and philosophers. Although this meandering city on the Neckar River is now a hub of innovation in science, medicine, and technology, it remains an inspiring setting for the month-long Heidelberger Frühling International Music Festival, which is observing its twentieth anniversary in April.
The festival was launched in 1997 to celebrate the works of Brahms, who spent summer vacations here, often in the company of Clara Schumann. The success of that inaugural season has kept the festival’s focus close to its initial 19th-century roots. Coming full circle this year, the music of Brahms, with that of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann, again figures prominently, along with other Romantics like Mendelssohn and Schubert. Performing the programs is an impressive roster of 700 artists, including singers Thomas Hampson, Chen Reiss, and Thomas Quasthoff, with instrumentalists Sabine Meyer, Lisa Batiashvili, Arcadi Volodos, and Håkan Hardenberger. The Irish Chamber Orchestra and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zürich are among many prestigious ensembles of all sizes in residence.
At its conclusion on April 30, the festival will have presented nearly 80 concerts in ten facilities throughout the city. Adding into the mix workshops, lectures, and artist talks, the list expands to some 127 events. Concert promoters across the Atlantic might well be envious of the large audiences witnessed at each performance, their total reportedly doubling in the past decade to now number some 40,000.
Sponsored in part by the City of Heidelberg, with support from the university, the festival’s main concerts are in ornate town-and-gown halls. Half the fun is taking in the exuberance of their historic architectures. At the festival’s heart and center, one enters the city’s eclectic Stadthalle through a Jugendstil portico to its neo-Baroque Grosser Saal (large hall) for the big concerts. Upstairs, a smaller faux-Rococo Ballsaal (ballroom) accommodates more intimate ones. A short walk from there, another recital hall is the university’s wood-lined Baroque Alte Aula. Yet two more marvels are the Alte Pädagogische Hochschule and the Jesuitenkirche.
The festival’s opening concert featured soloists joining the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg and its versatile conductor Tito Muñoz in the kind of musical and speech-making extravaganza that one seldom encounters stateside anymore. Daniel Müller-Schott was the patrician soloist in Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. Thomas Hampson sang a spirited orchestral version of Dvořák’s Zigeunerlieder, but his American songs, including “Begin the Beguine” (Porter) and “Embraceable You” (Gershwin), channeling the style of the late Howard Keel, pleased me even more.
Conductor Lionel Bringuier, who heads the Tonhalle Orchestra, led two big works by Brahms — the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, with thrilling outings by violinist Lisa Batiashvili and cellist Gautier Capuçon, and Schoenberg’s charmingly cheeky, if anachronistic, orchestration of the composer’s early Piano Quartet in G minor.
Other highlights included pianist Arcadi Volodos’ seraphic account of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat, D. 960, and Brahms’ Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76; an orgy of clarinet works by Bruch, Schumann, and Mozart with superstar clarinetist Sabine Meyer, joined by violist Nils Mönkemeyer and pianist William Youn; and tour-de-force performances by pianists Marc-André Hamelin and Igor Levit in knuckle-busting works ranging from Bach to Hamelin himself.
Festival Academy/Lied Academy
Four programs under the moniker of “Festival Academy” train young artists in the finer points of performance practice, with sessions open to the public. Igor Levit headed up a chamber music group and Matthias Pintscher one on composition.
My stay took in the oldest of them, Thomas Hampson’s Lied Academy, now in its sixth year. Hampson coaches young singers on interpretation of both American song and German Lied. Baritone Thomas Quasthoff (retired from bel canto but still active in jazz) is also on the faculty, focusing on Lieder adaptations. In a similar manner, professional accompanists coach young pianists. The mission is to help performers become better artists and inform and draw audiences into the Lied tradition.
Simultaneous with the Lied Academy was a long weekend of song recitals, dubbed “Neuland.Lied” (literally: new land song), a metaphor for the Lied as an uncharted territory of poetic and musical allusions waiting to be discovered. The aim is to bring the German tradition into a present-day context. Recitals this year were centered around Schubert’s incomparable creativity and direct emotional appeal.
A joint program featuring Hampson and his students in the Stadthalle’s Grosser Saal had the latter singing Lieder spanning the early 19th century’s Carl Maria von Weber and Carl Loewe to the mid-20th century’s Emil von Reznicek, Hampson followed after intermission with repertoire he has long been identified with, Mahler’s settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. While Hampson’s voice no longer has the bloom of youth, it retains the solid technique of maturity and the ageless artistry of good taste and attention to expressive detail.
Baritone Benjamin Appl and pianist Graham Johnson gave a program curated by Johnson, “Homage to Youth.” Its canny selection of a dozen Schubert songs, many rarely performed, created a narrative of the life and loves of a young man. The performance was characterized by the clearly enunciated, expressive piano performance of Johnson and Appl’s flawless musicality. Its success was limited, however, by Appl’s lack of vocal colors to engage the audience in the Schubert set’s narrative.
There was no problem with vocal color in tenor Martin Mitterrutzner’s “Schubert und die Liebe” with pianist Gerold Huber. Through 22 songs, the tenor was marvelous, with a bright ring to his voice and exquisite phrasing. Equally impressive on the keyboard was Huber.
A bittersweet but musically satisfying finale to the Neuland.Lied concert series was Quasthoff’s evening of American jazz standards with a jazz quartet in the Grosser Saal. The German baritone encountered vocal problems a few years ago and has retired from concert singing. He now uses a microphone, and does so as comfortably as any popular singer would. Quasthoff grew up near American military bases in Germany and became a devotee of jazz bars. A nostalgic farewell had him step away from the microphone and sing a couple of verses of the famous Brahms lullaby. The damage sustained in the last three decades was apparent, adding painful poignancy to his adieu.
A responsive weathervane to artistic and social winds of change, the festival also programmed late evening avant-garde and contemporary pop programs in edgy urban spaces, drawing younger, informal audiences.
The former indoor swimming facility, Frauenbad, now a nightclub for young artists, hosted cellist Isang Enders and guitarist Sean Shibe in a set based on water imagery, including Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and period bonbons by Manuel de Falla (Suite Popular Española) and Astor Piazzolla (Histoire du Tango – Café 1930). Kulturhaus Karlstorbahnhof, an intimate Art-Deco club at the old town’s western rail terminus, had writer Julia Wolf reading from her slice-of-life novel about a dysfunctional family, with songs and riffs on her spoken excerpts by a country-funk band. Halle02 Heidelberg, a venue in the city’s newly developed Bahnstadt district, found violinist Simon Kluth mixing classical and popular works in a program whimsically dubbed “composer slam.”
Of an entirely different order was the fare at the HebelHalle Theater. In an urban zone of auto dealerships, its grounds are entered under a spiky arched sculpture, with a funky touring bus and Karmann Ghia poking fun at arty pretense. But once inside the theater, its modern stagings were all business: precise and professional.
The first work I took in was “Verklärte Nacht,” an entry in the Neuland.Lied series that featured one of the festival’s more audacious mash-ups. Schoenberg’s string sextet (based on Richard Dehmel’s steamy love-betrayal poem and performed by an augmented Casal Quartett) contrasted with blues songs for guitar and voice by Memphis Slim, Pete Seeger, and the two singer-guitarists, the Norwegian Rebekka Bakken and Dutchman Hans Theessink. The musico-poetic self-pity on obsessive love proved to be a clash between high-class kitsch and low-down cliché.
Festival 2016’s standout program was “Szenen der Frühe” (Scenes of the Early). A co-production with the Podium Festival in Esslingen, it is a multimedia concert-story about Robert Schumann’s descent into madness (in real life from a probable combination of bipolar disease and syphilis). The terrifying journey was staged with music, dance, and video projections. During its unfolding, musicians and singers doubled as actors. The gentle beginning with a Lieder recital was interrupted by a stagehand, who was shooed away but returned to take on the central roles of Schumann and his doppelgänger (in a mesmerizing mime-dance performance by Davidson Jaconello).
One of perhaps too many climaxes in the piece had him jumping onto the open-lidded piano, his bare feet balanced on the edges of its narrow casing, and contorting as an acrobat in agony. Animations, initially of real-life Schumann family photos and later of riveting emotional abstractions produced and projected by the media company BärTigerWolf, conveyed the journey’s wide-ranging emotions, from tender aesthetics to demonic nightmares. Daniel Pfluger’s attentive direction made of this big-themed, chamber-scaled production an impressive Gesamtkunstwerklein.
Rodney Punt publishes LA Opus, an on-line journal of music and theater based in Los Angeles. His concert reviews can also be found on The Huffington Post and San Francisco Classical Voice. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts, followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.