On A Break From Audio, Fabulous Live Sound Of Opera And Concert Hall

Riccardo Muti conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien, and soloists in a 200th-anniversary performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (Photos by Dieter Nagl)

PERSPECTIVE — Earlier this month, during my annual trip to Europe to cover the huge Munich High End audio show, I had the opportunity to attend two outstanding performances. On May 6 came Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Muti in Vienna’s Musikverein just one day before the 200th anniversary of its premiere. Then, on May 12, I visited the Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera) in Munich for Wagner’s Tannhäuser, conducted by Sebastian Weigle and directed by Romeo Castellucci.

From a seat six rows from the stage, directly in front of the first violins, the reputations of both the Vienna Philharmonic and its hall as among the best in the world were fully vindicated. From no other orchestra has the sound of massed violins arrived at my ears as a single silver thread. Regardless of dynamics, the strings played as one, their fine, supremely focused line consistently warm and liquid. Devoid of all stridency — even at fortissimo, massed violins produced a remarkably pure, silken thread of sound — the strings sounded like none other I’ve experienced either live and on recordings.

In Beethoven’s great final symphony, whose culminating choral movement emphasizes the need for all beings to unite in one human fraternity for the common good, this remarkable unity of sound perfectly embodied the desires and ideals that Beethoven and poet Friedrich Schiller expressed through music and words.

The soloists in Beethoven’s Ninth were, from left, soprano Julia Kleiter, mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, tenor Michael Spyres, and bass Gunther Groissböck.

Muti’s conducting style may be minimal — his gestures at age 82 are mostly contained, with little showmanship — but his vision was felt throughout the performance. Of special importance to his interpretation were constant momentum, far stronger percussion than in many performances of the symphony, and a clear sense of turmoil that sometimes threatened to dominate the musical argument of the opening movements.

While woodwind lines were curiously understated and subdued when they carried the melody in the second movement — the contrast between light winds and strong percussion was marked throughout the performance — I could not tell if the effect was by design or due to my being so close to the violins. At the start of the third movement, Muti coaxed ethereal healing sounds from the orchestra. The effect did not last long, however. With volume and intensity notched higher than I frequently encounter, Muti focused more on form and orderly unfolding than transcendence. Regardless, the sound remained mesmerizingly beautiful throughout the movement.

The power of the finale was extraordinary. The first emergence of the Ninth’s familiar theme began softly, almost as if whispered. Violins played with remarkable fluidity, providing fitting contrast to percussion and brass. The chorus — the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien — matched the orchestra for power and fineness of sound. The sense of occasion, of the singular importance of the symphony’s bicentennial, could be felt in the total commitment of chorus and orchestra. Even when everyone sang at top volume, no one emitted a single shout.

When the singing began, the voice of bass Gunther Groissböck rang out with impressive power. Perhaps because he’d sat for such a long time and was forced to start “cold” and at high volume, the registers took a minute to even out, and the highest notes were a bit forced. That said, his strong and commanding call for joy and unity set the tone for all that followed.

Soprano Julia Kleiter was superb, her climactic high B soaring freely above the other soloists with the same unforced singing tone as the notes lower in her range. Mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa’s softer voice sounded beautiful when it could be distinguished, but mainly blended well with the voices of other soloists. Tenor Michael Spyres sounded in fine voice but struggled to be heard at the top of his range when choristers sang with greatest intensity. The conclusion of the performance was met with cheers and applause so prolonged that Muti eventually returned to the stage for a final bow.

A scene from the Bavarian State Opera production of Wagner’s ‘Tannhäuser‘ (Photos by Wilfried Hoesl)

Beethoven may have celebrated brotherhood, but ultimate redemption from the lure of carnal lust was foremost in Wagner’s mind when his opera Tannhäuser premiered in 1845, just 21 years after the Ninth’s first performance.

In the Munich production, beauty remains paramount to the artistry of tenor Klaus Florian Vogt (Tannhäuser), whose warmth of tone occasionally trumped passion in the opening acts. By Act III, he fully rose to the occasion, often matching the peerless vocalism and commitment of the marvelous soprano Vida Miknevičiūtė (Elisabeth). The latter, whom I first encountered on Gidon Kremer’s recent recording, Songs of Fate, has an unusually fast, silver flicker of a vibrato whose expressive vibrancy sets her apart from other lyric sopranos. Her voice, complemented by her ease and fluid movement on stage, is riveting. Setting the tone of her performance by singing her entrance aria, “Dich, teure Halle,” at virtually the same thrilling pace that the great Lotte Lehmann chose for her second electrical recording, she was a joy to listen to.

It was equally impossible to resist the sound of mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau (Venus). With a voice of supreme beauty — even the highest of notes, which she blasted out with noticeable determination, rang freely through the house — she was a Venus to reckon with. Others may have more subtle control of the vocal line, but few sound as sensual and commanding. Subtlety seemed second nature to the marvelous baritone Christian Gerhaher (Wolfram). In the “Song to the Evening Star,” he pared his instrument down to the smallest, sweetest of sounds before swelling with darker, commanding force. Every note seemed to flow organically from music and text, with no sense of capriciousness or affectation in his choice of tone and dynamics. Bass Ain Anger (Hermann), almost as consistent in vocal production as the other soloists, was virtually as fine, his tone as patrician and benevolent, as his role demanded. Smaller roles were handled extremely well.

Klaus Florian Vogt as Tannhäuser and Vida Miknevičiūtė as Elisabeth

Castellucci was responsible for the production, staging, costumes, and lighting. His creation, which premiered in the Nationaltheater München in 2017, juxtaposes a series of off-white curtains, some of which assume the shape of long draping spheres that whirl, with occasional blood-red graphics and explicit (but thankfully far from sickening) images of decay and death. It’s effective, albeit a bit gimmicky. A case in point: During the final act, when Tannhäuser and Elisabeth replace other bodies on two stone graves, the names “Klaus” and “Vida” appear on the sides of their tombs. But nowhere does the production cross the line to shock for shock’s sake. When all is said and done, it complements rather than competes with Wagner’s music.

Weigle conducted with a sure hand, respecting his singers and allowing the beauty of Wagner’s music to flow unimpeded. Cindy Van Acker’s choreography, Christoph Heil’s chorus, Marco Giusti’s video and lighting assistance, the staging of Silvia Costa, and the dramaturgy of Piersandra Di Matteo and Malte Krasting all made their mark.