PEACE BE WITH SHIMON PERES

This is normally not a platform for politics, but I will make an exception.

The consummate Israeli statesman Shimon Peres died last night and I had the honour of interviewing him quite recently.

Israeli politics is a hornet’s nest from whatever angle you approach it. I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. The problem or the challenge is that somebody will always disagree with you, whatever you write about Israel.

But after a quick rifle through the obituaries on the internet it is clear to me that Peres, like few other Israeli politicians, garnered some respect from across the board because he tirelessly worked for peace. The transformation from security hawk to a tolerant dove may have been more gradual than it seemed when he received the Nobel Peace Prize (together with Rabin and Arafat), but in the end there was enough evidence that his “objective to make peace with the Arabs, to arrive at complete peace”, was genuine. I could even trace a modicum of respect in the webpage obituary of the Quatar-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera.

In June I met the president at his Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The fact that the Center is in Jaffa is trying to make a point. Whereas Tel Aviv is overwhelmingly Jewish, its neighbour Jaffa has retained an Arab character. Peace Center is a sort Israeli equivalent of the American presidential libraries. Peres was interested in literature, books and art, but above all he wanted it to be a politically independent place where he actively could continue to focus on advancing peace in the Middle East. Peres stepped down as president in 2014 but retiring was never on his mind. In January this year there were two health scares which would have made most people half his age slow down for a while. Not Peres who within a couple of months was receiving people and holding talks. I had been fishing for an interview since the autumn of the previous year and now I was told to come as soon as possible to Israel, before Peres would run out of steam. The Peres (or Persky) family wanted to thank my wife’s family for what Padre Rex Dakers had done during the war.

I was invited to meet the president because my wife’s grandfather saved Shimon’s father Yitzhak Persky’s life during the war. It is a fascinating story mentioned briefly by Shimon in his autobiography. I am making a radio documentary on this subject and I will post some clips when it is finished.

 In June Shimon Peres took time to meet me at his office, which has wonderful views over the Mediterranean. His son Chemi, who is a well-known businessman in Israel, got the ball rolling by relaying this the remarkable tale about courage, p.o.w camps, multiple escapes and the fearless actions of people in the face of death.

After a while Shimon, who had been listening silently, leaning back in his fauteuil, became involved and took over from his son. His speech was slow and the voice even lower than I was prepared for. His mind was clear, but his eyelids were slightly drooping. This was his friendly, hangdog face, the distinct eyebrows slightly razed when listening. An ironic smile never seemed too far away, although there was nothing to laugh about.

I could get a sense of why he had been such a shrewd, persuasive and successful political operator for 70 years. During the 15 minutes I had alone with him he seemed to give me his full attention. Here was the man who had negotiated the Oslo peace accords, had sat in Israeli cabinet meetings dealing with numerous major conflicts and wars and who had been one of the architects of his country’s secretive nuclear programme.

Shimon Peres (1923 – 2016) told me about his early childhood in Vishnyeva in Poland, which is now in Belarus. At home they spoke three languages: Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. Not Polish. Here you can hear  him explain why:

AUDIO TO COME

DIE MEISTERSINGER OF MUNICH WITH KAUFMANN

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg seen in Munich, with Jonas Kaufmann, Bayerisches Staatsorchester, conductor Kirill Petrenko

At the Festival theatre in Bayreuth, which was designed by Wagner, the orchestra and the conductor remain hidden from view. The point is that the audience should experience no visual distraction from the action taking place on stage. In the end Parsifal( 1882 ) was the only opera that Wagner composed with his new theatre in mind.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg premiered originally at the Nationaltheater in Munich (1868), which looked fairly similar to its present appearance (the opera house was destroyed and rebuilt after the war). I am pretty sure the orchestra pit used to be a fair bit lower. From my seat in the 7th row I can clearly see the back of conductor Kirill Petrenko’s head and even the hair and instruments of some of the musicians. To begin with it is a slight distraction but soon after Jonas Kaufmann’s entrance as Walher von Stoltzing I mainly have eyes for the singers and the set.

Bayerische Staatsoper is one of the best opera houses in the business and therefore they can consistently attract the most illustrious singers. It helps that Jonas Kaufmann is based in Munich and you couldn’t wish for a  better chief conductor than Kirill Petrenko. Usually I don’t like to make too much fuss about the stage director because their concepts too often get in the way of the music. But David Bösch is clearly a musical sort and he has conducted many productions in Munich. He marries the action perfectly to the music. No wonder he is now in high demand all over Europe.

Jonas Kaufmann with his 'axe' , going hell for leather Photo Wilfried Hösl
Jonas Kaufmann with his ‘axe’, going hell for leather Photo Wilfried Hösl

The plot of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg has much in common with the classic romantic film comedy. The young and handsome aristocrat von Stoltzing is in town to do business with the wealthy goldsmith Pogner. But Walther falls head over heels in love with Pogner’s daughter Eva and she is equally smitten by him. But it turns out that Eva is to be the prize of the city’s famous singing competition, which is sponsored by her father. Walther is keen to participate and win, but there are a number of other challenges he has to overcome before he can compete. The trials are to be held the next day and the young knight is not familiar with the complicated rules of the song contest. The pressure is on, but Kaufmann is a very laid back sort of Walther.

This being an opera by Wagner there are of course a number of other complications along the way. Shakespeare was a master of exploiting the confusion and farce that is associated with character and situation comedy. But even his plays can easily become tedious when they suffer a dull or particularly laboured staging. Die Meistersinger also runs the risk of becoming a drawn out affair (at 4h20m) if not handled with a good portion of humour. OK, it is not exactly LOL, but director David Bösch creates some very funny situations, particularly in the scenes with the foolish town clerk Beckmesser (Martin Gantner).

Bösch, his costume designer Meentje Nielsen and the designer Patrick Bannwart have set the action in modern times as opposed to mid 16th century Nuremberg. The look of the costumes (petticoats and suits) is ‘kind-of’ 60s and cars, a moped and other machinery have been added to the action. There is not a hint of ye-ol’-medieval half-timbered houses, instead we get a grey post-war housing estate.

Kirill Petrenko sets a fairly brisk pace in the opening prelude and the speed underlines the chatty character of the wind instruments. Petrenko is an unobtrusive conductor who never allows the orchestra to become overbearing and he has a brilliant ability to subtly underline both the thoughtful passages and the comedy. Yes, Petrenko blends the Bayerisches Staatsorchester’s sound with the singers as if he was conducting in Bayreuth.

Eva (Sara Jakubiak)
Eva (Sara Jakubiak) is hot on a tin roof Photo Wilfried Hösl

Walther enters dressed in t-shirt and black leather jacket, carrying a guitar (case) which is enough to create a rebel image on an opera stage. Kaufmann does put a little bit of ‘devil-may-care’ attitude into his interpretation, slouches occasionally and smokes some roll-ups. ‘Am stillen Herd im Winterszeit’ gets a slightly low-key treatment and this Walther is clearly more about real life issues and experiences than ancient singing rules. Not long after that we are treated to a passion-packed ‘So rief der Lenz ’, Walther’s audition song for the Mastersinger Guild. But only Hans Sachs is impressed and despite the fact that Walther is a rival in the quest for Eva’s hand, the cobbler is prepared to help the aristocrat. Walter Koch is a steady, very straightforward Sachs. Sachs is meant to be the embodiment of poetry and Koch is maybe not exactly that but he certainly isn’t boring and his baritone can convey the tragi-sadness and enthusiasm that is required.He is truly moving in the third act’s soul searching  ‘ Wahn! Wahn! Uberall Wahn!’.

Eva (Sara Jakubiak) is certainly not a hippy rock chick. In this production she is a kind of small-town 1950s girl. Eva is quite a rare breed in the Wagner canon. She is not a goddess, a Valkyrie or  a saint, like Tannhäuser’s Elisabeth. No,  Wagner allows Eva to be a real woman.

Jakubiak is a young American soprano who has a very good set of pipes and, based on her current form, we will soon see in all the major opera houses. Emma Bell will sing the role of Eva when the production returns in September-October. I also greatly appreciated Benjamin Bruns’ comedic turn as Sachs’ pupil David, particularly at the start of the first Act. But it is Martin Gantner as the ridiculous Beckmesser who has the most memorable scene of act two. With the help of a cherry picker (sabotaged by Walther) he attempts to serenade Eva outside her bedroom window. Eva turns out to be Magdalene in disguise and her suitor David ends up beating up Beckmesser. There is some good clowning in this scene and the crowd scenes are also handled well. The chorus is never treated like “ a theatrical machine, made to walk and sing as part of the decor..”

10
A right ol’ melee  Photo Wilfried Hösl

Beckmesser was originally a caricature of an overzealous critic that Wagner couldn’t stand. Wagner possibly also intended him to be a character that people could associate with ‘Jewish traits'(yes, die Meistersinger was Hitler’s favourite opera), but there is of course no evidence of that in this production. Beckmesser is not unlike a bad XFactor or Idols artist and Gantner dressed in a gold lame jacket misinterpreting Walther’s song as ‘Morgen ich leuchte in rosigem Schein’ is a sight to behold.

Wagner provides Walther with an easy tap-in when he then gets to sing his own composition ‘Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein’ the way it should be sung. Kaufmann of course doesn’t fail to nail this aria to perfection and, lo and behold, he wins the competition. Oh, and gets the girl, naturally.

Interestingly Walther’s Prize song was written in medieval bar form AAB, two stanzas and an Abgesang. Wagner spent much time studying the standard handbook for a Master singer called  ‘Buch von der Meistersinger holdseligen Kunst’ (1697) by Johann Christoph Wagenseil.  Wagner stuck to the composition rules and used the titles of real songs, lists of penalties and mistakes and authentic expressions. The rhymed doggerel texts also reflect Hans Sachs’ language. Don’t forget that Sachs was a real person. In fact Die Meistersinger is the only opera by Wagner, besides Rienzi, that uses a realistic source.

The music is not inspired by the 16th century, but to find traces of Bach you don’t have to look too hard. The brawl scene is oddly enough a fugue and the quintet ‘Selig wie die Sonne meines Glückes lacht’ (Act III, scene 4) also uses Bachian idiom. This is when everything dramatically and romantically falls into place: Walther gets Eva, David and Magdalene are also united and Sachs accepts his lot. There is complex polyphony in this scene and many similarities with the quintet of the Siegfried idyll.

Wagner originally planned Meistersinger as a kind of comic sequel to Tannhäuser. Luckily he failed in that respect, but this is a very enjoyable production with some outstanding singers and one of the best orchestras and conductors in the business.

The next performances in Munich are Friday 30 September, Monday 3 October, Saturday 8 October 2016

The very exciting bass Georg Zeppenfeld (who I recently heard in two different productions in Bayreuth) will sing the role of Pogner.

There will be a free webcast of this performance on Saturday October 8, 2016 at 4 p.m. (C.E.T.)

THIELEMANN’S DEBUT IS A HIT

PROM 71,  Mozart piano concerto no.24,  Bruckner symphony no.3,  Daniil Trifonov, Christian Thielemann, Staatskapelle Dresden

The meteoric rise of Daniil Trifonov reminds me of the stellar career path of his fellow Russian, Evgeny Kissin back in the nineties. Kissin was only 25 when he gave the first ever solo piano recital at a Proms concert. Trifonov is now the same age and as much in demand all over the world as his colleague used to be. The young virtuoso is so busy that I am getting worried that it might all end in burn-out. During my summer jaunts to Germany and Israel I couldn’t help noticing that Trifonov was touring locally at the same time. Finally I caught up with his solo recital at the end of July in Verbier. He was in superb form, but his choice of programme was not only demanding for him, by the time he plunged into Rachmaninoff’s fiendishly difficult sonata no.1, I was quite exhausted(as a listener).

Whatever you may think of some of Trifonov’s interpretations, he certainly adds character and personality to everything he does. Scrolling through the endless list of concerts he is giving in the coming 8 months, I am struck by how diverse and extensive his repertoire already is.

Mozart’s piano Concerto No.21 in C major is definitely one of the sunniest pieces of the lot, but not necessarily the easiest concert he is giving this autumn-winter. The problem for any pianist is that there are so many notes, in the outer movement it can seem like there is no let-up.  And Trifonov likes to play fast.

K467 used to be known as Elvira Madigan when I grew up. This was because the Andante movement was used in the Swedish film (from 1967) of the same name. The true story about a Danish tightrope walker who had an illicit love affair with a Swedish aristocrat has a romantic core, but it all ends in tragedy.

But lets not forget Christian Thielemann. Amazingly enough for such a well-known conductor this was his debut at the Proms. He is of course the Music Director of the Bayreuth Festival and you can find my review of the Tristan and Isolde that he conducted recently among my reviews from August. Thielemann is now in his fifth year as Prinicpal Conductor of the venerable Staatskapelle Dresden and they had no problems keeping up with Trifonov’s at times tremendous speed bursts in the Mozart concerto. In fact, the Dresdeners achieved a slightly better balance than the Berliners the other day. Thielemann had, probably wisely, added some first and second violins to counter the force that is Daniil Trifonov.

The first allegro maestoso movement with its various moods and contrasts suits the soloist perfectly. Daniil wasn’t partricularly maestoso, but then he is still too young and eager to impress, but neither did he try to over-embellish. He varied the pace internally but held the line and only towards the end of the movement, in the recapitulation did he loosen the reins and then delighted in showing off his own cadenza which harmonically brought us back into the 21st century.

The glowing middle movement can turn into an exercise in early romanticism, but here Trifonov gave it some majestic poise. He displayed pure lyricism but did I also spot a hint of delicately held-back sadness?

In the final rondo movement it was back to the swing of things . Just like in the piano concerto no.24 there is some call and response between orchestra and soloist and it was clear that these partners were enjoying each others company. By the time the final cadenza had arrived Daniil was ready to rip and rock. He opted for a very modern roundup of the whole movement and everybody finished together in a happy flourish. Thielemann and his orchestra seemed to be genuinely impressed by the Russian’s performance but the Dresdeners were in top form as well and deserved the enthusiasm of the Proms audience.

Gastspiel der Staatskapelle Dresden am 07.09.2016 bei den " BBC PROMS " in der Royal Albert Hall in London / Grossbritannien . Foto: Oliver Killig
Gastspiel der Staatskapelle Dresden am 07.09.2016 bei den ” BBC PROMS ” in der Royal Albert Hall in London / Grossbritannien . Foto: Oliver Killig

Thielemann and the Staatskapelle have started to release live recordings of the Bruckner symphonies, but no.3 hasn’t featured yet. Judging by last night’s performance they are already well familiar with this material.

Bruckner dedicated the first version of the symphony “with the deepest respect to His Aristocratic Self Mr. Richard Wagner, the unequalled , world famous and sublime master of poetry and music”. Yes, it looks like grovel, adulation, grovel, but one has to understand that Bruckner would (almost) have gone through hell fire for Richard if it wasn’t for the fact that he was a devout catholic and actually believed in eternal damnation.

He went as far as quoting snippets of Wagner’s operas which greatly pleased the German composer who recommended the work to the Vienna Phil. The premiere in December 1878 , conducted by the composer himself was a complete disaster. , which was by all accounts both his own fault and that of the players. Ten years later he revised the work and this time the same orchestra did an excellent job.

Thielemann has wisely opted for the ‘original’ 1876-77 edition which surely is closer to what Bruckner set out to do. The later version was heavily influenced by friends, pupils and critics.

Gastspiel der Staatskapelle Dresden am 07.09.2016 bei den " BBC PROMS " in der Royal Albert Hall in London / Grossbritannien . Foto: Oliver Killig
Gastspiel der Staatskapelle Dresden am 07.09.2016 bei den ” BBC PROMS ” in der Royal Albert Hall in London / Grossbritannien . Foto: Oliver Killig

The Dresden orchestra has Richard Strauss in its DNA (it premiered many of his operas and other works) and its main task is to accompany performances of opera and ballet at the Semperoper. In Thielemann they have one of the world’s leading conductors of Wagner operas. In this performance Thielemann and the Staatskapelle made it clear why they at the moment should be considered among the very finest interpreters of Bruckner. They allowed for a very spacious first movement was spacious, and this provided room for bigger things to come. I can imagine that Thielemann doesn’t try to restrict himself to exact tempo markings and is not afraid of moderate flexibility.  I got a sense that every individual movement could stand up on its own in a concert hall.

Nothing is more Brucknerian than the scherzo with all its very frivolity. If music can hide a mysterious geographical code, then the third movement, with its  thumping dance rhythms is surely spelling out Austria!

The Finale is full of mood swings : there is a ball going on while somebody lies for dead in a corner. With all the themes and ideas occurring here one could build a another symphony. The brass section was playing as if their contracts were about to run out and they were hoping for a renewal.

Although we only have on record what Wagner thought about the opening trumpet theme, he would have been well pleased with the end (which is a repeat of the trumpet’s introductory theme). This is so Wagnerian, but not in an irritating sycophantic way.

By attending Proms and listening to the accompanying lectures and artist interviews (on radio) I have learned so much during the past week about Bruckner. So many of these Proms concerts are inspirational and I am already looking forward to next season when we will get a good idea of what the new director of the Proms, David Pickard, brings into this unique, high quality mix.

 

Journalist, photographer and social commentator.