Classical Scene 2013 Heterogeneity rules

Braunschweig State Orchestra accompanying a screening of the silent film “Richard Wagner” (1903) live at the Pèlerinages festival in Weimar.
Braunschweig State Orchestra accompanying a screening of the silent film “Richard Wagner” (1903) live at the Pèlerinages festival in Weimar. | © Maik Schuck

Wagner and Verdi were the heroes of the music scene last year in Germany. And the good news there is that “director’s opera” in our time is not dead yet. Meanwhile, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and the Berlin State Opera are still building sites, and some new CD recordings made quite a splash. Wolfgang Schreiber recaps the classical scene in 2013.

Classical musical culture 2013: In hindsight, it seems events in the classical music scene are harder to reduce to a common denominator than developments in, say, architecture, fine arts, cinema, literature or drama. That has to do with the widely ramified shapes, structures and materials of music and musical culture, the historically formed disciplines and professions involved, and the multifarious techniques of producing musical sound. Heterogeneity rules in the classical music scene.

Music: a discipline of the dissimilar

Witness the sheer diversity of some prominent musical phenomena last year: what does the Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik (Academy of Ancient Music, Akamus for short), which has now established a concert series in Munich, have to do with the new “Ring” cycle in Bayreuth? What does Thielemann’s Dresden Staatskapelle have to do with the Donaueschinger Musiktage, or operatic “director’s theatre” with the bicentenary of Parisian piano virtuoso Charles Valentin Alkan? Hardly a thing. Instead, apparently by common accord, great musical moments and birthday jubilees set the tone for highlights of the classical music calendar. Though it is a shame that the bicentenaries of the operatic Olympians, namely Wagner and Verdi, all but eclipsed the commemoration of other noteworthy jubilarians, including Benjamin Britten, Gesualdo da Venosa and the above-mentioned Charles Valentin Alkan.

Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi: Bayreuth, Salzburg, Hamburg

There is no denying that Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, the two titans of 19th-century opera, both of whom were born in 1813, dominated the international music scene last year hands down.

The 70-odd opera companies in Germany paid them ample tribute, with two stand-out projects in the German-speaking world: First, Wagner’s great-granddaughters at the helm of the Bayreuth Festival called in Berlin Volksbühne director Frank Castorf to put on a new Ring des Nibelungen. What came out was a series of performances that were every bit as vexatious and controversial as they were widely acclaimed. In a monumental and minutely meticulous manner, Castorf and production designer Aleksandar Denic came up with a trendy trashy take on the tragic saga of gods and heroes. Down in the “mystical abyss” of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the young Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko “saved the day” with his highly suspenseful, vivacious and marvellously transparent conducting and inspired the singers to moments of glory.

Meanwhile, over in Salzburg, the Wagner performances likewise yielded high-quality disappointment. The year before last, under the direction of Alexander Pereira, who is now transferring to the Scala in Milan, the festival was at a standstill, if not on the wane – with as many events as ever, but far from sold out. In 2013 Stefan Herheim staged Die Meistersinger with plenty of narrative gusto, but devolving into abstruse pictorial associations at the end. Michael Volle’s Hans Sachs made the production worthwhile, not Daniele Gatti’s conducting.

The Hamburg State Opera provided the high point of Verdi’s bicentenary in Germany, confirming Verdi’s pre-eminence and popularity: opera chief and music director Simone Young initiated and conducted a controversial/audacious/risky* Verdi im Visier (“Verdi in Our Sights”), three new productions of lesser-known operas from the composer’s youth, all heaved onto a coherent one-size-fits-all stage by British director David Alden. The bottom line: the brutally blazing war operas La Battaglia di Legnano and I lombardi alla prima crociata as well as the Venetian domestic tragedy I due Foscari do bear the brilliant stage signature of young Verdi.

Opera cleaves to “director’s theatre”

Not only German opera productions but also a four-day symposium run by Barbara Beyer at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in late October testified to the enduring currency of director’s theatre from the late 1970s to the present day, even if it’s already been declared dead several times in the interim. Die Zukunft der Oper – Oper anders denken (“The Future of Opera: A different take on opera”) showed how music theatre can, “without any compulsion to adapt to the times”, attain to a dimension that, as the Deutsche Oper put it on their webite, “lets in uncontrolled elements, frustrates expectations and banks on surprising and vexing the audience”.

Lectures, panel discussions and statements by illustrious musicians, directors, dramaturges and set designers made it clear that in Germany in any case – in contrast to bastions of traditional opera like Italy and the US – there can be no turning back from the richness of lively, sophisticated, candid references to the present day and age in storytelling on stage. In addition to the musicians, it’s the directors – from Neuenfels to Herheim, from Kupfer to Stölzl, from Marthaler to Sellars – who have safeguarded opera’s topicality, explosive force and viability over the past few decades – often enough to the displeasure of the audience. And young-generation directors are venturing ever further in breaking down the barriers between opera, on the one hand, and pop music and performance art, on the other.

Opera in Berlin and Munich

The Bavarian State Opera, Germany’s biggest opera house (leaving aside the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden), once again displayed the biggest public draw in 2013 with attendance levels exceeding 90 per cent of capacity. Its new general music director, Kirill Petrenko, succeeding Kent Nagano, has injected a fresh dose of charisma, leading the Bavarian State Orchestra to moments of tremendously precise and inspired music-making at Munich’s National Theatre.

Meanwhile, the Munich Philharmonic have found a successor to 83-year-old Lorin Maazel, but their prospects of future happiness from 2015 with the brilliant go-getting Russian Valery Gergiev were somewhat dimmed at year’s end by protests in New York and London, and now in Munich, too, against the new music director, Vladimir Putin’s protégé, for failing to disavow Putin’s anti-gay law.

Compared to the State Opera in Munich, the three Berlin opera companies had been severely cash-strapped over the course of the previous few years. However, the Deutsche Oper, on the west side of Berlin, and the Komische Oper and Staatsoper, temporarily housed at the Schillertheater, are now reporting significantly improved figures. Under chief director Barrie Kosky, who does an extremely effective job – in his own stagings as well – of setting the tone of house productions with an emphasis on lightness, enchanting revues and rich imagery, the Komische Oper, hailed by critics as “the opera house of the year”, has even reported a ten per cent rise in attendance.

Governing mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit, who doubles as Berlin's culture minister, has increased the capital’s arts budget – but mostly for the big theatres, while the independent scene, although not short on attractions, clearly got the short end of the stick. The productions at the Neukölln Opera, the Radialsystem and the Sophiensäle in Berlin-Mitte, for example, make for a wide-ranging programme of remarkably high calibre, and one that is catching on spontaneously among the younger generation.

Classical music still big outside the cultural capitals

Despite the clout of cultural hubs like Berlin and Munich, classical music was writ large as ever in the provinces. There was the Musikfest Bremen, a cleverly conceived festival which locals embraced with open arms; the reconceived chamber music festival in Hitzacker, where top-notch violinist Carolin Widmann took over the reins; the small but fine festival in Usedom on the Baltic Sea; the imaginative “musical landscape” festivals in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Schleswig-Holstein; the world-renowned Donaueschinger Musiktage with its annual round of world premieres; the exquisite avant-garde Eclat Festival in Stuttgart; and the big RuhrTriennale in the industrial temples of the Ruhr region, to name just a few of the richly programmed events that flourished with youthful vitality and creativity once again in 2013.

In addition, the Pèlerinages arts festival, which Wagner’s great-granddaughter Nike Wagner has forged into one of Germany’s smartest and most adventuresome cultural events, was held for one last time in Weimar. Nike will be directing the Beethovenfest in Bonn from 2015, and has already announced her watchword: “My Beethoven is avant-garde and a human rights activist.”

Self-assertions on sound carriers

In the autumn, two pianists made a splash with Beethoven: Igor Levit, who was born in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), Russia in 1987 and grew up in Hannover, went all out on his very first CD recording (Sony), displaying great depth and awareness of musical form in his renditions of Beethoven’s five late piano sonatas. The experienced Hungarian pianist András Schiff, who lives in London and Florence, recorded Beethoven’s pioneering Diabelli Variations twice (ECM), as a musical experiment: on a 1921 Bechstein and on a (Brodmann) fortepiano from Beethoven’s era.

Also worth noting: some remarkable new CDs by four first-rate German singers last year: the stern Christine Schäfer performing Johann Sebastian Bach, Diana Damrau as the muse of “lightness”, Wagnerian tenor Jonas Kaufmann with smooth renditions of Verdi arias, and baritone extraordinaire Christian Gerhaher infusing the great Schubert and Schumann lieder cycles with his own intellectual profundity.