Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas in Vienna (ORF Austrian Broadcasting, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After seeing The Artist Charles and I didn’t want to watch another movie that might blow the mood, so instead I screened a video download of a recent Christmas in Vienna concert given December 16 and 17, 2011 (the broadcast seems to have been a delayed one pieced together from both concerts and the title was actually given in English — it wasn’t called Weinacht von Wien — even though all the between-songs commentary was in German) — we only got through the first 47 minutes of it and ran the remaining 50 minutes last night. It turned out to be a quite nice program even though it had one flaw — just about all the songs were in rather droopy mid-tempos, nothing too slow and nothing too fast — and it also didn’t help that the first three selections, the chorus “Singet dem Herrn” from Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, “Der Engel” from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and the opening movement of Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate,” were easily the finest pieces on the long and eclectic program. The orchestra was the Vienna Radio Symphony, the conductor was Sascha Goetzel (who even joined in on the unlisted encore, “Silent Night,” during which all the soloists sang), and the soloists were Angela Denoke (soprano), Liliana Nikiteanu (mezzo), Herbert Lippert (tenor) and Paul A. Edelmann (bass), along with Alois Mühlbacher, a person of sufficiently androgynous physical appearance and vocal sound that at first I thought he was a woman oddly clad in a pantsuit.

He was assigned (hopefully not coercively!) the solo part in “Exsultate, Jubilate” (probably because Mozart originally wrote it for castrato, though it’s usually performed today by a biologically normal female soprano) and he sang it well, though without the aplomb I’ve heard from women in this music; and later he sang something called “Pueri concinite” by Johann Ritter von Herbeck (1831-1877), in which he was a lot less self-assured than he was in the Mozart: all too often his voice went “white” and off-pitch when the score sent him high — an odd sound not unlike that on the records of Alessandro Moreschi, the one castrato who actually recorded! It’s hard to say what Mühlbacher is — according to the Internet he’s 16 years old and has been billed as “the boy who sings like a diva,” though listening to the two samples of his work here I found myself utterly confused whether he’s simply a boy treble, a countertenor (or perhaps a treble training to be a countertenor) or a Michael Maniaci-style male soprano (Maniaci is the fascinating American singer whose voice didn’t completely change when he went through puberty, giving him most of the good sides of being a castrato without the abominably bad side!).

The program, like most others of its ilk, stayed (mostly) classical for its first half (there was a marvelous bit from the Mendelssohn “Lobgesang” Symphony — the name means “Hymn of Praise” and it consists, like the Beethoven Ninth, of three purely instrumental movements plus an extended finale with soloists and chorus: the text is from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and the work was an occasional piece devoted to commemorating the 400th anniversary of the printing of the Gutenberg Bible; it’s numbered Symphony No. 2 even though it was the last of the five Mendelssohn wrote, and though it’s the least-known of his symphonies it’s my favorite!) and strayed into pop for the second, though the first half did include a pretty lame rendition of Jester Joseph Hairston’s “Mary’s Boy Child” sung by Edelmann (as well as a version of Pietro Yon’s “Gesù Bambino” in which tenor Lippert proved he is no Pavarotti — he negotiated the music well enough but the sense of drama and awe Pavarotti brought to this piece was totally absent), and the first half ended with a marvelously haunting a cappella “Locus Iste” by Anton Bruckner. — 12/29/11


Charles and I came home and we ran the rest of the Christmas in Vienna concert. The second half was supposed to represent “populäre Weihnacht” and began with a couple of O.K. Austrian folk songs, a Japanese lullaby called “Yurikago” and a weird, unswinging performance of Sammy Cahn’s “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” that probably would have killed Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra or Woody Herman if they weren’t already dead. Later, oddly, the same forces did a version of José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” — far from one of my favorite holiday songs — and actually caught something of the spirit. The best parts of the “popular” half were the last two songs, the “Hallelujah” chorus from The Messiah and “Silent Night,” in German except for one chorus in English, that ended this uneven but generally pleasant concert whose main weakness was the lack of variety in the material. Virtually all of it was medium-slow and self-consciously “reverential” — one ached either for something ballsier (given how beautifully the Philadelphia Orchestra performed Beethoven’s “The Worship of God in Nature” on their early-1960’s album The Glorious Sound of Christmas I’m surprised more symphony orchestras haven’t included that in their holiday concerts, especially since Beethoven is a bread-and-butter composer in the symphonic repertoire!) or something more genuinely spiritual — but still it was a nice concert and a welcome download. — 12/30/11