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13.1.06

Wes Herd dies auch sei, hier muss ich rasten. (and Mozart) 

Robert R. Reilly has once again lent his ears, pen and expertise to ionarts and we gratefully receive his review of last nights' performance of the National Symphony Orchestra. Don't forget to buy "Surprised by Beauty" (and a copy for all your friends, too) - it's the right thing to do. $20 for a guilt-free conscience is a bargain and with it comes a free and excellent (and bold) book about composers you have likely not heard about, but should.

available at Amazon
W.A. Mozart, Complete Symphonies, J.Krips (& N.Marriner)

Why juxtapose Mozart and Wagner in the same concert, I wondered as I approached the Kennedy Center for last night’s program of the Linz Symphony, coupled with a concert performance of the first act of Die Walküre. Perhaps because both works have great operatic music in them? I remember when it was the fashion to play an opera as if it were a symphony, and I also fondly remember how Josef Krips, in his marvelous Philips recording, treated this symphony operatically, with a wonderfully singing approach.

At first, I thought that was what James Conlon (back in town again after a Mahler 3rd in December) was going to try to do in his interpretation of the Linz. From the start, it was certainly not a big-band or a big-picture approach. But soon I began to wonder about the low energy level and leisureliness. The lack of drama was not compensated for by the kind of melting loveliness that a finely detailed performance of Mozart can deliver. The Andante bordered on the soporific. Then so did the Menuetto.

Conlon did not seem to be doing anything in particular with this music. It was under-characterized and suffered from a lack of crispness and a slackness of tempo. Small-band, small-picture. Where was the esprit? Where was the excitement? Conlon finally brought things to life in the last movement, but that was far too little to save an otherwise plodding performance of this symphony from its far too long warm-up.

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R. Wagner, Die Walküre, Acts I & II, O.Klemperer (B.Seidler-Winkler) / Lehmann, Melchior, Hotter, et al.
After intermission, Conlon, mike-in-hand, turned to the audience and did a stand-up routine from the podium to justify doing Wagner. Did we really need that in 2006? (In any case, it did not seem to work with the several couples who walked out in the middle of the Wagner.) Then, he gave a synopsis of the plot, replete with jokes. Was I at a Young People’s concert? Why tell us, when you are about to show us (particularly when the Kennedy Center had thoughtfully passed out librettos)? Anna Russell did this kind of thing better.

However, Conlon did speak of passion and, from the first bar of the Wagner, he and the orchestra exhibited exactly that in this performance, which he movingly dedicated to the memory of the recently deceased Birgit Nilsson. Conlon’s heart was as obviously in this music as it seemed absent from the Mozart. Throughout, the orchestra was completely on the mark and played gorgeously (how often to you get to hear the glorious sound of 8 double basses?).


Soprano Anja Kampe gave a tremendously stirring performance as Sieglinde. (See ionarts review of her previous appearance as Sieglinde in Washington) She has a very big voice and knows how to use its full range expressively. At first, Clifton Forbis as Siegmund seemed to have a somewhat constricted range and limited expression. But he was just warming up, and later delivered some thrilling moments, most especially an electrifying “Walse! Walse! Wo ist dein Schwert?” Bass Eric Halfvarson as Hunding was a commanding presence with a full-bore bass voice that shook the hall with its rich sound.

The particulars of the performance are not really that important when something like this -- soloists, orchestra, and conductor -- coalesces into some supreme moments of expression that surpass them all, when the things at which they were aiming together have been achieved. There were moments like that Thursday night.

No one stood for the Mozart, but the audience was on its feet at the end of the Wagner. Deservedly so. From Valhalla, Birgit Nilsson must have been smiling down.

Repeat performances will be held today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM.

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