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Twelfth Day Concert at the Berwald Hall: Music by Rossini, Wagner, Verdi, Bernstein, Catalani, MacIntyre, Rodgers, Weill, Shostakovich & Puccini: Nina Stemme (soprano), Bryn Terfel (bass baritone), Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Radio Choir/Daniel Harding, Stockholm, Sweden, 06.01.2006 (GF)




Spectacular, spiritual, sold-out!



The Twelfth Day Concert at the Berwald Hall – or rather concerts, there are two relatively short concerts with a substantial interval in between; I heard the first concert only – has been a tradition for some years now. Recorded by Swedish Television, edited and broadcast a couple of days afterwards it has become a favourite event for TV viewers all over the country, mixing the well-known and the rarely heard, and so not just being another “popular concert” but opening eyes and widening horizons.

Lovers of opera, who really got their fair share this year, also got to hear some musical songs a couple of modern (fairly modern) choral pieces and a virtuosic and colourful orchestral piece by Shostakovich. The excerpts from Falstaff and Tosca are not what one normally hears at an opera recital. So something for everyone – and not a dull moment during the 65+ minutes the first concert lasted.

With the stage walls covered with some kind of aluminium foil, transforming it to a hall of mirrors, and a red carpet covering the centre of the stage floor there was a festive atmosphere from the start and during the opening number, the Overture to The Barber of Seville, the stage lights went up, programmed with the music, so that at the first forte several lights were lit and then gradually during the first crescendo. It was a joyous and rhythmically vital performance of the overture where Daniel Harding was especially successful with the crescendos and the orchestra played with great precision, apart from a little fluffed French horn solo. During the overture, the angels, three women in white with heavenly long trumpets passed by on the front stage, drawn by a little tractor that was busy transporting participants during the concert. Three likewise white-dressed acrobats, devilishly accomplished, also made their first entrance, bouncing past. Both groups appeared in different functions during the concert. And so, the tractor again with the two soloists in black raincoats.



Nina Stemme introduced herself and her partner Bryn Terfel and the outfit was explained by Mr Terfel. “It was raining in Wales and snowing in Stockholm!” Then raincoats off and Terfel leaving the stage, orchestral prelude and Nina Stemme showed off her brilliant and large voice in Elisabeth’s Greeting from Tannhäuser. And she is magnificent! She is closer to Flagstad than to Nilsson, to compare her with the two all time greats, and that’s where she belongs. She hasn’t got the laser-light top notes of Nilsson but rather the more rounded and warmer tones of Flagstad. And she can tone down her instrument to a near whisper – and still be heard. In fact most of the aria was sung with great restraint, showing the vulnerability of Elisabeth. After her enormous success as Isolde, topped by the complete recording with Domingo last year, that had all the critics reaching for their thesaurus to find suitable superlatives, she is possibly the reigning Wagnerian soprano. Those who went to the second concert got to hear Isolde’s Love Death. I wish I had been there! But Elisabeth was mightily impressive.

Enter Bryn Terfel in colourful dressing gown in the role where he has been the leading exponent for several years, Sir John Falstaff. He knows how to dominate the stage – or rather he dominates the stage through his very presence. Creating a believable character on the concert platform is no easy task but here we were transported to the Garter Inn and the big solo scene (it isn’t really an aria) about the honour, with skilful assistance from two of the acrobats who acted Bardolfo and Pistola. Terfel again, with a worn phrase, was Sir John: every gesture, every facial expression, every vocal inflexion so pinpoint, rounding off the proceedings by chasing his two servants out with his big broom and almost hitting Daniel Harding’s back in the run.

Sharp contrasts always being part and parcel of the concept for these concerts, the next item was the first of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, performed with rhythmic excellence by the Radio Choir and the orchestra. I have praised the choir before, not least the impressive volume they can conjure up with only 30 singers. But most of them are also fully fledged soloists. Few choirs anywhere in the world can challenge this group of singers when it comes to intonation and homogenous sound. They showed both in this, one of Bernstein’s finest creations, always more convincing in the version for full orchestra. In this psalm there are also echoes of Candide.

New entrance from Nina Stemme, this time in central Italian spinto repertoire: Catalani’s “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from La Wally. The opera is rarely heard in its entirety nowadays, but it was much admired by Toscanini, who even named his daughter after its heroine. This aria is fairly often heard in recitals and the greatest latter-day (that’s after WW2) exponent is probably Tebaldi. Suffice it to say that Nina Stemme found more of the lyrical beauty, could spin an even more hushed pianissimo line than her great predecessor, and when she opened up for the big climaxes there was a spinto intensity rarely heard.

David MacIntyre, born 1952, a name new to me, has composed an Ave Maria, that seems predestined to become a choral standard work. It was sung a cappella by the women of the Radio Choir, positioned in a semi-circle at the front of the stage. Again rhythmic pregnancy was very much in the forefront and sound-wise it was a mix of, say, Gorecki and John Adams. Deeply fascinating – and beautiful.


Time for Bryn Terfel again, in simple black suit, singing Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. He did it with the simplest conceivable means, unaffected, no gestures, standing upright and letting beautiful sounds wallowing out and with a wonderful pianissimo end. My wife overheard someone in the audience after the concert, saying: “It all seems so easy for him. He just opens his mouth!”

So true. Then he was joined by the men of the Radio Choir, having disposed of their tail-coats and rolled up their shirt-sleeves, in the jolly “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame”. With Bryn Terfel more like a Primus inter pares than a star soloist this became a real show piece with good solo singing – and acting – from several of the choristers.

Once again dressed in that black raincoat, to illustrate the shabby world of Brecht’s and Weill’s “Happy End”, Nina Stemme sang “Surabaya-Johnny” with her small voice, light-years from La Wally or Elisabeth, very moving and reserving the operatic tones for the climax, where she further enhanced the intensity with a spine-chilling snarl.

The depravation of the Brechtian world was dispersed by the Tango from Shostakovich’s 1931 ballet The Bolt, almost contemporaneous with “Happy End” and written well before the criticism that was heaped upon him from the mid-30s. It is a gorgeous piece, an ideal vehicle for a virtuoso orchestra – this is spectacular music indeed – and the high expectations I had on the Radio Symphony Orchestra didn’t come to naught. This was playing at white heat – a vitamin injection if ever there was one!

For the grand finale of this first part of the evening we were treated to a real operatic thriller: the end of the first act of Tosca, set in the church Sant’Andrea della Valle with Stemme a glorious warm-toned Tosca and Terfel in another of his great impersonations, the evil Chief of Police Scarpia. First the long duet and then, with the Radio Choir, Bryn Terfel and The Radio Symphony Orchestra filling every nook and cranny of the Berwald Hall with a really punchy Te Deum. An opera feast indeed! There were ovations for all involved, several “curtain” calls and even an encore, before the participants got a well-deserved rest, concert number two coming up before long.



As I said: spectacular, spiritual and sold-out!



Göran Forsling



Photographs © Mattias Ahlm



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)