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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL CONCERT REVIEW
 

Strauss and Wagner, Tod und Verklärung and Die Walküre Act I: Michaela Schuster (mezzo-soprano), Nikolaï Schukoff (Siegmund), Günther Groissböck (Hunding), Orchestra de la Suisse Romande; Marek Janowski (conductor). Victoria Hall, Geneva 30.11.2008 (JPr)



Geneva's Victoria Hall


Sir Daniel Fitzgerald Barton (1850 - 1907) was the British consul in Geneva around 1890. He was also the president of the ‘Harmonie Nautique’ which, although a brass band,  was one of the major orchestra in the city and very much in need of a location for practising and performances. Sir Daniel being a rich man, decided to have a concert hall specially built, which was named Victoria Hall, and dedicated of course to Queen Victoria. Building took placefrom 1891 to 1894 and a venue was eventually created which can seat 1850 people, has fine acoustics and is decorated in ornate Rococo style with much wood panelling and gold leaf. The architect of the Victoria Hall was John Camoletti.

In 1904, Barton offered the building to the city of Geneva. It did not survive its first century unscathed because on 16 September 1984, the hall suffered a fire which damaged most of it as well as the splendid interior decoration. Considered by the local canton as a building to be protected,  it then took three years to restore it to its former glory.

Victoria Hall is now the home of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Orchestra of French-speaking Switzerland) which was founded in 1918 by the Swiss-born Ernest Ansermet. The first concert took place in the hall  conducted by its founder who was originally a mathematics professor, teaching at the University of Lausanne. From 1915 to 1923 Ansermet was the conductor for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and while travelling in France with the companyis, he met both Debussy and Ravel, and consulted them on the performance of their works. During World War I, Ansermet also met Stravinsky, who was exiled in Switzerland, and this meeting started the conductor's lifelong association with Russian music. The OSR was the first to record Stravinsky’s Capriccio with the composer as soloist and the orchestra became particularly famous for accurate performances of difficult modern music. In its ninety years it has premièred many works by Swiss composers such as Arthur Honegger and Frank Martin  and  through a long-standing contract with Decca many other memorable recordings were made.

The OSR has also always toured widely in Europe and America and  during World War II many German conductors fled their home country to settle in Switzerland. Wilhelm Furtwängler became a regular guest conductor for the orchestra, conducting his favourite repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms, and Richard Strauss. Carl Schuricht also was a guest conductor, even trying to introduce his audiences to Bruckner and Mahler.

Ernest Ansermet was chief conductor of the OSR for nearly forty years (1918-1967) and died in 1969, he was succeeded by a number of famous names Paul Kletzki (1967-1970), Wolfgang Sawallisch (1972-1980), Horst Stein (who sadly died recently) from 1980-1985, Armin Jordan (1985-1997), Fabio Luisi (1997-2002) and Pinchas Steinberg (2002-2005). Marek Janowski, who was born in Poland but grew up in Germany,  has been artistic and music director since 2005.

The Victoria Hall is gloriously kitsch and
very similar in appearance to the ‘Goldener Saal’ of Vienna’s Musikverien in which I had sat earlier in the year though that is somewhat smaller. The acoustics from where I sat this time were indeed very kind to the orchestra giving it the warm, compact, well-blended yet enveloping sound I associate with the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. I was present for the concert marking the OSR’s ninetieth anniversary and the music was delayed by several notable people giving speeches to begin the evening. Unfortunately these were in French not one of my better languages but I gathered the past, present and future of the OSR were being celebrated.

In the first half of the concert the OSR played Strauss’s tone poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration). Written when the composer was only 25 it depicts the death of an artist. A sick man is near death, there is a battle between life and death that offers no respite to the man whose life passes before him but in the end, he receives a longed-for transfiguration. The music critic Ernest Newman described this as music to which one would neither want to die nor to awaken:  ‘It is too spectacular, too brilliantly lit, too full of pageantry of a crowd; whereas this is a journey one must make very quietly, and alone’. In one of Strauss's last compositions, Im Abendrot from the Four Last Songs, he quotes the  'transfiguration' theme that he had written 60 years earlier during and after the soprano's final line, ‘Ist dies etwa der Tod?’ (Could this then be death?). On his own subsequent deathbed Strauss was reported to have said ‘Dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung’.

The OSR proved themselves to be an excellent ensemble during this tone poem and responded sensitively to the music’s many differing moods. The transitions between the different episodes were clean and precise and the tension never slackened from the suitably dark beginning through to the shattering climax with its blazing brass peroration. Maestro Janowski is an experienced Straussian and his performance had some beautiful detail, long lines and a splendid cohesiveness. Sergey Ostrovsky first concertmaster of the OSR had some particularly impressive solo moments.

To an audible ‘ahhh’ from the audience,  it was announced that we were not to hear the originally announced Sieglinde, Petra Lang, because she was unwell but her last minute replacement, the mezzo-soprano, Michaela Schuster was a very worthy replacement who showed-up her two colleagues by singing without a score -  concert performances are never at their best when singers have their heads in the music for some of the time. With Ms Schuster’s late arrival there was perhaps not surprisingly,  little interaction between her and Nikolaï Schukoff’s Siegmund both either side of the conductor’s podium while Günther Groissböck sang his baleful warnings from further back among the orchestral players, presumably because his voice was deemed so large that it would otherwise have unbalanced the overall performance.

Maestro Janowski set a fast pace for the opening bars of the Act I Prelude;  the string playing was electrifying, the drum rolls suitably ominous and from the moment Schukoff entered and sang his opening lines ‘Wes Herd dies auch sei, hier muss ich rasten’ I was gripped and forgot completely  the artificiality of this monumental ‘bleeding chunk’. Not that Schukoff would be my ideal Siegmund though:  his baritonal tenor has a constricted top to the voice that  sounds (and looks) effortful. To his credit,  he tried to convey through both his singing and demeanour,  Siegmund’s contradictory frailty and strength and his best moment was his aria ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ (the final word of which he unfortunately sang as Wonne-mund for some reason) where his character likens burgeoning love with springtime blossoming. Another Austrian, Günther Groissböck revealed a ferocious and ominous dark toned bass voice as Hunding which belied his almost classic Aryan features. He makes his Bayreuth debut in 2011 and that will be something to watch out for. As for Michaela Schuster’s Sieglinde, this  had innocence  yet inner strength which was quite appealing and she effectively portrayed a young woman seeking true love as a way out of an abusive relationship - even though it causes her to jump into an incestuous bonding with her own brother. Her voice had a wonderful intensity but  without the particular radiance that Petra Lang would undoubtedly have brought to Sieglinde.

Janowski drew on the OSR’s commanding virtuosity to give some of Wagner’s most evocative, passionate and tender  music,  an unwavering dramatic intensity and all-consuming emotional glow. The conductor, soloists and orchestra thoroughly deserved the ovation they received at the end of this memorable performance.

Jim Pritchard


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