In the earliest weeks of the pandemic, the days spent in lockdown passed at a glacial pace. And for cultural acolytes, those days crept by even slower without live performances to break up the monotony. However, as the infection rate has begun to precariously subside in Europe, where classical music receives both more public attention and more government support to make a phased reopening of theatres viable, the stay on live performances has begun a slow and calculated thaw.
In Italy, summer opera venues in Rome, Pesaro, and Macerata will perform in accordance with revamped health and safety policies. In Vienna, the Philharmonic and the Staatsoper are opening their doors to limited numbers of distanced patrons. And in Munich, the Bavarian State Opera’s 2019-2020 season concluded Monday afternoon with the final live-streamed Monday Concert, featuring Music Director Kirill Petrenko and the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Academy. The standard Arnold Schönberg, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss fare was performed to a sprinkling of live spectators, with native Munich superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann making an appearance for Schönberg’s orchestral reduction of Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.
The pairing of Kaufmann and Petrenko intrigues—the elusive tenor is famous for his burnished, covered sound and slow-burn approach to the music he sings, whereas Petrenko’s prevailing tactic is one of ebullient clarity and detail with carefully built climaxes throughout. Though their approaches often differ, both share a hyper-calculated approach to music making that alternately dragged and lifted Monday afternoon’s performance.
Mahler’s four-song fahrenden Gesellen dates from 1897 and, composed at one of the numerous gloomy junctures in his lifetime, features maudlin texts by the composer himself. Right off the bat, Kaufmann teased out smooth, mahogany-colored phrases and thoughtful inflection as the Wayfarer immerses himself in his own sadness. However, that smoothness did not extend across his range—the upper reaches of his voice, once capable of a crooning resonance, instead sounded taut and parched.
And if Kaufmann’s rigid control over the music showed in how attentively and dignifiedly he handled the panicky, unsubtle texts, his singing displayed a more recalcitrant instrument that never quite settled into the ensemble with Schönberg’s reduction. In reducing and reorganizing the orchestral forces of Mahler’s symphony-sized ensembles to chamber orchestras, Schönberg both augmented the intimacy and mysticism of Mahler’s music as well as put the voice more directly in concert with the other instruments, like an instrument itself. But a textured, Grammy-winning voice like Kaufmann’s can hardly be called “instrumental” and his performance, supported lushly throughout by Petrenko and the Orchestra, seemed tentative, if thoughtful, rather than decisive.
Decisive, however, was the name of the game for Petrenko who opened the program leading students of the Orchestra Academy in a rich and moody reading of Schönberg’s first Chamber Symphony. Capturing the piece’s quicksilver mood changes with verve, Petrenko sculpted the Symphony into undulating climaxes and gave Schönberg’s tense, academical music a kinesis that was palpable even in my living room. The wily, dancy Pulcinella suite that followed was somewhat less persuasive, with Stravinsky’s ironic neoclassical finials and skill as an orchestrator mostly swallowed by an ensemble that spanned the entire stage playing a more grandiose approach than might make sense for a work originally conceived for dance. The afternoon concluded with a performance of a jocular suite of incidental music from Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme that perfectly captured Strauss’s ebb and flow.
The phantom applause from the hundred admitted patrons at the end of the performance still managed to, over the internet, sound like the hall itself was full. Applause for Petrenko, Kaufmann, the continuation of live music, and the reluctant conclusion of the season that could not be.
This concert will be available for free on-demand at Staatsoper.tv for 30 days starting July 2.