For Sentimental Reasons

The great Gidon Kremer seems full of self-pity at the moment. But although over 60, he is still bright and energetic; there is no sign of retirement.

On The Town | Walter Guertelschmied | October 2010

In his performance evening, Being Gidon Kremer, at Theater an der Wien, Kremer presented the rise and fall of a (classical) musician, describing a life of suffering by reading out of his autobiography and then doing some hearty fiddling. Born in Latvia of German Jewish parents, he hasn’t given up attempting to cast out the devil with the Beelzebub. No matter which (political) system he denounces or satirizes, he has been a part of it. What was also discretely not mentioned: his abnormal relation to money, his recruiting of lovers from his own orchestra, and how he treats his friends.

Nonetheless it was a great show thanks to the brilliant Kremerata Baltica as well as Master Gidon’s thrilling rendition of pieces like the Erlkönig or the Schnittke cadence of the Beethoven concerto. As Ella Fitzgerald once sang: (Gidon,) I love you for sentimental reasons!

Adieu or au revoir

It seemed like a farewell performance: In the fiftieth year of his career, Renato Bruson made a guest appearance in La Traviata at the Volksoper. The cheers and standing ovations for one of the most important Italian baritones of the last decades were mixed with wonderful memories. Bruson’s performance of Giorgio Germont was marked by an extraordinary stage presence, for the most part motionless, but still a "Sir" from head to toe. He bewitches with his sumptuous timbre, the gorgeous middle range, and qualities that today are often neglected such as "singing a line" or phrasing. The fact that he, at 74, sometimes has problems in the upper reaches is disguised by unbelievable finesse. This was matched by the staging of Hans Gratzer, still splendid after ten years, the lively conductor Enrico Dovico and, above all, Bernarda Bobro as a Violetta debutante: Her young soprano is vocally intense and expressive, she is completely secure and stylistically fantastic – a discovery! The mood of the audience was at its best, even emotional.

Defanged and dull

It’s all well and good if every theater in town has its own style, even for experimental work. The legendary premiere of Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz at the Burgtheater in 1988 made fools of politicians from Franz Vranitzky to Erhard Busek, with their obtuse comments about the piece. The so-called scandal became an occasion for self-pity, offense, and for intentional misinterpretation. In his last play, Thomas Bernhard appears as a caustic satirist.

But if measured by the political climate in Austria today, he wasn’t exaggerating; it was rather an understatement.

The Theater in der Josefstadt is getting the measure of where Heldenplatz stands today. The outcome: No one gets worked up about it any more. This is because the "Josefstadt" style distorts Bernhard into something without fangs: Merciless cuts (no performances are allowed to go past 10 p.m.), tedious staging (Philip Tiedemann), as well as serious problems with Bernhard’s jargon and idioms. Thank goodness for the fabulous Michael Degen as the frail and dying Prof. Schuster. His solo was brilliant: Not only critical and scornful, also malicious and mixed with Jewish humor. It was an unparalleled master stroke! The laid back audience was well-behaved and courteous – all the same, it was remarkable how many young people one saw standing in the last corners!

Who offers much…

The Grafenegg Festival in Lower Austria, under the direction of that keyboard tiger Rudolf Buchbinder, was plagued by bad weather this summer, so most of it took place in the acoustically first-class "Auditorium" and not in the open-air "Wolkenturm."

The non-motto of the now-mature festival has proven successful. Maybe they’re following Goethe: "Who offers much, brings something unto many" (Faust I). There is an endless coming and going of world-best orchestras and their conductors, from Franz Welser-Möst to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Valery Gergiev to Kent Nagano; and it works extremely well. "Who is able to pay for all this?" can only be answered by the emperor of the land, Erwin Pröll. Maybe he simply owns Grafenegg?

A few examples: The Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra with the incredibly energetic Swedish-American maestro Herbert Blomstedt (83). They first played Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer with one of the best contemporary German baritones, Christian Gerhaher – perfect voice control, excellent articulation, a concentrated performance. Then Blomstedt showed himself as a knowledgeable, circumspect and propulsive interpreter of Bruckner. He had rehearsed the "ninth" carefully with his young musicians and so it was understandable that all the students wanted to play: There were 12(!) basses… Daniele Gatti was again a problem. Even though it’s not long enough, he stretched a loud "fifth" Bruckner (Orchestre National de France) to fill a whole evening.

Then came the NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk) Sinfonieorchester Hamburg under Michael Gielen (83). Although underrated in Austria, it’s a very good orchestra. First they offered a Mozart clarinet concerto with Jörg Widman, who’s been all around as a soloist and composer. Then Mahler’s fourth. Although it’s been played to death, Gielen’s analytical style shined through: Transparent, precise and remarkably non-kitschy. The fourth movement with Christiane Oelze’s "Himmlischen Freuden" was refreshing and perfect.


Translated by Cynthia Peck

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    the vienna review October 2010