Gun Brit Barkmin
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Virtuosic Vocals

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘An Evening with Gun-Brit Barkmin’⋅
Perth Concert Hall, 23 August ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

Gun-Brit Barkmin carried all before her in last year’s concert performance of Tristan und Isolde with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and many were looking forward to this recital of Beethoven, Richard Strauss and Wagner.  The German soprano, young in career terms, did not disappoint, with each item leaving one wishing more of the same, only to be carried on to new heights with the next. Not only her gleaming silvery voice but her charismatic and enthusiastic stage presence illuminated the works performed, with WASO at its biggest and best under Asher Fisch.

The program opened with a crisp and energetic rendition of Beethoven’s Overture to Fidelio, followed by Barkmin and Abscheulicher! from that work.  Her very clear soprano with no unnecessary vibrato was powerful and penetrating, and the aria was delivered, as were they all, with full-on dramatic intensity. Nor did she, here or later, let a sheet of music get between her and the audience. Mahler’s Blumine provided a rather inconsequential filler but was delivered with grace and delicacy.

This was followed by Strauss’s Four Last Songs, a work of sumptuous melancholy. Barkmin returned (having traded her basic black pantsuit for a glittery black gown) and embarked on a superbly evocative interpretation. Her voice easily rode the large orchestra, sometimes blending as one special instrument, and on the words ‘und die Seele unbewacht will in freien flügen schweben’ (in Beim Schlafengehen) appropriately soaring above it. In the same movement she lit up the final ‘zu leben’ with a beautiful heartfelt note. Beim Schlafengehen was further distinguished by Laurence Jackson’s violin solo, while Andrew Nicholson delivered a beatific flute in Im Abendrot.

After an interval the orchestra embarked dramatically on the fanfare of the ‘Entrance of the Guests’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Barkmin joined them in delighted wonderment for Dich, teure Halle, which was over only too soon, leaving one wishing for more Wagner. Instead we were assuaged by more Strauss:  ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Salome (orchestral only!) maintained the excitement and exoticism of this 114 year old work. It was followed by the last soliloquy and final scene from that opera, with Barkmin returning now in glittering white and gold to act out the unhinged passion of the princess of Judea. She sang with controlled legato and emotional intensity, from the triumphant ‘Ich lebe noch, aber du bist tot’ to the electrifying last sentence ‘Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund’.  Rarely has Perth seen a concert with such virtuosic singing and dramatic intensity.


Pictured top: Gun-Brit Barkmin. Photo supplied.

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Tristan und Isolde
Choral, Music, News, Opera, Performing arts, Reviews

Wagnerian opera as recital: an unusual and exciting variant

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner ·
Perth Concert Hall, 16 August ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde for performance as a fully staged opera in a theatrical venue. Taking staging ideas for a recital performance from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s 2016 production, West Australian Symphony Orchestra Principal Conductor Asher Fisch has moved all of the orchestra’s instrumentalists out of the pit and onto the modest stage of the Perth Concert Hall. As with the TSO, this forces nearly everything else off. The singers perform alarmingly close to the strings, which gives them the appearance of being yoked into an inhuman, monstrous machine. Where Wagner wanted his music to act as an intangible supra-human force that billowed through and into his cast, performer Gun-Brit Barkmin, as Isolde, seemed almost poked and prodded by the physical instruments themselves, as each frenzy of bowing seemed to ratchet up her corporeal and vocal tensions. As Robert Gibson explains in the program notes (cribbed from the TSO’s own notes), the singers are “enmeshed within the ‘endless melody’” of the orchestral performance to a degree rare in opera.

As with the TSO, the recital staging meant that the chorus could not fit on the Perth stage either. Repeating an accidentally comic moment from the TSO production, there is a point where a rear wall panel of the Concert Hall opens to reveal an awkward cluster of singers trying to unobtrusively lean into the venue.

Fisch’s decision to follow the TSO, therefore, could have benefitted from a rethink, especially as critics of the TSO production do record some slightly jarring details (see Nor does the staging or venue of the Perth Concert Hall always present the work at its best. From my seat, the reed instruments sometimes interacted strangely to produce a low-level kazoo rasp.

Even so, the unusual staging choices sometimes produced superlative acoustic and spatial effects. The opening sailor’s ballad, performed, Wagner tells us, “as if from the masthead,” was sung powerfully off stage, and so boomed into the auditorium in a ghostly, puzzling manner, thereby affecting the audience much as it did Isolde, who asks who it is who mocks her from out of the mists? The remarkably simple device of having Tristan for the first time move from his position stage left to join Isolde stage right created a wonderful coming together of the lovers, not only in terms of music, but also the acoustics of the venue, their voices quite literally nestling side by side. This was further dramatised by Bragäne, Isolde’s maid, suddenly appearing behind us and leaning out from the upper stalls to warn them to “Beware!” The rich, wooden tones of the horn that announces the coming conclusion of the protagonists’ dramas and woes was also voiced from off stage, its unplaceable call producing an eerie sense of foreboding.

Musically and vocally, moreover, the performers were in extremely fine form. It was satisfying that WASO had assembled the full range of bass cellos which Wagner calls for, and Fisch went one better than the TSO by presenting Perth with the complete operatic score, rather than the abridged version.

Tristan begins as a reserved character, and performer Stuart Skelton perhaps overdid this to produce a rather colourless Tristan in Act I. In the later duets, however, he let loose in full roaring voice, and his combination of passion and rich tone was gorgeous. Ain Anger, as Tristan’s liege lord King Marke, was nothing short of phenomenal, an extremely carefully measured basso profundo in which each enunciation was sustained right through to the closing consonants. Ekaterina Gubanova, as Bragäne, and Boaz Daniel, as Tristan’s right-hand-man Kurwenal, did not get much to work with, initially, but as the tragedy unfolded each had ample opportunity to prove just how good they are.

In the end, though, the production belonged to Barkmin. Isolde has to move from bitter vengeful hatred to ecstatic love, intense mourning, and then (when the edgy, unresolved chords of the entire four-hour performance morph into an explosive sustained B major chord) into an otherworldly joy at the prospect of moving beyond all of this to join her love in a timeless realm. Barkmin achieved this both vocally and expressively. Dropped shoulders, urgently grasping hands, ringed-in-arms: she used her body to ramp her energies up, down and through a vast array of states. No wonder she looked drained after each act.

WASO’s Tristan und Isolde had a few rough edges, but the orchestra and collaborators more than rose to the challenge of mounting this tremendous live version, in full, creating a welcome and unique opportunity for Perth audiences. Congratulations to all.

Tristan und Isolde will be performed again 19 August, 2pm-7pm at Perth Concert Hall.

Pictured top is Gun-Brit Barkmin, as Isolde. Photo: Andy Tyndall.

WASO in Tristan und Isolde
Musically and vocally, moreover, the performers were in extremely fine form. Photo: Andy Tyndall.
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Classical music, Music, News, Opera, Reviews

Designed to delight

Review: ‘Wagner’s World”, Asher Fisch presenting and conducting West Australian Symphony Orchestra –
Perth Concert Hall, 9 September –
Review by Leon Levy –

An inspiration: Asher Fisch in action. Photo: Emma van Dordrecht.

If Wednesday’s introduction by Asher Fisch and WASO to Wagner’s roots was a substantial and satisfying entrée, Saturday night’s concluding episode, “Wagner’s World”, could be said to represent a gourmet main course designed both to delight and educate.

The evening began, once again, with conductor Asher Fisch addressing the audience and posing an intriguing question: when Liszt visited Wagner for six weeks in 1856, what did the two get up to during that not inconsiderable time? Perhaps, suggested Fisch, they conspired the murder of tonality, for Wagner thereupon interrupted his work on the Ring Cycle to focus on the composition of Tristan und Isolde. Having previously dispensed with traditional forms but spared recognisable tonality, Tristan opens with an immediate statement of ambiguous tonality, as helpfully illustrated by Fisch in a “pre- and post-” comparison on the piano, followed by the orchestra in the Prelude to the opera.

Whereas Wagner’s next opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg would have been expected to progress the harmonic adventure, rather shockingly it was revealed to be completely tonal. That, however, was reflective of its story but, as once again illustrated at the piano in a chord sequence from von Stolzing’s music, rules of harmonic progression were broken in a way that clearly anticipated jazz! And then, with Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal and the “Good Friday Spell”, where the magic of the day is evoked by comparatively few instruments, we could be listening to yet another composer.

The integration of music and drama is central to Wagner’s performance concept and it was thus invaluable to have bass-baritone Shane Lowrencev on hand to sing powerfully from Meistersinger and Die Walküre. Especially in the latter, Wotan’s farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde, the singer conveyed both tenderness and a strong dramatic presence, a highlight of the evening that was acknowledged by the audience.

The second half of the programme focused on the world that followed Wagner. A roll-call of French composers —more so than his own compatriots— took inspiration from the German, and a performance of Chabrier’s somewhat rumbustious overture to the opera Gwendoline clearly demonstrated this: “a mish-mash of all things Wagnerian” according to Fisch. Probably not heard in Australia in many a year, the airing was much appreciated by the audience.

In sharp contrast, the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner strove to be a Wagnerian without actually embracing the latter’s abandonment of the rules of form. But the influence of Wagner in Bruckner’s sound palate was unmistakable and included the contribution of the Wagner horn, four of which graced the playing of the second movement from Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. Fisch noted sadly that Bruckner has little currency in Australia, as in the USA. This heartfelt performance must surely have opened ears to this anomaly.

Finally we were treated to Richard Strauss’s display of a full panoply of Wagnerian orchestral ideas within the framework of the Lisztian tone-poem in an incisive, virtuoso performance of Don Juan. By turns tender and sweeping, the beautiful oboe work (Peter Facer) was just one highlight in a performance that elicited a thunderous reception from the audience.

To re-iterate the tribute to all concerned contained in the review of Wednesday’s concert, this two-part series was both an inspiration and an unqualified success… and a reason to bear in mind next year’s scheduled concert performances of Tristan und Isolde (16 & 19 August 2018). There was a near-full house to give their vote in favour of this stimulating and enjoyable style of presentation. It is doubtful whether very many, if any, in the audience would have wished to be in any other concert hall in the world on this particular Saturday night!

Top: Asher Fisch and WASO, photographed by Emma van Dordrecht.

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Calendar, Classical music, Music, September

Music: Wagner’s World

Saturday 9 September
@ Perth Concert Hall,
West Australian Symphony Orchestra

Everything that was written after Wagner’s great opera Tristan was, in some way, influenced by it. Leonard Bernstein called Tristan “the central work of all music history”, and the Prelude and Liebestod contains some of the most achingly beautiful music ever composed.

Following arias from Die Walküre and Die Meistersinger sung by acclaimed Australian bass-baritone Shane Lowrencev, Asher Fisch explores Wagner’s musical legacy through the spacious grandeur of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (his memorial monument to Wagner) and the overture from Chabrier’s opera Gwendoline. We conclude with Richard Strauss, who drew upon Wagner’s expanded orchestral palette, added his own dash of flamboyant audacity and composed the work that made the then 25-year old a star – the virtuosic orchestral showpiece Don Juan.

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