Palau de la Música Catalana 2017-18 Review: Mark Padmore, Julius Drake and the Cor de Cambra del Palau Shine With Schubert & BrittenBy Jonathan Sutherland
In most cities, different musical organizations persist in such aggressive rivalry it makes the Montagues and Capulets look like kissing cousins. Not so in Barcelona where the three major performing venues, namely the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the Palau de a Música Catalana and the L’Auditori have come together under a coordinating entity called Barcelona Obertura to make music in the celebrated Catalan capital as famous as its Gaudí architecture, idyllic climate, fabulous cuisine, and formidable football team.
Barcelona has a surprisingly rich musical history with legendary artists such as Pablo Casals, Alícia de Larrocha, José Carreras, Giacomo Aragall, Victoria de los Angeles and the incomparable Montserrat Caballé all being local nois i noies.
The Gran Teatre del Liceu has long been considered one of Europe’s most important opera houses having been in continuous operation since 1847. With 2,292 seats, it is also one of the largest on the continent. Unlike most 19th century opera houses, the Liceu was founded by private shareholders instead of music loving monarchs, so despite its luxurious interior, there is no royal box. In fact one of the original names of the theatre was the Liceo Dramático Filarmónico de S. M. la Reina Isabel II. However, when the penny-pinching regina failed to cough up any money for the project, she was dropped from the nomenclature and the society became simply Liceo Filarmónico Dramático. There is however an extremely recherché private opera club within the house called the Círculo del Liceo which maintains its own regal ambience.
There could be no greater contrast to the belle époque opulence of Miquel Garriga i Roca’s original architecture of the Liceu than the brutal modernism of Rafael Moneo’s massive 42,000 square meter L’Auditori complex on the recently gentrified Plaça de les Glòries. This mammoth edifice includes the 2,200 seat Pau Casals hall, the 600 seat Sala Oriol Martorell and the intimate Sala Tete Montoliu with 400 places. The leviathan structure is also the home of the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona, the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya and the fantastic Museu de la Música with a collection of over 500 valuable instruments and documents not just from Spain but all over the world. Of particular interest is the one of a kind Hauslaib claviorgan from c. 1600. A recent temporary exhibition of traditional instruments from Korea is an indication of the breadth of this fabulous museum’s interest. In an interactive gallery at the end of the museum, it is possible to play a number of the instruments, which reflects L’Auditori’s intention to keep music accessible and anything but hands-off. Madrid may have its Museo del Prado but for music lovers, the Museu de la Música in Barcelona is equal to any number of canvasses by Goya or Velázquez.
Opened in 1999, L’Auditori is a permanent living/breathing musical mini-metropolis presenting over 400 performances a year.
Palau de a Música Catalan
Tucked away in the Casc Antic district of Barcelona, arguably the real gem of Barcelona’s principal performing venues is the Palau de a Música Catalana, which is an unsurpassed example of Catalan art nouveau architecture and décor. In 1997, it was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and is the only concert venue of this style to be accorded such a distinction. The Palau has a strong connection with vocal music, having been commissioned by the choral society Orfeó Català which was founded in 1891 with the worthy objective of promoting singing as an alternative to more inebriate activities by the city’s less affluent ciutadans. In a way, the Orfeó Català was a precursor of Venezuela’s El Sistema a hundred years later.
With 2,200 seats, the main concert hall is technically large but feels much more intimate. It’s main attraction is the superb original interior abundant with colorful Catalan ceramics and mosaics, stucco trees and vines, nubile semi-bas relief muses, prancing Pegasusi and a spectacular pastel stained glass skylight. Unsurprisingly, the dominant decorative theme is choral music. There is a huge bust on the left of the stage of Anselm Clavé who was a noted choir director instrumental in reviving Catalan folk songs. Unfortunately for those not familiar with 19th Catalan physiognomies, the worthy gentleman bears a regrettable resemblance to Joseph Stalin. On the opposite site is a more familiar likeness of Beethoven, but for some reason he is supporting one of Wagner’s fearsome horse-riding Walküre, hopefully not about to prematurely carry off any musical heroes to Valhalla.
It is indicative of the importance of the Palau that the inaugural three concerts in 1908 were given by the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Richard Strauss.
Padmore At the Forefront
In such a splendiferous venue, a highly original program by acclaimed English tenor Mark Padmore with pianist Julius Drake and the Cor de Cambra del Palau de la Música Catalana in Palau Grans Veus was a must hear. The unlikely combination of Schubert lieder in the first half with songs by Benjamin Britten in the second actually worked well, principally because of the excellence of the singers in both solo and combined selections.
Padmore has an appealingly light, forward projection with meticulous attention to diction, albeit more so in Britten than Schubert. “Der Wanderer an den Mond” was always one of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s most admired Schubert songs, and probably sounds more mellifluous when sung by a baritone, but Padmore was able to impose his own intelligent reading of the score. “Des Fischerliebesglück” was a bit scoopy, but the English tenor’s outstanding pianissimo technique made “Der Winterabend” a real delight. There was an almost operatic take to the zippy “Bei dir allein” and “Abendstern” had a reflective plaintiveness reminiscent of Ian Bostridge.
The Palau choir conducted by City of Birmingham Youth Chorus founder Simon Halsey leapt into “An die Sonne” with infectious enthusiasm, finely controlled dynamics and excellent diction. The combination of Spanish avidity directed with meticulous English attention to detail gives this choir a unique quality and sound. “Gott in der Natur” displayed strong fortes without losing the melodic or harmonic focus and Julius Drake’s puissant piano playing with sharp trilling made for a memorable realisation. The first half concluded with Padmore joining the chorus in a dramatic “Nachthelle”, which was marred ever so slightly by a few pushed top F naturals on “übersilbert ganz” which should be sung ppp. The closing sustained B flat was also not absolutely pristine. Drake’s repeated semiquaver chords however gave solid rhythmic support to both choir and soloist.
Any tenor singing Benjamin Britten’s music invariably draws comparisons with the incomparable Peter Pears but Padmore defly avoided the temptation of mimicking the definitive interpreter. The second half opened with Britten’s arrangement of “I wonder as I wander” which is a wistful nativity story originally composed by John Jacob Niles after hearing an Appalachian waif sing the melody at an evangelical fundraiser in 1933. Quite a way from Murphy North Carolina (pop. 1,600) to the cosmopolitan capital of Catalonia. The largely à capella vocal part displayed Padmore’s exemplary diction to the fullest, even if some of the extreme upper tessitura was slightly hesitant. In any case it was preferable to Vanessa Williams’ version. In the pensive narrative “Tom Bowling”, Padmore was much more in his element and there was some exemplary word painting. “Tom never from his word departed/His virtues were so rare” and “Thus death, who kings and tars despatches” were infused with pride and dignity. The repeated “And now he’s gone aloft” with a gentle falsetto was beautifully phrased. The satirical song “Wagtail and a baby” from “Winter Words” was again admirably annunciated with crisp atonal countermelodies from Julius Drake.
The Palau male choristers returned for “The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” and responded admirably to Simon Halsey’s meritorious direction. The clever Catalans also managed to pronounce “Bucklesfordberry” without a Castiliano lisp. Being a secular ensemble probably also helped, as the subject of 17th century adultery giving rise to uxoricide is perhaps not so suitable for pubertal parish choirs. The fortissimo “Arise, arise, thou Little Musgrave” kept fine pitch and intonation and the gruesome narrative ended with haughty affirmation of the superior qualities of the nobility. In “At the station,” Padmore continued to display his excellent narrative skills, again with Drake’s valuable contribution of syncopated atonal snips and snaps. The concert finished with the poignant “Before life and after” which in its text is a lot like TS Eliot’s autumnal “Four Quartets.” Padmore’s sustained mid-register was again impressive with some subtle word painting on “consciousness”. The concluding “How long, how long” was operatic in its yearning intensity.
This was a very fine liederabend indeed and about as remote from Catalan flamenco as one could imagine, but perfectly suited to the ageless aesthetic of the splendid Palau de la Música Catalana.
Something to look forward to next year is the Barcelona Spring Festival from 4-17 March which will include Valery Gergiev and the Marinsky Orchestra, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Handel’s “Rodelinda” at the Liceu, recitals by Grigory Sokolov, Matthias Goerne and Irene Théorin and a performance of Beethoven’s 9th with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra featuring the fabulous Cor de Cambra del Palau mentioned above.
It’s definitely worth missing the experience of seeing Lionel Messi score a few more goals to be there.