Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Richard Zeller & Lily Zhang
January 2
Friedrich Kleinhapl & Andreas Woyke
January 3

Kleinhapl and Woyke: Beethoven served fine and dry.

Legend holds that both Mozart and Haydn played the organ at the Church of Sts. Simon and Jude in Old Town. That’s probably more fanciful than factual. But two concerts that opened the new year there offered reminders that in its current incarnation as a chamber music hall, the church attracts a steady stream of first-rate performers.

On Tuesday night, an expanded version of the Talich Chamber Orchestra crammed the sanctuary to provide backing for two visiting vocalists: American baritone Richard Zeller and Chinese soprano Lily Zhang. The program was opera lite – familiar arias by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi and Bizet – but the venue gave the packed house a close-up look at the considerable talents of Zeller and Zhang, who was making her Prague debut.

Baritone Zeller.
Zeller, a polished performer who appears regularly on opera stages around the world, first sang in Prague in 1996, and opened the Dvořák Festival in Přibram last year with the Talich ensemble. He is one of those rare singers who instantly commands attention, even with well-worn perennials like “Come Paride vezzoso” from L’Elisir d’amore and the “Votre toast” from Carmen. Zeller’s deep, resonant voice, dramatic tones and powerful delivery are like a force of nature, pulling you into a piece before you realize what’s happened. To this critic, he was far more interesting and compelling than comparable singers like Thomas Hampson, who have arrived in Prague with much greater fanfare.

Soprano Zhang.
Zhang has a lovely but not very strong voice, which was occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra. Her repertoire, at least for this appearance, was limited to Mozart, which she handled with technical proficiency though not much dexterity. Zhang’s vocals grew warmer over the course of the program, and were lustrous in two duets with Zeller, “Madamigella Valery” from La Traviata “Udiste Come albeggi” from Il Trovatore. An encore duet from Don Giovanni put an elegant finishing touch on the evening.

Conductor Jan Talich showed a fine hand with a larger ensemble, building a big sound with a lot of energy and some nice colors, particularly from the horns. If the balance wasn’t always right with the singers, the orchestra nonetheless showed impressive range in the intermezzos, from the sensitive strains of Cavalleria Rusticana to the rousing blasts of Rossini’s William Tell overture. And hats off to the orchestra managers for getting the auspices of both the American and Chinese embassies – a first in Prague, and another demonstration that culture offers a common meeting ground where politics often does not.

The following night offered a different dynamic: virtuoso instrumental work from two impressive Austrian players, cellist Friedrich Kleinhapl and pianist Andreas Woyke. Both men carved out significant solo careers before beginning their collaboration as a duo in 2003, which has produced several CDs and continues with regular concert appearances around the world.

Woyke has a soft touch on the keyboard, a refreshing change from the banging that often characterizes strong piano performances. His workmanlike approach belies the lyrical quality of his playing, which flows from the stage like ripples on water. It was a good fit for the all-Beethoven program – four sonatas, three for cello and piano, and one (Violin sonata in G major, Op. 96) adapted for the cello. Woyke took a pronounced role in each, setting a clear tone and pace without becoming overbearing.

Kleinhapfl is an inspiration to see in action. His small stature – he is barely taller than his instrument – makes special demands on everything from his chair to his playing style. He makes no compromise in his performances, however, attacking pieces with a fierce intensity and blazing through complicated runs that bigger hands would be hard-pressed to match. His style can be choppy and not as well-defined as many accomplished cello players, and he seldom assumed a commanding voice in the duets. But his technical mastery of his instrument is remarkable.

The duo’s take on Beethoven was straightforward and perhaps a bit dry, lacking color in many passages. No complaints, though. It was a treat to hear playing of that caliber and intelligence without the many liberties that performers often take with chamber works. They seemed to loosen up a bit by the final piece, the Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 3 in A major, Op. 69, which had a satisfying vibrancy and flair. And their encore, a lively rendition of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata Op. 40, left this critic wishing the program had been more varied, giving Kleinhapfl and Woyke a chance to show what they can do with a broader repertoire.

By any measure, that’s a lot of talent in two nights. The ghosts of Mozart and Haydn may or may not have been enjoying the music from the choir loft. But classical music fans in Prague are still enjoying the fruits of their labors.

For more on Friedrich Kleinhapl:

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