Saturday, 3 December 2016

Lost no more : Stravinsky Rimsky-Korsakov Gergiev Mariinsky


Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg  This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work. It was a sanctification of the city of St Petersburg itself and its role in shaping modern music.  Hence the speeches on the broadcast, and the sincere emotion shown on the faces of the musicians of the Mariinsky Orchestra as they listened. A male wind player's lower lip wobbled.  A harpist leaned her head on her instrument, to hide genuine tears. We don't often see hard-boiled professionals like that, but the sense of occasion must have been overwhelming.

Stravinsky's Funeral Song was written when Stravinsky heard the news of the death of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in June 1908. Rimsky-Korsakov was Stravinsky's teacher, mentor and close friend: the sorrow Stravinsky must have felt was channelled into the piece, completed in a very short period, and premiered in January 1909. Akthough Stravinsky remebered it fondly, the manuscript was thought lost, until, by chance, renovations to the Mariiinsky's old building in 2014 revealed a cache of uncatalogued papers which included 83 orchestral parts used in the first (and only) performance.  Read Stephen Walsh's account here and listen to Natalya Braginskaya before the broadcast). The parts had lain, unnoticed through the Revolution, after which the city was renamed Leningrad, and subject to one of the most brutal sieges in modern history. Stravinsky's Funeral Song survived the Tsars, the Nazis and the collapse of Communism: Stravinsky's modernism wasn't popular with Stalin. By honouring Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov together in this way, Gergiev, the Mariinsky and the city of St Petersburg are making a powerful statement

Stravinsky's Funeral Song (Chante funèbre) begins with ominous dark chords. It's a slow march, the gloom lit with rustling strings and figures that seem to leap sharply upwards in protest against the gloom.  A solo French horn outlines a melody. The full orchestra joins in, and the music rises almost to crescendo before falling back. Prostrate, but not defeated. The strings surge and a group of horns take up momentum.  A hushed, mysterious near silence, bassoons, double basses, and full flow is restored.  The timpani rumble, and strange lingering chords repeat. Intense anguish, then a very short return to peace, of a kind, with the harps and low winds murmuring.

Though Stravinsky's Funeral Song is short, it's very rich.  Stravinsky's clearly thinking of Rimsky-Korsakov's great orchestral dramas. Thoughtfully, Gergiev preceded it with the Suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya , which premiered in the Mariinsky in February 1907, with the same conductor who did the Funeral Song two years later . The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya is an astonishing piece, illuminated with intense colours and vivid imagery.  It describes an idealized city in Old Russia, which, when attacked by the Tatars, is saved by a mystery fog which makes it invisible, though its bells, prancing horses and pipes can be heard,  tantalizingly, in the distance above the lakes and forests.  Do we hear Kitezh in the last, lingering chords of the Funeral Song? The piece is something of a Gergiev trademark, for he's championed it passionately for years. It was a sensational hit when he conducted it in London in 1994. You need the full work for maximum impact, but in this concert, the Suite worked fine, and the performance was intensely moving.

Think on the swirling, lustrous motifs that depict the magic fog that conceals the Invisible City.  then think of Stravinsky's The Firebird, which premiered in Paris in June 1910.  In The Firebird, Stravinsky quotes Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchey the Immortal (1902) which premiered in St Petersburg in 1905.  Indeed The Firebird incorporates two separate legends into one ballet with great effect.  In Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchey an ugly monster has a daughter who holds the secret to his death. She’s just as cold as he is but she falls in love. Kashchey’s music is shrilly angular, evoking his harsh personality as well as the traditional way he’s portrayed, as a skeleton, the symbol of death who cannot actually die. The Storm Knight, on whom the plot pivots, is defined by the wild ostinato. The most inventive music, though, surrounds Kashchey's daughter Kashcheyvna. When she sings, there are echoes of Kundry. Harps and woodwinds seem to caress her voice, so when her iciness melts, we sympathize.

Stravinsky's Firebird inhabits an altogether different plane. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s music embellishes the vocal line, Stravinsky’s floats free. It “is” the drama. Music for dance has to respect certain restraints, so it’s necessarily quite episodic, but Stravinsky integrates the 21 segments so seamlessly that the piece has lived on, immortal. The Firebird is a magical figure which materializes out of the air, leading the Prince to Kashchey’s secret garden. Unlike the ogre, the Prince is kind and sets the bird free. He’s rewarded with a magic feather. This time the Princess and other captives are liberated by altruistic love. It’s purer and more esoteric, and Stravinsky’s music is altogether more abstract, imaginative and inventive. Yet again, the "characters" are defined by music.  The solo part for horn, for example, plays a role in the music like that of a solo dancer. Textures around it need to be clean as they were here, so its beauty is revealed with poignant dignity. 


Although Gergiev has conducted The Firebird so often  he could almost do it on autopilot, on this occasion his focus was so intense that the performance was extraordinary. When Gergiev is this good, he's better than anyone else.  Absolute finesse, the Mariinsky playing barely above the point of audibility, but with magical lustre, then exploding into the wild, demonic passages with the energy and precision of a corps de ballet. Mournful bassoons, exotic clarinets, celli and basses plucked  pizzicato like a choir singing vocalise.  Once again, we're in a magical dimension like the fog that lifted Kitezh beyond mortal ken.  The "Firebird" theme returned, richer and deeper than before, but how does the piece end ?  With strong, emphatic chords repeated again and again. Like in  the Funeral Song, like The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.  Presenting the three pieces together almost seamlessly, Gergiev revealed their connections, and the inner artistic logic that linked the two composers together.   An outstanding experience. Enjoy and marvel : the concert is available on demand for approx 88 days on medici tv.   Please see my numerous other pieces on Stravinsky by following  the link "Stravinsky" below and on the right.

Friday, 2 December 2016

State of the art Mahler scholarship

An interview with Renate Stark Voit of the Internationalen Gustav Mahler Geschellschaft on what's happening in Mahler studies HERE.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Death or Liberty ? Gossec Grande Messe des Morts


François-Xavier Roth conducted François Joseph Gossec's Grande Messe des morts with Les Siècles and the Wiener Singakademie last week in Vienna, now broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Since Roth conducted an astonishing Berlioz Grand Messe des morts at the Royal Albert Hall, London, two weeks ago (please read my review here), this is a good opportunity to hear both Requiems by the same conductor, whose expertise in French repertoire is unequalled, as fluent in early music as he is in the contemporary avant garde, Roth's insights are always refreshing.

Gossec (1734-1829), a protégé of Rameau, was, in his own way, as innovative as Rameau was in his own time, and as Berlioz was to become in the future.  His Grande Messe, written in 1761, is a forward-facing, youthful work which, upon publication twenty years later, caught the spirit of a France on the verge of revolutionary change.  It's inspired by the spirit of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, all of whom were his contemporaries.

Gossec's Grand Messe begins with assertive, almost explosive chords, taken up by a livelier melody on pipes and fiddles. Berlioz's Grand Messe, with its mysterious, searching lines, seems almost "modern" in a kind of 20th century ambiguity. Yet Gossec isn't writing faux Petit Trianon s: he was a farmer's son in a time when many people had genuine rural roots.  The "folksiness" means something.  These  confident airs give way to a sophisticated Introitus in three parts, grave, allegro and largo, where voices weave intricate patterns, individual voices kept clear and bright.  The mood is vibrant.  The female soloists dominate (in Vienna, Chantal Santon-Jeffery and Anaïk Morel).  Oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly at all, I kept thinking of Marianne, her breasts exposed, leading the nation to Liberty.  Peasant girl as antithesis to King and the Virgin Mary. Breaking the link between Church and State was a founding principle of the Republic. No wonder Gossec's Grande Messe captured the public mood. The deceased here will not die but will be remembered in glory.

"Requiem aeternum " and "et lux perpetua" aren't mere worrds, but inspire the two graduale that follow: uplifting choral pieces that move briskly. Berlioz integrates choir and orchestra with greater complexity but Gossec has brio.  While Berlioz's Dies Irae is hushed and sombre, Gossec's Dies Irae is angular, with a distinctive motif of sharply accentuated rhythms. His Tuba mirium blasts with the baleful force of massed trumpets, the "tuba" here referring to the Trumpets which will sound at the end of time, waking the dead.  Again, Gossec uses a solo voice, not a choir.  Because Gossec's Grande Messe evolves over no less than 24 parts, each sequence is relative short, and highly varied Some sections are for solo voice and orchestra, others for combined soloists and orchestra, others for choir and orchestra.  This diversity generates momentum and energy, which comes naturally to Roth and a period ensemble like  Les Siècles. No surprise that Gossec's Grande Messe is their speciality. They've been doing it for some time.The photo above comes from their performance in October 2013 at the Chapelle Royale in Paris, which was broadcast on French TV and radio. Rumour has it that it will be released on CD.  Definitely a must-buy since that performance is much more vivacious and spirited than the Vienna version.

After the Amen, a short break before the Vado et non revertar, an unusual interjection into a Mass, coming as it does from the pre Christian Book of Job, though it links to the idea of resurrection. The staccato patterns heard earlier (as in the Dies Irae), but with the Pie Jesu, the dead are granted rest.  Everyone's singing together again, and the final Requiem Aeternum draws everything together.  Berlioz's Grande Messe des morts  is grander in every way, reflecting a new era when Europe was on the cusp of a new urbanized, industrial era. Gossec's not too bothered about complex orchestration and large-scale forces so much as freedom of spirit.  Besides, his Grande Mess des morts harks back to the period that made modernity possible in the first place.

BTW, Gossec was not Belgian. Belgium didn't exist as an independent monarchy before 1830.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Cavalli La Calisto La Nuova Musica, Wigmore Hall


At the Wigmore Hall, London an outstanding Cavalli La Calisto, with La Nuova Musica,  La Nuova Musica enliven their work with the same adventurous spirit that one imagines would have motivated 17th century Venetian audiences.  Historically informed performance isn't merely a matter of avoiding vibrato, but of understanding the spirit  of the times. Venice in 1651 was an exciting place, the go-ahead centre of the Mediterranean world.  Opera itself was a "new" art, still evolving, and Venetian audiences were very sophisticated.  La Nuova Musica's La Calisto was vibrant with energetic verve a tightly-focussed performance, where the filigree intricacies could shine.  

La Calisto is mythological allegory, but the characters are defined with dramatic flair.  Calisto (Lucy Crowe) is a beautiful nymph, a handmaiden of Diana, (Jurgita Adamontyé) whose acolytes are sworn to virginity.  Giove, (George Humphreys)  tries to seduce her to no avail, until he disguises himself as Diana.  Calisto, having tasted lust, can't understand why the "real" Diana despises sex.  Everyone else is trying to seduce Diana, with no luck. Although the reason might be obvious to us now, I don't think we can rule out the possibility that the ancient Greeks didn't know, given their tolerance for same sex relationships.  Chances are, the point wasn't lost either on 17th century Venetians. . Like Cavalli's other operas, (Please read my piece Crazier than Jason, Cavalli's Elena)  gender bending and illicit love gave audiences a naughty frisson. Calisto talks about "Diana's kisses" to an older woman, played by a man  Endymione (Tim Mead) a counter tenor. manages to seduce the asexual Diana  For this, she's maligned for being fickle !  Giove as the fake Diana, learns from Endymione that Diana isn't as pure as he thought. Giove as Diana tries to seduce Calisto again but his wife Giunone (Rachel Kelly) won't have any fooling around and turns Calisto into a bear.

La Nuova Musica, conducted by David Bates, had perhaps the finest specialist cast in this country,  thus,wisely concentrated focus on the performance, not the staging. Thus we could enjoy detail, like the way different voices came together at the end of a line, hovering together before falling silent. We could also focus on the variety of musical invention, sometimes sublime and at other times, deliberately grotesque  I love the dance sequences. You could luxuriate in the sheer beauty of the singing and playing, delighting in details like the flourish of a harpsichord, seemingly wayward but very much integrated into the ensemble : the joker in the pack, perhaps, for La Calisto is funny: serious ideas tackled with irreverent wit. Listen here on BBC Radio 3 for approx 30 days.
Please also see my piece oin La Nuova Musicas's Cesti Orontea at the Wigmore Hall

Cavalli operas seem to need high standards. Although La Calisto is almost mainstream these days, I don't think anything but the idiomatic best does them justice.  There is a wonderful DVD  with René Jacobs  and Concerto Vocale, recorded at La Monnaie in March 1996. . Staging was by Herbert Wernicke, demonized by anti-moderns, but it's brilliant. The stage is small and claustrophobic, like the enclosed world of the gods. But the characters look out on stars, and rise up into the rafters borne aloft by pulleys.  Stars and spangles all over the costumes too : the image of "night" illuminated by wonder. 

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Gothic Schubert : Stuart Jackson Marcus Farnsworth Wigmore Hall

Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards. This recital will be one Lieder aficionados will remember for years.  For  19th century Romantics, death was a source of endless fascination,  much in the way that sex dominated the 20th century.  Many songs in this programme are early works, some written when Schubert was as young as 14, and give an insight into his youthful psyche. Like most teenagers, before and since, he was intrigued by "the dark side".  In a strict Catholic society, the Gothic Imagination gave a kind of legitimacy to dangerous, subversive emotions.  The whole Romantic sensibility was a kind of Oedipal reaction against the paternalism of neo-Classical values. In these songs, we can hear young Schubert rebelling against his father, connecting to what we'd now call the subconscious. In Ein Leichenfantasie D7 (1811) to a poem by Friedrich Schiller, a man is burying his son in a crypt. But why is the burial taking place in the dead of night.  The son has a "Feuerwunde" penetrating his very soul with "Höllenschmerz". This death was not from natural causes. Suicide was a mortal sin. Schiller's meditation on the reversal of the natural order is sophisticated,  the transits in the poem rather more elegant than Schubert's setting.  In  1811, he was but still a child, so his transits between ideas are less elegant than Schiller's, but the ideas are original, if not completely coherent.  Still, the song is an audacious  tour de force lasting nearly 20 minutes, an undertaking that calls for finesse in performance.  Eine Leichenfantasie exists in both baritone and tenor versions, though the former is better known, but it would have been asking too much of most audiences to hear both versions together in succession.

There were other sets of songs like Das war ich D174 a and b but the Kosegarten pairs, An Rosa I D315 (1815) and An Rosa II D 316 and the two  Abends unter der Linde D235 and D237 (1816) benefited from the greater variety in the settings.  The first Abends unter der Linde, for example, is more lyrical,  the second more haunted, with its reference to the names of the poet's deceased children. Hence the value of a tenor/baritone recital highlighting contrasts in related pieces.  There's clearly a good dynamic between Jackson and Farnsworth, which made the alternations flow together well. Their joint Lied (Ins stille Land) D403 (1816) was extremely impressive, the alternating voices capturing the lively flow of the music in typically Schubertian style, reaching "the land of rest" by vigorous images of movement, vividly depicted by Baillieu's expressive playing.  Even with two very different songs, Lob des Tokayers D248 (1815)(Gabriele von Naumberg) and Punschlied 'Im Norden zu singen' D253 (1815) (Schiller) the flow between voices was enhanced by a very genuine sense of conviviality between Jackson and Farnsworth. Sincerity does matter in a genre like Lieder, which is so intense and so personal.   

Sincerity matters, too, in strophic ballads like Der Vatermörder   D10 (1811) to a poem by Gottlieb Conrad Pfeffel, in which a son kills his father. "Kein Wolf, kein Tiger, nein, Der Mensch allein, der Tiere Fürst, erfand den Vatermord allein", which makes an emotional point, though it's not borne out in nature.  The text is maudlin. Having killed his father, the son wipes out a brood of fledgings whom he thinks were mocking  him. Such melodrama might call for overblown declamation. Instead, Jackson sang  sensitively: we must not laugh.  The piano part thunders obsessively, suddenly slowing into watchful near silence, suggesting that  the killer is insane, or at least as feral as the beasts of the woods.  Like Eine LeuchenfantasieDer Vatermörder  is a teenage piece without much finesse, but Schubert treats it seriously, and so should we.  This same emotional truth illuminated another pairing Der Einseidelei I and II,  D393(1816)  and D563 (1817) respectively. Both are settings of poems by Johann Gaudenz, Freiherr von Salis-Seewis, about hermits who live alone in nature: simple sentiments but not at all simplistic.  Jackson's phrasing was sensual yet pure, suggesting that the hermit's choice was riches indeed.  In Des Fräuleins Liebeslauchen D698 (1820) (Schlechta), a lovesick knight throws flowers to his ladylove. Jackson's naturalness of expression made us respect the knight, though his love might be in vain. 

Jackson and Farnsworth are among the most promising English singers of their generation. I first heard Jackson sing a few songs in a private recital when he was only 22.  Yet his voice is so distinctive that I immediately  recognized it some years later when he sang at the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition in 2011.  Since then, he's developed  extremely well, with a blossoming career in opera.  Having worked in Stuttgart, his German is also more idiomatic than most English singers. Marcus Farnsworth won the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation Song Competition in 2009 and appears in recital and on the BBC. James Baillieu is a well-known song accompanist and chamber player, who presented an 11-concert series at the Wigmore Hall last year.

This splendid programme, and performance, concluded with Schubert's Fischerweise D881 (1826) (Franz Xaver Freiherr von Schlechta) , a familiar favourite but rarely, if ever, heard with tenor and baritone sharing the honours. An inspired idea! The song moves briskly, with the piano playing jaunty rhythms "gleich den Wellen, und frei sein wie die Flut", which repeat in not quite matching pairs.  With two singers, you can also hear how this duality is also embedded in the vocal line.The voices interact, like oars, pulling together. In the final strophe,words like "Die Hirtin" and "schlauer Wicht" are separated more clearly than is often the case, but this further emphasizes the choppy "waves" in the piano part and the concept of the sea as a metaphor for life. Meanwhile, on a bridge, a shepherdess coyly pretends to fish. The fisherman isn't fooled.  "Den Fisch betrügst du nicht!"

This review also appears in Opera Today 

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Schubert as Goth : Wigmore Hall tomorrow


Tomorrow at the Wigmore Hall, an extremely interesting programme of Schubert Lieder with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu. WHAT A WONDERFUL RECITAL IT WAS ! REVIEW HERE. At the Wigmore Hall excellence is the norm, but this programme is adventurous, macabre but also an insight into Gothic taste.   Two ballads from 1811, ‘Leichenfantasie’ and ‘Der Vatermörder’, introduce each half of this programme, setting the scene for a very interesting traverse of  Schubert's "wilder shores".  In Leichenfantasie, a father is burying his son in a crypt. But why is the funeral taking place at night?  How did the son die, and why ?  Please also see my piece "Schubert's Anti-Father's Day Rant ")  In Der Vatermörder, a son kills his father. Why? Is the son insane?   And why is Schubert, aged only 14, fascinated with Oedipal impulses? Teenagers are morbid: hence Goths.  Schubert as Goth ? We're in for a jolly evening.

A fisherman sits peacefully on his rocking boat in In Der Fischer D225 when suddenly up pops a woman from the watery depths: "Who do you think you are! Killing my kids !" and drags the fisherman underwater.  Horror !  In comparison,  Grablied D218 is just a song about a burial mound. As one is apt to sing.  Even then two seemingly dreamy Abends unter der Linde D235 and D237 are sinister. As the poet sits beneath the linden tree he feels ghostly presences. "Ich fühle eures Atems Kuß, O Julie, o Emilius!"

You wouldn't want to be a Fisherman's Friend. In Fischerlied D351 and D5362, we learn how tough a fisherman's life can be. Of course, it ends in death.  Of course, one can escape through alcohol. Thus Lob des Tokayers D248 and Punschlied: im Norden zu singen D253 in praise of drink! On the other hand, though, fishing is honest labour.  In Fischerweise D881, we're reminded that "Doch wer ein Netz will stellen, Braucht Augen klar und gut, Muß heiter gleich den Wellen Und frei sein wie die Flut."  If you want to catch fish, you have to be clear headed and quick. Fishing is skill, not crafty ruse, like the shepherdess standing on the bridge, heartlessly flirting.

I booked this recital months ago on the strengths of the performers - Stuart Jackson is a great favourite. So Goth or not, this promises to be a stimulating experience.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

JFK and Igor Stravinsky


On this day in 1963, JFK was assassinated. How happy he seems here. A few moments later, Jackie would be crawling over the back seat of the limo, grabbing at fragments of his brain.  No one forgets where they were when they heard the news. I was at a school fun fair and suddenly everything went quiet, and people started going home. We thought Khruschev might  throw a nuke.  This time round, the Russians pull the strings and buy politicians to do their dirty work for them.  Some of the people JFK fought against, like the KKK, are back in again, too.

"Think not what your country can do for  you, but what you can do for your country".  Now, for some people, that very concept is meaningless. Now the object of power seems to be short-sighted selfishness and divisiveness. Clearing the swamp or legitimizing a cesspit?  JFK had his faults, but at least he cared about things other than himself.  His dreams were based on social conscience and communal responsibility.  How innocent those days seem now!  Will the spark JFK lit be now extinguished. In 1963, we were scared the world would end.  Fifty-three years later. we're closer to Armageddon than ever before. Below, Igor Stravinsky's response, to a text by W H Auden, conducted by Pierre Boulez, with Cathy Berberian.




Hurdy Gurdy Winterreise


Schubert Winterriese with a difference, with Matthias Loibner, master Hurdy Gurdy player.  At first i could hardly believe my ears, but the idea works !  Schubert and Wilhelm Muller would have known the sound of these folk instruments, so the references in the text and music are highly significant.  whoever the protagonist in Winterreise may be, he's probably educated though not rich. His journey into uncharted territory, following the spoor of wild animals can be read as a breaking away from society. And thus, the Leiermann,  Barfuß auf dem Eise ,Wankt er hin und her; Und sein kleiner Teller, Bleibt ihm immer leer. Against all odds, the Leiermann keeps going,the mechanical drone of his instrument  reflecting his dogged persistence.  Once the Leiermann might have played a piano., Now,an itinerant beggar, he grinds out a hollow tune. But at least he will not be silenced.  Below, a thoughtful article about Matthias Loibner's Winterreise with hurdy-gurdy, by Mitch Friedfeld:

"I finally took the plunge on possibly the quirkiest Winterreise out there, the one with soprano Natasa Mirkovic-De Ro and Matthias Loibner on...hurdy-gurdy.  Please review the last chapter of Ian Bostridge's book (reviewed here)  So, what did I think of it? Well, it does take some adjustment. To state the obvious, a hurdy-gurdy does not have anything near the depth of a piano, and that's just the point. There is a lot of fret-noise and clicking. If you're a purist about sound, you won't like that part. The tonality is very different, which is to Matthias Loibner's credit. The hurdy-gurdy's droning seems to emphasize dissonance rather than striving for harmony. The sound is bagpipe-like but don't worry, this is far from bagpipe music. Loibner's virtuosity will leave you agape. Mirkovic's diction and intonation are perfect, but I felt like she was walking on eggshells throughout. It sounded like she was afraid of missing a word or tone; too careful and not enough conviction. It feels like she's barefoot on the ice, indeed. After a few songs, I was ready to eject the disc in disappointment, especially after a weak rustling of leaves at Der Lindenbaum. But I stuck with it, Loibner's conception started to make more sense, and I have to say it really grew on me. I began to welcome the dissonances; it made me wonder if Schubert had heard such tonalities in his mind when composing D.911. The highlight of the disc was, not surprisingly, Der Leiermann. The highlight of the disc was, not surprisingly, Der Leiermann. So, bottom line : Should you buy it  ?  Definitely yes. Loibner has a vision and all of us Winterreise fans have to respect that."

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Das Fest auf Solhaug - Ibsen bei Hugo Wolf


Hugo Wolf's Das Fest auf Solhaug (1890-91) was written for a Vienna production of Henrik Ibsen's Gildet paa Solhaug (1856). Wolf didn't take kindly to working on commission.  "I like the Ibsen play less each day... It is right honestly botched with damned little poetry. I don't know where I shall get the plaster from, with which to clothe in music this home-made carpentry".

Admittedly, Wolf was working from a German translation which may not have captured Ibsen's unique idiom.  Shorn of the inherent music in Ibsen's syntax, the plot may well  be awkward.  Margit is unhappily married to rich old Bengt. Margit's really in love with Gudmund, now an exiled outlaw, but returns to Solhaug.  Margit plans to poison Bengt so she can marry Gudmund, whom she does not realize has fallen in love with her gentle sister Signe, who has been promised by the King to Knut, a brute. Knut kills Bengt. The King learns that Gudmund wasn't a villain at all and lets him marry Signe.  Margit becomes a nun.

Wolf's Das Fest auf Solhaug languished in negativity until the original score was edited and published by Kalmus in 1987.  The first, and only, recording,released in 2006, with Helmuth Froschauer conducting the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln,with Günther Lamprecht as speaker. He's wonderful, and acts so well with his voice that he makes the work come alive, in the tradition of German spoken theatre.  In this version, prepared for performance by Christoph Schwandt, there is no dialogue. The cadences of spoken prose communicate, telling the story in a personal, believable way.  There are only two solo songs, for Margit and Gudmund, the rest scored for chorus and orchestra.  This "new" version of Das Fest auf Solhaug shows that it is much more than the set of three songs from the piece published in 1897.  I've long loved  the lyrical "Gesang Margits" for piano and soprano.  Did Wolf know Grieg's Solvieg's Song (1876)?  He despised copying, as true artists do, but perhaps it had a subliminal effect on his sensibilities. The orchestral version we hear here is something else, though.

Wolf set the scene for the play ambitiously. The orchestral prelude is grand, even panoramic, rising to a sudden crescendo then suddenly breaking off.  On this recording there is descriptive narration, but not dialogue, a good idea since the emphasis here is the music. .  Margit's song "Bergkönig ritt durch die Lande weit"  is intoned heroically, heralded by trumpets and horns, taking up the challenging thrust of the Prelude. The voice lowers with menacing portent,as if Margrit were a character in The Ring.  Perhaps Wolf did intuit the background to the tale,where an anonymous King pulls strings, trading his subjects off as if they were chattels.  "Bei Sang und Speil sind wir vereint" sing the chorus:  Solhaug is celebrating the anniversary of Margit's marriage to Bengt, but the mood is ferocious,more hunt than party,with large, pounding ostinato and the clash of cymbals,and trumpet calls. Now it is night, and the narrator tells us about Margit mixing poison. Gudmund sings , "Ich führ wohl ber Wasser" The mood remains truculent and upbeat, with a vigorous orchestral interlude, haunted by solo clarinet, perhaps symbolizing sinister intent. Swirling figures,interrupted by savage,sharp chords, then a madly merry dance.  The horns blast, and morning comes. And so ends the Fest at Solhaug. Bengt's dead, Knut's in trouble with the King and Margit ends up in a convent.  The choir sings in hushed tones, while the orchestra blasts forth in grand coda. Wolf's Das Fest auf Solhaug isn't half bad. We can imagine Wolf gnashing his teeth in exasperation. Perhaps we can feel his impatience. He'd rather be getting on with The Spanish Liederbook than writing mock medieval slush, which may come from the Vienna translation, which fortunately isn't easy to track down..   

Which is more than can be said for Hans Pfitzner, whose own  Drei Vorspeil zu Henrik Ibsens Das Fest auf Solhaug completes this disc.  The first and last Vorspeils are ponderous, taking nearly 20 minutes to say very little.  At least Hugo Wolf gives us a merry jape !  The middle Vorspeil, only 5 minutes, is livelier. Perhaps he's depicting a party of sorts.  But Ibsen and Wolf had a pretty good idea that the festivities at Solhaug were bluff.  Well played, though, even if the music isn't so good. I've been revisiting Das Fest auf Solhaug  as another musical version is released, Wilhelm Stenhammer's Gillet på Solhaug). Watch this space!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Hartmann Simplicius Simplicissimus Independent Opera

K A Hartmann Simplicius Simplicissimuss with Independent Opera at the Lilian Baylis Studio this week, with Stephanie Corley, Timothy Redmond conducting the Britten Sinfonia. This was the first ever staging in the UK, and for a good reason. Simplicius isn't really an opera at all and much of its pungency derives from the fact that it's written with some Bavarian dialect.  Hartmann's source was H J Chr. Grimmelhausen,  whose book Der Abenteuerliche Simplicismuss (1669), is set in  the Thirty Years War, one of the defining traumas of German history, and indeed world history, since it was the first truly global war, acted out in South America and Asia as well as in Europe. "Anno Domini 1618 wohnten 12 millionen in Deutschland" quotes Hartmann in his introduction. "Da kam der grosse Kreig". Thirty years later, only 4 million remained.  In  Hitler's Proclamation to the German  People, he invoked twelve years of humiliation and two million dead to justify Nazi control. The myth of "The People" legitimized the Third Reich.  By reverting to  Bavarian dialect, Hartmann pointedly underlined that there was no single "German People", and that, in any case, the German past was bathed in blood.

Until now, there has been no English translation but this is no demerit. If non-Bavarians have to struggle with the text, that's a good thing since it makes a difference to enter into the arcane, folksy internal logic of the piece. It is not "our" world but a lost world we need to make an effort to penetrate. Though it portrays the past, Hartmann's Simplicius is in no way naturalistic. The "roles" as such operate as symbols. The narrative lies disguised in the music.  Its disjointed character and embedded references reflect a fractured society falling in upon itself. There are hints of Catholic chant, of Jewish song and of modern music, all things the Nazis despised, wrapped in quaint pseudo-medievalism.  Significantly, Helmut Scherchen, champion of new music, worked with Hartmann on  the concept.  Again and again, Hartmann's contemporaries like Braunfels, Schreker and Honegger (all of whom I've been writing about for ages) used history for subversion, not as dreamy romance.  Nazis glorified nostalgia. Sharp-minded composers saw through the bluff.  Hartmann's angular lines are meant to grate, not soothe.  Hartmann's Simplicius is didactic: Brecht's ideas on theatre adapted to music, "imagined theatre" as Henze called it, concepts of music drama still evolving today. Please read my piece on Beat Furrer's FAMA HERE.   

This has a bearing on performance, which is why I'm not at all convinced about naturalistic staging, whatever the period. A friend said of this Independent Opera production that the work might not have the cachet it has, had it been written ten years later. A perceptive comment, since it takes no brains to look back now on Nazi times. But there's a whole lot more to Hartmann's Simplicius than an anti-war narrative.  Hartmann's message is far more disturbing now that we may be entering troubled times where "the people" whoever they might be, are easily fooled by technological manipulation and demagogues without scruple. 

Simplicius is "Ein kleiner Bub bei den Schafen, kannte weder Gott noch Menschen, weder Himmel noch Hölle, weder Engel noch Teufel. Notice the pattern of opposite images, which flows throughout the opera. The text is set in rhyming couplets, typical of German tradition, and the music moves in a similar grave two-step. Simplicius is a "Holy Innocent", so pure he knows nothing of heaven or hell. In Tarot the Fool signifies someone who goes forth into the world without fear, facing danger but protected by his purity. Siegfried without the selfishness. Hartmann sets the part for high soprano though the role is male, to emphasize youth and innocence.

"Beware of the Wolf" warns the farmer. Wolf of course was Hitler's nickname, which he was rather proud of.  Simplicius doesn't know what a wolf is. so when the Landknecht  appears he thinks the Horseman is the vierbeiniger Schelm und Dieb the farmer warned about. "Weiss nit, Herr Wolf" cries Simplicius but the Landknecht attacks the farm and kills the Knän, die Meuder und das kleine Ursele (these archaic words give the piece a deliberate old-world air). A long passage describing the horrors of war, which ends with O armes geknechtetes Deutschland. Now Simplicius has wised up and heads into the forest where he meets a Hermit (another Tarot figure). The Hermit sings music like stylized monastic chant, wavering weirdly. He teaches Simplicius to sing Unser Vater (Our Father). Give us our daily bread". Simplicius, incorrigibly naive, asks auch Käs dazu? (and cheese, too?) Eventually the Hermit dies, leaving Simplicius to face the world alone. Provocatively, Hartmann writes into the death music an echo of the Kaddish.


After another powerful intermezzo,with swirling strings, plunging brass, evoking storms and storm clouds perhaps, Simplicius flies into the Governor's mansion. The soldiers boast of their tyranny and blaspheme. This chorus sound like drunken communal singing in a beer cellar, also a reference perhaps to the Nazis. This time Simplicius pipes up "that's no way to speak". "Can you hear the Mauskopf piepsen shouts the Governor. And of course, Simplicius's music is flute and clarinet. The Governor recites rather than sings, not Sprechstimme but something discordant, a lot like the speeches made where sense mattered less than sound. Some things don't change!  Then Simplicius speaks, at length. Words pour out at a shrill rapid pace, almost no time to take a breath. 
Simplicius harangues the listeners, without music to soften the effect. As she finds her strength her words are supported by drums. A militant but not military march?  And why?

Suddenly, Simplicius's voice rises in song. Es dröhnt die Stadt, es stapft daher, schäumende bitt're Jammersg'walt.  She's joined by the chorus, now representing farmers. The music suggests march: an unnerving reminder that the victims of war can easily become perpetrators of another.  The peasants sing "Ein gleich Gesetz, das woll'n wir han, vom Fürtsen bis zu Bauersmann" but they kill the rich folks anyway. Is this a revolt? The peasants simply stand and stare.  What's changed?  Darkness falls. Simplicius stands by the corpses. "Gepreisen sei der Richter der Wahrheit!"  The peasants hum quietly, wordlessly. Does this signify smoke or unthinking acquiesence? The Specher reminds us that by 1648, 8 million Germans were killed, nearly a quarter of the population at the time.  The music erupts in manic march. Is the cycle repeating?

Hartmann's Simplicius might well be something left unstaged, or minimally staged, since it is theatre of the mind.  In times when The People's Will takes precedence, maybe the mind, or the conscience preserves an individual, as Hartmann discovered in his "internal emigration".   I've written a lot on  Simplicius Simplicissismuss and on other works by K A Hartmann over the years, and also about other composers of the period. Please use labels below and at right.  Two recordings of Simplicius stand out : Heinz Fricke from 1985, and much better and punchier, Ulf Schirmer conducting the Münchener Rundfunksorchester with Camilla Nylund, Michael Volle, Willi Hartmann and Christian Gerhaher in 2009.  I have also heard Markus Stenz from Netherlands Radio, it's no match for  Schirmer and the idiomatic Munich style.