Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ewig, ewig; The Berliner Philharmoniker Binds two works on the Secular Eternal

In a much anticipated pairing the Berliner Philharmoniker, led by music director Simon Rattle, juxtaposed the final scene of The Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Both works explored ideas of the eternal in terms related to the cyclical in nature. Both used common images from daily life as a portal toward awakening--toward seeking solace in the idea that even though the particular dies that there is still youth expressed through rebirth. It is the idea that Nietzsche called "eternal return."

The correspondence between the two works was more than metaphysical, it was also strangely practical. It turns out that the scene, centered on Bass-Baritone Gerald Finley, also required two small roles--the innkeeper's wife, and the schoolteacher that could be performed by the mezzo and tenor from Das Lied. This not only gave us an extra opportunity to hear Mezzo-Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and tenor Stuart Skelton, but it also seemed to connect them directly from the opera into Das Lied.

A new insight was layered into Das Lied in this performance: It was as if the mezzo role in Das Lied was still the innkeeper's wife, and the tenor was still the schoolteacher.

Rattle began the excerpt from The Cunning Little Vixen just after the gunshot that kills the Vixen (beginning with the adagio on page 159 of the piano vocal score). This opened the concert with music of transition; it was like a 90 second upbeat to the final two-scene division that Janáček marked in the score.

The scene at the inn was described by Milan Kundera in an essay from his book "Encounters." Kundera observed that the scene "seems insignificant but [it] always grips my heart. The woodsman and the schoolteacher are alone at the inn. The [...] The innkeeper’s wife is very busy and doesn’t feel like talking. The teacher himself is taciturn: the woman he loves is to be married today. So the conversation is very sparse: where is the innkeeper? off to town; and how is the priest getting on? who knows; and the woodsman’s dog, why isn’t he here? he doesn’t like to walk any longer, his paws hurt, he is old; “like us,” the woodsman adds. I know no other opera scene so utterly banal in its dialogue; or any scene of sadness more poignant, more real."

"Janáček has managed to say what only an opera can say," continued Kundera, "the unbearable nostalgia of insignificant talk at an inn cannot be expressed any other way than by an opera: the music becomes the fourth dimension of a situation which without it would remain anodyne, unnoticed, mute."

Finley voiced this scene and the meditation that followed with simple expression and with resonant

After intermission von Otter and Skelton returned for Das Lied von der Erde. Skelton sang with deeply voiced baritonal colors, but he was able to sing effortless high As and projected like a heldentenor over the orchestra. He brought a wide variety of characteristic expressions to the role--fear during the passage where he first sees the ape among the tombstones, wit during the reflected images of friends chatting seen on the surface of the "little pool," intoxicated conversation with a bird in springtime.

Von Otter brought dignified solemnity to the texts on loneliness and charm to Von der Schönheit, a work about the dangers of youthful obsession.

In a short blog entry last week, I wrote about Kundera's sense that Janáček sought the opposite of "Wagnerian emotion­alism." This performance showed Janáček and Mahler to be brothers.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Janáček and Mahler in the Digital Concert Hall; Brothers or Others?

Beginning in August 2010, the Berliner Philharmoniker undertook a project that involved the performance of the complete major orchestral works of Gustav Mahler. These events were transmitted over, and archived within, the Digital Concert Hall. This project will come to a close on Saturday with a performance of  Das Lied von der Erde with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and tenor Stuart Skelton as soloists.

Das Lied will be paired with the final scene of the "Cunning Little Vixen" by Janáček. One imagines that this imaginative companion was chosen for its similarities. The brief online notes for the program indicate that the Janáček scene "reveals fascinating parallels to Das Lied von der Erde. Janáček, born like Mahler in what today is an area of the Czech Republic, creates a wonderfully delicate scene in which the Forester ponders life – and in turn bids farewell to youth and beauty."
In an essay called "The Most Nostalgic Opera," from his recent book "Encounters," Milan Kundera argues that Janáček wrote in opposition to romanticism.

To help make his case Kundera focuses on an unexpected moment at the end of the final scene where a frog jumps up onto the woodsman and talks with him. The woodsman believes this to be the same frog that led the vixen to him in the first scene, but time passes quickly for animals; this stuttering frog is the grandson of the frog the huntsman believed him to be.

"Ah, that little frog!" wrote Kundera. "Max Brod did not like him at all. Max Brod—yes, Franz Kafka’s closest friend—he supported Janáček wherever and however he could: he translated his operas into German and opened German theaters to them. The sincerity of his friendship authorized him to let the composer know all his criticisms. The frog must go, he wrote Janáček in a letter, and in place of his stammering, the woodsman should solemnly pronounce the words that will close the opera! And he even suggests what they should be: 'So kehrt alles zurück, alles in ewiger Jugenpracht! (Thus do all things repeat, all with a timeless youthful power.)' ”

"Janáček refused. Brod’s proposal went against all his aesthetic intentions, against the polemic he had waged his whole life long. A polemic that set him in opposition to opera tradition. In opposition to Wagner. In opposition to Smetana. In opposition to the official musicology of his countrymen. In other words, in opposition (to quote René Girard) to 'the romantic lie.' The little disagreement about the frog shows Brod’s incurable romanticism: imagine that weary old woodsman, his arms widespread, head thrown back, singing the glory of eternal youth! This is the romantic lie par excellence, or, to use another term: this is kitsch."

I can't imagine that Kundera would call "Das Lied" Kitsch. But his concept does create the possibility that the works are more others than brothers. I will tune into the Digital Concert Hall on Saturday to hear this event and will write about it here on Sonic Labyrinth. Join me.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Toasting the Death of our Illusions. A Review of Faust from Met Live in HD

If you heard the Live in HD Faust production you will know what I am talking about:

Je T'aime!

Jonas Kaufmann, as Faust, blew us all back with a full-throated high B that he was able to control over an extended diminuendo before completing the gesture to land a tenth lower. It was during a G major harmony during the lover's interlude late in Act II when the Faust and Marguerite fix one another in the midst of the infamous waltz chorus. [The passage is at the bottom of page 92 of the Schirmer vocal score]. The sound and color of that high B as he shifted gears was simply awesome. Kaufman was the Faust of surprises. Familiar as the role is, he found ways to imprint new possibilities. He was that kind of Faust.

The Des McAnuff production was classical in most regards. Yes, the time frame was set in the 20th century, but the feel of narrative unfolding with its long vocal portraits set against motion created through genre changes and the altered perception of its characters was almost conservative. Why did it work?

The McAnuff production made it appear that Faust was going back in time specifically to meet Marguerite somewhat akin to the concept of the book "Somewhere in Time" by Richard Matheson (which was made into that popular movie from 1980 starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour).

It was great to hear the Walpurgis Night episode at the beginning of Act V. Faust is such a long opera that most productions opt to cut this passage because it is irrelevant to most stagings. The McAnuff production was centered around ideas from this passage. The "blazing flashes, cold as ice," and "dark to light in an instant," in the text seemed natural in the context of atomic science.

The staircases on either side of the stage were lit vertically and each began to take on the appearance of a double helix. "Come, let us toast the death of my illusions," sang Kaufmann as Faust. In this production the aging scientist we met in the first act woke up from a dream that was the opera itself, and collapsed onto the stage dead as the curtain fell. The setting never left the laboratory scene of Act One, and though the setting was transformed throughout the opera the stasis of the physical setting both reinforced the dream scenario and made the passages of time portrayed in the music itself seem even more surrealistic.

I was interested to hear McAnuff indicate that his production concept was influenced by Rita Bronowski, who died this last September at the age of 92. She was wife of the anthropoligist Jacob Bronowski, known to most people through his impressive and passionately argued series "The Ascent of Man." Rita was a long-time resident of the San Diego area and was involved in local theatre--especially the La Jolla Playhouse.

"I was always struck by a story of [Jacob] visiting Nagasaki," said McAnuff in one of the intermission interviews, "and deciding never to practice physics again. And I thought this was a sort of quintessential historical moment." The McAnuff production allowed us to focus on elements of this opera that are often misplaced or underscored. "Come, let us toast the death of my illusions."

Friday, December 9, 2011

Review of "Four Corners!" The New CD from The Berlin Philharmonic Horn Quartet

Thanks in part to the success of the Digital Concert Hall, the Horn Quartet of the Berliner Philharmoniker could easily be the most recognizable horn quartet anywhere. They are rock stars with embouchures.

Their new disc is called "Four Corners." The title derives from an expansion of one of its own tracks in which Michael Barnett arranged tunes from the "four corners" of the British Isles: England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. The resulting concept became a collection of sonic souvenirs and tributes based on the touring schedule of this ensemble which takes them to the four corners of the globe.

Fully one-half of the twenty-two track on the disc are arrangements made by Berlin Philharmonic Horn Quartet member Klaus Wallendorf. The eleven tracks that he was responsible for creating give us a unique insight into his musical personality. His arrangements span from the formal in Anitra's Dance and Solveig's song from Peer Gynt to off-beat humor like his arrangement of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

My favorite Wallendorf arrangement is "Sous le Ciel de Paris," where a clever and elaborate figuration in fast triplets never gets in the way of the tune or the attitude of the waltz itself. Wallendorf's arrangements could easily become a compendium of possibilities for anyone thinking about sonorities for four horns.

Of the other material, I enjoyed the Joshua Davis arrangement of Walzting Mathilda with a soulful and jazzy big-band style low horn solo played by Sarah Willis.

I don't understand the concluding E-flat major chord of Florian Janezic's arrangement of Nessun Dorma--the chord forces the piece to sound like it meant to end on V. Perhaps the original context contained other Puccini arrangements that would have made this idea work, but within this context it crashes into the mysterious D minor opening of "Kalinka" on track 17. This was a rare example of discontinuity. The disc is otherwise quite effective in its tonal and stylistic design, and as a result the music flows without sounding overly segmented.

The disc itself opens like a present. The booklet insert folds out into a twelve-panel double-sided collage of photographs, tour markings and impromptu notes. In one photo Stefan Dohr is standing next to a smiling Buddha. Underneath the photo is a traditional Chinese recipe (written in Chinese) for making beef wonton soup. This particular recipe only makes twenty wontons...most horn players I know would need forty.

Wit and wackiness mix with stunning virtuosity on this disc which would make an excellent gift for any music lover with an off-beat sense of humor.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Living Ghosts of Rodelinda; Some thoughts on Handel at the Met Live in HD

Baroque opera is a celebration of strangeness. The vocal qualities, instrumental ensembles, formal structures and plot devices seem soaked in the unfamiliar. Why then do so many commentators resonate with an idea expressed by Renée Fleming during one of the intermission interviews during the Live in HD presentation of Handel's opera Rodelinda? "Handel is modern," said Fleming.

Modern is the right word. This production by Stephen Wadsworth focused the existential qualities of this score and made the work seem a commentary on an afterlife where spirits were reunited because death was a misunderstanding.

"You say that I am dead," sang countertenor Andreas Scholl as Bertarido in his opening recitative. There was no one else onstage. He was singing to those who memorialized him with an engraved headstone because they believed him to have been killed in exile. The chilly tone and high pitches that Scholl produced sounded like the voice of the dead. Moments later, Bertarido heard Rodelinda mourning for him but could not reveal himself. It was as if he were dead and inhabiting an afterworld aware of, but just outside the world of the living.

Act three provides symmetrical balances. Bertarido's sister Eduige (played by Stephanie Blythe), recognizes him by hearing his disembodied voice. She follows the sound of the voice and finds him, and to her surprise he is alive.

In a wonderful and strange twist late in the third act, Rodelinda again becomes convinced that Bertarido has been killed because of bloody clothes left behind in his jail cell. Wadsworth set this scene in a jail cell that was physically underneath the tombstone monument from Act I. In an Aida-like moment, the horizon lifted as a section of the stage elevated and we could see that the jail was underground, like a crypt.

Between both images of false death is a reunion. Rodalinda sees Bertarido at the end of the second act. Is he still alive?

"I embrace you," they sing in the only duet in the opera, "stronger and harsher than death is this this farewell that tears me from you." Wadsworth staged the duet at the site of the funeral monument. It all connected.

Handel set no indications that the dead could have been in a heavenly realm where they were freed from the struggles of living. Though there are occasional references to God in the libretto the references are exclamations of drama rather than prayer. What could be more different from the energy of Bach than this philosophical exploration? This is not Messiah.

Rodelinda explores a concept of death that remains alive and present, with us. "I marry vengeance," sang Rodelinda to Grimoaldo in the second act, "you marry death."
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