Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Holy German art


Yes, that would certainly include - and right at the top of the list alongside Wagner - Gustav Mahler, whose 150th birthday we celebrate today (and I still haven't got to the omphalos, Jihlava).* As Paul Steinberg's brilliant dropcloth for Richard Jones's still simmering-in-the-mind production of Wagner's Meistersinger left us in no doubt, 'heilige Deutsche kunst' extends from Bach and Beethoven to Brecht and Bausch, embracing all German-speaking 'imaginers', as Jones calls them. You can enter the Welsh National Opera competition to guess (or know) all the faces in the collage by e-mailing the answers to marketing@wno.org.uk or post them to WNO. As the above photo seems to be cropped you'll need to get hold of the original postcard. And I confess I still haven't by any means sussed them all.

Great Jones, only visionary of our British theatre (as I keep saying, and I mean it), came to talk to me and the students on Monday. He raised so many interesting points I hadn't even thought of, and here's no place to ennumerate them, but I will add that he told us - in response to one of many articulate questions from my bunch, of whom I was inordinately proud - how a couple of German intendants who came to see the show found this all-inclusive perceived 'apology' for Wagner's definition harder to swallow than we Brits. While we heave a sigh of relief and say, at last we've moved on from the Wagner-and-the-Nazis question, they still seem to be mired in it, perhaps because they haven't been able to discuss it in their own art properly until recently. And then what do you get? Stodgy, trad films like Downfall. Hate to sound superior, because it's their issue, but they still have some way to go.

Had to raise the old 'is Flieder lilac or elder' question again. Richard didn't face it directly, but by talking of the heady sex-magic - my phrase, not his - which the scent seems to work on Sachs, he would seem to incline to the elder-as-aphrodisiac theory. Anyway, having been in enchanted Visby, I can tell you that Sweden, or at least Gotland, is a place where lilac and elder DO flower simultaneously around midsummer; everywhere else, including Nuremberg, lilac is over. But here's the ocular proof:



My thanks to the quietly brilliant Jan Brachmann for drawing my attention to the lilac as I walked around Visby in a bit of a daze.

Can anyone identify this plant, another heady smeller, high on the hill above the Baltic?


I reckon Visby would make a marvellous setting for an outdoor production of Meistersinger, moving from venue to venue. We could start in the Domkyrkan (seen behind the elder in the first picture) - though the modern glass might be a bit of a problem - and move on to Transhusgatan near the botanics for Act 2. No linden is close to hand, but I do think Magdalena-as-Eva could appear at this rose-flanked window.


Then it would be out on to the flowery heath for the final pageant.

And if you want to celebrate Mahler's birthday, what better way to do it than to watch what is bound to be the deepest, most meaningful First Symphony, a just-released DVD of last summer's Lucerne Festival/Abbado performance. Better not enlarge on it now, since my BBC Music Magazine review hasn't yet appeared, but I'll just say, buy it and watch it over and over: you won't regret it.


The third in the great triumvirate, Richard Strauss, also deserves a mention. I hadn't intended to see the revival of David McVicar's very bloody, Salo-esque Salome, but as I was talking before it last night and the Arts Desk hadn't covered it in my absence, I went on to the show after my half-hour Linbury 'performance', and marvelled, as with the ENO Tosca, how a great performance makes you respect the score as the real mover and shaker. Angela Denoke redeemed the tonally awful Nadja Michael performance from the first run, too. More over on The Arts Desk.

Led me to think of all the Salomes I've seen. In a crude nutshell, the ones I can call to mind are: Behrens (goddess), Barstow (goddawful), Tierney (not bad at all), Barker (vocally lustrous, good acting too), Some American in Wales (forgettable, but did bring a bit of tenderness to the final scene), Ewing (dreadful), Gwyneth (vocally tops, acting less good), Malfitano (squally, bit wild in the acting too), Michael (vocally the pits). And now Denoke (almost as good as Behrens, not quite, but probably the most detailed characterisation I've seen).

Finally, on a sobering note, my NBB (New Best Blogfriend) Minnie reminded me in the most eloquent way possible that today may be Mahlerday, but it's also an occasion of sober commemoration. Her focused anger is, at least in my opinion, fully justified. Do take time to read what she has to say.

*but hang on - is it just me or is Mahler really missing from that assemblage of just about all Austro-German greats? Unmoeglich!

18 comments:

Minnie said...

NBB waving (and blushing) furiously here at the accolade, David. Thank you. I'm glad of the company of you and your friends on this occasion.
Beautiful post - and I love the term 'imaginer'. Unable to help with the botany; hope someone who can, does.
Can't find Mahler among the photomontage, either. Hm. But shall celebrate his birthday anyway (many thanks for the reminder) by seeking out 1st Symphony - I think my favourite of all his works - on YouTube.

JVaughan said...

Greetings, and the _VERY_ best on this important musical anniversary!

Since I think we both know what conductor bothered to determine the latest information we have about the ordering of middle movements in the _Sixth_ _Symphony_, does he have similar authority for omitting the First Movement's exposition repeat? Yet he, and all others I can recall, observes the one in the _First_, though admittedly that one is shorter. Yet, since these are the only two such repeats in Mahler of which I am aware, does he not mean them, again unless he later cancelled out the one in the _Sixth_? And maybe I should know this, but why does Mahler use cowbells in such a tragic work? Do they have any tragic implications? That slow movement is a lovely, and seemingly-rather-peaceful, thing, is it not, and the work as a whole reasonably-conventional in structure until that wide-ranging, utterly-Mahlerian Finale?

As for _Meistersinger_, I had planned to play our maestro's DVD for my annual June ritual, but, by the time I got to the ubiquitous-here Flieder Monologue, I had had quite enough, this being one of the few of his recordings which does little for me, the conducting to me seeming rather-foursquare and uninteresting. Yet further, Sir Donald seems to be aging too much by this 1988 performance, though some of the other singing may be respectable at least. And, for what it is worth, I now have a Goodall/ENO performance on a CD ROM with all of Wagner's other operas, though I think the Eva is different than on the Chandos issue, and the sound, as in all recordings in this collection, is monaural, and the pitch somehow comes out about a half-tone flat. His three early operas are conducted by Sir Edward, and, it would appear, they are complete, insofar as that is possible from the source material we have for them, notably in the case of _Rienzi_. I look forward to playing them in August, and hope, before that, to find English libretti for all three if possible.

J. V.

Will said...

Several years a good friend, hearing we were planning a trip across Scandinavia, called to urge us to spend some time at Visby. We rearranged our schedule and I got on line to book accommodations, securing what may have been the last room available in the old town, in an ancient monastery whose courtyard was filled with lilac.

Thank you for recalling some wonderful memories.

David said...

Visby seemed to me like the perfect town, Will, though we only got to spend an hour and a half there on our way back to the airport from Faro. Next year I'd like to go back and spend a couple of nights there with the diplo-mate before returning to Faro for a bit of the next Bergman Week. I saw the perfect little hotel, rather old-fashioned but with a lovely garden, near the Botanics.

On the question of the exposition repeat in the Sixth, JV, it doesn't seem as if Mahler removed it in his last performance (when of course he reversed the order of the middle movements). The repeat is necessary both to stress the unusual classicism and to balance the length with the huge and very different finale. I read somewhere that he did also contemplate an exposition repeat in the A minor Allegro of the Fifth, too.

Cowbells - an unearthly sound, to convey remote heights here, I think. I always loved Richard Osborne's sleeve note for the Karajan recording, the one I grew up with: in the first-movement 'idyll' he quotes Thomas Hardy's 'for mind-chains do not clank/When one's nearest neighbour is the sky'.

JVaughan said...

Thank you _VERY_ much for this clarification! When playing that _BBC_ _Music_ _Magazine_ recording yesterday, I went back to the beginning at the point where I assumed the repeat should begin, but may wish to check a recording where it is actually observed to find out if I got that right.

And, to clarify something I also said yesterday, only the _Meistersinger_ on that CD ROM is at an incorrectly-lower pitch, doubtless the fault of the recording equipment for a source of this issue.

J. V.

David said...

I can't recall any other recording where the repeat ISN'T observed. Of course with the near-contemporary Rachmaninov Second Symphony, the exposition repeat is much more contestable. I wished Gergiev hadn't included it in his oh so leisurely and innig new recording.

Who IS the Eva on the recording you mention? Margaret Curphy really isn't right - oddly they so rarely are. I like Helen Donath on the Karajan best.

Halldor said...

I'll have to check again when i get home, where the WNO Meistersinger curtain postcard already has pride of place on our fridge, but I'm fairly sure that I saw Mahler on there somewhere, possibly at one of the edges.

Wonderfully, so is Joseph Roth.

Rather nice too - for aproduction that is all about shared tradition, and the healing of arbitrary cultural rifts - that Johannes Brahms is almost at the very centre of the curtain (just down from Nietzsche...)!

JVaughan said...

According to the notes for this Mahler _Six_ which I have, Sir John Barbirolli also omitted that repeat. The Litton Rachmaninof _Two_ which I have observes the repeat there.

I was under what must have been a mistaken notion that Miss Hunter was the Eva on the Chandos, but it turns out that Miss Curphey is on both it and this CD ROM, and thus, since both are listed as BBC broadcasts, they presumably are one and the same, though the CD ROM is, as already related, in inferior sound. I do not have the Chandos. The stereo Karajan indeed has some things going for it, including Herr Kollo before his vocal problems set in and Herr Ridderbusch as a fine Pogner, but I can usually do without Herr Adam, though might be able to take his Wotan on the Sawallisch CD-ROM _Ring_, which I also might include in my August cycle to try it out. I like Miss Donath very much, but have no specific recollections of her Eva. The one on the Solti/VPO may not be ideal vocally, but seems to offer some nice expressive touches, and I like having her break down and cry after the final verse of what would later become the so-called Prize Song. Does Miss Donath do the trills, which so few seem to do?

J. V.

David said...

Yes, JV, Donath does the trills. She's a bit pushed by a couple of the phrases in the Quintet, and of course 'O Sachs, mein Freund' is really Isolde territory, but she is so cute and loveable. I was going to play my class the Elisabeth Schumann-led Quintet but decided in the end that the Karajan team made it glow more (the sound helps, too).

I remembered the Barbirolli cut just after I posted - the movement is STILL slower than most without it. Really too heavy for words.

Halldor, I looked on the fringes of my card and still can't see the Great Man.

David said...

Halldor, I just had to say how I approve of so many of your favourite choices - 101 Rekyavik is a marvellous film, and Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr is the book I've enjoyed the most in the past couple of years (along with the Complete Works of Hilary Mantel).

Can't see a ref to a blog - presumably you don't have one.

JVaughan said...

Some gremlin or something must be at work here since your reply to me also arrived twice, though it appears only once here. And it usually now takes me two attempts to get a comment to post.

Is it not the tenors, and the Walther in particular, who have the biggest problems in the Quintet? As for "O Sachs, Mein Freund" being Isolde territory, do I assume you are talking about its beginning, with that leap of an octave to that high B? This may be stretching things a bit, but could Wagner have made it that way in anticipation of what Sachs will sing next? I can imagine Miss Donath being adorable since she certainly is in Lehar's _Das_ _Land_ _Des_ _Lechelns_! And to think that she came from Texas to make her home in German7y!

J. V.

p.s. And, of course, that should have just been Germany. Further, I was not speaking of just one recording when making my comment about the tenors in the Quintet. Herr Kaufmann made a good go of it in Edinburgh, but regretably cracked just a little on one of his B-Flats.

Gavin Plumley said...

It is a marvellous drop curtain. Friends went yesterday (I wasn't able to be with them) and have brought me back a postcard...

But I'm not entirely sure about the German or German-speaking nations not quite wrestling with their Nazi past in their art. What about Michael Haneke or Thomas Bernhard's probing of the Austrian culpability? Or the very real visual responses throughout Berlin? They seem to wear their guilt entirely on their sleeve in the capital; it's almost wearying. And certainly Stefan Herheim's Parsifal at Bayreuth dealt with those issues head on. I don't think the two German intendants are necessarily indicative of the whole.

Will said...

Expanding Gavin's comment, the Meistersinger directed at Bayreuth by Katherina Wagner very specifically introduced some Nazi imagery into an opera whose post WWII history at the Festspielhaus included Wieland Wagner's "Meistersinger ohne Nurnberg" where little or nothing of the city's architecture was included in the setting, because of the city's strong association with Hitler and Nazi congresses.

David said...

Yes, I'm well aware of the instances you both cite, and indeed they happen to be among the relatively recent ones I was talking about. Jones saw KW's Meist and found it alienating, as I'm sure I would too. The question is, are the Germans as willing to move on from all that as we are? And those intendants thought not.

Roger Neill said...

Back from Brum, amongst the many great virtues was an Act 3 quintet sung pretty well in tune. A first for me in the theatre! Easier to achieve in a studio recording, but even in those controlled circumstances so often wrecked by barn-door vibrato from the soprano. I thought Amanda Roocroft's Eva was modest and well-sung throughout.

David said...

Good to hear from you, Roger - but you do sound just a little underwhelmed. I'll forgive Amanda Roocroft her step too far in 'O Sachs, mein Freund' because she was for the most part as much a plucky, petulant Eva incarnate as he was/IS Sachs to the life.

Think I wrote that I come down in favour of Helen Donath as the best top line in any quintet. But that's a studio recording too, of course - no idea if the balances would have been right in the theatre.

Gavin Plumley said...

Well, the question is whether you then ignore it and whether that counts as having moved on; Michael Haneke and Thomas Bernhard thought not. I think it's hard to say that they should move on and then cite DOWNFALL as the only example of that process.

Genuinely, I think that subsequent generations have been open and honest about that past and are now viewing it as a sordid and devastating event in their countries' vast histories.

In any event, the confusion of Wagner and Nazism is a musicological plague... summone only to create a furore. As you say, thank goodness Richard Jones 'simmering' production finds a new (old?) unhindered route through MEISTERSINGER.

JVaughan said...

I was spot-sampling that CD-ROM yet again the other day, and thought I would check for at least one cut in _Meistersinger_. Though I had previously found
that Sachs' final speech is uncut in this Goodall, I found this time, somewhat to my surprise, that David's catalogue of Mastersongs and Tunes is, as it was
in a Met production in use from the 50's at least into the 70's, if not beyond. A reviewer on Amazon confirmed that, and one in Beckmesser's Act-II Serenade,
as per the Chandos issue.

Turning now a bit off topic, to the last act of _Gotterdammerung_, I have been curious for some time about a couple of passages in Siegfried's Narrative
where I understand Wagner to ask for solo voices, whereas, in all but two performances I have heard thus far, the chorus is used. One of these is just
after Siegfried describes killing Mime, and Hagen sings his approval. Is the use of the chorus there, and, I think, just before Siegfried sings of the
drink Mime prepared for him, an inauthentic tradition that just got started somewhere, or did Wagner end up sanctioning it? It is observed in the Sawallisch
performance on this CD-Rom, and as far back as the famous 1953 Bayreuth (I guess, given his seemingly-unusually-large chorus, that Sir Mark also observes this tradition on his new recording, and regret that we were not given that segment this past Saturday, though I can try requesting it for _Summer_ _CD_ _Review_), though not on the also-famous Melchior recording of that scene and in a 1962 Met
performance which I have heard, conducted by Maestro Leinsdorf. As you may know, Mr. Culshaw's _Ring_ book tells us of another tradition that Maestro
did not observe, an orchestral crescendo in the beautiful passage leading into the main section of Wotan's Farewell.

J. V.