Wednesday 22 May 2013

Talkabout: Strauss, Prokofiev, Stravinsky

Put a week's silence here down to busy talk scheduling - crazy, in fact, but the subjects were desert island pieces (original 1912 design for the domain of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Ariadne above by Ernst Stern), so I wanted to do them all. Sunday was the first mad day. Having to be at Glyndebourne for a 10.30am talk, with a sound test well in advance, meant it was worth staying over on Saturday night to avoid a very early start from London. I was also able to fit in an interview the previous lunchtime with Katharina Thoma, director of the Ariadne auf Naxos which has just opened, and Kate Lindsey, the mezzo singing the Composer. Delightful company, as you can glean from the way-too-long but I hope interesting Arts Desk Q&A. I get to see the show when I talk again at Glyndebourne on 2 June.

Thoma took her central production idea from the fact that Glyndebourne was used as a wartime home for evacuee children. It looks idyllic as they run gay through green meadows, but no doubt the trauma always lurked.

Though it seems from another archive photo that there was no lake in the 1940s, and of course no new opera house, otherwise not a great deal has changed. Of course a smooth lawn now takes the place of the meadow, but the goalposts suggested that fun and games were still to be had before the season opened last Saturday.

The relatively new garden regime takes time to have its full effect: there aren't nearly as many varieties of exotic tulips as there used to be, but enough to make a pre-season May visit special.

The tree peony in the formal garden used to be in full spate on study days, but this year's slow progress means it's only budding, ready to burst.

Notoriously variable in its featured artists - remember the dreadful 'portraits' by Adam 'Son of Harry' Birtwistle? - Glyndebourne has made an odd choice this year. You'll be taken aback by Sean Henry's standing or sitting lifesize figures in polychrome/bronze dotted about the place (Bryn as Wanderer is the one I didn't see), and generally I don't mind them, but I'm not at all sure about 'Catafalque', the recumbent man out on the lawn. He certainly changes perspectives like this one from the Ebert Room where the talks take place.

So I took the audience on a whistlestop tour of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's three Molière projects, starting with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as Der Bürger als Edelmann in 1912. On the downloadable Glyndebourne podcast the plot's the thing, shorn of the Sunday talk's background complexities. It's very likeably presented by Margaret (aka Peggy) Reynolds and has been well edited by the delightful Mair Bosworth. I talk on it alongside an expert on commedia dell'arte and that great gentleman Michael Kennedy, whose Master Musicians book led my teenage self deeper into Strauss.

On Sunday, playing Pavarotti as the Rosenkavalier tenor singing 'Di rigori armato il seno' seemed like a good place to start alongside the same text delivered by an Italian Singer(ess, so it's armata) in Lully/Molière's Ballet des Nations. Hopping between Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Version 1 and the more familiar 1916 all-operatic Ariadne meant some fun in comparing Zerbinetta's whole-tone-higher, longer original crazy coloratura aria with the one we usually get.

There wasn't time to feature the cod-Turkish ceremony of Hofmannsthal's 1917 Bürger-minus-Ariadne (I'll never forget the late Peter Allen's take on it in his Edinburgh University staging of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for Les Escogriffes, which involved a swimming pool and actors in Kermit and Fozzy Bear masks: genius, it seemed at the time). But the first musical programme which Glyndebourne dramaturg Cori Ellison had devised, under the aegis of the lovely people in the Education Department, made amends with the Madrigal alongside two numbers from the 1912 incidental music - Monsieur Jourdain's little doggerel song, which I'd played in sequence with the original composer's aria 'Du, Venus' Sohn', and the pretty neoclassical duet for shepherd and shepherdess - as well as, from the opera, Harlequin's serenade and, from the Prologue, the Composer's ode to music.

As always with the young singers involved, you think, if the covers are this good, can the artists they're covering be better? That was true of all three singers, accompanied by repetiteur Helen Collyer: soprano Lucy Hall, mezzo Carla Dirlikov (pictured above by John Myers) - who pulled out all the stops for her big number, acting and all - and a fine young baritone, Daniel Shelvey.

I'd have loved to stay and hear Hall and Collyer in two Zemlinsky songs with Hofmannsthal texts, as well as Margaret/Peggy's 'mythical sisters' talks - the afternoon was devoted to the other new production, Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie - but a taxi was waiting at 11.55 to whisk me to Lewes station and the train back to London for a 3pm event.

This one was unmissable: Denis Kozhukhin playing all three of Prokofiev's titanic so-called 'War' Sonatas (6-8, composed between 1938 and 1944). Because the feat required a bigger rest-up time during the interval between the Seventh and Eighth Sonatas, the Southbank's The Rest is Noise team, having liked what they heard of my Paris 1910-1930 taster, enlisted me to talk for about 15 minutes while Denis prepared for the final hurdle. Classical Music Programme Manager Ben Larpent took the following photos; obviously the pianist could only be snapped after his performances.

Kozhukhin's interpretations were much as I'd found them when I reviewed his Onyx CD for the BBC Music Magazine's May issue: fabulously nuanced and with an uncanny skill in bringing out the tone-colours of different simultaneous lines. For me there was too much sustaining pedal in developments - not at all Prokofiev the pianist's style - and something reined in about the outer movements of the Sixth and Seventh Sonatas, though the latter's central Andante caloroso moved me to tears.

Just as well, perhaps, because my talk started - with credit to friend and so-collegial fellow Prokofievian Daniel Jaffé, whose singing-teacher then-wife Frith spotted the correspondence - with its obvious-when-you-hear-it resemblance to Schumann's 'Wehmut' from the Op. 39 Liederkreis. And of course this is one of those coded references to suffering which we used to think were exclusive to Shostakovich. Eichendorff's text begins 'I can sometimes sing/As if I were happy,/But secretly tears well up/Which free my heart', and ends 'no one can truly feel the anguish of my song's deep sorrow'. I don't need to add any more about the context except to repeat what I've written elsewhere, that according to his older son Sviatoslav, Prokofiev never talked about the terrible years 1936 and '37 to anyone, at least in the children's hearing.

Anyway, having a captive audience in the middle of a concert opened me up to a taste of my own reviewing medicine, so it was a relief to find that Colin Clarke on MusicWeb's Seen and Heard International approved. Quite a few enthusiastic listeners were unusually willing to come up and chat at the end of the concert, perhaps because they could see where I was sitting. And I got to meet the ever so nice Roger Vignoles, who said he'd heard Schumann when Kozhukhin played the movement, but couldn't place what exactly until I did it for him.

The glory, of course, was the pianist's: the end crowned the mighty work with the best of the three performances, as on the disc, of the Eighth, with its huge tarantella-cum-march finale majestically tying up the pain with the biting humour. Here's Kozhukhin introducing the sonatas.

My desert island disc of that, by the way, is the incomparable Sviatoslav Richter's, but this interpretation was very fine indeed. And Kozhukhin's way of terracing the sound came across beautifully in the only possible encore - Bach, but arranged by Ziloti (the B minor Prelude). There's certainly no harm in featuring the pianist who gave the premiere of the Eighth Sonata, Emil Gilels, in this ineffable lowering of temperatures.

Actually Kozhukhin's own performance of this gem, also to be heard but not seen on YouTube, is just as magical in its way.

With only a couple of days in London - more talking, this time in the Gloriana class - I flew up to Glasgow on Wednesday afternoon and back on Thursday night, since I had to be off to my beloved Göttingen and its Handel Festival the following morning. This way I didn't get to stay for the concert in which Matthias Pintscher conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which I was discussing earlier in the evening; another quick whizz after another talk was again the order of the day. But I did get to see Scottish Opera's new G&S, The Pirates of Penzance, to which I took godson Alexander on Wednesday night and which I reviewed for The Arts Desk. Here's the consummate Richard Suart's Major-General pirated, picture for Scottish Opera by KK Dundas.

In short, although the cast and orchestra were mostly excellent, the Savoy wit and wisdom drowned in a stream of gags by a director who didn't trust his material. I enjoyed rather more my haggis and chips sitting in warm sun on Sauciehall Street before the show. Ah well; Alexander got the point that the text is dazzlingly witty - who but Gilbert would rhyme 'Aristophanes' with 'Zoffanies'? - and the music stronger, quite often, than the Italian opera it spoofs.

Thursday was mostly spent indoors working on the Glyndebourne interview transcription and brushing up the material for the talk. But I did have an hour off walking from the ever-welcome aBode Hotel in Bath Street to City Halls. En route I had a plate of oysters fried in polenta

sitting outside at Glasgow's oldest established restaurant, Rogano, inspired design-wise by the art deco of the Queen Mary back in 1935.

The Duke of Wellington outside the Gallery of Modern Art, traditional target for Glaswegian malarkey, is no longer traffic-coned as he was in February but sports a rather sinister face mask (representing what I couldn't make out).

I took in some rather remarkable Victorian/Edwardian architecture around the City Halls in Candleriggs, all nicely tarted up for this fashionable zone. Again, I'd love to know more about what I was seeing, though I've just identified the eccentric turret in the middle as part of a former warehouse in Brunswick Street 'designed in the baronial style by architect RW Billings in 1854 for J and W Campbell'. The City Chambers are seen in the centre of the bottom picture.

Then I ensconced myself in a dressing room backstage at the City Halls to work, courtesy of Douglas Templeton and Andrew Trinick,

popping out for Pintscher's rehearsal of The Rite. Such efficient use of the time available, such professional dovetailing, such clarity and character; the firm basis would have allowed for any amount of extra intensity in the performance. Must set aside time to listen to the broadcast of the event proper available on the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer (a more than usually generous three weeks left to catch it).

In the talk, I tried to offset the perceived modernism of Stravinsky's score and Nijinsky's choreography at the premiere 100 years ago this month with the music's roots in folk music and Musorgsky (the opening piping - I love Saint-Saens's remark in 1913, 'if that's a bassoon, I'm a baboon' - is a reworking of shepherd Gritsko's reed-playing at the end of the Sorochintsy Fair version of Night on a Bare Mountain).

So, after the most stressy of the week's travels, on to a more relaxing ambience in Göttingen where I wasn't required to hold forth and concert treasures - if not this year's opera - offered plenty of soul food. More on that anon, but let's connect by having William IV less stylishly debunked by the students of the university he so splendidly enriched just before his death in 1837 than the Duke of Wellington is by the Glaswegians.

23/5 Oh yes, and Wagner was a nifty four times 50 on the day of posting. How could I have forgotten? Anyway, I'm not in the mood at the moment (and a concert conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, of all people, hardly seemed like the best way to celebrate). There will be nothing but Wagner for me at the end of the year, for reasons I'm still not at liberty to divulge.


Catriona said...

Looking forward to reading your views on Siroe. It was good seeing you in Gottingen.

David said...

And you, and yours, Catriona - our wander through the summer-evening streets was a short but sweet interlude before the long haul home. I'll be writing the whole experience up for The Arts Desk on Saturday; glad the three concerts were so strong and memorable, because for me the opera wasn't, really, in any way except the orchestral (and the dancer playing 'the people'). Can I read you already or will you summarise?

Catriona said...

You can read me at
Of course, there are bits I meant to put in but forgot at the time and it was getting too long in any case. I also realise I haven't mentioned the choreographer. Mea culpa. I hope none of the team are in any way offended by it.
I think the last night was special - those who had seen it before reckoned the singers were a lot more relaxed than earlier, probably with relief it was almost over.
I wish I had heard some of the other concerts - Rachel Podger was good, but only whetted my appetite.

David Damant said...

Antonia Fraser has just published her biography of William IV - no doubt with her usual competence, though I have not seen it yet. He did not expect to inherit, and combined the usual elements of character ( not all admirable) of the members of the Hanoverian family ( Victoria's uncles, " compared with whom the Queen was a beacon of Liberalism ") But he did achieve two vital things - he agreed at the crucial time to threaten to create enough peers to swamp the House of Lords if their Lordships would not agree to the Great Reform Act of 1832; and he succeeded in his determination to live long enough for Victoria to be of age and inherit the throne, without the Regency of her mother the dreadful ( I shall have to read Antonia Fraser to check that) Duchess of Kent. His eldest illegitimate son was made Earl of Munster, and the wife of the 5th Earl established the Countess of Munster's Musical Trust for grants to musical education and recitals.

The evacuees of WWII were not often traumatised by war - unless by the journey to strange places. Many indeed were evacuated during the phoney war in a kind of controlled panic from 1939, and had seen very little bombing, if any.

David said...

Glad you enjoyed it more than I did, Catriona. I'm no purist, and I neither loved nor hated the production (though the acting, with the exception of the dancer, was too repetitively overwrought). I just don't think much can be made of this opera, which is the most uninteresting of Handel's I've heard by a long way. Generic plot - well, when is it not with GFH? - unvaried orchestration and only two plums, sung by the two weakest singers IMO. More on this rather sour note anon (sweetened, as I hinted above, by some of the best Handel singing I've ever heard in two of the concerts).

David - WIV's funds for building the Aulagebaeude amounted to another noble deed. It was the ridiculous looking Ernst August, his successor to the Hanoverian throne, who proved the reactionary villain of the piece, revoking the State Constitutional Law of 1833, which caused a riot in Goettingen.

As for the evacuess, well, these were children, so separation from their parents would in itself have been traumatic.

Susan Scheid said...

Lest you think for one minute that just because I'm taking a blogging/Internet break, I will not be sneaking a peak at what you're up to from time to time, be disabused! As I took my leave yesterday, I did a quick check to see if you had a new post up, and lo! What a doozy this one is. Now, here is my favorite bit so far, from the review of the Prokofiev concert: "Nice is a superbly articulate and highly interesting speaker, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the repertoire was never for one second in doubt as he traced influences and quotations in Prokofiev’s pieces." Am I surprised? Not at all, but nonetheless, Bravo!

I meanwhile spent much of the day today with the local bluebird people. We had a "bluebird emergency" of sorts, and something had to be done. (The tree swallows, who ordinarily co-exist peaceably, took over the bluebird nest, in which the female bluebird had begun to lay eggs.) No help for that, but going forward, we may have a chance to get the bird world back in balance here, as the local twitchers came to our rescue, though of course at a price: help with monitoring in return.

It's nice to know that, between bluebird monitoring and such, I can look forward to putting my feet up of an evening and reading and listening to all you've got on offer here, hooray!

Susan Scheid said...

Musik ist eine heilige Kunst, indeed. I don't know Ariadne, fun to get an introduction through the podcast. And of course I had to go find a recording and have a listen to this aria. It wasn't easy to find, without knowing the libretto, as the "titles" of the sections are done by scene. But, your intrepid researcher found the text you referred to in an online libretto, then traced back to find it at the end of the prologue. (OK, I know I’m trying to stay offline a while, but how could I resist this?) Which of the Ariadne DVDs would you recommend?

The War Sonatas are cued up for a listen soon (right now, "last post" is the Bach/Ziloti Prelude, which is of course divine). I was struck by Kozhukhin's comment that the "sonatas are as important for Russian music in the 20th Century as Shostakovich symphonies." Do you agree?

Now, as for Stravinsky, would that THAT talk were on a podcast! I love that you focused on The Rite’s “unmodern” aspects. That had to be an unusual and therefore particularly interesting approach. Thank you for another feast of a post (including that plate of oysters fried in polenta).

Footnote: Speaking of The Rite and related, I just discovered that, while I’m in DC next week, this exhibit is on: here (Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music). Lucky break, I’d say!

All right, now I’m off. Thanks for a heilige nacht of Musik!

David said...

Who needs PR when you've got a good (ex) lawyer? Thank you, Sue...and for acknowledging the bulk of the above. If only we had blue bird problems...the avians of the back yard are all but absent this year, only the occasional blackbird with his miraculous song.

Is a 'doozy' good? I don't know the word and should look it up. It comes a bit close to 'doofy', which is dumb, stupid, and linked to 'you doofus!'

Yes, I absolutely agree with Kozhukhin's verdict on Sonatas 6-8. They're oh so tough a listen but there's profound beauty in the middle of all the battering. Get Richter's classic recording of the Eighth Sonata for starters - like I wrote, one of my desert island batch, and one that never changes.

I think the Edu-mate will warm to the fluid drama of Strauss's Prologue, at least - his most perfect piece of music-theatre. Oddly, my DVD choices are both Met-based because they rely on megastars for the ladies. The productions are trad but none the worse for that. The dream team is the older one: Jessye Norman, Battle in top form and the unbeatable Troyanos as the Composer. The 2003 one is amazingly good bearing in mind that Voigt's the Ariadne - she was on top form then - and the usually dull Moshinsky directs a very colourful production. Dessay is out of this world as Zerbinetta. Levine conducts both, extremely well (I like his VPO recording best overall, too, though there's no perfect Ariadne).

What sheer pleasure you have in store - as they catch me saying, a bit embarrassingly, in my first entry on the podcast, it really is a desert island opera for me, and as such we took the Levine CDs to Naxos and played them over and over in our apartment every evening.

Hope that Diaghilev exhibition comes close to the stunningly comprehensive one we had at the V&A, one of the great shows of all time. I guess many of the costumes they had then are too fragile to leave the UK, likewise the giant back- and fore-cloths. But any Diaghilev exhibition is worth seeing.

Now, enjoy the break. If you come back too soon, I'll know you've broken your oath...

Susan Scheid said...

I break my oath to say thank you for the recommendations & I will follow-up. The exhibit, BTW, I see is "organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington," so I'm hoping . . .

(Loved your comment over my way--yes, The Leopard must have influenced that, though he would have said it better!!)

Last not least: Doozy=something outstanding or unique of its kind.

All right, off I go. Meet the bluebird-monitoring twitcher in chief Sat AM, gawd knows.

David said...

If the V&A is co-operating, you'll get a healthy swathe of costumes at the very least. Maybe the giant Goncharova and Picasso cloths will travel (I wonder). At the very most, you'll get what we got, which was colossal and needed several visits.

Still a bit shaken after the ENO Wozzeck - couldn't speak coherently after it, though of course I knew what was coming, but not how. Astounding contribution from Ed Gardner and the ENO Orchestra. The Met's having him back for Rosenkavalier, and how brilliantly he managed that.