Friday, 28 May 2010


So what is it, the tree under which cobbler Hans Sachs sits and reflects in Act 2 of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, praising its scent 'so mild, so strong and full'? Does it matter? Well, it does to me, because now that I've reached the fourth of ten City Lit classes on the opera - what a luxury - we can walk out and smell the lilacs. Flieder was originally the German for 'elder'; but when the lilac was introduced - some time after the period which Meistersinger is supposed to depict - it was called 'spanische Flieder' ('Spanish elder'). As a note I found on the net tells us, 'eventually, the 'Spanish' part was dropped and lilac was simply called "Flieder" while elder was called by its alternate name, "Holunder" '.

Pedantry? I insist not. Anyway, if lilac is an anachronism in the Nuremberg of the Mastersingers, elder, I'm told, wouldn't have been in bloom on 'Johannistag'. The above illustration and the one below, from a wonderful site devoted entirely to antique postcards of Wagner's operas, confirm the hunch. And gardening doyenne Deborah van der Beek wrote to me that 'lilac sounds more likely and very Victorian, elder being a shade catty and rather sneezy.' To complicate matters, there should also be a lime tree in any staging of Act 2, but that's by Pogner's house, while the Flieder is in front of Sachs's cobblery.

But the music's the thing, and of course it's the perfumed airs of a summer night as well as the inspiration of what Sachs has heard Walter sing in St Catherine's Church earlier that day which matter. Two horns waft the scent, and the phrase of infinite yearning dogs Sachs's meditation. I went through half a dozen versions, and easily the most tender, the oakiest and the best phrased was Norman Bailey's on the much-maligned (and occasionally miscast, but which recording isn't somewhere?) Solti recording. Our Norm kicked off my Wagner craze singing Sachs under Gibson in Scotland in the early 1980s, and I still count his interpretation, simple goodness personified, as one of the top ten, top five probably, I've seen of anything.

Alas, Norm's not on YouTube, but two will do. One is an historic interpretation to set alongside the much more famous Friedrich Schorr - a very distinguished bass sound, this, too, from Michael Bohnen:

The other is from the man we expect so much from next month when Richard Jones's Welsh National Opera production is unveiled in Cardiff, Bryn Terfel. I listened to a rather soft-grained Fliedermonolog he recorded with Abbado, but this is better, and actually suits the usually ponderous Thielemann well, too. Like Norman, Bryn brought tears to my eyes. Enjoy.

And the latest news is that Welsh men of a certain age, preferably bearded, are being asked to hie down to Cardiff's Millennium Centre to be photographed for Richard Jones's wall of masters. What fun! And I wonder if he's going to turn the whole thing into a kind of Eisteddfod. It would fit. Can't wait.


Willym said...

Will I get in trouble should I say I prefer Bohnen to Schorr?

I recall photos of a Bayreuth production in the 50s that was considered scandalous because the lilac was simply a large purple ball. If I recall Wieland Wagner's reasoning it had something to do with that being all you could really see at night.

But then you really don't have to see it do you - the music and the words paint it all.

David said...

Right on both counts - I prefer Bohnen too. A real discovery for me.

Minnie said...

Ganz ausgezeichnet, David - vielen Dank'. And Bryn Terfel, too - da iawn! Diolch yn fawr.

David said...

The lady speaks in Welsh, too! Meaning?

Tamsin Travers said...

Did you go with the Grand Sophy to Campden Hill Square, to meet Antonia Pinter? Their drawingroom there is where Sir Harold held the 20 June Group, including Sir John Mortimer and Jonathan Dimbleby, to plan revolutionary acts. "They will have to smash the windows in to get us out", Pinter proclaimed, presumably referring to Special Branch, and warning us of the power of this potent insurgency. Did you go there with Grand Sophy, and if so, was the shade of Pinter and 20 June to be felt?
Tamsin Travers
ps I did Maths at Somerville and know Worcester gardens well, but I would say StJohns Gardens are the most beautiful in Oxford, especially with the sublime Canterbury Quadrangle in distant aspect.

David said...

No, Tamsin, though 'Jeremiah' - as our Sophie calls him on her blog - set it up, and had met Sir Harold shortly before he died. Famously asked him whether the Finns, with their natural silences, might have the same concept of 'Pinteresque' as we do. To which came the immortal, bad-tempered reply 'Fuck Pinteresque!'

I'll add St John's gardens to the list - we're going back soon.

JVaughan said...

I have never heard Herr? Bohnen so far as I can recall, but never warmed to Herr Schorr, though have not re-listened to him in some time. If I am not mistaken, Mr. Bailey is also the Sachs on the Chandos English version. Have you yet heard that?

Since you mentioned Herr Wieland, did he or his brother ever learn which tree their grandfather actually meant?

Since I only collect my "snail mail" now at monthly intervals, if that, I do not yet know if anything has arrived from you.

Of possible interest to any Handelians who may read this blog, it is being reported that Mr. Anthony Hicks, one of the world's foremost Handel scholars and one I was privileged to know for close to 30 years, has died, presumably of some sort of resperatory disorder about which I did not ask him the full details. He did not "suffer fools gladly," but cannot recall him ever having really gotten angry with me over anything (though _MAYBE_ a small fang occasionally appeared), but sometimes gently tried to put over his points. He could possibly be hard to replace on the current Handel Documents Project, which is seeking to update the work of Herr Otto Erich? Deutsch from the 50's, in which all known documentation from Handel's time was accounted for. I must ask Professor Donald Burrows, who is in charge of the project, as to how things might go.

J. V.

p.s. And, of course, that should have been respiratory!

David said...

You should have received the order of service by now, JV - Natasha in Moscow received hers a couple of days ago.

Yes, I'm listening to that Goodall Meistersinger, and I have to say, a lot of it is shockingly badly played. Doesn't capture Norm at his best; some of my students couldn't understand why I was raving until I turned to the Solti version - but the Fliedermonolog is very tender.

I think the answer to the tree probably does lie in the 19th century postcards, which would be contemporary with Wagner-supervised productions.

JVaughan said...

So, as is said nowadays, I had best give that recording a miss. One thing I miss in the Solti, but seem to have in the Kempe, is the sense of atmosphere during Beckmesser's mess-up of Walther's song, he seeming to sing it to an empty room except when the crowd makes its interjections. In Kempe, it seems that we are right in that meadow oor whatever it is, and there is even more laughter than on Solti. And, of course, Herr Kollo was going through a poor patch at that time, though thankfully eventually recovered. For some reason, I cannot really warm to Herr Weikl's Beckmesser, though admitteedly he seems to have the characterization well in hand. I like hearing Eva break into tears after the last verse of Walther's song and shortly before singing "O Sachs, Mein Freund." And none of us have thus far mentioned one of this opera's most-moving segments, the Quintet! If that does not bring tears, what will?!

Should I get my air conditioners installed today, and thus have a cool unit to which to return, I may go down and clean out my letterbox and whatever is behind the desk, thus receiving that Order of Service.

Do you plan to attend the Grange-Park _Capriccio_, and hopefully review it? That is quite a starry cast, not just the Countess. It is an opera I hardly know thus far, though do know that, for some at least, there is doubt at its end as to which the Countess will choose, words or music.

J. V.

David said...

No, alas, can't squeeze in Capriccio - Stephen Walsh will be reviewing it for TAD - but I'll see the Grange Park Love for Three Oranges about a week after the opening.

Kempe's rather wonderful all round, of course. Solti hits too hard - it's not the ideal opera for him (though I'm not sure what is. The Parsifal turns out to be an exception). I come to like the Sawallisch more and more - Heppner in his prime was perhaps the most golden-toned of all Walters (though I love Charles Kullmann's account of the Prize Song).

JVaughan said...

Hoping I am not repeating myself, did you hear the c. 2006 Edinburgh performance, with Herr Kaufmann as Walther? He is the best I have thus far heard in that role! I have not heard much of the Sawallisch.

I think the Solti _Parsifal_ has been unjustly underrated! To begin, Herr Frick is as fine and apt a Gurnemanz as I expect to hear, notably when he quotes the prophecy of the pure fool. Is that not lyric singing at its very best? I do not know Mr. London's prized Amfortas well, but Herr Fischer-Dieskau, in my opinion, portrays his suffering _QUITE_ convincingly! What about the "wilder schmerz" in his opening solo as he is being brought in for his bath? And Mme Ludwig's Kundry, wild, demented, and whatever other adjective you might wish to use in Act I, seductress to the _CORE_ in Act II, and seemingly-willing to do service in Act III! And, on the heels of his famous _Tannhauser_ (though in poor recorded sound, I personally prefer the live Sawallisch from around that time, in what we now regard as the Dresden Version, over the famous Solti), we have him here, still before his mid-70's vocal problems set in, as a fine Parsifal, again in my opinion, though _MAYBE_ someone had a point when he found the beginning of his last great solo a bit underwhelming, though I do think there is at least a little commanding-presence in it. And Mr. Kelemann? is not bad as Klingsor. So why does this not go to the top of most listeners' piles, for the conducting, orchestral playing, seemingly-apt use of boys voices for the younger particcipants in the temple ceremonies, the spacing thereof, etc.?

J. V.

p.s. And, lest we forget what day this is, a fine 153rd birthday to Sir Edward, and I am looking forward to playing Sir Charles's Argo recording of the _Second_ _Symphony_ before too long, hopefully following it later with _The_ _Music_ _Makers_, thus completing my traditional playing of the three works in which he said he shewed himself, having played the Menuhin/Elgar performance of the _Violin_ _Concerto_ earlier.

David said...

Ah, now I see why you're intrigued by the Grange Park Capriccio - La Gritton sings the Countess. Marvellous cast - would love to see it, too, for Roddy Williams and Andrew Kennedy - but time does not permit. Would rather the direction was by Christopher Alden or the other Fielding brother than by Medcalf, but hey, let's hope it reaches a wider audience. As I once hoped the Garsington Liebe der Danae would - so few people got to see it.

JVaughan said...

And I also like Messr.s Williams and Kennedy! Again hoping I am not repeating myself, do you know the latter, with our Countess, in what I think is that _SUPERB_ Dutton recording of _The_ _Spirit_ _Of_ _England_?

From what I read, Mr. Medcalf seems to have as wide an experience as any director of whom I know, but, regretably in my opinion, he seems to be following most others by being revisionist, though I for one hope this is, at least in part, due to him adapting his productions to the spaces in which he works.

So _Liebe_ _Der_ _Danae_ is a good opera as well? At least _Capriccio_ seems to get an occasional outing, though I seem to recall there being a presumably-obscure of _Danae_ with Sir Charles.

J. V.

p.s. _WHAT_ is wrong with me since that should have been an obscure _RECORDING_ of _Danae_.

David said...

Well, good revisionist works best for me - you know I'm a Richard Jones fan. But second-rate anything isn't, and I'd put SM productions in that category from what I've seen.

And, indeed, Danae has tons of outstandingly beautiful music. I just found the Mackerras Radio 3 recording issued on some obscure label - with what right I've no idea - and bought it via Amazon for a fiver (pounds, that is). It boasts our friend Norman as Jupiter, stunningly good. The Danae less so, the conducting predictably superb.

JVaughan said...

I indeed do know Mr. Jones' name, but little or nothing about his work. It is surprising that Mr. Medcalf has only worked with Miss Gritton on two productions thus far if I am not mistaken, the other, I think, having been a Glyndebourne _Figaro_.

I also recall having found this _Danae_ on Amazon, and, if it is similarly-priced over here, perhaps should have a go, though probably should be thinking even more of _Elektra_ and _Die_ _Frau_, for both of which I think I would go with Sir Georg.

Unless it accidentally slipped out of my box when I took something out some days ago, or yesterday when I indeed cleaned it out, your kindly-sent Order of Service has yet to arrive. Yet I think we ought to give it a few more days at least.

J. V.

JVaughan said...

I indeed found this Mackerras recording, for around $10! It only remains for me to ask if its documentation, if any, adheres to the McGregor Mandate, essential for this new-to-me opera.

J. V.

David said...

La Gritton is also, I believe, Mrs Medcalf, so not surprising.

If by 'McGregor mandate' you mean libretto et al, I'm afraid not. That's of course an absurd drawback in literary Strauss operas, whether by Hofmannsthal or not.

I wouldn't go with Solti for either of those works, though the singers are stunning on both.

JVaughan said...

Indeed she is, so am surprised that they have not colaborated more frequently than they appear to have done.

That was _EXACTLY_ what I meant, and regret the news you had to convey. In preparation for that, I did a search in the Books Section of Amazon for that opera, but thus far have not found a German/English libretto.

So far as I know, Sir Georg's _Die_ _Frau_ is only one of a small handful, if not the only, of uncut recordings of that opera. Is your own first choice uncut, do you prefer it cut, or would you rather prefer to sacrifice completeness for your own personal vision of a performance? And since, if I am not mistaken, cuts are not an issue in _Elektra_, where would you go there?

J. V.

p.s. Hopefully I will be at a singing competition this coming Saturday afternoon for which Mr. Shirley-Quirk is to be one of the judges, I wishing to re-establish contact with him if he does not mind. Thus I would miss original opportunity to hear Miss CCrowe in _Rosenkavalier_, though perhaps, if I do not forget, should try to sample that later in the week if available.

David said...

Sawallisch is also 'uncut', long deleted I think, and variable of cast, but the orchestral textures sound so much better than they do under Solti. Elektra, surprisingly, is often cut too. The one with a truly delirious last twenty minutes is Sinopoli's with Alessandra Marc, but I got to know the work through the Solti recording - it was the first CD I was ever sent to review, too - and have a fondness for its feral Hammer-horror quality. And Nilsson is, of course, wonderful.

Just been evoking John Shirley Quirk in a disappointment over Gerald Finley in Britten's Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. Not a patch on either JSQ or the dedicatee, Fischer-Dieskau; but then I wonder who could be?

JVaughan said...

The studio Sawallisch is indeed available on US Amazon, and quite-reasonably I seem to recall. Some reviewers also pointed up its better-than-Solti orchestral
textures and variable cast, though it seems clear that this is the complete version to go for, further given that most, if not all, of its cast had sung
their roles on the stage, whereas Sir Georg's had not. I also read that Strauss asked for a glass harmonica, and gets it here! There is, I also read,
a live Sawallisch from the 70's, and, while it is rather-drastically cut, most reviewers like it quite much, notably Mme Nillson late in her career but
nonetheless in tiptop form.

I was sorry to read that you have reservations about Mr. Finley's _Songs_ _And_ _Proverbs_ since he is a singer I also admire much. Reservations were also
expressed, by someone at his Washington recital with whom I spoke, about his Barber disc. He is not yet in his twilight years, is he? I have never heard
Mr. Shirley-Quirk sing this set, though, of course, he, as did its dedicatee, knew the composer well. He is a special favourite, and it has been a privilege
to get to know him somewhat!

J. V.

p.s. Did you get to hear the _In_-_Tune_ feature on this current _Capriccio_? I was interested to hear, while _Danae_ was never mentioned, that it is virtually-contemporaneous with it. From what little Mr. Medcalf told us, it would appear that he is not doing much tinkering, though seems to be trying to incorporate both the time in which the story takes place and that in which the opera was written. We were treated, with piano accompaniment, to our Countess's final scene, sung _RAVISHINGLY_ as admittedly expected, along with one of the _Four_ _Last_ _Songs_! She did not participate in the interview apart from reminding the participants of Mr. M. Best's presence in the cast. I personally wish he had stuck to conducting since his solo singing has yet to really do anything for me.
I nearly forgot to mention that, when discussing the opening Sextet, the conductor noted limited expression marks, though am not clear if that just applies to this movement, or rather to Strauss as a whole.