Friday 13 June 2014

From Marschallin to Moses

'That's the first time actually I've ever been moved by the words of The Ring alone...I normally find that the text alone makes you yearn for the music, but that seemed quite wonderful to me.' Thus Michael Tanner, lecturing on Götterdämmerung, about Dame Harriet Walter declaiming Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene in its various incarnations and her husband Guy Paul reading Wagner's stage directions. There they are above in the green room of Birmingham's superb CBSO Centre preparing for the afternoon session, with lovely Daisy Boulton on the right, one of the two young actors with great careers ahead of them (Daisy is shortly to appear in the stage version of Shakespeare in Love). Can it be only three weeks ago? So much has happened since - I've sizzled pleasantly in Setúbal, Berlin and of course Dresden leading up to the great man's 150th birthday.

Looking around for a portrait to do Strauss justice, I was hoping to find the one of him stepping off his first flight in 1947, looking at the camera in naive wonderment. But another from the festival he conducted in the Royal Albert Hall that same year will do. Because we are still struck by the disparity between the frequent look of seeming lassitudinous indifference, and the fires within. But it was Stefan Zweig, his collaborator on Die schweigsame Frau, who wrote in his autobiography The World of Yesterday about the 'particular magic power behind this bourgeois mask' in 'those bright blue, highly radiant eyes...wide-awake...not daemonic but in some way clairvoyant, the eyes of a man cognizant of the full significance of his task'.

I'm very proud and happy with how our 'Discovery Day' grandly titled The German Operatic Tradition worked out. I was given what seemed to me like a not too paltry budget and the brief to cover four operas being performed in Birmingham over six weeks: Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, in concert that afternoon conducted by Andris Nelson and reviewed here; his Ariadne auf Naxos, which the Royal Opera under Pappano brings in concert on 6 July; the last instalment of Opera North's Ring, Götterdämmerung, on 21 June; and Schoenberg's Moses und Aron on Monday in the Welsh National Opera production which opened on the very day we were 'performing'.

I've written this elsewhere, but quite apart from the attentive, responsive and sizeable audience, what I'm left with is a sense of how the actors learned from the lectures - Harriet especially was full of praise in the morning, having had a harrassing start with a hotel bill she wasn't expected to pay and being sent to the wrong venue in the pouring rain - and how we lecturers were indeed moved and sometimes stunned by the actors.

Adding to the riches of the day were superb performances by two recent graduates of the Birmingham Conservatoire accompanied, very spaciously and sensitively, by Shah Johan bin Shahridzuan (a Malaysian prince, I believe, and a princely pianist). Baritone Samuel Oram began with Harlekin's little song to Ariadne and continued with 'Allerseelen', managing the expected breadth of line masterfully, while soprano Carrie-Ann Williams obliged me by learning 'Du Venus Sohn', originally presented to Monsieur Jourdain in Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Le bourgeois gentilhomme (she also did the Echo effect for the Serenade), in a couple of days, then delivering like a Strauss soprano to the manner born in 'Die Nacht' and a delicious rarity, 'Breit über mein Haupt'. Here are the friendly three just before their performance.

I kicked off the day with a tour around Der Rosenkavalier, beginning with the start of the Prelude to Strauss's first opera, Guntram, to point up the Wagnerian element in Strauss's makeup before going on to the Mozart vein (the breakfast minuet-into-waltz and the composer conducting the third movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 39). Then it was time for the Hofmannsthal vein, which is where I introduced Guy to read passages from the watershed Letter of Lord Chandos (1901-2) which the poet uses to characterise his own sense of having 'lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently', of everything having 'disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts' after the seeming wholeness of his precocious early inspiration.

Thence to the Marschallin's monologue and the first part of her scene with Octavian at the end of Act One. Again, it was effective and moving as pure theatre in the hands of Harriet and the very original Joel MacCormack, pictured right here (for I was clear I wanted a young man rather than a girl in trousers to read Octavian, as he is portrayed in the 1926 silent film).

William Mival elegantly encapsulated the complexities of Ariadne's journey from her place within Le bourgeois gentilhomme or rather Der Bürger als Edelmann, from which he played the Overture as conducted - again brilliantly, and in such good sound - by Strauss. The oboe sicilienne also served as neat prelude to Carrie-Ann's performance of 'Du Venus Sohn'. I was amazed to hear William, a composer of no little standing, rate Strauss as the most comprehensive musical voice of the 20th century. Indeed - he had such a far-reaching influence, probably not significantly less than his opposite number Stravinsky.

We also had Guy read Jourdain's last lines as they bring down the curtain on the original Ariadne, with Strauss's first ending. The other playreading here was of the dialogue scene between the Composer and Zerbinetta (Daisy, dangerous rather than merely flirty) as it appears in the original backstage scene of the play. There's no extended love duet here, only a quick jump to the Music Master's call to arms and his easy persuasion of the Prima Donna. Harriet's 'do you think I can?' got a big laugh.

I was pleased with how my second set of translations sounded - I tried to effect them with the actors' delivery in mind, so it was exciting to hear how they were interpreted. Below: the great Jeritza as Ariadne. Curious that the creator of the role in Dresden was Eva van der Osten, the first (and perfectly plumptious, careful with the wording) Octavian. Other portraits: Marschallin by Alfred Roller, the original designer, Brünnhilde of course by Arthur Rackham, Moses by Ribera.

I've dealt with the post-prandial musical intermezzo, but not the coda: Harriet, Joel and Daisy reading their parts in the Rosenkavalier Trio separately, because those beautiful words so often get smothered in the sheer heady beauty of the vocal writing. Sophie's lines are specially worth quoting:

I feel as if I were in church,
It feels sacred and frightening.
And yet I feel unholy too.
I don't know how I feel.
I want to kneel down before the lady
And do something to her,
Because I feel she gives me to him
And at the same time takes something of him away from me.
I just don't know how I feel.
I want to understand everything
And not to understand anything.
I want to ask and not to ask,
I feel hot and cold.
(looking into Octavian's eyes)
Yet I feel only you and know only one thing:
That I love you!

So on to our distinguished afternoon speakers. Michael's precis of the entire Ring saga up to and including Götterdämmerung was absolutely masterly and wryly funny: I've not heard him speak before, and was captivated by a master storyteller. It was also a dream come true to hear Harriet read two of Wagner's very different drafts for the original ending of the drama before the one we know and love. Stephen Johnson and I were both struck afresh by lines in the most essential of all Wagner's letters on The Ring, the one of 23 August 1856 in which he writes to Röckel how 'I had (unfortunately) never really sorted out in my mind what I meant by this "love" which, in the course of the myth, we saw appearing as something utterly and completely devastating'. Which explains the change from 1853's 'Let there be only - love' to the annihilation of the final version.

Michael stunned us all in his choice of recorded Immolation Scene, or at least the part of it he played: Flagstad as I've never heard her before or since, with Furtwängler in Milan, 1950. The recording came up with incomparable vividness on the transfer he played. I don't know if this is as fine, but here it is on YouTube. The entire opera is also available there in the same performance, all four hours and 15 minutes of it.

Stephen had the hardest task with the least easy to love of our four operas, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, but energetically explained both his own reservations and what he admired about the achievement. He started by announcing that we were to have a complete performance of Act 3 - which is to say, the page or so of text Schoenberg never set to music. Cue Harriet in more austere mode as Moses - after all, this is the woman who's played Brutus and wants to play Macbeth - with Guy as Aron and interjections from the young 'uns.

SJ demonstrated the nature of 12-note rows both consonant, up to a point (Berg's Violin Concerto), and dissonant, as they mostly are in the opera. Also reminded me what a superb piece the Second String Quartet is, and how convincing Moses sounds with the firm rhythmic underpinning of Boulez's interpretation.

Then it was time for a few questions and gratifying votes of thanks from Stephen and the very supportive Roger Neill who was in the audience (and has written a more succinct account of the experience on his blog). My thanks too to the indefatigable Hannah Baines of the THSH organisation which organised the event, a delight to deal with throughout.

So off we rushed to the concert Rosenkavalier. This is Stephen, looking a bit 'oh God, do we have to' as J snaps, and me slightly paunchy with the vivacious Mrs Johnson, Kate Jones, beaming between us after a meal during the long interval.

I'll say no more about the ultimately dizzying performance, duly written up on The Arts Desk, other than to add that our rather distant seats up top gave an interesting perspective both visual and aural (the orchestral woodwind sounded unbelievably vivid). Here's the view of one of many 'curtain calls'

And a closer-up with Sophie Bevan, Alice Coote a little in the shade, Andris Nelsons, Soile Isokoski, Franz Hawlata, Bonaventura Bottone and Pamela Helen Stephen.

So nearly 12 hours after we'd gathered in the CBSO Centre, we reeled out happy and drove back to Stephen and Kate's place in Sutton St Nicholas near Hereford. The final shot should go to the most vocal, sensitive and personable cat in the world, their Agatha. I'm much more of a dog person but I'd give Agatha house room any time. Mind you, even though she's more of a mouser than a birdcatcher, I'm glad she's not here at the moment because we have a deliquescent blackbird family nesting somewhere in the ivy on the back yard fence. An hour ago I caught the infant staring at me impudently from the weeping mulberry a few yards away as she brazenly consumed the fruit.


Susan Scheid said...

Well, then, not only beautifully conceived, but also beautifully executed. Not that this surprises me in the least, but this Discovery Day does seem to have been a particular tour de force. And how smart to focus on the text alone a good bit. Your quotation from the trio is a wonderful example of what can be found solely in the words. Fun, too, to see you in the company of another favorite "music explicator" of mine: Stephen Johnson. I have started many a morning by listening to his Discovering Music segments. He's so very good, and I can well imagine that he surmounted the challenge of Moses and Aaron with aplomb. Now, I don't suppose there's any chance that this was recorded or that a video of it might become available? If not, I do encourage you, if at all possible, to try for this next time!

David said...

And can you believe some morons (surely not Roger Wright) at Radio 3 axed Discovering Music, the best thing on it? Thank God for the archives. Stephen is my best mate in the music world, a fellow of boundless knowledge with the most extraordinary memory of anyone I know. Respect.

Sadly I couldn't persuade the organisers to film or record the event, hard as I tried. Copyright worries, perhaps. Shame. But I do hope we can do more of the same with the same team. Lucky to catch Harriet at a rare time when she wasn't working on a film or a play.

Susan Scheid said...

Axed Discovering Music? I wondered why there were no new episodes. Absolutely moronic, indeed. Yes, thank goodness for the archives. I only wished they went back further. As for you and SJ: well, like to like, that is! Too bad about filming/recording, though I know copyright often gets in the way of these things. But yes, hopefully in future!

Anonymous said...

David, you have not seen me here for a while, but I have seen you! As I've said before, I consistently read your posts but don't always comment, especially when my music vocabulary feels inadequate. Then I just wait for something that makes me speak up, and here I am. I adore your description of the impudently staring baby blackbird! Of course, what first caught my attention is the photo of the excellent cat Agatha. She looks like she could glare down, if not exactly catch, a bird. I am partial to marmalade tabbies, and this one bears one of my favorite names, as well. Your photo captures her essence! -- Elizabeth

David said...

Indeed, Sue - meanwhile poor old Rob Cowan and the like are made to ask inane questions of 'celebs' like Russell Grant (a name which shouldn't mean anything to you in your Hudson fastness, at least I hope it doesn't). CD Review seems unassailable for the present. My perception is that these things are circular - sense will return again. Or I hope so.

Elizabeth, I'm glad you get the gist of Agatha's excellence in a photo. I call her AGAAAthe as in the heroine of Freischutz, maybe unconsciously paying homage to Winston Churchill's occasional addresses to his feline friend between serious work, at least according to Jock Colville: 'cat, dAAArling'. AGAAAthe always answers back, too: very rewarding.

David Damant said...

It is, I have always understood, rare to have a ginger female ( just as it rare to have a male tabby)

And that commanding look ! As it is wisely said, dogs have masters and mistresses......cats have staff

Churchill, I would suggest, used his conversation with his cat to allow his conscious or subconscious mind to develop his speeches. Francis Bacon recommended talking to a picture, rather than doing it all in the mind, and a cat would be even better

The name Agatha cannot be separated from Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha, the Pest of Pont Street, who chewed broken bottles and wore barbed wire next to the skin

David said...

Agatha steals the limelight - as she did for J, too. Despite the commanding look, she is really, for want of better words, a pussy cat. I don't know about inspiration, but catstroking is almost as good as a meditation. I also must ask about the source of the name, but I know that Stephen and Kate call the resident human feline here Tobermory after Saki.

wanderer said...

I'm left wondering what were Wagner's actual thoughts on the meaning of love; that is to say, his understanding of love and to what extent he unravelled the legends, myths, racism and chauvinistic lust that comprises much of his output into something more advanced.

That Immolation Scene is astounding. Flagsatd has all the clichés in spades, and I was very taken by Furtwägler's thrilling textures and tempi, accelerating to a near frenzy at times.

Knowing you to be a Charles Mackerras fan boy, may I take five minutes of your time and introduce another Scene, not so much that it is Ms Nilsson, nor the opening concert of the Sydney Opera House, nor that wittle me was there, but rather to watch Charles Mackerras, and those eyes.

David said...

Indeed, wanderer - you touch on the limitations which Anne Schwanewilms also defined when reminding me that Wagner, being his only librettist, couldn't change and develop in the same way as Strauss, who saw into the hearts of others. Still genius, of course, but a f****d up one when it came to love, to say the least.

Isn't that recording amazing? Head and shoulders the best I've ever head and, as you say, frenzied at times on WF's part, yet he's always in control. The Italians play like gods.

I have that recording of the Sydney Opera House opening, but must watch as well as listen. Thanks.

Stephen Johnson said...

How lovely! The Agatha photo is superb, the comments most gratifying. Rather touched by the 'like for like' comment about you and me too.

On holiday last week I read Gilead. Wonderful. The Revd. John Ames reminded me a little of Kate's father, who also had a thorny 'son' issue to deal with.

The origin of Agatha's name? The people at the rescue centre had named her Angela (!). Kate looked at her and asked her what she thought of it - answer, disgruntled meow. 'Agatha then?' said Kate, and that was it.

So the Wodehouse overtones weren't intentional. Bertie's Aunt Agatha was the ghastly one, as David Damant points out. If we'd been thinking Wodehouse aunts it would have been Dahlia - but she isn't a Dahlia, I'm sure you'll agree.

David said...

Thanks, Sir Stephen. Tobermory returns greetings to all three. Names? I like 'Ermelinda', the name of a vineyard producing lovely white wines we drank almost exclusively in Setubal.

Susan Scheid said...

This is an aside, but I laughed out loud many times watching this, and thought some or all here might enjoy it, too. To watch the hilarious Jeremy Denk/Steven Stucky opera that premiered a couple days ago in California, “The Classical Style” (based on the book by Charles Rosen), click here. Here are some of my favorite spots: The entrance of "Me" at ~1:26. Sound familiar? (I heard "News" from Nixon in China.) And don't miss the musicology student's (of Taruskin, nice touch, I thought) big number starting at ~1:36. Another fun one is the "saddest of all chords" quotes starting at ~1:56:30. Oh, maybe you'll all just find it silly, but that's OK, too.

PS: Our music group is this month listening to La Mer and Sea Pictures. So, off I went to the Discovering Music archives and there was Stephen Johnson once again, talking about La Mer. Needless to say, I shared it with the group. Just terrific.

Catriona said...

Love the pussy cat, though surely it should be pronounced AAAAgathaaa,with a dying fall? Or is it only my family which has spent so much time calling the cats in for tea? The naming of cats - and dogs, for that matter - should always take into account what the name sounds like when called from the doorstep. The cat which arrived with the name 'Squeak' was speedily renamed.

David said...

Oh come, Catriona, you know your German and your Freischu(e)tz well enough to know that the name I chose was AgAAAthe (with an e not an e on the end)?

Sure I've previously related the saga of the cat we borrowed to mouse around the Dalry Cemetery Gatehouse? When I borrowed it from Sharif and Iqbal over the road, I asked its name and was shouting 'Sino-pay!' whenever it disappeared. It turned out to be called S-noopy...

Anonymous said...

What do you think of the threatened bankrupcy and then closure of Met Opera in New York, as reported in the Guardian and Music Matters. I remember reading before that the architects of the Lincoln Center always thought the Opera House too big by about 15-20%, but they were obliged to follow their client's wishes. Maybe it is all brinkmanship between Michael Gelb and the Met's performing unions, wherein even members of the part-time chorus earn $200,000 pa. I just don't know. It would be a shame of the Met went the way of New York City Opera, now closed, where I enjoyed a very good Tosca in 1980. Happy 52nd birthday David. John Graham, Edinburgh

David said...

Well, John, that at least gets us away from Agatha for a bit, lovely as she is (you surely remember Sinope/Snoopy).

It seems unthinkable but alas, given the strong arm of the unions in America, all too possible. Unfortunately I fear that wages, unthinkable to most artists and theatre staff here, are unrealistically high in the present climate. We've been here before with the Cincinnati debacle, where management came out worst. But I wouldn't pretend to understand the nuances of the argument. NYCO's demise was horrifying. Could happen here, though, with our own ENO.

Thanks for birthday wishes. It was a great day - windy walk along Aldeburgh beach, homage to Maggi Hambling's scallop and then time with the artist and her lovely partner Tory, super fish lunch, Owen Wingrave, back to London. Loved it all.

David Damant said...

One can hardly leave the question of the name of Agatha without reference to the Authority on the matter, T S Eliot as expressed in "The Naming of Cats" [As the lawyers would say, the male includes the female, though I have always thought that that was the wrong way round]


The naming of Cats is a difficult matter
It isn't just one of your holiday games
When you notice a cat in profound meditation
The reason, I tell you, is always the same
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular name


And, surely, that picture of Agatha shows her in " profound meditation" - a perfect illustration of Auden's insight

David said...

Deep and inscrutable she is by nature as well as by name.

I'll try not to think of Lloyd Webber music to go with that.

David Damant said...

I apologise if I have made this point before, but when T S Eliot was put up for the Order of Merit ( just about the highest honour one can obtain in the the UK)the Secretary of the Order wrote to the King's Private Secretary saying " Who is this man Eliot? The only thing I can find out about him is that he wrote a book about cats"

David said...

Oh dear. Reminds me of the three-line obituary for Bartok in one of the New York papers, which left it at 'composer of Contrasts for Benny Goodman'.