Monday, 5 January 2015

Onwards to Nuremberg

The masters await next Monday afternoon (12 January) as my Opera in Depth course at the marvellous Frontline Club sails on, with loyal as well as new students on board. The outcome will be 10 glorious (I hope) weeks on Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Various Wagnerian organisations have proved incredibly supportive in offering me publicity, which means that you can see the full flyer via this excellent site. As well as The Wagner Society, The Wagnerian and Wagner Opera also helped out: thanks to true Mensch Barry Millington for pointing me in the right directions. Thanks too to the Goethe-Institut London which has also been supportive. I hope to see a few more folk signing up as a result. You can contact me via the e-mail given in all three links if you're interested in coming along.

Not all my loyal followers are 'doing' this term as we went through the opera five years ago, when Richard Jones (now CBE, if he really has accepted it) launched his great production at Welsh National Opera with Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs (the original pictured above). I have huge confidence in Iain Paterson who takes over the role as Jones reworks his production for English National Opera in February: at the very least Paterson should be rock-solid with the stamina to get through the part.

Limbering up over the half-quiet, half-social days since 2015 began, I've been listening to a Meistersinger Prelude a day, doing a mini Building a Library so that I can serve up a compound of the best next week (by the way, having on the last occasion dealt with the toughest BaL of them all, Parsifal, I have another coming up in March concentrating on a work of much lesser length but made of very tough stuff; not sure I can reveal what it is yet). There's so much warmth and humanity in the Beecham and Strauss recordings of the Vorspiel (the latter taped in Vienna in, ahem, 1944). And what a splendid thing it is to follow the C major of Bach's Christmas Day Cantata BWV63, an early work from the Weimar years no whit less stocked high with invention than the later Leipzig works, with Wagner's.

I've also plunged into the rather awkardly printed English translation of E T A Hoffmann's second story compendium, Die Serapionsbrüder (The Serapion Brethren, ostensibly about a group of artistic friends which gathers to tell tales). The impetus came from the best substantial Wagner biography I've come across, by Joachim Köhler. As usual there's not enough about the music, but where Köhler scores is in unearthing so many of the literary sources which Wagner rarely acknowledged.

Hoffmann (selfsketched above the previous paragraph) would seem to be the most important of them all. Would Wagner have hit upon the theme for his Meistersinger and its central character Hans Sachs without Hoffmann's pointer in the direction of 'Johann Christoph Wagenseil's work on the glorious craft of the Mastersingers'? He cites it at the beginning of 'The Singers' Contest [on the Wartburg]'. Needless to say that's the root of Tannhäuser, though Wagner's eponymous minstrel is nowhere to be seen. His counterpart is the devilishly inspired Heinrich von Ofterdingen, whose true opponent is indeed Wolfram von Eschenbach (illustrated here in a medieval manuscript).

As a story, Hoffmann's is preferable to Wagner's typical fusion of three different tales, to me at any rate - I like all the spooky-supernatural stuff, though it's perhaps a bit too close to the hell-trafficking of Weber's Der Freischütz. 'Master Klingsohr' is the major magus of unearthly powers here, too. For the high spirits of Meistersinger, and the pitting of handsome young suitor versus pedantic nincompoop, I'd hazard a guess that the very lively tale of 'Albertine's Wooers' is a source. It's a wonderful fusion of bürgerlich Berlin with the fantastical, ending in a spectacular denouement based on the three caskets of The Merchant of Venice. The pedant's compensation prize is a book which, when lodged in his pocket, will come out as whatever special edition of whatever work he desires to read at the time. Wouldn't mind that myself: infinitely preferable to the intolerable Kindle.

The human worlds of Hoffmann's tales and Meistersinger may not overlap with the giant canvases of Anselm Kiefer*, but Wagner's metaphysics certainly do. I'd been bowled over by the two huge paintings in Basel's Fondation Beyeler - I realise more than ever that Renzo Piano's interior spaces must be the best possible for them - and thus keen to get to the Royal Academy (pictured above with one of two Kiefer installations in the courtyard), which I only just did in time before the exhibition closed. But I was unprepared for the deep structures which Kiefer and Wagner share, beyond the obvious references in the series of works Kiefer painted in the wood-lined attic room of his studio in Hornback throughout the early 1970s. What better setting for Nothung

and the Parsifal series (bloody spear replacing sword)?

I'd better point out immediately that the small reproductions here do especially poor service to the giddying scale of the canvases, which you simply have to experience in the flesh, as it were (even the catalogue doesn't come close to the 'live' sensation). In one way these look like forecloths or backdrops to fill an entire stage, and as I wandered from room to room I found the ideas for what's behind or beneath each of the Ring operas. In fact to adapt these overwhelming, fluid statements as operatic sets would be to reduce the level of discombobulation they induce. Kiefer adds diverse materials or lets them decay when he feels too comfortable with the first finished product. The weathering and the additions make them more sculptures than canvases; each needs to be walked in front of and seen sideways from both ends.

Least reproducible of all are the lead sheets studded with diamonds sparkling as you pass, which immediately brought to my mind for some reason the slate-clearing at the end of Götterdämmerung. The notions of blossoms rising from the rubble, of atoms constantly reforming, of a beginning inherent in an apparent end, is what it seems to me the Wagner of the Ring and Kiefer have most in common.

In addition, I can at least evoke my constant amazement at the deep-veined parallels. The exhibition room of surprising colour suggests the prelapsarian Rhine at the start of Das Rheingold , even if nature here is all above the surface of the earth. The hanging stone of Hortus Conclusus could even become the lump of gold gleaming in the flux. I can't find a reproduction of it, but something of the same effect is to be seen in the Morgenthau Plan (pictured above), somewhat more threatening due to the Van Gogh-derived crows above the wheatfield.

The building of Valhalla could be suggested, if only just above the level of the river, by the Rhine collages of woodcuts on canvas with acrylic and shellac executed between 1982 and 2013. One of Kiefer's constructions has the polyhedron from Dürer's Melancholia hovering above it.

Siegfried's woods meet their dark, disturbing mirror-image in Kiefer's

and the artist prone beneath sunflowers reminds me of Siegfried meditating on nature, death and the stirrings of love in the 'Forest Murmurs' sequence

while the hall of the Gibichung could be any one of the decayed Speer-like spaces such as this one - Interior, 1981.

If only there were some way of bringing Wagner's music and Kiefer's art together without reducing the significance of either. An impossible task except in the viewer's mind, perhaps. What matters is that, for all his manifold faults, Wagner caught the apocalyptic tones of one era just as Kiefer has so much to say, at the most profound and troubling level, about the world, and not just specifically the German one, since 1945 (the day after he was born, an allied bomb destroyed the house next door in Donaueschingen and he grew up playing in the rubble). I've not often been so shaken up by works of art as I was here, and above all by Isis and Osiris, with projecting lead books hinting obliquely at the monstrous burning and a possible rising from the earth, which nearly finished me off. Again, reproduction in much reduced form does little for its impact, but you may get the gist.

Curiously only the week before I also shed tears in the last of the exhibition rooms devoted to Rembrandt's late works at the National Gallery's great 'show': such a look on Bathsheba's face, such tenderness in Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph.

This is timeless humanity, both a corrective and a counterbalance to Kiefer's metaphysics. And of course Rembrandt is as capable of embracing near-darkness as Kiefer is of diving into colour. Chief of my favourites among the etchings is a Nativity where you really have to accustom yourself to the light to see what's going on.

I loved both exhibitions and can't think of any I've seen that have moved me more.

*Copyright tangles with the Kiefer images left me confused as to whom I should credit in many instances. I plead 'fair use' , but shall remove or (preferably) credit if asked.


Will said...

I can believe easily that Iain Paterson will make a superior Sachs. In the MET's highly problematic Ring production (the one with malfunctioning scenery and virtually no directorial vision) he created the most original and sympathetic Gunther I have ever seen. Far more intelligent and sensitive than the average Gunther, he made it obvious that he had had it with Hagen as Siegfried's body was carried away. He was very well received by the MET audience and the critics.

David said...

So good to see you back and blogging, Will.

Yes, there's deep intelligence in Paterson's performances. His Rheingold Wotan in the Barenboim Ring at the Proms divided opinion - I was hugely impressed - but probably because, as the saying goes, he doesn't thrust all his goods into the shop window. Recently he gave us the best Kurwenal I've seen (to Sarah Connolly's Brangaene - these two became a real couple in Christof Loy's production).

David Damant said...

Did not Joseph marry Asenath? The two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, made up the twelve tribes......two of the twelve sons of Jacob not giving rise to tribes - that is, Joseph himself and Levi who gave rise to the priestly caste, sometimes called a tribe but not one of the twelve

The Rembrandt in the exhibition that stands out for me is the Syndics of the Drapers Guild which I spotted in Amsterdam in 1951 so it is not a sudden choice. I think that the curator of the exhibition ( till 18th January) must agree with me since it is elements of that picture which are displayed in the design of the entrance.

David said...

Yes, David, you are correct about Joseph's spouse and offspring.

The choice of favourites from that show is infinite, I'd have thought. The one which I found a mere oddity was what we'd been invited (by the Swedes, who hold it in Stockholm) to consider: The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis. Rembrandt seems to touch on so many moderns, and I thought of Ken Kiff when I looked at this.

David Damant said...

That Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis is indeed very odd. I wonder if it will be discovered that it is in fact "school of". Not that that would change the value of the picture as a picture - apart from the market price. I would still rank The Man in the Golden Helmet very high, even though those who know say it is not by Rembrandt.

David said...

Absolutely. I believe The Prodigal Son was defined as 'school of', but that makes no difference to its huge impact in the Hermitage. A pity that couldn't appear in the National Gallery exhibition.

In the meantime, I've been getting messages from students saying how overwhelmed they, too, were by the Kiefer exhibition.

J Vaughan said...

I just visited your blog, wondering if you knew the late Mr. Michael Kennedy and had given us your own tribute. He was one of my favourite authors.

I did not find such, but DID find this interesting post on Wagner! It is interesting that you are again undertaking a course on Meistersinger. I still have the recording that was made for me of that Proms performance, but, though it has been some time since I last dipped into it, I have been rather-disappointed on previous occasions.

While the Edinburgh performance with Herr Kaufmann may continue to hold strong sway, I acquired, not too many months ago, an inexpensive download of the apparently-highly-regarded Kubelik studio recording. As I think we have discussed, I have become used to grandfatherly Sachses, and yet a perceptive commentator has had me re-thinking that position, based on the fact that he must be young enough for Eva to regard him as a suitable husband were her heart not fixed elsewhere. Therefore I must take seriously the highly-musical interpretation of the late Mr. Stewart, the rest of this cast, Mr. Hemsley's Beckmesser MAYBE apart (though I still have a long way to go with him), seeming strong as well. And there is the added bonus, not on any other stereo recording I have so far as I know, of correct antiphonal violins! So maybe it is time for me to wach auf to a new-to-me morgen!

Based on Strauss's involvement, and knowing of a live Beecham performance, my guess for your March BAL feature would have to be Tristan! And yet I must take that back IMMEDIATELY since that drama was featured not long ago, in fact maybe last year. So it must be something by Strauss, and I am hoping it is Heldenleben since there seem to be varied approaches when it comes to dynamics at least, from the full-on-heroic to more-restrained approaches. I have a Strauss-conducted recording, but do not know/recall date and orchestra. I also have, and like, the famous late 20's Mengelberg! And, bringing Mr. Kennedy back into the picture, there is that MOST-fascinating, in my opinion, Music and Arts set, with notes by him! I ESPECIALLY appreciated his commentary on Tod und Verklarung, with, as for other works, comparative timings! My stereo recording is the Tennstedt, but, despite the surface noise, this Strauss-conducted one is JUST FINE for me, even at that great climax in the Verklarung!

Mr. Kennedy's Richard Strauss - Man, Musician, Enigma is now on its way, I having already bought, and read, his Master Musicians book! And the BAL-winning recording of the Oboe Concerto also has his note, and I now have two recordings of the Sinfonia Domestica, which I still hardly know, this Schwarz and an earlier De Waart, which latter I played for my first-ever complete hearing of this work, both with those antiphonal violins! Do you have a favourite recording? Another performance I especially like in the Strauss-conducted set is the Till, with its edgy clarinet! And a touchstone passage for me, the trial, is not shabby either, though our favoured Sir Charles wins my palm there, as in Don Juan! Since you are also a Jarvi fan, I had ordered his volume of the tone poems with Aus Italien in it from ArkivMusic, but they could not get it. Yet I feel rather confident that I can get it on Amazon, either US or UK! Which recording of Metamorphosen do you like?

Though I recall MAYBE having had a reservation or more re the casting of the fairly-recent Met Parsifal, I have ordered the DVD's, and they are on their way.

With yet again MANY renewed thanks and best wishes, particularly as per this New Year of 2015.

David said...

Pleased to hear from you, JV, but I'm reeling from the news of Michael Kennedy's death - you're the first to inform me. It saddens me, though he had been ill with Parkinson's for a long time.

I knew him well. I think he never quite believed me when I said he was the great hero of my teens: I read his Barbirolli biography simply because it was one of the few books in the library when I arrived at my grammar school. His Master Musicians study of Strauss nurtured my obsessive love of that composer. His writing was informed, but above all enthusiastic; the love for his subjects - not just Strauss but also Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten - shone through. I'll try to write more about him anon.

All I can say re BaL is that it's not on Wagner or Strauss. Curiously I was asked to do Tod und Verklaerung, but said I couldn't really live with it. I DID do a BaL on Domestica many years back; Jarvi came out tops chiefly because he takes the final horn-whooping at the insane speed Strauss asks. I can hear him (Neeme) saying 'it's not necessary to be absolutely note perfect - it's mood, beautiful mood'.

Metamorphosen - despite hating Karajan all the more having seen John Bridcut's excellent documentary, either his first (1947, I think) recording with the Vienna Phil still presumably shattered by the ruination of their city, or the third and last. The best playing of all is to be found on the Nash Ensemble's recording of the septet version, which oddly I prefer because the 23 strings can be overbearing. Their Capriccio Sextet is also superlative.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Am I picking up here that you're doing a BaL next week, or have I got that wrong? I must note it for a listen, if so. I don't know the Meistersinger--I was thinking of seeing the Met's production when it comes in HD, but it got very bad marks, so I've let that one pass by. The Anselm Kiefer show looks splendid, even in the small-scale images you show, and I enjoyed your Wagnerian gloss on them. Do you think you might have responded to the paintings differently if you hadn't had Wagner so front-and-center on your mind?

Susan Scheid said...

Oh, no, I see now, you were speaking of a "mini BaL" in preparation for the course. I'm eager to hear, when you can say, what's coming up in March.

J Vaughan said...

I agree FULLY about Michal Kennedy's informativeness and enthusiasm! Yet he also knew how to WRITE, and once complained to me that certain people did not know how to do that!

When you say you cannot live with Tod, is it because you do not like the work, or it just gets to you too much, or something on that order. Do you recall how close the Schwarz and DeWaart Domesticas get to Strauss's metronome mark for that conclusion, on which I must inform myself? If I can find the Jarvi on YouTube, as hopefully I can, then I could do a direct comparison. So I suppose I should make a second attempt to get his Aus Italien!

If I recall correctly, the first Karajan Metamorphosen fairly recently won BAL recommendation, and for the reason you gave.

David said...

Sue - I just had permission from the chief producer to spill the beans about the upcoming Building a Library. It will be on Sibelius's Fourth Symphony, which pleases me very much. I thought I might live more easily with a happier piece like Strauss's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite (not popular enough, apparently) or Nielsen's Second, but Sibelius 4 it is.

And, JV, I didn't want to do T&V because I don't care enough for it (my least favourite among the Strauss symphonic poems, with Macbeth second and Heldenleben third). A Karajan CAN bring off the transfiguration, but it's difficult.

I don't suppose Muti's Aus Italien is still in the catalogues - a surprise from him, and perhaps the liveliest, though I do like the Jarvi.

As for Sue's question about the Kiefer, I think the visceral impact would have been no less, and my tears over the lead books had nothing to do with the Wagner link. But undoubtedly that enriched the whole experience. The idea was implanted by the obvious titles of works in the first two rooms, and then the deeper dimension came as I progressed.

Susan Scheid said...

Very pleased to hear what's coming up on BaL, and I know you'll keep us posted.I also get the prize for stupidity here, as I've now noticed the titles of the first Kiefer images, straight out of Wagner. Well, it's frigid here today, and I spent it getting ready for the accountant and upcoming tax season, so what a relief to come back over here--and I also went over to the exhibition website. I must keep an eye out for a Kiefer exhibit in NYC. I'm aware of him, of course, but haven't seen his work shown. Meanwhile, per your comment over my way, if you happen to spot the Phedre aria you were referring to, I'd love to have a listen.

David said...

Yes, Sue, it's accounts time here too: file online by 31 Jan or pay a fine, so I've finally reluctantly slithered into action to get everything ready for the accountant.

One of the many things which amazed me about the Kiefer exhibition was how so much came from private collections : those rich folk must have mighty big rooms to house the enormous canvases.

Checking my own superficial reaction to the Glyndebourne Hippolyte et Aricie here, I see I write about the 'divisions' as Phedre 'exits to suicide', so the passage in question must be at the end of Act 4. But I now have the DVD, so I'll have a look when I find a moment.