Friday, 13 March 2009

Philharmonia/Salonen - Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, 12 March 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht
Zemlinsky – Lyrische Symphonie, op.18

Solveig Kringelborn (soprano)
Juha Uusitalo (bass-baritone)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

London buses spring to mind – an unusual reaction, I suspect, to so Viennese a programme: Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. But whilst Verklärte Nacht seems ubiquitous in terms of recordings, it had been a while since I have heard it in concert, or at least it had been until Tuesday’s Britten Sinfonia lunchtime concert. That, however, presented the original sextet version, whereas here we heard the second of Schoenberg’s orchestral versions, from 1943. I have always ultimately preferred the Brahmsian sound of the original, but there is certainly compensation in the sheer luxury of the sound from a full orchestral string section – such as Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic, still to my mind the greatest orchestral recording, or, in a performance I heard a few years ago, the Vienna Philharmonic under Boulez. I have less frequently been convinced by the chamber orchestra approach: neither one thing nor the other, although I should make an exception for Heinz Holliger’s wonderful recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, which manages to combine many of the best aspects of both. This, anyway, is a preamble to saying that Esa-Pekka Salonen wisely opted for a full complement of Philharmonia strings.

Did this choice pay off? On the whole, yes. I have little to quibble about in terms of the orchestral performance. These are not, of course, the strings of Vienna. Nevertheless, any hint of thinness was but fleeting; indeed, there was often a truly Brahmsian richness, not least in the tremolo passages from double basses and ’cellos. On occasion one even heard a sweetness suggestive of the ‘City of Dreams’, which gives its name to this concert series. There were more than a few hints of Mahlerian neuroticism, for instance in the increased intensity of vibrato upon certain notes. The solo work of leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay was as aristocratic as we have come to expect but no less noteworthy for that.

What reservations I had, and I should not wish to exaggerate them, relate to Salonen’s interpretation rather than the Philharmonia’s execution. The work was played very much as an orchestral piece, which is fair enough, and sounded very much conducted, which of course it was. I liked very much the Nordic cool imparted to the opening bars but the race was a little frantic towards the hothouse and I am not sure that the latter should really have been our destination. We are concerned, after all, with a moonlit forest, both literally and symbolically. Sometimes, the reading sounded a little too consciously moulded; art is often better employed to conceal art. The often extreme shifts of tempo worked better on some occasions than others, though it is only fair to note the considerable excitement of the faster, almost operatic passages. Where I felt short-changed was in the relative lack of transfiguration. The final section lacked that sense of elevation, programmatic and tonal, which the finest performances will variously impart. Salonen’s superlative Gurrelieder was always going to be a hard act to follow.

Nevertheless, the conductor managed to do just this in Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony. This work, I think, is close to a masterpiece; there is true greatness to be heard here – and heard it was. Schoenberg, no less, opined in 1949: ‘I always firmly believed that he was a great composer and I still believe this. It is possible that his time will come sooner than we think.’ Salonen could well be the man to make sceptics reconsider, for there could be no doubt from this performance that, unlike the increasingly bizarre claims heard from a vocal gang of Korngold devotees, Schoenberg’s words are worth considering, even if ultimately they might transpire to be a little generous. The Royal Opera would certainly be better off considering a Zemlinsky sequel to Die tote Stadt rather than reviving the ludicrous Das Wunder der Heliane, a work heard in all its dubious glory a little over a year ago from the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. Where Korngold, even at his best, conjures up effect, Zemlinsky clearly means what he says in the Lyric Symphony.

From the fatalistic opening, with its crucial motif intoned by three trumpets and three trombones, underpinned by crashing rolls on the kettledrum, to the very end, the commitment and accomplishment of Salonen and the Philharmonia could not be faulted. The orchestra in this work is, after all, a truly Wagnerian Greek Chorus. Febrile strings imparted menace to the introduction but could just as easily be transformed into purveyors of a late-Romantic outpouring of love. Solo passages, from wherever they came in the orchestra, were uniformly excellent. Paul Edmund-Davies’s flute arabesques, which accompanied the textual evocation of his instrument – ‘O fernstes End, o ungestümtes Rufen deiner Flöte!’ – would have taken the listener anywhere this Pied Piper might have led him. In the second movement, Visontay’s opening violin solo was just as it should be: skittish and sweet. A little later, we heard the girl’s chain crushed under the wheels of the Prince’s chariot: a vivid piece of tone-painting from the lower strings. The thrilling vocal and orchestral climax that followed not only impressed in itself but also led us with flawless symphonic ease into the third song. Motivic development was always surely attended to, here and elsewhere. Elspeth Dutch’s horn solo in ‘Du bist die Abendwolke’ was truly melting, whilst in the following, fourth movement, Visontay and David Cohen presented an almost Bergian duet, which warned us all too clearly of the perils and indeed madness of Romantic love. The nauseating orchestral fantasy that followed was Klimt-like in its colours, celesta (Shelagh Sutherland) and harp (Hugh Webb) especially worthy of mention. This was, of course, a wicked, pleasurable nausea, and all the more discomfiting for that. Salonen captured masterfully the furious scherzo-like onslaught of the fifth movement, its outburst of violence over in a flash, before Mahlerian violas and two trombones offered illusory consolation in the introduction to the sixth. The sense here of still desolation was eerily captured by the ever-present pedal on the double-basses, played here to ominous perfection, granting an apt sense of claustrophobia to this horrifying movement. And when the orchestra was once again truly given its head in the postlude to the final movement, it sounded unambiguously magnificent, as if this were a work that featured as a staple of its repertory.

This is, of course, a lyric symphony, so what of the voices? Juha Uusitalo took a while to settle, his intonation somewhat wavering in the first movement. However, by the time of the third, in which he reappears – soloists sing in alternate movements, never together – his voice sounded cleaner and winningly ‘honest’, the latter quality intriguingly suggestive of Wagner’s Fasolt. Uusitalo’s diction was perfect throughout; if his German were slightly accented, as often seems to be the case from even the most celebrated of low Finnish voices, one could nevertheless hear every word without the slightest strain. I was also impressed by the Lieder-singer’s attention he devoted to words and their meaning. Intonation was not always spot on in the final movement but nor was it unduly troubling. Solveig Kringelborn was rapt in her lyricism, equally attentive to the dictates of musical line and verbal meaning. It is more difficult, of course, for a soprano to render every word audible, but she did not fare badly on that score. There was again a welcome sense of the Lieder-singer to her reading. Indeed, so involved was she with the text that she could not resist a little operatic throwing of her ruby chain as the Prince passed by her door. Conscious or no, it was a special moment. And this was a special performance.


Henry Holland said...

I love your reviews, they're so thorough, I always get a real sense of what it was like to be at a particular concert.

As a "Korngold devotee" who also is a fan of Zemlinsky's music, I think you're being a little unfair to Korngold. Since both composers are working in a tonal idiom, Korngold has something in spades that Zemlinsky lacks: an ability to write memorable tunes. What I find frustrating about Zemlinsky's music is that it's all very well-crafted and interesting but it's not especially memorable.

Didn't the Royal Opera House do a double bill of Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy/The Dwarf back in the 80's?

Mark Berry said...

Thanks, Henry, for your appreciation. I suppose we shall have to agree to disagree over Korngold. He has tunes, I suppose, but I have never found them especially memorable, particularly when compared, say, to Strauss or Puccini, in whose company I have quite often heard him mentioned, sometimes as a blend of the two. I am no great fan of Puccini, by any means, but I should certainly allow him his gift of melody. And as for Strauss, he is surely in an entirely different league in every respect.

Perhaps there is some special quality to Korngold to which I have proved deaf so far; it certainly happens. For what it is worth, there are some songs I have rather liked, likewise - and perhaps to my surprise - his late symphony.

But I suppose I was really referring to some of the more outlandish claims I have heard voiced, the likes of which I should never dream of voicing on Zemlinsky's behalf. In the programme notes for the LPO's performance of 'Das Wunder der Heliane', a mysteriously anonymous 'well-known German musicologist' - why not name him? - was cited as having declared the work to be 'the most important operatic score of the 20th century'. I have no reason to doubt that he did but it seems to me that, whoever he was, he lacked a certain sense of judgement. As I recall asking at the time, more important than 'Wozzeck'? 'Moses und Aron'? I shall resist the temptation to go on and on...

I believe the ROH did the Zemlinsky double-bill you mentioned, though sadly it was long before my time. If only it could be revived...

Henry Holland said...

In the programme notes for the LPO's performance of 'Das Wunder der Heliane', a mysteriously anonymous 'well-known German musicologist' - why not name him? - was cited as having declared the work to be 'the most important operatic score of the 20th century'

I can see why the "well-known German musicologist" wanted to remain anonymous, that's a load of utter bollocks! :-) Agreed, that kind of hyperbole is cringe-inducing, I'd never make such a claim for Korngold, much as I adore Die Tote Stadt. That kind of special pleading is embarassing, to be sure.

As for Das Wunder des Heliane, there's some really incredible music in it. The plot is tosh, but if that were the criteria for not doing an opera, then that would eliminate most 19th century Italian opera, I'd say! :-) With some judicious cuts (especially in the first scene) and a sympathetic production, it could work though. Kaiserslautern and Brno are going to try in 2010-11.

However..... :-)

I *will* make the claim that Franz Schreker's four great operas --Der Ferne Klang, Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin, Die Gezeichneten and especially Der Schatzgraber ARE incredible operas, easily able to stand with Puccini and Strauss. In fact, at one point ca. 1920, Schreker was more performed in Germany than Strauss was and it's easy to hear why: those four operas are incredible. I've seen a production of each and the Stuttgart Die Gezeichneten was shattering, an incredible performance and production.

Um, I'll get off my Schreker hobby-horse now. :-)

Glad I wasn't hallucinating about the Zemlinsky double bill. Here in Los Angeles, James Conlon has been doing his Recovered Voices project and last year they did Der Zwerg with Ullmann's mediocre Broken Jug (they did a concert version of Florentinische Tragodie). The Zemlinsky was stunning though; next month is Braunfel's gorgeous Die Vogel and next year is Die Gezeichneten. I wish he'd done Zemlinsky's Der Traumgorge instead, but oh well.

Hahahah my word to type in to prevent spam is "doper".

Mark Berry said...

The only one of Schreker's operas I have heard at all is 'Die Gezeichneten'. I recall being very impressed - so should doubtless seek it out again and the others you mention. It sounds as though Conlon is doing an excellent job. Would that we had a bit more such imagination at Covent Garden... I cannot recall a season in which 'Tosca' did not feature!

Gavin Plumley said...

Great to read this exchange. It's hard, of course, to be objective about these things, but I do agree with the Henry wholeheartedly. Die tote Stadt has many wonders, and is a romp in the theatre, but I can honestly say that Die Gezeichneten live is one of the greatest experiences I have had in the opera house. Yes, doubtless it will have its detractors, and it isn't as fine as, say, Elektra or Wozzeck, but it deserves to be heard and, moreover, to be seen.

Mark, the only thing I will disagree on is the lack of imagination at Covent Garden... Lulu, La Calisto and Die tote Stadt this season, The Gambler, The Enchantress, Linda di Chamonix, Artaxerxes and The Cunning Little Vixen all in next season's line-up. Hardly unimaginative (or undaring in times where opera tickets are an unnecessary luxury for many).

Mark Berry said...

Gavin, I suppose that, when one looks at the season programme for Covent Garden, one can take a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty approach. And we all have works we should like to see put on that are not. I might, then, have been just a little crotchety...

However... More than a quarter of a century since the only other production of Lulu (astonishingly, the ROH never got around to staging the two-act version) does not seem to me an especially wonderful record for so mainstream a work. It is of course welcome to see works such as those mentioned being staged (for me, The Gambler in particular), though I am not sure that The Cunning Little Vixen, marvellous work though it be, qualifies as neglected. (Would it not have been wonderful to have From the House of Dead, not necessarily instead, but as well?)I also dislike the way the ROH has now decided to condescend to Baroque music by having other ensembles come in to perform. If a work is good enough to put on, is it not good enough to have the house orchestra play?

And then, if one looks at, say, the programme for next season, one sees no fewer than five appearances by Verdi, one opera even appearing twice. Is it really necessary to have La Traviata, with two different casts, in May and July? Or Carmen, for that matter, in that frightful West-End-musical production from Francesca Zambello, in October and June? Mozart manages just two appearances (only one this season) and Wagner just one (two for 2008-9). There seems to be something of an imbalance. Oh dear, I seem to have become more rather than less crotchety...

Part of the problem, though, I think is a society in which the arts are seen as a luxury rather than a necessity. In difficult times, that necessity is surely greater rather than lesser. If buying tickets is seen as a luxury - and the extortionate prices, compared to more civilised countries in which there is far greater subsidy, do not help - then one is unlikely to have the sort of radical overhaul that would bring, say, Die Gezeichneten to the stage in London. Indifference to the box office is likely to bring a far more interesting range of programming.

For instance, on a couple of relatively recent visits to Leipzig, I have seen a Schoenberg triple bill (the three one-act operas) and a double bill of La voix humaine and Pierrot lunaire. I doubt that the opera house was more than 30% full on either occasion. I am not saying that that is a good thing in itself; how wonderful it would be if there were standing room only for Von heute auf morgen! But a situation in which the performances could nevertheless go ahead strikes me as admirable and to be emulated.

Gavin Plumley said...

You are of course right and there are many things that are palpably lacking from the Covent Garden stable. The Janacek lacunae are particularly hard to swallow... and given that Boulez recently conducted the Chereau production of FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD across Europe, surely it was myopic not to include a trip to London?

Your bias, as with mine, is to the Germanic side of things, yet the cold hard truth is that the majority of that rep (Wagner and Strauss aside) does not sell. DIE TOTE STADT was moderately successful, helped by an over-emphasis on Korngold's Hollywood credentials in the marketing strategy. LULU can't have sold well (apart from perhaps the final performance) and even a Saturday evening performance of ELEKTRA looked distinctly sparse. Mozart, however, needs no support and I cannot see why the majority of the operatic oeuvre cannot be programmed more regularly.

In a world where subsidy is not enough to indulge the Schoenberg triple bills, the Schreker premieres or more British operas, one more revival of TRAVIATA buys the chance of getting nearer to having one of those treats. The German cities have bankrupted themselves with subsidy for their myriad orchestras and opera houses... surely supporting that level of artistic endeavour is in itself myopic?

Mark Berry said...

Yes, one would have thought that the touring production of From the House of the Dead would have been the ideal - and cost-effective - opportunity for Covent Garden to put it on. It is an abiding regret of mine that I never managed to see it elsewhere. But then, I recall that, when the theatre reopened the difficulties attending stage machinery, etc. apparently made it necesssary to cancel (or 'postpone') one of the slated new productions, it was Le grand macabre that was 'postponed'. Needless to say, we have heard nothing more of that prospect, and I think even that was to be a bought-in (Salzburg?) rather than properly 'new' production. Thank goodness ENO will perform it next season.

It is doubtless true what we are told about the popularity of some of these Italian works. Quite why, when they are put on season after season, I cannot imagine. It makes me wonder just who is in the audience; presumably many of them never go to hear anything else. Most peculiar! We are also told that they help to pay for other repertoire. Again, I suppose this must be true, but I don't quite understand how, given that they tend to be productions starring 'big' if not necessarily very musical names, whose fees would appear to be astronomical.

Marketing must sadly have some sort of role in these circumstances, I agree. I wonder whether the ROH missed a trick with Lulu. As you say, Die tote Stadt was helped by a (misleading) emphasis on Korngold in Hollywood. So far as I am aware, no effort was made to point to a perfectly justified connection between Lulu and the Philharmonia/Salonen City of Dreams series. Part of the problem, I fear, is that the ROH sees itself more as a thing in itself, often as a showcase for those 'star' singers, rather than as part of the broader artistic and cultural life of the capital and indeed of the country as a whole.

I am not so sure about what you say concerning German cities and provinces, although I can see why one might think that way. If they are going to bankrupt themselves - and I really don't think the level of artistic subsidy is so great as to have that degree of influence - then I should prefer it to be a consequence of putting on a few too many performances of Schoenberg than of funding bankers' pensions or invading Iraq...