Friday 23 November 2007

Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane, 21 November 2007

Royal Festival Hall

Patricia Racette - Heliane
Michael Hendrick - Stranger
Andreas Schmidt - Ruler
Ursula Hesse von den Steinen - Messenger
Sir Willard White - Porter
Robert Tear - Blind Judge
Andrew Kennedy - Young Man

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

This concert performance was the British premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane. As such, it was to be welcomed, but frankly I cannot say that I am flabbergasted at the work's absence from British stages. My reaction was that it was a still more unfocused sibling to Korngold's Die tote Stadt. The latter work has its cultish admirers, and it has some interesting sections; yet, as a whole, it seems somewhat ridiculous. For Heliane, delete the 'somewhat'. I am not sure that I can bear to delineate its absurd plot: merely absurd, not surrealist in any sense that I should understand. Various people - I hesitate to use the word characters, for there appeared to be no musical characterisation whatsoever - persist in killing each other and bringing themselves or others back to life, to no particular end. Or sometimes they just come close to doing this, or consider doing it. In between they have sex, come close to having sex, or consider having sex. It is not at all clear, or even interesting, whether these things are symbolic or real. The programme notes made a stab at proclaiming a long-running Korngold interest in 'resurrection'; 'clutching at straws' was the most charitable phrase that came to mind.

Everything seemed bathed in all-purpose film music, irrespective of what was supposed to be going on dramatically. This may have been middle-ranking Hollywood avant la lettre, but middle-ranking Hollywood it remained. Such structure as there was seemed superbly delineated by Vladimir Jurowski, but this was a thankless task. Everything was overheated from the word go, and little changed. The second act was perhaps a little more successful than the first, but the bar had been set low indeed. The relentless use of the xylophone irritated, since it seemed to be to no particular end. (Think, by way of contrast, of Jenůfa.) Granted, Korngold had a certain facility with the orchestra, but Strauss even at his most overblown is infinitely more subtle, not to mention easy on the ears. Much of the work sounded closer to Puccini, or rather to a Turandot that consisted of nothing but massed repetitions of sub-'Nessun dorma' music from all concerned. The great difference, of course, is that, whatever his shallowness, Puccini could write a tune.

The orchestra sounded good, if somewhat generalised in its approach, but I suspect this was as much to do with the music itself as anything else. Jurowski was duly fired up, and clearly had the score's measure: he gave the work his all, intellectually and emotionally. I only wish this effort had been better directed. The soloists were not an impressive bunch and had been misguidedly placed on a platform behind the orchestra. Andreas Schmidt displayed some serious tuning problems, whilst Patricia Racette seemed to veer in and out of focus. There was perhaps more of the latter, but who could entirely blame her? Michael Hendrick, in the principal tenor role, was profoundly disappointing, struggling to make himself heard over the orchestra. What we heard from the text of his great beauty was sharply at odds with what we heard from him. Even Robert Tear sounded lacklustre. On the other hand, the German choir produced rounded yet precise tone throughout. Its diction was decidedly superior to that of many of the soloists.

This was doubtless worth mounting - once. But there are many neglected works from this period which might merit attention before a resurrection. How long, for instance, is it since Busoni's Doktor Faust was performed in London? Where is Dukas's Ariane et Barbe-Bleue? There is also, most shamefully of all, the glaring absence from London, even in concert, of Moses und Aron. I could go on, but shall desist. The programme notes quoted an anonymous 'well-known German musicologist' as having declared Das Wunder der Heliane to be 'the most important operatic score of the 20th century'. More important than Wozzeck?! I am not at all sure that it was more important than Hugh the Drover.