Showing posts with label Richard Strauss. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Strauss. Show all posts

Monday, August 17, 2015

Magic mountains 2: Into the woods, with the Strausses

A double-bass player walks to work in the Taiswald

I started to go to Pontresina with my parents at the age of 12, more years ago than it's seemly to admit. This mountain resort in the Engadin, south-east Switzerland, with its open, sunny aspect and jaw-shattering scenery became their favourite summer haunt; over the decade that followed I must have been there with them for at least six or seven summers. But I hadn't gone back since 1988 and both my parents are long dead.

This being a slightly difficult, landmark, stock-taking sort of year, I had an attack of nostalgia and wanted to visit once more, just to make sure it was still there, still real, and still as good as my romanticised imagination and memory has been making out.

It wasn't. It was far better. And there was no getting away from the music.

Every day, I remembered, there used to be a free concert in the woods, from 11am to 12 noon. The spot is called the Taiswald: a pine glade near the start of the mountain pathways, where the audience can assemble on benches to listen to an hour-long chamber programme of old-style favourites, lollipops, operetta medleys, arrangements, concerto extracts and more. I dreaded walking that way and finding the place had fallen into disuse. Switzerland seems quiet at the moment - the exchange rate could well be decimating  tourism - and after all, people don't go to concerts any more, if the doomsayers are to be believed.

Well, they do here. The Taiswald is flourishing. More than a hundred people came to the Camerata Pontresina's concert on Friday, a programme full of juicy tidbits like Offenbach's Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld (which I haven't heard since, probably, my last visit to the Taiswald), Johann Strauss's Music of the Spheres Waltz and Fischer's delicious South of the Alps Suite. Some things have changed with the years: for instance, there's now a printed booklet displaying the programmes for the whole summer. Similar outdoor series take place in nearby towns and villages, among them St Moritz and Sil Maria. The concerts are organised by an impresario in St Moritz who, I'm told, has a personal library of the arrangements.

The musicians arrive to play here from all over Switzerland - we met a cellist from the Zurich Opera, a fine young clarinettist who's studying in Lucerne, and of course the double bassist above. They must contend with the vagaries of the elements - Friday was blowy, with commensurate effect on the music on the stands, which they dealt with by using clothes-pegs (though if the weather is too awful the concert takes place in the church or cinema instead). And the trains go by, whistling, and the dogs trot past, barking, and occasionally newcomers arrive, open mouthed with surprise at finding such an eccentric pastime taking place in the forest - and sometimes they sit down to enjoy the music. As for the piano: it lives in the pavilion year-round, winter included. It still sounds relatively OK.

Camerata Pontresina preparing to play in the Taiswald

The Taiswald, it turns out, is an old and proud tradition. It has been going since 1909; in 2009 centenary celebrations were duly held. Among those who came across it and sat down to listen many decades ago was Richard Strauss - who was apparently scandalised by hearing an arrangement of a Mozart symphony for quartet and said it should be forbidden!

Strauss. I didn't realise how important Strauss was to me. I just never thought about it. I took him for granted. But the fact remains that the first piece that switched me on to orchestral music in earnest was his Don Juan. I was given a ticket for a Royal Phil matinee at the RFH when I was 12 and it opened with the tone poem, which I'd never heard before. When it flew out at us, the energy lifted me and held me up and I remember falling head over heels in love with the whole thing on the spot. I wanted to be part of it. Don Juan swept me off my feet. Eventually, having not managed to become part of an orchestra myself, I married a violinist who was - and in whose background Strauss features prominently. Tom's great-grandfather was a Berlin businessman with a summer house in Bavaria, not far from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and he knew the composer well; indeed, was a Skat-playing companion on summer evenings by the lakes.

Last Friday, we went to listen to a talk in the Hotel Saratz by the Swiss singer, musicologist and moderator Claudio Danuser about Strauss's connection with Pontresina. When Strauss's villa in Garmisch was requisitioned by the Americans at the end of the war, Strauss and his famously cantankerous wife Pauline took off for Switzerland. They moved hotels frequently because Pauline, true to form, kept falling out with the staff. But the family-run Saratz in Pontresina was a special favourite. Claudio had interviewed the proprietor about Strauss's stays there and was full of fascinating stories - among them, the Taiswald occasion mentioned above. Another time, the couple walked into the dining room and found musicians accompanying dinner. "Richardl," said Pauline, "play some Johann."

In the hotel garden is a wooden pavilion with a view across to the mountains of the Val Roseg, along which a favourite walk can be taken. It was in this structure in 1948 that Strauss completed the last of the Four Last Songs to be composed - 'Beim schlafengehen', ultimately the third in the set. I've always felt there is nothing in all 20th-century music that can quite compare with the beauty of this song and its violin solo.

The pavilion in the Hotel Saratz garden, where Strauss finished 'Beim schlafengehen'

So the elderly Richard Strauss was looking out at the Val Roseg as he worked on it. You can't really see the view in this photo, as it was very cloudy, but on a good day, when you are walking along it, the valley looks like this:

The Val Roseg, Pontresina

A mere 30 years later, there we were, me and my mum and dad, in the hotel next door. And in its garden, gazing at the same view as Strauss, without knowing it. I remember staying in a garden-floor room that must have been just a few metres away from that pavilion. Aged 14 I felt there was something in the air itself that was galvanising to creativity and I'd sit in the garden scribbling my attempts at novels by day and, by night, having the extraordinary dreams that one has at high altitude after dayfuls of fresh air and mountain walks. With no clue about Strauss - or anyone else, for Hermann Hesse apparently came here too, and Thomas Mann, and so on.......

It sounds matter-of-fact and so-what-anyhow to tell the story; but when something and somewhere and someone and that music have been as much part of you as your own nose for such a long time and you then learn something new about how it all connects, it feels quite another matter.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
-- TS ELIOT, 'Little Gidding'

Here's the Strauss - sung by Nina Stemme.

Monday, September 01, 2014

September: some gigs and a song

Hello, it's September. How did that happen?!

Here are a few things I'm doing this month: do come along if you're in the vicinity of any of them!

14 September, 3.30pm:
HAMPSTEAD AND HIGHGATE LITERARY FESTIVAL: JOHN OGDON. I interview Ogdon's biographer Charles Beauclerk about the life and work of the troubled musical genius. LJCC, Ivy House, North End Road, Golders Green, London NW11.

21 September, 4pm:
ALICIA'S GIFT, the Concert of the Novel. Viv McLean (piano), me (narrator). Chopin Society, London, Westminster Cathedral Hall.

24 September, 6.15pm
PANUFNIK CENTENARY Pre-Concert Talk at the CBSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham. I interview Sir Andrzej Panufnik's daughter, composer Roxanna Panufnik, about the life, legacy and influence of her father and his music. Concert includes A.Panufnik's Piano Concerto (with Peter Donohoe) and Sinfonia Elegiaca. 

September is one of the most beautiful months of the year. Here is its eponymous song by this year's top anniversary man, Richard Strauss, from Four Last Songs. The soprano is Nina Stemme, and it's the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Tony Pappano. 

I am sick as the proverbial parrot about having missed Nina's Salome at the Proms on Saturday night. I was in Salzburg to interview a VIPianist and was travelling back at the time. Apparently it was totally sensational and you can hear it on the iPlayer here: click on Listen Again, even if you haven't listened before.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Strauss's big birthday

It's the big 150th anniversary today, so here is a little something to celebrate, with pics from my visit to Garmisch in 2012. First, the incomparable Fritz Wunderlich in one of the composer's most beautiful and ardently summery songs, 'Heimliche Aufforderung'. And you can watch the whole of Der Rosenkavalier from Glyndebourne free online here, starring Kate Royal, Teodora Gheorghiu and, of course, the fabulous Tara Erraught, whose star shines bright. 

It is often said that behind every great man there is a great woman; but not every great composer can claim to have achieved a long and happy – if somewhat tempestuous – marriage to his muse. The soprano Pauline de Ahna was the powerful presence behind Richard Strauss: his wife, his inspiration and a diva in every sense. Over his many decades he drew on plenty of different spurs to musical action, but none more consistently or more powerfully than the soprano voice.

Strauss’s operas remain arguably his finest achievements and the Royal Opera House has already marked the 150th anniversary of his birth with a new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten (1918), the most complex, symbolic and magical of his collaborations with the playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Despite its baffling fairytale premise, it deals at heart with matters that are human and domestic: the longing for a family.

Strauss was born into the centre of the German operatic world; his father, Franz Joseph Strauss, was the principal horn player at the Munich Court Opera. Loathing the music of Bavaria’s local megastar, Richard Wagner, Franz Strauss was the only member of the orchestra who did not stand up in respect when the composer’s death was announced to them. His son took a different view: “I remember clearly how, at the age of 17 I feverishly devoured the score of Tristan [und Isolde] and fell into a rapturous ecstasy,” he recalled.

In his teens he composed prolifically; and Hans von Bülow (the first husband of Cosima Liszt, who then married Wagner) helped him to secure his first conducting post in Meiningen when he was only 21. Later he held vital posts as conductor in Munich, Weimar and Vienna; film exists of him on the podium in advanced age at the Salzburg Festival.

He announced his engagement to Pauline de Ahna shortly after the soprano – starring in his first (and not very successful) opera, Guntram – had astonished the musicians in rehearsal by throwing a piano score at him. She was, he later wrote, “very complex, very feminine, a little perverse, a little coquettish, never like herself, at every minute different from how she had been a moment before". They settled in 1908 on the outskirts of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where Strauss built a substantial jugendstil villa with the proceeds of Salome’s success; his study housed an Art Deco desk with a specially commissioned matching piano (pictured above).

“My wife is often a little harsh,” he is reported to have said, “but you know, I need that.” Not everybody did. Indeed, her cantankerous personality attracted note from many quarters. In the late 1920s my grandmother-in-law was dining in a restaurant at Kochelsee, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, when she spotted at a nearby table her father’s occasional skat (card game) companion Richard Strauss and his wife. The waiter apologized to Frau Strauss: they were out of the fish she wanted. He offered her, instead, a nice fresh Saibling. “I don’t want that scheisse [shitty] fish!” the great lady expostulated, according to grandma-in-law.

“Strauss would never have become a great man without Pauline,” insisted the composer’s friend Manfred Mautner-Markhof. The pair’s volatile relationship left its mark directly upon Strauss’s music, notably in both the Symphonia Domestica and the tone poem Ein Heldenleben – in the latter she is personified by a solo violin. But above all, her presence is felt in the power and sensuality with which he wrote for the female voice, whether in the frenzied finale scene of Salome, the celebrated trio towards the end of Der Rosenkavalier, or the ecstatic and soaring lines of his solo songs, including his wedding present to Pauline, Cäcilie.

It was another area of Strauss’s life that housed his most difficult moments. In 1933 – by which time he was nearly 70 – he was made head of the Nazi administration’s Reichsmusikkammer, a state music institute that aimed to promote “good German music” by Aryans. Declaring that he had been appointed without being consulted first, Strauss said – perhaps naively – that he hoped he could “do good and prevent greater misfortune”. He was forced to resign, though, in 1935 when a letter he had written to Stefan Zweig, the Jewish librettist of his opera Die Schweigsame Frau, was intercepted by the Gestapo and found to contain cynical words about the regime.

His attitude towards the Nazis in the ensuing years contained loathing, but also bursts of sociability – not idealistic as much as self-interestedly pragmatic. Ultimately both Nazis and anti-Nazis judged Strauss “a total bystander” or, as Goebbels, put it, “unpolitical, like a child”. Nobody could escape the fact that he was by then the greatest living German composer – yet also an intractable soul, uninvolved and caring only for his family and his work.

Nevertheless, he expected too much of the Third Reich. Strauss’s daughter-in-law was Jewish; her mother was imprisoned in the concentration camp at Terezin. The composer drove to its gates believing he could rescue her by pulling rank; but the guards would have none of it. Eventually he was publicly humiliated by Goebbels for having made disparaging remarks about Lehár, Hitler’s favourite composer of operetta. “The art of tomorrow is different from the art of yesterday,” Goebbels said to him. “You, Herr Strauss, are yesterday!”

Strauss’s music, though, had the last word. In 1948, the year before he died, he completed his Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra. Here the musical language may belong to an earlier age, but its beauty and universality transcend any such concerns. The last song, “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset) describes an elderly couple spending the quiet evening of their lives together. “Is this perhaps death?” asks the soprano, while two flutes evoke a pair of larks rising towards the heavens. It was his last and perhaps most perfect offering to his beloved muse, the soprano voice. On 8 September 1949 he died, aged 85. Pauline outlived him by just eight months.

Pictured right: a statue of Beethoven that stands in Strauss's house. The story goes that when the Americans arrived in the area at the end of the war and turned up at the villa to investigate, one of them asked Strauss who this was. The somewhat unimpressed composer told them it was the Gauleiter of Garmisch.

(This is an adjusted version of my article that appeared in The Independent in January.)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Friday Historical: Some amazing tales from Glyndebourne

Here's my piece from yesterday's Independent about what happened to Glyndebourne during World War II. It was transformed into a centre for children evacuated from London's east end - and that history has now inspired a new staging of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, which opens tomorrow. I talked to its young director, Katharina Thoma, whose first UK production this is.

Meanwhile, we hear that the cats are back in Falstaff...there are calls for the cat manipulator to take a bow, but naturally the truth is that the ginger one is Solti, who sneaks to Sussex and back by private cat-jet when we aren't looking.

Full info on Glyndebourne here.

And to make this a real Friday Historical, here is footage of Figaro from Glyndebourne 1956, with Sena Jurinac as the Countess and Sesto Bruscantini as the Count.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Gold stars for this silver rose

If you only do one thing in London over the next few weeks, make it this: go and see Der Rosenkavalier at ENO.

The opening night on Saturday...where to start? The dream-team cast? OK, Amanda Roocroft is The Marschallin for the first time - not that you would guess for a moment she had not been born singing this music. Roocroft is one of the finest actresses in British opera right now - look at her awards for all that Janacek. She can effortlessly evoke the charming, open-hearted aristocrat on the one hand, and, lurking just beneath the surface, a self-destructive woman whose fear of losing her beloved young lover leads her to chase him away; act I's conclusion leaves her cradling a cushion in despair. Sarah Connolly is everyone's perfect Octavian: glowing, dashing, her voice as silvery as her armour (and those of us who follow her updates on Facebook were extra-pleased to see her as she'd been stuck on a motionless train with points failure for half the afternoon).

Sophie Bevan as Sophie

But perhaps most stunning of all was the debut of Sophie Bevan as Sophie (above, pic by Clive Barda). A star is born? You can't argue with the goose-bumps: you can't always explain them, but you know them when they happen. The moment Sophie opened her mouth, it was clear that she is no common-or-garden girl soprano, but one with potential to reach some very special places indeed. At no point while she sang did one have to glance at the surtitles; every word was clear as the proverbial bell, and every twist of character projected with relish. The voice - pure, flexible, snowy and effortlessly voluminous when required - never faltered; and the magical moments following the presentation of the rose as Sophie and Octavian fall in love made us all fall in love too. The audience went mad for her. I can't wait to hear what she does next.

Nor can you argue with John Tomlinson as the odious Ochs. Some of us feel that the opera contains too much Ochs and too little outrage over his ghastliness (the programme notes said that Strauss makes us like Ochs, but actually no, he doesn't) - but 'John Tom' is so convincing that what one remembers is a) the 18th-century setting would have condemned him to the guillotine had Strauss and Hofmannsthal not shifted the action to Vienna instead of Paris, and b) the world premiere, in 1911, took place only six years before the Russian revolution. Rosenkavalier as social commentary for its own time and maybe for ours too... Meanwhile, so involved was the singer with his role that in the scene with the attorney he turned physically scarlet with anger.

David McVicar's direction of a production as opulently golden as its music is typically astute and detailed - probing, questioning and poetic. For instance, why doesn't Octavian dressed as Mariandel slip out of the boudoir to escape Ochs's attentions? Because the mystery doors in the wall are so mysterious that he can't work out how to get them open. And the last gesture of Octavian towards the departing Marie-Therese before turning back to Sophie sparks an idea that we may not have seen the last of that affair after all...while young Mohamed the page boy has a crush of his own to pursue after curtain-down.

Down t'pit, Ed Gardner was working a magic of his own. This was a shimmering, generous, expansive Rosenkavalier - running to 4 hrs 10 mins, it was 25 mins longer than the theatre's estimate - but not a second of it was excessive. The music had room to breathe, grow and smoulder. Super violin solos from leader Janice Graham and some very lovely woodwind playing.

I have only two complaints. First of all, fine though the diction of the singers was, this opera's entire musical world is so bound up with flow of the German language that in English it just sounds all wrong. That's nobody's fault. I imagine the translation could have been more inspiring, but perhaps it would be a losing battle in any case. The other issue is that the set scarcely changes from scene to scene - without differentiation between the Marschallin's olde-worlde palace and the Faninal's new-build house, half the matter of class distinction, which is such an overriding theme, can't help but be somewhat submerged. Still, sets cost money; and, quite honestly, this cast could have performed in concert alone and still convinced us every step of the way.

Runs to 27 February. I wanna go again!

Photos here: