Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Alive and dizzying: Die tote Stadt in Munich


We've got a revolve and we're gonna use it...
Marietta (Petersen) and Paul (Kaufmann) hold on for dear life
All photos from the Bavarian State Opera website: https://www.staatsoper.de

I'm just back from an unexpected dash to Munich to see Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Bavarian State Opera. It's always a little daunting when dreams come true; sometimes you imagine they can only disappoint and will be best avoided, which is not the least reason I hadn't got my act together about this sooner. But when a kind friend in the cast wrote to me out of the blue saying she could get me a ticket, I decided to drop everything, use my air miles and run.

Die tote Stadt was the topic of my dissertation at university, which is where my Korngold book really began to germinate. Back then - the 1980s - you'd say the name "Korngold" and nobody had heard of him; worse, though, if they had, they would give a scornful laugh because he wrote, oh dearie dearie dear, film music. I never expected to see this opera on stage at all.

Its remarkable rehabilitation over the past 25-30 years has happened despite the army of nay-sayers, some of whom still like to damn Korngold with entartete Musik terminology that could almost be out of the Goebbels playbook; the fact that the performances are getting better and better and the standing of the artists involved increasing every time suggests those dogs have maybe had their day. (The final frontier is the UK, where it surfaced once at Covent Garden around 08, only to vanish again.)

Marietta (Petersen) drives Paul (Kaufmann) up the wall

Now the opera has been championed by Kirill Petrenko, the extraordinary conductor who has been music director of the Bayerisches Staatsoper for a good while and now has the Berlin Philharmonic as well. The cast is led by Jonas Kaufmann as Paul and Marlis Petersen as Marietta. I remember rejoicing, on hearing Kaufmann's first solo CD of Strauss Lieder in 2006, that here was the perfect German romantic tenor to sing Korngold's leads, if only he would be persuaded. That was 13 years ago - but it seems I wasn't wrong.

A fresh view of an old favourite after a long time is always illuminating - especially when a piece is so expertly performed that you know you are responding to the work itself and not its misapprehension by its performers. This opera functions at such high intensity, right the way through, that you can feel afterwards as if you've been hit by a juggernaut. I can see why I fell madly in love with it when I was 20: emotionally speaking, this music is for young people, reflecting Korngold's own age and stage at the time. He began work on it while serving as musical director of his regiment in World War I; upon its simultaneous premiere in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920, he was 23. Already an established superstar after a meteoric beginning as child prodigy par excellence, he wrote the lead roles for no lesser singers than Richard Tauber and Maria Jeritza, and assumed his orchestra would be so good that they'd be able to do absolutely anything.

Marietta (Petersen) taunts Paul (Kaufmann) with Marie's wig...

What is not young about it, though, is the libretto itself - and here's a whole new strand for me to explore, because when I studied the piece I looked at what the libretto does with its sources (Georges Rodenbach's Bruges la Morte and the play based upon it by Siegfried Trebitsch), but not exactly who did what, or why. "Paul Schott" was a pseudonym for the Korngolds père et fils, Julius and Erich, and of those two, Julius was the one who worked with words. It is easy to think, looking at some of his reviews (he was music critic of the Neue freie Presse, hence the most powerful in Vienna) and his unpleasant and unhinged-sounding letters to his gifted son, that Julius was simply crazy. He was, however, a very fine writer. His German is far from easy reading, but lucid translations in the relevant books, notably by Michael Haas and Brendan Carroll, show that his literary worth ran high and justifies his place and influence - even though he sometimes used these to somewhat malign ends.

Erich was a natural composer, but less so a wordsmith. He penned reams of funny and charming doggerel for his friends and family (the Exil.arte Centre in Vienna has in its collection a recording of him reading one of these verses), but when it comes to long  descriptions of a religious procession through the centre of Bruges, or an all-out "domestic" between Paul and Marietta (has there ever been such a row in any other opera?) or an overtly Freudian psychological process and extended dream driving the action - that has surely to be the hand of Julius. I am now wondering - and do not begin to know - what was driving him.



Here's is the gist of the story. Paul lives in Bruges, surrounded by medieval streets, ancient canals, the atmospheric nunnery named the Beguinerhof - all dark, shadowy repression. His wife, Marie, has died; he can't move on. He has created a shrine to her memory and in his mind the dead city of Bruges fuses with the dead woman into one strange, dominating presence. He is supported by his devoted housekeeper, Brigitta, and his one friend, Frank. Then he meets Marietta: a dancer who is the physical double of Marie, but her polar opposite in personality, all sparkle and sensuality. The virgin/whore complex of the Rodenbach original becomes, in Korngold, the battle for life against death. Paul has a dream - which takes up all of act 2 and most of act 3 - in which he sees calamity ensue when he attempts a relationship with Marietta, and in which he finally strangles her with a lock of Marie's hair. At the end he awakens to realise the danger of his state of mind. Marietta comes back to fetch her umbrella, but he lets her go. Frank persuades him to leave Bruges at last.

Trolleyed: Marietta (Petersen) and Fritz the Pierrot (Filonczyk)
The roles are huge - long, loud, high and very physical - and the orchestral writing is full of complexities and unusual instruments. Some productions have made radical cuts - I saw one that wholly omitted the sole choral scene, the religious procession early in act 3, no doubt saving ££££s - but Petrenko has gone full whack and does every note. This is the three-act version, too: in some, acts 1 and 2 are run straight through, again with the loss of a certain amount of music. I heard passages, notably in Paul's duet with Marie's ghost, that I don't think I've actually encountered before.

The production by Simon Stone was restaged by Maria-Magdalena Kwaschik from its original home in Basel, and it leaves you dizzy. There is a syndrome in opera staging that often ensues when a director is lucky enough to secure the use of a "revolve". This means the stage can spin. This feature is technically very complicated and costs a bomb. Therefore it is put to work at every available second. "We've got a revolve and we're gonna use it!" My spies tell me it's not only the audience that risks seasickness. Nevertheless, it's effective in the dream sequence at creating the bizarre, unpredictable atmosphere Paul's nightmare requires. Doors open startlingly into walls; you're never quite sure where you are; Frank takes an open-air shower on the roof; Fritz, the Pierrot, pushes Marietta around in a shopping trolley (I watched with some anxiety as it rolled free towards the edge of the stage); and in the procession Paul's house is taken over by children (his and Marie's?) helping themselves to cereal and jumping up and down on the bed, before the chorus itself is delivered in a circle on the move.

Paul (Kaufmann) and the pillow fight
More seriously, when everything does keep still, it becomes clear that Marie has died of cancer; she appears in her hospital gown, bald from chemotherapy, weak and fading in Paul's arms. The preserved hair is her wig. This makes act I the most emotionally harrowing section of the opera (certainly for me - both my parents and my sister died of cancer, the latter aged only 45, and she had a wig  - so I found this evening extremely close to the bone). That's difficult, because you need to keep something in reserve for the end; this time it comes almost as relief, rather than catharsis.

Biggest complaint, though, is that in this opera the "dead city" of Bruges is a character itself - we meet it time and again in the orchestral textures and in particular in the extended orchestral sequence that opens act 2, a truly filmic canvas unfurling the glimmering waters, the dark church towers, the tolling bells, the medieval lanes, in sound alone. But as Bruges is a character - fused with Marie - the could-be-anywhere modern apartments of the very detailed design (by Ralph Myers) slightly miss the point, unless it be that the soul of this place is somewhat dead.

The performers' characterisation and dramatic sense is fabulous. As Paul, Kaufmann is haunted and harrowed, but imperious and determined, taken to offloading laundry and cardboard boxes onto Brigitta and Frank by simply tossing them across the room. In act 2 he is straight out of a film noire, in raincoat and angled hat, casting well-placed shadows; in act 3 bewildered, desperate and goaded beyond his limits. Paul is anything but an appealing and likeable character, yet Kaufmann kept us with him through his sheer sense of disorientation and the genuineness of his lost love; when he sings the final Lute Song over a beer while burning Marie's wig and his own tie, we are grateful that Paul will recover at last. (In one other production at least, he shoots himself, which after all that intensity is a really miserable way to end the piece.)

Singing? Kaufmann - often heard elsewhere as if pacing himself and keeping heft in reserve - this time lets rip from the start. There's a Wagnerian, Siegfried-like steely edge to the tone, and a rock-solid technical strength; but tender moments, when they arrive, melt like chocolate fondue. As Marietta and Marie, Marlis Petersen could quite possibly out-Marietta Jeritza herself. She's a vivid actress, switching astoundingly between charismatic dancer and dying cancer victim both in presentation and in vocal tone. Her role is as high and loud as Paul's and her silvery tone matches the glitter of her silver dress; she brings the character a megawatt personality who nevertheless is not above pinging Paul's braces to make her point. When she triumphs in the act 2 showdown, seducing Paul into a submission as wholehearted as his earlier fury, it is no wonder she wins. There's a particularly nice touch at the end when Marietta, having come back for her umbrella, once more forgets to take it with her. Will she come back? Is this story over? We wonder...

Mezzo Jennifer Johnston is an ideal Brigitta, with warm, shining tone and deeply sympathetic characterisation: for once we can take Brigitta at face value as housekeeper and, later, a nun. The story is complicated enough without trying to turn her into something she isn't (as some productions do). Andrzej Filonczyk as Frank and Fritz is a wonderful discovery, a golden-centred baritone whose rendering of the Pierrot lied was a highlight of the performance. Together the four principals make a close-knit and convincing ensemble. Fine supporting performances from Mirjam Mesak and Corinna Scheurle as pole-dancing Lucienne and Juliette, and Manuel Günther and Dean Power as the men in their act 2 lives.

But the ultimate stars of the evening were the orchestra and Petrenko, creating an Aladdin's cave of detail, with supremely intelligent pacing and control, high-stepping élan and excellent balance (it would be easy for the orchestra to overwhelm the singers; they didn't). It is no easy feat to sustain such intensity with such clarity, and to unfurl the drama of this rich-textured orchestral sound without allowing it to be obscured by its own weight. (Watch The Sea Hawk; listen to Korngold's own conducting of his own music on the soundtrack. It's there to be tapped into, if you want to know how he needs to sound.) This music is a cake that has to be baked at a high temperature - the worst thing to do is let it be soggy, and I've heard more soggy Korngold performances in my time than I'd care to count. It totally kills him. He really needs to be performed almost as if he's Beethoven - taken on his own terms, with that degree of nobility, heroism and sincerity - and these qualities are in short supply in our world. Petrenko found the very soul of Die tote Stadt and I'm deeply grateful to him.

Would I fall in love with this opera now, in my fifties, as much as I did at 20? I wonder. I'll never know. But I do know I'll probably never hear it performed as well as this again. A little bird hints that there might be a DVD (at least I saw tell-tale cameras in action on Sunday), which is seriously good news. Several more performances remain before Christmas and it'll be back on stage in the Munich Opera Festival in July.





Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A tribute to Sir Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019)

Sir Stephen Cleobury
Photo: King's College, Cambridge
In September I spent several days in York interviewing Sir Stephen Cleobury in some depth for the collection of National Life Stories at the British Library. He was already terminally ill. It seems gently appropriate that it was on St Cecilia's Day that he finally left us last week.

The BL asked me to write a tribute to him, which is up now at their Sound and Vision blog, together with an audio clip from the interview in which he talks about why the solo choirboy for Carols from King's is always chosen at the very, very last moment.

Monday, November 11, 2019

ODETTE AND TCHAIKOVSKY

Dear all, please come to the Barnes Music Society at the OSO, Barnes Pond, London SW13 this Wednesday, 13 November 2019 (7.30pm) for this:

ODETTE: A CELEBRATION OF SWAN LAKE
A narrated concert

Fenella Humphreys (violin)
Viv McLean (piano)
Jessica Duchen (author/narrator)


“Enthralling…an unpredictable and original voice and a dazzling perceptiveness” -- Joanna Lumley

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet score for Swan Lakecasts a powerful spell over generation after generation. It has had innumerable reimaginings and retellings, balletic and otherwise. The latest is author and music critic Jessica Duchen’s magical-realist novel Odette, in which the enchanted swan princess meets 21st-century Britain. 

This remarkable narrated concert mingles selected readings from the book with the story behind Tchaikovsky’s creation ofSwan Lakeand its passionate, tragic inspirations. Award-winning, ballet-loving British violinist Fenella Humphreys embraces the great violin solos with which Tchaikovsky embroidered his score, as well as the closely related Violin Concerto; pianist Viv McLean evokes the influence of Chopin and Liszt on Tchaikovsky; and there’s plenty of humour, with works by Saint-Saëns and Gershwin. Share the enchantment through this joyous celebration of a beloved ballet, its composer, its fairy tale and what they can mean to us today.




THE MUSIC
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Introduction
Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre
Liszt arr. Achron: Liebestraum No.3
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Odette’s Solo
Gershwin: The Man I Love
Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie 
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – White Swan Pas de Deux
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Adagio from the Black Swan Pas de Deux
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major - finale



FENELLA HUMPHREYS - VIOLIN

Winner of the 2018 BBC Music Magazine Instrumental Award, violinist Fenella Humphreys enjoys a busy career combining chamber music and solo work. Her playing has been described in the press as ‘amazing’ (The Scotsman) and ‘a wonder’ (IRR). 

A champion of new and unknown music, a number of eminent British composers have written for Fenella, including a set of 6 new solo violin works by composers including Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Sally Beamish and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. She has been fortunate to record these over 2 critically acclaimed CDs for Champs Hill Records, both chosen by BBC Music Magazine as Instrumental disc of the month with 5 Star reviews, and the second also picked as Editor’s Choice in Gramophone Magazine.  

Described on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review as an ‘absolutely exquisite album’, Fenella’s new CD, ‘So Many Stars’ with Nicola Eimer has just come out on Stone Records. Summer 2019 sees the release of Max Richter’s Four Seasons Recomposed on Rubicon Classics. Her teachers have included Sidney Griller CBE, Itzhak Rashkovsky, Ida Bieler and David Takeno, studying at the Purcell School, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule in Düsseldorf graduating with the highest attainable marks. 



VIV MCLEAN - PIANO

Viv McLean won First Prize at the 2002 Maria Canals International Piano Competition in Barcelona and has performed in all the major venues in the UK, as well as throughout Europe, Japan, Australia and the USA. He has performed concertos with orchestras such as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, Halle Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia Viva, Orchestra of the Swan and the Northern Chamber Orchestra under the baton of such conductors as Daniel Harding, Wayne Marshall, Christopher Warren-Green, Owain Arwell Hughes, Carl Davis and Marvin Hamlisch. 

Viv plays regularly with the Adderbury Ensemble and has also collaborated with groups such as the Leopold String Trio, Ensemble 360, the Ysaÿe Quartet, the Sacconi String Quartet and members of the Allegri and Tippett Quartets. Viv has appeared at festivals including the International Beethoven Festival in Bonn, the Festival des Saintes in France, Vinterfestspill i Bergstaden in Norway and the Cheltenham International Festival in the UK. He has recorded for labels such as Sony Classical Japan, Naxos, Nimbus, RPO Records and future releases include a Gershwin cd for ICSM Records. Viv has also recorded regularly for BBC Radio 3 as well as for radio in Germany, France, Australia, Norway and Poland.

“ Viv McLean revealed extraordinary originality, superb simplicity, and muscles of steel hidden by fingers of velvet. He plays with the genius one finds in those who know how to forget themselves, naturally placing themselves at the right point to meet the music, this mystery of the moment.” Le Monde (Paris)


JESSICA DUCHEN - AUTHOR/NARRATOR

Jessica Duchen's novels have gathered a loyal fan-base and wide acclaim. Odette, published by Unbound in November 2018, is her sixth, but has occupied her for over 26 years. Ghost Variations(Unbound, 2016) was Book of the Month in BBC Music Magazine and was John Suchet’s Christmas Choice for the Daily Mail's Best Reads of 2016 ("A thrilling read" - John Suchet). 

Jessica grew up in London, read music at Cambridge and has devoted much of her career to music journalism, with 12 years as music critic for The Independent. Her work has also appeared in BBC Music Magazine, The Sunday Times and The Guardian, among others. She was the librettist of Silver Birchby composer Roxanna Panufnik, commissioned by Garsington Opera and shortlisted for an International Opera Award in 2018, and she works frequently with Panufnik on texts for choral works. 

Her further output includes biographies of the composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Gabriel Fauré, her popular classical music blog JDCMB, and the play A Walk through the End of Time

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Is Beethoven actually trying to kill me?

I spent last week in Vienna, on the Beethoven trail for my new book, IMMORTAL; what follows is my Letter from Vienna for the Unbound 'shed', which is emailed to all the book's supporters. It's both substantial and quite interesting (I think), so I wanted to bring it to you here too. Delighted to say that the funding is all in place, but if you would like to be part of the IMMORTAL family, be thanked in print, pre-order your copy and receive regular updates on progress, you still can, here.



I came home from Vienna on Friday evening sick as the proverbial dog and barking like one. I was already unwell when I set off the previous Sunday; charging around the city, trying to see everything, walking about 7 miles a day during a nasty cold snap, did me so little good that I wondered if Beethoven is trying to kill me. 
Nevertheless, it was worth every second, because this trip will radically transform the atmosphere of IMMORTAL. Seeing what's available of the pleasant yet very plain apartments that the composer lived in, then visiting the former residences of his princely patrons in a grand city centre where palace piles up next to baroque palace, hammers home the desperately divided nature of that society. Among his chief supporters, Prince Kinsky's extravaganza is phenomenally OTT; Prince Lobkowitz's odd corner block is rather more tasteful (it is now the Theatre Museum, which is handy); and those are just two examples, neither of them the most extreme. 
The fascinating thing about research trips is that what you learn is never quite what you were looking for. One of my most startling impressions was that for tourism purposes, Beethoven is nowhere to be heard (seen, yes; heard, no.) Wherever you find a touristy concert in a church or palace, they are playing... Mozart. Occasionally Haydn, sometimes even Schubert. But Beethoven? Dearie dear - you have to go to the Musikverein or the Konzerthaus to listen to his music. You won't stumble upon it in the street. Nobody touting for tourists' business near the Hofburg is going to say to you "Psst, wanna hear some Beethoven?"
So is he too difficult? Too demanding? Too German? Too...foreign? Beethoven was indeed a foreigner in Vienna. He was an immigrant; he arrived as a student and never went back to Bonn. If not exactly a refugee, he was certainly reluctant to go home after Napoleon invaded the Rhineland (even though Napoleon was his hero for a while). The Brunswick sisters were similarly outsiders. Vienna would have been as foreign to them, from Hungary, as it was to Beethoven. 
Much is intact; much is not. Beethoven's longest place of residence, the Pasqualati House, is high on a hillock beside what used to be the city walls; he would have gazed out over the Glacis and the Prater towards the Vienna Woods from the top floor flat. Today you see only Vienna University, constructed directly opposite some decades later. Josephine's house, the Palais that her first husband built and where she lived on and off for the rest of her life, is long gone, demolished in the late 19th century. On its site you can now find a McDonald's.
But if you walk through the back streets, you come across lanes little changed since the 18th century; straight, well-proportioned channels lined with elegant buildings and occasionally opening onto a cobbled square beside an ancient church. In one such location you discover what used to be the university, run by the Jesuits in Beethoven's time; today it is the Austrian Academy of Sciences. "Beethoven? Oh, you'll want the first floor," says a remarkably relaxed gatekeeper. "It's open, just go in." And there, in what's now a ballroom and lecture theatre, equipped with state of the art AV equipment, is the room in which Beethoven premiered his Symphony No.7 - and in which a gala performance of The Creation was held in the presence of the elderly Haydn himself. There Beethoven broke through the crowds to kneel at his old professor's feet (and not before time).

One could not help noticing that these are some massively significant occasions in the history of music - yet there was nobody else around. I didn't even know, previously, that this place existed. 
Vienna is a layer cake of a city, its historical strata spreading one on top of the other. Century piles after century. The reason I haven't seen the Beethoven sites before is that whenever I've been there I've been looking for Korngold or Mahler or Johann Strauss, or celebrating new year waltzing round the Rathausplatz. My souvenir this time? A Klimt umbrella. Beethoven is subsumed, in a way, beneath everyone he influenced.
The place has its advantages - including a fantastic, easy-to-use public transport system and two of the world's best concert halls - but also its drawbacks. For instance, my specific annoying dietary problem is easier to solve even in Hungary than it is here (honest, guv, in Budapest I found a gluten-free bakery on Andrássy Boulevard). Eventually I came across a vegetarian buffet on the Schottenring that had a good selection, but I've never before eaten so many beans in three days. Otherwise it's tafelspitz or risotto; occasionally a gf cake if you're very lucky. 
Now I am back and setting to work not only on my target of finishing the first draft before Christmas, but also the remedial updating necessitated by the insights of this past week. My feet are covered in blisters, I'm coughing something chronic and I need to sleep for a fortnight, but fortunately writing takes place indoors. If Beethoven is trying to kill me, he hasn't succeeded. At least, not yet.


If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work in progress: IMMORTAL, a novel in which Beethoven is a crucial character. Please visit its page at Unbound for further details.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Far from the Home I Love



The wonderful pianist Margaret Fingerhut is busy with a huge charity tour at the moment, entitled Far from the Home I Love. She is raising money for refugee charities, in particular for City of Sanctuary and the West London Synagogue's Asylum Seeker Drop-In Centre, and so far her year-long tour of the UK has raised £60,000 out of a target of £88,000. Please come along and support her in the weeks ahead! 

Five concerts remain:
Oct 28 - Oxford
Oct 30 - Durham
Nov 01 - Ripon
Nov 03 - London
Nov 06 - Sheffield

Margaret writes:

“My ancestors settled here from the Ukraine, Poland and Ireland, so I have always been acutely aware of the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, never more so than today, given the climate of increasing hatred, intolerance and hostility to ‘others’. 

I wanted to find some unique way of raising awareness as well as funds for UK refugees, so I was very excited to come up with this idea. It struck me that the landscape of classical music would be very different if composers had not been allowed to migrate. Many of the world’s best-loved composers had to move from their homeland, either because of war or fear of persecution, or they simply migrated for their work.
I have picked all the pieces for their association with the theme of migration, exile and homesickness. However, I have designed the programme to be by no means just sad! The music I have chosen is also uplifting, happy, even humorous, as well as emotional, dramatic, heroic and virtuoso. 

I’m especially thrilled to have commissioned a new piece ‘Memories from my Land’ by the Kurdish composer, Moutaz Arian. This beautiful and and haunting piece has also now been released as a single track download, with all the proceeds going to City of Sanctuary UK. It can be downloaded on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon or Google”. 

Here's the full programme:

Handel (1685-1759)                           Minuet in G minor
Haydn (1732-1809)                            Sonata No.38 in F, Hob.XVI/23
-  Moderato, Adagio, Presto
Grieg (1843-1907)                              Three Lyric Pieces: 
-  Solitary Traveller, Homesickness, Homeward
Francis Pott (b.1957)                          Farewell to Hirta
Rachmaninov (1873-1943)                 Two Etudes-Tableaux from Op.39
-  No.8 in D minor, No.9 in D
    INTERVAL 
Moutaz Arian (b.1983)                       Memories from my Land (This commission has been
generously supported by Rob & Sara Lucas)
Hans Gal (1890-1987)                                    Two Preludes from Op.65
Prokofiev (1891-1953)                       Two Pieces from Romeo and Juliet:
-  The Montagues and Capulets, Romeo bids Juliet Farewell
Chopin (1810-1849)                            Polonaise in A flat Op. 53