Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Historical: Szymanowski plays Szymanowski

Tomorrow evening I am doing a pre-concert talk about Szymanowski at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, where the doughty CBSO, Ed Gardner and friends are performing the elusive Polish composer's Stabat Mater (more info on their site here). The talk will be along the lines of "Introducing Karol" - though I'm a tad aware that people in Birmingham are probably among the UK's most Szymanowski-aware, following Simon Rattle's championship of him and the magnificent recordings that resulted in the 1990s.

Do come along and say hi if you're in the area. Meanwhile, here is a Friday Historical of Szymanowski playing one of his own Mazurkas.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Jonas Kaufmann, wrapped in Viennese gold

If you were wondering where I'd got to... Been here, hearing this. Above: Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch take a curtain call in the Vienna Musikverein after what I think was the third of five encores.

Song recitals in the golden hall are not plentiful - mostly they are given in the smaller Brahmsaal - and this was Kaufmann's first "Liederabend" therein, following a highly successful run as Faust at the Staatsoper. It was a programme of Liszt, Mahler, Duparc and Strauss, which he and Deutsch introduced in Munich last summer (schedule here - Berlin tomorrow, Paris on Monday; London Wigmore Hall not until June, though). And if you think Vienna is not a place that can go nuts, think again. By the time the encores had rounded off with Strauss's 'Zueignung' and a rendering of 'Dein ist mein ganzes Herz' that could have turned even Tauber green with envy, your blogger and her companion were sobbing for joy along with the rest of the city.

Here is the full programme. And here is a video on Kaufmann's website introducing it

I won't keep you sitting here reading this blogpost all day, but a few highlights follow. First of all, Deutsch needs a credit all his own: the glowing, streamlined sounds that emerged from that piano would have wrapped Kaufmann's voice in pure gold even if the hall had not already done so. Deutsch has been Kaufmann's mentor in many ways and their partnership remains exceptional: they shine not merely as singer and accompanist individually, but as a duo even greater than the already phenomenal sum of their parts.

The Liszt's high spots included hushed raptness in 'Glocken von Marling', an engagingly narrative 'Drei Zigeuner' and an emotional roller-coaster of 'Freudvoll und Leidvoll'. Kaufmann's dark-hued tone is ideally suited to the Mahler Rückertlieder, and his ability to capture haunted, mystical atmospheres drew 'Am Mitternacht' towards undreamed-of inward realms. 

If any moment of the recital was any less convincing, it was the Duparc: a French group, even such a heady and sensual one, seemed to sit comparatively oddly against the rest of the programme, something brought into focus when Kaufmann launched into his home heartland with the Strauss Lieder immediately afterwards. Duparc is more Wagnerian than Faure or Debussy, yet it could be that these exceptional, kaleidoscopic songs, which feel like musical incarnations of Odilon Redon's late pastels, still need to settle to reach the same level of assumption that Kaufmann has achieved in Strauss. It was the Strauss that stayed with us: laughter for 'Schlechtes Wetter' (it was snowy, well below freezing and very windy out, and we'd have liked to sample whatever cake Kaufmann and Deutsch decided to bake); tears for a 'Befreit' almost too pain-filled to listen to (many pairs of spectacles were removed around us in the hall). 

Dein war unser ganzes Herz.. It's not the first time I've felt that Kaufmann is an artist who thrives on encores. This was when he seemed to relax the most and, frankly, let rip. Like most excellent artists, he seems fed by the audience's energy, which is as it should be. There's something about the creation of atmosphere in a performance that has less to do with the individual technical details than with the relationship between the performers, the degree they can communicate their mastery and passion for music to the audience, and much to do with... well, if anyone could articulate exactly what that "X factor" is, we wouldn't need daft TV programmes named after it.

It's when artists start to fly and take us up to 33,000 feet with them. It's when you can't believe the beauty in your own ears, and you can't hold onto it, either, but you're trying to in any case, and you know you are hearing something you'll never forget for the rest of your life. And you know it when you hear it, and you don't hear it very often. Perhaps 19th century commentators could have recognised its necessity by their very nature and expressed it in terms of touching something divine, which is what "high art" aspired to do. Such terminology is somewhat frowned on today. In a world that's terrified of "elitism", anything that sounds too good will be bashed. But when you get down to it, that is what's happening and that is what great artistry is all about, and that is what all the other very good but less "great" artists wish to do, and that is why we become musicians, because music can do this and that's why it exists. And when it reaches that rare level, you feel lucky to be alive to hear it. It's real. It's true. So just get over it, accept it and open your ears. 

And as if this wasn't enough...the day after, we attended Mitsuko Uchida playing the last three Schubert sonatas - Schubert in Vienna in the snow, with the B flat Sonata a crowning, aching, lonely wonder. Add to this a visual feast at the recently renovated Albertina gallery - two floors of an Impressionist exhibition (yes, with plenty of Redon pastels), one floor of the permanent collection and a top floor of a huge, jaw-dropping and revelatory exploration of Magritte. To say nothing of lunch at the Cafe Central, a romanesque-arched temple to kaffee und kuche once frequented by Trotsky, Freud and many, many more. We had their berry strudel, packed with kilos of purple fruit, and their trademark cake: chocolate, orange and marzipan with the lightest texture and finest flavours...

...look, as the Beatles would say, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter, so please forgive a few of the superlatives above. Right now, I think we deserved to enjoy them a little. All together now: "Wien, Wien, ach, du allein..."

Friday, February 10, 2012

In search of the spirit of Hoffmann

It's a fantasy world here in London this morning. Everything has turned white. A suitable setting for a fabulously fantastical evening courtesy of Offenbach, ENO, director Richard Jones and a cast headed by the doughty Barry Banks as ETA Hoffmann. But why do so many of the musical creations based on this seminal German Romantic author have so little to do with what he actually wrote? Is he just...too damn scary? I have a piece about this in today's Independent. But below, please find the director's cut, in which Schumann comes to the fore rather more than Offenbach.

First, here's the trailer for tonight - it's a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera. I just hope the transport system holds up under our massive and alarming 2cm of snow.

Where would we be without the stories and novels of ETA Hoffmann? The German author’s dazzling imagination underpins some of the world’s most popular and enduring operas, ballets, and even piano music. Yet there’s a real disconnect between Hoffmann’s influence and the adaptations we see on stage. Few of them bear much resemblance to his originals. Indeed, the writer’s absence from his own legacy is so striking that Richard Jones, the director of English National Opera’s new production of The Tales of Hoffmann, has apparently recommended to his lead tenor, Barry Banks, that he need not read the tales by Hoffmann on which the opera is based.

That could seem surprising – after all, the hero of Jacques Offenbach’s opera is loosely modelled on the real Hoffmann. But perhaps it is a practical matter: so vivid and terrifying are these seminal works of German Romanticism that our star singer would risk having nightmares for weeks.

The opera – about to open at the Coliseum in a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera, Munich – features Hoffmann as a dissolute, drunken poet looking back over his thwarted love affairs and finally finding redemption in his art alone. Three stories are involved, each concerning one of three women, Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta, each with an ‘evil genius’ figure who puts Hoffmann through a series of supernatural tribulations. Olympia is an automaton, made to appear real when Hoffmann dons magic spectacles. Antonia dies in his arms after her mother’s ghost persuades her to sing, against medical advice. Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan, steals his reflection, and implicitly his soul. Every tale is based on a Hoffmann original. Yet Hoffmann’s actual writing is so disturbing that the operatic version, despite its gripping narrative and unforgettable music, can barely scratch the surface.

We seem little concerned with the real ETA Hoffmann today, beyond specialised academic studies, but his significance was multifarious and profound. His life – contemporaneous with Beethoven – was short, difficult and tragic. Born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann in Königsberg in 1776, he adored music obsessively, to the point that he changed his ‘Wilhelm’ to ‘Amadeus’ in tribute to Mozart. His family background appears to have been unstable, rife with mental problems; perhaps his imagination was predisposed to become fevered. He lived a turbulent existence, moving between Germany and Poland, working variously as a clerk, a jurist and a music critic, writing and composing prolifically the while. He became “dissolute” and syphilis killed him when he was only 46. The writer George Sand said of him: “Never in the history of the human spirit has anyone entered more freely and more purely into the world of dream.”

So why do the popular adaptations of his works veer so far from the originals? The Nutcracker, that ubiquitous Christmas ballet, is a case in point. It presents a supremely simplified version of a tale in which the “world of dream” is deeply entangled with that of reality. For balletic purposes, the most potent and horrific elements of Hoffmann’s Nutcracker and Mouse King are stripped away; in their place the audience sees infinite sugar. Hoffmann himself had dreamed up, among other things, a seven-headed mouse king that sets gruesome traps for its own offspring. Not so great for family viewing, perhaps.

Then there’s Coppelia, second only to The Nutcracker in popularity: a sweet, frothy story about a youth who becomes infatuated with a doll, inducing his girlfriend to take good-natured revenge. Set to irresistible music by Léo Delibes, it is based on the same Hoffmann tale as the Olympia episode in Offenbach’s opera. Yet the original story – The Sandman – couldn’t be less sweet and frothy if it tried. It involves murder, madness, blinding and the manufacture of eyes, as well as the recognition of the darkest and most destructive side of the human psyche, all of it conjured with imagery so potent that it impacts upon our subconscious at an almost primal level. It can be no coincidence that Sigmund Freud made considerable reference to this story in his essay The Uncanny, describing Hoffmann as “the unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature”. Incidentally, Freud associated the terror of losing sight with the fear of castration.

The composer most faithful to the underlying spirit of ETA Hoffmann was Schumann, who did not use the actual stories at all – though this arch-romantic’s tragic life, with its descent into syphilitic madness, reads almost like one in itself. He frequently took inspiration from the author: Fantasiestücke, Nachtstücke and Kreisleriana are all titles used by both creators. The turbulent, mercurial atmosphere of Schumann’s piano cycle Kreisleriana catches the tone of Hoffmann to perfection, although there is no programmatic link.

Hoffmann had given the name ‘Johannes Kreisler’ to a sort of alter-ego that finally became a character in his last novel Lebensansichten des KatersMurr (The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr) – in which the autobiography of a savvy feline is accidentally mingled with that of a temperamental and introverted musician. The young Johannes Brahms, another passionate Hoffmann aficionado, sometimes signed himself ‘Joh. Kreisler Jun.’ (Johannes Kreisler Junior), including on his official Op.1, the Piano Sonata in C major.

Offenbach’s choice of Hoffmann as the basis for his last opera was a less personal matter, but no less telling. Towards the end of his life, though celebrated for his riotous and risqué Parisian operettas, he yearned for recognition as a serious composer. These stories provided the ideal medium. Perhaps, too, he was able to identify with a different aspect of the anguished hero; as a German Jewish immigrant in 19th-century Paris, he had perforce remained rather an outsider himself.

The opera involves a feast of musical joys – among them the brilliant coloratura aria of Olympia the doll, the hero’s duet with the doomed Antonia, and Giulietta’s seductive Barcarolle. Hoffmann’s various loves are sung by the same soprano (for ENO, it is Georgia Jarman), while the three “evil genius” figures are likewise portrayed by one bass (Clive Bayley). Barry Banks, as Hoffmann, takes on a notoriously demanding yet rewarding role.

Sweetened for palatability, simplified for stage presentation and all but forgotten in the shadow of the great music they inspired, Hoffmann’s stories and their profound psychological truths remain immortal in their own way. At least Offenbach gave him the credit he deserved. It is high time that we did so as well.

The Tales of Hoffmann opens at English National Opera on 10 February. Box office: 0871 911 0200

Thursday, February 09, 2012

In Memoriam Devy Erlih

I was horrified to learn last night of the death of Devy Erlih, the violinist and professor whom I was lucky enough to interview in 2008, when he was about to turn 80. We hear that he was hit by a car on his way home from teaching at the Ecole normale de musique. After a life involving an extraordinary tale of survival, this seems a desperately cruel twist of fate. It was a joy and a privilege to meet him.

My feature about him for The Strad is now online in my website archive and you can read it here.

Having evaded the Gestapo in occupied Paris as a young boy, while his father somehow survived the notorious Vel d'Hiver incarceration, Erlih went on to defy the conventions of the day in terms of musical taste. He developed a passion for Bartok and Prokofiev - which saw him labelled "un mauvais caractere" by one of his professors - and devoted much of his life thereafter to championing contemporary French composers, at least when he wasn't attempting to revolutionise the style deemed appropriate for the performance of Bach. He married the daughter of the composer Jolivet and made some celebrated recordings of his father-in-law's works. He had many pupils and according to one of them - Philippe Graffin, who kindly served as interpreter for this interview, having alerted me to Erlih's work in the first place - he was an inspirational and devoted professor.

When we visited him, he was wondering how it might be possible to have some of his old LPs re-released on CD. Some record company somewhere is missing a trick.

"Klinghoffer" looms

Later this month ENO's new production of The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams's opera about a Palestinian hijacking at sea that took place in 1985, will bring this extremely controversial work to a full staging in the capital for the first time. It's taken 20 years for any opera house in London to dare to produce what's probably Adams's most important opera to date. Here are my thoughts on the matter from today's Independent, as well as chats with librettist Alice Goodman, conductor Baldur Bronnimann - who has worked in both Israel and the West Bank - and ENO's artistic director John Berry.