Thursday, May 27, 2010

Prussian Blues

seeking the enigma of Richard Wagner

painting by Casper David Friedrich

Review by Rodney Punt

Jacaranda’s season finale last Saturday evening was homage to Richard Wagner, its contribution to the current two-month Ring Festival LA that explores the works and influence of the dominant European musical voice from the mid 19th Century until the end of World War I. It comes as LA Opera mounts, beginning this coming Saturday, three complete Ring cycles.

Like a Cubist painting, each of the pieces in the program – by Schubert, Mahler, Hindemith, and Wagner himself - angled a different perspective on the composer, from antecedents to personal reflections, and finally to later developments.

The first programmed was the last written, the Septet for Winds of Paul Hindemith. This unsentimental excursion into a garden of earthly delights was composed in the composer’s Sicilian backyard in 1948. In the aftermath of the European disaster of war and chaos, it is a rejection of everything vainglorious and excessive, in other words, everything Wagnerian. Intimate, witty, full of musical puns, fugues and retrogrades, its playful conversations between the instruments feature piquant woodwind dissonances that suggest the buzz of insects and nearby colorful flora. The evening’s nuanced woodwinds executed its delicacies with a gentle sassiness.

A canny choice to launch the program, the Septet, in context, felt like a wine taster’s elaborate procedure to erase the aftertaste of what went before. As such it prepared us to travel back in time before Wagner’s dominant legacy and hear, with fresh ears, Franz Schubert’s proto-Romantic sensibilities beginning to flower in five deeply moving vocal pieces for male ensemble that clearly anticipated Wagner’s later elaborations. An ensemble of eight male singers performed them a cappella or with various instrumental accompaniments, conducted by Jacaranda co-producer Mark Hilt.

Sehnsucht’s gnarled chromaticism aches with the untenable separation of its lovers (“Only he who knows longing knows how I suffer.”). Nachtgesang im Walde’s seraphic atmospherics are enhanced by four horns - beloved of Romantic-era composers from Weber through Wagner - the deployment of which in the back balcony was a good idea, but presented coordination challenges to the ensemble.

Der Gondelfahrer, a blend of German and Italian musical traditions, features a deft harmonic shift on the piano for the tolling of its church bells. Nachthelle, one of the great Schubert Nachtmusik pieces in any genre, was written for male quartet, piano, and "a principal and damnably high tenor” according to one of the composer’s contemporaries. On this evening, soloist James Callon's light voice was damnably high but not principal enough for the urgent passages that cry out for the “the last barrier” to be broken.

The big work in the Schubert group was Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, for two male choirs of four voices each, with two violas, two cellos, and a contrabass. A setting of the great transcendental poem of Goethe, this was Schubert's last and most ambitious of four attempts. The poem contrasts the recycling journey of water in nature to the vicissitudes of man’s soul through life. Octave leaps and dissonances depict waters over cliffs and down chasms; melismatic passages the flow of water on more level contours, gently stirred by the wind. On this evening, it seemed also to anticipate the Ring’s fated Rhine river. Conductor Hilt and his committed voices and strings gave it their all in a riveting performance.

Siegfried Idyll could be Wagner’s nod to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony as well as Richard Strauss’ inspiration for his own Domestic Symphony. It is Wagner at his most relaxed, ironically so in that much of its melodic material is derived from that most urgent of operatic projects, Der Ring des Nibelungen. This evening it received as serene a performance in its original 13-instrument form as was likely heard by Wagner’s wife, Cosima, at her birthday on the staircase of the couple’s chalet at Triebschen.

The Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony could have declared “Go not gently into that dark night,” laden as it was with yearnings, regrets, and remembrances of the mortally ill Mahler, reliving in his mind his tempestuous marriage to the infamous Alma Schindler. She may later have landed on our Hollywood-adjacent shores as a frumpy, middle-aged émigré, but in 1911 she was Mahler’s demonic muse. Hilt and his string ensemble made this performance the highlight of the evening, one that explored every tortured byway to its final, relieving cadence.

Romantic suffering before, during, and after Wagner had many musical resonances, but also political and social consequences. Exacerbated by the tensions of a dysfunctional Central European society in the exact century between Romanticism’s first clear expression - Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade of 1814 - and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, this uneasy state of mind, expressed most intensely in the works of Richard Wagner, wore its heart dangerously on its sleeve and could never find a way out.


Prior to its commencement, Patrick Scott, Jacaranda's other co-producer, dedicated the program to the memory of the late music critic, Alan Rich, a champion of Jacaranda Music from its beginnings seven years ago.


Marc said...

I am totally agree about intimate, witty, full of musical puns, fugues and retrogrades, its playful conversations between the instruments feature piquant woodwind dissonances that suggest the buzz of insects and nearby colorful flora.

Rodney Punt said...

Hi Marc and Arnold. So nice to have you join us at LA Opus. We promise all your visits will be free of charge (:-) so feel free to vent, question, give us your own opinions.

Best, Rodney