Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Moritzburg Fest in Wagner and Schubert at Frauenkirche

Photo: Frauenkirche of Dresden, Wikimedia Commons

Dresden, Germany

by Rodney Punt

Artistic Director Jan Vogler and his merry band of ever-reconfiguring instrumentalists known as the Moritzburg Chamber Music Festival are keenly aware of the importance of matching their venues with compatible works. Take, for instance, the iconic Frauenkirche in the center of Dresden, which on August 17 hosted two of them: Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major.

Totally and unnecessarily destroyed by the Allies in the final days of World War II, the Baroque-styled Evangelical Lutheran church lay in ruins during the GDR era. Eight years ago it was reconstructed to its former glory with funding from both sides of that war and it stands today as a symbol of their reconciliation. Oddly shaped by the earlier Gothic church conventions -- it resembles a large bell from the outside -- its interior is not of the usual cruciform configuration, but a tall oval with three balconies arranged in concentric circles on the walls above its ground floor. I was curious to learn how these two works would sound in this unusual space.

Siegfried Idyll was composed as a birthday gift for Wagner’s wife, Cosima, and premiered under her window as a surprise on Christmas Day, 1870. Its name refers not so much to the clueless mythical hero destined to perish while saving the world from the Teutonic version of original sin, but instead to the eponymous baby boy Cosima had presented Richard with a year and a half before.  The themes come from the third opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but that is where the similarity ends; for the work transforms the opera’s heroic motifs into an extended lullaby-like narrative of cuddles and kisses for the Wagner toddler. 

Siegfried Idyll’s appearance on the program was in observance of Wagner’s bicentennial birth year of 1813 and of his Saxonian origins. The composer had developed and premiered his early operatic masterpieces in the Saxon capital and Dresden is as proud of their native son as he and Cosima were of their own son. 

I sat in a ground floor pew at the Frauenkirche and was touched to discover at my feet the brass scroll placed there in 2005 as memorial to early Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz, who, four centuries ago and before even the Frauenkirche was built, worked in Dresden and laid the seeds of the present day Sächsische Staatskapelle orchestra. Just as Schütz (called the “Father of German Music”) would establish Germany as a force in the musical world, Wagner would put Germany at the forefront of the operatic world. Wagner paid homage to that earlier legacy of "heilige Deutsche Kunst" with the mystical chorale that opens his tribute to German music, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

The thirteen musicians in this original version of Siegfried Idyll were a mixture of seasoned professionals and younger personnel from the Moritzburg Festival Akademie. They caught the work’s tenderness nicely, but, like a baby at a baptismal, Siegfried Idyll seemed lost in the vast cavern of the Frauenkirche’s interior space. The solos in this nearly one-instrument-per-part work were uniformly well performed, but the work’s admittedly soft-edged message tended to dissipate and flatten in the church, with its super-spacious reverberation and slow acoustical decay. The work might also have benefitted from more dramatic incision and forward thrust to help it overcome the apparent mismatch in scale with its performance space.

While Siegfried Idyll came across as a small piece for a generous thirteen players in the Frauenkirche, Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major proved itself a massive one for a modest five players in the same space.

I made a quick dash up to the first balcony to hear one of chamber music’s supreme tours de force. That level in the Frauenkirche I had found on past occasions to be the ideal place to sit, even better to stand. The primary sound of the players registers most distinctly there; the space's reverberation is embracing yet least dissipating of all levels including on the ground. This acoustical character would prove important to the quintet's rich texturing.

Schubert liked low sonorities; in virtually all cases where he added a voice to the customary quartet, whether in chamber or vocal music, it would be to include a lower, richer voice to the ensemble. The Trout Quintet, for instance, replaces the second violin for a string bass; the vocal quintet, Sehnsucht, for male voices, adds a third bass voice. In this work, Schubert’s valedictory to chamber music and composed only a few weeks before his death in November 1828, it was a second cello instead of the extra viola Mozart had employed in his string quintets.

Rehearsing the Schubert Quintet. Photo: René Gaens
The ensemble were all seasoned pros. (Pictured above, rehearsing, left to right: violins Mirijam Contzen and Benjamin Schmid, viola Benjamin Rivinius, cellos Christian Poltéra and Jan Vogler.) As was shortly to be revealed, they had also calculated an appropriate execution for the work in the Frauenkirche's tricky acoustic. (Its six-second sound decay is forever in musical time.) The unfolding performance would prove to be spacious and magisterial, also revelatory of the work’s amazing mix of moods, ranging from sad to sweet, rustic to elegant, exuberant to profound.

The first movement’s Allegro ma non troppo has always struck me as a retrospective view of Schubert’s life in passing moments -- here a morsel of his early dance music for house parties, there a motif from the youthful and carefree Trout Quintet, and further over a sad strain reminiscent of his last piano sonata (in Bb Major, D960), written in the same period as this work.

Schubert seemed content in the house parties of that final decade, called Schubertiads, to provide piano music almost anonymously for the amusement of others, extending love and beauty through his art but receiving little more from the self-involved partiers than an indifferent nod. It was the story of his life, as indeed of many musicians, but never a cause for self-pity. An amazing forbearance to smile through tears in both life and music remains today a key to his greatness.

Poltéra’s first cello joined Rivinius’ viola and Schmid’s second violin in the embracing legato passages that set a foundation for the first movement’s transcendental interplay between Vogler’s second cello and Contzen’s violin. Here, Vogler’s Stradivarius embraced the otherworldly pizzicati heartbeats that imbue this movement with a palpitating undercurrent of soulfulness in interplay with Contzen’s achingly poignant melodic flights.

The second movement Adagio, in ABA form, evokes a profound tenderness in its outer sections in E Major and great emotional turbulence in its F Minor middle section. Once again, Schubert employed the second cello to agitate but eventually calm down that episode's struggle, returning it to the initial stoic serenity. Schubert would reference that Neapolitan relationship (tonic, supertonic, tonic) at the end of the work's last movement in the bracing unison C-Db-C as if to seal forever its disturbing metaphysical significance to him.

The third movement Scherzo pulls back from the Adagio’s brink with an expansive celebration: a rustic dance of symphonic proportions, like at a village wedding. Some have seen it as Schubert fantasizing the gates of heaven thrown wide in its greeting to him. The magnified sound of the open strings on the lower instruments filled the Frauenkirche like one of those periodic swells of the Elbe overflowing its banks. But once again, the middle trio section was Schubert’s reality check, its measured death march promptly reining back the mood to almost a kind of Mahlerian world-weariness.

The last movement’s Rondo finds Schubert in a carefree orgy of sensual celebration, derived this time from Hungarian themes. As if in one last spectral appearance, however, those final three notes of Neapolitan gesture (Schubert’s version of shock and awe) returned like a doppelgänger to reveal something deeper forever shadowing life's joys. The Moritzburg group paced those last notes quite deliberately and let that minor-second dissonance frizz and fade for what seemed an eternity, perhaps the eternity Schubert knew he himself would enter soon after he finished this work.

Life and death were always rival siblings for Schubert, locked together as differing aspects of the same nature. The shift between tragedy and exuberance, so characteristic of the composer, is nowhere else so remarkably displayed as in this deeply moving string quintet, and it was immeasurably augmented in the Frauenkirche by the fine ensemble from the Moritzburg Chamber Music Festival.


Postscript on the Adagio

The Adagio from the String Quartet in C Major has taken on a life quite independent of the larger work in which it was imbedded. It has been used in movie soundtracks and become a frequent choice of great musical artists to be played at their funerals. Violinist Joseph Saunders had its theme carved on his tombstone. Arthur Rubinstein declared it in his autobiography as the choice for his own remembrance.  I personally heard it on a freezing cold day worthy of Winterreise at Leonie Rysanick’s memorial service in 1998, wafting above my pew from the balcony of the Church of St. Borromeo at Vienna’s Central Cemetery. The ensuing flu I contracted made it almost my own funeral music.

Richard Wagner’s grandson, Wolfgang, then director of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, was in attendance at that Rysanick memorial. She had in the early 1950’s been a protégé of his brother Wieland who helped secure her reputation as a rising singer in his game-changing productions. At the end of her memorial service, Wolfgang passed close by me. His profile bore the uncanny resemblance of his grandfather. It is touching to consider that fifteen years after the Schubert Adagio was heard by Wolfgang, his own father, Siegfried, would be celebrated on a program with the same work. But it is also spooky to consider that Wolfgang's father was born 130 years before, and even more so that Wolfgang's grandfather, Richard, was born an astounding 185 years before that day. (Think of it this way: I met a man who's grandfather was born a mere thirty years after George Washington defeated the British at Yorktown in 1783.)

It is relatively rare for musical commentators to speak of Schubert and Wagner in the same breath. Schubert was supposed to be lyrical by nature, unsuited for opera, and of course we know that Wagner was opera's first fully dramatic composer. And there is much truth in these observations. But consider the opening minor-key storm of Schubert's Erlkönig with its chase in the bass register, and then consider the similar minor-key storm of Wagner's Die Walküre with its own chase in the bass register. Though we know that Mozart's Don Giovanni, with similar eerie gestures, was well known to both composers, the best precedent to Wagner's vaunted declamatory style in opera may just be Schubert's unfinished Lazarus cantata.

There are many more connections than we often consider as probable in the development of musical styles.


Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, evocative writing, Rod. You took us there!