The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

DSO Berlin/Metzmacher: 'Aufbruch 1909' orchestral concert - part 2 - Erwartung

Even if the Mahler on May 26th was mildly underwhelming, it would have been highly errant to have left the Philharmonie at the break, even if one had just come for the Mahler. The best was yet to come after the break and did so with a vengeance. I do not recall a more definitive account of Schoenberg’s monodram Erwartung than this, as sung by Angela Denoke and conducted by Metzmacher. One heard all the experimental, progressive aspects of Erwartung as hardly at all understated, but in a broader musical context, accepting in some of the romanticism of the score. In doing so, there was shed a little new light on the radicalism of it, as in a considerably broader but also very intellectually considered musical and dramatic context.

Erwartung survives very well, even flourishes, as interpreted in a well thought out clinical manner, when it indeed has been. The best example of such I have heard is probably one sung by Phyills Bryn-Julson with Michael Gielen conducting. Gielen is too sensitive an artist to have let things fall to limit the dimensions of such a work to account of quasi-catatonic or automaton driven utterances from a person of broken or disrupted psyche and string of orchestral gesture to mimic that.

In its sudden briefly held ostinati that sprout seemingly out of nowhere at times, disrupt train of thought, consistency of musical processes, proper sense of time and space, and also its intermittent pedal points, aching lyric line, and other allusions, the music seems to tenuously grope for somewhat of a tonal center. It may be D Minor a little more frequently than otherwise, with individual pitches and thirds a half step off often intrusive on the general sense at hand. If/when it is somewhat apparent, it is with plenty going on to occlude, disrupt too obvious a statement of a tonal center as such. If one should so emphasize the work’s color, romantic allusions, much of the intricate descriptive to manic activity often constantly going on can get coasted through and/or mildly submerged None of that happened at the Philharmonie.

In this interpretation of Erwartung, all that is disruptive in this score was clearly intended and able with utmost simplicity to be heard in what proved a tour de force performance by DSO Berlin. The tonal allusions therein were very sensitively articulated by placement where each strand of activity might best make its intended impact whether in rear, mid-ground or foreground. Even a major seventh glissando in the double basses for the space of two beats was clearly heard about five minutes in thus, mid-ground, in interaction with what was happening above.

Suggestion of forests, moonlight, hovering images of tree trunks and of other objects and elements of nature were made most evocative. Such suggestion alludes here to what goes on in the life of the psyche. All this happened however in just proportion - filled with color, ambience, light to hardly be romanticizing this music at all, but to make what one hears in this work sound both thoroughly three-dimensional and realistic in perspective.

Equally powerful a presence in this performance was soprano Angela Denoke. The derangement of ‘Woman’ was front and center - her tenuous grasp on ordered thought; reality was reckoned here in full, but without ever overdoing it. The humanity of the part, while serving the composer's intentions most faithfully was paramount. Denoke did project some expression of real warmth here. With state of such dissociation that Erwartung almost immediately dredges up, one could here still palpably empathize with its heroine. The context is one so jagged, remote, fragmented as to real location, state of consciousness, as to be completely unclear.
as correctly cognizant of all her environment, but never crossed that line.

Early on, one has the sensation of a gentle breeze through the birches set as in effect brief textural klangfarbenmelodie and ostinato movement in contrary motion of chromatic thirds in celesta conveying a mixed sensation of distant sound of crickets and/or beams of light from the moon cutting gently through the darkness, then all breaking down into chirped static smaller interval in celesta, staccato, for insect at closer range. This all, caught so poetically here, opened out a world of the power of suggestion in place of being illustrative.

With warm timbre, certainly feminine, Denoke did not miss a beat in intensely capturing in subtle hues and often more than that the rapidly shifting moods and fantasizing of a distraught woman. Such was a performance from both Denoke and Metzmacher that let the always frankly delineated modernism of this score speak both sharply and for itself; here it did so most eloquently. Denoke may have stepped to the line of perhaps injecting this music with excess opulence and portraying ‘Woman’ as correctly cognizant of all her environment, but never crossed that line.

Metzmacher, in the Mahler, Abscheid in particular, stressed the linearity of the writing, as one for instance picks up in chamber ensemble performances of it, and also (as supported by such transcriptions) as though a little more free of its tonal moorings than it actually is. His work with Erwartung behaved in what appeared to be a mildly restorative fashion, in capturing some sense of tonal hierarchy that as the diatonic system, had governed Western music for so long. He thus seemed off in a little opposite direction from how he approached the Mahler. He was thus out to more greatly reveal the by then shocking disturbances happening, erupting by means of Schoenberg infusing ever stronger elements of chromaticism into his music. Metzmacher also kept it forefront enough that Scheonberg with Erwartung still was s tenuously holding on to at least suggestion of a real sense of tonal hierarchy;. Ingo Metzmacher made it full circle in constantly keeping in mind and our ears attuned to picking up such crucial reference.

Angela Denoke, earlier this season on Wesendonck Lieder with Metzmacher, practically stretched the hopeless erotic, practically Tristan-esque yearning of this music to something suggesting mysticism, abetting similar means by Metzmacher thus. Just partly by way of contrast, such a line as ‘Oh der Mond schwankt” (‘the moon is swaying’) happened so intimately as just on the breath - under celesta/harp descant and then softly chromatic descending horn all over a sinister chord from the winds and rumbling from kontrabassi. Moments later over insinuating viola and violin obbligati, “Mein Liebe, mein einziger Liebling” went much the same way. Denoke’s range of expression would even include singing such a line as “drei Tage warst du nicht bei mir” - line soon after discovery in the forest.- all not self-consciously with dead tone – tone drained of all color and expression, over burnished sonorities of oboe and bass clarinet over divisi cellos.

Denoke certainly grasped in full the drifting in and out of lucidity, but most memorable of all was the humanizing of this part without adopting or taking on any form of grand or stately manner, as one has also heard occasionally with this music. The overt weeping on one lingering appoggiatura – ‘da, ich wuste’ early in Scene 4 was most affecting, and as much further down mimicked by febrile and vigorous sighing from DSO Berlin strings.

The air of distractedness brought up the idea of ‘memory and recurrence’ as mentioned in a whole different context and aesthetic field as the Shostakovich just recently reviewed; the concept itself hardly bears any resemblance to itself between these two pieces. Here, in Erwartung, the writing of course is so linear, that other than the shards of ostinati that break in, disrupting sense of time and space, there is hardly ever any stable sonority in play, at least for long.

How Denoke was so affecting was the shifting of tone between that of resignation, longing, regret, desperation to cling to something so dearly held onto before, and based on both distracted and distorted memory of a situation that seemingly psychologically and realistically has been floating in state of flux for some time. Metzmacher’s command of tone color and harmonic references, to summarize what has been said already, was such that would never crowd out or unduly understate the garish modernism of Schoenberg’s writing, but deftly highlighted it and brought all into again a most three-dimensional perspective.

There has been more, especially in terms of chamber music and piano/vocal music, including Metzmacher at the keyboard, to this mostly Schoenberg festival. It should be urgently put to Deutschland Radio Kultur and affiliates that it is a must-hear for both the network’s listeners both (here) abroad and at home – the festival in its entirety, not just the two orchestral parts of it – the other having been a concert of Schreker, Stephan, Busoni, and Reger played one week earlier.

If there was any doubt that Erwartung, in terms of the universals it expresses, is a great work of art, and that what we heard from Berlin was great music-making, Angela Denoke, Metzmacher, and DSO Berlin put it all to rest. May I put in a plea for, unedited, a digital download or compact disc of this performance? One, as attempting to write authoritatively here, as can anybody, can afford second and third helpings for sure.

David H Spence

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