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.

Monday, March 22, 2010

DSO Berlin: Schumann Szenen aus Goethes Faust - in most holistic perspective - Ingo Metzmacher, Christian Gerhaber - Philharmonie 26.02.2010

One of the most unqualified triumphs that Ingo Metzmacher has had in the U.S. was his rendition of Der Paradies und die Peri with San Francisco in 2006 – work he repeated two years later in Berlin very successfully as well. That now makes it that I have heard very nearly complete both Schumann oratorios from him. No (other) conductor I can recall has recorded both oratorios. Giuseppe Sinopoli certainly would have found his way to Scenes from Faust, had he lived longer - having only instead recorded the earlier oratorio of the two – based on Persian Islamic morality tale of sorts.

I have yet to hear Metzmacher on any of the symphonies; a friend of mine in Florence heard him conduct the Rhenish with the May festival orchestra there last fall. Perhaps the most elusive among Schumann’s choral works, most aesthetically fulfilling too is indeed Scenes from Faust. It is intriguing how with dulled mind he suffered that Schumann accomplished – process disjunct over period of years – so very much in writing it.

What attempts there have been at Schumann’s Faust on disc have been curious thus far. Most eccentric in forcing conformism with personal model of historically informed practice, though on modern instruments, is Harnoncourt with Concertgebouw. Abbado, sensitive to other elements, impetus with this music, also ultimately comes across a little self-conscious this way too. Boulez, in 1973 from BBC, combines being literal minded with making a little extra special effort to indicate what progressive tendencies the music contains, in classic teleological fashion common during earlier (and more fiery) phase of his conducting career. Bernhard Klee, at least superficially, sounds most at ease with Schumann. Just about enlightened enough Kapellmeister to conduct this, Klee does so just about competently. He misses some elements of this score, that without Metzmacher today, we might not suspect are there.

Wolfgang Marx’s annotation for Abbado (Sony) raises several interesting points. Schumann first set to music the final scene of Faust and somewhat thus from the get-go had the theme of redemption, Marx explains, in mind as paramount. Schumann’s great respect for Goethe’s text is also cited. Starting off from just these two facts alone, our information about this piece will still most certainly be incomplete - of how to effectively approach it. Whatever mental lapse Schumann may have suffered during the late 1840’s, this work certainly must have given him both some respite and some hope. Very seldom in either pedantic or servile way does the music only serve the text. Marx speaks of the very through composed setting of the ‘Mater dolorosa’ scene for Gretchen. Metzmacher uncannily found way through rests, not missing them, of connecting disjunct violas' upbeats in introduction to overall orchestral line for this scene - very hard to hear achieved this well elsewhere.

A more strophic form setting of this scene would not have served Schumann’s purposes, toward adequately depicting the shifting psychological map that he explored in further revealing Gretchen here. Important too, the transfiguration scene, though this portion of it written before the fact, with subtlety cross-references back to early scenes of this oratorio. Schumann, though somewhat (Lutheran) tradition bound to even Christologize Faust at end of Part 2 with ‘Es ist vollbracht’ for Mephisto (quoting Christ's last words from John's Gospel), definitely had his mind too, in how he crafted this work, on the visionary qualities of Goethe's Faust. He clearly did set such genius to music in such a way that indeed would see ahead – and so subtly certainly partly succeeded in doing so.

Ingo Metzmacher is clearly who to seek toward getting get Schumann’s Faust in way that takes absolutely nothing for granted. In achieving such a fine interpretation of this (qualified) masterpiece, he has also avoided seeking any kind of personal stamp to place on it, to mark as anything belonging to him. He goes about it, keeping in mind very well the utter simplicity of some of the writing, with the same respect as has come from him before for Berg’s Wozzeck. It would be the easiest thing in the world to go about Scenes from Faust as being felicitously Biedermeier for much of it; Metzmacher just would have been the last person around to have stood for doing so.

The overture to Scenes from Faust was composed last, and derives sturm und drang elements from both Faust’s dichotomous, fractious scene in Part 2 of debate with the ‘superstitions’ and from example of composing the Manfred overture. At little more than half of Manfred’s length, Schumann did so in a perplexing compact manner. Metzmacher announced from the outset, without either compromising line or weighing the music down, much interest in reaching from just slightly beneath the lowest recesses of sonorities from amidst his forces for proper impetus to propel this music forward. He also thus gave sufficient weight to what framing Schumann's overall harmonic scheme and patterns thereby provides so well. He then was able to eschew having to overtly prove how supple a hand he has at making transitions between theme groups in this sinfonia.

Most notable therein was achievement of strong dramatic contrasts, i.e. two or three subito’s toward change of tempo that happened very effectively. Propulsion through violin section tremolo runs, abetted by flowing rubato through second theme group each time, carried forward to an elementally exciting conclusion to such perilous example of a Schumann overture. Warm glow throughout DSO Berlin remained confidently assured the entire way through this.

Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, so experienced in heavier repertoire, was the Gretchen. Nylund conveyed very well the conversational tone in Schumann’s writing, very winningly during early courtship with Faust, and element of Gretchen’s self-doubt as well. Expansion, filling out passages of anxiety made for a little heavy going around a slightly tremulous break for her; working with such optimum cushion behind her from DSO Berlin, she fearlessly took on the high B-Flat at end of the ‘Mater dolorosa’ scene with fine assurance. The confidence she took forward from this with long rest in-between reassured Nylund an excellently achieved beseeching tone for Gretchen’s entreaties as Penitent (“Neige, neige”) in Part Three.

Werner Gura made a most confident Ariel, Gura a tenor whose voice can take on some hardness in its middle to upper reaches. He avoided all that, even in skillfully making Pater Ecstaticus’s Part 3 opening lines – and something incisive as well of depicting a fairy’s cramp-stiffened limbs within fresh naivete of Ariel’s music. Gura reveled in the warmth of Elysian atmosphere, sonorous plush all about (though with harps slightly obscured in Philharmonie acoustic behind strings and flutes). With spirit ears well tuned, Gura as Ariel greeted dawning of a new day with both lyrical and heroic assurance.

Mojca Erdmann made her sweet toned higher lyric soprano ideal in this cast of soloists, with only slight hint of acid to her sound as Sorge (Worry) - leading superstition vis-à-vis Faust at midnight. Such amounted to little more than just a fine, though sharply applied Vienniese accent to her diction and production. Making for foreign, contrasting color to more Northern accents all about, it worked ideally well. Georg Zeppenfeld made subtle, straightforward, case for nemesis to Faust. While showing himself always ready to stand his ground to Gerhaber’s Faust, he very prudently waited all the way to very close to end of Fausts Tod (end of Part 2) to show his fangs otherwise. He then provided fine sonority, introspective gravitas for Pater Profondus; his voice blending very well with Gerhaber soon thereafter. Ingeborg Danz provided steady hand and voice for supplemental mezzo parts, including Mater Gloriosa near the end – part to help one also recall the ethereally written similar moment in finale to the Mahler Eighth Symphony.

Any baritone, taking on Faust, is prone to look to Fischer-Dieskau as model. Christian Gerhaber proved hardly any exception. His is a lighter voice than that of Fischer-Dieskau – such to at times work somewhat to his advantage in some repertoire. Results for him for at least the first two parts of the Harnoncourt concerts in Amsterdam were curiously similar, very choppy, to those for Fischer-Dieskau (other than his fine Dr. Marianus) in 1973 with Pierre Boulez –only time I recall hearing these two artists together (as caught on reissued BBC air-check of this).

Gerhaber made very clear and welcome well inflected eager, ardent suitor of Faust to open this in Berlin. Taking in Alpine meadows, peaks and valleys in Faust’s midst filled Gerhaber’s voice with wonder and awe, following cushioned relaxation into Faust's opening lines. Like the Ariel right before, Gerhaber so freshly greeted the dawning of a new day. One hardly ever misses certain qualities from an often overbearing Fischer-Dieskau. Making recall of, as Queen Victoria assessed, Disraeli’s manner of addressing her, Bryn Terfel (Abbado) most certainly has done just that. Gerhaber, with der selige knaben round about, gently proved school-marmish as anybody else as Pater Seraphicus. It is curious that he must show up again moments later as Dr. Marianus, part which Gerhaber endowed mellifluously with fine legato and rarified sense of having acquired a higher level of wisdom than Faust could ever humanly know. His sensitivity to dynamics, simplicity of manner during Parts 1 and 2 was consistently highly assured.

In addressing the superstitions for 'Mitternacht', Gerhaber revealed a gift for scaling his voice way down to a vibrato-less pianissimo, while keeping his tone still alive - even again through very long held note at end of Part 2. Gerhaber made so clear Faust’s greater wisdom of distinguishing between what of superstition to shake off and then of what is valuable to be reckoned from it.

Through both stated and implied excursions through the Neapolitan, Schumann proves most subtly an adept player of opposites, vis-à-vis one another, in setting up modulation here for instance from B Minor to, tritone apart, F Major. This modulation is achieved at “Das war ich sonst” during 'Mitternacht.' Gerhaber made Faust’s finding rest to his soul, concerning what he should reckon, both benevolently reassuring and not. Other conductors who have recorded this pass over this transition as merely incidental. Metzmacher hears such a place as essential piece to the internal musical and psychological fabric of both this scene and oratorio at large. It also simultaneously became so clear here how much Gerhaber was committed to and giving the fullest sense I have encountered thus far of living the part of Faust, as set to music here.

Metzmacher made build-up to climaxes for “Hinaufgeschaut’ (within Faust’s Ariel scene monologue) turn out ideal. Metzmacher managed to deftly draw out so much color and find most aesthetically achieved and characterful placement of so much contrasting going on. One had DSO bassoons heard just a little above doubling basses and cellos – and also violins on yielding offbeats in mid-ground all just absolutely supple and succinct. Mendelssohnian filigree for strings starting ‘Mitternacht’ (with the superstitions) was perfectly light and incisive, to resemble flickering of light much more than mere note-spinning. Rundfunk Chor Berlin, including always fine choral and other soloists, was always euphonious and strong in rhythmic profile; childrens’ chorus (or seemingly so) varied ideally well from sounding on purpose raspy, mischievously so, to perfectly cherubic or seraphic only page different between such contrasts. Metzmacher found much spring and lift to what he took on as dance rhythms, even almost as well for his very forthright, swift pace through Dies irae’s in the cathedral scene.

Anything that sounded detached never detracted from dramatic argument overall There were several places that momentarily Metzmacher seemed to find no better solution than to understate the case, for good of the longer view or bigger picture. Such that did occur this way only turned out more the exception than the rule. Even so, in addressing there being an element of dance in Schumann’s oratorio, most obvious for instance in the scene with Ariel, but also in the transfiguration scene, one was not about to address a newly found ‘jolly Roger’ take on Schumann, such as with early Norrington or from John Eliot Gardiner - what is so frankly two-dimensional as such. The simplicity with which Metzmacher infused this certain extra lift to animated passages he did so unabashedly, unapologetically.

It was even to holistically achieved extent - what spiritually hieratic elements are in play - that Metzmacher even continued with such infusion of dance for extended episode or two in the Chorus Mysticus – all toward bringing it and whole oratorio to a most harmonious, internally restful close. Boulez, at other extreme from for instance Norrington, kept his perception to hieratically the worked out harmonic scheme to the final chorus, until accelerando toward climax right before the end. He thereby missed some of the overt joy or making heard satisfaction what goal musically and psychologically is achieved - in which Metzmacher and his forces indulged so very well.

Through substance of melodic motif, not yet leitmotif, and overall harmonic structure, and ever subtle layout of dualism in Schumann’s conception of Goethe, it is obvious this is music demanding some reading between the lines. It still seems almost miraculous that we can have ourselves provided such this well as have Metzmacher and his forces on this occasion. The quality of what ear and intellect was at play in taking on Scenes from Faust was very clear. What also became so evidently clear was the dualism in the inspiration of Robert Schumann, touching upon traditional spiritual qualities in both verbal and musical text vis-à-vis more progressive, futuristic qualities infusing it as well.

Here was indeed a veritable feast aurally laid out before us. There was something of the idyllic world to contrast with, yet informed by the demonic, the earthly and then also the spiritual or transcendent - all as though dialectically part of one and the same. It is all there to so richly unveil what it does indeed mean to be fully human. Scenes from Faust proves so very well a most satisfactory culmination to Schumann’s art starting back so far as the early piano masterpieces we know and love. Its relative neglect, even patronization, has been ill-founded for such long stretches of time until recently.

Whoever has even minimal interest in Schumann scholarship should join in calling for this to get released on disc; failure for positive outcome would certainly make for serious gap in what Schumann exists before us today. Such would be the least way this experience - encountered so recently over Deutschland Radio – www.dradio.de - could have been so valuable.

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1 Comments:

At March 27, 2010 at 3:19 AM , Blogger evision said...

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