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.

Friday, April 16, 2010

DSO Berlin: Visit to Wiesbaden of thought-provoking clash, incongruities - Metzmacher, Tetzlaff - Webern, Mendelssohn, Schreker, Debussy - 26.08.09

Agon, battle for choice of aesthetic calling (applying also to how music is interpreted) between achieving precise formal rigor and sensual appeal – while taking on different properties, parameters, characteristics - still rages on. One became acutely aware of such incongruity with this program. Three works on the program here, written within space of eleven years, were composed on the dying breath of Romanticism - with what burgeoning Expressionism and Impressionism to develop alongside.

Such conflict was felt in how all this program got put together and music therein got interpreted. The most free, supple, even rhapsodic I have heard Ingo Metzmacher yet on the Passacaglia of Anton Webern is now as DSO Berlin played it in the very acoustically warm Kurhaus in Wiesbaden. How performances of this from the very same team have differed has certainly not been great. Pace at Wiesbaden was certainly slightly broader than six months earlier in Berlin. A week after Wiesbaden at the Edinburgh Festival, the Passacaglia was taken equally broad again, but approached in slightly more strictly hieratic fashion, as part of same quasi-Bachian program as got played in Berlin and Hong Kong last spring – with Berg concerto and Brahms Fourth Symphony. One here got in Wiesbaden the little extra space, beyond that of the highly linear, pushed forward go at it last spring. One relished here slightly more the inherent colors, nuance through process of being put through so many variations, over ground bass.

The diaphanous color of central episode in D Major received slightly more relief here than earlier, as did mirroring descant earlier of solo flute over bassoon. Febrile duet for French horns, playing in high register, was equally notable. The structural rigor so implicit in this music did not get undercut by freedoms taken here. Instead Metzmacher relaxed to make such internal rigor sublimated – approximated at best from anyone less well-versed at handling the language of later twelve-tone compositions. Ingo Metzmacher is clearly superior r among his peers, in his ability at making such repertoire and his intentions therein clear. There was also some risk-taking here in a few places, especially toward crest of the last loud tutti in the work, which excitingly became almost too propulsive this time. Culmination of stretto with seventh variation – similar enough moment - happened spot-on, variation with broken dotted rhythms in excellent stringendo fashion, as well. Pointing of colors, motif, last strands of activity in the passacaglia’s closing pages was deft and piquant. With solo work always exemplary, the Webern, though ironically, benefited the most by appearing on this program.

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, featuring Christian Tetzlaff as soloist, was nearly as successful. The headlong pace, with which this started, without grand-standing, was immediately arresting. The idea consisted predominantly of moving forward still well-delineated first subject of the first movement through well and incisively marked figuration as it builds up into the first orchestral ritornello. Freedom with rubato in shaping relationships between themes in the first movement was at once wide, open, and supple, all natural within the shape of the music. Though noticeably the lyrical second theme moving more broadly than the rest, Tetzlaff supported warmly by DSO winds maintained at once sufficient life and poised line running through it. The centrally located cadenza in the first movement and lack of break into the second movement certainly supports to some extent such a fantasia approach to shaping this piece. Tetzlaff and Metzmacher, however, only put at risk so far very inherent elements of classicism in the Mendelssohn. I was taken aback - referring to the classic Schneiderhan/Fricsay recording - to find less wide-ranging freedom in rubato therein than what Tetzlaff and Metzmacher very successfully achieved here.

The second movement, with expansively paced segue into it and beautifully moulded melodic line, very expressively caught one’s ear in its sub-mediant tonal relationship to the rest of the concerto. This is quite unusual - in place of the Adagio sounding as though to perfectly stand by itself. Matching of running tremolo during middle section under primary line in both Tetzlaff’s part and of DSO strings parallel to it helped keep one’s attention rapt to the melodic line.

While brisk, the elfin step through the finale elicited much more charm than it did empty show of virtuosity – it still in mind the conspicuously brisk treatment of passages and grandiose rhetoric (though with several strained acuti, pitch-wise) for nodal points from Tetzlaff during first movement as well. Some dust was sure to get blown off this warhorse, with it in mind how the two took on the Berg concerto during the same touring maestro and soloist did together last year. Astonishingly, Mendelssohn here got played with as much supple ease as would a fully traditional interpretation of the concerto.

The second half of this concert met with qualified success. Schreker’s music for Der Ferne Klang (‘The Distant Sound’ – loose translation) has often been alluded to as Impressionistic – comparative mention of Paul Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleue being more apt than of Debussy’s Pelleas. No doubt, however, Schreker is betterat being Impressionist than Claude Debussy. ‘Franz Schreker? Oh, I’ve never heard of him’ one can hear from near back of music appreciation class. Debussy, sublime classicist too he was, was the much better, more objective realist of the two. Debussy most certainly can be played overtly Impressionistic; except for isolated places in which it might be apt, it serves as good time to run for cover.

Schreker and Debussy do not normally work well adjacent to one another. Only to a qualified extent they did here. Getting past that, the virtuosity of DSO Berlin in playing this, and surplus of energy that they invested in Nachtstuck (Act 3 Interlude) from Der Ferne Klang, was something at which to marvel. With Metzmacher in this repertoire, thinking somewhat far ahead, one picks up perhaps a little more than the individual listener can digest of this music. Certainly a most dramatically relevant unnerved quality, anxious tone was felt throughout. It was more subtly the case than with Die Tote Stadt, last year, because that at full length is much longer than such expansive interlude (at 17 minutes) from the Schreker. The warmer, more pliant approach of DSO Berlin, compared with orchestra of Royal Opera in London, also fits much better.

In taking this on somewhat academically, Metzmacher unwittingly gave us a slightly two-dimensional perspective on this. He certainly knows his way through harmonic thicket present; we clearly hear the multi-faceted, interwoven enharmonic, tertiary and at tritone harmonic relationships infusing it. Mild intrusion of portentousness emanated through opening cortege in clarinets - built on triads, subtly buttressed by extra third beneath.

If however Metzmacher wanted to convey the fractured psyche of Schreker’s characters, Fritz and Grete in particular, the element of fragmentation he disclosed here was most apt. Place or two suggesting Act 3 of Strauss’s Frau ohne schatten had me surmise that any complaint made before about Frau being over-scored sure must be churlish. With such exemplary playing, it could hardly be Metzmacher alone who makes Schreker arduous listening. Having the stage picture in view, such as will happen soon in Zurich, should ameliorate matters. Whatever Daniel Herzog’s production offers, images via google of Peter Mussbach’s out of Berlin (conducted by Pedro Halffter) are very striking.

Hopefully, Metzmacher for complete opera in Zurich will rely more greatly on the power of suggestion – in place of making so much overt out of its innards, nooks and crannies. There was nothing near so crude here as the idea of appropriating equal weight to everything in this score. Certainly darker, more widely spaced moments, contrasting well too with fine tracery in the most delicate pages in Schreker’s writing, spoke in greater relief than in taking a lighter, more hands-off approach. Essentially, this music is not so much full of a plethora of ideas as music constantly in state of motion between, at a handful, different strands of material. So much often superficially seems in constant state of flux. One can very seldom keep attention to any one thing for more than ten seconds at a time. Such a superficial take on Schreker, you say, but there is some grain of truth to this – considering the glaring light up to which Metzmacher can subject this music.

Protagonist Fritz is seen just past where this music has finished playing, in final scene of the opera old and almost crashed out, so to speak, on a sofa. He is despondent over both his loss of Grete and failure to finish his own opera – project part of his sole obsessive quest on his own to find the ‘distant sound’ he can not identify until moments later right before the end of Der Ferne Klang. Not uncommon in Schreker, there is in the mean time much debauchery that has happened to Grete; such need not detain us here.

Anecdote out of biography of Richard Wagner is relevant – with as an aside some of Der Ferne Klang taking place in Venice. Wagner could not think of how to start composing the Ring until overnight cheaply lodged in La Spezia (on opposite coast) trying to sleep on a very hard sofa or couch. Output from the effect of his head swimming was the ‘water music’ to begin Das Rheingold – all for three or four minutes thereof stuck on chord of E-Flat Major. First hearing of Nachtstuck makes such notion inconceivable for Schreker – of composing music at all similarly. In mind of the diaphanous mists that momentarily occlude tonality in Das Rheingold, Schreker with no reason to doubt was a master impressionist - very apt at the power of suggestion, something that hopefully Metzmacher will tap into more when he soon conducts the complete opera.

‘Ls Mer’ reappeared from final concert of 2008-09 subscription series in Berlin (programmed then with Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss - Deborah Voigt giving eloquent voice to both Liesbestod and Four Last Songs). Perhaps to compensate for the Philharmonie’s diffuse acoustics, Metzmacher’s interpretation on that occasion seemed angular close to point of being stilted. Improvement, at Wiesbaden, in making more of the mystery and elusive qualities of this music, and more play of much arabesque through its textures was very notable. Strong delineation of this music’s proportions was almost too luxurious earlier last summer at home. Shifts in color, especially from the strings spoke at Wiesbaden with most subtle refinement. Truly achieved pianissimo from DSO violins with clear shimmer above the staff was very impressive - at restful moment halfway through ‘Jeux de vagues.’ Without self-conscious pointing of motif, the very opening of ‘La Mer’ formed out of beautifully probed recesses from the deep; all in supple proportions developed organically, very effectively from there on out.

Still there were moments in this ‘La Mer’, where Metzmacher might still mistake hard push forward for true animation that in French music must almost always emerge from within. One then can easily run risk of excessive reveling in how lavish, even svelte Debussy’s sonorities can be. When however such arrives as compromise to inner flexible rhythmic pulsation, upon which this music must rely to remain alive, cause for it all then runs risk of becoming lost. The only places where this here became an issue were two spots in ‘Jeux de vagues’ – one almost rescued by beautifully calibrated, light harp glissandi following it - and then always risky coda to the finale of ‘La Mer.’

Building of climactic stretto right before calm mid-point in the finale was impressive. Light bird-call descant in flute spoke very freely in open relief far above. DSO winds made the opening then to ‘Plus calme’ remote upon high all very arched and languorous - remote from high pedal in violin section harmonics and quiet undulation well beneath. It was from shaping this so, however, that playing turned phlegmatic, rough, for later accenting.

Metzmacher, granted, is not quite entirely to manner born to conduct Debussy –that putting him in good company. Precise pitching and calibration of numerous percussion effects throughout certainly belied the fact; there was still much here with which to be impressed. Play of waves through ‘Jeux de vagues’ and lusty appeal with shanty tune that starts from divisi cellos midway through the first movement all came across unabashed. Registration of most timbres, sonority throughout, best when informed by complete rhythmic sense, was clear. The elemental quality of this music - much of it so well breathed from within, spoke eloquently throughout.

In the fine acoustics of the Kurhaus, one got treated to lofty feast indeed of incongruities – program in hindsight not to be reckoned as having merely been thrown together. Even with what risks get taken, one is very seldom the loser to attend something like this, to become very confounded by the effect of it all.

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