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 29, 2011

DR Kultur: AB neo-expressionismus zyklus III. Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Bruckner 9. DSO Berlin. Kent Nagano. Matthias Goerne. Philharmonie. 23.04.11.

Here was a program closing series of three, each featuring a mature Bruckner symphony paired alongside work(s) by (near-) contemporary composers, likely, even if obliquely commenting upon each. Architectonics of sound and light, between two works by Jorg Widmann and Bruckner Five provided first program its unifying idea. Here likely it was the absence of light - in pairing two overtly spiritually and definitively pessimistic works. Perhaps in the progressivism of each can be found some glimmer of hope, even within pervasive gloom of Zimmermann’s ‘ecclesiastical action.’ “ich wandte mich.”

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s swansong, ‘ecclesiastical action’ programmed here, is based on very insightfully interspersed verses, passages from Book of Ecclesiastes and ‘Grand Inquisitor’ scenes in Dostoevskii’s Brothers Karamazov. ECM liner notes trace model for Zimmermann’s inspiration at least histrionically back to the action sacre’s of four centuries ago – unique cross between oratorio and almost opera they are. ‘Hope in a life worth living’ had all but altogether disappeared for Zimmermann, undercut by illness at little over fifty years old, that even in the dark world he reckoned, he had his other works express. Aspiration toward such is even difficult to find here. Taking on the surface what this music expresses, represents, as openly elaborated on Heinz Holliger’s fine recording, there is no hope.

During moments of larger or full ensemble ritornello in ‘Ich wandte mich’, one finds continuing a practically baroque application of serialism in much elaboration that fully characterizes Die Soldaten. Anything from slow allargando polyphony to sudden, as though igneous eruptions of intermittent rapid stretti still surfaces well – but as though perhaps from activity more than half of such submerged, relegated to a crypt. Emulation in serial language of Gabrieli derivative intradas - just several times relegated to brass alone – Nagano with fine sense of proportions well revealed their providing eloquent framing Atmosphere of minimalistic expressionism is pervasive, such as infuses late Nono and some of Wolfgang Rihm’s compositions; a sensitive ear gets beckoned to pick up through overtones intimation of melodic, harmonic progressions left merely implicit.

For setting of text stressing a continuing or relentless strife between oppression and liberation, between life and death, Kent Nagano seemed most interested here in what makes ‘Ich wandte mich’, according to Zimmermann’s forbears, twentieth century music. Nagano’s pace through this was quite breezy overall. Long sustained notes, pedals extending out, thus leading the ear to sense of conventional harmonic moorings still in play, did not receive underlining here they do under Holliger (ECM), even with what stark dissonances emerge from them. One sensed here a streaming motion, even through thinly scored passages, their often pinprick articulated, demarcated spacing. Vast space indicated here almost rivals scoring inherent to Luigi Nono’s Prometeo

Matthias Goerne proved the lyrical soloist for Kent Nagano, filling out his lines with fine expressive import, plus melisma and other mannerist articulation of his stark lines with fluidity, firmness, and internalized emotional engagement. (Andreas Schmidt, of naturally lower tessitura than Goerne, proved the darker timbre and the more histrionic, more stretched soloist for Holliger – in employing more conventional tempos and profile than has Nagano). Nagano’s two speakers (Ulrich Matthes, Thomas Thieme) and instrumental soloists within DSO Berlin fit deftly into Nagano’s more abstracted perspective on this work – dryly certainly as compared with more evocative representation Holliger and his team provide. Obbligato for electric guitar, stripped just partly from vernacular associations one makes, is very striking - hardly less that for double-bass.

Zimmermann’s merging of his highly developed serialism with the vernacular does not more acutely emerge than it does here. Sounds of softly rattling maracas, cowbells, antique cymbals, such to perhaps almost get lost in the Philharmonie’s diffuse acoustic got sensitively handled here. Nagano, favored leaving much, not quite all manner of expressive or histrionic device to one’s imagination. Sense of running contest under way between the two speaking roles for audible, perhaps philosophical supremacy came across here somewhat reticent or removed.

Word painting - impetus behind it understated here - such as duet of trombones (then mimicked by piccolos) accompanying ‘Ich sah an Arbeit’ – expressing futility of two accomplished masters envying the fruit of each other’s labors - over pounding bass drum, further illustrates the frequently utter grimness of this work. Concertato of trio of piccolos, pizzicato in cellos and melisma infused vocal writing hints at scoring tendencies common to the music of Gyorgy Ligeti. That all eventually sinks a good ways into adopting a meditative, reflective stance reveals Nagano, still unflinching before what violence occurs here, to be not far off the mark in subtly enveloping, shrouding good portions of this work in an air of abstraction. Heratic sense of where overtones lie, associations through recall of particular motivic activity, enveloping, framing provided by such Nagano subjugated to taking secondary role to the most progressive tendencies this music offers toward seeing beyond – also beyond some of the despair, gloom, despondency of Zimmermann’s vision here.

One could vaguely pick up perhaps a mystical grasp of how encountering such a work thus may offer way of being able to linger on a while. Nagano’s handling of fine brass chorale quote of Es ist genug, and jolting crunch with which Zimmermann truncates it came across forcefully, to decisively bring ‘action sacre’ to its conclusion. As observed as from a distance, blunt force characterizing Zimmermann’s vision, its rigor, terseness, at times fraught animation got appropriated more fluidly, streamlined than may be the norm, but within perspective of where this still oft neglected composer may fit within pantheon of the past century’s greats.

Kent Nagano then fully eschewed emotionalizing the Bruckner Ninth Symphony, opting to delve deeper instead. Outer movements got taken broadly - while acutely reckoning formal constraints at every turn. With tendency to keep distant full emotional involvement with content of the Fifth and Seventh symphonies, the probing character of this Ninth was remarkable - full simplicity achieved very impressive. Recently again during the Fifth and Seventh, emphasis for strings to project their sound with as much of their articulation possible or feasible became somewhat paramount throughout. One would normally expect Nagano drawn to forward-looking aspects of the Ninth. In no way then could anyone have felt disappointed.

For Nagano, it was in getting all harmony, voicing clearly spelled out, implications involved that impetus toward propulsive motion for argument throughout this piece got somewhat undercut - never beyond necessity to maintain good line and define well all contrasting episodes All emerged here very cogent and focused. Interesting to look back, because with forward moving impetus compelling Oswald Kabasta’s classic Munich Philharmonic account along, the modernism of all the dissonances in that Ninth as encountered therein, are also stark.

Nagano favored reasonably lean sonorities with which to approach the Ninth – also characteristic good freedom to freely contract and tighten overall sonic picture facing him. Nothing ever sounded denatured from what best characterizes this music, i.e. perhaps anticipating things becoming too detached instead. Equally fortunate, one sought in vain heavy or special underlining of any full scoring for the strings – or for that matter swooning over to death what sonorities can emerge just for their sake alone. Broad tempos combined with emotional stoicism framing everything, optimum flexibility with shaping the coursing line throughout became also highly notable.

Second theme, placed higher as recapitulated especially, got captured very knowingly, its sensuality emerging in full by being simply drawn out of well varied voicing and harmonic shifts through it and underneath. The same quality of workmanship provided third theme group unencumbered, naturally supple flow throughout. Nagano, making mild subito piu mosso out of switch to Moderato for the third theme group, obviated both its almost aimlessly wandering character followed by decisive character of how it develops - especially during well extended later reprise. Minor tendency to insert half to one second pauses to better demarcate episodes from each other during this first movement, proved very apt, very seldom self-conscious.

Broadly paced grasp of mystery opening the first movement through elementally, organically striving buildup through stoically enunciated fortissimo statement of the first theme beautifully laid groundwork for all to follow. What proved virtuous from Nagano in the Adagio closing the Ninth got anticipated by a very restful, meditative lingering over transitions between theme groups. Varied approaches to making incompletely fulfilling restatements of brass chorale motif from the Introduction, detachment toward making it to goal made (proto-existentialist) doubt expressed therein eloquent.

Even at broad pacing to all of this through for instance descending march of pizzicato in the strings, goal of achieving firm restatement of the first theme remained clear. For it, Nagano imposed a curious subito piu mosso as in effect to send all flowing through it. Tentatively starting buildup to auspicious climax in F Minor and achieving it may have frustrated a few wanting it milked for all its worth. More vulgar is to have the trumpets resoundingly on their jagged dotted rhythms make something Bruckner-star Galactica out of this passage; fortunately that did not happen here. Climax before coda was febrile in its intensity, wringing last drop of waning vitality out of it all, preceding wearily, stoically despondent brass chorale anticipation of very broadly paced coda rounding all out with compelling power and intensity.

Demonic quality of the scherzo became suggested as opposed to overstated - clearly lurking beneath it all through an internalized violence (pressed a little harder the second time through it) of achieving the minor dominant halfway through outer sections.. The lousy overstating of accelerando, worst on Karajan’s late 1970’s recording of this, mercifully got thrown out. Incisively playful interaction through ret-transition preceding through it Nagano beautifully clarified – in manner one would normally associate with Bernard Haitink’s Bruckner interpretations – also the bucolic lift informing the ferocity of this scherzo – yet without undermining it. The trio section with incisively achieved skip through its opening plus slight lift from behind for sighing consequents (and without rushing one bit principal flautist Thomas Hecker) got excellently characterized here. Mystery with restarting piquantly opening Scherzo was memorable – then extra heft through a hell-bent emphasis on upbeats bringing the Scherzo to an incisive conclusion.

The quasi-Klemperer like stoicism, broad pacing informing the first movement paid off equally compelling dividends for the Adagio A performance of this of more noble poise, well achieved outline than this from anybody today would be difficult to imagine. Stoic anguish expressed took on Amfortas like proportions, but with transfigured light glimmering throughout - auspiciously through clearly voiced dissonant climax toward the end, equally febrile invoking terror - letting unforced strings resound above the brass with very compelling clarity and intensity.

Space allowed for lingered over consequents in solo oboe and horn and for once over clearly enunciated comments in double-basses - all connected – characterized, succinctly shaped, the broad introduction to the Adagio. Slightly tentative opening to second theme each time proved lone distraction, perhaps welcome, from the deep underlying and often quiet intensity to this Adagio.

Full concise shaping of the B Minor agitated inversion of the Adagio’s opening theme framed intense, long trailing off thereof in high winds basking off glimmering light ascetically far across the horizon – how effortlessly all could turn sublime here at achieving ideal simplicity of expression – equally remindful of much excellent work Nagano achieved while in charge in advent of succession by Ingo Metzmacher. Long breathed anguished ascent off mid-phrase re-entering first subject past halfway through this Adagio, as to not quite deny brass interjections good space, leading up to fully harmonized sigh of descending chorale in the strings, was also notable. Achievement of such moment of repose turned out all unaffected, sublime. Break off of winds on clearly detached hollow major seconds from exchange of introductory minor-ninth opening motif between strings was very exact – and harrowing.

Intensity, lightly achieved, reaching far, to open the coda was thrilling. Coming off perhaps the very last crescendo in starting extended preparation for quoting the opening of the Bruckner Seventh closing the Ninth momentarily became slightly jittery, but as though to remind all of the utter humanity of such endeavor. With all taken very slowly entire way through horns’ ascending phrase, sense of motion still being alive, coursing throughout emerged through very nobly limned conclusion to this.

As even modernist an approach Nagano’s is, it made the often quite fine Rattle interpretation heard recently in London seem, by comparison, to linger on the surface. Rattle’s interpretation of the Ninth, in even perhaps helping expose its weaknesses, and fractured psychological state of its composer, along similar lines of how Robert Simpson has criticized this work, might seem now almost cheaply deconstructionist in perspective. The feeling of all being at peace at the close of the Nagano was achieved by accepting Bruckner as is, through beautiful preparation - by the most highly organic, unforced means. Opportunity to make chamber music out of many lyrical, transitional passages of the Sixth – hardly ever self-conscious – as played at the Proms six years back – typified this effort as well.. This Ninth proved fine testament to the resiliency of the human spirit while facing immediate prospect of life ebbing away.

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