Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Gurrelieder Salonen London Part 2

When Schoenberg returns to Gurrelieder in 1910, he has new energy and purpose. What a transformation! Of course the Wagner elements are still there, like the rhythms straight out of Der fliegende Hollander, lurching upwards and down like waves. Because King Waldemar cursed God, he and his men are cursed in return, forced to ride the clouds each night. But this is also the surreal, mad world of Ewartung. Anti-atonalists don't understand that atonality isn't anti-music but a way of extending the possibilities of music. Schoenberg and his contemporaries were responding to new frontiers opened by Freud and others. Ideas could no longer be contained in cosy boxes of certainty. How could music remain unchanged ?

What Schoenberg did was more than invent the 12 tone system. So what if composers don't write in serial rows or whatever any more? The real revolution Schoenberg rode the crest of was the idea that there are more possibilities to music than we realize.

So in Part 3 of Gurrelieder, there's a wildness breaking through that will one day find expression in many different ways. How Schoenberg must have smiled when he set the Bauer's terrified words. No more hiding under blankets, no more formula prayers.

Klaus-Narr isn't talking nonsense. He isn't a sophisticated person but he's talking about complex things, so he uses odd images. When Waldemar cursed God, he shouted, "Lasst mich, Herr, die Kappe deines Hofnarr'n tragen!". "Let me wear your jester's cap", all you stand for is a joke. Klaus Narr is the jester, whose job it is to say things to kings they don't want to hear, cloaking them as jest. Like Waldemar and his hunters, the jester is dead, too, a haunted spirit forced to walk in endless circles, going nowhere. It's not a good thing and he knows it. His music is unsettling, as it should be, leading into the demonic haunted chorus that fades Versinkt! Versinkt! before the truly amazing Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind. This is remarkable music : perhaps someone should analyze technically how it works. It sweeps away all that's gone before. Waldemar's curse is not resolved. Instead, this music and the Sprecher herald something completely beyond the level of straightforward story.

For many years I couldn't understand why the Sprecher is absolutely, pivotally important. Then I heard Hans Hotter. It was 1994, he was 85 years old, but so powerful that he transformed the entire performance. Hotter looked frail but he had such presence and authority that at last I realized what the Sprecher means. Gurrelieder is much more than narrative, it is more than a dramatic story. The Sprecher represents something so bizarre that even now it's hard to understand.

He's an elemental force, the very spirit of life, which overcomes death and darkness. Like Kluas-Narr he seems t0o speak in riddles, but the real "fools" are those who think the riddles are a joke. Are the gnats the knights, is Waldemar "Sankt Johanisswurm" ? What is real, what's illusion ? The words are simple but the portents far more profound. The whole locus of parts 1 and 2 are overturned, we are in an altogether more bizarre realm where nothing is what it seems. The Sprecher is the Waldtaube revisited, on an altogether more complex plane. Expressionism expresses things straight narrative can't hope to reach.

Hence the way the part is written, not song, not speech. It doesn't strain the voice, so it's usually taken by retired singers, even actors. But even if it's not physically a strain it requires exceptional musical sensibility to get those wavering pitches right and establish the significance of the part. In capsule, the Sprecher is atonality, modernism, a whole new way of approaching musical expression. No one uses Sprechstimme as such anymore, but its spirit lives on in, in different forms.

And to make the new beginnings clear, Schoenberg writes the magnificent coda at the end. Chorus and orchestra explode. "Seht die Sonne!" Behold the sun ! The night is driven away and the new dawn glows in a blaze of light. Fantastic playing from the orchestra here : Salonen doesn't lose sight of the purpose behind the enthralling glory.

Gurrelieder is dramatic, but staging would trivialize its whole meaning. It's distinctly not an opera, Wagnerisms notwithstanding. In this performance, light effects were skilfully used to intensify the mood. This isn't a new idea, as the music cries out contrasts of light and dark and shades between. Whoever did the lighting here was an artist, so sensitively was the music enhanced.

As Schoenberg himself said, Gurrelieder is a cantata, even if ends in a completely bizarre new way. The cantata form goes back at least to Bach. Mendelssohn and Schumann showed how it could serve secular drama. It's not a good idea to connect Gurrelieder to Mahler's Das klagende Lied. Mahler decisively and unequivocally turned away from cantata and from writing opera at a very early stage in his career. Instead, he went on to create something very different indeed. Often, people think Mahler is an opera man at heart. That's nonsense, and shows no understanding whatsoever of Mahler, demeaning what he really achieved. Similarly, Gurrelieder needs to be appreciated for what it is, cantata with a wonderful twist.

So much money has gone into this project, Vienna, City of Dreams, that it's a shame it's let down by the programme notes. Obviously, there are advantages to describing things in terms of Mahler, particularly with his anniversary year coming up and the lucrative marketing boom that will create. But oversimplification can become misleading and inaccurate. The world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn long predated Mahler. The Gothic in central European culture goes back a long way, and was a major impetus behind the whole Romantic movement. Indeed, the Romantic fascination with folk tale and horror created the whole mindset that enabled Freud and Jung to find terminology to describe. The Romantic interest in the individual also led to changes in politics, society, and aesthetics. Vienna 1900-35 wouldn't have happened at all if it hadn't been for the early 19th century Romantics.

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