Saturday, 5 September 2009

Zarathustra Mahler and Ligeti Prom 65 Kindertotenlieder

For review of Ligeti Le Grand Macabre at ENO please see HERE.

On one level, Prom 65 could have been Sci Fi at the movies.
Millions discovered Nietzsche through Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey, via the big theme tune Also sprach Zarathustra. So Richard Strauss reincarnated as ' New Age Sage'. Similarly, Kubrick borrowed an obscure piece of new music and rocketed Ligeti's Atmosphères into world prominence. The lawsuit took years to settle, but Atmosphères is probably the best known avant garde piece of all time. Everyone has heard Ligeti, even if they don't know it. So new music isn't the bogeyman its detractors would have.

Wonderful potential then for a great Proms experience. particularly as the two Kubrick Hits were separated by Schoenberg's dramatic Five Orchestral Pieces which received a clear and animated reading from the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. Youth Orchestra is a bit of a misnomer. Members of this orchestra are hand picked from all over Europe for their talent. The GMJO incubates some of the finest players of the future. Its members may be young but they're better than many more conventional orchestras. What they get from Claudio Abbado's loosely connected network of orchestras is unique. Read more about them HERE and HERE.

Youth orchestras get away with crude playing because they're young. It's perfectly natural to overlook bad musicianship to support a worthy cause. But the GMJO are good, and this was accomplished playing. It's just that no one plays at 18 the way they play at, say, 45. Their Schoenberg was lively, and they got the big dramatic moments in Zarathustra with wonderful effect. But more impressive was they way they handled the more subtle passages. Particularly good were the colours in Farben, each player carefully paying attention, gauging the refinements of tone. This is the stuff that shows real musicianship, not big flashy moments like The Big Blast in the beginning, which everyone knows from TV ads even if they don't know Kubrick. There's a lot more to Strauss's response to the basic ideas than meets the eye. He doesn't buy the Übermensch thing any more than Nietzsche did. Many in the orchestra hadn't played the piece before the Proms, so this wasn't an occasion for seeking much depth of interpretation.

Ligeti's Atmosphères showcased the accomplished playing to good effect. Here, meaning as such doesn't matter. Ligeti's doing a visionary soundscape. What seems like huge washes of white noise are created by extremes of detail, "microtonal polyphony". The music moves in swathes of sound, the strings giving way to a surge of brass, each part played with slight variation. It's the blend that creates the "atmosphere". Hence the otherworldy sound of percussion brushes played against the strings of the piano : it's music going boldly where no man has gone before. No wonder Kubrick heard it as "music from another planet". Jonathan Nott's soft focus sometimes underwhelms in other repertoire, but it's perfect for Atmosphères which is one of his specialities.

So where did Mahler's Kindertotenlieder fit in on this programme ? It carried on the quiet mysticism of Atmosphères which was good. The poems are shocking for they're about the deaths of children. Yet that doesn't mean that the songs should be performed with hyperfervid operatic flourish. On the contrary, the father in the poem is so numbed he can hardly think straight. Histrionics would be quite out of order. So Matthias Goerne's dignified, sensitive approach is psychologically astute. The anguish in In diesem Wetter, where the music portrays a storm, clears to tenderness so pure and loving that you can visualize the children sleeping peacefully in Heaven.

It's musically astute. Kindertotenlieder is like a symphony in miniature and, like most Mahler symphonies, the resolution involves transcendance, transparent light. "Going to another place". Miss this and you miss most of Mahler. So maybe that's why it's paired with Ligeti ? Read my commentary on Kindertotenlieder HERE.

But emotionally this song cycle is so intense that it's hard to listen to in the context of many programmes. Often I feel I need to listen to these songs completely on my own, late at night, in darkness, without distractions. Luckily, thanks to the BBC it is possible to hear the repeat broadcast online and on demand. Click HERE. It's available for a week from now.

Watching is definitely a good thing, because you get the close-ups of Goerne's face, and see how he's singing with his whole soul. It intensifies the performance because it brings much more intimacy than you'd get on stage, and intimacy is what Lieder is about. It's certainly not acting but the kind of intuitive expression that comes from complete immersion in the spirit of the music.

Goerne first became famous in the aftermath of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's retirement. Fans can sometimes be fanatics, so anyone who wasn't a clone of the master came in for flak. DFD had a fairly stiff stage manner but anyone who actually goes to a lot of song recitals knows that singers move. All people move unconsciously when they communicate, it's a normal extension of expressing things you care about. Nowadays, we also have films to prove that singers of the past moved, as did DFD himself. It's time to bury the myth. But it sticks because it's easier to look from outside than to engage and really connect to the music.

Read a shorter, snappier and punchier version of this on Opera Today HERE
As always with reviews check who knows the repertoire !

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