19 Apr 2012
Folk songs that aren’t folk songs
The Wigmore Hall Dvořák series culminated in a concert by Bernarda Fink and Roger Vignoles.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
The Wigmore Hall Dvořák series culminated in a concert by Bernarda Fink and Roger Vignoles.
Fink is the foremost Dvořák mezzo around. Her recordings (some with Roger Vignoles) are benchmarks. So it was a surprise that the Wigmore Hall wasn’t packed out. Maybe it was the Friday 13th factor, maybe it was Easter when people are out of London. Perhaps, ironically, it was the simple fact that Fink’s Dvořák and Brahms are so well known; audiences forget how live performance is nothing like recording. Fink is a natural recitalist (not all singers are, even if they’re good). She smiled graciously and sang as if she was singing for a private gathering of friends. That’s aplomb! Dvořák and Brahms songs aren’t meant for flashy display. Bernarda Fink makes them feel personal, as natural as one-to-one conversation.
The recital was preceded by a talk by Professor Jan Smaczny. Talks and programme notes these days are often inept filler, but Smaczny is in an altogether different league. He’s a genuine scholar with first hand, original knowledge. He speaks about Dvořák’s manuscripts with the authority of someone who knows them well. “Dvořák used them like a diary, noting daily events in the margins”. Many Czech specialists don’t communicate well in English, so our perceptions are shaped by anglocentrism. Smaczny understands the context of Czech culture and Dvořák’s part in the evolution of Czech music. We don’t hear Smaczny often enough in London but should. This is the sort of quality the Wigmore Hall should embrace.
Dvořák’s orchestral music is permeated by his affinity for song. As Smaczny says, songs “were pivotal to his developing musical style, and frequently gave notice of important changes of direction in his expressive language”. Thius it was good to hear Fink and Vignoles start with Dvořák’s Six Songs From the Queen’s Court Manuscript op 7 (1872). The texts were based on what were believed to be authentic medieval sources, but were modern invention. No matter, for they inspired awareness of Czech national identity. The poems are pastoral, like imitation folk song. Gentle, rolling piano creating a pleasant background to the sharp sibilants in the words. The warmth in Fink’s voice complements the images of summer and youth, yet she catches the undertones of sorrow. Sensucht, one might say if the songs were German.
Yet in the last song, “Jahody” (Strawberries) Dvořák becomes much more adventurous. Fink captures the strange unresolved tension in the first strophe. A girl has been gathering strawberries but a thorn has cut her foot and it’s infected. She can’t walk and her lover is angry. The piano part describes his impatience and the sound of his horse galloping off, taking the lovers to another place where they snatch a few moments of love, before dashing home again. With its sudden changes of pace and mood, the song is unsettling, almost a miniature opera. Fink expresses the urgency and fear that makes the song dramatic, without overdoing the “voices” or excess histrionics.
Brahms’s Deutsche Volkslieder (publ 1894), are similarly art song masquerading as folk song, so Fink and Vignoles performed four songs, a sample of Brahms’s two large collections of Volkslieder that aren’t actually Volkslieder. Mature Brahms and early Dvořák don’t really compare, but Fink and Vignoles followed these with five of the ten Dvořák Biblical Songs from op 99 (1894) (no.s 1, 2, 3, 8 and 10) to even the score. One instinctively thinks of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge (op 121 1897) which of course was written for low baritone, That’s an idea, programme them together with different singers.
Bernarda Fink has made Dvořák Five Biblical Songs one of her trademarks. She sang it at the high profile Dvořák anniversary concert in Prague Castle in 1991. (read more here and listen to a clip). She’s sung these songs many times at the Wigmore Hall, so if her performance on this occasion wasn’t as compelling as usual, it evoked many good memories.
It was good to hear how Slovenian contemporaries of Brahms and Dvořák approached song in their own language. From what we heard this evening, Benjmin Ipavec (1829-1908) and Anton Lajovic (1878-1960) wrote pleasant though undistinguished Biedermeyer. Lucilan Škerjanc (1900-1973) though, is more cosmopiltan and original. In “Evening Impression”, Fink’s sensitive phrasing and upward soaring lines created emotion and shape. The poem, by Igo Gruden is lovely, even in translation. Fink and Vignoles make a case for it as mainstream repertoire. To hear more, there’s a recording by Fink and her brother Marcos ( a bass baritone), both native speakers, on Harmonia Mundi.
Fink and Vignoles performed another set of Brahms songs, including the wonderful Von ewiger Liebe (op 43/1 1894) before returning to Dvořák In Folk tone (op 73, 1886). Perhaps Fink had been waiting for them, since her singing now moved from attractive to truly inspired. These songs are sophisticated in the best sense. Moods change swiftly, hinting at submerged meaning, tantalizing the listener. Fink’s keening legato gave the first song, a lullaby, a searching edge that made one realize it wasn’t about a baby. The piano part, too, is unashamedly sensual. In the second song, a girl is scything and sees her forner lover. The piano sounds bright and optimistic, but the vocal part breaks into strident staccato “Šuhaj, šuhaj z druhej strany”. She taunts him fiercely, but inside her heart is breaking. Fink repeats the final line “už si v mojom srdci riastla” wistfully, with great tenderness. Simiarly, the lilting piano in the third song sounds happy, but the firm deliberation in Fink’s voice suggests that this steel has been forged through fire. More defiance still, in the final song where the piano prances like the swift pony. Fink’s voice dances along too, but Dvořák uses the sharp Czech sibilants to suggest the “arrow” which cuts through the lover’s heart.