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Esa-Pekka Salonen [Photo by Benjamin Suomela]
11 Aug 2018

Prom 36: Webern, Mahler, and Wagner

One of the joys of writing regularly – sometimes, just sometimes, I think too regularly – about performance has been the transformation, both conscious and unconscious, of my scholarship.

Prom 36: Webern, Mahler, and Wagner

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Esa-Pekka Salonen [Photo by Benjamin Suomela]

 

My most recent published book, After Wagner, would have been and was originally intended to be quite a different endeavour, had the example of Stefan Herheim’s production of Parsifal and many other performances and productions not intruded and helped shape it otherwise. Not only did a concluding chapter on staging and performance turn into a fully fledged third part (of three chapters); perhaps more importantly, I began to read back such concerns into more ‘work-based’ writing too. Indeed, the idea for the first chapter, on Parsifal ‘itself’, initially intended as a self-standing article, arose from my reflections on another production of that work : in many ways, a very bad production, however wonderfully performed, yet one that still had me think about the role of history and historical thinking in Parsifal.

And so it was with this Prom concert too. Hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia in Webern’s Five Orchestral Pieces, the opening Adagio to Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, and the first act of Die Walküre had me scribble in my programme booklet, lest I forget, not only that I should add a specific reference to Webern and Wagner’s unendliche Melodie (‘endless melody’) in what I am currently writing. I should also explain more clearly, I realised, in the section I had drafted that afternoon, how the legacy of that idea for so much twentieth-century music, Mahler’s included, was predicated on a qualitatively different understanding of ‘melody’ from that which previously had held sway – and still, in certain quarters, does:

The term has often been misunderstood; it has little to do, even in Tristan, with the long phrases of Italian bel canto opera, but rather refers to the need for each and every note to be expressive, significant within the whole. Therein surely lies one of Wagner’s most important legacies to Schoenberg, his pupils Alban Berg and (especially) Anton Webern, and beyond, to Boulez, Stockhausen, et al. It is as much a way of understanding the greatest music of the past – usually, yet not necessarily Austro-German – and of placing works, here the Ring, within that lineage as it is of offering prescriptions for the ‘music of the future’ (a term Wagner endowed with often unacknowledged irony).

Whether that thought will make it into the final cut remains to be seen – my co-editor may be cursing yet another round of Wagnerian expansion on my part – but it can remain here, at least, with thanks to the performers and indeed to the Proms.

For, as Carl Dahlhaus pointed out, when Wagner coined the term, he did so with respect to Beethoven, divining in the Eroica Symphony the unfolding and development of a single coherent melody – perhaps not so very different from what Schoenberg, defying interpreters ever since to make final sense of his term, called the Idea of a musical work – an idea of an Idea that was unquestionably familiar and congenial to Webern, if not necessarily to be identified with his. ‘According to Wagner,’ Dahlhaus continued, ‘music is “melodic” when every note is eloquent and expressive; and in contrast to a “narrow melody,” in which the melodic element is continually interrupted in order to make room for vacuous formulae … avoidance of cadences is not the nature of the principle, but one of its consequences.’ Such was what we heard in Salonen’s – and the Philharmonia’s – Webern and Mahler, at least insofar as audience bronchial activism and telephone calls permitted. Salonen’s principal revelation here, at least for me, was Webern’s build-up of harmonic tension, owing much to Wagner, and in Webern’s case at least to Brahms too, on the (relatively!) micro- and macro-levels. Not that that was at the expense of other parameters (as Webern’s fruitfully unfaithful successors would soon term them), nor at the expense of ‘character’, but rather underlying them. Hearing op.10 and the Adagio together, the one emerging from the other, was a masterstroke: a familiar enough idea in itself now, largely thanks to fellow composer-conductors such as Michael Gielen and Pierre Boulez, but not always endowed with such immanent meaning. We heard what was different too, of course, the particular quality of Webern’s iridescent sweetness, his dancing: so much more echt-Viennese, for better or worse, than the ever-alienated Mahler, who perhaps speaks in more familiar tones yet to us and our condition. (Assuming, that is, we are not all Austro-German nationalists!) Yet the overwhelming quality of the climaxes, musically prepared, never appliqué, had much in common – provided, that is, one listened. How keenly, moreover, one listened to the intervals and their import at the close of the Mahler, having been led to do so by Webern – and how keenly would one therefore be led to do so in the first act of Die Walküre, following the interval.

Wagner’s storm cleared the Mahlerian air – just as was happening outside the Albert Hall in ‘real’ life too. Robert Dean Smith as Siegmund sounded in better voice than I have heard him for quite some time. Certainly his opening phrase was such as one could have taken dictation from it, verbal and musical: an implied caesura both from the expressionism of the first half and from the inhuman dialectics of Das Rheingold, whose precedent was implied to many of us. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde answered with almost instrumental colour – a modern chalumeau, perhaps – which yet did not preclude the keenest verbal response to Wagner’s text too. As so often in Wagner, as in Mahler and Webern, emphasis upon one element and excellence therein heighten rather than detract from other elements. It was clear, very soon, that this woman was damaged (are not all the characters here?) but also that she was emphatically a human being and a woman. Philharmonia chamber music – as with Liszt, most of Wagner’s chamber music is to be found in his orchestral writing – both beguiled and underlined dramatic tension: Hunding was already present in absentia. The sadness of cellos en masse commented on and extended the message of that unforgettable cello solo at the beginning of the scene. Wind anticipated the springtime (Lenz) with which Sieglinde would later identify Siegmund.

Enter Hunding. Franz-Josef Selig, in one of the greatest performances I have heard from him – which is saying quite something! – endowed Wagner’s Stabreim with all the significance it needs, and which yet it does not always receive. Selig realised and communicated how those consonants interact with the vocal line and indeed with the orchestra. So too, clearly, did Salonen. Unendliche Melodie! The febrile, almost Erwartung-like orchestral cauldron Salonen stirred drew attention to how anti-melodic, in the bel canto sense, these vocal lines can sometimes be – even in this, one of the most lyrical of the Ring acts. Occasionally, Dean Smith sounded a bit tired here, but he recovered – and really made the most of his role as saga narrator, as did Selig. One could almost see the ghostly horses of past, invisible dramas; one certainly heard them. Gurrelieder seemed but a stone’s throw away. Whilst Sieglinde was silent, one could not help but notice that she was. Hunding’s venom – not a quality I have usually associated with the often kindly Selig – was such as to draw still greater attention to the lack of a female voice. Timpani upon his departure, likewise brass response, further darkened the scene.

One of the few doubts I entertained about the entire performance was the excessive – to me, at any rate – holding of Dean Smith’s second ‘Wälse’. Still, if that is all I have to say on the negative side, there should be much rejoicing in Valhalla. Kampe’s return incited that turn to the vernal at which she had previously hinted, Philharmonia woodwind especially responsive – and generative. How she spun her line, verbally and musically: she might almost have been taking lessons from Wagner in Opera and Drama on the poetic-musical period. Perhaps, indeed, she had. It certainly was not long before her delivery sent shivers down this particular spine. That identification of Siegmund, as yet with ‘Lenz’ took place in more of a hothouse setting than often one hears, testament doubtless not only to Salonen’s long experience with Tristan, but also to the re-examined standpoint from which he is now addressing the Ring. Release when she named him Siegmund was as much musical as – well, whatever else you want to call it. Preparation had proved just as assured as in Mahler and Webern, and had doubtless, quite rightly, been coloured by Wagner’s posthumous history in their work. This, then, proved to be a performance both magnificent and fruitful. Salonen would seem to have come to the Ring in earnest at just the right, or at least a right, time – for him, for me, and, I hope, for you too. We shall see, or rather hear, over the next few years as his Ring gathers pace both in concert and in the opera house.

Mark Berry


Programme:

Webern: Five Orchestral Pieces, op.10; Mahler, ‘Adagio’ from Symphony no.10; Wagner: Die Walküre, Act I. Siegmund: Robert Dean Smith; Sieglinde: Anja Kampe; Hunding: Franz-Josef Selig. Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Thursday 9 August 2018.

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