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Reviews

30 Sep 2018

Powerful Monodramas: Zender, Manoury and Schoenberg

The concept of the monologue in opera has existed since the birth of opera itself, but when we come to monodramas - with the exception of Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762) - we are looking at something that originated at the beginning of the twentieth century.

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Salome Kammer

Photo credit: Christoph Hellhake

 

The final scene of Strauss’s Salome almost touches the edges of this musical form; indeed, this scene is often performed outside its opera in concert so one might be persuaded this is where the twentieth century monodrama evolves into its own genre. Erwartung, Schoenberg’s epochal psychological musical drama from 1909, goes very much further than Strauss, however: It’s openly Expressionist, deeply psychoanalytical, ambiguous in its narrative, terrifying in its musical language and flickers between dream and nightmare.

The link between these two concerts given by the Philharmonia Orchestra was not in the slightest tenuous; indeed, a lot conjoined the music rather than distinctly separated it. Although almost a century of music exists between Erwartung and the two works by Zender and Manoury - written respectively in 2001 and 2004 - one was drawn back into the past - no matter how obliquely - even if the musical language often felt distinctly more advanced. Hans Zender’s Cabaret Voltaire, for example, uses a text by the Dadaesque poet Hugo Ball: The text itself is almost meaningless, a complete inversion of language, though as you listen to it occasionally you’re struck by its Germanic tone: “großgiga m’pfa habla horem”. There is a linguistic geometry to much of poetry; the entirely original vocabulary, the use of repetition, the combination of consonants or vowels in close proximity to one another (“bschigi bschigi” or “a-o-auma”) are themselves music. Hearing Zender’s Cabaret Voltaire was not unlike reading, or listening to, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

Zender’s music, on the other hand, is distinctly ascetic, even spiky. Scored for a small chamber ensemble, this is music that coalesces around the consonantal hardness of the text; a cello or violin bow screeches or scratches against a string, a trombone is muted. The voice itself is treated in virtuosic terms - and it clearly requires a soloist calibrated to sing outside the standard operatic repertoire. Salome Kammer was simply breath-taking to listen to: The vocal acrobatics, the range and breadth of her dynamics, the sense that she has lived with this text were obvious. Only once in the entire work does Zender really plummet the depths of human emotions - in ‘Todenklage’ - and here the intensity and darkness of Kammer’s voice, as well as the soloists from the Philharmonia, really excelled in changing the atmosphere of the work.

I think Philippe Manoury’s Blackout is rather closer to Schoenberg’s Erwartung, both in its narrative and musical language. It tells the story of a woman who gets in a lift which then gets stuck during a power cut. As she waits in the darkness, her mind is forced into an emotional state of memory and dream. Manoury tells the story in real time over a period of twenty minutes - so, we get the rapid speed of the escalation of the lift contrasted with the slow-motion depiction of the narrator’s state of mind. Daniela Langer’s French text could be said to have its origins in Walter Grauman’s 1964 psychological thriller, Lady in a Cage, though the way she has written the text in prose-form suggests a nod towards the monodramas of Samuel Beckett.

Manoury writes for a slightly larger ensemble than Zender does but the expressionism is still there in spades. The febrile string writing, underscored by nervousness in the woodwind, dig deep into the psychological darkness of a mind in dream-mode. The music feels like elastic at times - it pulls between tempos that are fast and slow, and this is somewhat reflected in the narration of the text. A crackled recording of Ella Fitzgerald interjects. I don’t think this music requires the contralto Hilary Summers to use the full range of her quite remarkable voice, but she is never strained by the demands the music makes on her either. I found some of her French a little on the prosaic side, but she successfully navigated the internal psychology of the narrator’s mind to beautiful effect.

credit_Minna_Hatinen_Finnish_National_Opera_and_Ballet-1-2 (4).jpg Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo Credit: Minna Hatinen.

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s opening concert of their autumn season, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, placed Schoenberg’s Erwartung in the middle of their programme. Schoenberg has always played to Salonen’s strengths, and so it did here. He treats this work as one of the great pillars of Modernism and there is much in his conducting of it that brings out the psychosis, lamentation and darkness of this monodrama. The fluidity he brings to the score, over its half-hour span, is quite remarkable - the contours of the music are almost unbroken, even if the trajectory of the narration never is. The changes in tempo and meter are so perfectly judged you almost feel as if this is a musical form of linguistic stream-of-consciousness. There is, however, one powerful impression one is left with in a Salonen performance of this work, and it’s a somewhat ironic one. Erwartung is a towering affirmation of Expressionism, but Salonen draws playing of incredible beauty from the Philharmonia Orchestra it seems to stand in opposition to the work’s more powerful emotive strands. I’ve rarely heard such refined woodwind playing as we got here - but this has long been a hallmark of this orchestra. It wasn’t necessarily out of place, but this came close to bordering on Romanticism.

It was left to the soloist - the outstanding Angela Denoke (replacing at short notice Camilla Nyland) - to raise this performance to the quite exceptional. Denoke brings despair, fear, madness and complete immersion into the psychological confusion the narrative demands. Her timbre resonates with darkness and ambiguity, but get to the upper range of her voice and the angst is shattering. One of the difficulties of a concert performance of this piece is it can sometimes lack the dramatic element it needs - Denoke, however, is consumed on stage in front of an orchestra using the colours of her voice to convey the moonlit streets, dense woodland or meadows and paths. The voice is entirely an expression of what Schoenberg termed his “Angst-dream”.

I’m not sure the rest of the Philharmonia’s concert was quite as memorable. “Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March” from Götterdämmerung, if notable for some superlative brass playing (especially a quartet of splendid Wagner tubas) avoided the pitfall of being overly lugubrious but sacrificed some of the music’s clarity of orchestration - I missed the transparency in the harps (pretty much inaudible), and the woodwind phrasing wasn’t plaintive enough, though I think much of this was due to the orchestral balance being somewhat overwrought. It did, nevertheless, feel cohesively dramatic. I think the best - and probably the worst - one can say about Salonen’s Bruckner Sixth Symphony was that it was utterly unique. If the opening of the first movement barely touched on Bruckner’s Majestoso tempo, Salonen’s intention was to take the rest of it at a sprightly allegro. Even if the playing was largely razor-sharp rhythms weren’t, and string bowing was notably messy. Oddly, the Adagio was taken in tempo and it was a highpoint of the performance (Tom Blomfield’s oboe solo being exquisite). The Scherzo achieved a neat symmetry of balance - with a fluid Trio section - but come the Finale the performance fell out of tempo again. The coda was undeniable exciting, but this was an extraordinarily mysterious Bruckner Sixth in almost every sense.

Marc Bridle

Hans Zender: Cabaret Voltaire for voice and ensemble (UK premiere) - Salome Kammer (vocal artist); Philippe Manoury: Blackout - Monodrama for contralto and ensemble (UK premiere) - Hilary Summers (contralto), Philharmonia Orchestra soloists, Pierre-André Valade (conductor)

Purcell Room, London; 27th September 2018.

Wagner, Schoenberg, Bruckner - Angela Denoka (soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

Royal Festival Hall, London; 27th September 2018.

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