Siegfrieds Tod

Spring is here. I have it on an authoritative source. Never mind 1 September, the date commonly designated in Australia (though the anti-Antipodes – is that the Podes? – do not say the same for 1 March) as the beginning of Spring. Some time in the past week my local Woollies has reallocated to salads the shelf space previously assigned to prepared/refrigerated soups.

Yet in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall on Saturday night, where I went to hear the SSO and Ingrid Fliter play Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 (actually, like Beethoven’s, his first) you could have sworn that it was deepest winter. “I thought we had eliminated TB in this country,” I heard a chap in the row behind me say as we went out for interval. It must be the tourists and, of course, boat people.

Mark Wigglesworth conducted.

The Concerto is a funny work: it is early Chopin and with the exception perhaps of the slow movement does not show so many signs of his fully developed style: the first movement is a lot of notes with only a few hints of things to come (the bassoon moments, for example, in this movement and elsewhere warmly played by Matthew Wilkie); I suppose the last movement prefigures the national dance elements but there is an awful lot of tonic-dominant vamping. What is mostly missing is the hidden inner tunes and more adventurous harmonies of his mature style.

At the first performance there was apparently some criticism that Chopin played too quietly. This was not a criticism which could be levelled against Fliter. The middle movement was the best but here the coughing was at its most chronic. Oddly enough, they were perfectly quiet in the encores which Fliter generously gave: the last movement of Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata and Chopin’s so-called “Minute” Waltz. Why? It can only be because people were listening more attentively. Is that because the piano on its own is quieter? Is it because they perceive that the encore is more “special” and respond accordingly? What cannot entirely be ruled out is that Fliter’s rendition of the encores was itself more compelling. Probably once the coughing begins it sets off its own vicious circle: concentration and attentiveness by an audience is a game which everybody has to play.

Rant over.

The second half was the “The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure” arranged by Henk de Vlieger from Wagner. Peter McCallum in the SMH was rather snooty about this: what is the point of extracting merely one element from the Gesamtkunstwerk?

Rearranging any work of art is a bit like kicking a leg out from underneath a stool: the result is likely to be a little wobbly. For that matter, just doing opera in English suffers that risk; take away the scenery, take away the action, take away the singing, of course you don’t have what you had before.

Well, it is what it is.

I think it is reasonable to approach the “Adventure” as a “Reminiscence” or “Souvenir” in the Lisztian tradition: as with the Liszt transcriptions/reminiscences in his time, it is a means of hearing music which you otherwise would not hear – or, in this day and age, would not hear live. You have to bring your memory or knowledge of the original work to fill in the missing bits and to adjust the balance. That’s more than putting the voices back in, to speak only of the missing musical elements.

In cutting things back to about a 70=minute orchestral tone poem, de Vlieger inevitably brought the whole thing back to Wagner’s original concept of Siegfrieds Tod. The back story (the Ring Cycle is one enormous prequel) is inevitably pruned so as to give an emotional shape around the big moments in Götterdämmerung. We whizzed through Das Rheingold (the opening Rhine music, a bit of Nibelung stuff and then some Valhalla music, anachronistically using the Wagner tubas (not, I think, introduced by Wagner until later in the cycle). Die Walküre went straight to the ride of the Valkyries and a bit of Wotan’s farewell and some fire music; we got a bit more detail in Siegfried (forest murmurs, a snatch of woodbird, Siegfried’s horn call then on to Brunnhilde on the mountain top) and quite a lot more of Götterdämmerung.

The main problem with an orchestralisation of the Ring like this is that Wagner’s musical currency has been debased by its very success. Played in patched-together excerpts it inevitably sounds like movie music: movies with music are after all the true twentieth century post-Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

There’s not much you can do about that, and opportunities to see the operas in the flesh are rare and expensive.

The emotional heart of it for me was the passage which (I’m pretty sure) came from Siegfried’s narration where he unwittingly betrays himself. This leads up to his death – which was then followed pretty smartly by his funeral March and a truncated version of Brunnhilde’s peroration. Second place was the kind of slow movement from Siegfried where he thought about his mother. Otherwise, Siegmund, Sieglinde, the Norns, the other gods were all very much in the background.

The orchestral playing was not blemish-free: the celli in particular seemed to have a hard time cutting through and there were a few more horn fluffs than ideal (starting with the top note in the first Rhine music chordal build-up) but hey, that’s live performance. Perhaps they still need more time to really play into the style. There were plenty of exciting bits and also beautiful bits. The point was to think about where they came from and seek the mood and meaning which this related to. My only gripe is that it could have been longer: the thing you miss is the endurance excitement and cumulative effect of the real thing, but it’s hard to see how that can be reproduced consistently with a feasible abridgement.

I enjoyed it.

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