Capriccio Prelude and Final Scene, Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders!, Four Last Songs, Dame Felicity
Lott (soprano), Bernard Haitink (conductor), Nash Ensemble,
Wigmore Hall, 17.12. 2005 (JPr)
Prelude to Capriccio
for a sextet of strings is not only the overture to Richard
Strauss's final opera, but also the subject of the opening
is Strauss's opera about opera, dealing with the dichotomy
of words versus music. The curtain rises and the string
sextet is still heard as if coming from another room.
On stage Flamand, its composer (who represents music)
and the poet Olivier (who obviously represents words)
are eager to see the Countess's reaction to the piece.
Richard Strauss called Capriccio a ‘conversation
piece for music,’ an unconventional but fairly apt description.
The Munich premiere of Capriccio was
in 1942 and the opera deals with an aesthetic question;
what is of primary importance in opera, is it the music
or the words? The music, which is so typically Strauss
in that it is wonderfully elegant and unashamedly romantic,
takes up the topic of conversation in a most imaginative
way, enabling the piece to serve the drama or to be performed
on its own. The various dialogues in the piece and its
many contrasting emotions were displayed expertly the
six exceptional instrumentalists of the Nash Ensemble.
was a wonderful opening to a programme entirely of Strauss'
music. The glory of Capriccio
however is the sublimely lyrical final scene for the Countess,
who, as she tries to make up her mind between her suitors,
Flamand and Olivier, and answer the problem they have
set her, finds the choice painful and almost impossible.
It is Strauss (here presented in David Matthews’s new
arrangement for voice and ensemble) who gives us the answer
since when she prevaricates we sense immediately that
it is music that wins, without a doubt!
Lott sang the famous monologue with great sensitivity.
In a staged production she would ponder the questions
alone in her salon, wistfully singing the song Flamand
has composed to Olivier's sonnet while strumming her harp,
but here she was at the front of the small Wigmore Hall
platform surrounded by musicians and letting her voice
do all the ‘talking’. What the voice has lost in brightness
of tone these days, has been replaced by a quailty of
world-weariness which is what this demanding soprano solo
needs. As we know Strauss’s wife Pauline, was a soprano
and may not have been the easiest woman to live with,
to say the very least. Consequently, I'm always tempted
to think that Strauss tries to get his own back rather
on the female voice through his compositions since many
are so difficult. Felicity Lott’s technique remains flawless
however, even though Strauss is perhaps not so easy for
her as it once was, especially in the chest register where
there seems to be less support than formerly.
Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders ! is the Merry Pranks appearing
here ‘different for
once’ as a chamber
arrangement for five instruments (violin, clarinet, horn,
bassoon and double bass) by Franz Hasenöhrl (believed
to be a Viennese professor of music in the 1950s). It
loses little of the boisterousness or depiction of a riotously
misspent portrayed by the full orchestral version despite
being only about half the original length.
Felicity Lott has
always been a natural Straussian, not least in the Four
Last Songs. The very nature of these songs, where
emotions are internalised and where there is demandingly
extreme dynamic range, is perfect for her. She retains
an exquisite aptitude to float, almost seamlessly, streams
of portamento that is most affecting.
Nevertheless, the miracle of the songs lies in the symbiosis
between the voice and the orchestra. Here it was given
in a new arrangement by James Ledger. Over and over again
- in Gareth Hulse’s oboe solo, Marianne Thorsen’s violin
solo in Beim Schlafengehen or in Richard Watkins’ wonderful horn solo that
closed Im Abendrot - this version gave all the
support needed to Felicity Lott’s singing. All of her
poetry, poignancy and resignation as she sang of life's
closure was complemented wonderfully by the accomplished
playing of all the 14 strong Nash Ensemble. This was particularly
fitting because after Capriccio,
Strauss himself found his interest in instrumental
music reviving and he composed
for similarly small groups of musicians.
Now didn’t the
programme notes say that this was an arrangement for 13
players and that there was no harp? In fact, the ‘fourteenth
man’ (woman in this case) was the harpist who made a notable
impression at the conclusion of Frühling
and there was less playing from the pianist who was
confined to striking the strings with a xylophone hammer!
None of this was in mentioned in the printed programme
and I am reliably informed that James Ledger had toyed
with the idea of using a harmonium instead of a piano
to try to get a more resonant effect for the arrangement.
less a musical giant than Bernard Haitink conducted the
Nash Ensemble through the Capriccio Final Scene and the Four
Last Songs. I am also fairly sure that Haitink's
other contribution was to include the harp into the mix
when he heard the arrangement for the first time. Felicity
Lott was obviously inspired by the presence of this great
conductor and I am sure the chamber ensemble was too,
although the 5 or 6 players who played on their own did
extremely well however.
am sorry to end on a whine, but when I started to go to
classical concerts in the 1970s, I was often one of the
youngest people in the audience. For this event, I was
still in the youngest fifth of a sold-out hall. Though
this probably doesn't matter much today- in time it surely
programme notes for this concert contained a fairly detailed
account of Strauss's activities during World War II which
may be of some interest here and may be particularly relevant
to the Four Last Songs. As a former editor of
Wagner News, the contrast between the reputations
of Strauss and Wagner in terms of anti-Semitism often
strikes me as curious: Wagner is still vilified for his
anti-Semitic views and his art is often characterised
as being a progenitor of National Socialism, despite the
fact he died in 1883.
Wagner's work remains banned in Israel to this day for instance, whilst Strauss’s
music (after a shorter period of disfavour) is now almost
universally accepted there. What is odd about this, is
that from 1933 onwards Richard Strauss was an official
of the Third Reich. It is true of course that much controversy
remains about his role in Germany after the Nazis came to power:
some say that Strauss was consistently apolitical, that
he considered most of the powerful Nazis to be philistines,
that he never cooperated with the Nazis completely and
that it was the fact that his daughter-in-law was Jewish
(and his grandchildren part-Jewish) which made him keep
his criticisms to himself.
Strauss apparently withdrew from
public life after 1935 to his villa at Garmisch-Partenkirchen
in the Bavarian Alps.
He lived there throughout the war and was spared its physical
ravages but was deeply affected by the loss of many friends
and the bombing of Vienna,
In late 1945, under the threat of being called before
the Denazification Board, Strauss moved to Switzerland
where he lived for the next four years. He was cleared
by the Board in 1948, but chose to stay in Switzerland
for medical treatment, returning to Garmisch in May 1949,
just four months before his death. During his Swiss sojourn
he became increasingly enfeebled, though his mind remained
clear and he was able to continue composing. He had written
his last work in 1948, Vier letzte Lieder ( the Four Last Songs) for soprano and
orchestra. All of his life he had composed Lieder, but
these farewell-to-life songs are probably the best known.
By this time, when compared to the work of younger composers,
his harmonic and melodic language sounded somewhat out-dated
but nevertheless the songs became popular and have remained
so ever since.
Critics however (famously including
the British film maker Ken Russell in 1970) have pointed
out that Strauss did accept the post of president
of the Reichsmusikkammer (the State Music Bureau)
and wore its uniform. Although this post was largely ceremonial,
some maintain that Strauss should have spoken out against
the Nazis and that he naïvely allowed himself to be used
by them. In 1935 he was forced to resign the post after
refusing to remove the name of its Jewish librettist,
his friend Stefan Zweig from the poster for Die
schweigsame Frau. He also went on to write Friedenstag,
a one-act opera set in a besieged fortress during the
Thirty Years War which is usually regarded as a hymn to
peace and so a thinly veiled criticism of the Third Reich.
Since Friedenstag was staged in 1938 - when Germany
was preparing for war - this can be regarded as an extraordinarily
brave move. Strauss undoubtedly realised the risk to his
family and some have pointed out that this might (reasonably
enough) have prevented him speaking out. There are also
suggestions that he attempted to use his official position
to protect many Jewish friends and colleagues.
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