> Diatribes and Digressions: David Dyer - Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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"Brendel doesn’t understand Beethoven", plus musings on the Chereau / Boulez production of Wagner’s "Ring" and other random issues.

The thing which I find most bewildering in the case of classical music performances is the notion that there always has to be some innovation in the way in which the music is presented.

I recognise that many musical scores leave considerable scope for interpretation, and that even in cases where specific instructions had been given, composers themselves when in the role of conductor have sometimes been blithely cavalier in their respect for their own directions. However, in my own case, and in common I suspect with the vast majority of most audiences, not being a musician I (we) are not really in a position to differentiate between fidelity and mutilation because we have neither the score nor the ability to read it. The fact that even professional musicians and critics frequently disagree I believe supports my view that most assessments are both personal and subjective.

My own response therefore is to judge a performance in terms of either how well it matches my concept of how I want the piece to sound, or alternatively whether it sounds more appealing than I expected. In the latter case this new "interpretation" may after repeated hearings become my yardstick in future, albeit one based largely on ignorance of its conformity with the composer’s own concept.

My only exception to this rather uncompromising view is when considering the works of particularly well loved composers, for with them I feel that repeated listening across their output can induce an instinctive awareness of what sounds consistent with that particular voice. I believe that Shostakovich, one of my most revered composers, preferred to put his trust in the audience to respond to his music without the prop of programme notes.

With any performance therefore, providing I hear a rendition which matches my expectations I will go away happy, time and time again, and I do not feel short-changed if that is all I get. The rare occasions when something even more satisfying is produced are truly bonuses, and are savoured and cherished on that basis.

As an aside I would say that I do not believe that it is necessary to understand music in order to love it, although I find that enjoyment of a piece can lead to a desire to know more about its inspiration and motivation.

However, reverting to the matter of subjective response, I am baffled as to why it is that so many music lovers are not content with expressing their opinion of a performance solely in terms of their personal enjoyment or otherwise. Instead we find them compelled to utter qualitative judgements which they are manifestly unqualified to express.

An unforgettable example of this came from a friend of mine who in most matters is sensitive, objective, and broad-minded. On most subjects I find anything he has to say well-reasoned and worthy of consideration. I was therefore deeply shocked when on one occasion he actually voiced the opinion that "of course, Brendel does not understand Beethoven". This profundity came from the lips of one who cannot read a single line of music.

I confess that at the time I was rendered speechless partly by a mouthful of red wine which I was anxious to swallow rather than splutter onto the carpet. However even after the wine had been safely consigned to its proper destination I still couldn’t think of a suitable response. While I am no authority on either Beethoven or Mr Brendel, I have no difficulty in accepting the considerable esteem in which both are held by those who truly are qualified to express an authoritative opinion. How then can one deal with such sublime arrogance and stupidity? I doubt that one can. What I did do was vow to try never to fall into the same trap of allowing myself to present subjectivity as fact.

Not that this need inhibit the expression of opinions.

I have in recent months spent many hours, well the subject is Wagner, watching the reissued version on DVD of The Ring as realised in the Wagner Centenary production recorded at Bayreuth in 1983.

I remember seeing this cycle on television. At that time I was completely outraged by what I regarded as its absurd presentation, with the opening of Das Rheingold finding the Rhinemaidens cavorting at the foot of a hydro-electric dam, and the Rhinegold itself later in the work being handled as if it weighed no more than gold-painted polystyrene which it clearly was. Further into the cycle, Fafner being visibly and risibly wheeled about the stage like a latter-day napalm cannon, and a spear carrying Hagen dressed in a lounge suit but leading rifle-carrying vassals provoked further scorn. Sadly I doubt that my views were expressed at that time as temperately as I would now wish, and not surprisingly the strength of my reaction greatly distracted me from the quality of the performance and of the music itself.

That was nearly twenty years ago when my main experience of The Ring had been obtained from the Solti cycle for Decca on LPs, supplemented by images from Arthur Rackham drawings and my own imagination.

A live cycle given by the Welsh National Opera in Birmingham also seen at about that time created far less of an impression either pro or con. This was probably because actually being present at the performance revealed the difficulties associated with any type of staging so obviously as to instil a subconscious degree of tolerance.

A subsequent television production, I think from a German house, featuring spaceships proved to be a total turn-off, both literally and metaphorically.

Consequently, thanks to M. Chéreau and the strongly negative reaction he instilled into me, from that time on I have approached all opera productions with considerable caution, seeing them potentially as being vehicles aimed at promoting the Producer / Artistic Director rather than the composer and librettist. Sadly this scepticism has in recent years been nurtured by reports of ever increasing excesses from some producers. Not that this is unique to opera. "Down with merit, notoriety and bad taste rules", seems to be increasingly prevalent in much of our society.

Returning to televised productions of The Ring, it has not all been bad news and some years later I greatly enjoyed the Metropolitan Opera’s cycle with stage production by Otto Schenk. This struck me as being far closer to the ideal realisation with "traditional" figures and costumes, supported by realistic staging using all the benefits of modern technology. When DG issued Die Walküre from this cycle on DVD I therefore eagerly snapped it up, and have been waiting, and waiting, and am still waiting to no avail for the other components of the cycle to be issued in the UK. If this is typical of major record company marketing acumen no wonder they’re in trouble. But while DG dithered, along came Philips with the complete set of the heinous Bayreuth production, and at a very favourable price. So although it wasn’t what I wanted, as a review copy was available on loan I decided to renew acquaintance and see to what extent if any my response had changed after so many years and…surprise, surprise, it wasn’t so bad at all. In fact, after several viewings I find that what had previously seemed outrageously bizarre had become merely incongruous, no more than a minor distraction. Furthermore, the singing, acting, and orchestral playing were thoroughly enjoyable. The sets too worked quite well for me this time around, and while the polystyrene gold and the ease with which it is handled is still plainly silly, is this any less credible than the Metropolitan’s pairing of black Jessye Norman and white Gary Lakes as the twins in Die Walküre, however splendidly they perform.

As it so happens, reason has now prevailed and I have purchased the Bayreuth cycle, which continues to give me repeated pleasure.

Clearly this represents a major change in the way I now respond to and perceive things, and I’m not sure why this should be. Basically I suppose my priorities have changed and what I now require from opera is above all a production which does not distract attention from the music and the voices. For me it is the music and the words which are paramount, although I accept that modernising the libretto if done well can be unintrusive and consequently help remove incongruities which might otherwise distract from the story.

In the case of sets and costumes as well as the overall staging I believe the duty of producers and so-called artistic directors is above all to serve the composer’s interests rather than their own egos, which does not mean that the production has to be bland or featureless. Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Bohème for Sydney Opera House seems to me an admirable example where moving sets and occasionally visible stagehands do nothing to detract from the musical experience.

So what of M. Chéreau’s Ring? Well, I suppose that my own purchase demonstrates that I have come to terms with it despite the occasional irritations, and overall I think it is very fine with a notable contribution from his compatriot Pierre Boulez and the other musicians and singers.

However, I fear that I am unlikely to ever undergo a similar conversion to another more recent opera production just released on DVD.

This is a performance of Janacek’s Kat’a Kabanova recorded in Salzburg. Unlike my own recording of a production from Glyndebourne, which I find very acceptable other than for the somewhat edgy sound (1988), this newcomer is beautifully filmed in 16:9 widescreen. Recording quality is good apart from a slightly recessed sound to the voices, possibly to (successfully) minimise audience noise, and it seems to me to be very well sung, with Angela Denoke an excellent Kat’a, and the Czech Philharmonic in fine form under Sylvain Cambreling. The presentation however I thought abominable, with a bizarre set littered with extraneous characters and as a centrepiece what at first appears to be concentric circles of plastic gnomes. It subsequently emerges when these oddly shaped figures occasionally eject half-hearted spurts of water, that this is either a fountain or the river Volga. In the last act it must be the Volga because poor Kat’a has to lie down in it and drown. Frankly, she appears to be more at risk through impalement on the aforementioned gnomes/nozzles. At other times it functions as an obstacle course through which several of the characters cautiously step for no apparent reason without appearing to get even slightly damp, let alone be at risk from drowning. As Anna Russell might have said "I’m not making this up you know!"

What I have described is a far from comprehensive list of the absurdities and myself and four companions found ourselves viewing the whole presentation with increasing incomprehension and frustration. The staging was utterly silly, and worst of all a major distraction from the music; an impression not revised despite several other viewings.

The perpetrators of this notable experience were Christoph Marthaler as Director with Anna Viebrock in charge of costumes and stage design.

View before purchase is my advice.

While acknowledging that to make any sense of opera at all one has to be prepared to entirely suspend disbelief, I believe that the overwhelming priority in any production should be the best possible realisation of the music and the singing. It therefore follows that, providing the presentation enables the audience to become, and remain, immersed in the music and the text then the production has served its purpose and can be called a success.

Anything less than that is an artistic failure. Producers and Directors please note.

This of course is only my opinion.

David Dyer

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