wort, du wort, das mir fehlt …[O
word, thou word, that I lack]
one of the most poignant, touching, yet chilling expressions
with which to conclude an opera … in any century. They are
the final words of a distraught Moses as he falls to the
ground bemoaning his inability to express the inexpressibility
of God’s majesty.
ironically it wasn’t words that failed Schönberg in his attempts
to complete the magnificent torso of his opera, but the music.
Having drafted a third and concluding act complete with text,
he never completed the score. Perhaps his tireless work for
the Jewish people and state in the exile of California took
up too much of his time. Perhaps he was simply too pressed
to earn a sufficient living. Possibly he felt increasingly
that, in the words of the writer Lothar Knessl, “(it)
marks the end quite conclusively both in terms of ideas and
roots of Moses can be traced as far back as an incident at
Mattsee near Salzburg in 1921. During a period of anti-semitic
agitation Schönberg, who was holidaying in the resort, was
forced to leave simply because he was a Jew. In a later letter
to Kandinsky he wrote, “I have at last learnt the lesson
that has been forced upon me this year, and I shall never
forget it. It is that I am not German, not a European, indeed
perhaps scarcely even a human being…but that I am a Jew.”
Despite his conversion
to Protestantism almost a quarter of a century earlier, the
Mattsee incident echoed the thoughts and experiences of his
fellow composer Mahler, who had once opined, “I am thrice
homeless: as a Bohemian among the Austrians, as an Austrian among
the Germans, and as a Jew throughout the entire world. I am
an intruder everywhere, welcome nowhere.”
didn’t however mope aimlessly about the situation. He acted
decisively, initially by a re-assumption of the Jewish faith
in 1933, then through planning - both in Europe, later America
- for a national and spiritual rebirth of the Jewish nation.
Moreover he became well known for providing practical assistance
to Jewish musicians wherever and whenever he could.
the concept of a work on the subject of Moses and Aaron became
central to his thinking. Moses the visionary leader at the
heart of the biblical story, stern and compassionate, legislator
and spiritual redeemer, became the heart of the way forward.
Schönberg began to sketch a play, “Der Biblische Weg” (The
Biblical Way) in 1926, which metamorphosed into an oratorio
over the next two years. By May 1930 he had begun its conversion
to an opera, taking just under two years to complete the
first two acts. Despite his circumstances, it was something
he clearly did aim to complete. He wrote to his friend Joseph
Ash in that same year, “I should like to finish the third
act of my opera…” adding, as late as 1945, in another
missive to the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, “..my life
task would be fulfilled only fragmentarily if I failed to
complete at least those two largest of my musical…..works…Moses
und Aaron and Die Jakobsleiter.” (“Jacobs Ladder” being
an oratorio he conceived between 1917 and 22).
opera not only provides a spiritual model but also acts as
a political mirror. Moses is the prophet to whom God grants
the “idea” but not the means to translate it into words;
meanwhile Aaron cannot fully grasp the idea, but has the
ability to communicate what he understands easily, and thus
move the masses. The contemporary relevance to politics and
the art of the “spin doctor” hardly needs over-emphasising.
point up the chasm between the two brothers the role of Moses
is almost completely confined to “sprechgesang” (i.e. literally
speech-song), whilst the more mellifluous Aaron is free to
sing openly. There are other characters in the drama, but
their influence is small, only briefly commenting or interacting.
The role of the third main protagonist instead is left to
the chorus, thereby re-enforcing the opera’s origins in oratorio.
Moses has been more frequently performed in recent years
it is hardly a repertory standard. This is a great pity as
it is one of the most powerful and deeply affecting pieces
of the twentieth … indeed any … century. True it has the “disadvantage” that
it is one of the very few operas I can readily think of with
no real “love interest”. Perhaps more forbidding for the
average opera-goer is its densely argued musical and textural
content, as well as its sheer intellectualism. It does rely
a great deal on verbal interaction and as a “wordy” piece
it really demands some appreciation of the text …. and sadly
this is one element where this new Naxos release falls down.
Although a good synopsis is provided, there is no link -
as with some other Naxos releases - to at least a text on
the Naxos website. Text and translation would of course
be better still.
And … if
I am to dwell upon faults for a moment I must regrettably
add to my list the Aaron in this production, Chris Merritt.
The American has been a fine singer over the years, not always
it is true well caught by the microphones. However it is
clear that by the time of these performances (December 2003),
his voice has deteriorated quite alarmingly. Although he
still has the reach (just) to cope with some of the cruelly
high-lying sections of the score, any sustained passages
are now subject to an unsteadiness of production that is
very marked. This chronic wobble is an enormous pity since
Merritt is an experienced, thoughtful and insightful Aaron,
having undertaken the role a number of times internationally.
Indeed to hear him in much better voice turn to the recording
by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under Boulez (DG 449 174 2).
Recorded in 1995 the discs were produced in conjunction with
the production at the Nederlandse Opera. Although there are
signs of deterioration in his voice even here they are far
less marked than in Stuttgart. This recording however was
originally a full price issue.
much of the opera depends on these two protagonists, to have
one lamed is a definite handicap. However the scales are
rebalanced somewhat by the excellent work of Wolgang Schöne
as Moses. Perhaps ideally there is a little too much “gesang” than “sprech” in
his approach, although he can be excused to a degree since
this is a trap which has ensnared many singers in Schönberg
over the years. To achieve the right balance one should turn
to the old Philips recording under the composer’s son-in-law,
Michael Gielen (438 667-2). Recorded as the soundtrack to
a film of the opera by the French director Jean Marie Straub,
in conjunction with the Austrian broadcaster ORF, Gielen’s
prophet is Gunter Reich. Despite the excellence of Reich
(and Louis Devos as Aaron) the conductor consented to a large
degree of studio manipulation on these discs in an attempt
to achieve what he considered an accurate representation
of Schönberg’s thoughts. The result has the singers very
close in the aural picture, more a “theatre of the mind” than
anything redolent of the opera house. An interesting experiment
nevertheless if you track a copy down.
to the matter in hand ….. the Stuttgart Choruses and Orchestra
acquit themselves well. The orchestra in particular appear
to have benefited in this sort of repertoire from their association
with conductor Lothar Zagrosek, principal since 1997. Certainly
the clarity and integrity of complex lines found in their
Ring Cycle (Euroarts/TDK DVD 10 5399 9) are apparent here … some
might say to more appropriate effect! Furthermore Roland
Kluttig was assistant to Zagrosek between 2000 and 2004,
and the musicians clearly respond to his approach. Meanwhile
the Naxos engineers capture the stage picture very well,
pulling in a little closer than their Euroarts counterparts,
without deleterious consequences. Apparent audience noise
and stage movement is pretty minimal.
conclusion I welcome this set, regardless of my criticisms.
Despite their healthy position in the current record industry
it is still a courageous decision by Naxos to launch such
an issue. This is a demanding but ultimately very rewarding
opera, one which sadly wouldn’t normally fly off the shelves …..
yet, at Naxos price it just might. Try and forgive Merritt
his wobble, and seek out texts (and translations perhaps)
over the web, or in your local music shop.
then a very decent introduction to a great work for the impecunious
buyer, and for the more specialist collector, an interesting
and worthwhile second (or third ?) version.