Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LPO/Jurowski @ Royal Festival Hall, London

27 September 2008

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

“..and in this storm, these thundering waves, this war of wars, nothing survives but bankruptcy and disgrace, the face of a child, distorted by hunger, the cry of a madman and Death”

There were many famous faces in the audience for this performance of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s rarely-heard Gesangsszene. It’s a powerful vision of a proud society that seemed to have everything: prosperity, progress, even a cure for the common cold.

Then, suddenly it’s destroyed by “the sickness of great empires”. It’s horrifyingly prophetic because there are references to banking and economic collapse, even to “God’s mortgages”. Hartmann was writing in 1961, when the Americans were pitted against the Russians, and the Berlin Wall was built. He knew all about the flaws of even the greatest empires; he’d resisted the Nazis, not by emigrating like so many others, but by “internal exile”, refusing to make music while the regime lasted.

Then came Hiroshima (Hartmann specifically refers to the empire “finding atoms in cells”) and the Cold War, unparalleled material wealth, and material success. But, as a lifelong socialist who’d seen the Great Depression and war, Hartmann notes that Empires crumble, “especially the ones with apparently the most secure guarantees of stability”.

Gesangsszene starts with long, haunting solo flute melody which gradually becomes tonally ambiguous as blasts from trumpets and trombones interrupt. Crescendi build up in the orchestra, richly, the flute’s warning barely heard above the tumult. Then, suddenly, baritone Matthias Goerne materializes from within the orchestra: “Das ist der schnste Spielbeginn”. It is beautiful and all the more terrifying for that. The text has a difficult, wordy syntax, so Hartmann sets it like speech, making the most of the solemn pace.

It’s like an ancient curse, for the original poem, by Giradoux , was about Sodom and Gommorrah. Voice and orchestra alternate. Gradually the voice part merges into song, and the orchestra begins to accompany the voice. Hartmann died before completing the piece, so the last part is simply spoken. It’s even more powerful, particularly as Goerne’s magnificent voice intones with dignity, without histrionics.

Gesangszene was framed by Strauss’s Metamorphosen, and by Brahms’s Second Symphony. Very perceptive programming, for Metamorphosen is Strauss’s response to the destruction of German culture in 1945. Here Jurowski emphasized the tense shrillness underpinning the multiple levels of string writing.

Brahms represents that beautiful, lost German ideal, so hearing the Second Symphony in this context was particularly moving. Yet perhaps there is hope. At the end, the brass which had featured so strongly in Gesangsszene, falls silent again, and Brahms’s exuberant lyricism bursts forth again.

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