Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ewig, ewig; The Berliner Philharmoniker Binds two works on the Secular Eternal

In a much anticipated pairing the Berliner Philharmoniker, led by music director Simon Rattle, juxtaposed the final scene of The Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Both works explored ideas of the eternal in terms related to the cyclical in nature. Both used common images from daily life as a portal toward awakening--toward seeking solace in the idea that even though the particular dies that there is still youth expressed through rebirth. It is the idea that Nietzsche called "eternal return."

The correspondence between the two works was more than metaphysical, it was also strangely practical. It turns out that the scene, centered on Bass-Baritone Gerald Finley, also required two small roles--the innkeeper's wife, and the schoolteacher that could be performed by the mezzo and tenor from Das Lied. This not only gave us an extra opportunity to hear Mezzo-Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and tenor Stuart Skelton, but it also seemed to connect them directly from the opera into Das Lied.

A new insight was layered into Das Lied in this performance: It was as if the mezzo role in Das Lied was still the innkeeper's wife, and the tenor was still the schoolteacher.

Rattle began the excerpt from The Cunning Little Vixen just after the gunshot that kills the Vixen (beginning with the adagio on page 159 of the piano vocal score). This opened the concert with music of transition; it was like a 90 second upbeat to the final two-scene division that Janáček marked in the score.

The scene at the inn was described by Milan Kundera in an essay from his book "Encounters." Kundera observed that the scene "seems insignificant but [it] always grips my heart. The woodsman and the schoolteacher are alone at the inn. The [...] The innkeeper’s wife is very busy and doesn’t feel like talking. The teacher himself is taciturn: the woman he loves is to be married today. So the conversation is very sparse: where is the innkeeper? off to town; and how is the priest getting on? who knows; and the woodsman’s dog, why isn’t he here? he doesn’t like to walk any longer, his paws hurt, he is old; “like us,” the woodsman adds. I know no other opera scene so utterly banal in its dialogue; or any scene of sadness more poignant, more real."

"Janáček has managed to say what only an opera can say," continued Kundera, "the unbearable nostalgia of insignificant talk at an inn cannot be expressed any other way than by an opera: the music becomes the fourth dimension of a situation which without it would remain anodyne, unnoticed, mute."

Finley voiced this scene and the meditation that followed with simple expression and with resonant

After intermission von Otter and Skelton returned for Das Lied von der Erde. Skelton sang with deeply voiced baritonal colors, but he was able to sing effortless high As and projected like a heldentenor over the orchestra. He brought a wide variety of characteristic expressions to the role--fear during the passage where he first sees the ape among the tombstones, wit during the reflected images of friends chatting seen on the surface of the "little pool," intoxicated conversation with a bird in springtime.

Von Otter brought dignified solemnity to the texts on loneliness and charm to Von der Schönheit, a work about the dangers of youthful obsession.

In a short blog entry last week, I wrote about Kundera's sense that Janáček sought the opposite of "Wagnerian emotion­alism." This performance showed Janáček and Mahler to be brothers.

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