A New Harmony

Gregor Joseph Werner failed in health quite early – ­ his body began to give up on him just after he turned sixty. This may have been caused by overwork, for Wener performed his duties as the Kapellmeister at the Esterházy court very conscientiously. He was hired by the regent Maria Octavia – rumour has it that this happened at the instigation of her seventeen-year-old son Pál Antal – who, seven years after the premature death of her husband József, decided to rebuild the musical stature of the family.

In 1728 Werner was welcomed as a herald of a new era for the House of Esterházy. A teacher of the young prince and a prolific composer – author of more than twenty oratorios and forty masses as well as symphonies, trio sonatas and a collection of “new and very curious” orchestral suites for the twelve months of the year – Werner raised the Eisenstadt Kapelle to European heights. Faithful to the late Baroque style almost as much as to his princely patrons, never for a moment did Werner suspect that anyone would undermine his position at the Esterházy court. And then that man arrived. A youngster who was not yet thirty, two generations Werner’s junior, endowed with extraordinary personal charm and even greater talent.

His name was Joseph Haydn and he arrived in Eisenstadt thanks to the patronage of his previous employer, the Bohemian Count Karl Josef Morzin, who had been forced to disband his orchestra in Dolní Lukavice for financial reasons. Prince Pál II Antal, nearly fifty and suffering from numerous ailments, decided that it was high time to follow in his mother’s footsteps and once again open a new era in the history of the Esterházy family. Out of respect for Werner, he kept him – at least formally – in his position and in 1761 appointed Haydn vice Kapellmeister of the court. He granted both men an annual salary of four hundred gulden, but gave Haydn considerably more responsibilities. From then on Werner was to compose only religious music. The old master was unable to swallow the insult. The conflict escalated a few months later, when Pál Antal died without an heir and the title was inherited by his younger and even more musical brother Miklós József Esterházy, who immediately raised Haydn’s salary to six hundred gulden a year.

Esterháza palace in Fertőd. Photo: Zsolt Batár

Desperate, in October 1765 Werner decided to take action against his rival. He wrote a letter to His Royal Highness, politely informing him that Haydn was unable to control the musicians, was flinging money around, was not taking proper care of the instruments entrusted to him, was committing financial abuses and was an inveterate liar. There may have been something in these accusations, because the prince reprimanded his protégé, ordering him to keep the archives in order, be more active as a composer and concentrate on trios for viola, cello and baryton (the aristocrat’s favourite instrument, similar to the viol). Less than six months later Werner died. In 1766 Haydn became the court Kapellmeister, a new residence – the Esterháza, a palace described, without any exaggeration, as the Hungarian Versailles – was ceremoniously blessed in the town of Fertőd and the prince increased Haydn’s salary to eight hundred gulden a year.

It is better not to draw too rash conclusions from this story. Haydn was not only a great composer, but also an expert on human nature, a natural-born diplomat and, deep down, a righteous and good-natured man. He used the almost thirty years he worked in the service of the Esterházy princes to the advantage of both sides, strengthening the position of the aristocratic Kapelle and his own status as one of the most outstanding artists of the period. He did his job and at the same time gave in to the whims of the prince, whose love of the baryton was later replaced with a passion for opera and puppet theatre. The Kapellmeister did not hide his admiration for his frustrated predecessor Werner, arranging six introductions and fugues from his oratorios for a string quartet in 1804.

Haydn left the Esterházy court in 1790, after the death of Miklós, whose successor, Antal I, disbanded the orchestra, but granted the composer a life salary of one thousand gulden. When Johann Peter Salomon invited Haydn to England and offered him a contract to compose twelve symphonies, Haydn was a free man, bathed in enough glory to spend the last years of his life in Vienna, which he had used to hate so much.

It is also better not to succumb to the magic of the formula which emerged after the fall of the Bar Confederation and not to compare the Esterházy patronage to any of the initiatives of Polish magnates.

As an old adage would have it, Pole and Hungarian brothers be, but certainly not when it comes to artistic patronage, also because – perhaps above all – of different historical circumstances. When the founder of the family, Miklós Esterházy de Galántha, was building his position, he was doing so in a country torn between the Kingdom of Hungary, the Principality of Transylvania and lands seized by the Turks. He converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism, married twice into wealthy aristocratic Hungarian families, and in 1625 sided with Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor from the House of Habsburg. The Habsburgs rewarded the Esterházy family’s contribution to the fight against the Ottoman invasion by elevating Miklós and his son Pál to the rank of palatine of the Kingdom of Hungary. The Esterházys remained loyal to the German dynasty during the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars and the Hungarian Spring of the Peoples. Their actions – unlike those of many Polish magnates – were not undone by the indelible stigma of high treason. The identity of modern Hungarians was forged in the course of a somewhat anti-romantic struggle for freedom: a struggle in which the imagined welfare of the community was often put before the tangible welfare of the individual.

György Vashegyi. Photo: Pilvax

This was mentioned by the late Péter Esterházy, a descendant of one of the branches of the family and author of the novel Harmonia Caelestis, in which he intricately wove together a half-imagined history of his ancestors with a half-imagined history of Hungary. He subsequently had to add a supplement to the novel, having learned about his father Mátyás’ long collaboration with the Hungarian security services. It is worth returning to Esterházy’s book, if only in an unsuccessful attempt to understand the paradoxes that govern Hungary. I thought about it constantly during a recent visit to Budapest – as part of a trip organised for journalists by the Munich-based PR agency Ophelias Culture – to attend the first festival organised by the Haydneum, an institute recently established by the Hungarian government.

The objective of the Haydneum is to promote not Hungarian early music, but the oeuvres of composers associated with Hungary – above all, with the Esterházy court – in the Baroque, Classical and early Romantic periods. The generously funded activities of the institute are to include publishing, research as well as organisation of concerts, training courses and masterclasses – in international cooperation with distinguished specialists and representatives of the historical performance movement. The brains behind the venture is the conductor, harpsichordist and teacher György Vashegyi, founder of the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra, and for the past four years president of the Magyar Művészeti Akadémia, or Hungarian Academy of Arts. The artistic director of the Haydneum is Benoît Dratwicki, a cellist, bassoonist and musicologist, expert on eighteenth-century French opera, artistic director of the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles and co-founder of Palazzetto Bru Zane – Centre de Musique Romantique Française in Venice.

Performers at this year’s festival included – in addition to Vashegyi’s ensembles – Les Talents Lyriques conducted by Christoph Rousset, Capella Savaria conducted by Zsolt Kalló and the Freiburger Barockorchester. I was able to make it only to the first two days of the event, which – like the whole venture – I initially approached with reserve similar to that shown by Gregor Joseph Werner to the newly appointed vice Kapellmeister of the Esterházy court. The European art circles have for years been debating Article 10 of the new Hungarian constitution of 2011, which includes a worrying provision concerning the scholarly and artistic freedom of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Hungarian Academy of Arts. According to its opponents, cultural institutions in Hungary have fallen prey to the government, becoming a tool of a new narrative managed by corrupt oligarchs, a narrative that is closed to the world, anti-liberal and anti-modernist. According to its supporters, the Hungarian state’s current cultural strategy prevents thoughtless squandering of funds on projects of slight artistic value but with a powerful propagandistic message – not to mention the fact that it effectively protects the autonomy of art against the designs of all kinds of politicos and unrealistic ideologues.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, as in the case of the young Haydn, who did not always deliver the princely commissions as promised and sometimes abused his patron’s trust, but who managed his staff efficiently and undoubtedly knew what the composer’s craft was all about.

The co-founders and organisers of the Haydneum certainly know what the work of the newly established institution is all about: something that cannot always be said of those behind similar projects elsewhere in Europe. I had many opportunities to see evidence of their extensive knowledge combined with genuine passion: when reading the excellent programme book; during curatorial visits to the National Széchényi Library, the Museum of the History of Music and the Hungarian State Archives; and, above all, during unofficial discussions about the interpretation of works by Haydn, Werner and other artists associated with the court, about the acoustics, technical and architectural solutions of the opera theatre at Esterháza, about the need to find a compromise between a faithful reconstruction of the Fertőd palace and the needs of contemporary audiences. When talking to my Hungarian peers, I discovered that we had surprisingly similar memories of our first experiences with early music.

Christoph Rousset. Photo: Pilvax

However, something stopped them in their tracks or perhaps pushed us too far ahead. During the first concert at Müpa Budapest – featuring works by Joseph and Michael Haydn, and Johann Georg Albrechsberger – I had the impression that the performance aesthetics of the Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra were deeply rooted in the tradition of the pioneers of historical singing and playing. That their interpretations were very clever, but not experienced, that they lacked the spontaneity or even casualness of the Italians, the French and the more courageous among the Brits.

The following day we encountered a completely different world in the recently opened concert hall in a former Carmelite monastery. In Gregor Joseph Werner’s oratorio Job Les Talents Lyriques, led by Rousset, inspired the Hungarian choristers as well, making music freely yet precisely, with a perfect feeling for the composer’s late Baroque. I have the impression that with time these two worlds – listening friendly to each other for the moment – will start intermingling. Like in the Kapelle of the Esterházy princes, which attracted the best musicians from all over Europe for so many years.

After returning home I found myself right in the middle of the Polish storm, which almost blew my nightcap off my head, as it once happened to Haydn after a short visit to Vienna. I still don’t know what to think about the Hungarians’ cultural policy, but I do envy them the Haydneum idea.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

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From Chaos to Light

God created the world and concluded that every thing he had made was very good. Similar conclusions must have been drawn by Haydn after the first performance of his Creation, on 30 April 1798, before a private audience at the now non-existent winter palace of the Schwarzenberg princes in Vienna’s Neuer Markt. Outside policemen and armed guards disciplined a teeming crowd of onlookers. Inside was gathered Europe’s the crème de la crème of the period: wealthy patrons, members of aristocratic families, representatives of the music world, high-ranking courtiers and diplomats. The composer himself conducted. The enthralled guests listened in mute admiration and total concentration. Haydn shuddered and sweated alternately; as he later confessed, several times he came close to apoplexy from the whole excess of sensations. At the official premiere, which took place on 19 March 1799 at the Burgtheater, the audience was not able to control its emotions. Hearing the line “Und es ward Licht”, people jumped from their seats and made such a din that the performance had to be stopped. The rhetorical effect intended by Haydn was all the stronger given that the line was sung by a sixty-strong chorus supported by an ensemble of over one hundred and twenty instrumentalists.

Today’s listeners usually know what to expect after the famous orchestral prelude. Haydn depicts in it chaos and the clumsily forming universe with its centre everywhere and surface nowhere, as Blaise Pascal would have it. Using the initial unison on the note C, descending under a fermata from forte to piano, the composer paints an abyss beyond time: unmelodious, devoid of harmony, free from any dissonance. A measure of the quality of contemporary performances of The Creation lies in the ability to focus the listeners’ attention already on that first sound – a musical image of a vacuum which Haydn gradually begins to fill, at first only with a sequence of deceptive harmonic progressions and isolated shreds of melody leading nowhere.

Laurence Cummings and Matthew Brook (Raphael). Photo: Mark Allan/Barbican

I imagine that the audience at the Barbican Hall, where The Creation was performed – with the English libretto – by the Academy of Ancient Music on 28 September, awaited that beginning with unprecedented impatience. It would be hard to find a better work to inaugurate the ensemble’s first season under the direction of its new boss. At the same time it would be hard to find a piece that would plant an equally ripe seed of optimism in the hearts of listeners after the longest lockdown in Europe. It could be said that Laurence Cummings, who took over the AAM after ten excellent seasons in charge of the Göttingen Handel Festival, held all the aces. If so, he had used them to the full. From the first note of the prelude to the final chorus “Sing the Lord, ye voices all” he infected the musicians with his unbridled joy of singing and playing, losing none of phrasing precision or colour sensitivity, and making sure to highlight the often powerful rhetorical gestures. Striving for the fullness of sound desired by Haydn, Cummings also made the right and historically justified decision to perform the continuo part not on a harpsichord, but on an 1801 English Broadwood piano. The unique design of the instrument ensured stable tuning, reliable action and much greater power of the sound – qualities once appreciated by Haydn and now skilfully emphasised by Alastair Ross, who performed the continuo.

Cummings was just as sensitive and tasteful when selecting his cast of soloists. For dramaturgical reasons (The Creation was presented in a semi-staged version featuring Nina Dunn’s projections that contributed little to the plot but were altogether quite neutral) he decided not to combine bass and soprano parts, entrusting the roles of the archangels and the first humans to five singers. Gabriel was sung by Mary Bevan, a singer with secure intonation, skilfully playing with the timbre of her dark soprano, which has slightly too much vibrato perhaps. However, I was much more impressed by the Eve of Rachel Redmond – an excellent actress with a radiant voice soft as silk, a voice she wields with childlike ease. She was beautifully partnered by Ashley Riches, as a movingly ungainly Adam, a singer with a golden and ringing bass-baritone. Stuart Jackson in the tenor role of Uriel impressed not only with the passion of his interpretation, but also with an extraordinary sensitivity to the text. Yet the show was stolen by Matthew Brook (Raphael), a legend of historical performance and an ever reliable singer with such a powerful comic talent that I still giggle at the memory of the phrase “In long dimension creeps with sinuous trace the worm”, the interpretation of which should go down in the annals of English pantomime.

Rachel Redmond (Eve) and Ashley Riches (Adam). Photo: Mark Allan/Barbican

Haydn used to say that in moments of doubt he heard his inner voice whispering that his works would one day prove a source of comfort to those weary of life’s labours. Judging by the reaction of the listeners in London, he was right. There was light again. Also thanks to Cummings, whose incurable optimism will certainly mark the Academy of Ancient Music’s future ventures.

Tranlsated by: Anna Kijak

The Last Day of a Condemned Man

Fidelio did not reach Paris until May 1829, when it was staged in the first Salle Favart, the home of Théâtre-Italien at the time, by the German troupe of Joseph August Röckel, who had sung Florestan during the premiere of the second version in Vienna, in 1806. In May 1860 the opera found its way into Théâtre Lyrique, in a three-act French version, with action transferred to 1495 Milan, Pauline Viardot portraying Isabella of Aragon, who had replaced the original character of Leonora, and a tenor appearing under the pseudonym Guardi and singing Gian Galeazzo Sforza, who had replaced Florestan. The contrived plot had nothing to do with reality: the marriage was very unsuccessful because of the homosexuality of Gian Galeazzo, who in any case died in 1494. By that time Isabella had given birth to three children, among whom most likely only the son Francesco was legitimate. Irrespective of the historical awareness of nineteenth-century Parisians, the premiere was a flop.  Fidelio aroused mixed feelings and ran at the Boulevard du Temple house for just eleven performances. It was passionately defended by Berlioz, who compared Beethoven’s score to an sturdy beech tree luxuriantly green among rocks and ruins, hardened by the obstacles it had to overcome on its way from a germinating seed to a proud tree.

After the premiere of the third version, Fidelio basically never left the international repertoire. However, it was rarely seen in the French capital, despite sporadic triumphs like, for example, in 1936, when Bruno Walter conducted it at the Palais Garnier. It may have aroused justified suspicions of ideological nature in the land of the Great Revolution. Fidelio can hardly be regarded as an apotheosis of freedom and personal dignity, unless the story is to be measured by a wholly anachronistic yardstick. Rather, it is a self-conscious voice in the dispute over the idea of prison, in which artists saw a breeding ground for attitudes and characters, and pioneers of social sciences – a tool to subordinate the individual to the requirements of an efficient system. With time, however, Beethoven’s only opera acquired a number of meanings and was elevated from a praise of marital loyalty to the rank of a symbol of miraculously recovered freedom. This is how it was received in 1955 at the reopening of Vienna’s Staatsoper, and this is the role it played in 1989 in Dresden, when street demonstrations coincided with the premiere of Christine Mielitz’s meaningful production. This is how it is interpreted by everyone – myself included – after a year and a half of a pandemic that has turned not only the opera world upside down.

Linard Vrielink (Jaquino). Photo: Stefan Brion

However, the French director Cyril Teste, entrusted with the latest production at Paris’ Opéra-Comique, decided not to stop there and to draw on other catchy tropes as well. At least this is what emerges from his pre-premiere interviews, during which he presented Leonora as an Enlightenment-era feminist and referred to the panoptic model of power which, according to Michel Foucault, went beyond the walls of an oppressive system and contributed to the birth of a globally supervised society. This is one way of interpreting the piece, but you have to be able to show it. Teste’s staging turned out to be derivative, also in relation to Mielitz’s concept, and questionable from the point of view of directorial craft as well. Teste replaces his inability to direct characters with projections, ubiquitous in today’s theatre, and Frank Castorf-style habit of filming elements of the action on stage. He moves the narrative to a contemporary maximum security prison, where Rocco and Leonore – instead of digging the prisoner’s grave when ordered to do so by Pizarro, who intends to deal personally with the inconvenient witness – prepare Florestan for execution by a lethal injection. I understand that no one had come up with such an idea before, but one does not have to be an expert on the American penitentiary system to realize that Pizarro could have got rid of his enemy in a much simpler way. Teste does not understand the inner codes of the piece: he transforms the symbolic scene of communion – in the form of an offering of bread and wine to the prisoner – into a chaotic fiddling with a water bottle and a sandwich stolen from the canteen. Florestan thanks for them, but does not manage to take a bite or a drop, because Leonore, in an apparent act of violence, knocks both out of his mouth. The plot moves forward at a snail’s pace, the prisoners, having been granted a moment of freedom, wander aimlessly around the stage, then start a basketball game – which goes surprisingly smoothly for them despite years of solitary confinement – Florestan does not suffer much, Leonore is not particularly happy to have her husband back, and the opera comes to life in the last minutes of the finale, before the audience has time to realise why there is such joy.

The lack of engagement on stage went hand in hand with a bizarre approach by the conductor Raphaël Pichon, a highly valued interpreter of Baroque music, who led his Pygmalion ensemble as if he had the score of one of Lully’s late operas on his stand. The orchestra played with a dry sound, aggressively emphasising bar measures, shaping phrases against the composer’s intentions, and in the resulting din losing elements of key importance to the narrative, elements like as the famous timpani tritones in the introduction to Act II. Pichon did not help the singers, whose voices were often lost in the difficult acoustics of the Opéra-Comique, covered by the generally unbeautiful and surprisingly loud sound of the early instrument ensemble.

Michael Spyres (Florestan). Photo: Stefan Brion

Siobhan Stagg, whose soft, radiant soprano was described by Christa Ludwig as the most beautiful she had ever heard, had fallen ill before the premiere and in the first two performances limited herself to acting duties only. During the opening night she was replaced with Katherine Broderick singing from the orchestra pit – apparently rather successfully. I saw the second performance, when Leonore was sung by Jacquelyn Wagner, a singer with a dark and, at the same time, beautifully focused and crystal clear voice with a potential to tackle much heavier roles.  She started a little tentatively – which is entirely understandable given the unfavourable circumstances – but by the middle of Act I she had already established herself as a leading cast member and was rightly rewarded with thunderous applause by the audience towards the end. Of the two “comic” lovers, I was more impressed by Jaquino portrayed by the young Dutchman Linard Vrielink, whose voice has a touch of rapid vibrato, well suited to the part. Mari Eriksmoen, who was otherwise excellent, sounded too dramatic at times as Marzelline. Among the lower male voices I was particularly moved by Don Fernando of Christian Immler, an intelligent singer with a velvety, technically-assured bass-baritone. Albert Dohmen (Rocco), a distinguished Straussian and Wagnerian singer, was no more than satisfactory this time. Both gentlemen were clearly superior to Gabor Bretz (Pizarro), a singer whose voice was not distinctive enough and too bright for the part and whose character was turned by the director into a pathetic, detestable clown.

I realise that most music lovers came to the Opéra-Comique that evening to hear Florestan being sung by the phenomenal Michael Spyres, fresh from the success of his Baritenor recording for Erato. I had not been in such a quandary as a critic for a long time. In my mind I can hear what interpretative heights this singer could reach under the baton of a true expert on Beethoven’s music. Spyres began the Act II monologue in his usual fashion: from an ethereal pianissimo, gradually rising to a powerful, angry fortissimo followed by an endless deadly silence. The problems started in the final poco allegro section with an obligato oboe, when the accompaniment, banged away horribly by the orchestra, forced Spyres to articulate the musical text precisely and do nothing more than that. Gone was the feverish torrent of expression, gone was the emotion, the desperate struggle between euphoria and madness in one of the most intense – not only in Beethoven’s oeuvre – episodes of musical anguish. Similarly, there was no lyricism in the trio “Euch werde Lohn in besseren Welten” and no ecstatic joy in the duet “O namenlose Freude” – for which the fault lay not only with the helpless director, but also with the conductor, who decided to remove from this scene key passages of spoken dialogue, including Leonore’s famous “Nichts, mein Florestan!”, which in a well-directed and performed Fidelio can make a stone cry.

Linard Vrielink, Mari Eriksmoen (Marzelline) and Siobhan Stagg (Leonore). Photo: Stefan Brion

What else can an incorrigible admirer of Beethoven’s only opera do but return to À travers chants by the equally beloved Berlioz: “I do realize that most distinguished critics will not agree with me. Fortunately, I am not one of them”.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

An Intimate Tragedy

“Mentsch tracht, got lacht” – man thinks, God laughs – is an old Yiddish proverb cited not only by rabbis, Tevye the Dairyman and  Woody Allen. I had a bit of a laugh as well, when in 2019, after the premiere of Das Rheingold, we made bold musical and social plans for the following seasons at Longborough. However, I did not expect that a higher power would play such a cruel joke on us. One year later the world stopped dead in its tracks. In 2021 the premiere of Die Walküre hung in the balance until the very last moment. Much to the delight of the organisers and fans of Anthony Negus’ conducting the delayed venture did take place in the end, though in a form that was completely different from the one originally envisaged: with fewer than thirty instrumentalists, the quintet reduced to a quarter of its size and wearing masks on stage, while the remaining musicians were deep in the orchestra pit, with no Wagner tubas, with one harp instead of the usual six and only a four-strong woodwind group. The director Amy Lane had to reduce her concept to devising acting tasks for the soloists, who were forced to observe social distancing rules, weave their way between the quintet’s stands and move on several platforms put in place in lieu of sets.

All this in front of a tiny audience, which for obvious reasons did not include almost any guest from outside the UK, like myself. Fortunately, the fourth among the seven June performances of Die Walküre was recorded in its entirety and, for the first time in the LFO’s history, uploaded to YouTube. Anyone interested in the production can see it: the recording, published on 26 August, will remain in open access for six months (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNmPxC0NUm8)

It took me a long time to decide to travel virtually to Longborough. This was not only because of the grief over the temporary loss of my Wagnerian paradise. Longborough is not a place for lovers of powerful orchestral sounds or of singing the quality of which is measured in decibels. Music lovers for whom Wagner’s genius lies solely in the music and not in the dramatic potential of the stories he tells will find no happiness here. The surprising strength of the Longborough performances also lies in the intimacy of the theatrical experience, in the close contact between the audience and the stage. I was seriously worried that in the case of Die Walküre – perhaps Wagner’s most “human” opera – I might be missing this particular element.

Peter Wedd (Siegmund). Photo: Jorge Lizalde

Die Walküre is intensely tragic. It is in this part of the Ring that Wotan loses his sense of divine agency, hurts his beloved daughter, sacrifices the life of his own son – and begins to realise that the mutilation of the sacred ash tree has triggered an avalanche that no one, not even he, can stop. It is in Die Walküre that we see a harrowing image of a loveless marriage: the relationship between Sieglinde and Hunding, two unloving and unloved individuals. It is in the interval between Acts One and Two that the briefest and the most poignant romance in history unfolds in the spectators’ tender imagination, a romance for which the long-lost siblings will pay the highest price. In the second act Siegmund is killed by Hunding, while Sieglinde disappears half way through Act Three, carrying in her womb the fruit of the only moment of closeness in the siblings’ lives. We learn about her death in childbirth only in Siegfried.

What is needed in order to present a convincing interpretation of Die Walküre is an artist who trusts the story and has boundless compassion for all its protagonists. I was in no doubt that Wagner’s masterpiece would find an ideal interpreter in Anthony Negus. Nevertheless, I was afraid that the conductor would not be able to achieve his intended effect with such drastically reduced forces. My fears proved unfounded. Negus took on a version of the score orchestrated by Francis Griffin, for years a specialist in such “reductions”, for which there has always been a huge demand in the United Kingdom, a land of countryside opera houses and ambitious chamber projects. Half a year before the outbreak of the pandemic I had heard a version of Act One of Die Walküre arranged for a similar line-up and played by the Scottish ensemble the Mahler Players. In comparison with Matthew King and Peter Longworth’s approach Griffin’s version is more lucid, more focused on the details of the complex texture, more effective in reconstructing the diluted chords by means that are often surprising. Negus treats the piece extremely introspectively, drawing on, among others, the tradition of performances conducted by Reginald Goodall, who always made sure that motifs and the harmonic links between them would be highlighted, resisting the temptation to shape the narrative by stressing spectacular melodic sequences. This approach is evident already in the famous storm scene from the prologue: the musical tempest sweeps through Negus’ interpretation in a settled tempo, without violent dynamic contrasts, and with dread being enhanced by an unyielding tremolo in the violins and violas, and a wandering melodic line in the cellos and the double basses. The entire performance is marked by an awareness of the truth – neglected by most conductors – of the Ring scores, in which the orchestra not so much accompanies the singers, but merges with them into a uniform tool of expression. This can be heard in Siegliende’s serious tale, sublime like some story by Ibsen (“Der Männer Sippe sass hier im Saal”), in Siegmund’s heartbreakingly lyrical monologue, in the middle section of Wotan’s farewell “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar”, where for the first time in my living memory none of the musicians went beyond mezzo forte, with the dynamics going down to an ethereal pianissimo in some fragments.

Paul Carey-Jones (Wotan) and Madeleine Shaw (Fricka). Photo: Jorge Lizalde

To match such a well-thought-out concept, Negus selected singers on whom he could rely completely. I must admit that of the entire cast I was impressed the most probably by the Sieglinde of the Canadian Sarah Marie Kramer, a singer endowed with a youthful, almost girlish dramatic soprano with a golden tone and impeccable intonation. Much greater expressive potential and truly phenomenal acting were shown by Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde), whose warm and rich voice, however, already betrays signs of fatigue, manifested in an excessively wide vibrato, among others. I had praised Madeleine Shaw’s Fricka in the LFO’s Das Rheingold – this time her rounded soprano sounded even more resonant and scathing, not a bad thing in the scene of marital quarrel with Wotan. The tragic figure of the father of the gods was portrayed by Paul Carey-Jones, a baritone rather than bass-baritone, an extremely musical singer with a small, but exceptionally soft and nobly coloured voice.  It is a pity that he ran out of steam in the finale of Act Three, where several excellent interpretation ideas could have done with better breath support. The incomparable Brindley Sherratt was in a class of his own, with his pitch-black, ominous-sounding bass perfect for the role of Hunding. Over the last few seasons Siegmund has become a calling card of Peter Wedd, whose brass sounding and increasingly dark tenor dazzles with its agility, lyricism and incredible ease of phrasing. If Wedd did not sound entirely convincing at times, it was only in those fragments in which Negus forced him to abandon routine and approach the character of the tragic Wölsung differently.

I keep coming back to this recording and I cannot stop marvelling that such a daring venture could be undertaken in such unfavourable conditions and with such success at that. And yet I feel sorry. For the singers, who were bursting with energy after the pandemic year and you could hear that they were simply suffocating in the even more confined space of the LFO stage. For the director, who was unable to control their chaotic and sometimes exaggerated acting. For the musicians, who played for four hours with maximum concentration and a sense of individual responsibility for every missed note. Above all, for the conductor, who probably dreamt about a different Walküre.

Lee Bisset (Brünnhilde) and Sarah Marie Kramer (Sieglinde). Photo: Jorge Lizalde

Let’s not think too much or some deity will laugh at us again. But we can dream, can’t we. And in spite of everything we can, even if only surreptitiously, glance at Negus’ and his singers’ plans. Let’s hope the plans will materialise. And let’s hope I will not have to judge the effects of the artists’ work remotely again.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Bayreuth 20.21

Approximately twenty minutes before the appointed hour the audience begins to gather near the Festspielhaus balcony, waiting for the signal beginning the ritual.  The Bayreuth fanfares were devised by Wagner himself, who arranged motifs from his various works for an eight-strong brass ensemble. The first, single fanfare calls audience members a quarter before the beginning of a performance. A  double fanfare is sounded five minutes later. After the third, triple fanfare, people really have to hurry up. Right on time there begins a short sequence of sounds which speak to my imagination much more powerfully than the famous balcony performances of the Festspielorchester musicians. First we hear a short bell, like in an ordinary theatre, though this time it is not for the audience, but for the ushers, who in a few seconds slam the wooden doors shut, draw the curtains and cut the Wagnerian temple off from the outside world. There is no longer a way in nor a way out. Soon the lights will be dimmed and we will be left alone with the creative team’s concept and our own expectations concerning Wagner’s masterpieces.

It was only during the pandemic that I became aware of the cramped conditions in the Festspielhaus. Even though the auditorium has been reduced to half of its capacity, it still seems full. Yet this year it is at least possible to breathe there – despite the mandatory use of FFP2 masks throughout the performance – and music is not disrupted by persistent coughing or exceedingly irritating hum and clatter of theatrical fans, banned due to hygienic reasons in order to prevent the spread of pathogenic aerosols.  After an interval of one year – unprecedented in the post-war history of the festival – I went to Bayreuth to see Barrie Kosky’s staging of Die Meistersinger, which will probably not return to this stage; Tobias Kratzer’s production of Tannhäuser; and a semi-staged performance of Die Walküre, which was accompanied by a performance piece by the Viennese actionist Hermann Nitsch: the only surviving part of the Ring supposed to be directed by Valentin Schwarz, which was to have been premiered last season, but had to be moved to 2022.

I had seen both Die Meistersinger and Tannhäuser on video and had accompanied both productions from the very beginning, co-hosting the broadcasts of the premieres on Polish Radio 2. When it comes to the former, I wanted to confront my impressions not only with the recording, but also with Michael Sturm’s inept directorial plagiarism presented in Poznań in 2018, when Die Meistersinger returned to Poland after an absence of over one hundred years. When it came to Tannhäuser, I hoped I would appreciate the production even more when seeing it live, like in the case of Yuval Sharon’s Lohengrin, so underrated by the critics and the audience. I chose Die Walküre primarily because of Günther Groissböck’s long-awaited debut as Wotan – a dream, which ultimately did not come true, of hearing, for the first time in many years, an insightful, lyrical approach to this ambiguous character, an approach Bayreuth had not experienced since Hans Hotter’s memorable portrayal conducted by Clemens Krauss.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Photo: Enrico Nawrath

I make no secret of the fact that I am an admirer of Barrie Kosky, an artist with an extraordinary imagination, an unfailing dramatic instinct and a sense of humour rare among Regieoper luminaries. This is not to say that I agree unreservedly with every one of his concepts, especially since Kosky is prone to “excess”, to building the action on many levels and to constructing his interpretation on the basis of associations that are not obvious and sometimes clearly misguided. Yet in the case of Die Meistersinger Kosky was spot on when it came to the essence of Wagner’s message – the opera is not a trivial story of a good-natured cobbler, a jealous town clerk and a pair of young lovers. It is a much more serious, though at times irresistibly funny, debate about the links between the avant-garde and traditionalism set not so much in actual Nuremberg, but in a symbolic, ideal city – unofficial capital of the Reich, a city of Sachs, Dürer and Pachelbel. A mysterious city into which Kaspar Hauser wandered one day in 1828. Much more importantly, it is an opera which ceased to tally with the composer’s intentions many years after it was written. It became incorporated into the infamous Nazi discourse and came to be linked to a totally different Nuremberg – a city associated with laws meant to protect German blood and German honour – so much so that when Wieland Wagner prepared the first post-war staging of Die Meistersinger in Bayreuth, he opted for total abstraction. His production was quite aptly called Die Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg.

In Kosky’s interpretation the “imagined” Nuremberg penetrates the reality of Wagner’s Wahnfried villa and then the reality of Schwurgerichtssaal 600, the venue of trials of Third Reich war criminals from 1945 onwards. Kosky chose this anachronism not in order to put on trial Wagner and his nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, so different from that of the national socialists. He put history on trial. At the centre of his concept stands Beckmesser, a Frankenstein-like figure sewn together from all of Wagner’s prejudices, as the director himself stressed. He is not only a Jew, but also a eulogist of the French grand opéra and the Italian bel canto, a fierce critic fighting all manifestations of innovation in music. A grotesque, not to say repulsive figure, whose actions, however, provoke a response incommensurate with his alleged crime.

And this is where the power of Kosky’s staging lies: Kosky does not turn Bekcmesser – who in Act I assumes the identity of Hermann Levi, the conductor of the premiere of Parsifal and musical master of ceremonies at Wagner’s funeral –  into an “Untermensch”, despised by the Nazi ideologists and generating instinctive compassion in twenty-first-century audiences. Barrie Kosky, the first ever Jew to direct at Bayreuth, makes the modern spectators aware of where the later evil came from: not from a sense of superiority, but from a fear of the “Überjude” who for decades shaped Germany’s culture and political life.

There are many more pertinent tropes in this intelligent, intricately constructed staging – all of them make up a coherent whole, something which cannot be said about Kratzer’s striking but superficial concept. His Tannhäuser breaks up into several parts which do not quite fit together. The eponymous hero tries to break free from Venus – a vulgar circus performer who shares her cave of pleasure in the form of a battered Citroën H not only with her lover, but also with a black drag-queen (Le Gateau Chocolat, this year replaced on stage by the dancer Kyle Patrick) and the dwarf Oscar (moving, phenomenal actor Manni Laudenbach), straight from Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum. The action builds up laboriously and unconvincingly, to gain momentum only in Act II, when the rebellious Tannhäuser enters the stage of the singing contest – literally, since the competition involving the medieval minnesingers is part of a performance taking place in the local Festspielhaus. Act III again takes place “outside”, on a grim refuse dump, the venue of the ultimate confrontations between the protagonists and the finale that will bring salvation to no one.

Tannhäuser. Photo: Enrico Nawrath

Kratzer’s vision requires clockwork precision and a lot of money: otherwise the production looks tacky (La forza del destino in Frankfurt) or even grotesque (Götterdämmerung in Karlsruhe). In Bayreuth the director did not have to worry about the budget, as a result of which his Tannhäuser – leaving aside the initial narrative shortcomings – is like a good psychological thriller. The problem is that although Kratzer went to a lot of trouble to explore the meaning of the work, he ultimately missed the point and came up with his usual obtrusively stereotype-shattering story about unlimited freedom leading to absolute loneliness. However, Kratzer knows his theatrical stuff like few others, thanks to which several episodes are painfully memorable: like the terribly sad intercourse between Elisabeth and Wolfram in which the frustrated woman has her unwanted admirer wear a wig and a coat of her beloved for whom she has been waiting in vain.

The last time I came across Hermann Nitsch’s provocations was in 2007, at the MaerzMusik festival in Berlin. I wrote at the time that his performance was on the fringes of the event, that it was quite nice to have a good laugh, watching Nitsch – a faded legend of Viennese Actionism – abuse the Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche organ in the company of two assistants and a crate of beer. This time there was no beer, but there were ten assistants, the master of the Orgy Mystery Theatre remained in the wings, but his action on the fringes of Die Walküre was undoubtedly part of the main strand of Bayreuther Festspiele. And it caused quite a stir among the audience, divided into supporters and opponents of Nitsch’s performance, which consisted in vertical and horizontal planes being slowly filled with paint in shades corresponding to a colour leitmotif system devised by Nitsch himself. It is a pity that it had nothing to do with the score and the libretto of Die Walküre, although the artist does deserve some credit for using only paints and not blood, excrements and animal guts, once characteristic of his ritual of the senses. But enough of these jokes – the biggest sin of Nitsch’s action was that it had absolutely nothing in common with what the singers were doing on stage. Clearly Nitsch could not decide whether to give them consistent acting tasks or simply position them on the proscenium like in an ordinary concert performance. As a result, everybody did what they wanted as if it were in some nineteenth-century Italian opera house in the provinces. Someone took a swing, someone threw themselves into someone else’s arms, no one fought with anyone, characters who were dead or unnecessary at a given moment in the narrative calmly left the stage, making way for other singers. All this was accompanied by a rhythmic splashing of paint and an unbearable stench of solvent.

Die Walküre. Photo: Enrico Nawrath

My conclusions from an analysis of visual and theatrical means consistently go hand in hand with an musical assessment of the consecutive productions. Die Meistersinger succeeded largely thanks to Philippe Jordan, who conducted the whole softly, subtly, at the same time displaying an unerring sense of the inner pulse and taking care to extract the full expressive potential of the piece from its intricate texture. Jordan is wonderfully sensitive to the singers – also in the ensembles and choruses – helping them in key moments not only to be heard, but also to catch their breath and build up strength to shape another phrase. This must have given additional splendour to the artistry of Michael Volle, who sang Hans Sachs, the longest role in Wagner’s entire oeuvre. Volle has a handsome, technically-assured baritone with various shades of emotions and, it has to be said, he knows how to pace himself to be able to sing the part, in which extensive monologues and fiery orations alternate with long recitatives sounding almost like ordinary human speech. Bekmesser was portrayed by Bo Skovhus – replacing an indisposed Johannes Martin Kränzle – an extremely musical singer with an exceptional dramatic nerve, which I had an opportunity to admire with those present at the second performance: during the first the Danish baritone “stood in” for his colleague in the wings.  Walther was entrusted to Klaus Florian Vogt, a favourite of the Bayreuth audience and a reliable artist, but to my ears far from any models of Wagnerian singing, not only as a Jugendlicher Heldentenor. Contrary to the opinion of those who know him only from recordings, his is a powerful voice, generally secure when it comes to intonation and practically indestructible.  The problem lies elsewhere, not so much in the timbre – supposedly boyish, yet in my opinion flat and dull – but in the extremely “neoclassical” approach to the score. Vogt sings “by the notes”, against the natural rhythm of the narrative, which makes his performance invariably stand apart from the other elements of the musical work. By comparison Daniel Behle shone in the role of David, with his well-projected and flexible tenor, which has a beautiful metallic glow.  Outstanding among the rest of the cast were primarily Georg Zeppenfeld as a solid Veit Pogner and Camilla Nylund, whose warm soprano with a rather narrow vibrato is perfect for the “girlish” part of Eva.

Axel Kober’s clear, romantic interpretation of Tannhäuser with his skilful highlighting of all Weberisms and Meyerbeerisms in the work was a nice change after Gergiev’s messiness and Thielmann’s vigorous, though at time bombastic approach. Kober is a born operatic conductor, which is work stressing in this case, as Kratzer’s dynamic, “cinematic” staging demands considerable sensitivity and an assured hand when assisting the singers. Those who stood out in the male cast were primarily Günther Groissböck as Landgraf, which has become his signature role, and – to a lesser extent – Markus Eiche, who was technically brilliant and spot on intonation-wise, but who lacked lyricism as Wolfram. Like in the case of Vogt, I have a problem with Stephen Gould, who sang the title role: an indestructible singer almost completely devoid of emotion. I have to admit, however, that his voice – not very beautiful either and slightly smoky in the upper register – falls undoubtedly into the Wagnerian voices category. This time it was the ladies who led the way. The audience applauded the vivacious Venus of Ekaterina Gubanova, a singer with a velvety mezzo-soprano supported by great sensitivity to the dramaturgy of the libretto. The small role of the Shepherd was sung by Katharina Konradi, a soprano with a crystal-clear voice, fresh from her success as Sophie in the Munich Rosenkavalier.  The biggest, though expected, star of the show was Lise Davidsen as Elisabeth. It was only this year that I heard her live for the first time and my earlier suspicions were confirmed: we had not seen such a Wagnerian phenomenon for decades. Davidsen has a powerful, perfectly controlled voice, even across the registers, dark, rich and incredibly handsome. Her ethereal piano is breathtaking. Her full, imperious forte never turns into a scream. The singer impresses with her splendid diction, excellent sense of text and – as if that were not enough – commanding stage presence.  The Norwegians are already sensing that they might be getting a new Flagstad. May this extraordinary talent survive in the cruel world of today’s opera and develop to the full.

Davidsen’s Sieglinde was certainly the only highlight in this year’s Die Walküre. It is difficult for me to judge this peculiar undertaking – just as it must have been difficult for the soloists to sing in chemical fumes, with a constant accompaniment of distracting sounds, under the unhelpful hand of Pietari Inkinen, who is unable to grasp this score at the macro-form level, although occasionally he does manage to extract from it some ear-pleasing fragments. Groissböck cancelled his Wotan performances five days before the premiere, not giving the organisers a choice, as it were. Tomasz Konieczny did save the show, but I’m not sure whether he saved his reputation as one of the world’s best interpreters of the role. Irrespective of doubts over his interpretation (his Wotan had always been an aggressive villain devoid of lyricism and majesty), this time he also had me concerned about his vocal condition: never mind the forceful, shouted forte – more worrying are softer fragments, marked with a tight larynx, on the verge of a whisper or even voicelessness. While there are redeeming features in Klaus Florian Vogt’s performance as Walther, the singer fails completely as Siegmund, especially with a Sieglinde of Davidsen’s class at his side. Iréne Theorin (Brunhilde) almost ran out of steam and had to rely solely on her technique. Christa Mayer, warmly received by the critics, was on the verge of hysteria as Fricka. The eight Valkyries, whom the conductor failed to rein in, engaged in a battle of voices. It was not hard to see who won, as each of the ladies’ voice was completely different in terms of timbre and production.  The only survivor – apart from Lise Davidsen – was Dmitry Belosselsky, offering an assured and thoughtful portrayal of Hunding.

Sei Siegfried. Photo: Jay Scheib

There is still one year left until the complete staging of The Ring. The first decisions have already been taken: the roles of Wotan in Die Walküre and Wanderer in Siegfried will be entrusted to John Lundgren, who sang the Dutchman in Tscherniakov’s staging inaugurating the festival. We’ll see what will happen. I have learned one, very important lesson from the fight against the pandemic, which has been going on for well over a year: the world will have been turned upside down at least five times by the time of the premiere. After a brilliant Meistersinger and an excellent Tannhäuser I went to a disappointing performance of my beloved Walküre. As a consolation, I got to see other elements of the “substitute” Ring 20.21 – Gordon Kampe’s short opera Immer noch Loge, staged on the bank and in the water of the park pond (with a very good Stephanie Houtzeel as Erda and the Second Rhinemaiden); an opportunity to take part in a several-minute fight against Fafner as part of a virtual reality project, Sei Siegfried, by Jay Scheib; and a delicious installation The Thread of Life by Chiharu Shiota, a Japanese sculptor and performer who works with Sasha Waltz and Toshio Hosokawa, among others. I defeated the dragon. Let us hope we will all be able to defeat the demon of uncertainty, which prevents us from planning anything more than a month ahead.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Rusalka From Mondsee and Die Vögel From Nowhere

I have recently extracted from the depth of my archive an essay on the dilemmas of a critic who sometimes dreams of going to the opera just for pleasure, in nice company, of not analysing every element of the work done on stage and, finally, of simply listening to the music. I wanted it and I got it. Between two Very Serious Jobs I received a proposal from a music loving friend of mine to pop over to Munich for a few days and see two performances at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The trip turned out to be wonderfully successful: excellent company, beautiful weather, very decent performances – at times even dazzling in musical terms. I initially thought about summing up this trip with a short summer post, but the unrelenting critical mechanism made its presence felt already during the first evening. I decided to feed the demon of compulsion – perhaps it is already too late to change certain habits.

I planned to see Rusalka, which had been present in the company’s repertoire for nearly eleven years, and a new production of Braunfels’ Die Vögel, marking the centenary of the Munich premiere, even before the pandemic. And then I forgot all about it. Maybe it is a good thing that someone made the decision for me, because in this way I could compare two extremely different proposals of Regietheater, in which the supposedly autonomous author of the stage vision enters into a risky dialogue with the text. The problem, missed by a majority of the autonomous directors fiddling around with opera, is that there are at least two parallel texts in this form – the score and the libretto. A wise dispute with both hardly ever happens. The text “overwritten” by the director is rarely an added value. However, there are stagings in which audiences do nevertheless get seduced by a strange story The key to an ambiguous success of such productions is cold precision and iron consistency in rule breaking. Something will always fall through, because operatic texts are exceptionally resistant to deconstruction. This does not change the fact that if I’m moved by something in such a staging, I must admit it.

Rusalka in Munich. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

This was the case of Rusalka as presented by Martin Kušej – a production that will be easy to date even a hundred years from now. The Austrian director began to work on Dvořák’s masterpiece, when the world was engrossed in the case of Joseph Fritzl, which in March 2009 ended with Fritzl being convicted of murder, multiple rapes, paedophilia, incest, imprisonment and enslavement. The unimaginable nightmare of Elisabeth, Fritzl’s daughter and mother of his seven children, lasted over thirty years. For nearly a quarter of a century it unfolded underground, in the cellar of the house in Amstetten, in close proximity to Rosemarie Fritzl, Joseph’s wife and Elisabeth’s mother, who was allegedly unaware of what was going on. It is not for me to reveal the winding paths Kušej’s mind followed to make a connection between this story and a poetic tale of a clash of two world orders and love, of barren pain and vain sacrifices which Vodnik wanted to spare his beloved daughter Rusalka. Yet there are hardly any weak points in the narrative imposed on Dvořák by Kušej. Ježibaba sits half-dazed on the first floor, against a massive wallpaper with a picture of Lake Mondsee, where the “real” wife of Fritzl once ran an inn. Beneath the floor lurks the dark abyss of the cellar, where Vodnik imprisons his victims. It is not difficult to work out that the ghastly polonaise of the brides hugging skinned doe is a nightmare of Elisabeth – being raped, miscarrying and losing her newborn baby after a few days. It is hard to imagine a blunter and more coherent theatrical vision of the Stockholm syndrome – complete helplessness resulting in the victims’ animal-like attachment to their abusers.

Günther Groissböck (Vodnik) and Kristine Opolais (Rusalka). Photo: Wilfried Hösl

Kušej raped Rusalka, he imprisoned her in the cellar of his own imagination: so effectively, in fact, that at times the operatic text began to pity him. It is impossible to watch it calmly, impossible to consent to it and yet there is no denying that the director is a master when it comes to creating his characters and formulating the general framework of his concept. At least we have room for a dispute, room for sharp disagreement. Nothing of the sort remains after a performance of Die Vögel as presented by Frank Castorf, once a prophet of German political theatre, today a worn-out scandaliser, provocateur, who has gone so far in his contempt for texts that he no longer wants – or is unable – to put together a convincing whole from the shattered remains of the narrative.

The premiere seemed ill-fated from the start. The director, who had called for a “civic rebellion” against the pandemic-related restrictions, and shouted in interviews that he would not be taught by that Merkel woman how to wash his hands, had to share his work in a strict lockdown: with an audience of fifty people, who after the first performance neither burst into rapturous applause, nor dared to boo. Castorf did not expect this, used as he is to strong reactions. The staging, available as a stream for some time, has only now gone through a trial by fire in front of a still limited audience. I suspect it has disappointed everyone. For it has so much of everything that it really has nothing. In a sense it can be seen as a museum of the now outdated art of the erstwhile restorer of the Volksbühne. We have a revolving stage and structural elements seen in the infamous Bayreuth Ring. We have containers and other cramped interiors, filmed, as usual, by two cameras, which enable the audience to see what goes on inside. There is chaos so beloved by the director. What is missing, however, is substance, even pointless substance.

Die Vögel. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

And I wanted to argue with Castorf so much. I was wrong when I suspected that he would transform Braunfels’ very loose adaptation of Aristophanes’ comedy – with its bitter-sweet finale, so typical of other German works from that period – into a sharp social satire. Instead, Castorf prevented me from entering into any discussion, as he used in his staging of Die Vögel free, schizophrenic even, associations. If there are birds, then we must have Hitchcock or a poster for a concert by The Byrds. If there is Prometheus, he has to be dressed as Karl Marx. Something going not quite right in the birds’ realm? It is a certain sign that Ratefreund and Hoffegut should put on SS uniforms. I have to admit that I still have not figured out why Castorf decided to blight the stage with a huge copy of Rubens’ The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. Perhaps the only reason is that the original can be admired in Munich’s Pinakothek.

Caroline Wettergreen (Nachtigall). Photo: Wilfried Hösl

During my first evening in Munich I saw a beautiful theatrical catastrophe, during the second – a catastrophe that was hideous as much as it was dead boring. Fortunately, the Bavarian Opera is one of the few opera houses in Europe, where at least the musical side of productions gives no cause for concern. Both Robert Jindra in Rusalka and Ingo Metzmacher in Die Vögel  led the Staatsoper forces in calm, measured tempi, brilliantly highlighting the vivid sound of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. I still hear the painfully inevitable finale of Dvořák’s opera, rolling like black water. I did not expect that the duet between the Nachtigall (excellent Caroline Wettergreen) and Hoffegut er reliable Charles Workman) from the second act of Die Vögel under Metzmacher’s relaxed, unhurried baton would reveal so many similarities with not just Ariadne auf Naxos and Tristan, fairly obvious in this context, but also with the shimmering texture of Berlioz’s scores. I heard several outstanding singers, primarily Wolfgang Koch as Prometheus in Braunfels’ opera, a singer consolidating his position as one of the leading dramatic baritones today; Kristine Opolais (Rusalka), who is paying a high price for overusing her voice in the past, but manages it so wisely that she is able to hide signs of wear and tear; and Günther Groissböck, who once again shook me in his Vodnik’s monologue from Act II. I experienced a moment of true rapture thanks to a long-awaited, nearly perfect interpreter of the Prince in the form of Dmytro Popov, a singer with a ravishing, thick and dark tenor, phenomenal breath support and sensitivity which is unusual in such a young singer.

So much musical happiness over two short days of summer holidays – if it had happened two years ago, I would be already making plans for the next season. Now each decision will have to be thought over three times, and information will have to be looked for not on agents’ websites or Operabase, but in tweets and Facebook posts. One has to get used to it. What is meant to be is already here, only we refuse to acknowledge it.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Verklärt Tristan

“Not until the turn of the century did the outlines of the new world discovered in Tristan begin to take shape. Music reacted to it as a human body to an injected serum, which it at first strives to exclude as a poison, and only afterwards learns to accept as necessary and even wholesome,” wrote Paul Hindemith in 1937 in the first volume of his textbook The Craft of Musical Composition (trans. Arthur Mendel). A sea of ink has already been used to describe the novelty of Wagner’s masterpiece – suffice it to say that the prelude to Act I stunned no less a figure than Hector Berlioz. Yet whenever the word intimacy is mentioned with reference to the work, some cannot help rolling their eyes. Everything seems to suggest they are right: large forces needed to perform the piece, the longest love duet in the history of the genre or the dying protagonist’s monologue that last half of Act III.  However, the essence is not in the size but in the violent accumulation of emotions – in what is the most profound and the most intense and thus the most strongly linked to the experience of true closeness. Over the last few seasons there have been several significant attempts to turn Tristan into a chamber piece, at least in its interpretative dimension: by lightening up the orchestral textures and encouraging the singers to make their characters psychologically credible. Musicians’ efforts were not always matched by those of the directors wavering between asceticism in their staging and the temptation to heap upon it a whole range of unjustified symbols and references.

Günther Groissböck’s directorial debut announced before the pandemic piqued my curiosity even more so given the fact that by definition, as it were, it excluded an “excessive” approach to Tristan und Isolde. The venture – laudably and honestly termed Tristan Experiment – was planned in the tiny interior of Vienna’s Kammeroper operating under the auspices of the Theater an der Wien. The same theatre where Krystian Lada staged Vivaldi’s Bajazet last year, shortly before another closure of most European opera houses. Its stage is the size of a narrow platform in a cinema, the auditorium has fewer than three hundred seats and the orchestra pit can accommodate more or less one-fourth of the forces intended by Wagner.

I arrived in Vienna after the premiere, having already heard that Matthias Wegele had devised a chamber version of Tristan for just 21 musicians and that in Groissböck’s concept the eponymous protagonists were taking part in a mysterious experiment – medical? psychiatric? – which took a turn quite unexpected by its supervisors and participants. I became truly intrigued by the former: I had already encountered examples of remarkably successful reductions of Wagnerian scores and begun to pursue them as valuable in themselves. I decided to see the director’s vision with an open mind. It is one thing to have the French straitjacketing characters from Russian operas and another to have an Austrian tinkering with an opera born of Schopenhauerian pessimism and staging it in a city where Doctor Leopold von Auenbrugger treated mental disorders with orally administered camphor, Freud gorged himself on cocaine for the purpose of research and the Am Steinhof hospital became an official centre of extermination of people with disabilities during the Second World War. I expected an unconventional approach from Groissböck and I was not disappointed.

Kristiane Kaiser (Isolde) and Norbert Ernst (Tristan). Photo: Herwig Prammer

It is hard to say whether Tristan and Isolde in this version are two patients who have no recollection of their past relationship, or a couple of complete strangers in whom the staff of an experimental hospital are trying to induce passion and test its limits. It is not that important anyway: what does matter is the fact that the three researchers drive the protagonists into a state of hallucination mixed with ecstasy, revive genuine or fake memories of their love, make them identify with Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck and then lose control over them. The biggest asset of the staging is a precise distinction between the two worlds: the hospital flooded by merciless light, and the swaying “night of love”, at times blurry like a phantom, from which emerge again and again the interiors and building of the Wesendoncks’ villa in Zurich. Inconspicuous and vulnerable in their hospital gowns, Tristan and Isolde regain their dignity and sense of purpose as Mathilde and Richard. The trio of experimenters manipulating them reveal the less obvious traits of the remaining protagonists: “Doctor” Marke’s frustration that the patient fails to fulfil his research expectations; the false friendship of the character in the double role of Kurwenal and Melot; Brangäne’s naive stupidity.

The performance is a treat for the eyes thanks to the set built practically without props, but primarily with light and image (sets and costumes – Stefanie Seitz, video – Philipp Batereau, lighting design – Franz Tscheck). The theatrical gesture still needs some polishing, especially in the case of Brangäne and Kurwenal/Melot, portrayed by singers less used to the stage and, consequently, less comfortable in the microscopic Kammeroper. But before I discuss the vocal part of the venture, I would like to dwell for a moment on Wegele’s phenomenal orchestration and the cuts he made together with Groissböck.

Kristján Jóhannesson (Kurwenal) and Norbert Ernst. Photo: Herwig Prammer

Wegele did not limit himself to mechanically reducing the orchestral forces. He cut the string quintet in unevenly, leaving three instruments in the first violins, violas and cellos, two in the second violins and one double bass. He left out the percussion, harp and tuba, entrusted all wind parts to single instruments, and complemented the bass in the orchestra with the accordion, practically unrecognisable to the untrained ear. Thus he built many textures from scratch, as it were, achieving very convincing sound effects (the harp replaced by the flute and string pizzicato). Consequently, he was able to bring out from the score what can be heard in it anyway, but what often is missed by the listener: a spectral harbinger of Mahler’s symphonies, Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Zemlinsky’s rough harmonies. Some cuts in the score were questionable, however: while a smooth transition from the love potion scene to the great duet made it possible to quite convincingly link the two acts in the first part of the performance, the fact that the group scene towards the end of Act III was retained was surprising – the logic of such dramaturgy would suggest just as smooth transition from Tristan’s death to Isolde’s final monologue.

Kristiane Kaiser, Günther Groissböck (King Marke), Juliette Mars (Brangäne), Kristján Jóhannesson and Norbert Ernst. Photo: Herwig Prammer

Yet these are only quibbles, which I had to mention given the surprisingly high musical quality of the whole. Despite the reduced line-up the sound of the Wiener KammerOrchester conducted by Hartmut Keil was rounded and vivid, not for a moment suggesting that we were dealing with an “economical” version of Tristan. The title roles were entrusted to two singers with a lot of experience but not usually associated with the great Wagnerian repertoire: Kristiane Kaiser, a long-time soloist with the Volksoper Wien, an artist with a soft soprano with a lovely colour, though at times insufficiently ringing in the middle register, which suggests that she might not be able to cope with the part on a bigger stage; and Norbert Ernst, an excellent singer from Vienna. I hope with all my heart that directors of opera houses will stop pigeonholing him as a “character tenor” and make more courageous casting decisions with him in mind. He may not be a Heldentenor with the makings of a Tannhäuser, but he is certainly an extremely musical singer, with a great sense of text and rhythm of the phrase, and a ringing, thick, technically-assured voice. I hope that his Tokyo debut as Walther in Die Meistersinger will take place and will be a complete success. Groissböck was in a class of his own – also acting-wise – as the wounded King Marke: at times he just had to be careful not to blast out the tiny stage at Fleischmarkt with his powerful bass. Juliette Mars (Brangäne) was excellent as a character but slightly disappointing as a singer: her sharp, not very even mezzo-soprano sounded brighter at times than Isolde’s singing. Let us hope that Kristján Jóhannesson (Kurwenal/Melot) will soon dazzle us not only with the volume of his beautiful baritone, but also with his ability to vividly portray his characters.

I left Kammeroper, feeling that no harm had been done to Wagner. May there will be more such experiments. They may turn beneficial to the health of opera – still deep in the pandemic-induced crisis and crying over the times that will never be back.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Lullaby for Mother

For a bunch of scamps kicking each other in the ankles and pulling girls by their pigtails in our primary school, the war was an event as distant as the mission of the Polish Military Contingent in Afghanistan or Adam Małysz’s successes at the Salt Lake City Olympics will one day be for Poles born during the pandemic. The post-war rubble still lying around was brilliant for playing Indians, the sight of war invalids and thirty-year-olds with bodies twisted by rickets was not much of a surprise to anyone and our grandparents preferred to tell us about the good old days before the war. Our teachers and all kind of educators were left to make sure we would not forget what we could not remember anyway. We were fed Cold War propaganda of the “never again” variety each and every step of the way. Every month a grim-looking soldier visited our classroom, showing us horrible slides and instructing us what to do in case of an air raid, explosion of an atom bomb or biological attack.  A textbook nuclear shelter was to be found in the school cellar. During Polish lessons we were tormented with stories of child protagonists all being killed by the Gestapo or dying of exhaustion or various diseases in camps. But there was no mention of the Shoah: I still remember the shame, when the headmaster summoned my parents for a serious talk, because as a first-former I had drawn a night sky with six-pointed stars.

I understood everything later. Yet I remained with the belief that during the war, epidemic and famine the world froze as if in a blurred black and white photograph. I was an adult when I ended up in several zones of contemporary conflicts. I realised that even there people were still able to laugh, love, mate and make feasts out of nothing. And that in the past, too, life went back to relative normal in moments of respite from the greatest horrors. This discovery, fairly recent, has helped me survive the current pandemic crisis fairly well. We simply need to find a balance between public safety and relative comfort of our daily functioning. But I could not fathom out one thing: how to raise a newborn child in such a situation? How to muster so much calm, cheerfulness and love to help it begin life without being marked by trauma and yet wiser thanks to the experience of the crisis, brave, resourceful and at the same time sensitive and empathic?

Little Ezra was born before the pandemic. His mother, the Dutch soprano Channa Malkin, had already made her operatic debut as Barbarina in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (when she was not yet seventeen) and had appeared in an impressive number of concerts, singing a wide-ranging repertoire, from Baroque music to traditional Sephardic songs. Her name also appeared in the programme of the 100th anniversary Handel Festival in Göttingen, which was to have been one of the highlights of my previous season as a reviewer. The singer contacted me in February 2020 through a mutual acquaintance from Amsterdam: she asked me to help her find the score of a song cycle with music by Mieczysław Weinberg and words by the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.

Channa Malkin. Photo: Brendon Heinst

I became intrigued. I did not know the songs. Fairly soon I managed to find out that their opus number was 110 and that they had been written in the year of the coup, when power in Chile, following Allende’s suicide, was seized by a military junta headed by General Pinochet. The songs are missing from the list of Weinberg’s compositions on the website of the Polish Music Information Centre. There is an inexplicable gap between two operas from 1972 and 1975, marked op. 109 and 111 respectively. As I continued to search, I came across contact data of a translator representing an independent music publisher in Hamburg, which had published facsimiles of several dozen of Weinberg’s manuscripts, including the songs to Mistral’s poems. I gave Channa Malkin the addresses and phone numbers, offering to help her further, if the contact data proved useless.

Three weeks later Europe became the epicentre of the pandemic. Public life and the economy froze. One by one cultural institutions cancelled events planned not only for the second half of the season, but also for the following years. I did not go to Göttingen. I did not meet Channa Malkin and did not hear her sing live. Sometimes I would think back to our online conversation, though I did not expect that Malkin’s fascination with Weinberg’s forgotten song cycle would stand the test of time. I was wrong. The next message from the singer came over one year later, in early April. It turned out I had sent her to the right address. Malkin got her hands on the score of the piece she had come across accidently, browsing through the internet during one of her sleepless nights with Ezra, then a year and a half old. What’s more, she spent the months of pandemic isolation preparing a recording featuring compositions by other authors as well. She made the recording with two friends: Artem Belogurov, a pianist and virtuoso of period keyboard instruments, and the cellist Maya Fridman. Malkin promised to send me the recording as soon as it was released.

The CD arrived in late May. Beautifully published, recorded at the Philharmonie Haarlem, in an ultramodern format, Digital eXtreme Definition, for a small label, TRPTK from Utrecht. First, I began to listen: to subtle, emotionally nuanced interpretations highlighting not only the content, but also purely musical assets of the compositions. I became enraptured with Malkin’s light, translucent, technically immaculate soprano, and the attentive, supportive accompaniment of her instrumentalists. Only then did I pay attention to the overall concept of the album. It was like an illumination.

Channa Malkin has called her recording This is not a lullaby. She has dedicated it to her son, but decided to go beyond the common pattern of lulling a child to sleep. Using the pieces included in the recording, she has created a multi-layered, unlikely tale of the experience of childhood and parenthood told by poets not all of whom had children, by composers who put memory, trauma, illness, remorse, motherhood and fatherhood – presented in a broader perspective of human existence on earth – into sound.

Mieczysław Weinberg. Photo: Tommy Persson

Weinberg’s cycle is based on pieces by the Chilean poet from her 1924 collection Tenderness. Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957) was born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, in the Andean town of Vicuña, in a mixed Indian-Spanish-Basque family. Her father was a teacher as well as an itinerant pallador, a vagrant poet cobbling together verses to mark traditional folk festivities. He left his women for good before Lucila turned three. From that moment the girl was brought up with her stepsister, older by almost a generation, slogging mother, and grandmother seeking solace in religion and feeding her magical local tales and verses from the Psalms of David. At the age of fifteen Lucila decided to become a teacher – following in the footsteps of her absent father and perhaps excessively present sister Emilia. Despite lacking the right qualifications, she began to work as an assistant teacher in Compañia Baja, on the outskirts of La Serena. Soon, in 1904, she made her debut as a poet in the local paper El Coquimbo. Two years later she published in it an article devoted to the painful limitations in the education of Chilean women. She was not yet twenty, when her life broke in two and took a different course or rather courses. First came a tragedy which destroyed her hopes for a happy relationship and motherhood – this was the course of the poet’s first love for the railway woker Romelio Ureta, who committed suicide two years after their engagement, and then of another, just as fatal attraction to a writer friend of hers.  The other course led Gabriela Mistral – who coined her pseudonym using the names of her two favourite poets, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral – to absolute heights in education, backstage of great politics and in 1945 to the Nobel Prize award ceremony: she won the prize for “her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world”. Mistral was the fifth woman to win the Swedish Academy’s literature prize and is still the only female laureate from Latin America.

I keep hearing in my mind the last lines from her poem “We were all to be queens”, which in Doris Dana’s English translation reads as follows: “And our four kingdoms, we said, so vast and great would be, that as certain as the Koran they would all reach the sea.” Gabriela Mistral certainly reached the sea of a barren mother fighting for the welfare of offspring that were not her own: a magical mother finding fulfilment in writing, concerned about the misery of children born of incestuous relationships, abandoned by their fathers, sent by their mothers to brothels, unwanted, living under the shadow of violence, addiction and omnipresent corruption.

Gabriela Mistral. Photo: La Tercera

Weinberg dedicated these sorrowful songs to his daughter Anna. Remembering the experiences of his parents, who after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 – in which, according to the official tsarist figures, 49 Jews were killed, over 500 were wounded, 700 houses and 600 shops were plundered – decided to move to Warsaw. Remembering his own experiences from 1939, when as the only member of his family he escaped to the East and survived – his father Samuel, mother Sonia and sister Estera stayed in Poland. Having been interned in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, they ended up in the Trawniki concentration camp near Lublin.  They were killed in the infamous Operation Harvest carried out on 3 November 1943 on Himmler’s orders. Channa Malkin was born in somewhat better times, in the family of a Jewish violinist born in the Soviet Tbilisi, who decided to emigrate to Israel when he was studying in Moscow. In Tel Aviv he met his future wife; their joined decision to spent their student gap year in Holland had an impact on their entire life together. They settled in Amsterdam. Josef Malkin worked for over twenty-five years in the legendary Concertgebouw orchestra. He also tried his hand – quite successfully – at composing. Channa Malkin selected five of her father’s songs to Russian lyrics, beginning with a teasing letter of a five-year-old to his mother by Ilya Selvinsky, a Jewish modernist from Simferopol, Crimean, and ending with heartbreaking poems by Boris Rhyzy, a tragic representative of the “lost generation”, people who grew up during the breakup of the Soviet Union, tried to start families, had children and then hanged themselves, drunk, in their own flats.

The album closes with six songs by John Tavener to Anna Akhmatova’s poetry. In an extensive, beautifully written introduction Channa Malkin deftly anticipates questions about what these songs have to do with motherhood. Well, not much, admits the singer. But they do have a lot to do with mothers – looking for an inspiration other than the role imposed on them by love and biology, understanding all too well that their children will one day call them to account not only for their parental care and affection, but also for their lesson in humanity.

There are no benefits in forgetting. There are no benefits in denial, which irrevocably separates consciousness from feelings, from memories, even traumatic ones, from living impulses and desires for the future. The ability to confront pain, to work through pain is an art which we should practice ourselves and instil in our newborn children, especially at a time of crisis. Little Ezra has recently celebrated his second birthday. Little Ezra probably already understands the last verse of Akhmatova’s Lullaby. “Trouble’s coming, trouble’s staying, trouble’s never wane.” But perhaps Ezra will stand up to trouble when he’s grown up. His mother hasn’t told him to close his eyes. She has given him courage to open them to all miseries of the world.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Link to the source:

Furor Musicus

The day before yesterday, on the 24th of June: Projekt Krynicki. One poet, four of his poems, three composers and three world premieres of their works commissioned by the Malta Festival Poznań. While the music was still hatching, I wrote an essay for the programme book: about inspiration, writer’s block and other assorted joys and challenges of creativity.


It is not easy to be a poet. Let alone a composer. Especially today, when it is increasingly difficult (also for health-related and geopolitical reasons) to lean on Juda’s Cliff and look with concentration on battling waves. For the waves, as if out of spite, like to crash against the impotence plaguing artists who still shy away from being called artisans and are desperately seeking inspiration. It seems easier to find it in poetry, but one needs to be careful not to fall into one of the types of madness described by Plato and not to ride roughshod over the rules which still seem essential in the clever art of composing. Plato himself was quite a talented poet, and that is why his contemporaries were amazed by the vehemence with which he belittled poetry and, in a broader perspective, all manifestations of “mechanical” art, which included music, according to the ancient Greeks. In his famous dialogue Socrates tells the beautiful boy Phaedrus that “he who, having no touch of the Muses’ madness in his soul, comes to the door of poetry and thinks that he will get into the temple by the help of art” creates works born of reason, which are no match for the oeuvres of madmen seized by the furor divinus, oblivious to or even unaware of the existence of any rules governing poetry and the art of arranging sounds into cogent systems. Not to mention rules which must be observed by individuals shaping the civic community, Plato’s ideal state. It is better to stay away from those “inspired” men, at least in public life. This was incomprehensible to the Greeks, and, over two thousand years later, was the source of bitter lamentations of the Romantics, who cried over the fate of nymphs driven out of trees and springs by cold science and heartless philosophy.

It would seem that the era of bards is long behind us, that it is enough to commission a poet to write a specific number of pages of epigrams arranged in quatrains, and pay a flat rate for them a month after delivery of the work, and to sign a contract with a composer for a specific piece to be performed by a line-up available in the circumstances defined in the contract and when it comes to copyright on further performances – to come to some agreement later. Yet I know, also from my own experience, that some people get paralysed by the Rule of the Order of St. Deadline, while others – by Plato’s promise that an artist’s soul, provided it follows divine inspiration, has a chance to see something of the world of truth, and if it is consistent enough, it will not suffer as a result, even when it fails to meet all the deadlines. Pietro Aretino, the “the Scourge of Princes”, a lascivious bard praising the erotic life of courtesans, was no believer in the torments of creative work. He claimed that art required only an “inspiration, an inkwell, a quill and a clean sheet of paper”. Flaubert saw this differently, sitting for days on end with his head in his hands and trying to squeeze a word or two from his sluggish mind.

Ryszard Krynicki. Photo: Maciej Zakrzewski / foto-teatr.pl

Sometimes it might seem that artists are suffering not from a lack but excess of inspiration. A composer reads a poem, picks out the noun “cat”, an image of a city or a notion of truth, and no longer knows how to stop his racing thoughts, what image or memory to use to spin a musical idea. One artist will be inspired by someone else’s or their own work from the past. Another will stare at an object that will bring to mind a poem and will combine the two inspirations. Yet another will get down to work after a long walk in the wilderness. There are those who will not compose a single bar without first discussing the matter with friends or colleagues. Others, when reading poetry, will see a completely different work of art. Some artists will link a poem to an anecdote, others will discover in it an element of their own biography. When writing down their music on a piece of paper or computer screen, composers are guided by a variety of emotions: they want to be amazed by their talent, to dig up some truth about the world, to repress a trauma or to coldly calculate what musical message will be the easiest for the audience to get and to be applauded.

Among them we will find meticulous maximalists as well as individuals to whom everything comes easy. The Rite of Spring apparently came to Stravinsky in his sleep: it sprang into being just like that, gathered in his head as if in a vessel and then flowed on its own. Mahler, who retreated to his hut on the shore of the Wörthersee in Carinthia in order to introduce the necessary corrections into the orchestration of his Symphony No. 8, decided, in a sudden surge of inspiration, to focus on a new piece, beginning it with the ninth-century hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus”. The initial idea to create a fairly traditional four-movement symphony quickly gave way to a concept of a work “so peculiar in its content and form that it is simply beyond description”. Three successive movements of the Symphony of a Thousand merged into a powerful, separate part based on the last scene of Faust. It would be naive to think that Mahler found his inspiration only in the Carolingian hymn and the finale of Goethe’s masterpiece.

Composers are generally reluctant to talk about their unborn musical children. Critics are not eager to write about works that are yet to acquire a sound form, to settle in their context, to be heard in a higher number of performances. My profession, too, is a variety of the mechanical techne, a reproductive craft which cannot exist without a work. But that work cannot do without inspiration either, inspiration drawn from sometimes surprising sources and associations. As I was writing this piece, there loomed over it the spectre of Bohumil Hrabal, who in Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, a compilation of interviews with László Szigeti, said: “It’s always been my impression that ordinary people live much more intensely: people who keep rabbits, people who know how to hoe their own potatoes, go to their local, people who live quite ordinary lives; these folk get much more out of life than intellectuals. In other words, even in writing it’s been my endeavour to suppress the intellectual overlay. (…) an intellectual merely knows things, whereas the common man has experienced them profoundly, and experience, that’s the point from which I sail off on my voyage.” (Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, p. 67, translation by David Short).

Photo: Maciej Zakrzewski / foto-teatr.pl

Before I began to write about music, I had experienced something very strange. During one of my first visits to Prague I walked into the U Zlatého Tygra inn and, looking for a seat, I ended up in a room at the back of the establishment. And there, at a long table, with his arms folded across his chest, sat Hrabal, silent. That day he was clearly in no mood for a conversation with any of the regulars. All other chairs had their backs leaning on the tabletop with two legs hanging in the air. The heartbreaking sadness of this scene, which for some reason I remember in black and white, will stay with me for the rest of my life. The rhythmic order of this composition just as inexplicably influenced my decision to become a music critic. Why did I remember this now? How should I know? Perhaps it’s because of Hrabal’s cats, God’s finest creatures, or perhaps it’s because no one believed my story and I had to ask myself: what is truth?

I read in the stage directions to Paweł Szymański’s sketch Two Poems by Ryszard Krynicki that “on the stage, close to its edge, equally distanced from the left and right, stands a rocking chair, facing the audience. Enters the Cat followed by two Mice. The Cat sits in the chair, assuming a comfortable and casual pose”. I delve into the score and I know that once again Szymański, who has never had any illusions about the reception of his work, will be right. “Someone might respond to my music in a way that is completely different from what I intended, in a way that may even be unthinkable to me, and yet be aesthetically satisfying,” he confessed in one of his rare interviews, which he avoids like the plague. During my first (failed) attempt to contact him professionally, some thirty years ago, I panicked and threw down the receiver, having heard a message on the answering machine: “This is an automatic speech identification system. Please leave a sample of your voice”.

As I read in the score of Aleksander Nowak’s Symphony No. 1 “Truth?”, “singing in the violins should be done by all performers, with their natural voices, in any octave they find the most comfortable”. I delve even deeper and I am no longer surprised that Andrzej Chłopecki has found traces of compositional “life writing”, so beloved by Hrabal, already in Nowak’s first pieces; that Nowak weaves seemingly banal elements of everyday life into the universal fabric of human existence; that he is peculiarly sensitive to the word; that what makes his music extraordinary are not only surprising harmonic textures, but also functions of the various voices in the score.

I read nothing in the case of Paweł Mykietyn, who, as usual, introduces an element of tension and does not reveal his sound installation ideas until the very last moment. I can only guess that the source of his inspiration is again a town where I and Mykietyn spent a substantial part of our lives, though not at the same time. A town where no one could shingle a roof as deftly as a certain bearded man with a leg in an orthopaedic boot who dried some strange herbs on his balcony. And in front of the shoe shop on the ground floor of the same tenement house, year after year, there were stalls where you could buy green poppy heads and unripe hazelnuts. A sleepy town which came alive only on market days, when dozens of carts driven by skinny jades would arrive in the market square. A town of regulars who were not enamoured of holidaymakers: they had their own enclaves, ate at the locals’ and sometimes went to buy fresh bread rolls, but very early in the morning, because by eight the baker’s was practically empty. Dogs would lie on the cobbles by the well. They all had owners but seemed stray. They liked it when we took them for a walk by the Vistula River. The locals would smile, seeing the pack of scruffy mongrels following us.

But perhaps am I wrong this time? If I am, then it is my problem. My favourite composers will bring me freshly caught musical fledgelings anyway.

Translated by: Anna Kijak


Hell Was Shut Off and Heaven Was Opened

The hated lockdown has never been associated in Poland with what it should be associated with – a tool for fighting the pandemic in a comprehensive manner based on Erasmus’ principle that prevention is better than cure. A tool requiring integrity and consistency from governments, insight and humility in the face of the unknown from experts, and ethical sensibility, solidarity and empathy from societies. The restrictions – annoying and incomprehensible to most Poles – have proved ineffective for a variety of reasons. Instead of giving us hope, they have left us believing that they undermine our freedom, that they become an element of a ruthless political fight, that they – and not the disease – lead to thousands of human tragedies and unprecedented crisis of our healthcare system.

Above all, however, they have destroyed in us the vestiges of our already underdeveloped communal thinking – a prerequisite of survival, thanks to which the United Kingdom is now exiting from a lockdown no one in Poland can even imagine. It emerges from lockdown not only healthier and more prudent, but also equipped with a range of skills developed in the most difficult moments of isolation. I’ve been watching the Brits’ musical initiatives from the beginning of the pandemic – with growing admiration. Culture in the British Isles has not frozen even for a moment: it has simply become locked in people’s homes, connecting with the world by means of modern technology, which makes it possible not only to stay in touch with the audience, but also to continue earlier projects and make constructive plans for the future.

The fruits of such painstaking preparations include the first, still virtual, Easter Festival of the Oxford Bach Soloists – an ensemble founded in 2015 by Tom Hammond-Davies and from the very beginning operating as a musical community, bringing together renowned singers and orchestral musicians, students, amateurs, educators as well as scholars representing a variety of disciplines, from history and theology to literature studies and philology. The ensemble and its boss have set a rather extraordinary goal for themselves: to present Johann Sebastian Bach’s entire vocal legacy in chronological order and in combination with the context and purpose of each work. They have planned the venture for twelve years – who knows, the seemingly lost year of the great pandemic may have equipped them with interesting tools which might be used successfully in future seasons.

Tom Hammond-Davies. Photo: Nick Rutter

The programme of this year’s festival featured Cantatas BWV 4 and BWV 31 as well as the Easter Oratorio. Yet for a variety of reasons I will focus on St John Passion, a masterpiece which for some time has been winning back the performers and listeners by storm. Hans-Georg Gadamer writes in The Relevance of the Beautiful that the phenomenon of Passion music ranges “from the highest claims of artistic, historical and musical culture to the openness of the simplest and most heartfelt human needs”. It is indeed a communal phenomenon: it explains the meaning and purpose of suffering, teaches compassion, helps carry the burden of one’s fears and misfortunes. In their remarkable undertaking the Oxford Bach Soloists managed to fulfil all the conditions detailed by Gadamer and elevate St John Passion to the rank of a powerful metaphor for the current crisis.

Both of Bach’s surviving Passions date from his late period, after he became cantor at Leipzig’s St Thomas’ Church in 1723. His predecessor there was Johannes Kuhnau, an organist and music theorist, composer of a Passion According to St. Mark which had been performed alternately during Good Friday Vespers at St. Thomas’ and St. Nicholas’ in Leipzig since 1721. As he was writing his St John Passion, Bach expected it to be performed in his own church, yet as the practice observed in Leipzig would have it, the premiere of the new passion was to take place at St Nicholas’ Church. The misunderstanding came to light just four days before the event. At the last minute the cantor had to bring together a huge vocal-instrumental ensemble featuring musicians from both churches: his new piece was larger than any previous cantatas and the Magnificat, his first significant composition for Leipzig’s main churches. Despite these perturbations Bach’s St John Passion was heard in its original version on 7 April 1724. The starting point for the libretto was the Gospel of John, to which were added individuals verses from, among others, the Brockes Passion, a popular work at the time. The inconsistencies in the text later prompted Bach to introduce a number of modifications. This may be why St John Passion has been labelled an incomplete work, interrupted in the middle of its conception.

Just how undeserved the label is can be seen in the growing number of interpretations by the most distinguished specialists in historical performance. With their own experience of last year’s “St John Passion from isolation”, the Oxford Bach Soloists decided to add another dimension to their venture, inviting Thomas Guthrie to direct it. Guthrie, an English director, singer and actor, has for years been fascinated by the idea of staging a musical work not only through a dialogue between the artists and the audience, but also in terms of communal experience – being part of the narrative of the work, experienced bodily and sensually by the performers.

Nick Pritchard as the Evangelist. Photo: Helena Cooke

Guthrie the director is like an honest and ingenuous child: he knows that miracles happen in the theatre and he knows how to convince his audience of that. In 2017 I experienced this first-hand during a performance of The Magic Flute in Longborough, when he stepped into the role of performance creator to such an extent that he directed an unexpected technical break in the first act, addressing the audience as if they were a bunch of overgrown nursery school kids: much to those kids’ delight. Guthrie once compared the expression of singers to the cry of an infant who would not rest until it had conveyed its weighty message to all those present. I didn’t expect, however, that in St John Passion inside Oxford’s Christ Church Guthrie would look at the drama of Jesus, his judges, disciples and torturers through the eyes of a precocious child who understands more from this tragedy than many adults.

This was already felt in the opening chorus “Herr, unser Herrscher”, based on musical and rhetorical antitheses and making us realise the paradox of Jesus’ glory and humiliation. In his staging Guthrie plays with literally every gesture, colour and prop. Wherever in the music we have earth and the temporal world, the image sparkles with bright colours. When Bach transports us to Heaven, Guthrie paints it using pastel, even unreal hues. Christ’s Passion is black and white, shrouded in a grey mist of pain. The masterful camerawork brings to mind associations with old painting, in which artists smuggled elements of their own world into the biblical landscape. In Guthrie’s staging our rightful companions in the Way of the Cross include microphones on sliding tripods, flashing  camera lights, clothes abandoned in the aisle and instrument cases.

Peter Harvey (Christ) and Hugh Cutting.

The director was just as meticulous in making sure that there would be inner tension between all the participants in the dramatic action, from the main characters to the individual orchestral musicians (needless to say, all involved in the performance fully respected the rules of physical distancing). The Oxford Passion is equally an open allegory and a deeply lived experience of community – with the narrated story, with the other performers, with oneself. This is hugely thanks to Nick Pritchard as the Evangelist – sung with a light and superbly articulated tenor, beautifully open in the upper register – who supported his vocal artistry with excellent acting, creating an unforgettable portrayal of a fragile, often helpless witness to a tragedy, overwhelmed with despair. Just as memorable was Peter Harvey’s Christ: subdued, bitter, fearful in the face of impending death. I think that some shortage of volume in his beautiful and technically assured voice worked fine in such a concept of the role. Alex Ashworth was a movingly human, dithering Pilate, singing with a baritone that was robust, agile and spot-on when it came intonation. Worthy of note among the other soloists were Lucy Cox with her luminous, truly joyful soprano (a riveting “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten”), the countertenor Hugh Cutting, whose rendition of “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” sent shivers down my spine, and, especially, the velvety-voiced Ben Davies, who impressed with his cultured singing and extraordinary sensitivity in the bass arioso “Betrachte, meine Seel, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen” from the scourging scene.

When it comes to the singing of the chorus I was impressed above all by their understanding of the text, delivered with ardour, pain and compassion, and at the same time exemplary voice projection and a touch of individuality, which I value highly in performances of Baroque music. In the instrumental ensemble every musician was in a class of his or her own. I am also full of admiration for the elegance and effectiveness of the conducting of Tom Hammond-Davies, who directed the whole performance in the rather difficult acoustic conditions of Christ Church, with the musicians placed rather untypically and widely apart at times.

I keep thinking about this Passion and constantly hope to hear it live one day performed by these artists in Guthrie’s staging: simple, economical, painfully thought-provoking. Is it really necessary to die so many times in order to finally rise from the dead? Hasn’t there been enough of this suffering?

Translated by: Anna Kijak