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Ionarts-at-Large: End-of-the-World-Music in Vienna

Within a few days, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian State Orchestra (the opera’s orchestra) pitched their tents at the Musikverein in Vienna. I caught the second of those two concerts, with the Opera’s orchestra under their music director Kirill Petrenko, because I had to! It featured BerliozSymphonie fantastique, but that wasn’t the reason. It opened with Ravel’s La Valse (Poème chorégraphique pour Orchestre), but that wasn’t the reason either. But in the middle lured a tremendous work: Gesangsszene to words from “Sodom and Gomorrha” by Jean Giraudoux for Baritone and Orchestra by Karl Amadeus Hartmann. (More Hartmann on ionarts here.) Not only that, but with the best possible baritone in that repertoire, too: namely Christian Gerhaher (More Gerhaher on ionarts here). That’s unmissable in my book – and everything else is mere bonus.

La Valse was a fine such bonus to start with: As the first low notes emerged, the upper strings just barely broke through to the surface, which made the work—buzzing, droning, pulsating—all the more strange than it already is. It was woodwind eeriness, and the harmlessness of the waltz theme was hard to trust. When the strings finally got there, and came to the fore at last, along with the battery of four harps, they didn’t revert to a pastoral naïveté, either: With transparency  and foreshadowing and every timpani burst ever more threatening, the orchestra inexorably waltzed along to the ensuing final, perplexing stage… fooling no one along the way. Typical Kirill Petrenko, one might say, and a nicely disturbing opening.

Hartmann was the student of Anton Webern, an admirer of Arnold Schoenberg, and a liberal quoter from Alban Berg, but he was anything but a mindless disciple of the 12-tone cult: “Those who compose slavishly in acquiescent dependency on tone rows can certainly crank their bits out at a nice clip. But… you cannot just skirt the burden of tradition by replacing old forms with new ones. We have to accept that our path has become more difficult than that of our great idols before us.” Hartmann consequently developed a musical voice that makes him one of great if lamentably unsung composers of the 20th century.

available at Amazon
K.A.Hartmann, Gesangsszene et al.,
K.A.Rickenbacher, Bamberger Symphoniker, S.Nimsgern

available at Amazon
H.Berlioz et al., Symphonie Fantastique,
M.Jansons, BRSO
BR Klassik

Hartmann wrote his very last, unfinished work—the deeply pessimistic, apocalyptic Gesangsszene—for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It was premiered a year after Hartmann died in 1963. It is uncomfortable listening, disturbing and stirring, relentless, but with glimpses even of conventional beauty amid the ruins. Fischer-Dieskau remained loyal to Hartman’s swansong and, between the premiere and 1987, performed it twenty times all over Europe. The premiere performance under Dean Dixon never made it from LP to CD, but recordings with the Bavarian and Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestras led by Rafael Kubelik (Wergo) and Lothar Zagrosek (Orfeo) respectively let us eavesdrop on this bitter parting gift of Hartmann’s for which Fischer-Dieskau’s controlled urgency is apt.

If the performance with Petrenko and Gerhaher sounded very, very different from Dieskau’s attempt (especially with Kubelik), it’s because Gerhaher, unlike the albeit poignant Dieskau, opted to sing the work as written, not just an approximation thereof. The review of the concert in Munich promised much. In fact, Egbert Tholl of the Süddeutsche Zeitung was so destroyed afterwards, he had to leave at intermission (and communicated this in the review). The clarinet and flute pre-lament, to get us set up properly. Then one becomes witness to the colorfully illustrated Sprechgesang/singing, always at the edge of what is either just still or already no longer comfortable Sew-saw, sew-saw… as through bone with a surgeons’ saw... followed by impotent exclamation marks. Silence. Gerhaher amidst this like a pale horse. And then the flute again, piping up as if to see if things might not have turned around. They have not. This is End-of-the-World-Music! It even says so. The last words are: “It is the End of the World. The saddest possible of them all!” Indeed. Tholl called Gerhaher’s role in this that of the “Evangelist of Doom”, and it’s right-on. Then Tholl went out into the night, alone. As I might have, even though I was missing a bit of that solemn focus I had expected and hoped for… either a product of my lacking concentration or the less than perfectly concentrated, incomprehensive surroundings in the Goldener Saal.

I stayed. But what can you play, after hearing Hartmann? Nothing, if you take it seriously… if you really took it in, if you made it your own. Anything, of course, if it was just music… more or less impressive, to be listened to, more or less, and then dutifully applauded; a prosecco at intermission, a chat with the Feldhubingers and, oh look, Dr. Waldner is here; we haven’t seen the Gugler’s in weeks, and Hello Herr Professor Doktor Geigerl, Frau Professor Doktor Geigerl. How was the week at Lake Hallstatt? Why, then it’s no problem at all continuing with Berlioz’ self-indulgent tone poem of many ownders… the showy, effective, and not universally loved Symphonie fantastique.

The performance: Amazing details, finely traced and with great dynamic control and dramatic execution thereof and playing that you’d expect from an AAA concert-orchestra on a good day, but not not necessarily from an A opera-orchestra like the Bavarian State Orchestra, Munich’s nominal No.3 (after the obvious No.1 BRSO and the fluctuation our-concerts-are-like-a-box-of-chocolate No.2 Munich Philharmonic). So far, so good. But the performance was also detailed to the point of disconnect and incoherence. Maybe “AAA”, but not my cup of tea. In any case, it was entirely nixed by a squeaking double-bass chair that would not stop adding its gruesome, unwanted sound to the mix. Strange that Petrenko didn’t stop after the first movement, to remedy the ill. But disconnect and squeak aside, the Symphonie fantastique is also a frightfully self-important work (even if Petrenko wanted to downplay exactly that aspect), and the contrast to the earnest humility of the Hartmann reveals this mercilessly. It’s not my favorite work to begin with (although the BRSO recording from last year got me very excited), and once one isn’t in the mood for this Symphony, it gets annoying and tedious really fast, however impressive the circumstances. No matter: No one can take the gloomy delight of Hartmann away from me. 

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