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Ionarts-at-Large: Humor in Soviet Music at Vienna’s Musikverein

When Schnittke and Shostakovich beckon from the program, you don’t expect a full house, really. Certainly not in conservative Vienna, and not with the third band in town, the ORF Radio Symphony, playing. Then again, the RSO’s audience (or that of the Jeunesse organizer) would be the only one in town to appreciate the 20th century fare on the bill…the anti-monumental corker of a Sixth Symphony and the wild’n’wacky romp that is Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata.

Vladimir Fedoseyev has a Vienna history—he was the music director of the Vienna Symphony from 1991 until 1997 and had just recently had a, frankly awkward, atmospherically challenged concert with them in town—but he can’t be considered box office magic, either. And still, the Musikverein’s Golden Hall was very nearly filled (I hesitate to say “sold out”, given the amount of comps handed out to the chorus members). Because the full chorus and full orchestra sprawled out and nearly spilled over the small stage of the Musikverein, the seating had been pushed back and placed on rails that allows them to place them narrower together and squeeze the rows they lost by pushing the stage out right back in. The result is that the already ungenerous seating-arrangement in the Musikverein resembles something you would you would expect on a budget airline domestic flight in China.

Shostakovich, Sixth Symphony

available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Symphonies Nos.6 & 10,
A.Litton/Dallas SO

Political DSCH-interpretations will forever try to find something menacing or at least ironic in this (and ever other) symphony, but the musical reality of the lopsided Sixth Symphony, with its looong first movement and quick left-right punch for movements two and (final) three, is “hoppity-hop”, a pot-boiler, a lark. For the duration of the Largo, I was concerned that Fedoseyev might have other ideas for it, making it sound drab and more like the opening of the Eighth Symphony. The woodwinds plangent (not very colorful), and the violins strident (togetherish), wiry and tense like the trumpets, and those latter occasionally shrill beyond (I would venture to guess) intended interpretative aspects. But the Allegro and the nifty Presto, by all means a gay and merry thing, became exercises in a martial show-down… a bit as if the United States Special Forces ran Six Flags. Brash and punchy needn’t be a detriment; it could well go into the credit column, as did the noise the RSO made, which was considerable (the hall was not built with Shostakovich-orchestras of 14 first violins down to 6 double bases in mind), but still controlled. Rollicking zip also goes a long way in making for entertaining listening, not just nuance, and finally the work’s strength itself is great enough to save it… in short: It was a cracking, but not terribly memorable warm-up for all involved, leading nicely into the Schnittke after intermission.

Schnittke, Faust Cantata

available at Amazon
Schnittke/Webern-Bach/Bach, Faust Cantata/Ricerata/Chorales,
Boreyko/Hamburg SO
Berlin Classics

Now this is the work I came for. Once you’ve heard Schnittke’s Faust Cantata (incidentally premiered in Vienna in 1983, well before the opera—of which the cantata is essentially the third act—first hit the stage in Hamburg), it’s just too much of a hoot not to want to hear it every opportunity you get. I will plagiarize myself from when I last heard it, with Andrey Boreyko and the Munich Philharmonic:

Twenty years of composing for film had given Schnittke a dead-on sensitivity effect and he never lacked the confidence to use it brazenly. From the first notes he gets the mood just right; within two bars you feel transplanted into a black and white picture of F.W. Murnau. One of Schnittke’s devilishly good ideas was to give Mephisto to a countertenor… and a mezzo, when he is in disguise as Helen. Creepy delightful, with organ, orator (tenor Steve Davislim here just as well as in Munich) accompanied on harpsichord, and of course the highlight of the show: the tango where Mephisto (disguised as Helen) narrates the gruesome death of Faust in gory detail. From the Matthew Passion to the Rocky Horror Picture Show in less than 20 bars, Schnittke covers all your grand theatrical desires in this work. Undoubtedly one of the best treatments of Faust in music.

It’s catchy like a musical (if only I found musicals catchy), it has bite, it has laughs (if you find musical audacity funny), and it is loud (which is always good for a round of applause). Gongs, percussion up the wazoo, the aforementioned organ, harpsichord, piano, celesta, huge chorus: All the ingredients of a great night out, and just about as intoxicating. I fell in love with the work immediately upon hearing it on record, but live, in all its gory glory, it’s even more fun. Better yet, the work is almost immune against botched entries by the chorus or modest singers… not that the present lot or the Singverein were all that terrible.

Steve Davislim has a relatively fine and small voice but is wise enough not to try too hard to compensate, which I cherish immensely. Aside, in his function as quasi-Evangelist, he needn’t trumpet about in this rôle. Bariton Adrian Eröd (Faust) wasn’t very melodic in his singing, but then his part isn’t, either. Schnittke pushes him into deep bass-territory, first, where Eröd managed a hollowish Sprechgesang… then, without rest in the middle, pushes him all the way up against the vocal ceiling. It’s almost as if Schnittke wanted to deny any rest in the vocal comfort zone and Eröd rarely found any.

Matthias Rexroth as Mephisto even looks the part: His fire-engine red face (I’m not sure if make-up was deliberately involved) and the hair that looks like flames licking up his head in an attempt to reach the ceiling suggest a chap whose natural habitat is too near a subterranean blast furnace. His vocal performance, well… he sounded uncomfortable, comical, almost as if feigning vocal trouble to give Faust more character. I don’t know the score to say whether Schnittke specifies any of this… but even if, surely not quite that much. Rexroth sounded more as though he was still a baritone and tried out that counter tenor thing for the first or second time. But, given the magic of ironic-or-isn’t-he-Schnittke, it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment and Rexroth certainly had the dramatic element down pat. Elisabeth Kulman, the alto for all seasons in Vienna (when she’s not busy complaining about being overworked), finally threw herself into the role with gusto and her eyebrows expressive overtime. Not quite the over-the-top, transvestitesque show Malgorzata Walewska pulled off in Munich, but rousing and entertaining enough in the conservative confines of the Goldener Saal (Walewska might have caused a scandal), and very nicely sung by all means. The devilish tango left goosebumps all around… and the RSO under Fedoseyev a fine, impassioned impression, which is heartening.

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