Tag: St. Matthew Passion

close up, orchids, detail, floral

Reading List: May Flowers, Rain, Sounds, & A Memory

May traditionally brings flowers, rain, more flowers… more rain, as well as abrupt temperature shifts. Those shifts might be a good metaphor for today (May 9th), a day fraught with many things, or possibly nothing, depending on where you happen to be. The whole month feels like a deep inhale before the intense demands which come with many summer music festivals. The following reading list includes oodles of opera, bundles of Beethoven, and little bites of chewy foods for thoughts when it comes to memory, live presentation, and seelenökologie; it also includes (I hope) a little bit of room to breathe.

In a personal sense, today marks 4o days since the passing of my godfather, who experienced his first opera at the age of 87. (More on that below.)

Spring has sprung – inhale, exhale, slowly; repeat.

Live Live Live (& Read)

My review of Medea (the Cherubini version), currently being presented by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, can be found here. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who had been scheduled to sing the title role, was forced to cancel the remainder of her performances during the run. Italian soprano Chiara Isotton is taking over. TL;DR: See if you can; Isotton is truly great.

Médée (the Charpentier version) is currently running at Opéra de Paris (Palais Garnier), with mezzo soprano Lea Desandre receiving much acclaim for her titular performance, together with conductor William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in the pit. The production is, like Medea, directed by Sir David McVicar, and was first created for English National Opera in 2013 before receiving a staging in Geneva in 2019. The presentation marks the first time Charpentier’s opera has been presented at Opéra national de Paris since 1693. It closes on Saturday (11 May); allons-y!

An opera that made its premiere at the Opéra Garnier: Guercœur by Albéric Magnard, in 1931. The work, which has a tragic real-life backstory, is enjoying a renaissance with Opéra national du Rhin having just finished a run in Strasbourg; the Christof Loy-directed production will be subsequently be presented in Mulhouse, on the 26th and 28th of this month, with baritone Stéphane Degout in the lead. The 2024-2025 season sees another presentation of the work, by Oper Frankfurt and featuring baritone Domen Križaj; the production will be directed by David Hermann with Marie Jacquot (and later Lukas Rommelspacher) on the podium.

Among the many offerings at this year’s edition of The Dresdner Musikfestspiele is the event “Silent Voices In A Noisy World” which features the music of Amélie Nikisch (wife of conductor Arthur Nikisch) and Rachel Danziger van Embden (a student of Wagner biographer Jacques Hartog). Condensed piano versions of Nikisch’s 1911 operetta Meine Tante, deine Tante (My Aunt, Your Aunt) and Danziger van Embden’s operetta Die Dorfkomtesse (The Village Countess) from 1910 will be performed at Dresden’s Palais im Großen Garten, with arrangements, curation, and moderation by Dr. Kai Hinrich Müller, who, as I wrote last month, is spearheading a series of events this year for The Thomas Mann House connected to the formal theme of Opera & Democracy. The Dresden concert is part of this initiative, and is also part of the Musica non grata program, both which I will be writing about in more detail as part of my upcoming conversation with Müller. The interview will be posted later this month; stay tuned!

Also on Sunday: a performance from Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin at the city’s Konzerthaus featuring soprano Camilla Nylund (singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs) and led by Finnish conductor Tarno Peltokoski. In a recent exchange with Helge Berkelbach at Concerti, Peltokoski discusses his debut album with Deutsche Grammophon (Mozart symphonies), his passion for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and the importance of clarity over emotions when standing before an orchestra: “Wenn ich beim Dirigieren von Wagner in meinen Wagner-Gefühlen schwimme, macht das überhaupt keinen Sinn. Ich meine, das Orchester wüsste nicht, was es tun soll, und das Publikum hätte auch keine Freude daran.” (“If I’m swimming in my Wagnerian feelings when I conduct Wagner, it makes no sense at all. I think the orchestra wouldn’t know what to do and the audience wouldn’t enjoy it either.”) Peltokoski’s responses belie his youth (he turned 24 last month), and I am curious to follow him on what may well be a very interesting journey involving Wagner, Strauss, and… ? We shall see.

Speaking of Wagner journeys: Wagner In Context (Cambridge University Press, 2024) has recently been released and it is a delectable slow read. Divided into clear themes (places, people, performances, politics), the book, edited by Cambridge Professor David Trippett, offers an assortment of thoughtful takes on varied aspects of the composer’s work and his impact on modern classical culture. Featuring essays from a wide range of contributors – including Barry Millington, Mark Berry, Katharine Ellis, Leon Botstein, and Gundula Kreutzer (whose  book Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera has been on my wish list since its release in 2018) – this is a book which quietly demands slow digestion. I hope to speak with Trippett in the coming weeks about the book and Wagner’s enduring socio-cultural footprint; stay tuned.

Progressive…ish?

Bode-Museum, Berlin, statue, sculpture, man, woman, assault

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

In the new and not-so-new realm: a recent article published at The Stage provides food for thought on serious issues which reach well past the immediate British opera landscape. Quoting analyses released in March by Arts Council England, writer Katie Chambers includes thoughts from a variety of figures including Opera North general director and chief executive Laura Canning, Musicians’ Union general secretary Naomi Pohl, and stage director Adele Thomas, who offers a valuable insight: “The critical response to the way that any feminist interpretation gets greeted with has forced [opera] to give us a flatter representation of what women are.

At a time when many houses engage in self-congratulatory gestures on what they perceive as a wonderful form of progressivism (the examples are really not difficult to find), it’s interesting to note how many tow a traditional line at heart, particularly in the years since the worst of the covid pandemic. Approaches promoted as “progressive” often employ straight-male gaze wrapped in the coat of creative inquiry (italics mine); question it and you are deemed stupid or uptight, or (gasp) woke. I’m not sure what will change within industry except for the way productions are dressed (more accurately, undressed) via publicity teams and traditional media, an element Thomas rightly acknowledges: 

We are at the tail end of a generation of opera critics who don’t question how much of their opinions are internalised misogyny rather than a genuine reaction to what is in front of them. No criticism to them – it wasn’t what they were asked to do at the time of learning their trade. But it has to change. (“Opera in crisis: leaders warn sector issues go beyond funding woesThe Stage, 7 May 2024)

I hope to speak with various critics in the future about this issue, and explore their ideas on risk and live presentation; it would be good to have their takes on the role of criticism in 2024. I want to have faith that there’s value in its continued practice –even as arts criticism quickly vanishes, everywhere – so again: stay tuned.

“Freude, schöner Götterfunken!”

Beethoven, classical, bust, music, decor, composer

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Speaking of expressions of faith: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony celebrated the 200th anniversary of its premiere on 7 May 1824. An assortment of German music publishers posted fascinating histories, including photos of the original score. The birthday of the symphony has also inspired various documentaries – one by German broadcaster DW (in English), and another by Canadian filmmaker Larry Weinstein (Beethoven’s Nine: Ode To Humanity), recently screened at the Toronto-based Hot Docs film festival. A recreation of the first concert in which the Ninth Symphony was performed took place in Wuppertal (with period instruments), and there are more concerts on the horizon including performances by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in London and Paris, with a performance of the Ninth Symphony on the 29th of this month at St Martin-in-the-Fields, where they’ll be joined by the Monteverdi Choir & Chorus.

Amongst the many essays and articles which have appeared recently is one from Gramophone magazine (“Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: the greatest recordings“, Richard Osborne, 7 May) outlining important aspects of the work, including Schiller’s famous text, and (hurrah) giving equal attention to all four of its movements. Osborne examines interpretations of the symphony by a range of conductors including Otto Klemperer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Wilhelm Furtwängler, and includes concomitant sound clips for each. Like many articles, Osborne also mentions Leonard Bernstein famously replacing the word “freedom” (Freiheit) for “joy” (Freude) in Friedrich Schiller’s text at a concert in Berlin in late 1989, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whether or not one agrees with that replacement, Bernstein’s gesture was entirely in keeping with the mood of the times, a symbol of the way in which the work has been presented throughout various epochs.

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski references Bernstein  in a recent written feature for BR Klassik, exploring the work’s links to historic events as well as personal memories, some of which are tied, quite touchingly, to portions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He also shares his thoughts on initially tackling Beethoven’s Ninth as an artist (“der Mythos um diese Symphonie herum kann einen auch erzittern lassen” – “the myth surrounding this symphony can also make you tremble”) and his decision to program the works of 20th and 21st century composers prior and sometimes even between movements. This approach to such a famous work brings to mind something he said to Hamburger Abendblatt journalist Joachim Mischke (in a podcast from earlier this month) about “Ökologie des akustischen Raums und seine emotionale und geistige Wirkung auf auf die Menschen” (“the ecology of acoustic space and its emotional and spiritual impact on people”). The idea of “seelenökologie” (soul ecology), especially within programming and live presentation in 2024, is one well worth considering, because of course it requires embracing experiences which move past the expected pushing of little emotional buttons – an experience that might be uncomfortable to some.

The first symphony concert I ever attended was a performance of a Beethoven’s Fifth led by Sir Andrew Davis. Roughly a decade after that, I experienced my very first live Beethoven’s Ninth, and by that point, I had formed opinions on how things should sound, and which emotional buttons I expected to be pushed. The performance happened to coincide with the night of my high school prom, but being a perennial outsider, I had no one to go with and I wasn’t too terribly interested anyway (or at least I told myself that at the time). Aside from the discomfort of a heavy velvet dress unsuited to a warm June evening, the most powerful memory from that time is of my hot teenaged fury at the tempos taken through a good portion of the performance; they were faster than what I was expecting, and they came as a total shock. How dare the orchestra not push my little emotional buttons! The whole experience was highly uncomfortable… but: my hate eventually withered and bloomed into real appreciation, dare I say love of this approach, though it took study, maturity, patience. Thank goodness for the local library in aiding with the bloom.

Big Reach

My first formal job, in fact, was at a library –retrieving, sorting, and reshelving books. Library services have expanded considerably since then, but essential purposes remain: the exercise of curiosity, and easy access to the results of that exercise. Cue those elements within a classical-viewing context now, thanks to a partnership between broadcaster Medici TV (who specialize in classical content and stream more than 150 live events annually) and Hoopla (an online borrowing system not dissimilar to Kanopy). Medici’s collection is now accessible to libraries in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. You just need a library card – and yes, the medici.tv/hoopla borrowing system works in Canada.

Another form of easy access comes courtesy of Wigmore Hall in London, which has a long history of presenting livestream broadcasts. Soprano Ermonela Jaho is set to perform live from Wigmore Hall on May 23rd as part of Opera Rara’s second ‘Donizetti & Friends‘ recital. Jaho, who is Artist Ambassador for the organization (dedicated to presenting little-heard operatic works from the 19th and 20th centuries), will be joined by its Artistic Director, conductor Carlo Rizzi, and his brother, violinist Marco Rizzi. The concert will be livestreamed on Opera Rara’s Youtube Channel and will be available for viewing for 30 days.

Space & Time

Speaking of viewing: the work of Alexander Calder is enjoying a special exhibition in Switzerland. Calder: Sculpting Time includes over thirty works which were made between 1930 and 1960 and explores what host MASI Lugano calls “the fourth dimension of time into art with his legendary mobiles.” Many of the pieces on display include items from the artist’s Constellations series, which he began in 1943. Calder won the grand prize for sculpture at the 1952 Venice Biennale and went on to be awarded the Legion of Honor in France and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the US; he worked across a variety of media, creating not only sculpture and mobiles but set and costumes designs, jewelry, and immense public installations. The MASI show seems a little more intimate, but the imagery at the website also conveys Calder’s signature knack for spatial integration: the epic and the intimate; the intellectual and the sensuous. There is a certain joy (Schiller’s Freude, maybe) in all of it, and particularly through the live experience.

woman, man, opera, performing arts, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.

Referencing that live experience, and as promised: my godfather enjoyed his very first opera just after his 87th birthday. He passed away at the end of March. Lately I’ve been thinking back on our times together, that 2017 visit to the opera very much included. Those who knew about our connection (and that opera visit) have asked me what we saw (Tosca) and more specifically what he thought of it all (he liked but didn’t love it, though did express interest in German-language works, specifically Die Fledermaus). He was mostly happy to finally be experiencing the thing my mother (with whom he had been very close) possessed such a passion for, and he was grateful for my initiative in taking him.

At his passing my godfather had been in Canada for seven decades but he never forgot his Swiss roots, and made a point of playing folk music (complete with yodels) on his stereo system during our visits. “It isn’t opera,” he would say, sipping brandy, “but it’s a little bit of home.”

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Christian Immler, opera, singer, performer, artist, vocal, classical

Christian Immler: Balancing New Projects & Old Favorites

Since our last conversation in early 2021, bass baritone Christian Immler has been busy. As was the case with many artists, the bass baritone’s schedule changed dramatically as a result of pandemic-related lockdowns; his approach to music, as you’ll read in our recent conversation below, didn’t change but intensified and expanded, particularly within the realms of score study, synergy with colleagues, and active public engagement.

In December 2022 Immler performed with the Czech Philharmonic and conductor Semyon Bychkov in the lauded world premiere of Prager Symphony, Lyric Fragments after Franz Kafka (Symphony No. 4) by contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert. Based directly on the work of Franz Kafka (including his letters, short stories, novels, and fragments from his notebooks) the work is an immense, daring exploration of the lyric symphonic form, with scoring for orchestra and two voices (bass baritone and mezzo), spread over twelve sections. As the composer told Bachtrack just prior to the premiere, the work is “a psychological landscape, where two people tell us something about ourselves: a story of life from the very beginning to the end, plus all human circumstances you can imagine: being witty, the pain of violence, happiness, and so on.” Prager Symphony will be presented again later this year, with Bychkov and Immler – in June, with the Concertgebouw and Gewandhaus respectively, and the UK premiere happening in November with the BBC Symphony.

Along with learning and performing the Glanert work, the bass baritone also released the album Das heiße Herz (Alpha Classics) with pianist Andreas Frese, featuring the music of Robert Schumann and contemporary German composer Jörg Widmann. Released in mid-2022, the work features songs from Schumann’s 1849 cycle Lieder und Gesänge aus ‘Wilhelm Meister’ (text by Goethe) as well as the composer’s 1850 cycle ‘6 Gedichte von N. Lenau und Requiem’; the world-premiere recording of Widmann’s Heisse Herz (The Burning Heart) comprises the album’s second half, with Immler conveying a stunning (and stunningly controlled) level of musicality, sometimes utilizing sprechstimme to exude the emotional intensity Widmann’s writing necessitates. A review in Opera News early this year (which singled the album out for its monthly Critics Choice designation) noted the degree to which Immler “shows a performance artist’s mastery of the work’s considerable demands, as does the fearless (pianist) Frese, who thunders, tremolos and occasionally slams the keyboard or strums the inside, in addition to playing with great tenderness when called upon.”

Our recent conversation began by my asking Immler about his fascinating forthcoming release (on Alpha Classics) of virtually unknown music by Wilhelm Grosz (1984-1939) and Robert Gund (also spelled Gound; 1865-1927), all set to texts by a range of celebrated European writers, including Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), and Clemens Brentano (1778-1842). The music project sees Immler reunite with pianist Helmut Deutsch, with whom he previously collaborated on a gorgeous 2021 album showcasing the largely unknown music of Hans Gál. The thought of Immler and the pianist reuniting for a project featuring music few know well (or are aware of at all) is a needed bit of hope amidst a still-difficult classical environment.

Immler is just embarking on an extensive Northern European tour, performing the work of another composer whose works he knows well; St. Matthew Passion is being presented by famed Bach conductor Masato Suzuki and the Netherlands Bach Society in twelve different locales between March 25th and April 8th. Before the tour began Immler took time to offer thoughts on everything from covid-related cancellations to the earthy writing of both Bach and contemporary composers. Immler is always inspiring to speak with, whether he’s discussing the finer points of scores, sharing the realities of singing works of rarely-heard composers, or how the simple act of breathing informs and influences musicianship; our recent midwinter exchange was, quite simply, a joy.

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman

How’s your work with Helmut Deutsch coming along?

It’s great! We both love this repertoire. There are cases where something will seem like a good idea and then you work with someone, in a duo, and it’s one person pulling the other – but not with Helmut, not at all. We both pull in one direction. With this repertoire, it is really a total discovery. I’m not unused to reading through unfamiliar repertoire but this time there is the added thrill of manuscripts – that’s all there is  – so we had to transfer them into Sibelius, all these songs composed as lieder. We did a test run for an audience of around ten people, and had to preface it with, “this is most likely the very first performance of this song cycle!”

What has your process been so far?

Helmut has been cursing me – playfully – for introducing him to this repertoire. The Grosz is very difficult to play; there are so many things are happening at the same time in the piano lines, and he says he needs a few more fingers. Nobody realizes how difficult it is, again, because this repertoire is so unknown. We don’t talk very much, a couple of times we verbalize what we want but the rest is push-pull, and listening.

Listening seems vital, whether it’s for a duo project or for larger performances, like Glanert’s Prager Symphony.

A lot of people can listen if they don’t do anything else, but if you have to do your work, playing and singing, and listen at the same time – that’s a special skill set, because you need to do what you do, and intrinsically listen to the other person at the same time. Helmut knows the text, and I know his piano part very well; sometimes I’ll look more down to what he’s doing and not only to my singer’s part. You have to process a lot at the same time. Also, we need to breathe – everybody knows that – but you wouldn’t believe how many conductors ultimately have no idea what that means; Semyon does. He and Helmut both use their breath as a means of expressivity, and it makes all the difference. When they intuitively run out of breath, they renew themselves. So it’s natural, we both do it. If you have well-written repertoire that breath comes very naturally anyway, but if it’s mediocre writing, and the phrases are really long, you think, “okay, I have to take an odd breath here” but it doesn’t usually happen with good composers.

That synergy is interesting given your recent projects use texts by authors who are long dead and/or did not write specifically for singers. 

It is known that Kafka, although he did not have an aversion to music, did not want some of his texts set to music..

… and yet!

… yes, Max Brod didn’t quite comply there! He didn’t burn the papers Kafka had written after his death. Glanert and Widmann have both said that at a certain point, they have to let their work go. Both are very experienced, so it means at one point they realize it’s no longer controlled by them, and they accept performers might have a slightly different viewpoint or approach, and I think there is a wisdom in this. They’re both great at letting things go. Glanert was present during rehearsals with the Czech Phil and took notes, and when there were moments of difficulty, instruments groups were too soft or loud or whatever, he, without running to the stage and making a fuss, would take notes, and Semyon would come and they’d communicate about it. The process was super-fluid in terms of it being a true work-in-progress situation. We didn’t have many rehearsals of that, either.

The subsequent performances of it this year may have more rehearsals, then?

I have a huge advantage now because I know the piece, but for orchestras, it’s different. Mind you, those other orchestras – the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Leipzig Gewandhaus – are super-orchestras, even with their different approaches. And I have to say also: the Czech Phil is stunning, just… top.

To what extent do you think these songs, and Kafka’s texts, have acquired a new relevance?

It’s funny, that work, as well as the songs I’m doing with Helmut and the theme of my doctoral research, it’s all on work done roughly 100 years ago – yet these poems, at this very moment, in my opinion, have an incredible modernity and relevance. You read some of them, and … well, so I read The Guardian in the mornings, and you see these terrible things about the war in Ukraine, and you see these works, and they resonate as a part of our time, right now.

How does this work and the Widmann speak to that time? And how much do you think listening as a result of that time changed?

Both Widmann and Glanert have a lot of experience in the operatic field and a high level of awareness. They won’t waste opportunities in sound; if they want a big turmoil they know how to create it, and likewise they can create the absence of sound and the power of pauses and stillness. They totally understand – it’s quite unsettling in the Glanert, you think, holy! You could hear a needle drop. It only happens if the ear is preconditioned in the writing, and both of them can do this very well.

For me, and so many who experienced an unprecedented level of isolation and loneliness, and a lack of outside distraction if you will, there was a total feeling of insecurity of what is going to happen. Nobody knew. I find in a lot in these poems, especially in the Kafka texts, there is a sense of basically trying to come out of that situation by saying, “Okay, let’s state we are lonely, and the only way we can kind of overcome this is by stating it first of all and being aware of it, and then sticking together.” This first Kafka text, if you read it, it’s so strong, it states: we are lonely yet we are interconnected by a network of invisible threads, and it’s bad enough if they loosen, but it’s terrible if one of them falls. That, to a certain degree, is what we all experienced in early 2020.

But somehow there is a hope through humanity, and that sounds grand, but these songs don’t leave you feeling dark, they leave you with a sense of… hope is not enough… but that there’s a chance for humanity. And it’s an important balance to what I read in the newspaper.

That seems more rooted in reality. 

Yes and I do like that these composers don’t go into the religious sphere or some form of theism, or into any kind of metaphysical sphere at all – everything stays deeply human, earthy and rooted, and thus very approachable. The subtext of them is: you don’t have to be a believer to come out of this darkness.

That’s exactly where they reminded me of Bach, which is perhaps odd…

It’s not odd!

Bach is associated with deep religiosity, but in St. Matthew Passion, for instance, the writing is blood-and-guts human, and it’s the embrace of that messiness which opens the door to the divine. The line between Bach and these modern works is not that long, is it?

It really isn’t It’s funny, I was standing in the Liszt Academy in Budapest recently – which is a total dream building, by the way – I was in a corridor and remembered being there one-and-a-half years ago, being tested with the orchestra, and at 5 in the afternoon the performance was cancelled; the entire bass section had covid. It was like a sudden rain-shower but you don’t know what to do; we are not programmed as artists to know what to do. When I get up on a performance day I am geared to that one thing in the evening when I am meant to deliver. It’s a lot of energy… this very earthy, a very sharply human experience…

How has that time influenced you in terms of singing both contemporary music like Widmann and Baroque?

In terms of the Widmann, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever learned, and if you don’t hear that I take it as a compliment. The scoring is very detailed! He is a total musician; he wants to define it as well as possible, but then you have to have it in your system. The actual level of preparation was intense; there is so much information coming your way, you can’t ignore it, and say, “Oh I feel it this way” – that isn’t possible. You have to prepare it to that level of detail and then know it subconsciously. It was an incredible amount of preparation, apart from pitching and rhythm, and the extended vocal techniques; he would write things in the direction like, ‘Dangerously Through Your Teeth’ or ‘Psychedelically Sung’ for certain passages, but it always makes sense. And, this may sound banal, but it could be Widmann or Monteverdi or Bach or Glanert, but look at it and I’ll think, “This is just top-class writing!”

Do you think preparing for something like the Widmann works would have been different in 2019?

I would say no …

So the pandemic didn’t change your approach that much… ?

It changed how people got together, via Zoom or not at all. The loneliness of preparation, overall, was strong for everything. Just after musicians here were allowed to come together again I did the Beethoven/Leonore with René Jacobs, it was just a piano rehearsal with the cast, and everybody started crying. It was such a release of… like, you can practice and vocalize, but it’s a profession which has to be done in community, and with a third ingredient in this: the public. The feeling of being together was unbelievable. For this experience we were grateful to have that return, to know we weren’t alone.

So yes, I stayed faithful to preparing well and being detailed, but, like the first time I sang the St. Matthew Passion, you come out of the pandemic experience a different person, obviously. It changes your whole perception of music and life. You can prepare the piece but the effect it leaves when you present it live… you cannot prepare for that.

Top Photo: Marco Borggreve

Christian Immler: “Maybe This Is The Time For The Smaller Things To Become More Known”

Christian Immer, stage, opera, music, classical, performance

Christian Immler in Der Freischütz, 2019. Photo: Julien Benhamou

One of the many unexpected if oddly welcome  blossoms from the current lockdown era has been an increase in the quality of listening. The teenaged neighbours’ shouts at a bleepy-bloop video game, the burrrrrr of a truck engine outside the window, the whirl of a fan; all tangle with the sounds emanating through my speakers at various times throughout the day. Sometimes it’s a distraction, and sometimes such noises are mere counterpoint; my quality of listening has, in any case, deepened in a way I couldn’t have foreseen twelve months ago. I want to think I will keep this heightened listening as a new normal unfolds, but I am scared of what such a gift (is it that?) might entail; the thought of returning to a live forum is both exhilarating and frightening. It’s strange to contemplate such a transformation, since I am already what could be called a close listener, and as a result, I don’t – can’t – usually play “background music” in performing most tasks, because whatever is intended to act as “background” tends to become foreground very quickly. I’ve lost count of the knife wounds to fingers and hands as a result of listening while making dinner, for instance; cooking and classical is not always a wise mix. I was a musician long before I was a writer, after all, and my love of words and music only intensified through the direct experience of being onstage in both musical and theatrical capacities.

Such elements doubtlessly have fuelled my love of lieder, an art form which demands close listening, and one I’ve written about in the past. Made famous by Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and especially Schubert, the art of song asks something quite specific of its listeners: an understanding of the text, combined with an imagination recalling theatre, and an appreciation of the role of sound. Scansion becomes (arguably is a key part of) comprehension as much as actual dictionary definitions; the feel of words in the mouth and tonal resonance of sound in the chest render an inner truth in which the sensual and the spiritual might blend. It is impossible to simply “churn it out” with such an art form. Lieder is not about immediate thrill or satisfaction, thrilling though some of it can be; rather, it is a slow burn, a stew of words, sounds, rhythms, and resonances, delivered via the simple bowl of voice and (usually) piano. There is nowhere to hide with the art form; soloists are utterly exposed, and, I would argue, so are listeners. Such vulnerability is part of lieder’s appeal. Schubert’s famous song cycle Winterreise (1828) has enthralled (and frightened) many a soloist, and is considered by many as a “Mount Everest” of the art form. The work has enjoyed multiple recordings and inspired various iterations; a “composed interpretation” by Hans Zender (1936-2019) from 1993, for instance, has been complemented with a creative choreographed version by Christian Spuck at Ballet Zürich. Lieder can be elastic, but its requirement – close listening – is still very much extant. Tenor Ian Bostridge has written in relation to Zender’s recomposed Winterreise, which could well be applied to the entire art form, that it is “a work that offers us a conversation – and sometimes a confrontation – between the past and the present.”

Hans Gál, composer, music, classical, 20th century

Hans Gál. Photo: Berthold Bing, http://www.fotorevers.eu/de/ort/Wien/1502/ – Israel National Library, Schwadron collection, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17737088

That’s a notion wholly applicable to the work of Hans Gál (1890-1987), whose works are enjoying a deserved revival, with Hidden Treasure: Hans Gál’s unpublished Lieder (BIS Records) being part of this renewal. The album is a collection of 26 songs released this past January and featuring bass baritone Christian Immler and pianist Helmut Deutsch. Gál’s songwriting is itself a conversant with time and its passing, with touches of the past (Schumann and Brahms), the composer’s contemporary present (Zemlinsky, Strauss), and possible future (Stravinsky’s neoclassical compositions). Gál enjoyed great success as a composer in his native Austria and was awarded the Austrian Art Prize in 1915. His opera Die heilige Ente: ein Spiel mit Göttern und Menschen (The Sacred Duck: A Play With Gods And Men) was written in 1920-21 and premiered in Düsseldorf in 1923 under the baton of George Szell; it went on to enjoy productions in numerous German-language houses across Europe, and a special status as the first contemporary opera to be broadcast by Österreichischer Rundfunk (the Austrian broadcasting corporation). He became director of the Mainz Music Academy in 1929 on recommendations of both Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss. With the Nazi rise to power, however, Gál, as a Jewish artist, faced censure. Die beiden Klaas (Rich Claus, Poor Claus), his fourth opera, was to have been staged as a double premiere (in Hamburg and Dresden) in 1933, but the piece, like many others, was cancelled. (It was only performed in 1990, in an English translation by York Opera.) Gál fled Europe in 1938, travelling to the UK; in 1940 he was interned as an “enemy alien.” He later went on to teach at the University of Edinburgh, (1945-1965) and became a respected member of the Edinburgh music community. His output was considerable: two large cantatas with orchestra, four operas, four symphonies, four string quartets, numerous piano works, and an array of orchestral and vocal works. A chamber version of Die heilige Ente was presented by Oper Köln in 2007, and a full revival at Sophiensæle Berlin in 2012.

Various listenings of Gál’s works, symphonic and vocal, have been undertaken with a far greater degree of focus and concentration than could have been imaginable in February 2020. There is a far deeper appreciation of the interplay between words and sounds, an integration I suspect was purposeful on the composer’s part. As Christian Immler remarked to me recently, Gál had “first-rate taste” in his texts. The poems Gál set to music are both timely and timeless, and contain thematic elements which hold a dualistic tension between the desire for solitude and the need for community, between the pain of isolation and the pain of congregation. In a recent article for Gramophone, Immler outlined Gál’s connection with text and describes the feeling of learning music which hasn’t been heard for over a century as “a powerful combination of curiosity, pioneer spirit and obligation. One is indeed living history!” Immler is himself a highly accomplished singer and soloist, known for his Baroque work as much as for his explorations of early 20th century repertoire. A member of the famed Tölzer Knabenchor (boys choir) in youth, Immler has worked in an array of classical idioms, including oratorio, opera, and lieder, singing the work of Monteverdi, Handel, Rameau, Steffani, Graupner, Weber, Mozart, Zemlinsky, and most especially Bach (the Passions are something of a specialty). He has worked with an array of conductors as well, including René Jacobs, William Christie, Raphaël Pichon, Marc Minkowski, Ivor Bolton, Masaaki Suzuki, Philippe Herreweghe, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the latter of whom he speaks about in glowing terms as part of our exchange, below.

In 2003 Immler was part of Continental Britons: The Émigré Composers (Nimbus Records), a collection of works from Jewish composers forced to flee Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. With pianist and Professor Erik Levi, Immler performed Hans Gál’s Fünf Melodien (Five Songs) for middle voice and piano, 1917-1921), Op.33, a collection which, at the time, was believed to be the composer’s only known lieder work. The cycle was recorded again for the 2011 album Modern Times (Cavi Music), featuring Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Similar to Émigré, Modern Times features the work of composers labelled “entartete” (“degenerate”) by the Nazis. It was this album which first caught my attention roughly a year ago, for its breadth of inspiring content as much as the palpable chemistry between its performers. The music (of Korngold, Eisler, Grosz, Goldschmidt, Schreker, Zemlinsky, and Gál’s collection of five songs) is performed with deep sensitivity and that unique feeling for text joined with sound; it’s as if Immler and Deutsch are reading one another’s thoughts – not “breathing together,” mind you, but with distinct visions and voices, in an energetic comprehension at once imaginative and intellectual.

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Helmut Deutsch and Christian Immler. Photo: Marcus Boman

(That “breathing as one” phrase is one, by the way, Deutsch himself writes about in his lately-released memoirs, published in English through Kahn & Averill; my interview with Helmut, about his memoirs, about Gál and working with Immler, and about much else, is coming soon. Stay tuned.)

Hidden Treasure came about through a meeting with Eva Fox-Gál, the composer’s daughter, after a live concert years ago, at which time Immler and Deutsch were made aware of the existence of the collection. Immler recalls her hesitancy to grant permission for the recording of the unpublished songs, the feeling being that her father never intended for them to be heard in public. The singer, together with Deutsch, made a recording in the pianist’s own living room of a selection of the unpublished works and sent them to her. This initiative, combined with the composer’s rising prominence in other recordings and media (including those by conductor Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra and Royal Northern Sinfonia; Gál was also BBC Radio 3’s Composer Of The Week in 2014) convinced the family that, as Immler put it, the Lieder would be properly contextualized within the composer’s larger compositional oeuvre. The 26 songs featured on Hidden Treasure were written between 1910 and 1921, with the album including the Op.33 song cycle. The poetry of Heinrich Heine, Herman Hesse, Christian Morgenstern, Rabindranath Tagore, Richard Dehmel, Hans Bethge, Walther von der Vogelweide is given shining prominence here; already possessing a thoughtful musicality, Immler’s textual and vocal flexibility highlights his own deep listening, to both the music enveloping those words and to Deutsch’s virtuosic playing. The artists have worked to create a beautiful album, one to be slowly savoured over repeated instances, aided by the heightened listening skills the pandemic era has mysteriously (or not) endowed.

My chat with Christian Immler began by discussing writing and discovery,  and moved on to possibilities for our very own “modern times”, and if he feels like an ambassador for the music of Hans Gál.

score, Hans Gál, original, music, lieder, song, handwriting

A portion of the original score of “Lady Rosa” by Hans Gál. Photo courtesy of Christian Immler, private collection.

The lockdown seems to have provided a perfect listening opportunity for Gál’s work, and for the work on the album more specifically.

People have more time now, and I think they finally said, “Okay I have to sort my stamp collection, I have this to do and that, now I really have to sit down and understand what the opening theme in this Beethoven means” – and if not now, then when? People start to listen in new ways. My wife is also a musician and pianist, she’s’ very much into storytelling, and there are a lot of evenings she’ll just listen to various broadcasts– my mother would do and grandmother as well; they would sit and just listen.

That form of deep listening is certainly required for this collection. Is it true this album grew out of your live experience?

 My very first experience of Gál’s music was of his Opus 33 collection; I did them with Erik Levi, who is kind of the authority – he is a dear friend, extremely knowledgeable, he’s also Visiting Professor in Music at Royal Holloway College. That performance was at Wigmore Hall (in 2002). The one with Helmut Deutsch was at King’s Place (in 2010), a beautiful hall in London, and then after that, we put part of the Gál songs onto Modern Times. But Helmut and I met Eva Fox-Gál, the daughter of Hans Gál; we went to her house in York and looked through a lot of manuscripts and had a visit – there’s a beautiful garden, I remember that well. Gál’s original piano isn’t there, it is with his grandson Simon, who recorded (Hidden Treasure), but there, in the collection, are songs which might be more for a woman, it’s difficult to say, not because it talks about a woman, but in terms of style. And what was a bit difficult was finding enough variety, because also they’re quite slow songs, darkish songs, slightly melancholic songs. We were happy to find things which moved along to lighten the mood. I had a certain order in mind as I do this with all my recitals.

That’s what you did here? Ordered them as you would a recital?

That’s what we did here, but I wanted “Lady Rosa” as the opener. First of all I *love* the name, it’s just wonderful,”Lady Rosa” – you want to just say it out loud! – and this song, it sounds so simple but it has… you, the singer, must keep in this very specific way, and with the piano in rhythmic proportion; the (vocal line and instrumental line) are not *quite* coming together. It’s a wonderful song and that had to be the first one, I insisted, but other than that, we played around. We left the huge stuff to the very end, which in some recording sessions is risky.

Christian Immler, opera, singer, performer, artist, vocal, classical

Christian Immler
Photo: Marco Borggreve

That choice implies a clear narrative line. The selection of poetry is notable – for instance, the Morgenstern works are a nice microcosm of the album’s themes of dark and light. And you have a style which elucidates the text really well.

Gál had a first-rate taste in texts! That is unlike some very well known composers, I’d say, who had a very mixed success rate in doing so – just think of Brahms. I love some of his work, but some of the texts are a bit… hmmmm…. ! But with Gál, his daughter told me a few things, like for instance he helped with editing some Schubert and Brahms works with his friend and mentor, Eusebius Mandyczewski (1857-1929), who himself was a friend of Brahms. (Mandyczewski and Gál co-edited Brahms’ complete works in the early part of the 20th century.)

Now, if you transcribe stuff in front of you and you can read music, then that music is absorbed by the system of the body, and at such a young age when everything goes in like a sponge… well. I was astonished the manuscripts are super-neatly written. Remember a lot of these songs were written during war-time, so 1917 or so, and he had bursts of energy like Hugo Wolf or Robert Schumann, where he would write five songs in five days – which doesn’t sound like much, but he was a soldier then, and I find such an activity within this context highly fascinating. Those manuscripts are super-neatly written; he must’ve been a very disciplined person, and had huge integrity as a writer. I put the question to Eva, if he was ever interested in the risqué poems, like those by Richard Dehmel written twelve years earlier, which Schoenberg had set to music (Verklärte Nacht) which talks about premarital sex and two people walking alone in the night. Eva said her father was never interested in second-guessing; his audience should always know how to receive something. He didn’t want to create ambiguity…

… which is unique, considering how many of his fellow contemporary composers were. He really went against the grain. 

Well according to his contemporaries. he was very disciplined, he was a really hard worker, he had a kind of ironic sense of humour which might’ve endeared him to (the work of) Heinrich Heine, but he was quite a serious person, and could play anything by heart. You can see it in the photos; his is not a face who is up for a lot of extramarital craziness, for instance, but is very dedicated to his work – and so I think this direct writing style was enough for him. He wanted to stay true to himself and I don’t think he was… you know, there were people who were constantly on the lookout in terms of, “How can I make this more lush? Or make this even more tonally modern modern?” Gál  never went into twelve-tone music, for instance…

… which is also notable.

Yes. And with some songs (by other composers), you think, “Well, what shall I do here? Do I need to do a bit of magic here if I don’t want to put the pedal down?” And that’s not the case here (on Hidden Treasure) at all. It’s direct.

Gál’s’s music is direct and creative at once.

Yes! The harmonic changes for example, in “Vöglein Schwermut”, whoah! We performed it several times onstage and you can hear a pin drop at the end. In the concert hall there is just silence at this moment! (Gál’s writing) goes up in the piano, and when Helmut plays it, you hold your breath, literally! I’m so, so grateful for this collaboration – Helmut and I are good friends, and when I asked him first if he was interested in doing a recital I expected, you know, “Let me get back to you” but he said, “Sure, why not?” He deals with what’s in front of him and is an excellent sight-reader – I have so many scores of music here at home which at one point when I can travel again, we‘ll look through in Vienna. Luckily he’s very interested in Gál’s music – he loves doing it, and of course he loves Winterreise, but if you’ve played it five hundred, or I don’t know, a thousand times now like he has – it’s like for me and St. Matthew Passion: I love it, but if anything else comes along, that’s where my energy would go at this moment.

I wonder if the things Bach gives a singer might help with performing early 20th century music; do you think your Baroque experience helped you with Gál?

Yes and no. What certainly helped me which I will always be grateful for, is the discipline you learn in a boys’ choir – I was in the Tölzer Knabenchor, and it was there I got to know (Nikolaus) Harnoncourt, when I was nearly eleven years old. You have to get used to traveling at a very very early age and just to deliver something in the evening, nobody’s interested in your personal little worries or whatever; you learn the trade if you do it early, and by simply being there, you absorb a lot. I think that experience was helpful to learning Gál. Now, if you are in the vicinity of someone like Harnoncourt, who had this total dedication to what’s in front of him, even better. I did a St. Matthew Passion with him years later as an adult; this was a few years before he passed away. So it went full circle! I couldn’t sleep for two days afterwards, I had so much adrenaline – we did it in the Musikverein where we rehearsed. Sometimes I had to pinch myself it was really happening.

But the discipline one learns was useful, and without wanting to sound kind of arrogant… well, it’s very difficult to teach how to phrase, or how to conduct a phrase. You can show it to somebody but ultimately it has to be felt, and understood, and conceptualized, but *not* on an intellectual level. And for instance, Harnoncourt combined this enormously intellectual approach – he knew everything and would discuss everything with everybody, not a big deal – with such a level of understanding. Onstage he was 100% a musician. He knew about that sort of Baroque phrasing, where you go somewhere and come away, I think, with this sort of sensuality for phrasing, so for any vocal repertoire, especially that of Gál, it really struck me (in recording the album) that I never had to help the vocal line; it has a natural flow. It *can* be challenging in that it leads you up and you think, “Oh, I need to work!” but it always makes sense. And having Helmut is like having a carpet under you anyway. He and I didn’t actually talk about interpreting when we rehearsed these songs – we don’t really talk about it anyway, but *especially* for this. There was just one song where we had totally different tempos in mind, but that was the only thing, the only time. Gál, certainly, had the experience (in vocal writing), he had good training with a cappella ensembles wherever he was, in Vienna and in the UK; he was looking for an older idiom and he found it. In things he wrote in 1917 you can totally hear, in some of the songs, the actual piano part becoming an extended orchestral section, and when you hear this, as a singer, you know you really need to go for it then.

Did you ever feel Helmut were sonically competing at points? There are times when things don’t resolve the way we’re expecting as listeners, and it’s almost like vocals and piano are at tension.

I can confirm onstage, in the recitals I did with Helmut, there’s always an edge to him and he always makes noise when he plays – you can hear it on the recording too, he kind of does this “mmmnnnmmm” – like, “Helmut, shhh!!” But onstage, he is really negotiating and renegotiating the percussive element of the piano. He is a master in that and I simply do not want to play with pianists anymore who play works just as-is. The piano is a percussive instrument through which you can only create the illusion of line, and Helmut knows this; he sings all the time, he has this kind of forward approach, for which I’m grateful. We did Korngold (works) together, and (those of) Zemlinsky also, and if you start to become free floating in space, and take rubati whenever you want… no, it needs to come to a time from which you steal, rubato, you steal it *from* something, which is an orderly arrangement. But if you create something which is a space-floating thing, no rhythm or tempo at all, you lose out, and Helmut is breathing with this understanding; he doesn’t pull the entire structure apart. You *know* where to breathe. But it’s challenge to be onstage with him! I will not deny, he will never play against you – he always has a big ear and can adjust if you run out of breath – but he won’t make life easy. He keeps ploughing forwards, and so do I, and of course that’s when the energy comes.

Hans Gál, music, classical, lieder, album, Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, voice, piano, 20th centuryThat’s what this music demands – and the light/dark dualism of these songs has a corollary in the isolation/community themes which seem particularly meaningful right now.

It’s very much of its time 100 years ago. I’m not big into the “Oh, this was written as an omen!” way of thinking, but I do think often about that time and what it means for our days. We had a good time until this tragic Covid hit; things were working, although it was a bit *too* fast, the pace, for me. I’m a workaholic also, and of course now that tendency totally crashed and… you know, you have to rearrange yourself, and then you think, “How can I be of use? For my family? For what?!”

“How can I be of service?”

In a way… yes. I find this time super super-interesting, and in fact I’ve never before had enough time to pursue it but now, I’m writing my Doctorate about the the song landscape between the two Wars, the interbellum times. There is so much repertoire which Helmut and I have discovered and will play through, but right now I can do a lot from home, and it keeps me busy. Maybe this is the time for the smaller things to become more known.

I recently wrote a formal feature about reductions and am considering doing something more about how this time might or might not change the nature of listening and live experience. Small is not ideal of course but it isn’t necessarily bad either!

You should do it! I mean, I find Schoenberg’s rearrangements of the Song Cycles of Mahler to be somewhat more interesting, and more to the point – they are just fantastic. I’m working with another pianist as well, and we are thinking about doing Korngold and Zemlinsky songs for a small ensemble – I have no idea why nobody’s done it. For some of these songs it can take up to two minutes before you as a singer even open your mouth, they are *that* orchestral – and yes, you can do it in this reduced way.

But that means audiences have to readjust expectations, too, and organization need to be open to taking that risk in their programming.

It doesn’t take long to re-train the ears but it takes a few times (of doing experimental things) to get people in. And there’s a limit to doing reductions, in my opinion; some things make sense, others maybe not. But the time right now is ripe for experimenting; Schubert songs, of course, have been orchestrated by the best, but for a smaller ensemble there is something still, I think, to be done, and to bring it onstage in a more thematic way. I’m just dreaming here…

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman

… and now is the time to do that, is it not? I feel like there’s a place for Gál’s music amidst all of this. Do you and Helmut feel like ambassadors?

We are! And we didn’t become ambassadors because we had nothing else to do! It happens to be the case that both of us are interested in it but we don’t have to record things which have mediocre quality which makes it much easier. Helmut and I have a little rating system which, independently, we use when we go through things; you have to be a bit careful as sometimes you miss the essence of a song the first time round. A lot of Gál’s stuff is in Vienna, at the exil.arte Centre For Banned Music – things are literally just sitting in boxes there. Helmut is already in Vienna, so one day he and I went and looked through the archive of Gál’s music. I know he’s not so keen about going into twelve-tone music, but there’s great stuff, and what I want to say is, with this experimentation, I want to do more CDs in this direction, first to take one slight step back and do things by Theodor Streicher (1874-1940; awarded the Großer Österreichischer Staatspreis in 1936) – who is a little bit like Hugo Wolf gone a bit crazy! – and then the work of Gál, which we did already, but then go one step further as well, into more tonally daring composers like Ernst Toch (1887-1964; awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1956 and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1958). The list of composers yet to explore is endless.

So you’re an ambassador, not only for Gál but for the many composers like him.

I would think so! Helmut also has time, but we’re not allowed to travel right now, but when we are, we will hopefully plan for this – and more.

Interview: Singing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion In Berlin

Passion Cantus Domus

Performers at the Cantus Domus presentation of St. Matthew Passion in Berlin take bows. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Easter Weekend inspires reflections on awakenings, growth, a sense of the new and fresh emerging at last. There are a number of works within classical music that deal directly with Easter, Handel’s Messiah being perhaps the most famous (programming it over the Christmas season is forever a pet peeve), but just as equally Bach’s Passions, which are widely presented and performed in halls across Europe in the weeks and months leading up to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

During a trip to Berlin earlier this month, I attended a very special performance of St. Matthew Passion, one which asked something more than solitary contemplation; rather, the Baroque work conjured unique meditations on the convergence of heaven and earth, sound and silence, spirit and flesh, through the act of actually singing it. Cantus Domus, a choral group based in Berlin who specialize in conceptual presentations, have a number of illustrious performances under their belts, performing an array of repertoire that spans from the Renaissance to today.  Formed in 1996, the group has performed works by Bizet, Mahler, Mendelssohn, and Bach, and have also enjoyed numerous appearances at the annual German open-air music fest Haldern Pop Festival. Lets you think they only work within the classical idiom, think again: Cantus Domus have collaborated with a good number of contemporary music artists including Bon Iver, The Slow Show, and most famously, Damien Rice. For the recent presentation of St. Matthew Passion, they worked with renowned period instrument troupe Capella Vitalis Berlin, creating a community event in which the act of singing became a salute to its original presentation, as well as a beautiful way of fusing theatricality with spirituality.

The Passion, written in 1727, was, as conductor and musicologist  Joshua Rifkin rightly notes, “the longest and most elaborate work that (Bach) ever composed. It would appear that he saw significant phase of his life drawing to a close and took the occasion to produce a work that would synthesise and surpass all that he had previously done in the realm of liturgical music.” It only began to gain in popularity a full eight decades after Bach’s death (in 1750), thanks to the efforts of a young Felix Mendelssohn, who presented the work in Berlin in 1829. It is one of numerous sacred pieces Bach wrote during his lengthy tenure as director of religious music at Thomaskirsche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig. Based on the Gospel of Matthew, Bach worked with poet Christian Friedrich Henrici (known as Picander) for the libretto, which explores the final days of Jesus, ending with Christ’s burial. It features a fascinating interplay of musical writing between four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) and orchestra which features, among many creative  musical choices, two lead violins in the string section. “The St. Matthew Passion, the final glory of one of the most productive periods in Bach’s life,” writes Rifkin, “holds a special place in his artistic legacy.”

At the end of February, Cantus Domus held a public rehearsal before the main event, which I attended one cold, bright Saturday morning. This was, I quickly realized, more than a jovial sing-a-long; these were serious music-lovers from every walk of life engaging in what was clearly perceived as an act of commitment and consecration. The act of singing, with a roomful of strangers, in a language I don’t speak, reading music — an act I had long believed to be a thing I wasn’t smart enough to do with any real talent — was a deeply moving one. The formal performance one week later magnified this feeling; sitting in Wisniewski’s wonderfully intimate chamber hall,  encircled by ever-mobile performers and an enthralled public, the music was a communal prayer; the voices of those beside, behind, and around me created transcendence which defies easy description. The strong vibrations of breaths and voices through seats, floors, hands, paper… was strange, shocking, beautiful, and the overall experience was and remains one of the most precious and profound ones of my life.

score St. Matthew Passion

The cover to a special edition of the score to St. Matthew Passion. (Score / photo: Bärenreiter)

I spoke with two people from Cantus Domus earlier this month in Berlin. Ralf Sochaczewsky is conductor and Artistic Director of Cantus Domus; he has a long list of credits to his name in both the classical and contemporary music worlds, including gigs with the Komische Oper, the Bolshoi Theater, the London Philharmonic, and the Konzerthaus Berlin Orchestra. Carolin Rindfleisch is a member of the Cantus Domus board and a singer herself; she came up with the presentation concept for St. Matthew Passion here and was its dramaturge. We had a wide-ranging chat just before rehearsals about the work, its influences, and why presenting it, with a full score but without tricks or gimmicks, opens the door to something very special.

Where did the idea come from to do an interactive performance of  the St. Matthew Passion?

Caroline: We’ve done something like this before, with the St. John Passion in 2014. When Bach wrote the Passions, people knew the chorales very, very well — they were part of daily life; people knew the texts by heart, the melodies by heart. They were musical elements that brought everyone together. Even though people didn’t sing it, they were involved immediately because they knew it so well, and it’s something which is hard to recreate nowadays because most people don’t have this kind of religious involvement or knowledge of texts or melodies with such immediacy anymore. So if you invite them to rehearse with you, and to sing them during the concert, we hope to create the same kind of involvement, which was the original purpose of the chorales.

This music is associated with a very sacred time on the Christian calendar. What’s it like to bring it into secular world now?

Carolin: I think the focus might shift a bit. Our lives are not focused so much on religion, it’s not part of our daily lives that much — but the story behind (this work) has so many different levels and dimensions, and so many different things people can relate to, even if they can’t relate to the religious aspect of it. It’s also a story of how groups and individuals relate to each other, how people treat each other, how relationships between individuals develop, and what problems there may be. There are so many levels people can relate to. If you ask people to sing the chorales with you, then they have to relate in a different way to the piece — they have to position themselves. If you say something out loud, you can’t distance yourself from it that much anymore, you have to think, “How does this relate to me? What am I singing here?” If you only listen, it’s much easier to cut yourself off from a part that doesn’t agree with your worldview — but if you say it loud yourself, you have to think, “What is my position within this piece?”

Singing is such an intimate act that makes some people self-conscious — they think, “I can’t sing!” and moreover, “I can’t possibly sing Bach!”

Ralf: You will!

What do you think the audience gets out of these kinds of experiences? 

Ralf: We did a similar (singing) project four years ago with the St. John Passion, and what the audience told us after the concert was that they were deeply involved. One woman told me that her relationship to her religion changed because of the reflection and the meditation while singing — it touched her so deeply in a way she couldn’t believe. So I think maybe many people will experience this at a deep level of feeling and believing.

Carolin: It’s not “Look at me singing!” — and even if you don’t want to sing yourself, if people are sitting all around you participating it creates an atmosphere where you can’t but relate to it in a way.

St. Matthew's Passion score

A portion of the program from the Cantus Domus presentation of St. Matthew Passion in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

How do you keep the drama within the score? Is it important?

Ralf: Absolutely. I think the person of Judas is maybe the most interesting part in this Passion. When you perform it you have to find a position about the guilt of Judas: is he maybe a hero? Is he maybe the Edward Snowden of this? What the music says and what the libretto says is a bit ambivalent. So we will try to find a solution to make later what Judas means to us, but…

Carolin: The Passions have a lot of changing places, between intimacy and public life. You can make the public experience those different atmospheres by how close you get to them or how much you concentrate the action into one corner, or spread it into all over, especially in the Philharmonie Chamber Music Hall — it’s such a nice room. You have the stage and the places where the audience sits, but you also have places you can position soloists at different corners of the room, and make visible how close or how far they are, and how they relate to each other, and what’s really powerful about working with a choir scenically onstage is that if even thirty or, say, sixty people do a very tiny little thing at the same time, it’s incredibly powerful but still subtle. You don’t have to have someone tearing his heart out…

Declaiming?

Carolin: Exactly, but you have sixty people that maybe do a specific gesture at the same time, and the whole focus shifts into another direction, and this is giving little guiding posts to where the action moves in the room, so we move very little, but the action shifts and the focus shifts in the room, and this can be a really interesting way of preserving the drama while not really acting.

philharmonie kammermusiksaal

The Philharmonie Chamber Hall is encircled by performers at the close of Cantus Domus’s St. Matthew Passion in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Ralf: We just have small hints! Also you find interesting things in the music. For example, the opening of the second part is text from the Song of Solomon, sung by the choir: “Where has my Jesus gone?” The outer part is relating to Petrus, so you have a quite direct connotation it’s Petrus who’s talking. But in the earlier version (of the work) it was sung by the bass soloist, the aria section that is, which is related to Judas, which is interesting. I think it was meant by Bach, in the early version, that it’s Judas who sings, “Where has my Jesus gone?” And the chorus sings the Song of Solomon, it’s a very intimate and like … a love song. In many places in the bible, it’s said Judas was the most beloved of Jesus, and I think this is something which is really interesting in the relationship between Jesus and Judas, which gives a different color to this man, who in our perception is a very bad man.

We even have the term “the Judas kiss” because of it.

Ralf: Yes but even this kiss, it’s still a kiss!

… which some believe is the ultimate betrayal of intimacy.

Ralf: I’m not sure that this is the only way of interpreting this kiss. Bernard of Clairvaux, a very important clerical figure and one of the most important mystics, preached about the Song of Solomon, especially the symbol of the kiss, and many texts in the Passion from the chorales go back to Clairvaux. There’s a close net of mysticism in (the Song of Solomon). So the Judas kiss, in a way, when you look at it from the point of view of Clairvaux and directly after that, within this Solomonic love song, it means something different.

I’ve always found inclusion of portions of the Song of Solomon sends a message about the links between spirituality, sensuality, intimacy, and meditation — things that can get lost because of the tendency to present spiritual experience within a strictly defined religious framework.

Ralf: If you look deeper into (St. Matthew Passion) you will find real human beings who existed in the 18th century, and who exist in the same way today. And Judas needs to betray him, otherwise the story couldn’t work: no cross, no Christianity. It’s clear Judas has to do it, in a way, it’s fate. But on the other hand, you have the people and they do not understand, they condemn him, many people condemn. It’s a really interesting relationship. Also, Petrus is a very modern person, he’s very strong, a powerful man, but in the important moment, he’s very weak and he has fear, and he does not know how to behave. He’s uncertain what to do, which we all recognize. So this is the aim of our performance, that you understand while singing and reflecting, reflecting while singing, that you are Petrus… maybe you are also Judas…  maybe you are also Pilatus, who washes his hands like, ”I have nothing to do with this.”

Through singing, you taking these human dimensions and complexities into your own body. Do you think you ask a lot of your audiences?

Carolin: Yes, we know we do, but I think it’s a really good thing to do. You don’t have to do it all the time, there are performances that are more relaxed and have a more loose connection to the audience, but it’s refreshing to ask an audience to commit.

It’s unique to find a presentation of a Baroque work that asks its audience to have a direct relationship with both the score and its spiritual subtext without feeling the need to use tricks or gimmicks.

Caroline: There’s a point which is really important for us as a choir: we have the feeling that with every project we do we grow a little, because we demand something we haven’t done before or haven’t done in this exact way. And this is something you can offer to audience as well in this fashion: you demand a lot of them. But if you, as an audience member, are willing to commit to it, it gives you something you hadn’t experienced before.

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