Thursday, June 27, 2013



Another much anticipated event was Britten's War Requiem in the the Philharmonie. It would be the first time inside the hall, and I harboured a slightly perverse interest in hearing this work in Germany conducted by an Englishman, even more so now we had just left Dresden, with its lingering debate about the bombing as payback for Coventry Cathedral, for the reopening of which Britten composed the work. At dinner somedays later, with D whom was had met through David, the conversation so turned, and it was interesting to hear him say that if you mentioned Coventry in Deutschland, most Germans wouldn't have a clue what you were talking about. Nor Colditz, as I found out on my last visit, but then that does date me, and my schoolboy reading.

So we returned to Berlin for a night at the Philharmonie, that strangely shaped almost garishly golden German expressionist building I had first seen just after the wall came down, then surrounded by disuse and patched wilderness. Now it sits aging a little, tucked into the wedge between the expanding Potzdammer Platz, whose dalliance with vulgarity might yet be checked, and the luscious green expanse of the Tiergarten, from which it looks once squeesed, an unwanted blemish.

The interior (of the hall) was not unlike a squashed version of the SOH concert hall, shortened with the sides pushed out. There was the same worrying vault over the concert platform, with more effective looking reflectors above than at home. Surely this wasn't also built outside in. I understand there are also sound absorbers strategically placed on high, but invisible, unlike the funereal drapes we seem saddled with. And for all the hype, the sound from where we sat, less than ideally placed hard left at the front, was none too special either, drier than was expected. Planning note to self: the Concertgebouw (where a week before we'd heard a staggeringly good Dvorak New World with Dudamel) may be better the last venue, not the first.

As we arrived, it looked like people were sitting in our seats, or we were in the wrong spot. I asked the woman, travelling alone and perhaps about 60 yrs old and who came through the door with us, for help. The others were in error and as we took our places, she sat immediately behind. No sooner was I fingering the programme than there was a tap on the shoulder. She too had her programme and was pointing to the second photo in the notes (the first was of Britten) showing Churchill in the Coventry Ruins in 1940, the picture cropped at the sides eliminating the uniform on the as viewed right.

"I shame for this" she said, most unexpectedly. What do you say then, in the face of such complexities between strangers with the subtleties of language unavailable and the misappropriation of nationality (I assumed she thought I was British) confounding the relationship. I was uncomfortable, probably more so than she, who had at least publicly declared herself.

Lights dimmed, Sir Simon and the soloists entered, the choir already in place, and the childrens choir we couldn't and didn't ever see. There were German surtitles. It was a strange unemotional performance for me. Maybe I had spent all my Dopamine on Der Rosenkavalier. Maybe I had over predicted the frisson of the event. Or maybe I had only come, to my shame, to hear "I shame for this".

There were no ghosts to be heard in what should be a very spooky work, the dead speaking and the dead forgiving. I kept thinking is it because this just isn't 'their' music that the textures don't sound quite right, the dynamics seem contrived, the bells are hit too hard, the children without that blushing innocence of the English. The American Emily Magee was the most effective of the soloists, standing behind the first violins. Her firm confident soprano sliced through, swinging up in her early entries like a blade cleaving the air, sounding ripe for some Poulenc any time soon. Englishman John Mark Ainsley seemed constrained by something, a self-consciousness, which never let him go as he over carefully made his was through a pretty difficult tessitura. The German Matthias Goerne, whom we had heard singing a beautifully articulated and heartfelt Das Knaben Wunderhorn in Sydney with the BPO, also seemed depleted early, syllables swallowed and unfinished, until he belatedly embraced something deeper within as he reached his final "The pity of war, the pity war distilled" and the emotion came through at last.

From the (on-line) programme notes:

"In this urgent anti-war appeal, the English composer juxtaposed the Latin Mass for the Dead with the shattering poetry of Wilfred Owen, the "war poet" who fell in the last days of World War 1 at the age of 25. "I am writing one of my most important works. These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction, ar a kind of commentary on the Mass" (Britten).

The score's title page contains the following lines by Owen: "My subject is War and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn"

Five days earlier [than the 30th May 1962 premier in the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral] William Mann, long-time chief music critic for The Times of London, had written: "It is not a requiem to console the living. Sometimes it does not even help the dead to sleep soundly. It can only disturb every living soul, for it denounces the babarism more or less awake in mankind with all the authority a great composer can muster. There can be no doubt .... This is Britten's masterpiece"

At the end there was a long long silence, and when released by Rattle, a tremendous ovation from the audience. Standing from right to left : John Mark Ainsley, Emily Magee, Matthias Goerne behind the children, Choir Master, and Sir Simon on the left, hair whiter then ever.

We walked quickly back up Potsdamer Strasse to the hotel talking mostly about the acoustics.


David said...

As you already know, we agree on this (and I heard the first performance, you the second, so it's not us). It should have been such a special occasion, coming from Dresden - where they DO know all about Coventry, especially because the man whose father flew in Bomber Harris's command over Dresden, and who donated the gold ball on the top of the Frauenkirche, hailed from that twin city of incomparable disaster.
But nothing moved me much until the inevitable pressure of the 'Libera me' and cotton-wool-bound Goerne's final 'let us sleep now'.

Wrongs have been righted with a much deeper approach back home to a far less consistently strong work, Gloriana. And I do now wish I'd caught Grimes on Aldeburgh beach.

wanderer said...

I've been to TAD now, having sworn off till I finally got some thoughts down, and isn't it strange how unaffected we were while others seemed so responsive. Is the Phiharmonie audience always quite so adulatory? I also wonder what about the audience 'mix'.

There was sadly no way I could have caught the Gloriana telecast as we had just arrived in Bayreuth. And I was especially interested to see Susan Bullock's performance, she having been on the radar so much, even in Milan, with the Melbourne Ring 'scandal' a bit of a topic. Speaking of which, I hear the Longborough Ring was in fine hands with Anthony Negus at he helm and there are hopes he may get the Oz gig.

I've only briefly glanced at the Aldeburgh Grimes reviews. Who would have thought? Nevermind.

Susan Scheid said...

Interesting to me how tremendously evocative your post is, as in the lines I quote below, about a performance that failed in being as evocative as it should have been:

Lights dimmed, Sir Simon and the soloists entered, the choir already in place, and the children’s choir we couldn't and didn't ever see. There were German surtitles. It was a strange unemotional performance for me. Maybe I had spent all my Dopamine on Der Rosenkavalier. Maybe I had over predicted the frisson of the event. Or maybe I had only come, to my shame, to hear "I shame for this".

And then to think Britten’s Peter Grimes on the beach worked so well, by all reports. Hard to fathom, isn’t it?

wanderer said...

It's really quite complex isn't it Susan, when it does and when it doesn't, 'work' that is. Not that I mind that much, in that any experience is a good experience (conditions apply, as they say!) and this visit to the Philharmonie and hearing the work, for only the second time live, with all the associations (a return to Berlin, a new fab hotel discovered, the hall, the staff, the audience, the ambience, the interaction with the German woman, the performance itself, the audience response, the Berlin night air afterwards .... you get the picture) I wouldn't have missed for quids (make that euros), nor swapped it for the next paragraph ...

There was so much going on in the Merry Green Isle - apart from the unexpected success of Grimes, there was a lot of other Britten which interests me and I'd have loved to have seen - the Gloriana, and Death in Venice, and especially the three Church Parable 'Operas' one of which - Curlew River - was my Britten initiation, many years ago.

I'm off to read David now to catch up on some of this.

David said...

Can't get in to the Parables in Southwark Cathedral, though am travelling to a Noyes Fludde in Tewkesbury Abbey. Good news is that both Gloriana and Grimes on the Beach will be out on DVD anon. Heard mixed things about the ENO Death in Venice, though John Graham Hall would have to have been an improvement on Bostridge. Gave the War Req in St Paul's (impossible acoustic even at close quarters) a miss, though conductor Ed Gardner and the soloists promised much, much better. Hoping to hear Toby Spence, much the best of our British tenors, do it some day.

Susan Scheid said...

wanderer! I'm writing over here so this note to you is not missed--the NEXT time you come to NYC, I hope you'll alert me even just a little in advance. It's not so far from where we are to NYC, and I come down to the city at least once a month. I'd certainly make a special effort to get to NYC when you are here!

wanderer said...

That's an offer you know I wouldn't refuse, thank you, and while there's nothing on the horizon at the moment, it seems inevitable somehow.