Elizabeth Schwarzkopf: From Flower Maiden to Marschallin

60b_schwarzkopfElizabeth Schwarzkopf:
From Flower Maiden to Marschallin
by Kirsten Liese
Amadeus Press
160 pages, photos; $27.95 US

During her recent recital in Koerner Hall last month, Frederica von Stade spoke about hearing Elizabeth Schwarzkopf sing over forty years ago, and what an impression it left on her. That made me think about the recital I heard Schwarzkopf give at Massey Hall in the early 1970’s. I can still picture her opening her arms like a butterfly spreading its wings – magnificent and unforgettable.

This large, lovely collection of interviews, testimonials and splensis photographs is not so much a biography as a tribute to the great singer. The only hint of controversy is when Schwarzkopf talks about how Karajan pressured her to take on roles that were too heavy for her, like Elizabeth in Tannhäuser. There is no discussion of her activities during the war, or her documented associations with the Nazi party. Instead the focus is on what her former student, American baritone Thomas Hampson, here calls ‘her passion, her sense of beauty and her singular sense of artistic purpose’ .

In Charles Scribner III’s moving interview with Schwarzkopf shortly before her death at ninety three years ago, she talks about her contempt for contemporary concept-driven productions and her intense dislike of updating the settings of operas. The word “criminals” comes up. Schwarzkopf realizes that she represents a vital tradition of singing, especially for the Viennese repertoire like Strauss and Mozart. “The fixed style of Mozartean singing has rules,” she tells Scribner.

Author and editor Kirsten Liese interviews Lillian Fayer, the photographer who took most of the stage and portrait photos included here. In these photos Fayer penetrates the artificiality of the costumes and makeup to reveal the extraordinary naturalness of the singer. So I was amused when Fayer tells Liese that she was always trying - unsuccessfully - to get Schwarzkopf to wear more makeup.

There are glamorous shots of her as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, which Schwarzkopf calls her most difficult role, and in her favorite role as the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier. In a few of the candid shots, we see her with her frequent accompanist, the legendary Canadian pianist Gerald Moore (author of a wonderful autobiography Am I Too Loud?). He is quoted here as saying, “Elizabeth hears things that nobody else can. She would hear the grass growing!”


New Aldeburgh Anthology

60a_new_aldeburgh_anthologyNew Aldeburgh Anthology
compiled by Ariane Bankes
and
Jonathan Reekie
Boydell Press
360 pages, illustrated; $70.00 US

Ariane Bankes and Jonathan Reekie have compiled a dazzling collection of articles, poems, stories, photographs, paintings, set designs, memoirs, short fiction, to celebrate the Aldebugh Festival.

I cannot imagine a more fitting tribute to the festival that British composer Benjamin Britten, his partner tenor Peter Pears, and librettist Eric Crozier started in Britten’s native Suffolk over sixty years ago.

Expanding on the original Aldeburgh Anthology published in 1972, the editors have wisely followed their own “interests and inclinations.” The result is an evocation of the physical and poetic landscapes of Britten’s music, especially the operas, which are referred to throughout this volume.

Composer Hans Werner Henze describes the setting of the festival, where “ you can sense the vicinity of the sea; you can hear the facets of grey, silver grey, ash grey, white and mother-of-pearl of which the low-lying sky is composed.” Art historian Frances Spalding writes about the paintings and sculptures collected by Pears and Britten, including six Constables and a work by William Blake, whose poems Britten set. Art historian Kenneth Clark, who grew up across the river from Aldeburgh, writes, “My days were all pleasure… I loved the Suffolk country, the heaths and sandpits, the great oaks in Sudbourne wood and the wide river at Ilken.” Mezzo Janet Baker recalls singing for Britten, writing, “Ben was a king. When he walked into a room, the air began to crackle; everyone came alive, became more than themselves.” Journalist Tom Service writes about how composer, conductor and pianist Thomas Adès, just twenty-eight when he became director of the festival, continued the tradition of innovation and individualism.

So much to enjoy here. There’s a poem by Britten’s friend, colleague and librettist W. H. Auden, called The Composer, “Only your notes are pure contraption/Only your song is an absolute gift.” Another by W.G. Sebald, translated by poet Michael Hamburger, who’s represented here as well, closes with, “Whispering madness on the heathland of Suffolk. Is this the promis’d end?”

PERFORMANCE NOTES:

The Toronto Symphony under Peter Oundjian presents Britten’s War Requiem on November 11 and 12 in Roy Thomson Hall at 8.00. The Aldeburgh Connection presents Blessed Cecilia on November 22 at 2.30 in Walter Hall at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. And on Jan. 28 and 30 at 8:00 in Roy Thomson Hall, the Toronto Symphony under James Gaffigan presents Leila Josefowicz performing a Violin Concerto, “Concentric Paths,” by Thomas Adès, who just completed nine years directing the Aldeburgh Festival.

Mendelssohn and Victorian England

52Mendelssohn by Colin Eatock
Ashgate
206 pages, illustrations; $99.95 US

German composer Felix Mendelssohn, whose two-hundredth birthday is being celebrated this year, first visited England when he was twenty years old. He made nine more trips before he died in 1847, when he was just thirty-eight years old. It was in England that he scored his earliest successes, and for much of his career he was more appreciated in London than in his hometown of Berlin. In fact, as Colin Eatock writes in this groundbreaking study, “his musical ideals were uncannily aligned with the predominant English tastes of the mid-nineteenth century.”

Eatock, a composer, scholar and journalist who recently became editor of this magazine, paints a vivid picture of Mendelssohn’s visits to England. He describes how many of Mendelssohn’s  works were directly inspired by his travels around the British Isles, works like the ‘Scottish’ Symphony, The Hebrides overture, the three Fantasias, which he called his ‘Welsh’ piano pieces, as well as a number of Lieder ohne Worte, including the familiar Frühlingslied. The String Quartet Op.12 was written in London, and the ending of the ‘Reformation’ Symphony came to him at the bottom of a mine in Wales. Mendelssohn immersed himself in English musical life, even accompanying Queen Victoria on the piano as she sang songs written by him and his sister Fanny. No wonder a newspaper of the time called him an ‘adopted son of England.’

But what is even more significant for Eatock than the influence England had on Mendelssohn’s music is the influence Mendelssohn had on British music. Mendelssohn, writes Eatock, “did more to improve the status of music in England than any other continental composer of the nineteenth century.” In fact, he claims, he “shaped the nation’s musical values.” Yet following Mendelssohn’s death, his reputation in Britain declined. Eatock links the shift in attitudes towards his music to growing English  nationalism and its unfortunate companion, anti-Semitism – even though Mendelssohn, who was born Jewish,  had been baptized as a Lutheran when he was seven years old.

With quotations from contemporary sources, especially Mendelssohn’s letters, detailed footnotes and a useful glossary of names, this fascinating study of Mendelssohn’s ties to England deepens our understanding of his work, and increases our appreciation of his accomplishments.

Pamela Margles, theWholeNote’s regular book reviewer, can be contacted at

bookshelf@thewholenote.com

Zubin Mehta: The Score of My Life

52Zubin Cover Hi Resby Zubin Mehta with Renate Gräfin Matuschka
Amadeus Press
224 pages, photos;  $27.99 US

“As a conductor,” writes Zubin Mehta in this memoir, “I see in myself a friendly cultural policeman who shows people the way and directs everything.” Mehta is a self-described generalist – his conducting does not bear a personalized stamp, and his repertoire is too broad to provide him a distinctive niche. But his accomplishments, both musical and humanitarian, are significant. It’s a treat to be able to read about them here.

Mehta is candid about his thoughts on leading an orchestra and interpreting a composer’s score. But in spite of the title of his book, when it comes to the ‘score’ of his life he is more reticent - whether because of a reluctance to offend, or the presence of his second wife, actress Nancy Kovack, who has contributed a few pages of her own here. Perhaps understandably, there’s no acknowledgement of his intense relationship in the 1960’s with the great Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas, even though she is mentioned twice. But it’s odd that he is reluctant to write much about the event for which he is best known, the first - and most magical - Three Tenors concert, and the three singers involved, Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti.

He discusses great conductors from the previous generation, like Bruno Walter, von Karajan, and especially his beloved teacher Hans Swarowsky. But there’s little about conductors of his own generation, except for his friend Daniel Barenboim. There is even less about younger conductors like Kent Nagano, who has assumed two of his most long-standing positions, at the  Munich Opera and the Montreal Symphony.

Mehta is a compassionate and amusing storyteller. I especially enjoyed his descriptions of his early life in India as part of a remarkable family belonging to the tiny Parsi religious community. His exceptional loyalties, especially to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, yield unique relationships, and show how his stated credo, to give audiences ‘a chance to forget their troubles and their disagreements for at least a couple of hours’ is in fact far more meaningful – and valuable - than it sounded when I first read it.

Mehta’s ties to Canada are strong, especially with both children from his first marriage (to a Canadian) now living here. His son Mervon Mehta recently became director of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s new concert series in the just-opened Koerner Hall.  Reading Mehta’s compelling voice here leads me to hope that we will again be able to hear him conduct in Toronto, after many years away.

Pamela Margles, theWholeNote’s regular book reviewer, can be contacted at

bookshelf@thewholenote.com

 

The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music

52Adams - Place 4cby John Luther Adams
Wesleyan University Press
176 pages, photos & diagrams; US $24.95

This book by Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams describes the process he went through to create his most ambitious work yet, The Place Where You Go To Listen. In a room located above the entrance to the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, Adams has constructed a complex, self-contained environment filled with lights and sounds. The rhythms of sunlight and darkness, phases of the moon, seismic vibrations of the earth, fluctuations of the earth’s magnetic field, are all monitored from stations around Alaska, then electronically  translated into music and visuals.

Adams’ journal documents two-and-a-half years spent dealing with innumerable challenges and frustrations. So we understand how exasperated he must have felt when a member of the museum staff suggested hanging a painting of the aurora inside the space.  As New Yorker music critic Alex Ross points out in his foreword, and as Adams’ diaries makes clear, what came out of the difficult process is a deeply personal work.

As the work nears completion, he wonders whether he has enough courage for a life in art, writing that  “sometimes I feel like a fraud, as though my life doesn’t live up to the aspirations of my work.” Inevitably, he wonders about his place in the tradition of European classical music. Yet he finds confidence knowing he is carrying on the tradition of his teachers, the experimental visionaries Lou Harrison and James Tenney, who taught at York University in Toronto for many years.  “Those of us who believe that music can help change the world,” he writes, “must use whatever tools we can get our hands on to envision and create change.”

I enjoyed Adam’s previous book, Winter Music: Composing the North, enough to want to read this one. This new book leaves me longing to fly up to Alaska to experience The Place Where You Go to Listen first-hand.

Pamela Margles, theWholeNote’s regular book reviewer, can be contacted at

bookshelf@thewholenote.com


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