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

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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

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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

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Bookshelf - September 2009

48_MusicalExoticism

Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections
by Ralph P. Locke
Cambridge University Press
440 pages, photos, musical examples; $110.95

In this rewarding study, Ralph Locke offers a broad-ranging approach to the use of exotic elements in western music. For Locke, who teaches at the Eastman School of Music, it’s not just a matter of examining the notes of a score. Nor is it sufficient to study the context of a work. Equally important are factors like “the particulars of a given performance and the musical and cultural preparation of a given listener.”

By uncovering an expanded range of meanings, Locke’s analysis makes a work with exotic content “more durably enjoyable, continuingly relevant, and perhaps, by the very strength of its musical imagination, healthily problematic.” I can’t think of a work that wouldn’t benefit from such an approach, but nonetheless it pays rich dividends here.

Starting in the baroque with Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, he unearths political issues like colonialism, tyranny, nationalism, and racism, as well as cultural issues like the relationship between folk music and art music. He shows how, in Madame Butterfly (coming up in the COC’s fall season) Puccini used Japanese folk  tunes – or what he thought to be Japanese folk-tunes – to make Cio-Cio San  “one of the most richly realized characters in the operatic repertoire.”  Similarly Locke illustrates how Bizet’s handling of Spanish, Cuban and Gypsy-flamenco themes  becomes part of the dramatic structure of Carmen (also on the COC’s fall roster).

Though his main focus is on opera, Locke also looks at  piano works like Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and Chopin’s Mazurkas, orchestral works, jazz, popular songs and Broadway musicals like West Side Story (now on stage at Stratford).

Locke’s ultimate concern is how to produce a work with ethnic or exotic colour most effectively. When controversial opera directors like Calixto Bieito relocate an opera, they are in effect removing the exotic elements. And when a contemporary composer like the Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov “merges all too readily the different chosen materials” he is treating a work as if it were “capable, somewhat like a food-processing machine, of smoothing out stubborn  tensions between nations and peoples.” For Locke, the solution is “not to rip it apart and rewrite it to suit our own ideas, nor to refuse to perform it, but to get to know it better, contend with its original content and messages, and think about its implications for today.”

48_John Arpin cover_b&wJohn Arpin, Keyboard Virtuoso
by Robert Popple
Dundurn Press
358 pages, photos; $26.00

Pianist John Arpin could play anything, from opera arias with Maureen Forrester, and  his own jazz arrangements with a big band, to solo rags. Yet he never achieved the kind of reputation he deserved, even at home in Toronto. Perhaps it was because he  played in so many styles, though biographer Robert Popple blames ineffective marketing, bad luck with insolvent recording companies and a too-gentle personality.

Popple, whose friendship with Arpin dates back over fifty years, is unstinting in his admiration. His familiarity with Arpin’s life makes for lively anecdotes, especially about Arpin’s numerous entanglements with women, many of whom were musicians.

But that closeness with his subject leads Popple to lay on descriptions of Arpin’s genius too thickly. “No other Canadian,” he writes, “has matched his stupendous musical reach – either in breadth or depth, nor has, arguably, any other keyboard musician worldwide.” Then he  continues to call Arpin “gifted” or “excellent and proficient” at every turn.

The best material comes directly from Arpin’s own comments, based on Popple’s extensive conversations with him before he died in 2007. Popple quotes them often, and annotates them meticulously in his endnotes. About Glenn Gould, a friend from student days at the Royal Conservatory, Arpin says, “He wasn’t welded in a rigid way to the strict, mechanical setting of the notes that the composer wrote. He’d try things, experiment a lot, and he was constantly analyzing the music, trying to get inside the composer’s mind, always trying to imagine ‘What was he thinking?’ But he couldn’t play anything that wasn’t classical, written right there in front of him.”

We meet  interesting figures from the Canadian classical and jazz worlds, like Victor Di Bello, John Arab, Percy Faith, and Ruth Lowe, but we learn little about them. And John  Weinzweig is identified merely as a “teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music”, and American composer  Ferde Grofé is referred to as ‘Ferdy Grope’

This is a lively and sympathetic portrait of a seminal figure in Canadian music. Popple’s ability to convey what is special about Arpin’s music led me – to my delight – to listen to Arpin’s recordings of Scott Joplin.

48_TenorTenor: History of a Voice
by John Potter
Yale University Press
316 pages, photos; $35.00 US

In 1837, tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez stunned the audience at the Paris Opera by singing a performance of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell -  including the famous high C’s – in full chest voice. As John Potter writes in this fascinating history of the tenor voice, “This was the point of no return for tenors, a change in the very nature of the voice and a defining characteristic of the best (and worst) tenor singing ever since.” It also precipitated one of the most tragic episodes in operatic history. Potter chronicles how the great Adolphe Nourrit, who had premiered the role, and whose singing Rossini actually preferred, attempted to remake his voice to compete with Duprez. He ended up committing suicide at age thirty-seven.

Potter is a tenor himself. He sang for years with the innovative Hilliard Ensemble and recently recorded Dowland with saxophone accompaniment. He traces the development of the tenor voice from its earliest documented origins in twelfth century church music, through the increasingly virtuosic demands on tenors due to the influence of the castrati, with their lightness and agility.  Since the demise of the castrati, Duprez’s breakthrough, and the development of recordings, operatic tenors have been expected to fill huge opera houses with ringing high notes.

Inevitably most of Potter’s focus is on opera singers, as he highlights the contributions of significant singers of the past and present. including Canadians  Léopold Simoneau, Jon Vickers, Ermanno Mauro and Ben Heppner.

He  looks at such recent phenomena as ‘stadium tenors’, writing that “if you start your career in stadiums, the chances of a retreat into an actual opera theatre are rather remote, as Mario Lanza found (ultimately to his cost).” Even though he appreciates each member of the Three Tenors individually, as an ensemble, he writes, they “reinforced the tendency for the public to be offered a very limited musical diet, anthologized in the form of a ‘greatest hits’ collection, with none of the vagaries of operatic plots or the contortions of recitative to contend with.” On the other hand, early music tenors occupy “one of the few areas in which creative singers can have the expectation of a career outside the realm of opera,” in spite of what he refers to in an endnote to a Handel aria as “the bland offerings of the twenty-first century early music movement.”


Book Shelf July/August 2009

Menahem Pressler: Artistry in Piano Teaching

by William Brown

Indiana University Press

326 pages, photos; $24.95 US

Menachem Pressler is best known for his performances and recordings with the legendary Beaux Arts Trio, which just disbanded after fifty years. He has also maintained an active solo career. But in this biography William Brown shows him to be as great a teacher as he is pianist. Brown studied with Pressler at his long-time base at Indiana University. He uses interviews with former students, associates, family members, and Pressler himself, along with transcripts of lecture-demonstrations and Pressler's detailed commentaries on specific works, to create a vivid portrait of Pressler as a teacher.

By offering different perspectives on Pressler's teaching style, Brown offers a treasure-trove of musical insights. Above all, what comes through in these pages is the passion and commitment with which Pressler shares what really matters to him. "It's good, but it's not magic," he says after hearing a student play. "Play as if your life depends upon it," he tells a student. To another he explains that the function of music is "to make life worth living".

In a chapter called ‘Pressler's Humor', a former student recalls, "He was horrified with the whole notion of vacations. I'd come back, and I'd have a cold, and he'd say, ‘You see, you took a vacation, and now you're sick.' So, I couldn't win. It was impossible." Clearly he is not just trying to be funny. He is passing on

what it means to him to devote one's life to music.

The key to his interpretive approach is revealed when he tells a student, "If the choice is to take the excitement of the performance or the clean note, take the excitement. If you hit it clean, how great, yes?" He then relates that directly to his own playing, "That's terrible advice from a piano teacher, but it's the advice I'm giving myself when I perform. That's how I live my life in performance."

Menahem Pressler is in Toronto with Toronto Summer Music from July 20 until July 25, coaching piano and chamber ensembles. On July 23 he gives a concert with Pressler & Friends at 8:00 in the MacMillan Theatre.

Pressler performs with the Emerson String Quartet on October 2009 8:00 in Koerner Hall.

Never Sang for Hitler: The Life and Times of Lotte Lehmann

by Michael Kater

Cambridge University Press

411 pages, photos; $36.95

Michael Kater takes a different approach to his subject than Brown in this biography of the German singer Lotte Lehmann,. He acknowledges her ‘natural genius'. He appreciates, from recordings, the sweetness and purity of her voice, and her ability to convey emotion soulfully and sincerely. He admires her forthright personality, her charisma and her ability to captivate audiences. He readily documents her many acts of generosity.

But at the same time he portrays her as opportunistic, greedy, manipulative, naïve, materialistic, jealous, and, worst of all, untruthful. "Money and enhanced career opportunities seem to have been her only motivation," he writes.

Kater, who teaches history at York University, has written extensively on 20th German culture. Here his prime concern is to place Lehmann in the social context of her times - she lived in Germany and Austria until 1934, then in California until her death in 1976. His provocative study shines a disturbing light on the relationship between Lehmann's art and her political milieu.

During the course of his exhaustive, meticulously documented research, Kater discovered correspondence "in an obscure archive in Vienna" dealing with a meeting Lehmann had with Hermann Göring in 1934. For the rest of her life she painted herself as a fanatical anti-Nazi who bravely refused to sing for them.

But Kater reveals another story altogether. Lehmann wanted to sing for Hitler. The only reason she never did was because she couldn't work out a satisfactory deal with Göring for the Berlin State Opera, hard as she tried.

After that, almost everything she does is presented in the light of her duplicity. So she only started giving lieder recitals, which were unusual in America at the time, because she couldn't get enough opera jobs. And she only started teaching because her singing career was washed up.

Kater creates a fascinating portrait of a great singer and her times. Yet his approach is controversial, especially in his determination to set the historical record straight rather than explaining Lehmann's artistry. What bothers him most is not that she wanted to sing for Hitler, but that she took advantage of what were truly horrible circumstances for so many to falsely present herself as a heroic victim of the Nazis. "It should now have been clear to Lehmann," writes Kater, "that reaching for the stars, while making a pact with the devil, had its price."

Death With Interruptions

by José  Saramago

translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Harcourt

250 pages; $30.95

In this brilliant and very funny novel, the Portugese writer José Saramago imagines that death takes a holiday. But the citizens of the unnamed country where nobody is dying fail to appreciate the gift of eternal life. What's more, it's a disaster for undertakers, hospitals, life insurance companies, politicians and the military. Church officials worry whether people will start rejecting the resurrection and afterlife, and stop believing in god, if no-one ever dies.

After seven months, death - who is a woman here -goes back to work. This time she mails out warnings to those about to die, to give them time to prepare. But to her surprise this is appreciated even less than her holiday.

When one of death's violet-coloured warning letters is repeatedly returned to her, she visits the man who keeps failing to receive the letter and die. He turns out to be a middle-aged cellist who plays first chair in the national symphony. Death sees the score of Bach's sixth cello suite in d major - Saramago sticks to the lower case - open on a chair. "She didn't need to be able to read music to know that it had been written, like beethoven's ninth symphony, in the key of joy, of unity between men, of friendship and of love," writes Saramago. "Then something extraordinary happened, something unimaginable, death fell to her knees."

Death takes the form of an attractive young woman and goes to the concert where the cellist is performing a solo passage. "The cellist starts to play his solo as if he had been born for that alone," writes Saramago. "He plays as if he were bidding farewell to the world, as if he were at last saying everything that he had always kept unsaid, the truncated dreams, the frustrated yearnings, in short, life." The audience cheers, and death falls in love.

This satire on the worlds of politics, business and religion reveals Saramago's inventive imagination, as well as his cynical world-view. Yet there is profound humanity in his voice, a fact that was not unnoticed when he won the Nobel Prize in 1998. If death can be seduced by music, as happens here, then music - and, presumably, all art - holds the key to life after death.


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