Last night was time for another injection of culture, so I went again to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a programme of music played by the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera conducted by musical director Lothar Koenigs.
The first item on the programme was the set of five Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children) by Gustav Mahler, settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert drawn from a huge collection of tragic verse the poet produced in reaction to the death of his children from scarlet fever. Mahler’s daughter Maria herself suffered the same fate in 1909, four years after the first performance of the Kindertotenlieder. Of course these works are immensely poignant, but the pervading atmosphere is not just of melancholy but also of resignation. The soloist last night was mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly who gave a performance of great dignity and emotional power. She has a simply gorgeous voice, with lovely velvety chest tones as well as strength and clarity in the upper register. She looked the part too, her facial expressions adding to the sense of tragedy underlying the music. One for Mahler fans only, I suspect, but I loved it.
The next piece before the interval was quite new to me, A Survivor from Warsaw, written by Arnold Schoenberg in 1947 as a reaction to the persecution of jews in the Warsaw ghetto. In addition to the orchestra this work features a male chorus and a narrator (WNO regular David Soar) who recounts the story of a massacre in the declamatory Sprechstimme that Schoenberg used in several works. I was surprised to learn from the programme that the narration was actually written in English (as it was performed last night), but I don’t think the texture of the English language really suits this style of vocalisation. The male chorus sings a setting of the Shema Yisrael amidst sounds representing the violence of the attacking soldiers. The music is rigorously atonal: disturbing, agonized and entirely appropriate to the subject. Not exactly easy listening, but why on Earth should it be?
After the interval we heard the main piece of the evening, Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) by Johannes Brahms. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know that I’m not exactly a devout follower of Brahms, but he is a composer I somehow feel I ought to persevere with. The German Requiem is, like the preceding pieces, a reaction to loss; in this case it was probably the deaths of Brahms’ mother and of his friend Robert Schumman that led Brahms to compose the work. It’s not a traditional Requiem, in the sense of being a liturgical setting, but it does take its text from the scriptures. It’s also a very large work, comprising seven movements lasting well over an hour altogether, and is Brahms’ longest composition. Soloists were David Soar (bass-baritone) and Laura Mitchell (soprano); the latter wore a white dress and black shoes to the consternation of the fashion-conscious members of the audience. Apparently that’s a no-no.
This is not a work that I’m familiar with amd it’s such a long piece that it’s difficult to take it all in during one performance. Inevitably, therefore, there are parts that stand out in my memory better than others. The orchestral playing was very tight, full of colour, and never lost momentum. However, I would say that the Chorus of Welsh National Opera were absolutely magnificent; the dramatic intensity they achieved during the crescendi in the 2nd movement (Denn alles Fleisch, with text drawn from Psalm 126) definitely raised the hairs on the back of my neck. That alone was enough to make me want to listen to this again. I’d therefore like to ask any readers of this blog please to help by suggesting good recordings of this work through the Comments box.
Here’s a version of the 2nd Movement I found on youtube, just to give you an idea of its sombre majesty, but last night’s rendition was better. Try to imagine what the crescendo that grows from about 3.00 sounds like live…Follow @telescoper