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Darkness and Light in Cologne

Kölner Philharmonie
05/28/2009 -  
Richard Strauss: Le Bourgeois gentilhomme – Suite, Op. 60
Frank Martin: Sechs Monologe aus "Jedermann"
Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu

Christian Gerhaher (Baritone), George Blüml (Speaker)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, Lothar Zagrosek (Conductor)

Christian Gerhaher (© Hiromishi Yamamoto)

Two comedic works surrounded a work of utmost seriousness on this offering from Lothar Zagrosek and the WDRSO Köln. Hugo von Hofmannsthal provided the link between the Strauss and Martin works, and the Zimmermann piece rounding out the concert gave the entire night’s seemed to attempt to provide the night’s odd program with a sense of symmetry.

Strauss’ incidental music to Hofmannsthal’s reworking of Molière’s comédie-ballet is very odd. While there are definite similarities between this purely instrumental music and Ariadne auf Naxos (which was composed contemporaneously), Strauss’ attempt at some sort of neo-classicism is not wholly satisfactory. There are many beautiful moments in the score, and Strauss’ adaptation of Lully is actually quite fine. That said, there is also a lot of “extra” in the score that could be simply edited out. Zagrosek and his players didn’t seem to mind, relishing the oddities and playing with utmost dedication. Naoko Ogihara was a fine soloist, negotiating Strauss’ difficult violin solos with ease and aplomb, and she was matched by equally fine contributions from the principal trumpet and clarinet. The central Lully triptych was gorgeously rendered, with the strings dropping all vibrato and the dialogue between low and high strings very involving with emphasized dynamic contrasts.

Although based on Hofmannsthal texts, Martin’s Jedermann Monologe seemed the odd man out on the program. There is no gimmick to the piece. It is a serious, somber and powerful work, easily among the greatest orchestral song cycles of the twentieth century. Christian Gerhaher confronted the rich tradition of baritones who have sung and continue to sing the cycle. He has recorded the version with piano, so it seemed a bit odd that there was some discomfort in his voice at first. The reticence and small voice of the first song gave way in the urgent second monologue (“Ach Gott, wie graust mir vor dem Tod”), where Gerhaher seemed encouraged by Zagrosek and the orchestra in their aggressively accented attacks. From here on out, the coordination and confidence between singer, conductor and orchestra locked in, and the performance gained in power through the climax of the fifth piece. The impassioned pleas of the final monologue were truly heart wrenching, and the glorious, brief coda, brought a coolness of strings and final bassoon commentary that was bone chilling. The communicative work and its dedicated performers received a hearty, lengthy ovation.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s late Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu is a bizarre collage piece. Beginning with an Entrée de l’Académie that is a twisted reworking of the “Promenade” from Pictures at an Exhibition alternating with organ outbursts of the “Dies irae”, and proceeding to a final Marche du décervelage that is an ingenious and exciting cross-cutting of Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold”, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX. Zimmermann himself described the works as: “A farce which is seemingly merry, fat and greedy, like Ubu himself: apparently an enormous prank, but for those who are able to hear beyond this, it is a warning allegory, macabre and amusing at the same time.” In between the eight musical numbers, Georg Blüml read excerpts from Italo Calvino’s libretto to Berio’s Un Re in ascolto. The orchestra was pared down to only winds and brass, with four double basses (very impressively deployed in the Pavane de Pissembock et Pissedoux). Guitar and mandolin are added to the mix, as is the aforementioned organ, used to rather shocking effect in the first and final movements. The entire performance had a surreal feeling, much as Calvino’s king imagines himself as Prospero, we were left imagining ourselves amongst the various musical landscapes that Zimmermann conjured and juxtaposed. The performance was expert, the brass in the opening and the finale playing with wonderful accuracy, the trumpet section providing a perfectly in tune and gorgeously phrased trio in the middle movements, and the enticing and bizarre colors of mandolin, guitar, and three piccolos tickling the ear. Georg Blüml’s repertoire of vocalizations and conviction with Calvino’s text provided interesting and apt commentary on the peculiar music.

Overall then, a very odd, successful performance of music not often heard. With the Martin being the “standard” repertoire piece on the concert, it was wonderful to see the audience so thoroughly engrossed in the production. It was certainly a mind-opening experience.

The Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra Website

Marcus Karl Maroney



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