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Modern art

Royal Albert Hall
08/02/2001 -  
Arnold Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra
Sergey Rakhmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 1
Kurt Weill, orch. Gunther Schuller: Royal Palace

Janice Watson (Dejanira), Stephen Richardson (Husband), Ashley Holland (Yesterday's Lover), Peter Bronder (Tomorrow's Admirer), Huw Rhys-Evans (Young Fisherman), Clive Bayley (Old Fisherman), Camilla Tilling (Off-stage Voice)
Leif Ove Andsens (piano)

Andrew Davis (conductor)

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Apollo Voices

The works in Prom 17 all reached their final form between 1917 and 1928, and they present an interesting reflection on Germanic modernism. You might suspect that the Rakhmaninov concerto was there to make sure that the audience was large enough to absorb the echo. But Leif Ove Andsens lucid, gush-free performance brought out a spiky sense of form beneath the melodies that wasn't too far from Schoenberg's radical variations. Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conversely brought out the melodic beauty of Schoenberg's theme, based on the name of Bach, the grand master of romanticism-in-formalism.

Weill studied with Schoenberg, but dropped any interest in serialism early in his career while developing his neo-baroque romanticism and his forte in dramatic music of all kinds. He regarded his first collaboration with the surrealist Franco-German poet Iwan Goll, Der neue Orpheus as a turning point in his musical career. Their second work together, Royal Palace seems to have been more problematic at the time: its first production in 1927 was withdrawn, and after a second production in 1929 it disappeared until the start of the Weill revival in 1971.

The scenario could at first sight have been written by Hofmannsthal, with hints of Der Rosenkavalier and a modern-mythical central figure reminiscent of Die Aegyptische Helene. Dejanira, a world-weary woman married to a dim plutocrat, is confronted by her husband and two lovers at the expensive lakeside hotel of the title and challenged to choose between them. The hotel is staffed with dancing page-boys and the lake is full of Nereids and fished by pictureque fishermen. But Goll's treatment is closer to the baroque play and display of Monteverdi's or Cavalli's librettists, on a compact, fifty-minute, scale, presumably from the Surrealist's fellow-feeling with the more off-colour bits of Ovid and Propertius rather than by direct acquaintance. The suitors say that they formally represent money, intellect and imagination, and each puts on a display of what he offers, with appropriate music. The husband presents a film of Dejanira's jet-set life; yesterday's lover offers a ballet of the nights they have spent together; tomorrow's admirer offers a pageant of Orpheus in nature. But Dejanira finds them all self-centred -- each says "I" all the time and never engages with her -- and she dives in the lake to be transformed into a mermaid.

Weill's music is an early phase of his cabaret style, an obvious and deliberate antidote to both Wagner and Strauss, although the melodies are less structured and, again, at times close to Monteverdi's in their dramatic straightforwardness. The ballets and set-pieces are self-consciously modern, the Orpheus masque especially so, and suggest acquaintance with Satie and friends. But Dejanira's final slow tango as she sinks transformed into the lake is suffocatingly sensuous and weary, and unmistakeably Weill's.

The concert performance was semi-staged and credited with a director, but it really was a concert performance. Janice Watson as Dejanira had a very long sea-green wrap that she trailed across the platform, but she was obviously tied to the music on a bel epoque music stand. But she exuded ennui, and sang beautifully when she looked up from her copy.. She is going to be a superb Marschallin very soon, but didn't quite deliver tonight perhaps because she wasn't quite prepared. Camilla Trilling was a magical solo lake nymph, and the Apollo Voices provided glamorously spooky ensemble sprites. Stephen Richardson was good and obtuse as the husband, and Ashley Holland and Peter Bronder were splendidly vocally contrasted as the two lovers. Huw Rhys-Evans was almost inaudible as the decorative young fisherman, but Clive Bayley next to him at the back of the orchestra upstaged everyone with his few sonorous bars as the prophetic old fisherman. It's possible he was amplified by mistake (the few words of spoken text were), but it's more likely that he is staking a claim as John Tomlinson's heir apparent in both vocal style and volume.

The opera ends with the dim and literal husband realising what has happened and calling out for help: "someone has drowned". In this version, Andrew Davis said the line and dashed off the stage, brilliantly highlighting the way we all distance ourselves from suffering when it is presented as art, until it is too late.

H.E. Elsom



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