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Die alte Sachlichkeit

Queen Elizabeth Hall
11/25/2001 -  
Max Brand: Maschinist Hopkins
James Hancock (Bill), Carmel Gutteridge (Nell), Stephen Bowen (Hopkins), Alan Loader (Jim/Bertier), Arthur Davis (company secretary/director), Lindsey Day (producer), Markus Norrman (Music director), Annette Wase (young girl), Joanne Pullicino (power source), Charlie Tetley, Sakura Schäfer-Nameki (workers), Michael Hall, Andrew Hanrahan, Mike Webb, Jon Paxman, Satish Raghavan, Matthew Wilkinson (jazz chorus)

Churchill College Chorus, Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra

Peter Tregear (conductor), Katja Lehmann

It's not surprising really to find that Simon Rattle is president of the Jewish Music Institute's Forum for Suppressed Music, since Rattle has done as much as anyone on the planet to encourage music of all kinds. Finding Barry Humphries (the alter ego of the lower middle lowbrow Dame Edna Everage, and of Sir Les Patterson, whose brows are somewhere around his knees) as "patron and host" of the JMI's day, Thwarted Voices: music suppressed by the Third Reich, is at first more of a surprise. In a delightful brief talk, Humphries told how growing up among emigrés in Melbourne during and after the second world war he became fascinated by the European music of the 1930s and bought records and scores, many of them presumably brought to Australia by refugees and sold when they ceased to be the music of the time and place, or in sadder circumstances. Everything looks like ephemera ten minutes after it goes out of date, but most music survives in archives and libraries, or in the repertoire of its original performers. Humphries' discoveries (amazingly prompted initially by that great survivor Slominsky) were of works whose composers and performers, as well as their scores and texts, were systematically destroyed by the Nazis. Those who survived found themselves in a world where at best everything was different and they wanted to keep it that way and at worst art itself could be seen as a problem.

Most of the day's events extended the exposure of composers and styles included in Decca's Entartete Musik series, with programmes of songs and chamber music. The centre-piece of the day, though, Maschinist Hopkins is by Max Brand, a composer almost completely unknown except to specialists, who continued composing after the war and returned to his native Austria in 1975, keeping up his interest in mechanical and electronic music until his death in 1980. Maschinist Hopkins has a chorus of factory machines who are as important a presence as any of the characters, and it also features a jazz chorus using words by George Anteil, the American master of mechanical music. But the striking thing about it is that it is essentially a verismo opera, whose high point is a lush Straussian duet between Bill, a factory owner who has murdered his boss, and Nell, the late boss's wife, now married to Bill and on her way (she thinks) to a career as a singer. The eponymous Hopkins is a kind of ambivalent Iago, initially Bill's lackey, then turning on him because of the conditions of the workers and manipulating Nell to destroy her, until he takes over Bill's factory and proclaims a sinister-looking union of labour and capital, an apparent inversion of the utopian end of Metropolis.

There are certainly harbingers of Lulu in both the music and the dramatic treatment, but Wozzeck and maybe Turandot, Tosca even, (both written little more than ten years before) are perhaps closer parallels, outwardly modern operas that sum up the nineteenth-century. Even Brand's Marxist theme, with its self-perpetuating corruption by capitalist industrial power, has hints of Wagner's Ring.

But if Maschinist Hopkins wasn't that radical, its success in competition with the likes of Weill and Eisler suggests that it was pretty good of its kind. This performance confirmed its quality in principle, although the student orchestra and (particularly) chorus didn't really get into either the mechanical precision or the high romantic sweep of the relevant parts of the music. The main singers were much more on top of their music, with James Hancock showing the makings of a Heldentenor at Bill, and Stephen Bowen promising an Iago to come. Carmel Gutteridge as the besotted and abused Nell sounded terrific in the big duet, but was shorter on stage presence than Hancock and Bowen.

The performance was sung in English translation, but the words were completely inaudible. The production, which used video impressively, made the settings for each scene (office, nightclub and similar) clear, but you had to read the synopsis in the programme to have the faintest chance of following what was going on. The chorus was particularly puzzling, as they sounded flat and soggy, and if you didn't know they were meant to be machines you might have thought they were the downtrodden masses toiling without end. But it was all powerful, and thoroughly operatic, enough to show that a full professional production would be worth it.

H.E. Elsom



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