Friday, July 13, 2012

Preview: A decidedly unorthodox musical tribute (if you can call it that) to Italy

by Ken

Tonight's music doesn't plug directly into the musical lovefest with Italy we've been celebrating the last couple of weeks with Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien and string sextet Souvenir de Florence and Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony. Eventually I think you'll see how it all hooks up, but for tonight you may have to take it on faith.

The Italian Singer conjured here by our emphatically non-Italian lyricist and composer isn't exactly what you'd call a homage, but is at least meant to be, well, sort of Italian. The aria our team created for their tenor is by no means easy to sing. Without getting fancy about it, I've simply plucked out three very famous tenors who happen to have recorded it (plus another from a famous recording), and none of them has an easy time with it. Indeed I've alway suspected that one of them still wishes he could have had another crack at it, or perhaps he doesn't think it would have helped.

Given the degree of difficulty, it's always an intriguing question as to how well our composer expected it to be sung. At least when well sung, though, it's such a ravishing piece that with almost any other composer it would seem all but inconceivable that it didn't aim deliberately at being one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. With this particular composer, however, there are a number of instances of startling beauty that doesn't seem to fit the general understanding of the situations for which it was written. My feeling is that the deficiency lies in the general understanding of the situations and not the composer's calibration of musical appropriateness, but as I say, it's a legitimate question.

Right now we're going to hear just the aria itself, and for these cuts I've left myself at the mercy of the CD track editors, and have therefore arranged the performances in the order of how much of the orchestral lead-in is included in the aria track -- [A] includes hardly any, [C] and [D] the whole thing. Of course all the music is included in all the recordings; I'm speaking only of where the track point occurs.

In the click-through, where we're going to hear the whole little scene for which this aria was created, I've made sure that we hear the fulll orchestral lead-in all three times.






Since this is supposed to be an Italian tenor, can you tell which if any of our four tenors is/are in fact Italian?

Luciano Pavarotti as the Singer in Der Rosenkavalier

It is what we're presumably meant to take as a typical morning at home in Vienna with the Feldmarschallin (i.e., wife of the Field Marshall) Princess Werdenberg. We're in her boudoir, where a veritable circus of personal-service providers, purveyors of diversions, and supplicants have found their way, and are singly and overlappingly doing whatever it is they came to do in the great lady's presence.

Also on hand, to the Marschallin's considerable annoyance, is unpleasant cousin, Baron Ochs of Lerchenau (whom we met briefly in the February 2010 post "Glimpses of the musical depths of Richard Strauss"), leaning on her for assorted assistance in the planning for his impending nuptials. As our scene begins, an Italian tenor, accompanied (in both senses) by a flutist, sets up to sing. Meanwhile the Baron has commandeered the Marschallin's Notary, and is dictating greed-besotted, not to mention illegal, terms for a wedding settlement outside the actual wedding agreement.

R. STRAUSS: Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59: Act I, Italian Singer, "Di rigori armato"
Sorry, but I didn't have the time, energy, or stamina do texts and translations -- I mean, for a preview! My bad. Anyway, here's the gist of it:

After the Singer has managed to get in an entire stanza of his song, we hear the exchange between the Baron and the Notary, which becomes increasingly unpleasant. At a propitious moment the Singer launches a second stanza, but the quarrel between the Baron and the Notary becomes so heated that the startled Singer breaks off.

Plácido Domingo (t), Italian Singer; Walter Berry (bs-b), Baron Ochs; Ljubomir Pantscheff (bs), Notary; Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded 1971

Nicolai Gedda (t), Italian Singer; Otto Edelmann (bs-b), Baron Ochs; Harald Pröglhöf (bs), Notary; Philharmonia Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan, cond. EMI, recorded 1957

Anton Dermota (t), Italian Singer; Ludwig Weber (bs), Baron Ochs; Franz Bierbach (bs), Notary; Vienna Philharmonic, Erich Kleiber, cond. Decca, recorded June 1954 (mono)

Luciano Pavarotti (t), Italian Singer; Manfred Jungwirth (bs), Baron Ochs; Alfred Jerger (bs-b), Notary; Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded November 1968


With Richard Strauss, however, it's not entirely unknown for him to have written music that's more indelibly beautiful than the situation calls for. In this very opera, for example, I raised the question here when we dipped into Act II and met Baron Ochs's (monstrously) intended bride, young Sophie von Faninal. A lot of her music is of such astounding beauty -- a level of splendor probably obtainable by maybe two or three other composers -- that it's hard to believe it doesn't tell us something about an inner radiance. I certainly experience that, but I have to acknowledge the possibility, at least, that Strauss may simply have overshot.


Quite apart from this exercise in Italianness, the young Strauss himself had an idyllic Italian experience, which inspired his first symphonic poem, appropriately titled Aus Italien (From Italy). Sunday we're going to listen to Aus Italien.

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