Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sunday Classics inquiry: How can Mime solve his problem?

WAGNER: SiegfriedAct I Prelude

Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, May and Oct. 1962

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, cond. Teldec, recorded live, June-July 1992

Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded Dec. 1968 and Feb. 1969

Sadler's Wells Opera Orchestra, Reginald Goodall, cond. EMI-Chandos, recorded live, August 1973

by Ken

I would have liked, but couldn't find, a nice image of a darkened theater to accompany these miraculous opening pages of Siegfried, the third installment in Wagner's cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, mostly occupied with music associated with the dwarflike Nibelungs, plunging us into the crisis faced by the Nibelung we will re-meet when the curtain rises, Mime (that's two syllables: MEE-muh), the brother of "the" Nibelung, Alberich, the Nibelung of the title.

This is such amazing,music, starting with that weird trio for two bassoons and bass tuba over hushed timpani, punctuated by those stabbing fluorishes first from the cellos, then from the violas. It's music that's murky, growly, mysterious, music that seems to me to demand a heightening of all the senses -- and above all of the imagination, for both performers and listeners. From the performers' standpoint, this is where your musicianship and musicianly instincts are tested, or rather exploited.

You'd have to be a real dunderhead to miss the potent brew of expectation and dread trembling to life here. As it happens, I heard just such a dunderheaded performance; that's one of two recent encounters that I want to tell you a little about, encounters that landed us here at the start of Siegfried, the third installment in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung.

I don't think any of our conductors here have anything to apologize for. Though I've arranged them in order of increasing range of inquisitiveness, Solti's performance seems to me quite lovely, alert and shiveringly alive. Barenboim, however, hears somewhat darker colors, and a more foreboding tread. Then Karajan really digs in, and finally Goodall takes the most searching view, taking nothing for granted here.


a reader who had stumbled on my October post "Last scherzo with Anton," which was part of the protracted Sunday Classics shutdown keyed to a parting traverssal of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony. In that post we relistened to three Brucker scherzos -- those of the Second, Fourth, and Seventh Symphonies -- before plunging into the last of the series, the violent scherzo of the Ninth.

My commenter commented:
Hello. I came across your blog while doing a Google search trying to learn more about Bruckner's scherzos ("scherzi"?). I listen to and enjoy all of his symphonies and over the years I've accumulated multiple versions of most of them. I once listened to a radio program in which the announcer commented that some people feel that Bruckner "wrote the same scherzo nine times". He then played each in random order and offered a prize to the first listener to call in and correctly identify all of them.

I want to learn more about the musical form of these pieces. In analysing music The usual practice (and one that I find useful) is to themes with designate capital letters, Using this scheme, Bruckner's scherzos appear to me to be AABBAA.

In talking about music you apparently don't use this mrthod that many of us learned in school. You might want to adopt it in order to make your descriptions less subjective and more useful.
I'm sorry to say that I wasn't very helpful. I wrote:
Or then again I might not want to "adopt" it, in hope of helping to ensure that the listening experience is ENTIRELY subjective.
I got back a nice reply of disagreement, insisting that there's an objective part of the listening experience. Well, no, I don't think there is, because I don't think any kind of "experience" can ever be anything but subjective. But I didn't want to get involved in that discussion.

And I should have been grateful to my commenter for letting me know what he would like to read. I've spent these many years trying to get some idea, any idea, of what any readers out there might prefer, meanwhile trying a little of this and a little of that. And my feeling is that anything we can do to help focus and expand the listening experience is to the good.

As it happens, the post in question was an intentionally minimalist one in terms of my chattering. First, because I didn't much feel like talking. Second, because we'd already heard three of the four scherzos in question. And third, because over the years we've listened to quite a lot of scherzos, and it's hardly a complex form -- basically another example of the simple but potentially incredibly powerful A-B-A, which we've talked about, for example, in connection with classics of the form like Handel arias, but also in terms of "sonata form," whose cycle of exposition, development, and recapitulation is another clear case of A-B-A. (If one wishes to insist on "AABBAA," all that is really is A-B-A with section repeats.)

Actually, I might throw in a third, entirely coincidental encounter that occurred about this same time: I happened to watch, I think for the first time, the November 1964 Young People's Concert in which, almost seven years into the series, Leonard Bernstein finally dared to tackle the subject of sonata form.

One distinction I would like to draw is that to me this really isn't so much "analysis" as "description." "Analysis" suggests that we're endeavoring to "solve" the thing, to arrive at some sort of "understanding" of it, whereas music, it seems to me, like all other art forms, isn't meant to be understood but to be experienced, to be allowed to act on us. Still, as I said, anything that helps each of us as our own listener be a more acute and effective listener seems to me all to the good. One road I'm not keen to travel down is "music appreciation."

It's the combination, though, of these musings on musical experience, the good old basic A-B-A form, and that execrable performance of Siegfried I had the misfortune to hear (more than once, in fact; it was cycling on the satellite radio where I was visiting) that led me back to Mime's dreadful plight as the curtain rises on Act I of Siegfried. The monologue he sings might as well be a "da capo" baroque aria of the Handelian sort. Because the A-B-A form, or perhaps better "format," is one of our basic modes of experience. We're engaged in some sort of heightened activity -- the need to solve a life-altering problem, say. Then at some point, when we've taken that problem to the limit of our problem-solving capacity, the mind has to find relief of some sort, or at least a change. Maybe it's a possible solution, or a contrastingly happier train of thought, related to the problem but differentiated from it. But in the end, unless by good fortune a solution has been found, the brain will cycle back to the original problem, still there in all its imposingess, though perhaps with some changes reflective of the mental journey taken in that "B" section.


at the start of Act I of Siegfried. Against all odds he's actually in a position to realize his grand scheme to gain possession of the precious ring his brother Alberich fashioned from the Rhinegold. The target is in sight; he is living in the very forest where the giant Fafner, having transformed himself into a dragon, is sitting on the hoard that includes the ring. And he has the instrument, having assumed guardianship of sorts of the young hero Siegfried, who clearly has the mettle to take on Fafner. What he doesn't have is a weapon for Siegfried to use for the task. Despite all his forging skill, he can't produce a sword that will hold up to Siegfried's strength.

There is one sword, though . . . and now we're in the B section.

Now, Mime can be a whining nuisance, or he can be someone who, unsympathetic though he may on the whole be, is in a plight recognizable enough to most of us to be of more than academic interest. I'm going to be tracing a particular path through the performances I've selected, but you should feel free just to focus on the music, jumping right into one or more of the performances.

WAGNER: Siegfried: Act I Prelude and Mime's opening monologue
Act I: A Forest
The foreground represents part of a cave in the rocks, extending inwards more deeply to the left, but occupying about three-quarters of the stage depth to the right. There are two natural entrances to the forest, the one to the right opening directly, and the other, broader one opening sideways to the background. On the rear wall to the left is a large smith's forge, formed naturally from pieces of rock; only the large bellow are artificial. A rough chimney, also natural, passes through the roof of the cave. A very large anvil and other smith's tools.

Scene 1
MIME sits at the anvil and with increasing anxiety hammers at a sword; at length he stops working, in ill humor.

MIME: Wearisome labor!
Work till I drop!
The strongest sword
I struggle to make,
an amazing weapon,
fit for a giant;
but when I have made it,
that insolent Siegfried
just laughs and snaps it in two,
as though I'd made him a toy!
[In ill humor MIME throws the sword down on the anvil, places his arms akimbo, and gazes at the ground in thought.]
I know one sword
that could not be shattered:
Nothung's fragments
he never would break,
if only I could forge
those pieces,
if but my skill
could achieve that deed!
[He sinks further back and lowers his head in thought.]
Fafner, the mighty dragon,
lies there within these woods,
and protects with his monstrous bulk
the Nibelung gold,
guarding it well.
Siegfried's conquering strength
could quickly lay Fafner low;
the Nibelung's ring
would then come to me!
And one sword is all that I nee,
and Nothung only will serve,
when Siegfried deals him the blow:
and I cannot forge it,
Nothung the sword.
[He has readjusted the sword, and returns to his hammering in deepest dejection.]
Wearisome labor!
Work till I drop!
The strongest sword
that ever I make
will prove too weak
for that one mighty deed!
I tinker and tap away
because Siegfried commands:
He laughs and snaps it in two,
and scolds me if I don't work.
[He lets the hammer fall.]
-- singing translation by Andrew Porter, used in the Goodall-
Sadler's Wells (not yet English National Opera) recording

Gerhard Stolze (t), Mime; Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, May and Oct. 1962

It's noteworthy that there was no legitimate commercial recording of Siegfried until Decca made its studio recording in Vienna in 1962. Now, when we have dozens of recordings, it may be hard to imagine that such a gaping hole in the catalog could have endured to such a late date. And to the credit of all concerned, the Solti-Decca Siegfried remains a lovely piece of work, even if it lacks a really credible Siegfried. But then, credible Siegfrieds aren't easy to come by; this may be the most grueling role in the tenor literature. And I'm certainly not the only music lover whose principal entryway into the opera was via the Solti-Decca recording. Again, Solti was never the most searching of Wagner conductors, and Decca producer John Culshaw -- as we can see in the documentary film The Golden Ring made during the historic recording of Götterdämmerung -- was eager to discourage any searching impulses he might have had. All that said, Solti made real music of Wagner, and the wonderfully mysterious opening of Siegfried shows

With regard to the casting of Mime, in Ring Resounding, Culshaw's account of the epochal achievement of recording that first Ring cycle, the producer says that when it came to Siegfried, he felt that Paul Kuen, who had been singing the role at Bayreuth in the '50s and had sung the Rheingold Mime in Decca's 1958 recording, was now too old. The tenor he cast instead was the singer I suspect he really wanted anyway: the steely-voiced Gerhard Stolze (who had sung Herod in the recording of Richard Strauss's Salome Culshaw made with Solti in 1961). Stolze's way with Mime, and indeed all the character-tenor roles he sang, was so distinctive vocally and so distinctively, um, percussive, that I didn't properly appreciate it at the time, longing instead for a vocally more, well, singing sound. The fact is, it would be a long time before I heard a Mime who came within hailing distance of Stolze, especially in the darker, more richly imagined Karajan version.

How Kuen would have sounded in 1962, when Culshaw passed him over for Stolze, I can't say, but eventually we got to hear Knappertsbusch-conducted performances from the Bayreuth Festival from 1956-58. As we hear here in the 1956 Siegfried, although he was sometimes free with Wagner's exact notes, he really sang the music, more persuasively than any other Mime I've heard -- though we're going to hear another strong performance in a moment.

Paul Kuen (t), Mime; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Hans Knappertsbusch. Live performance, Aug. 15, 1956 (mono)

Of course back in the '60s, even though those late-'50s Bayreuth performances had already happened, and perhaps circulated in the tape underground, I hadn't heard them. So as Herbert von Karajan began recording his way through The Ring in a rival cycle for DG, one thing I was looking forward to was an alternative to Stolze's Siegfried Mime. For Mime in Das Rheingold, Karajan had engaged the strong-voiced Erwin Wohlfahrt, who was then singing the role at Bayreuth. Alas, by the summer of 1968 Wohlfahrt was canceling performances at Bayreuth, and he died, at age 37, on November 28 -- the month before Karajan began to record Siegfried. By then no doubt he had already been replaced, by none other than Gerhard Stolze (who had sung Loge in Karajan's Rheingold).

Gerhard Stolze (t), Mime; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded Dec. 1968 and Feb. 1969

I had no idea back then that eventually I would have not one but two Siegfrieda with Wohlfahrt as Mime, both from complete Ring cycles. The Sawallisch-Rome Radio cycle from early 1968 has lots of points of interest; it's just a shame that the engineering team, after recording Das Rheingold in very nice stereo, reverted to mono for the later operas. Both Böhm and Sawallisch were Wagner conductors of the no-nonsense, let's-get-on-with-it variety. Hearing Wohlfahrt's performance with Sawallisch in particular, so close to when he was supposed to record Mime with Karajan, makes one think how interestingly that might have come out.

Erwin Wohlfahrt (t), Mime; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Philips, recorded live, July-Aug.1966

Erwin Wohlfahrt (t), Mime; RAI-Rome Symphony Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond. Broadcast performance, May 9, 1968 (mono)

Finally we come back to the Goodall-Sadler's Wells performance, of interest because it's in English and because Goodall is still the most fearlessly probing Ring conductor on records.

[in English] Gregory Dempsey (t), Mime; Sadler's Wells Opera Orchestra, Reginald Goodall, cond. EMI-Chandos, recorded live, August 1973

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