sun 19/11/2017

100 Years of German Song, 1810-1910, Schade, Martineau, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

100 Years of German Song, 1810-1910, Schade, Martineau, Wigmore Hall

100 Years of German Song, 1810-1910, Schade, Martineau, Wigmore Hall

Exquisite song recital delivered with barely a drop of state subsidy

Michael Schade has a voice of transfixing beauty

As we take in news of the cuts that the arts will have to absorb, and wait for the Cassandras to start hollering, it's important to remind ourselves of one arts venue that won't be wiping one bead of sweat off its brow as a result of today's announcements: the Wigmore Hall. This season, Britain's finest chamber music venue has a line-up of unsurpassed quality and variety. Yet it does so with less subsidy than any other equivalent music organisation in the country. Cuts in state subsidy do not end quality. They improve it. Last night's innovative and exquisite recital of early Romantic German Lieder proved this yet again.

Few of those who were present last night will quarrel, I hope, with the description of Michael Schade's considered dash through German Lieder in its glorious infancy as exquisite. For, though Schade's vocal tone, taken on its own, devoid of the other ingredients, might not be considered by some to be the sweetest or fullest or most rounded you'll ever hear, it is certainly one of the most satisfying, in terms of character, conviction and control, when deployed musically.

Many of you might, however, be mystified as to how this programme - a chronological survey of German song, from 1810 to 1910, to be given in instalments over the next year (and tonight we got the first tranche: 1810 to 1820) - could be described as innovative. Well, the return of chronology - in musical programming as much as in Mr Gove's new coalition classroom - is innovative. For the past few decades it has been fashionable to imagine that we gain more through thematic relationships than chronological ones. In fact the reverse is true.

Consider one year: 1868. The year that Die Meistersinger is premiered, Rossini dies and Tchaikovsky pens his First Symphony. The number of intriguing avenues opened up by these simple facts should not be overlooked. Or consider one composer: Schubert. Trudge loyally and microscopically and with strict chronology through Hyperion's invaluable Schubert song cycle set and you'll pick up a wealth of informational riches that could never be found any other way. Chronology gives you the answer to most musical whys, whats and whens; themes will tell you more about the thematiser than the music that's being themed.

So stuff themes. Chronology is where it's at.

And so it was last night. Almost. I could, to be honest, have done with an even more anally year-by-year exposition than was laid out before us. But, still, one learnt. One learnt about the development of Beethoven the man, as one followed the growth of his musical character from the relatively sociable animal that he seems to be in the Goethe songs of 1810, Op 83, that revel in the sentimentality of romance and heartbreak through to the unsettled despair that he hits in An die Hoffnung (To Hope) of 1816 and then into the philosophical mud that he will wallow in (not entirely sympathetically) in Abendlied untern gestirnten Himmel (Evening song beneath a starry sky) (1820), WoO150, towards the end of his life.

One learnt how Weber, writing within cleverly economical means in Abschied vom Leben (Farewell to life), Op 41, No 2, was both recovering and breaking down classical traditions. (Abschied seems solely to be built on Mozartian transitions.) And it was perhaps unsurprising to see Schade unfazed by the bareness of the vocal lines in this and the two previous Beethoven songs, despite the challenges of the very high, soft writing of the Weber and the meandering recitative of the Beethoven. Water off a duck's back for a Mozartian like Schade, I suspect.

From the four forlorn Jan Václav Tomášek settings of Goethe from 1815 we learnt how much the Gothic quality that so many of Schubert's compositions are stewed in was more generally in the air in Central Europe. At the most unexpected moments and in the most unexpected of contexts, Tomášek whips out line upon line of great chromatic instability, almost out-Schubert-ing Schubert. Schade again was extraordinary in adding a three-dimensionality to character and narrative through dynamic control. Is there a more beautiful sotto voce than Schade's, I began to wonder?

The highlight was a rendition of Beethoven's An die ferne Gelibete, Op 98, that came just before the interval. Responsibility for this lay as much with accompanist Malcolm Martineau as Schade. Martineau interfered with Schade's vocal path in the most beautiful way, building up a cumulative power over the first five songs as if we were traversing Op 111. Schade's soft incantation in the second song was as welcome as a summer's breeze. His control in the final verse of the final song, in which he balanced a breathless passion with an impassioned breathfulness, was breathless.

No musical organisation that is lashed to the mast of state targets and social efficacy would be able to put on such a genuinely counter-cultural series for an audience as white and old.

The second half of Schubert songs, mostly taken from his annus mirabilis of 1815, were a medley of gems. Now all of 18 years old, Schubert strikes out in several directions, increasingly unafraid about breaking and reshaping the forms he's learnt in order to accommodate the vagaries of life: one foot on strophic land, one foot in the heavens. We started with five portraits of night: night as a delight (Die Sommernacht, D289), night as a fright (Hölty's An den Mond, D139, and Mayrhofer's Nachtstück, D672) and night as a vehicle for love (Goethe's An den Mond, D259). Then came four on loss - including the story of the poor angler in Der Fischer, D225 - all settings of Goethe that Schade played almost as little cautionary tales. Then to end, five on renewal, on spring and love restored in An Sie (To Her), D288, in which a little scamp of a scale is transformed into a cascade of joy in the final ever-popular Seligkeit (Bliss), D 433.

You could be forgiven in thinking Schade deployed his formidable acting skills but little in the course of the evening: a small scratch of the cheek here, a brief clench of the teeth there, a small waggle of a finger. But of course that's all these songs need. That, conviction and restraint. And, don't be fooled, performative skill is still needed to convince and restrain. The result was a performance of such transfixing beauty that I can think of no one in Britain who could have invested the same sort of quiet energy in these pieces, and projected so much meaning with so little effort.

And, to return to my first point, why do state subsidy cuts make a concert like this more likely? Because no musical organisation that is lashed to the mast of state targets and social efficacy (to borrow Ed Miliband's vivid image from today's PMQs) would be able to put on such a genuinely counter-cultural series for an audience as white and old and appreciative as the one I witnessed at the Wigmore Hall last night. So bring on the cuts, I say.

Tomášek whips out line upon line of great chromatic instability, almost out-Schubert-ing Schubert.

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Your conclusions regarding public funding are completely nonsensical. Far from being 'lashed to the mast of state targets and social efficacy', for most arts organisations - and especially those in classical music - it is secure public funding that allows risk, experimentation and artistic ambition. And on the specific point of year-by-year programming, come to Birmingham: we are playing works from each year of the 1910-1920 decade, for the whole of the next decade, in sequence. So next year, a feast of wonderful music from 1911. Oh, and the audience will be of all ages and backgrounds, and none the less appreciative for that!

Well. I did bridle at 'cuts in state subsidy do not end quality. They improve it.' Maybe for the likes of the Wigmore, which is quality but at the expense - however hard it tries - of diversity in the audiences for top events like this: it's the rich and mostly elderly crowd which creams off the best tickets (I believe - the Wigmore may wish to correct me in this). So, quality, yes - but diversity and experimentation (along with the inevitable turkey those briefs entail), no. So I agree with Stephen on this one.

Igor, have you been to see any of our symphony orchestras recently? Or maybe productions at ENO or the Royal Opera House? Or the BBC Proms? Do you seriously believe that they are all "lashed to the mast of state targets and social efficacy"? Public funding obviously comes with an obligation that arts companies must do their utmost to reach the widest possible audience. This is A Good Thing. But can you really point to any evidence that suggests these organisations are compromising on quality and artistic risk taking as a consequence of public investment? Would you rather they operated on a more commercial basis in the manner of Raymond 'Live Horses on Stage!' Gubbay? Be careful what you wish for.

With that stance, Stephen and Third ager, you'd be forced to argue that no music produced before the 1930s had any "risk, experimentation" or "artistic ambition"? Because for most of its history, music has relied not on state subsidies but on philanthropic or capitalist support - and it has been as radical as you like. All that public subsidies do is, one, allow people who could afford to pay more to pay less - and thus, provide a ridiculous subsidy for the middle classes - and, two, stunt creative competition, allowing music to be sucked down into the deepest recesses of musical obscurantism. We should be weaned off subsidies asap. If (and, now, thankfully, it is looking more like when) this happens, Tim, the result will not be Raymond Gubbay. The result will be America, where every single major city has at least one world-class orchestra, where orchestras, composers and programmers have a healthy relationship with their audience and where music is being penned that people - in large numbers - want to listen to.

Some points there taken, Igor, but look at the state of many of the American orchestras. They really can't programme what they want to because of pressure from conservative patrons, and many are cutting seasons or in danger of total disappearance. In any case a lot of what you say may apply to smaller ensembles, which can cover their costs. But big symphony orchestras and opera houses can't even when they sell out - which they're doing frequently. The Proms being a classic example.

Igor, almost all of the oldest orchestras and opera houses in Europe have had state support for hundreds of years - it's just they were called 'Court Opera' or 'Court Orchestra', when the state WAS the Emperor, or Duke, or whoever. As to the US, the culture of giving there is totally different. And many of the institutions there are fighting for their survival.

What's wrong with fighting for one's survival? Everyone else is, why shouldn't musicians? As for the conservatism of the American music scene, Third ager, that's a moot point. What is conservatism these days? Tonality? Or serialism? Surely the latter? And surely the most radical and enduring musical movement of the past fifty years is Minimalism, a movement born and bred in commercial America. On the issue of court subsidies, Stephen, these always had conditions attached to them. Aesthetic ones. Not social ones. And if you didn't please the courtly audience you were out on your ear. So you had competition. There was the possibility that these composers and orchestras could fail, unlike today. And this crude competition was superseded very quickly by the much more robust commercial competition of the 19th century orchestras. And that's the model that gave rise to the greatest music in history.

This is a long post, but as an American who has spent several years of the past decade living in Britain and Switzerland, and who has some experience of arts management in the States, I can speak to the problems with this "Let them eat cake" approach to the arts. Let me list just a few: 1) The arts are unavailable to a great many citizens, for reasons both of cost and of provision. In the big cities, the vast majority of theatre, opera, and concert seats cost more than all but the comfortably well-off can afford to pay. There are many fewer student tickets, day seats, and other discount programs on this side of the Atlantic than in either Britain or Europe. Students and younger people--the future audiences and patrons that arts organizations desperately need to cultivate--can't afford to discover the arts for themselves, let alone support them. In smaller cities and rural areas that lack the economic base to support the arts (customers and businesses large enough to participate in corporate sponsorship programs), the arts simply don't exist. 2) The dependence on revenue and the largesse of patrons and corporations has not led to an explosion of excellent new work. It has led to programming that is conservative beyond your wildest dreams. I currently live in a state with one professional opera company. Its 2010-11 season consists of one Gilbert and Sullivan and two of the most familiar warhorses in the operatic repertoire. No subsidies does not mean taking risks on only the most crowd-pleasing new music. No subsidies means no new works, no exploration of forgotten or little-known works, no change in the repertory whatsoever and an ossification of the arts into museum pieces. 3) Giving to the arts is not stable. In the recent crisis, even the Metropolitan Opera, with its high ticket prices, multimillion-dollar endowment, and generous patrons, has had to substitute works guaranteed to sell out the hall for works that might have played to 80% capacity. And I'm not speaking only of the current crisis. A single large sponsor deciding to focus its patronage elsewhere--because a corporation merges with another and moves its headquarters to another city or state, for example--can force a cut in the operating budget that leads to fewer productions or programs, fewer performances of each production, less ambitious programming. 4) Corporate and private patronage of the arts in America is supported by generous tax deductions and by an expensive culture of fundraising. Is Britain prepared to institute tax breaks for wealthy patrons of the arts? How long will it take to develop the culture of giving necessary to sustain the current arts sector? And where is the money to start up or ramp up the fundraising operations at every arts organization in the country going to come from? 5) I've never understood the "everyone else is fighting for survival, so why shouldn't X?" approach. The musicians of the many orchestras struggling in this country right now, to take just one example, aren't doing anything wrong. They are incredibly well-trained and hard-working professionals who show up to do their jobs every day. But like so many other people, their employers are struggling because the businesses and patrons they depend on for revenue can't afford to pay for them. It's not that people are turned off by or uninterested in their programming--people still want the arts, as continued high attendance at free performances suggests. But without some public subsidy, they can't afford them. And I'm not prepared to buy the argument that the arts are a luxury item along the lines of a designer handbag or a cruise on a private yacht. If we don't have the arts, we all lose. And without government support, we don't have the arts we could have. If you really think it's so much better here, try calculating the cost of visiting the Met and MOMA, a Broadway play, a concert at Carnegie Hall or the NY Philharmonic, and an opera at the Met. Then do the same for the National Gallery and Tate Modern, the National Theatre, one of the big London orchestras, and Covent Garden. And then do the calculations again, taking student discounts and other cheap ticket programs (such as day seats) into account. You'll quickly realize why most of the performances I've seen have been abroad.

"If you budget properly and work at finding the audience, you can present the Schoenberg String Quartets and still break even. But if you want to loose a quarter of a million dollars in a hurry, just put on La Boheme." - Charles Rosen

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