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Strings and songs and memory's shadows

New York
SubCulture, 45 Bleeker Street
09/16/2015 -  
Alban Berg: Three movements from Lyric Suite: Allegretto gioviale, Andante amoroso & Largo desolato
Erich Zeisl: Komm süsser Tod (arranged for soprano and string quartet by J. Peter Koene)
Hilan Warshaw: Excerpts from Lyric Suite: A Musical Love Story

Renée Fleming (Soprano)
Emerson String Quartet: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer (Violins), Lawrence Dutton (Viola), Paul Watkins (Cello)

R. Fleming (© arts.gov)

The full house at SubCulture last night was not ascribable to the Erich Zeisl Fan Club, or even a performance from Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. Undoubtedly, the audience wanted a closeup look in this downtown spot for one of the world’s finest string quartets, and (almost without argument) the most rightly celebrated greatest soprano of our day.

To get this over with, their enthusiasm for the artists was not unwarranted. Both the Emerson String Quartet and Renée Fleming are not only amongst the most artistically stunning in the world, but they are both adventurous, daring and unpredicable.

True, string quartets are hardly rare, and even the most conservative are anxious to program at least one contemporary work. Operatic sopranos, though, are a more cautious lot. Helen Traubel was once fired from the Met for doing pop music in a nightclub, and others sing more popular music with frozen emotions.

Ms. Fleming’s choices are sometimes audacious, but never out of sync with her talents. She started life as a jazz singer, continues in this field to this day. Her American pop music is sung with the same emotional feeling as her Richard Strauss. Her singularity, though, is not through musical chuzpah. Rather, her vocal genius is like a bespoke artistry, tailored with a naturalness which emanates in her music and personality.

Nor is she is afraid to venture to the worlds of atonality. Ms. Fleming, though, doesn’t sing this as “difficult” music. As Alban Berg peeked through history’s curtains from Strauss and Mahler, she sings with the same emotion she shows in Arabella or Daphne.

On the surface, one might say Ms.Fleming chose the more rarefied climes of SubCulture for her Berg presentation. But this was not exactly true. Her performance last night of Alban Berg and the neo-Romantic Erich Zeisl, was (forgive this mundane marketing term) a “promotion” for a recording with the Emerson String Quartet which includes other music from that electrifying cusp between tonal and atonal. And while she did not sing any of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems from Egon Wellesz (another “lyrical” atonalist), she did introduce most of us to Erich Zeisel.

More about him later. The major work (or major truncated work) came from the first two movements of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, as well as the newly performed vocal rendition of the finale.

First Violinist Peter Drucker explained the genesis of the work–a piece which had a “secret meaning”, discovered barely 40 years ago. Here, the finale was sung in a new form with a poem by Charles Baudelaire in German translation.

(Mr. Drucker also revealed a revelatory fact, that George Gershwin loved the Lyric Suite, and would hire quartets to play it on his own tours. Mr. Drucker’s comment that “Gershwin could afford it” was snickeringly crass, and the audience snickered appreciatively, but we’ll let it go.)

Whatever the atonal subjects of the piece, the Emerson String Quartet never allowed the tone row to be “analyzed”. As in the Violin Concerto, also with its secret romantic love message to a young girl, the music first movement swirled with masculine intensity, the enigmas less musical then emotional. The second movement was pure love. One must look at the cover of the recording, its painting by Gustav Klimpt to feeling the golden tones, the love, the sensuousness.

On the recording, the Emerson plays the usual instrumental last movement, as well as the “vocal version.” Here Ms. Fleming sung the desolating Baudelaire poem (“Now in the whole world there's no horror quite so cold and cruel as this glacial sun”) not with velvety smoothness through the lines, but more than nuances of emotion.

Or perhaps I’m reading too much into seeing her on stage with these lines. Ms. Fleming has always been a natural actor in opera (her Capriccio last monologue is the work of a truly singular actress), and her physical work here gave an inner emotional thunder to the so-intensely written lines by Berg himself.

To finish the evening (besides a splendid question-and-answer conversation from artist to audience), Ms. Fleming and the Emerson quartet performed a song from the German/American Jewish composer Erich Zeisl. He had also been a student of Arnold Schoenberg, but his feelings were tonal, more in the line of Wolf and Reger, and this beautiful (equally desolate), Come Sweet Death was very very emotional.

Erich Zeisl is hardly well known in America, except from his uncredited scoring for Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. True, Mr. Zeisl felt that writing for Hollywood was too demeaning and granted, Abbott and Costello were Kindertotenlieder, but still….

Laura Worsham
in Lyric Suite: A Musical Love Story (© Overtone Films)

Ms. Fleming and the Emerson String Quartet were predicably gorgeous, the great surprise of the evening was a preview of film by Hilan Warshaw, about the Lyric Suite. Mr. Warshaw, a violinist and conductor, made a wonderful movie about Wagner’s Jewish friends, but this film is more than documentary.

In fact, it seems to have a multi-textural platform, as explained by the director. It is partly the music itself (“I wanted the best, so I asked for the Emerson String Quartet and Renée Fleming”), and they rehearse and play the music. It is partly documentary, showing the “secret” annotations on the score (see the picture above), with pictures of Berg and his lover and their children).

Yet –and this is the part I loved–it is also partly acted. Not as costume drama but with the style and black-and-white grainy film of a 1920’s movie. Apparently with the exaggerations, the closeup, the pure unadulterated (and adulterated) romance.

For Alban Berg, this would have been perfect. A movie-lover himself, he seemed to make a love story in this and the Violin Concerto. In Wozzeck, the short sudden-cut scenes could have come straight from German cinema. As one interested in the meaning of time, he inserted Bach to the Concerto, Wagner into the Lyric Suite and Baroque forms into Wozzeck.

One would imagine he would like to have had that great vamp, soon to be a Nazi-loving vamp, Pola Negri as his Lulu.

Mr. Warshaw’s film is still being edited with a release for next year. Whatever the results, I predict that its significance may possibly outshine even Mr. Zeisl’s Abbott And Costello Meet The Invisible Man.

Harry Rolnick



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