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The Forests of the Mind

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
06/09/2011 -  & June 10, 11, 2011
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1, Opus 10
Sergei Rachmaninoff: The Isle of the Dead, Opus 29
Arnold Schoenberg: Erwartung, Opus 17

Deborah Voigt (Soprano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, David Robertson (Conductor)

D. Voigt (© Peter Ross)

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Should you wander into the Avery Fisher Hall these next two days, be warned that the woman on stage in a resplendent bejeweled gown is not the great Wagnerian soprano, Deborah Voigt. She is a woman possessed! Unhinged! Manic, depressed, a psycho-paranoid necrophiliac wacko, tripping over illusions of bugs, blood gushing from a bloodless moon, and necrophiliac raptures.

Truth be told, this was indeed Deborah Voigt, and her performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung (“Expectations”) was absolutely frightening. Schoenberg called the monodrama, a short opera, though have never seen any soprano actually act out the mad singer wandering in the woods. That would be impractical (unless some enterprising Indie filmmaker made a movie of it). Instead, the voice has to carry it all.

Deborah Voigt has the intelligence, the vigor, and, most of all, the voice, to transform Salome, Brünnhilde and Isolde into agonizing realities. But in those roles, she can play off a variety of tenors, baritones and stage sets. In Erwartung, Ms. Voigt is helplessly alone. Only the New York Philharmonic and David Robertson could help her.

How did she handle it? For one thing, Ms. Voigt never “eased” into her role. The first few measures of the orchestra promise secrets and shadows, but Ms. Voigt had no use for mysteries. “Where should I go now? I can’t see the way,” she cried (in German), But Ms. Voigt wasn’t despairing in the search for her lover. She was fiercely declaiming the horror of her situation, and never let up until the final eerie orchestral octaves 30 minutes later.

So vivid was this hysteria, so ghastly the situation that the performance was transparently emotional. The troupes of sissies (Charles Ives’ word) who stomped out before the Schoenberg had no idea what they were missing.

Perhaps they thought they had to follow tone-rows, or listen for double-canon reversions from the academic Mr. Schoenberg. That was nonsense. The composer, in his mid-30’s, was an adulterer, a cuckold, a painter of nightmares. His early pieces were simply Heavy Romantic writ large. Erwartung was Heavy Romantic writ with remnants of Poe, Baudelaire, and, most of all, the German expressionist poetry which would later become the German horror films and extravaganzas that have never been equaled.

Nothing, from either Mr. Robertson or Ms. Voigt, was held back. Schoenberg’s use of the large orchestra was subtle in the interludes but never coy. Ms. Voigt’s soprano utilizes the most daring German poetry (Marie Pappenheim was a dermatologist who was well familiar with early Freud), but nothing was left to the imagination.)

So the Philharmonic played loudly and solidly. Ms. Voigt sung with strength, power and–even considering the illusions of the story–with an honest blatant truth. She could take the most arduous passages, cresndoing from lowest to highest notes with laughable ease. (Grisly laughable ease.)

This Erwartung, then, was neither monodrama nor short opera. It was an arousing experience in hysteria and delusions.

D. Robertson (© Scott Ferguson)

David Robertson, whose programming is always fascinating, was not ready to put his audience at ease in this week’s program He started with a happy, joyful youthful symphony, continued with a picture of an island inhabited by death and finished with Schoenberg’s madness. But it made sense.

The Shostakovich First Symphony, like early Schoenberg, has none of the composer’s motifs, no signatures, no Kabbalistic note-standing-for-letters. But it is pure Shostakovich. Maestro Robertson took that first movement straight: that is, he never forced those eccentric rhythms on the orchestra, but played it like a ballet danced by earnest, well-trained but spastic dancers. (He also had the most beautiful flute solos, by Robert Langevin that I have ever heard.) The second movement was a good galop, and the last two sections were given a tense reading by Mr. Robertson.

One revelation was the Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem after Arnold Böcklin The Isle of the Dead, another of the early works from last night’s triumvirate. The composer could never resist a good crescendo (or a Dies Irae), and here he never had to resist. The lower brass surged up, the strings surged up. No, this was not as frightening as Erwartung, but Mr. Robertson allowed us to picture not just an island, but what we were willing to summon up in the music. For myself, I pictured not so much the isle of the dead, as a sea. The outer sea from Thousand an One Nights:

“Nothing lives on or in the sea. No one has sailed in its waters. It is dark and rotting and extends forever…”

Harry Rolnick



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