While BMInt’s Esteemed Leader with two assistants held down the fort for a bit over two weeks in October, your executive editor and her spouse were in London and Germany (Leipzig, Dresden, then Berlin), attending to the Nortons’ four main food groups: music, architecture, history, and politics. Boston connections could be the excuse, if one were needed, for an article on the various musical events we were fortunate to catch; but another reason, according to Lee Eiseman, is that “Publishing dispatches of European concert-going from eminent Bostonians was a tradition of BMInt’s progenitor, Dwight’s Journal of Music in ‘Diaries from Abroad’.” (An example from “Leipsic” in 1854 is here.) Not only are the “Musical Offerings” worth it, there still is ample evidence, in the German cities of the former Soviet bloc, of welcome reconstruction and rebirth.
The event around which we planned our entire itinerary was a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado, in which pianist Marc-André Hamelin was soloist in the Szymanowski Symphony No. 4. It is a wonderful, lush piece, previously unknown to us. Hamelin’s wonderful phrasing, superb command of the keyboard, and concentration, well known to Boston audiences, swept the listener along. He played the incredibly dense score from memory (generally the case with solo pianos, but a high-in-command BSO person stated that he could recall two other performances of the Szymanowski at which the soloist used a score). As in Hamelin’s playing of Liszt, cadenzas are clean and brilliant, and the way he lets the conclusion of certain phrases fade away compels one’s concentration, too — to a sense of sublime satisfaction. He said after the concert that he and Heras-Casado worked very hard on the balance of soloist with orchestra. It showed. One does not have to take my word for it; there are four reviews in German newspapers I have seen, but this from Der Tagesspiegel encapsulated them: “The particular characteristics of the composition, a hybrid of symphony and concerto, are heightened when a pianist of Marc-André Hamelin’s caliber is in command. It is well known that given his virtuosity he favors seldom played works. In the case of Szymanowski it becomes especially clear what quality of tone production he has. …. Even in the most orgiastic moments Hamelin’s sound transcends the percussive nature of the piano and creates characteristic colors.” Perhaps the BSO can be persuaded to have this shimmering work at an upcoming concert, with Hamelin at the keyboard?
In Boston, at a WGBH recital only two weeks earlier, we had heard him play Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H. We heard it again in Leipzig, played formidably well by a teacher and performer, Birgitta Wollenweber, professor of piano at Academy of Music Hans Essler in Berlin, at a recital on October 16 in Mendelssohn’s well-preserved and maintained house. She included Mendelssohn, of course: Variations sérieuses in d-minor and Rondo capriccioso op. 54 (1841) as an encore. Wollenweber has cut back on recitals, she said after the concert, until her two young children are older; we hope to live long enough to hear her again.
It was a pensive moment, thinking that Mendelssohn composed these pieces at a piano in this house, where he was living at the time, only a few blocks away from Schumann. How much more effective it would be if the piano in Mendelssohn’s house were a French Erard — one of his favorite pianos, according to Patricia Frederick, who with her husband owns the Frederick Historic Piano Collection in Ashburnham (q.v.); She said Mendelssohn also was known to have thought highly of Viennese pianos, particularly those by Conrad Graf, and English pianos; just before his death he was given a English Broadwood. The argument on the use of historic pianos for period pieces has its pros and cons, but in the houses of composers that are extant, it seems a shame that there are not pianos of whichever make they used in situ.
Mendelssohn-Haus is a house museum that has many furnishings from the composer’s occupancy; his study demands more than a moment of silent admiration. On a few walls throughout the house are a number of his very accomplished watercolors of scenes throughout Europe. (Mendelssohn’s style was typical of the period; in fact, they have strong affinity with the style and soft colors of contemporary aquatints.)
Predictably, it would be at a recital in Leipzig where we would run across a man, who like me was toting two tomes on Bach by Christoph Wolff. (Each is two inches thick.) He, too, had chosen to fly intra-Europe on bargain RyanAir, with its crippling checked-bag weight restrictions, and was obliged to load these hefty Wolff volumes into the one allowed carry-on item. My canvas bag had to hold these along with a borrowed Blue Guide, Fodor’s, Let’s Go for England, my husband’s book on early Christian history and my large pocketbook, jammed in. And I was obliged to wear superfluous layers of clothing.
The concert at the Schumann-Haus was another piano recital, by Frank Peter, a student from the Hochschule für Musik Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy who later studied in the U.S. at West Georgia State University. His homage to Schumann was with two pieces, Papillons and Kinderszenen, both written before the composer and family moved to the house on Inselstrasse in 1840. Schumann was using the Graf piano that had been given to Clara as a wedding present, Patricia Frederick said. But, again, the piano now in the house is not of the period, and the recorded music emanating from a touch-button was composed well before he moved there. Given the number of compositions between 1840 and 1843, when he was in residence and where he died, that also is a shame.
One of the many pleasures of Leipzig is that these two composers’ houses are close to each other and within a short walk from the city’s historic district, which is where one would wish to stay. We did, at Motel One (with a name like that, we had avoided it), suggested to us by Prof.
Christoph Wolff. And how right he was; it is inexpensive, sleek, no-frills but with essentials well presented and well located. Our room overlooked Nicolaskirche, one of the churches which Bach oversaw. The walls of the main lobbies of all Motel Ones began using horizontal slabs of rock composite in 2007 that are similar to those used in Rockport Music’s new Shalin Liu auditorium, and to the same good effect on acoustics. Svenja Hansen, head of design for Motel One, said it was employed to give “a natural, high-quality look”; it is a very popular element and is now one of the hotel’s “brand marks.”
The BMInt connection secured us house seats at the Leipzig Gewandhaus for October 14. Riccardo Chailly conducted the Beethoven Fourth and Sixth, with the premiere of Upon one note by Bruno Mantovani. This piece could never be done in a hall with muddy acoustics. It begins with tonal variations, to a middle section generally fortissimo, then the return to the one-note motif, with interest. Chailly executed lightning-fast change from militaristic march to gentle swaying of orchestral sound, fluttering his fingers to bring it home in the Beethoven 6th. The storm scene was the most dramatic I have ever heard, with piercing waves of dynamic change, followed by the first violin’s sweet, poignant motif, with the outcome that I then had to add the complete Chailly Beethoven symphony cycle CD set to that already over-stuffed, onerously heavy carry-on canvas bag on the flight back on RyanAir to London.
For those who think Europeans make better audiences, there was nervous clapping after the second movement of the 4th and before the final notes of the 6th — in both cases, stopping abruptly when it was obvious it was out of place.
The Gewandhaus has a strange double standard regarding its musicians. They do not wander on stage at their own pace to sit down and tune up or practice, as they do in Boston and the States generally, but come on as a group just before the start of the concert, to applause from the audience. At the same time, the program does not list the members of the orchestra! It was explained to me that there are close to 200 members and (obviously) they do not all play on any given occasion. So why, one wonders, cannot those who are playing be listed? One reason, of courses, is that European houses do not issue separate programs for each concert; one is supposed to buy the paperback program book. I found it annoying not to know the name for example, of the flutist, that wonderful first violinist, or the other concertmaster (duties were divided).
Mendelssohn was only 26 when he became conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835. (It was founded in 1743.) During his twelve-year tenure, he transformed it into one of the leading orchestras of Europe. By the end of the century, in 1884, the second Gewandhaus was built; this one became the model for our own Symphony Hall, built sixteen years later, but was so badly damaged in the bombing of World War II that it was finally demolished under the Communist regime in 1968. The third Gewandhaus on Augustusplatz opened on October 8, 1981; the chief architect was Rudolf Skoda, whose team worked in close cooperation with Kurt Masur, Gewandhaus music director at the time.
It had taken more than four years to build. We sat next to the board member who eagerly recounted construction of the new building which he oversaw and gave us a private tour, the success of which we promised to convey to BMInt readers. Opinions of knowledgeable Bostonians with whom I subsequently have discussed the acoustics of the Gewandhaus have varied from “muddy in the center balcony,” to “perfectly fine.” I found everything perfectly clear and audible, especially the pppps. I love this hall, inside and out (again, some do not agree), from the interior elongated semi-circular shape of so many modern halls, with audience “behind” the orchestra — which is becoming the modern style — to a dramatic exterior that beautifully captures the building’s function.
The famous St. Thomas Church Boys Choir, established in 1212 and over which J.S. Bach presided, was not in residence, but we did hear a service on Sunday morning, October 16, that included the Bach Cantata 47, Wer sich selbst erhöet, 320, with a chamber group and Ulriche Böhme, Thomasorganist. We left before the sermon — along with the chamber musicians; our excuse was being at the Mendelssohn concert on time.
The rebuilt concert hall that did recreate (substantially) its original was Semperoper in Dresden, our next stop. Our misfortune was to be in this city on two evenings when the hall was dark, but we were given a superb tour of the building in English, offered once every day, at 3 pm. ….
At noon on that day, to the peal of bells from the magnificent Frauenkirche we rushed in to hear an organ recital, so to speak. Not enough from the organ, but plenty of speaking, both a sermon from the Lutheran minister and a long lecture on the building — in German. What information was given in the folded service program for the two musical selections? “orgelmusik”(!) The large Baroque organ case (reconstructed) is a faithful reproduction of the original damaged in World War II bombing and has an even more elaborate case than the one in the Hofkirche, the former Catholic Cathedral. At the Hofkirche, the housing of the Silbermann organ and parts of the wind plant were also destroyed by bombs in World War II, but the pipe work had been removed and so was saved. A fairly accurate reconstruction, it is not true to the original, however, due in part to differences of opinion between conservators and organist (who prevailed).
Before Germany, we spent four days in London, where we saw Gounod’s Faust at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Verdict? The Faust, Vittorio Grigolo, should not be missed, wherever and in whatever he sings. And I don’t think we suffered much loss having Malin Byström sing in place of Angela Gheorghiou. Overall, the production, conducted by Evelino Pidó and directed by David McVicar, was a treat. And set the tone for a dinner later that week at the Auersbachtkeller — where Goethe got his inspiration — in Leipzig.
* * *
On our last day in Berlin, we took the bus to Checkpoint Charlie. We had not realized that this October is the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, a cataclysmic event celebrated with an in-situ street exhibition running for two sides of a long block, until the end of the month.
Mimicking the height of the original wall, billboards explaining the history — in German and English — from the Potsdam Conference to the current day were being eagerly absorbed by hundreds of people. A mock Checkpoint Charlie scene, with posts and Soviet guards, was placed in the exact spot of the original. We had a similar encounter with the end of a Communist regime when we were in Prague in May 1989, just after the break from Soviet but before the first election, when a similar exhibition of life under Soviet occupation was put up in Na Pricope, one of the city’s main streets, telling of religious persecution, World War II, lack of freedom of the press, Jan Hus, …
Then we visited the Jewish Museum. The entrance is in the 18th-century building (In England and the U.S., it would be called “Georgian”), but the main museum is approached by a long descending staircase… this mood of somber dread is maintained throughout the museum. The floor is slanted, leaving one uneasy. Two diagonal axes dramatically portray two routes: toward annihilation or exodus to another country. Most emotionally effective is the “Tower,” an enclosed space with very high walls, each slanting inward, to a hole about 50 feet above, where a little light in visible. A ladder leading up to the opening is attached to the wall — but about 15 feet above the floor. We were struck by its emotional ties to L’Orecchio di Dionisio, the famous rock formation in Syracuse, Italy, in which acoustics were so good that, purportedly, prisoners’ soft whispers could be heard by the infamous ruler.
At the airport on the way to London, we ate dinner next to a table of ten people, six emotionally or physically impaired, with four caretakers, who treated their charges with such respect and lack of condescension that we were impelled to ask the name of the facility from which they came. The Albert Schweitzer Institute, one said. These three experiences during our last day in Germany reaffirmed out faith in humanity. As did the music we were privileged to hear.