Steph Power attended a concert by the Welsh National Opera Orchestra featuring Wagner and Stravinsky, two composers inspired by myth.
In his youth – and contrary to later disavowal – Stravinsky was a keen admirer of Wagner. With his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, he attended a performance of Siegfried in the winter/spring of 1908 and, during the first interval, shared with the diarist Vasily Yastrebtsev his ‘delight in the first act of that opera, a work of genius’. However, just four years later, Stravinsky went to see Parsifal at Bayreuth whilst working on the Rite of Spring and reacted with a vehement disdain that was to characterise his subsequent pronouncements on the revolutionary German, writing that the ‘unsatisfactory and blasphemous interpretation of art as religion and of the theatre as a temple should be stopped once and for all. The absurdity of this pitiable aesthetic can easily be demonstrated.’ Ironically perhaps, it may have been the tumultuous early reception of Stravinsky’s own proto-religious and self-described ‘solemn pagan rite’ which sealed his antipathy to Wagner; for, as Richard Taruskin has noted, a year after the notorious debacle of the Rite of Spring’s première at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913, Stravinsky triumphed at last when concert performances of the ballet were received with acclaim, only to have his star rudely eclipsed within weeks by the Paris première of Parsifal in June 1914.
Aesthetically, the two composers are polar opposites but stand as titans of their respective ages and ours – which latter says a good deal about the pluralism, as well as the obsession with the past, of today’s musical culture. This concert, conducted by Music Director Lothar Koenigs, was an opener for Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming summer season, in which Lohengrin will be twinned with Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream. It was conceived as a pre-emptive showcase of Wagner’s sound-world in contrast to Stravinsky’s Rite, and to celebrate two important anniversaries: Wagner’s bicentenary (1813-83) and the one hundredth anniversary of that very 1913 debacle from which Stravinsky recovered, eventually to be hailed as (probably) the greatest and most influential composer of the twentieth century.
There are drawbacks to the programming of bits of Wagner operas in concert – either with singers or without, as here tonight in Cardiff. The inevitable ‘greatest hits’ or ‘medley’ connotation is hard to avoid, however well the music is performed, and raises the question: ‘why’? Moreover, who is such a programme for? Is it really helpful – or even desirable – to bathe in extracts of Wagner’s semantically loaded music out of context; without recourse to the work’s unfolding as music-drama and, hence, without the development of those ideas and philosophies which give rise to and underpin the music itself within his notion of Gesamtkunstwerk or all-embracing art-form? For me, at least, the answer is no – perhaps especially in this year of reappraisal, as well as celebration, of Wagner’s undoubtedly towering but problematic genius.
The lack-lustre performances on this occasion did little to persuade me otherwise. Indeed, the enlarged orchestra sounded curiously muted at times and gave few hints of the sheer significance of the famous oft-called ‘Grail’ and ‘Communion’ Leitmotifs, for example, from the opening Prelude to Parsifal. Then again, without the rest of the opera (the previously advertised Good Friday Music unaccountably absent from tonight’s schedule), it was difficult to hear this extract nor, indeed, the following extracts from Götterdämerung – itself the last of four extremely long operas comprising Wagner’s mighty Ring cycle – as anything more than a species of highly Romanticised chromatic reverie; a difficulty which only serves to assist those Wagner detractors who point with distaste to the indulgently mesmeric quality of his music. Despite some fine moments – notably the dignified climax of Siegfried’s Funeral March and some excellent brass playing in particular – the orchestra struggled at times with ensemble and intonation and seemed reluctant to rise to the challenge of Wagner’s heightened passion and epic scale, which presupposes absolute commitment whether on the platform or in the pit; a shame, because, at its best, the WNO Orchestra is more than equal to the extreme demands of Wagner’s emotional landscape.
In the second half, the Stravinsky offered redemptive power in its savage, primitivist depiction of seasonal renewal through sacrifice. But the orchestra seemed to be in alien territory with this score; a pounding exposition of orchestral virtuosity so familiar to purely concert ensembles. In any case, the performance felt roughly pulled together and only in places showed real drive or energy; a situation not helped by some uncertain rhythmic syncopation – and some ploddingly slow tempi from Koenigs, especially at the start of Part II, the Sacrificial Dance. Throughout, there were differing approaches to phrasing and articulation across the orchestra, which resulted in a lack of that single-minded, brutal relentlessness which can so electrify great performances of the Rite. Koenigs did succeed in opening some valuable and intriguing textural perspectives upon this kaleidoscopic work, but that is simply not enough when it really could – or even should – have been a spellbinding experience with players of this calibre.
The music of the Rite of Spring was composed to underpin a dance of merciless, erotic barbarism. The fact that it can work so brilliantly as a concert piece, and not just as a ballet score, is itself indicative of the diametric opposition of Stravinsky’s art to Wagnerian theories of Gesamtkunstwerk, which the Russian considered to have ‘inflicted a terrible blow upon music itself’. Nonetheless, certain themes can be seen to have preoccupied both composers in opposing ways, an idea which tonight’s concert also set out to explore, but which does not, as the programme notes suggested, mean that the pieces on the programme can realistically be ‘unified’. Nor should we necessarily look or wish for unifying theories; for what it’s worth, the Rite clearly has a sacrificial theme in that a female dancer is singled out to dance herself to death for the collective good, whilst Parsifal, Siegfried and Brünnhilde all perform important multi-layered sacrificial functions in Wagner’s quasi-Christian pantheon. But, as Stravinsky himself so succinctly put it: ‘There are simply no regions for soul-searching in the Rite of Spring’.
Wagner and Stravinsky (at least, in this, early ‘Russian’, phase of his career) shared other characteristics too in their preoccupation with myth, exploration of folk memory and, on a musical level, a particular – if radically differing – concern with time as an intrinsic part of the compositional process. On a personal level, both were certainly adept at poetic licence and self-mythologising – and Stravinsky too, was hardly innocent of the anti-Semitic poison for which Wagner remains notorious. But there is a more ironically entertaining fact which ‘unites’ these composers, should we choose to pursue the point; for they both managed to upset the hugely influential critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, who accused them of a ‘fetishization’ of musical means and expression. Indeed, according to Adorno, ‘in so returning to the past, to the realm of the pre-ego, to the control of regression through ritual, Stravinsky goes Wagner one step better’; which is bitterly to mean: towards the debasement of art. Regardless of whether one agrees with Adorno here (and I for one do not), it remains hard not to see some truth in his better-known warnings against the commodification of art, when Wagner, for example, is so frequently dished up in concert gobbets designed to allure and tantalise as here in Cardiff tonight. Thankfully, on the other hand, a great benefit of today’s musical pluralism is that audiences like tonight’s do get the opportunity to decide directly for themselves whether or not they might agree.
Illustration by Dean Lewis
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Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.