A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 45: Holy Song…and a Miscellany

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The Antegnati Organ in the Basilica of Saint Barbara, Mantua
The Antegnati Organ in the Basilica of Saint Barbara, Mantua

Holy Song

One day Beethoven got up and went to the house of Dorothea Ertmann, a woman he clearly loved. Her child had died. She had lost her ability to speak. The composer sat at the fortepiano and played for her a concert of late Beethoven that no one else will ever hear. She began to speak. Beethoven thought of music as a changer of things—a power—at its most powerful, a healer. The tale insists that Beethoven spoke no word to Dorothea. Anecdote? There is good evidence. And think of that other more important evidence—the motto he wrote at the top of the Missa Solemnis: “from the heart, may it go to the heart.” Think of the fundamental importance that actual physical sound had for Beethoven, how he relates in the Heiligenstadt Testament that losing his ability to hear made him suicidal. (Think of this also the next time you hear an expert say that he can hear the Beethoven 9th better reading the score than he can in the concert hall.) What healed Dorothea was a performance. The whole occasion was about sound. She made none, Beethoven made the sacred sounds; she spoke.

Throughout the late music of Beethoven, there is an fundamental sense of reach. No movement shows this better than the Heiliger Dankgesang in his String Quartet, op. 132. The great exception to this reaching in the late music is the Benedictus of the Missa Solemnis, where instead of the composer reaching, the Deity descends in the person of a solo violin. For years now my favorite recording of Op. 132 has been the 1993 Tokyo String Quartet performance. This is not the harrowing vision given to us by the Quartetto Italiano, but a singing, utterly connected unity which fully persuades. For me the Heiliger Dankgesang is almost a stand-alone piece. One would think of Op. 132 very differently without it. And what is important in the movement is a reconciling of the unknown with the farewells which permeate the last half of the movement, if reconciling it may be. One thinks of Tennyson’s great line in “Ulysses”: “Though much is taken, much abides.” This is the inverse of the holy song in opus 132. Beethoven may be saying, “Though much abides, much is taken.” The farewell is a finality despite the intimations of immortality that convince. For me a performance is based on how these poles are reconciled—or made unreconcilable. Quartetto Italiano makes them uncomfortable companions. The Tokyo recording with Peter Oundjian as first violinist makes them necessary to each other.

The 2012 Tokyos, in a performance I heard in Troy last week, gave a forthright performance of the Heiliger Dankgesang, and it was none the worse for being so. The revolving chords in the first part of the movement, played almost straight, were manifestly strange. Some have found these pages cool. Not cool, just strange. But strange how Shelley said to us that what poetry must do is show the inside of things—things that we don’t know by seeing. Perhaps only hearing can make them visible. The simple nature of the playing in the first part of the movement made the farewells poignant not in a tender way, but in a passionate, even through the very last repetition. The reaching in this performance seemed to me like the movement was saying how Beethoven had heard the mystic chords, then their falling away, and willed a desperate stretch toward them which did not find them again. These farewells were private—the composer himself hearing the magisterium fading. Still, like the last movement of the Mahler 9th, the Dankgesang was not sad. The performance had an understanding of how transfiguration and leave-taking must be joined, all the more true because of the straight honesty of its vulnerability. The directness of this performance said these things to me.

This concert took place in a beautiful venue, Kiggins Hall at the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York. Here there is yet another enterprising and too little known series, called the Friends of Chamber Music. This outfit presents established artists and newcomers. Its concerts include early music groups. At this particular concert two girls from the Emma Willard School played some introductory music, very well indeed. It was beautiful music in a beautiful place.

A miscellany

There was another concert recently of enterprising string playing in the new Spectrum Playhouse in Lee, Mass. This venue is not fully finished, but has intimacy and very good sound. Anne Legêne, Mariken Palmboom, and Colleen McGary-Smith played a program of Baroque cello music with enthusiasm, which was benefitted by their extensive knowledge of performance practice. I enjoyed this event particularly because it gave me a chance to hear Italian Baroque music from the middle of the 17th century up to its end—the inventive and adventurous music of Frescobaldi, for example. There is much superb music between Monteverdi’s last operas and “The Four Seasons”, and here was an occasion to hear it.

Speaking of Monteverdi, go out tomorrow and buy the re-issue of his Vespro della Beata Vergine (1611), with Jordi Savall and friends on the AliaVox label (AVSA 9855). This is a recording made several years ago in the Basilica of Saint Barbara, Mantua, where the Vespers were almost certainly given their premier. It was made with an uncomplicated microphone set-up. It sounds real. It is the most purely beautiful recording (or performance) of this great work I have heard. The choral singing b the Capella Reial has to be heard to be believed. It has devotion.

I have been saddened recently to read that Ben Zander will no longer be conducting the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. Ben is a profoundly gifted teacher. Just go on YouTube and listen to their performance of Movement I, Andante comodo, of the Mahler 9th Symphony. Shut off the video and listen. These are teenagers. Whatever justification there may have been for the Conservatory taking this action, and they do have an argument, the simple fact remains that the real loss the kids suffered came from the Conservatory itself. There has to be some middle ground. I guess it is too late, or is it?

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