Friday, 15 November 2013

Song recital: Verdi and Wagner

Hall of St Botolph without Bishopsgate
14 November 2013

Verdi's L'esule (the exile), sung by the great Carlo Bergonzi. From here.

A birthday celebration capturing the best of these composers.

Nationalism in Verdi and Wagner was the theme second and final free lunchtime Song in the City concert. If it was more interesting than the first concert, this may be due to my familiarity with the concert layout – dramatised readings from the composers interspersed between their songs, arranged thematically – or my mood on the day, rather than something intrinsic to the programme.

Each composer was active during the exciting period when their respective nations were born; both were patriots; and their operas have yielded nationalistic interpretations more than any other comparable great operas, save perhaps Mussorgsky’s. It’s easy to feel their songs must also reflect nationalism.

Yet from another perspective, neither composer was nationalistic. Wagner’s thoughts on art may link with his patriotism, but they are universal. Verdi’s ability to vividly express human passions would likewise seem to transcend parochialism. Most straightforwardly, both artists set their works in various countries; neither were dogmatic patriots.

Their songs reflect this, especially Wagner’s, whose early songs were often in French, including those with a patriotic ardour. He hated France so it is peculiar to hear Mary Queen of Scots lamenting leaving the country with such operatic histrionics. Was Wagner deliberately overdoing it in the style of Meyerbeer, or was that the only style he knew at the time? Did he share the poem’s sentiments, was he sending them up, or was he drawing a more general conclusion about exile, as Verdi does in his setting of a poem of that title?

Leaving aside these biographical reflections, encouraged by this programme, the song is more of a dramatic aria, though you wouldn’t guess it was by Wagner. It reminds me of an early Verdi piece, or of Elisabeth’s longing for France in Don Carlos, though not as good as that. But compared to the general tone of these composer’s songs, it’s welcome to hear something closer to their hearts ie drama.

In his maturity, Wagner applied his distinctive style to song through the Wesendonck poems, and we heard several of them here. They struck me as even more effective than in last week’s recital, perhaps because surrounded by greater contrast such as the earlier French aria-song.

It’s a matter of mood. The Wesendonck songs are closely related to Tristan & Isolde, and share that work’s suffused, elongated erotic tension. When contrasted with songs of longing, as last week, their remarkable mood doesn’t seem that original, and perhaps art songs had already achieved something of the subtlety that Wagner sought on stage.

When contrasted with ‘dramatic’ songs, ones appropriate for feelings of patriotism or exile, the achievement seems greater. Director (and pianist) Gavin Roberts, when programming, seems to have intended to point out this difference.

It’s especially interesting because some characteristic mature Verdi seems to be present in his songs here. L'esule is really a tenor aria from any of the operas up until Otello, and the effect was spectacular, even if it did suggest the great composer didn’t vary his approach to the tenor voice very much.

And the final drinking song, presented slightly awkwardly by all four singers, is also a classic Verdi theme, having little to do with nationalism, but what the hell.

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