Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Guest Commentator Arthur Bloomfield: “A Great Time Machine Trip”

July 12th, 2010

Here’s a guest article by our friend Arthur Bloomfield, whose new e-book on the styles of the great oldtime opera and symphony conductors has just been posted at www.morethanthenotes.com.

Click on that link and you’ll find essays on 64 conductors (Furtwaengler, Knappertsbusch, Serafin, etc.), 36 illustrations, and four and a half hours of sound clips highlighting performance nuances described in the text. Arthur is also the author of The San Francisco Opera 1922-78 and The Gastronomical Tourist, the latter available on line at www.thegastronomicaltourist.com.

[Author and historian Arthur Bloomfield; resized image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Arthur Bloomfield.]


While William and Tom are busy reviewing current productions in the mad world of opera let me take you on a Time Machine journey into performances from olden times, performances I write about in my new e-book. No security checks required, no excess baggage costs, but you might want to fasten your seat belt. Turbulence of a pleasant sort could be your reward.

[Below: Conductor Otto Klemperer; photograph from the J. Warren Perry Collection, University of Buffalo Music Library]

First stop is Pasadena, California, New Year’s Day 1934, and Otto Klemperer – that formidable transplant from Berlin – is conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the first act prelude from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. A cleverly-structured performance, this, basking in the tension of unashamedly shifting tempo, passionate passing inflections, subtle rubati, all in the service of a bubbling casserole of ardor-comedy-vibrance-pomposity-spontaneity.

This is one of the most important Klemperer documents extant, a performance driving without crash helmet, air bag and all the trimmings along a challenging sonic highway and giving us an arroyo trip any adventure travel consultant would be happy to sign us up for.

[Below: Otto Klemperer with Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler; photograph from the Otto E. Albrecht Music Library, University of Pennsylvania.]

I could, I suppose, tell you where a number of the delicious “details” are, but there’d be no more point than trying to separate the flavors in Monsieur Troisgros’ mussel soup. The fact is, Wagner’s printed score is a whole Macy’s basement of tempos and weights and refinements thereof, all this to deal with his vision for a prelude that can run from seven-and-change to ten minutes or more. On the very first page he asks, simultaneously, for very sustained, very strong, very moderate. Choices, choices. And there are numerous requests along the way for tender, espressivo, the and’s and but’s of a composer who might in some quarters be labeled a control freak.

Curious indeed how few conductors follow Klemperer ’34 in taking very seriously indeed Wagner’s sehr gehalten when, page 9 of the full score, the theme of the Meister strides across those parting bar lines. A couple good reasons for doing so: to see those smug, linear burghers making their ENTRANCE, or, a more abstract consideration this, to simply enjoy the aesthetical balancing act of a changing symphonic roadbed.

Oh how lovely the semantical minefield of musical interpretation!

Now to Boston, Massachusetts a dozen seasons later, our radios are tuned to the Blue Network and Serge Koussevitzky is leading the Boston Symphony in an all-Wagner program, music which for some reason he infrequently recorded. Listen to a Wagner’s Tannhaeuser overture which, by turns and without break in stylistic seam, was sensuous, delicate, pathetique, testy, feminine, violent, almost schmaltzy, steel hard — note too the poco crescendo from pianissimo successfully augmenting Wagner’s dynamic plan in the first eight bars — and ultimately so powerful in its feverish eloquence as to deliver to its listeners, in Symphony Hall and next to their Philcos and Magnavoxes, the next thing to a bodily blow.

[Conductor Serge Koussevitsky; press photograph, now owned by the Library of Congress,  from the George Grantham Bain Collection.]

And there was a Forest Murmurs (from Wagner’s “Siegfried”) of psychological as well as pastoral acuity while dealing with the undefined longings of the adolescent Siegfried — that sounded at time so lush in string sonority as to seem positively Yucatanian. And a terrifying Siegfried’s Funeral Music (Wagner’s “Goetterdaemmerung”). And a Meistersinger act 1 prelude which, although beginning coldly, proceeded in its central amorous inning to register an anguish of parting clearly assignable to that proper widower Hans Sachs whose feelings for Eva must be controlled!

[Below: Conductor Serge Koussevitsky; photograph from Library of Congress images from “Music, Theater, Dance: An Illustrated Guide”.]

The adjectival bonanza set off by Koussevitzky’s Wagner indicates no lack of focus, merely a talent for orchestral drama, a drama that was couched more often than not in an elegance of instrumental conversation bespeaking a connoisseur of the exquisite – even if Koussevitzky seemed, metaphorically, to be carrying grenades in his pocket. Pianissimos, he used to say, must have substance, a fullness in other words while maintaining the proper quiet. Having begun his career as a double bass virtuoso Koussevitzky, it’s safe to say, built his commanding orchestral textures from the ground up, leaving few felicities unturned. A bass drum was as crucial to him as a pack of string basses.

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