Honegger Delights: Notes from the Dresden Music Festival 2012 (8)

GermanyGermany Bartók, Honegger, Strauss: Jan Vogler (cello), Valery Gergiev (conductor). Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, Semper Oper, Dresden, 27.5.2012 (JFL)

Bartók: Miraculous Mandarin (Concert Suite)
Honegger: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

I am in beautiful Dresden – home of the oldest paddle steamer fleet– for the annual three-week Music Festival that has taken place since 1978. After Mozart-joys, Malkovichean divertissement, Bach despairs and delights, Thielemann’s Bruckner, a triple-bill of violinists, and a Princess’ opera re-premiere it was time for a Gergiev sighting, a time-honored become a tradition at music festivals around the world, sometimes – purportedly – concurrently.

At the Semper Oper with his Mariinsky Orchestra, Gergiev first churned out the concert version of Béla Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin. Magically, with a few incoherent flicks of his wrist, the orchestra’s wheels started whirring right away, and the winds and brass were variously taking bites out of the music. Soon director and band were making a stupendous noise… a racket high-octane, low on character. It set the stage for what is one of the few classical pieces that can make you feel sticky afterwards: A good interpretation will see blood, sweat, and not-tears on the floor, once the titular Mandarin his been climactically dispatched. This particular one was rich in body liquids, and any lack of nuance didn’t bother me.

It bothered me much more in the official meat of the event, Strauss’ Heldenleben which occupied the concert’s second half. The result was a superficially appreciable but a disoriented mess – the thing that happens if you have all the notes but are lacking a map. If they had played the Alpine Symphony, they would have gotten to a peak alright, and with valleys all around to hear about it loud and clear. Alas it would have been the wrong summit.

Apart from outright baffling rhythmical choices and some shoddy ensemble work, it seemed the players’ lack of empathy for phrasing that tanked Strauss. Each phrase in Strauss (much like Mahler or any classical music that relies on folk inflections), however sappy, is densely filled with emotional content that leans one way or the other. Like Nietzschean aphorisms, they present keys to much bigger universes of flavor than cannot be contained in the notes (or letters) themselves. Mere correct playing of what’s in the score can’t begin to tell the story.

That left the highlight of the evening right where the Festival Intendant Jan Vogler might have wanted it to stay: On his performance of the Arthur Honegger Cello Concerto. Or rather: the performance of the Honegger Cello Concerto, because it really wasn’t so much Jan Vogler’s playing that was the main ingredient of selective delight, but his programming of it. His performance betrayed the many hours spent in the office, organizing the Festival. But with his resonant full tone, rich in the lower registers and a bit like a baying elk, Vogler took the lyrical, beautiful concerto out for a ride that affirmed its would-be status as a 20th century masterpiece if only it were better known. The concerto takes a beautiful bent through realms of calm, then energetic-stubbing, then relentlessly angular, and finally the lyrical again. Along its way the 1929 concerto hits upon an easy elegance that won’t be heard again until certain film scores of the 40s or 50s. Programming and performing it was a musicians’ job, and if the number of those who appreciated it was a little smaller than that of those who loved the Strauss, there is the likely probability that they appreciated it all the more.

Jens F. Laurson