The Art of Love: Alma Mahler’s Life and Music: Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler, Anton von Webern, D. Matthews. Arranged by David Matthews (‘Erntelied’ co-arranged with Colin Matthews), with linking texts by Barry Millington. Rozanna Madylus (mezzo-soprano). Counterpoise ensemble: Fenella Humphreys (violin), Deborah Calland (trumpet), Kyle Horch (saxophone/clarinet), Iain Farrington (piano).
Kokoschka’s Doll: John Casken (composer), Sir John Tomlinson (bass), Counterpoise ensemble (as above), text by John Casken and Barry Millington. Cheltenham Music Festival, 9.7.2017.
At its best, a work of art – be it music, literature or a visual art – in two or more parts yields an entity greater than its components. Think Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Joyce’s Dubliners. That is the case of this programme (see here for further references) in two parts. We are taken through the first from Alma Mahler’s point of view, and through the second from Oskar Kokoschka’s. The two were lovers from 1912 to 1915, but stayed in touch for nearly four decades thereafter. The programme was performed in London and at the Cheltenham, Deal and Buxton Festivals. It amply deserves to be reprised and shown more widely.
The project invites reflection on several themes: gender roles in the past and today; forms of objectification; the extent to which the psychology of historical figures can be known… The ‘Composers in Conversation’ discussion which preceded the performance touched on some of these, but could easily encompass others, such is the wealth of material that has flowed into the finished work.
The connecting thread of The Art of Love is Alma Mahler’s turbulent sentimental history, from her relationship with the composer and conductor Alexander Zemlinsky, to her marriages to Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel, and a string of love affairs. However, its scope is broader and more ambitious: it takes in a whole era of European history, as well as digging deeper into Alma’s personal one to hint at some of the roots of her highly contradictory character. She could be infamously cruel and unlovable but was loved by several men; she made constant anti-Semitic remarks, but Zemlinsky, Mahler and Werfel were Jewish; her compositions for voice and piano were sophisticated and innovative, but after the death of Gustav Mahler, who had made the cessation of her composing activity a precondition of their marriage, she did not resume it…
The works in The Art of Love give a sense of the fluidity and ferment of the cultural, and specifically musical, world around Alma Mahler. Among them are three of her songs – two arranged for the Counterpoise ensemble by David Matthews and one by David and Colin Matthews. Other pieces hold close associations with Alma. For example, the song ‘Selige Stunde’ was composed by Zemlinsky when he was in love with her; it contains what he called her ‘beloved chord’. Of Gustav Mahler’s pieces, here arranged by David Matthews, both the ‘Adagietto’ from Symphony No. 5 and ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ were written for Alma. Counterpoise premiere here an unpublished Trio movement by Anton von Webern – whose portrait Kokoschka painted – with a continuation by David Matthews in a style redolent of Berg’s Romantic lyricism (Berg was part of Vienna’s tight-knit cultural and intellectual circles, too; Wozzek is dedicated to Alma, and his Violin Concerto to the memory of her daughter Manon Gropius, who died at the age of eighteen). Wagner features with two excerpts: from ‘Isolde’s Liebestod’, Liszt’s piano transcription from Tristan und Isolde; and ‘Träume’ (arr. D. Matthews), one of the Wesendonck Lieder. Wagner was Alma Mahler’s favourite composer. The ‘Liebestod’ played a role at the inception of her relationships with both Zemlinsky and Kokoschka, while Tristan und Isolde was a great conducting success in New York for Gustav Mahler.
The four members of Counterpoise are top instrumentalists who have set themselves the purpose of crossing musical and artistic genres. They explore the possibilities of merging music, narrative and the visual arts. This new project vindicates that vision. The combination of violin, piano, trumpet and saxophone or clarinet is uncommon; it’s exciting to hear such a superlatively rendered balance of their sounds, as well as the beauty of the solo sections, such as the violin’s in the ‘Adagietto’ or the trumpet’s in ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’. Mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus rises with assurance to the challenge of the songs’ diverse styles, and gives us a believable Alma in the connecting spoken text by scholar and critic Barry Millington: it’s a sharp portrayal of a woman feisty and insecure, ambitious and unsatisfied, hurting and hurtful.
Kokoschka’s Doll is a melodrama for small ensemble and voice, composed for Counterpoise by John Casken, with text by him and Barry Millington. Counterpoise and Casken have collaborated previously on Deadly Pleasures, a work for narrator and ensemble. Sir John Tomlinson sings the part of Kokoschka and speaks the text, drawn largely from the painter’s correspondence and memoirs. The celebrated bass’ stage presence or vocal technique requires no introduction. Here, with a minimal set for backdrop, he passionately and movingly inhabits the character of the painter, who in old age recollects his relationship with Alma, from the moment they fell in love to that in which he destroyed the life-size fetish of her – the eponymous ‘doll’ of the title – he had commissioned. He alternately praises his ‘Angel’ and ‘Goddess’, cries out his loneliness, rants in despair… The shifting landscapes and mental states are reflected in the powerful instrumental and vocal score and spoken text.
The work is rich in associations set off by Casken’s deployment of subtle musical and literary allusions. Echoes of music heard in The Art of Love – Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’, Alma and Gustav Mahler’s work… – are introduced, evoking memories of past moments, places and people. Kokoschka’s recollection of the moment he nearly perished in the trenches of World War One is accompanied by music on the trumpet: is it a call to battle? Or an echo of Mahler’s ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’? Or a reference to the Apocalypse striking the world? Perhaps all of these? Repeated mention of Kokoschka’s play, Orpheus and Eurydice, connects the painter’s narrative of his relationship with Alma to the doll: he orders it in order to ‘bring back’ his lover from ‘the Underworld’, where she is a prisoner of Hades/the dead Gustav (years later, the play will be set to music by Ernst Krenek, who has married Alma and Gustav’s daughter Anna). Kokoschka’s frenzied calls for ‘More champagne!’, at the party which puts an end to the doll and to his dream of Alma’s return, are reminiscent of the unstoppable life-energy of ‘Fin ch’ han dal vino’. Whether deliberately so or not, it’s a final reminder of Vienna’s centrality to cultural, and especially musical, history.
This is one of those rare productions I would watch again soon, in order to fully savour its richness. I look forward to further performances in 2018.
This article was previously published on Valeria Vescina’s website (click here).
For more about Counterpoise (click here).
Image credit: Portrait of Alma Mahler by Oskar Kokoschka, 1912, oil on canvas – National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo – DSC06553.JPG. Reproduced under Creative Commons license.