This past September soprano Deborah Voigt became a full-time member of the Voice Department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but most of us living in the city would hardly know it on the basis of any public appearances. Last night, however, her loyal fans had an opportunity to listen to her thanks to the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony. The Danish National Symphony Orchestra is currently on tour, and last night Davies Symphony Hall hosted the first of the two concerts that Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi prepared with them. Last night’s program included Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, settings of five poems by Mathilde Wesendonck that he composed while he was working on his opera Tristan und Isolde.
Wagner wrote these songs between November of 1857 and May of 1858 for female voice and piano; and that is how they appear in the Schott Complete Edition of Wagner’s art songs (a relatively modest volume that runs to only 103 pages). Wagner himself reworked the last of the songs, “Träume” (dreams), for chamber orchestra, turning the vocal line into a violin part. The orchestral version performed last night was prepared by Wagner conductor Felix Mottl, probably during Wagner’s lifetime. (The notes for last night’s program book put the date “about 1880.”)
Some of Mottl’s ideas for orchestra may have come from the score for Tristan und Isolde. Wagner called both “Träume” and “Im Treibhaus” (in the greenhouse) “studies” for that opera. The results are most evident at the beginning of the third act, where extended passages were appropriate for the prelude. However, the calming triple metre of “Im Treibhaus,” had most of its rhythmic certainty expunged by the time the thematic material settled into the opera. If Mottl was inspired, even in part, by Tristan, then that would explain why the orchestral version tends to be far more compelling in its erotic connotations than Wagner’s original piano version.
On the other hand there is a good chance that Wagner wanted to keep any such connotations securely encrypted. Wesendonck was the wife of Otto Wesendonck, who gave Wagner sanctuary in Zürich when his political activism forced him to go on the run from Saxon authorities. Wagner and his wife Minna were living in a small cottage on the grounds of the Wesendonck estate. Wagner being Wagner, the general consensus is that he had an affair with Mathilde, which may even have been the inspiration for Tristan und Isolde. It is therefore understandable that the songs were first published under the “anonymized” title Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (five poems for a female voice); and the Wesendonck name never appeared in the publication. The poet’s name was not revealed until after her death in 1902, but Mottl could still appreciate the eroticism of her texts without knowing explicitly who she was.
Last night that eroticism was given a rich account through both the intensity of Voigt’s vocal work and the urgency with which Luisi provided the instrumental accompaniment. So much of the score arises through a throbbing restlessness that frequently drives the music to cross stanza boundaries in a matter that propels the vocalist from one thought to the text. For the most part the dynamic level is kept firmly in check, indicating that, even when working on such a reduced scale, Wagner still had a keen sense of how to manage the significance of his climax points. As a result of his six-year tenure as Principal Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Luisi has an equally keen sense of Wagner’s unique combination of logic and rhetoric; and that understanding led to an account by Voigt last night that was as memorable as any of her operatic appearances.
That same capacity to convey and manage urgency was just as apparent on a much broader scale during the second half of the evening with Luisi’s reading of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major. Since Luisi is comfortable with durations of Wagnerian proportions, he had no trouble with taking the repeat for the first movement exposition, turning that repetition into a deeper examination of the basic set of themes that had been introduced. That depth of examination then pervaded all four movements of the symphony, dealing with each in terms of its own unique rhetorical stance.
All of this was achieved, for the most part, through an impeccable sense of how to keep all the instrumental resources balanced. Particularly memorable was René Felix Mathiesen’s timpani work, which never failed Beethoven’s assertive rhetoric but never overwhelmed the rest of the ensemble. One could, admittedly, pick out weak spots in both rhythm and intonation arising occasionally from winds and brass. However, these were isolated events widely separated by the intense drive of the overall flow of Luisi’s interpretation. What mattered most was that he did what we should expect a conductor to do with the best-known repertoire: He found new points of view to take for music that we all thought we knew perfectly well from beginning to end.
Far less familiar was the overture selection for the program, Carl Nielsen’s Opus 17 concert overture, which he called “Helios.” The title is Greek for sun, and Nielsen wrote it while living in Greece in 1903. The work is basically a tone poem depicting the journey of the sun across the sky, beginning with the first hints of the dawn light, rising to the height of noon, and then returning to sink below the horizon of the sea. The sun itself is embodied in an assertive brass chorale, and the force of bright light emerges through the opposing rhetoric of a wild fugue. On the other hand, that initial sense of the presence of light easily recalled Wagner’s depiction of the origins of the Rhine at the beginning of his Das Rheingold opera. It is hard to imagine that Nielsen was not aware of Wagner’s devices, since they are shamelessly appropriated but then reworked by Nielsen’s own creative skills into an entirely new and throughly dazzling artifact. Furthermore, could there be a better way to introduce Wagner’s own music?
Just as shameless was Luisi’s choice of encore. This was “Jalousie ‘Tango Tzigane’” (jealousy gypsy tango), which has become one of the great warhorses of the pops repertoire. However, for all of its familiarity, it is probably the case that few know its origins. It was composed in 1925 by the Danish composer Jacob Gade, who led the 24-piece orchestra at the Palads Cinema in Copenhagen. In other words it was originally written as accompaniment for silent films.
Last night, of course, the encore was all about the music, beginning with a take-no-prisoners cadenza fearlessly delivered by Concertmaster Christina Aastrand. As might be guessed, both the cadenza and the music itself were presented with no shortage of tongue-in-cheek wit and vigor. Between Nielsen and Gade, last night was a delightful exposition of the breadth of Danish aesthetics at the beginning of the twentieth century.