Anticipation and expectation were high; the emotional register even higher. A packed Basilica, an inspired Malta Philharmonic Orchestra led by Marcelline Agius, soprano Miriam Cauchi in top form, the Laudate Pueri Choir of St George’s Basilica rising to unparalleled heights, and a wonderful Philip Walsh putting it all together and delivering the goods. This was the opening concert of this year’s 21st edition of the Victoria International Arts Festival which is being held in honour of its mastermind, Mro Joseph Vella who passed away suddenly over three months ago. The void he left is incalculable and so is the debt we all owe him. In such dire circumstances the only thing the performers could do collectively was play and sing, perform music he championed, regale an enthusiastic public with glorious sound. That’s exactly what happened on Wednesday 6 June 2018.
British conductor Philip Walsh performed eloquently and beautifully. His is an understated style that is pregnant with emotion yet always controlled and contained in the most impeccable rational manner. Stepping in to take over from Joseph Vella at a very late stage in the planning of the opening concert programme, he was a wonder to work with, insisting on keeping the works already scheduled by Joseph Vella and filling in the rest of the programme with two glorious pieces that were like fitting bookends both thematically and in spirit with Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Vella’s own Domine Jesu Christe. His was a commanding, authoritative but quiet presence that spoke volumes with the minimum of words. It was both an extraordinary and a humbling performance.
The concert opened with the beautiful Overture to Hänsel und Gretel by Humperdinck. Like most inspired works, the genesis of this opera was unusual and more than a little fortuitous. Humperdinck’s sister wanted to put on a show for a family children’s party and hit on the idea of dramatising the Grimm Brothers’ tale of Hänsel and Gretel. She asked her brother if he would write a little music for her project, and he happily agreed. The entertainment went off so well that the composer decided to expand what he had written into a three-act opera.
Humperdinck was also fortunate that he sent the completed score to Richard Strauss, who immediately recognised its excellence. Strauss conducted the work’s premiere, and it vaulted instantly into fame; within a year there was scarcely an opera house in the entire German-speaking world that had not performed it. The opera was also produced in English in London, and the English company took their production across the Atlantic to New York as early as October 1895.
Technically, the work is an intriguing construction according to Wagnerian music drama principles. There are plenty of harmonic and orchestral devices inspired by Wagner, yet Hänsel und Gretel does not make an impression of being at all Wagnerian in terms of solemnity, seriousness, or excessive length. The familiar tale fits well with the musical universe originally developed by the colossus of the Ring cycle to represent a supernatural world. Although the story is elaborated with a few additional characters, it is clearly comprehensible even to young people with no prior exposure to opera.
The Overture is written in the traditional grand gesture of German Romanticism: big yet structured, passionate yet controlled. The Apollonian and the Dionysian are in equitable balance. Humperdinck characterised this Overture as ‘Children’s Life’, demonstrating these elements with dance tunes which are both urbane and toy-like. These are intertwined with references to the solemn ‘Evening Hymn’ melody heard on the marvellous MPO horns at the very opening, which made strategically-placed leitmotivic appearances throughout the opera, suggesting the protective influence of divine providence, so integral to fairy tales. The music opened with burnished tones dressed in Wagnerian garb, soon followed by warm commentary from strings and eventually the winds. A quicker-paced episode followed, suggesting childhood frivolity. A new strings-led lyrical section ensued, itself alternating with bouncy material before the opening chorale-like fanfare made a brief reappearance. Energetic passages intervened between lyrical episodes. Like many preludes (or overtures), songs and dance music from the opera supplied the rich thematic material.
The following work performed was Richard Strauss’ iconic Four Last Songs so beautifully interpreted by soprano Miriam Cauchi. A veritable tour de force this is a make or break work, making huge demands on both orchestra and singer – technically and dynamically. Soaring heights and plunging depths are the rule of thumb and it takes both technical aptitude and emotional maturity to carry it off.
While other composers tortured themselves with the problems of life and death, Richard Strauss freed himself from all mystic and metaphysical ties and proceeded to utilise everything the century had produced in a technical synthesis, thus becoming the greatest virtuoso and technician of the declining century. With Vier letzte Lieder, the quality of time changes: music expresses the feelings caused by a stroke of fate, awakened by certain experiences, for feelings are the sum total of man’s life. Yet, for Strauss, man’s multifarious feelings lend themselves to few typical formulations. If the tremendous power of the first song, Frühling (Spring), is that it is able to convey the idea of all things, unrestricted by the images to which all the other arts are bound, it is conversely true that it is not within its power to transform the idea into a concrete and comprehensible phenomenon. Miriam Cauchi took to this work like a fish to water. She engaged with it impressively, infusing it with the perfect does of emotion yet always couched within the framework of a clarity of thought so relevant to Strauss.
Composed in 1948 but not conceived of by the composer as a cycle, this magnificent, veritably powerful song cycle for soprano and orchestra attests not only to the greatness of Richard Strauss but is also a testament to what Adorno calls the “late style”. This is the composer expressing his genius at the end of his life; genius threatened by death — yet, it is the very work that transcends this threat and overcomes it by the potency of its beauty. The form here is not a product of the musical language; the language generates only fragments, and the larger form actually employed (the cycle as opposed to the individual song) is alien to the language. This contradiction between form and language leads in turn to another consequence of the stylistic transformation, namely, that a division between internal and external components replaces a series of internal divisions as the semiotic foundation of musical expression. Style here has no internal limits; where dissonance is the norm, consonance becomes an expressive device, but always, in music of this type, as an untimely sonority. This idea seems to establish a kind of law for music of Strauss’ period, namely, that the familiar is always destabilising, while the stable elements are always estranged. Coherence and shape are at odds: the former, the unity of the piece, comes from the modern style, most often from the dense texture of microscopic motifs that permeate the whole, while the latter, the expressive totality, comes from the larger units such as melody and structure that are borrowed wholesale from the past. From this permanent division arises the unstably ironic or elegiac character, so typical of Laforgue’s Pierrot lunaire cycle of poems, which seems inescapable in the period: the music always seems to be saying one thing but meaning another, or to be pointing towards a position it does not really occupy. Yet, the irony rarely seems to arise from the kind of firm ground that supports the puns of Haydn or the parody so frequent in late Beethoven. The great music of Strauss hardly ever has the pronounced and unmistakable ideological character found in the music of powerful revolutionary composers such as Beethoven or Wagner, or of formidable consolidators such as Haydn or Brahms. It has no home base; the very key relationships that signal abnormality in Schubert or Chopin and madness in Smetana becomes unremarkable after 1920, and can be found in works such as Kodály’s Cello Sonata op 4, Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, and Strauss’ Four Last Songs – in order to undermine the stability of the tonal system.
As one song eased into the next, the discerning listener heard that Strauss’ “late style” is one of ecstatic finality that becomes largely affirmative, unlike the late style of Beethoven, whose mixture of conventionality and soaring sublimity is too unsettling to feel cosy. September came across as a kind of autumnal, summational statement, which is also discernible in the Oboe Concerto and in the Ovidian Metamorphoses, a statement that does not point outward. It seems to be too late for that, or so the listener is led to think. It does not suggest what the music under- or mis-interprets in the programme or text, and it does not leave one with the impression of a mismatch or incongruity of any sort. It is inward looking, suffused with the type of beauty that only maturity can bring about. On the contrary, the seemingly antithetical despairing radiance of September, which is carried over into Beim Schlafengehen (When Falling Asleep), is all under control. It is stripped of self-conscious flourishes; it is austere in spirit and luxurious in effect. In this particular song, the soprano’s vocal intensity and equally magnificent beauty rose above the terrible unease that the displaced rhythms and disconnected tonal relationships could well bring about. Hers is an easeful voice, of singular beauty and malleability, equal and even in tone whether she is singing in the upper of the lower reaches of the vocal spectrum. More relevantly to this work, the emotional power that Miriam’s voice carries reached out to a spell-bound audience, a power that is equally intense in the forte passages as in the piano.
Im Abendrot (At Sunset) synthesises this disturbing paradox inherent in Beim Schlafengehen. With a text by Joseph von Eichendorff (the other three are by Hermann Hesse) this song is literally elegiac, it is literally a “late” style (At Sunset), but in fact it opens out at the very end with a quizzical doubt about the actual reality of ending – “Can this perhaps be death?” – suggesting that it might not be. The orchestral postlude rests on one of Strauss’ favourite devices, namely, a melodic elaboration above a sustained a 6/4 pedal chord. This is a deliberately prolonged and delayed suspension of the conventional ending. Even when he is concluding, Strauss lingers, moves, side-steps, and asks for a little longer. This is his own eccentric contribution to the modernist movement: not to conclude even when there is nothing further to say, almost anticipating Blanchot. Here, silence is not as simple as saying nothing; not to stop teasing out, as it were, from natural harmony the implications of an already exhausted medium; not to resist ignoring the historical situation of his music while at the same time staging and re-staging its anachronistic persistence. It is a performance obsessively rehearsed.
To understand Strauss is to listen for the murmur beneath the noise, since the life that celebrates itself in this music is death. Despite the lavishness of his means, the resolutely minute economy of his aesthetic makes Strauss in Vier letzte Lieder the sovereign as well as the only figure in the genre of post-Romanticism that he created and went on spinning out till his last day. Solely in decline, perhaps, is there a trace of what might be more than mortal: inextinguishable experience in disintegration, the impossibility of death, again foreshadowing Blanchot. The tiredness of great age in the presence of impending and welcome death is not really sad, but something far deeper. It is the prerogative of great art that it arouses nameless emotions that can tear man apart. Vier letzte Lieder are escapist in theme, reflective and disengaged in tone and, above all, written with a kind of distilled and rarefied technical mastery that is as defiant as it is world-weary. Finally, because a minimalist aesthetic is at work here, the music seems to stand aside: it renounces claims to metaphysical statement and it pliantly, agreeably, and immediately appeals to an ear surprised, perplexed, even, by the music’s lack of complaint. This is a work that couldn’t have been easy to perform but Walsh’s intelligent reading of the text and the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra‘s response to his direction ensured a memorable rendering.
Next on the programme came Joseph Vella’s Domine Jesu Christe, a setting of the Offertory from the Mass of the Dead. Vella composed this work for the Laudate Pueri Choir early in 1984 (op. 37). Recognising the unique quality of this choir’s vocal texture, their ability to tackle the highest as well as the lowest in the vocal spectrum (in this motet the sopranos repeatedly sing a high B while the basses reach a low E) this work is tailor-made for them. Vella has written among his most wonderful music for this choir, having also recorded a whole CD entitled Vella … a cappella with them. He wrote for them; they sang for him — and this has proved a winning formula for decades now.
Habitually, Joseph Vella produces excellent writing “of fundamental integrity”, to use T.S. Eliot’s words. Specifically in this motet, he integrates concepts of art, beauty, and mysticism entirely lacking in dogmatism which is the benchmark of the insecure. In fact, Vella’s works are essays of quiet persuasion. The elements of art, beauty, and mysticism are integral to the intellectual aspect of his work as they are to its emotional effect. For Vella, the creative process originates in song. Music is a point of reference both formal and conceptual, at the beginning, as it were, and at the end of artistic activity, indicating a method of composition as well as a spiritual idea. He introduces into the poetic images a complex and intricate counterpoint in which discrete melodies are striving to become the principal one and fragmentary themes strive to achieve an unbroken sequence. As in Saint John of the Cross, a silence beyond words and a nothingness beyond matter are attained in an apparently ecstatic vision of the heart of light, which is the essence of mystical and symbolic darkness.
The text of this motet is taken from the liturgy of the Mass of the Dead. If from the world of visible forms and ideas peculiar to poetry and art the reader enters the world of sound and harmony, the first impression is that of a man passing suddenly from light into deepest darkness. In the former everything can be explained, follows logically and creates an image. In the latter, everything seems to spring from the unfathomed depths where darkness and mystery reign. In the one the reader finds fixed outlines and the inflexible logic of immutable forms; in the other the flux and re-flux of a liquid element, perpetually in motion and metamorphosis, and containing an infinity of possible forms. In this impenetrable night-darkness into which music plunges the listener, one strongly feels the vibrations of life, but it is impossible for one to see or distinguish anything. However, as the soul gradually becomes accustomed to this strange region, it begins to acquire a kind of second sight. While the outer aspect of things is effaced, their inner content is revealed in a marvellous light. The text of this liturgical poem provides just this. Here, there is darkness of the soul, which in mystical theology is the means of ascending into true spiritual light. The descent into negativity becomes both an ascent and an assent. In the symbolism of this poem there is a concealment and yet revelation. There is as much meaning in the pauses as there is in the words. Thus, with silence and speech acting together comes a double significance.
The speaker in the poem suffers a spiritual exile. Cut off temporarily from God, the soul pleads and yearns for God’s mercy for his is not an exile of despair but an exile of hope. In the poignant and endearing soprano solo on the words ‘Libera eas de ore leonis’ the speaker’s yearning, dislocated from the words that announce his purpose, dissolves into the rhythm of his address. The image created by the text objectifies a paradoxical hope in despair connected with the act of limiting the self to a notion of ‘will’, which is synonymous with conscious determination. At this point, the speaker is one with Dante’s line “dell’antico amor sentì la gran Potenza”. Here, the soul is as much aware of the birth of the dead as it is aware of the death of the born, ‘quam olim Abrahae et semini eius’. Translated into sound, this text focuses upon the work of music itself as a spiritual experience, what Valéry calls ‘la condition religieuse par excellence, l’unité sentimentale d’une pluarité vivante’. In this motet, the theme comes across not as a simple linear statement of the message or idea. It is the shape of the idea itself as it emerges within the structure of the poem, prompting as it unfolds various hypotheses in the listener as to its ultimate direction.
Composed of long legato phrases, demanding great breath control on the long pedal notes of the sopranos with changing harmonies on the other voices, Vella brilliantly emulates the telling pauses in the text. The multiple associations of the words, the variations in the semantic implications of ‘libera eas’, the interruptions of episodes break down any single linear development and focus attention upon the way in which the melody develops. The organisation of the associations becomes the very subject of the motet. Here, Vella seeks the fullest possible exploitation of tonal nuance and its integration into the formal structure of the work. What the listener gets are the musical qualities of the verse, a feeling for syllable and rhythm that creates an instantaneous impression in the reader purely through the beauty of its sound. It is an aesthetic and spiritual experience that transcends the intellectual and emotional levels of the sensitive listener. An important concept in this motet is the redemption and recovery of that which has been lost, the re-gathering and re-integration of time. The first casualty of the Fall is language. Thus, for the man in exile, redemption of words is essential for the recovery of this lost language, but for the soul in exile it is the loss of words that permits the recovery it seeks – belonging to silence, to God – and this is precisely what the soul in the poem strives to do, for ‘the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living’. The text is prophetic for it sings out what is intuited but not yet understood and its voice is filled with wonder. On Wednesday’s performance, one could feel the wonder in the energy of the dimeter chant, which is doubly effective because one recognises it as the fulfilment of feeling formerly held in check. Together, incantation and paradox insinuated a voice from beyond the self, releasing the reader/listener from the here and now into a mood of unearthly tranquillity.
At the end, the music returned to its beginnings, as if the soul is being recalled from exile. Poetic voice and incantation became one. It was a conscious and deliberate attempt at asserting the triumph of the spirit over the forces of evil. Choral and orchestral forces combined to make of this musical gem a haunting presence of affirmation and serenity, from the plaintive chant of the opening and closing lines, to the vibrant, rhythmic sections of the central episodes of the work. The Laudate Pueri Choir proved to be the “signifer sanctus Michael repræsentet eas in lucem sanctam”.
Last on the programme came Brahms’ wonderfully lush Variations on a Theme by Haydn op. 56a, commonly known as St Anthony Chorale. This work is based on a theme from the first of a set of six Divertimenti (Feldparthien), the second movement of which is based on an old Burgenland (an Austrian state that abuts Hungary) chant entitled, ‘Chorale St. Anthony’. Brahms shatters the stately atmosphere of the theme with a pulsating horn passage in the first variation, in which the melodic aspect of the theme has all but disappeared. German romantic music is inseparable from its horns, and once again, Jose Gutierrez, the MPO principal horn for this concert, played sublimely. His is a rich, sensuous and beautiful tone. A great outburst from the strings accented the second variation, while the third returned to the character of the theme, if not the original rhythm and pitches. A climbing woodwind tune traced the general shape of the theme in the quiet fourth variation, while the fifth took off at lightning speed, emphasizing the falling intervals in the original theme. Brass and winds initiated the martial sixth variation, in which the theme could be easily discerned. The seventh variation had some of the character of a Strauss waltz, while slithering contrapuntal lines noodled their way through the eighth. The work closed with a passacaglia in which the theme, gently articulated at first by the woodwinds at the opening, returned with the force of the full orchestra. The repeated, five-measure bass line of the passacaglia is derived from the main theme; because the bass line provides the variation material in this last segment, what we have are variations on a variation of the original theme.
This work was a fitting conclusion to a programme which, in theme and in spirit, was devised around the notion of inevitable death redeemed by the promise of everlasting life, endings redeemed by beginnings. One could feel an overarching sense of purpose in the players (very ably led by Marcelline Agius), singers, and conductor – honouring Mro Joseph Vella, one of Malta’s greatest musical geniuses.