Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Shadowy fancies

What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodeled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher is a perfect story for a one-act opera. The 'particulars of the scene', the 'details of the picture' chosen by a good librettist can stand out from the 'shadowy fancies' of a fine composer. Claude Debussy was his own librettist for Usher, based on Baudelaire's translations of Poe, with mainly positive results. This is a spare but theatrically satisfying scenario. As for the music, Poe's gloomy atmospheres are perfectly communicated by Debussy's shimmering strings, his mysterious woodwinds and muted brass, and the dramatic shaping and shading of the vocal parts. This music is reminiscent of Pelleas et Melisande, and perhaps more so of The Martyrdom of St. Sebastien. Though it was never completed (and sadly never saw a planned Metropolitan Opera premiere), the opera as completed by Robert Orledge contains a significant amount of original music by Debussy. The burlesque counter-piece to Usher, The Devil in the Belfry, however, has much more Orledge, who provides a clever pastiche of Debussy's earlier music and plausibly Debussy-sounding filler to go with the composer's original libretto and an outline of some musical ideas for the project. This is a clever and sprightly entertainment that provides a strong contrast to its gloomier mate. Orledge's fine work has brought us one final masterpiece back from the grave, and a ghost of another as an encore. Both works receive strong performances, recorded live at two performances in December 2013, from Christoph-Mathias Mueller, conducting the Gottinger Symphonie Orchester and an excellent cast of singers headed by the excellent William Dazeley as Roderick Usher, with a vivid cameo from Lin Lin Fan as Lady Madeleine.

Debussy's surgery and radiation treatments for his final illness made the composition of the Poe operas a painful ordeal, and obviously affected the music he was able to finish for both projects:
I have let myself stray and have almost only been working on Roderick Usher and the devil in the belfry. [...] I fall asleep with them and find on waking the gloomy melancholy of the one or the derisive laughter of the other. 
In the end it was as if Debussy had become a character in a Poe story.
I was on the verge – or almost – of completing La Chute de la Maison Usher. The disease has extinguished my hope [...] I find myself having difficulty coping with this turn of fate and I suffer like a damned soul.
This only makes this final music more authentic.

Here is a short promotional film promoting the original performances in Gottingen:

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