Schubertiade: The hills are alive in Schwarzenberg

The annual Schubertiade festival is held annual to celebrate the music of Franz Schubert. This year there was plenty to enjoy, but also cause to be concerned about the future.

Schubertiade
Schwarzenberg, Austria
 
When Franz Schubert’s friends met at his Vienna apartment to play and sing his music, they called the evening a “Schubertiade” and that was the name that the baritone Hermann Prey gave to the festival he helped found in 1976 in Hohenems, the little town as far west as it’s possible to go from Vienna and still be in the Republic of Austria before you cross the Rhine into Switzerland. For some years it remained there, with recitals in the Rittersaal or Knights’ Hall of the Hohenems palace, and a marvellous room it was for musical performance: I have an indelible memoryof that lovely soprano Lucia Popp singing the Frauenliebe und-leben there 30 years ago.

After some intrigue, which I never got to the bottom of, the festival was evicted from the palace and found a new home, or homes: it’s now divided between one modern hall in Hohenems and another in Schwarzenberg, high in the hills ten miles away. Those of us who feel jaded from too much opera and crave chamber music – piano, quartets, above all song – as an antidote are by no means starved at home, what with the Wigmore Hall in London and St George’s Bristol, not to mention the Aldeburgh Festival in June and the Bath Mozart week in November. But none can match the beauty of the Schubertiade’s setting, and I came back to Schwarzenberg in June after several years’ absence in a mood to enjoy myself, though also to see how it, and the current state of art song, were getting on.

To call this long weekend a mixed bag would be one way of putting it: the Schubertiade offered the good, the bad and the ugly, the last in the sense of dubious choice of performers. In economically challenged times there’s a tendency for managements to look for artists either near the end of their careers or at the beginning, those who go by the periphrastic designation “Rising Stars” or “New Generation”. There was something of both on offer in Schwarzenberg. Best of the new was the Minetti Quartet, young Austrians (two of them from Ohlsfdorf, and a prize to any student of contemporary literature who can work out why that gives the quartet its name).

The festival repertory is far from confined to its namesake. Along with inconsequential early Schubert, they played Mozart: the “Hunt” Quartet and the Clarinet Quintet with Martin Fröst, and played them beautifully. If one had to award marks, the Minetti pipped the Apollon Musagete Quartet, who gave the Death and the Maiden quartet, by a number of points.

And the Minetti could also have given lessons in restraint to Christian Zacharias, now a veteran pianist (and sometimes conductor). He played snippets from Brahms, Mozart and Haydn before the wonderful Schubert Six moments musicaux. At his best very good, he needs to learn from contemporaries such as András Schiff and Imogen Cooper that, whatever else Schubert playing may be, it should never be mannered.

But the point of a Schubertiade must be songs. Let’s get over the bad news. Andreas Schmidt has been a fine baritone in his time and at 62 is ten years younger than Placido Domingo, who is still very much at it. When Schmidt began the first bars of Winterreise, it seemed that the bloom of his voice had gone, but it soon became clear that he had lost more than the bloom. Bearing in mind Philip Larkin’s lines about when it “becomes still more difficult to find/Words at once true and kind,/Or not untrue and not unkind,” the less said about this recital, the better.

Of the three other song recitals I heard, Christoph Prégardien’s long evening of ballads had the merit of originality: how often does one get the opportunity to hear Schubert’s “Der Zwerg” and “Die Bürgschaft”, let alone pieces by Wilhelm Killmayer, Franz Lachner or Carl Loewe? It would be idle to fault the singer for histrionics, since few of these count as great music and there’s anyway a flavour of Victorian ham about their texts, not to say the settings.

We also heard a work by Michael Gees, Prégardien’s accompanist, but the problem wasn’t so much his composing as his playing. Gees is someone else who needs to take advice, in his case from the late Gerald Moore, the famous accompanist, who called his memoirs Am I Too Loud? After Gees had pounded and battered the poor Steinway into submission, one was relieved that it seemed none the worse for wear when next played.

Two other accompanists showed how it should be done. The tenor Werner Güra gave an evening of Schubert songs, all of them familiar, none of them ever staled by repetition. He displayed more of the right stuff, albeit with his own superfluous dramatics, and he was well matched by Christoph Berner at the keyboard. But that was surpassed a few hours earlier. Carolina Ullrich is a most appealing young Chilean soprano, who gave another score of Schubert songs, some of them less-well known work from his teens, though well worth hearing and prettily sung. She was if anything outshone by Marcelo Amaral, her splendid Brazilian accompanist (and yes, it does seem unlikely that South America should be a hotbed of Austro-German art song, though why not?), whose playing was of the first excellence.

If there was much to enjoy in Schwarzenberg, and some hope for the future, there was also cause for concern. Maybe it becomes wearisome to talk about the wisdom of the ancients but younger singers really should listen to how it was once done, let’s say by Gerhard Hüsch or Hans Hotter: each song given with force and delicacy combined, the words sung with close attention to their meaning but without each syllable pounced on and tormented, an absolute emphasis on legato musical line. And don’t worry about the drama: Schubert did that for you.

The next part of Schubertiade runs from 27 August to 8 September in Schwarzenberg

The man's a Schu in: A recital at the Angelika Kauffman Hall.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser