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The Sound of Magic

Pedophilia in Elysium

In Austria about 20 years ago, I had the rare good fortune to chat with the legendary critic H.H. Stuckenschmidt, shortly before his death. The old man had lived through everything, all the way back to Mahler, and the thing I remember best about his conversation was that the rich, steamy orchestration of his era’s music — the assembled forces of Richard Strauss, the last gasp of German romanticism before Mr. Hitler’s housecleaning — had become part of his own language. We talked in particular about the fate of one composer, who by the early 1980s had become an unknown quantity to most of the musical world: Franz Schreker. Herr Stuckenschmidt had one special word for his music. “Oh yes,” he said, “that is quite remarkable. Full of Klangzauber.”

What a marvelous word, which the Germans make especially so by running its parts together: “soundmagic.” And now that Schreker’s music is working its way back into worldwide attention, some of that Klangzauber is also around again. His opera Die Gezeichneten (“The Branded”) was revived at last year’s Salzburg Festival, and attended by representatives of political factions who would have trampled it in the dust not long before. Now that production, conducted by Kent Nagano and staged by Nikolaus Lehnhoff — he mounted San Francisco’s last Ring — is available on a EuroArts DVD.

Schreker wrote his own libretto, in Vienna in 1915. It tells of a wealthy hunchback on an island called Elysium, off mythical 16th-century Genoa, who hates his appearance but can use his gold to counterbalance awareness of it. He maintains a gold-plated mansion, which Schreker’s orchestra limns in surging orchestral opulence highlighted with bright, jangly percussion; there’s your Klangzauber. A mysterious artist, who paints only hands, persuades him to marry her, but then jilts him for a thug. The hunchback murders his rival. Elsewhere on his island, a gang of the hunchback’s colleagues are running a brothel of underage local girls.

Surrounding the tale is considerable talky-talk on the nature of love and beauty and aesthetic limits; meat on the table in the Vienna of Freud and Hofmannsthal. Schreker’s operas were enormously popular, rivaling those of Richard Strauss up through the 1920s. He never erred, as did his colleagues, by venturing into the morass of dissonance or — horror! — atonality. But he was partly of Jewish extraction, and not given to fighting the good fight. As the Nazis rose to power in the 1920s, he was pushed off the cultural map almost overnight, and a large legacy of intense, powerfully dramatic operas fell with him. One or two have recently been recorded, however; there is a genuine Schreker revival under way. The great success of Die Gezeichneten in this marvelous production under Nagano, with some extravagances in Lehnhoff’s staging that are worthy of the excesses in the plot, will help.

What is really amazing is the richness of just the sound of the music as it roars by. There are touches of this Klangzauber stuff in Strauss: the business around the Silver Rose in Der Rosenkavalier and some lush, gooey moments in Don Juan. But this is baby talk compared to the Schreker sound and the poisoned kiss of the Schreker harmony. He builds huge, thundering orchestral bursts that crest like the frosted waves on a Hiroshige scroll. His gardens of sound can be, of course, dangerous; don’t get too close. But people who like that stuff in Strauss — no thanks — should go double-ape over Schreker.

Later Magic

You cannot talk about soundmagic without also referring to Giacinto Scelsi, the reclusive, indefinable composer who died in Rome in 1988. Indefinable is, I think, the first operative word for this remarkable Italian visionary. The new ECM disc of his music begins by plunging us into a splendid confusion of sound, a dense web concocted by a gathering of 16 string players in an anarchy that, nevertheless, drives obsessively forward. For Scelsi, the normal division of the scale into eight or 12 tones was only a beginning; each note revealed a spectrum beyond. String instruments, therefore, became his chosen medium, and his collaborations late in life with the American-born cellist Frances-Marie Uitti were like a new beginning. Uitti now lives in Amsterdam; in her last concert here, at the start of the final LACMA season, she created an audible rainbow — Klangzauber, indeed — with works of Scelsi that she played with the phenomenal double-bow technique she has devised.

The new disc, Natura Renovatur, athrob with magical sounds, alternates works by Scelsi for Uitti’s solo cello with three of his amazing pieces for “clusters” (more applicable than “ensembles” in this case) of string players; Christoph Poppen conducts the Munich Chamber Orchestra, and perhaps we can allow him back in the house after his misbegotten Morimur expedition of a few years back.

Older Magic

Being given at times to reliving past pleasures (and feeling entitled at my advanced age), I hail the arrival of a couple of discs on the low-priced (Michael) Dutton label, with music and performances I remember with great delight from years long past and rediscover with equal delight today. One is part of a collection called The Art of Constant Lambert, and I’m only sorry that it leaves out that British conductor/composer/sourpuss-critic’s delicious if naive Americana bit The Rio Grande. What it does include, however, is a suite from William Walton’s Façade, delightful little satirical and rhythmic/experimental pieces to Walton’s jazzy score, with Edith Sitwell’s poetry intoned by herself and by Lambert. Walton (in 1929, long before the “Sir”) conducts, and I defy anyone to come under the spell of “We bear velvet cream, green and babyish . . .” and then shake loose.

Another disc includes, among other trinkets, a suite from Scuola di Ballo, notes by Luigi Boccherini in a reorchestration by Jean Françaix (for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo) that sends this most ordinary music skyward. Once you’ve tapped your toes to this wonderfully spirited music, I promise, you’ll never take your Boccherini straight again. The disc also includes about eight minutes — all you need — of Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky-derived ballet LeBaiser de la Fée, and some charming Chabrier, but it’s the Boccherini that sells it. Antal Dorati is the conductor, and I can’t think of anything better he ever accomplished than this magical quarter-hour.?


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