Thursday, 1 September 2016

Explosion of harps

Updated to include links to my last post and to a recording of the music I'm writing about. And one comment added about what the harps play. 

So, yesterday I blogged about how complex Wagner's orchestration is in Götterdämmerung. Far more complex than it is in earlier Ring operas (apart from the last part of Siegfried).

Today, a quirky orchestral detail. So quirky.Weird! Something I'm not sure would be audible in performance, and which, as I'll explain, we most likely won't get any chance to hear.

How crazy is this?

You might want to look at the Götterdämmerung score excerpt I linked to. Look at the last page, where I've marked something in the harp part with a big red arrow.

And if you want to hear the music, here it is, sung by Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen, with Karl Böhm conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, in a classic 1966 live recording. 

What's going on there? It's simple enough. Wagner scored the Ring for six harps. Which is a lot! Normally, orchestral music has just one harp. Two, maybe, once in a while.

But six? That's crazy. Costs a lot. An orchestra (whether a symphony orchestra, or one in an opera house) will normally have just one harp under contract. Use more, and you have to hire freelancers. Pay them for rehearsals and performances. If it's a Götterdämmerung performance, you'll pay overtime, since Götterdämmerung is l-o-n-g.

I'd guess, then, that most Ring performances we hear don't use all six harps.

But at the moment I've marked, Wagner wants them. Up to that point in the music — from the Siegfried/Brünnhilde scene in the opera's prologue — only one harp plays. Really lightly, adding a touch of grace to the rest of the orchestra. (You can see what it plays on the first pages of my score excerpt.)

Then the musiic builds to its climax. The soprano sings high C (on the second beat of the first measure on the last page of the excerpt).

all harfen blogAnd one beat after that, Wagner laconically puts a note in the harp part: "alle harfen." Meaning "all the harps." All playing the same thing, and not marking any musical break with what the single harp had been playing before.

So just when eveyrone in the opera house is thrilling (let's hope) to the soprano's high C, the harp part deep in the orchestra is multiplied by six.

Can we hear this?

Before answering, we'd better go back a step, and ask if we hear the single harp that plays earlier. I've never thought to listen for it live, but I listenend for it in several recordings, where (even in live recordings0 the use of many microphones might help to bring out every instrument.

And I never heard the harp. I'm talking about the classic 1960s recordings conducted by Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan, two of the greatest conductors, who worked with top orchestras in recording studios, under what you'd think would have been ideal conditions. The Solti recording, on top of that, is famous sonically, not just for its performance.

But no harp. You might want to blame me for that, since I streamed the music on my computer. But I used Tidal, the CD-quality streaming service, plus top of the line Bose headphones.

And, sure, I could have used a six-figure audio system, and headphones even better than Bose (whose products very serious audiophiles won't endorse).

But I did hear one recording in which orchestral detail came through more clearly than it does on the Solti and Karajan CDs, and that one was…wait for it…a live Toscanini performance from the 1940s. (With Helen Traubel and Lauritz Melchior singing. Melchior, crazily, forgets to sing a few measures of his part! Even though he was the world's leading heldentenor, and had sung Siegfried countless times.)

It's the conductor

So if a live 1940s recording brings out the instruments more clearly than two of the top modern Rings, than I think the reason I don't hear the orchestra clearly ehough in all these recordings (and I listened to several) isn't because of what I'm using to listen.

It's because of the condcuting. Toscanini, of all top conductors, was the one who most insisted on clarity. And the one with the most conducting chops to make clarity happen.

On his recording, I can almost hear the harp. Maybe I really can haer it, just a little.

But the six harps? (Assuming he used them.) No way. And I wonder, in the heat of the moment, with the orchestra and singers surging, and the soprano's high C, if anyone hears them.

There's one caveat here. Maybe in Wagner's time, with the instruments used then, the harps could be heard. Nineteenth century instrumetns didn't blend as smoothly as ours do, which meant that orchestral details would stand out more. And, incidentally, that we're not hearing 19th century music as the composers expected it to be heard.

Original-instrument Wagner performances — at least of complete operas — are in an early stage right now. As far as I can see, there was an original-instrument Parsifal in Spain a few years ago, which critics thought was a revelation.

Online, there's a period-instrument Rheingold, conducted by Simon Rattle with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which (in a video on YouTube) sounds revelatory to me. There' s a fine cast. including an Alberich, Oleg Bryjak, who really sings his role, as opposed to declaiming it, (which most Alberichs do, and which must have been what I did — if I didn't outright yell — when in my youth I performed it, in a concert performance at Yale).

Because the instruemnts sound more different from each other than modern instruments do — with the strings much more gutsy — musical constrastt stand out. Which makes the opera more dramatic.

Who's going to stage the first period-instrument Ring? That would be something worth traveling for.

Next: a tempo marking that's hard to figure out.

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