Going for a Song
31 Aug 2010
Our holiday ended a fortnight ago, and readers will be relieved to hear that our luggage sailed through all the tests devised to keep it off the plane, without payment of a substantial premium. As indeed did its owners, who presented themselves well before the prescribed time before take-off, with the appropriate documentation. We encountered no stag parties, no air rage and no industrial disputes.
We spent a week in Salzburg soaking up culture. Many go there to pay homage to the Von Trapp family, but the music whose sound we were after was Mozart’s and his contemporaries. On our way to the Opera House, we went through the Mirabell Gardens, where Maria von Trapp and the children had danced around the statue of Pegasus singing "Do re mi". The songs we were due to hear were vocally more challenging, though less intelligible as they would be sung in a foreign tongue.
One performance had us on the edge of our seats and it was excellent - but not for the reason you expect.
We had bought tickets to hear Matthias Goerne sing Schubert’s song-cycle – Die Schone Mullerin – with Christopher Eschenbach at the keyboard. This tells the tale of the apprentice looking for work, and falling in love with the Miller’s daughter. It ends in tragedy, with suicide in a brook after his advances are rejected, and the Miller’s daughter prefers the hunter.
The singer we were listening to emoted as he sang, communicating with his body language the moods of the lover. He lent forwards, and he lent backwards; he lowered himself and he stood on his toes, usually when Schubert had prescribed one of the higher notes in the baritone range.
He did all this in close proximity to the Steinway grand piano, on which Mr Eschenbach was heavily engaged. Matthias’ right hand rested on top of the piano.
The problem arose when two movements happened simultaneously; the leaning backwards, and the standing on his toes. (He could do this while remaining vertical, because one foot was placed in front of the other) This was because the open lid of the piano, held in place by a piece of wood, was inches behind his head. We could see this, but he couldn’t. When these movements were combined, he risked raising by an inch or two the lid of the piano. Of itself, this might not have mattered. But had he done so, the stick that held up the lid would have been released. The lid would have come down, like the bonnet of a car. His right hand would have been pulped. The resulting cry of anguish would have been one that Schubert could only dream of.
Each time the head moved dangerously close to the lid, the audience held its breath. Some moved forwards in their seat, hoping to encourage the singer also to move forward. The eyebrows of the accompanist implied that he was not unaware of the drama that might unfold, as he busily depicted the babbling of the brook on the keyboard, asking himself if his first aid skills would be adequate to the task.
But unlike the tale of the apprentice, this one ended happily with the singer in one piece. As far as we know. The two of them were due to do the sequel – Die Winterreise – a few days later. But I couldn’t go through that all over again, so we went to see the Salzburg puppets doing the Sound of Music.
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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015