Arts & Events

The Danish National Symphony Orchestra with Deborah Voigt

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday April 14, 2017 - 09:47:00 AM

On April 2-3, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra gave two concerts at Davies Hall under the direction of their new Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi. The Sunday evening concert I attended offered Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, Richard Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder with soprano Deborah Voigt as soloist, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Eroica. Opening the program was Nielsen’s Helios Overture, an ode to Helios, the Greek god of the sun, who wheeled his four-horsed chariot across the sky each day from east to west. Nielsen wrote this 12-minute work while spending six months in Greece in 1903. As the Helios Overture begins, muted throbbing is heard in the basses, barely emerging out of silence. Then four horns are heard, interwoven in dissonance, as they announce the sunrise. The music then spans an arc as the sun itself spans an arc from east to west. At midday, when the sun is brightest, the four horns sound again, this time in powerful unison. An energetic theme is developed which culminates in a fugue. Then the sun gradually descends its arc until it sinks silently into the sea. Nielsen wrote a letter to his three children back in Denmark describing the inspiration he drew from a particularly beautiful sunset at the port of the island of Aegina. By coincidence, I too experienced an incredibly beautiful sunset as I looked out to sea from the port of Aegina, as the setting sun backlit the jagged mountainous peaks of the islands of Moni and Angistri and the rugged coastline of the Peloponnesos. What Carl Nielsen put into music, I put into a chapter in a novel. 

Next on the program was Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder, set to five poems written by Mathilde Wesendonk, who, with her husband Otto, provided Wagner with a place to stay just north of Zurich in 1857-8. Wagner, who was distancing himself from his wife of thirteen years, Minna Planer, developed a passionate involvement with Mathilde Wesendonk, who apparently reciprocated Wagner’s love, if we can judge by his letters. This liaison caused much discomfort, however, to Mathilde’s husband, Otto, who watched it develop under his eyes and in his own house. Wagner used this love triangle as the raw material for the poem and opera he was writing, Tristan und Isolde. The Wesendonk Lieder, especially the songs Im Treibhaus and Träume, became trial runs for the burgeoning Tristan music.  

Soprano Deborah Voigt was the soloist in this performance of the Wesendonk Lieder. Although Deborah Voigt is a veteran Wagnerian who has sung many of Wagner’s heroines at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, I found her voice not quite right for the tenderness, longing and resignation of the Wesendonk Lieder. Ms. Voigt certainly entered expressively into each of the five songs, but her voice had a touch of flintiness that detracted from the intimacy she sought to convey. Nor did Ms. Voigt’s voice have the sumptuous, all-embracing presence of Jessye Norman’s voice, whom I heard sing these Wesendonk Lieder in 1976 in Melbourne, Australia. Nonetheless, Deborah Voigt gave a sensitive interpretation of these songs, accompanied adroitly by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fabio Luisi. For her efforts, Deborah Voigt received a thunderous ovation from the Davies Hall audience. 

After intermission, Fabio Luisi returned to the podium to conduct Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Completed in 1804, the Eroica marked a giant step forward in the history of the symphony and of music in general. Gone are the slight, formalized high classical conventions of Beethoven’s First and Second Symphonies, and in their place is a work of enormous ambition and scale. Originally entitled Bonaparte as a tribute to Napoleon, Beethoven angrily scratched out the name Bonaparte when he learned that Napoleon had himself crowned as Emperor. The work was renamed Eroica, and it seemed to many listeners to honor an anonymous great hero of the spirit of mankind. Certainly the Eroica is grandiose and majestic, vast yet immensely concentrated.  

The concentration is heard immediately in the work’s first two abrupt, powerful chords, which assuredly announce a great drama that will unfold. Conductor Fabio Luisi punctuated these opening chords with clenched fist punches in the air. Then a first theme is announced by the cellos. This theme is passed on to different sections of the orchestra until it pours forth proudly in the full orchestra. An idyllic second theme is introduced by exquisite chords in the woodwinds and violins. This suggests repose after a storm, but soon the storm returns. The orchestra hurls one piercing chord after another in jarring dissonance, each one punctuated by a vigorous punch from Conductor Luisi. Then comes a new melody in the woodwinds, gentle and tender. A recurring pattern is established: turmoil alternating with repose. Beethoven expands the development section far longer than the initial exposition, a novelty in symphonic construction. Fabio Luisi, throwing himself into the music with his whole body, bending low, springing upward, thrusting with his left hand as if to wrench the music from his orchestra, opts for a fast-paced tempo throughout most of this huge first movement. 

The second movement offers a slow funeral march, majestic in its somber lament. The violins introduce the death theme while the basses throb in anguish. A plaintive melody for strings ensues. An introspective trio seems to ponder the dead hero’s past accomplishments. An elegiac song is heard in the flutes and clarinets. The march theme returns, and a remarkable fugue ensues. When the march theme eventually is heard yet again, it has now broken apart, occurring only in fits and starts, as if the pain of grief were too great. 

By contrast, the third movement, a brisk, scampering scherzo, is light-hearted and almost gay. Hunting calls by three horns suggest that the scampering music depicts animals’ efforts to escape the arrival of a hunting party. This scherzo offers a brief interlude in the otherwise dramatic life of Beethoven’s hero of the spirit. With the fourth and final movement, we return to the storm and stress of the opening movement. A theme is plucked in the strings and given a set of variations, which are climaxed by a fugue. Then a hymn for the woodwinds emerges. As in the first movement, the two main themes are developed to gigantic proportions. The orchestra swells in volume and surges forth, until another series of jabbing chords brings the Eroica Symphony to an end. 

As an encore, Fabio Luisi led the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in a jaunty tango. I note in passing how interesting and instructive it has been to witness in quick succession two visiting conductors, Yuri Temirkanov of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and Fabio Luisi of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, who couldn’t be more different in their styles of conducting. Where Temirkanov seemed amazingly laid back and undemonstrative, Luisi was as unabashedly demonstrative as can be. Yet both conductors elicited beautiful, in-depth interpretations of the works their respective orchestras performed. Conducting styles notwithstanding, what counts is the rapport the conductor has with his/her orchestra as well as with the music itself.