It is no criticism of Brand to say that Maschinist Hopkins is a work of its time. The subject matter, the concurrently liberating and dehumanising effect of technology, is in line with contemporary dramas by Brecht and Kaiser. Musically, the amalgam of freely tonal expressionism with the jazz-cum-cabaret vernacular draws on such operas as Bergs Wozzeck, Weills Dreigroschenoper and, above all, Kreneks Jonny spielt auf. Yet whereas the latter was a sensationalist but meretricious attempt at being modern, Brand draws his stylistic range together with a far surer command of substance over style.
The dark, brooding intensity of the Prologue, in which industrial espionage leads to murder, has a powerful expressive focus that Brand, perhaps mindful of audience response, does not always maintain thereafter. Act One charts Bills rise as an industrialist with would-be-actress Nell in tow, though his sacking of machinist and informer Hopkins, for expressing the workers wage concerns, sows the seeds for his downfall. Musically the score combines sophisticated jazz pastiche (including a vocal set-piece with words by George Antheil) with, in the love duet for Bill and Nell, a Straussian harmonic richness.
Act Two sees Hopkins make his move, first confronting Nell in her dressing-room and forcing her to confess. Using this to blackmail Bill, he takes charge of Nell only, at the beginning of Act Three, to abandon her to the street. Brands use of popular music is at its most subtle in these scenes, abstracting the idioms so that hollowness and cliché pervade the music as they do the action. The final scenes in which the now-alcoholic Bill murders the prostitute Nell and, attacking the machinery that made him rich, is vanquished in a final show-down with Hopkins pursue an increasingly fervid intensity back to the opening of the opera. The sense of events having moved full circle is palpable, with Hopkins now in control in a classic meet the new boss, same as the old boss outcome.
Maschinist Hopkins is a discomforting fable on the brutalising nature of machinery and the exploitative power relationships it engenders. Brand offers no false dawn or positive future, yet the starkness of his vision is reflected by his synthesis of musical means to ambiguous and provocative ends. The work clearly struck a chord with audiences throughout the Weimar Republic, and its perspective has likely resonance for the present era.
Stephen Bowen was excellent casting as Hopkins, dominating the stage with his presence and vocal delivery. James Hancock was adequate if lightweight as Bill, but Carmel Gutteridge stole the show with her part in the love duet and despairing recognition of her rejection by Hopkins. The urban Greek chorus representing the response of the machines was insinuatingly rendered, although the jazz chorus gave only a passable likeness of a vocal combo from the period.
Katja Lehmann resourcefully handled stage and film direction, updated to the computer age, though a combination of lighting variations and South Bank location-footage occasionally impeded dramatic impact. A pity that the effective English translation was difficult to convey against the massed ranks of the Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra set to the rear of the platform behind screens. Its raw if enthusiastic playing was capably steered by Peter Tregear, for whom this revival was clearly a labour of love. No disrespect either to him or any of those involved to suggest that Maschinist Hopkins now deserves a staging such as a professional opera company can provide.
Although founded in 1988 and with a solid reputation behind it, the Vienna Piano Trio has made relatively few appearances in the UK. This recital was thoughtfully programmed and convincingly executed.
Composed in 1895, Zemlinskys Piano Trio originally written for clarinet rather than violin finds the twenty-four year old composer ploughing a Brahmsian furrow of some individuality. The sustained emotional intensity of the opening movement, followed by the lyrical dialogue of the Andante and the melodic robustness of the finale, denote a composer at the threshold of maturity. It was judicious planning to follow with the Webern miniatures, though placing the 1899 cello pieces after opuses 7 and 11 (1910 and 14 respectively) only emphasised the formers melodic and rhythmic foursquareness, while pointing up the spellbinding gestural continuity of the latter. Wolfgang Redniks poise in Op.7 made for an especially memorable interpretation.
Berthold Goldschmidts Piano Trio (1985) is one of numerous chamber works written after the composer resumed composition when nearly eighty. The traditional four sections scherzo second are absorbed into a single movement of great motivic resource and contrapuntal dexterity. The Vienna Piano Trio gave an expert if not overly involved-sounding reading, whereas the account of Rebecca Clarkes Piano Trio (1921) was gripping indeed. Aside from Frank Bridge, no one was writing chamber music of such passion and emotional complexity in Britain at this time.
The work tempers an often modal-sounding melodicism with a chromatic harmonic language redolent of more radical Austro-German music of the period. From the fractured intensity of the opening Moderato, through the plangent lyricism of the Andante to the finales Bartókian rhythmic drive, this is a masterpiece for a difficult medium. Consciously suppressed or not, it is needed in the modern repertoire, and could not have received more committed advocacy than here.
Closing the Thwarted Voices day, the Yehudi Menuhin School Orchestra gave a demanding programme of string works, opening with the expressive if stylistically anonymous Intermezzo (1901) by Franz Schreker. The contrast with Karl Amadeus Hartmanns Concerto funebre (1939) could not have been greater. Written in response to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and on the brink of World War Two, the work begins and ends with sustained chorale laments, framing a dark-hued Adagio and rhythmically-abrasive Allegro. The strings coped ably with the musics exacting requirements, and Clara Abou projected the solo part with no mean insight.
Ronan Magill began the second half with Korngolds First Piano Sonata (1909), making the most of its remarkable technical facility. Dunia Lavrovas rapid vibrato was not ideal for the excerpts from Die tote Stadt that followed, but her expressive focus was not in doubt. The concert ended with a performance of Verklärte Nacht (1899) that, for all its fallibility and lack of interpretative nuance, managed to convey much of the musics expressive rapture. This proved an admirable commemoration of fifty years since the death of a great modern master.
- Presented in association with the Jewish Music Institute Forum for Suppressed Music www.jmi.org.uk/suppressedmusic