Maschinist Hopkins Opera in a Prologue and Three Acts (12 Scenes)
[UK Stage Premiere]
Bill James Hancock
Nell Carmel Gutteridge
Hopkins Stephen Bowen
Katja Lehmann (stage & film director/producer)
Ruth Paton (set & costume designer)
James Whiteside (lighting designer)
Churchill College Chorus, Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Tregear
25 November 2001, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 3
Three Pieces, Op.11 (cello and piano)
Four Pieces, Op.7 (violin and piano)
Two Pieces, Op. posth (cello and piano)
Piano Trio in E flat
Vienna Piano Trio [Markus Trefny (piano), Wolfgang Redik (violin) & Matthias Gredler (cello)]
25 November 2001, Purcell Room, London
Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor
Mariettas Lied & Tanzlied des Pierrot (Die tote Stadt)
Verklärte Nacht, Op.4
Clara Abou* and Dunia Lavrova (violin), Ronan Magill (piano)
Yehudi Menuhin School Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Singer
25 November 2001, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 25 November, 2001
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room, London
One of the most arresting of inter-war ’suppressed’ operas received its UK stage premiere during this day-long ’Thwarted Voices’ presentation. Latterly a shadowy figure on the American and Viennese new-music scenes, Max Brand (1896-1980) enjoyed brief but meteoric fame with his opera Maschinist Hopkins. Premiered in Duisburg in 1929, it received thirty-seven different productions in Europe over the next three years, but inevitably disappeared from the repertoire when banned by the Nazi regime in 1933. Only in 1984 was there a revival, and UK listeners may remember a radio broadcast in English two years later.
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 Berg’s Wozzeck, Weill’s Dreigroschenoper and, above all, Krenek’s 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 Bill’s 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. Brand’s 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, Zemlinsky’s 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 former’s melodic and rhythmic foursquareness, while pointing up the spellbinding gestural continuity of the latter. Wolfgang Rednik’s poise in Op.7 made for an especially memorable interpretation.
Berthold Goldschmidt’s 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 Clarke’s 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 finale’s 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 Hartmann’s 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 music’s exacting requirements, and Clara Abou projected the solo part with no mean insight.
Ronan Magill began the second half with Korngold’s First Piano Sonata (1909), making the most of its remarkable technical facility. Dunia Lavrova’s 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 music’s 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