The Cannes Film Festival has just ended. OK, what does that have to do with the Enescu Festival? It has, because you can discover classical music on a film’s soundtrack. Almost 25 years ago, as soon as the atmosphere of a 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days had stopped being reality, a first cultural reparation was cinematographic: new films, good or bad, flooded Romanian cinemas. Multiplex halls did not exist yet, neither did Internet or movie channels on TV.
A first movie, impossible to forget, was the winner of a Palme d’Or in Cannes, directed by David Lynch. A friend who had already seen it recommended me to sit in the front: “the images are shocking and they will have maximum impact.” It was an almost useless piece of advice anyway, because the only tickets I could find were in the front row!
Everything began with a close-up of a match lighting a cigarette, you could see the flame at a gigantic scale, on the whole width of the wide screen. Then, the lit ashes of the cigarette turned into a fire, over which the credit titles rolled. First, the title: Wild… At… Heart! Do you remember it? Sulphurous, violent, full of rock and roll, verging on the pornographic, a modern metaphor of myth, of fairy tale. A road movie, but an initiatic journey, where the good are wrong, and the bad blow each other’s brains out shooting each other by accident.
The image of those flames on the screen basically burned from the first seconds. Or perhaps it was the heat in the full hall of a Central cinema, in a little town, which would be considered more than insanitary today. The discomfort of the first row, of the crowd, of the bad sound was cancelled at once by the music on the credit titles: a symphonic score that I did not know where to place, unknown, yet which became familiar at once.
Later, in a scene that became a symbol of this genius road movie, Sailor and Lula, the characters of the movie, stopped the car in the middle of the desert, disgusted by the 5 o’clock news broadcast on the radio, and they started to dance to thrash metal music. In the wider frame of the scene, everything took place under the light of sunset.
The director then suspended this moment, using that symphonic work again, with extraordinary strength. All the tension of the action stopped all of a sudden, making room for the emotion you can have when you realise Faust’s exclamation is real: Zum Augenblicke dürft’ ich sagen: Verweile doch, du bist so schön! (When, to the Moment then, I say: ‘Ah, stay a while! You are so lovely!’)
It was only after a few years that I found out the name of what had stayed in my mind as the music of that most beautiful moment. I had just discovered Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Mozart’s and Strauss’s music. I listened to the record with the Four Last Songs no previous preparation, ignoring everything, from the idea of a final masterpiece, to any other meanings. It was just at the last song that I jumped, feverishly looking for the cover of the CD, for explanations. It was the music of the sunset in the movie! It was the music of the sunset of a great composer’s life. It was Im Abendrot, that was what it was called: At sunset…
I had never thought that after that prelude, of such an amazing tragic beauty, music will continue with the voice of a soprano. I could not have imagined that the human voice could take the emotional intensity of music further. As for Joseph von Eichendorff’s poetry, when I read it for the first time, surrounded by the shadow of Richard Strauss and of the skylarks that he raises to the sky, just like the soul of a man who dies reconciled with the idea that everything is temporary, I did not resist, as I don’t think a stone could resist without crying…
We have passed through sorrow and joy, walking hand in hand.
Now we need not seek the way: we have settled in a peaceful land.
The dark comes early to our valley, and the night mist rises.
Two dreamy larks sally forth – our souls’ disguises.
We let their soaring flight delight us, then, overcome by sleep
At close of day, we must alight before we fly too far, or dive too deep!
The great peace here is wide and still and rich with flowing sunsets:
If this is death, having had our fill of getting lost, we find beauty, – No regrets.
In 1948, reconciled with the idea that the end is near, but also aware of the fact that the world he was part of had disappeared, Richard Strauss wrote a last composition, four songs whose central topic was death. The songs are accompanied by the orchestra, not by the piano, and they are written for the soprano voice.
The significance of this last work is for the German composer the same as that of Mozart’s Requiem or Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. And perhaps for this reason, the best recordings (which abound, as nowhere else) are exactly those where the soprano (and all great sopranos sang these songs) holds back any operatic affectation.
Some sopranos sing them as if they bring back to the memory the image of their grandparents, which they had lost long before, in that unclear moment of losing childhood and innocence. Others bring to the stage an entire philosophy of Wagner’s sunset of the gods, the end of a world that is dignifiedly and slowly sinking to oblivion. But beyond any interpretation, Strauss places an unimaginable sensuality in these songs, a superior one, where only the beauty of a female voice is the one that caresses you, more tenderly than any kiss. The absolute lover of a soprano’s voice.
For a few months I have been dreaming about a sunset. One September evening (what a coincidence! the second song of this cycle is actually called September), I will see Anja Harteros singing Vier Lezte Lieder. And much more: there will also be Malven, the lost song, which Strauss had left to the most beautiful soprano in the world, Maria Jeritza, and whose absolute first listen occurred in 1985, after her death, so much loyalty!
September 5, 2015, 19.30 hours, Grand Palace Hall
Conductor: Christian Thielemann
Soloist: Anja Harteros
Strauss – “Letzte Lieder” “Frühling” – “September” – “Beim Schlafengehen” – “Im Abendrot” – “Malven” (Orchesterfassung von Wolfgang Rihm),
Auftragswerk der Osterfestspiele Salzburg und der Sächsischen Staatskapelle Dresden
Strauss – “Eine Alpensinfonie” op. 64