Review in retrospect: Footnotes: Voice of Degenerate Music

Hugo Popplewell 8 February 2014

This boldly original concert saw performances of music by three 20th century Jewish Austro-German composers, Alexander Zemlinsky, Viktor Ullmann and Franz Schreker, followed by a performance of Act 2 of Schreker's opera Die Gezeichneten. All three saw their work condemned by the Nazi regime, and have yet to regain their place in the classical music canon. It was an ambitious project, yet it was clear from the first moment just what an exceptional night's entertainment we were in for.

The audience were hushed by the complete dimming of the lights, leaving the space illuminated by candles. Adam Cigman-Mark, who masterminded the concert and accompanied superbly throughout, opened with a darkly passionate rendition of the prelude to Act 3 of Zemlinsky's Der König Kandaules, capturing the colours of an orchestra with remarkable sensitivity. His affinity for the repertoire was evident throughout.

The sparsely omnipotent direction (by Femi Oriogun-Williams and Ceci Mourkogiannis) generally worked well. The decision to stage the lieder was inspired, lending the production more continuity than a mere vocal showcase, and the background presence of the singers onstage throughout allowed us to perceive them almost as characters in a larger drama.

The singers were almost invariably astounding; most had been paired sympathetically with the repertoire. Michael Craddock was particularly assured in his effortlessly colourful deliverance of the (astoundingly challenging) baritone lieder whilst Camilla Seale's beautiful tone left me disappointed she only performed one song. Anna Wagner gave a suitably pantomime-like rendition of Zemlinsky's Das Bucklichte Männlein, and James Proctor's brilliantly haphazard stumbling as a drunkard did not detract from his characterful singing.

Direction in Die Gezeichneten continued to be intelligently minimal, letting the chapel lend much of the atmosphere. The standouts were Michael Craddock and Michael Mofidian, who both managed to give their characters very clear personae whilst achieving great vocal clarity and power. After this the opera’s climax felt a little unsatisfactory, perhaps undeservedly on the part of the performers; here, the repertoire didn't lend itself as well to the singers as in earlier parts of the program.

There were flaws, of course. The programme notes, whilst excellently written, were too long to read in the concert itself. The program as a whole felt a little too long – the operatic extract began 90 minutes into the concert and the constantly changing mood of the lieder meant that the night occasionally lost momentum. Preceded by compartmentalised songs, the operatic extract failed to fully achieve continuity. But these caveats paled into insignificance next to the generally fantastic standards of performance and direction, which gave the evening ultimate coherence. If the concert's purpose was to convince us that these composers warrant much more attention, it did it in spades.